Shadow Government

The 'Obama Doctrine': An unsentimental appraisal

The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:

Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.

Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.

 "Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front? 

Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington.  It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.

Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.

A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.

President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.

This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .  

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Shadow Government

Hagel can ask tough questions. But can he answer them?

Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.

Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient.  While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.

Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."

Sounds like good advice, right?  Sure -- but only up to a limited point. 

Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.

More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.

Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.

To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.

Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."

Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.

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