Shadow Government

What Is the Obama Administration's Diagnosis of Its Foreign-Policy Problems?

When things are going poorly for an administration, one of the hardest things for insiders to discern is whether they have a communications problem or a policy problem. Do they have the policy basically right, but they are not effectively rebutting critics with convincing explanations of what they are trying to do and why? Or is the policy itself flawed, so no amount of explanation -- no amount of spin -- could salvage it? And if it is a policy problem, is the problem principally one of strategy -- the wrong ends or an ends-means gap or flawed theories of cause and effect -- or one of execution of a generally sound strategy?

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. When things are going really poorly, as they are right now for Barack Obama administration, the answer can be "all of the above." Yet it is usually the case that one element is the shakiest and thus the highest priority for senior-level attention.

If it is primarily a communications problem, then the appropriate response is to better deploy the administration's unrivaled capacity to lead the public discussion. No administration is all-powerful, of course, and over the past several decades generally presidents have seen an erosion of their capacity to dominate the information space. Even so, there is no single actor better positioned to move the needle than the president, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

If it is primarily a strategy problem, then the appropriate response is a strategy review, one that questions fundamental assumptions and considers bold, even costly alternatives. Strategy reviews of this sort are especially difficult for administrations to conduct because they undermine existing strategies, especially when they leak to the public. And if these reviews do not arrive at a superior alternative strategy, they can leave the administration worse off, left to defend a strategy in which it has manifestly lost confidence.

If it is primarily an execution problem, the appropriate response is to change personnel and have the president spend more political capital imposing his/her will on the system.

A friend of mine from the communications side of the White House in George W. Bush's era pointed out to me a pattern that held true in the Bush administration and may well hold more generally across administrations: Communications people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of policy (strategy or execution), whereas policy people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of communications. My friend would send me trenchant internal critiques of policy and lament the trenchant internal critiques of communications that he was receiving from senior policy people.

From the outside, it is hard to determine what would be the Obama Team's self-diagnosis. It has doggedly stuck with existing strategies, and there is little evidence of a fundamental rethink of its global strategy. Likewise, if the administration thinks the problem is one of communications, it has not yet used its ace -- President Obama -- very effectively. The messaging out of the White House has been disciplined, in the sense of sticking to talking points, but not very convincing, in the sense of engaging thoughtful critics thoughtfully.

I suppose there is some evidence the administration thinks it has an execution problem. It has certainly had substantial changes in personnel, but the personnel changes have had the feel of the routine second-term revolving door and have not brought bold changes of perspective into positions of influence. So far, I have not seen much evidence that the president is committing the political capital necessary to drive a difficult strategy through to a successful conclusion.

That leaves open the disturbing possibility that the administration believes it faces neither a communications nor a strategy nor an execution problem -- that the administration merely believes that things are tough and everyone else just cannot understand this basic fact. I know of no one outside the administration, whether an ardent ally of the president or a fervent critic, who would endorse this "no problem here" diagnosis. But for folks inside an insular, thin-skinned administration that tends to dismiss critics, it is possible the "no problem here" diagnosis holds sway.

If that is indeed where the administration is, there is only one way out before the tyranny of reality forces a new diagnosis, but one that arrives too late to salvage success on the foreign-policy front: get out of the bubble and expose the president to the best critics across a broad spectrum of political opinion, Democrat and Republican.

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Middle East's 4 Strategic Contests

The revolutionary (and now counterrevolutionary) cauldron in the Middle East is so vexing because multiple conflicts are occurring on multiple levels all at once. The region is being consumed not just by one contest, but four. Each of these four contests has its own unique dynamic, but each also touches on the others and often multiple conflicts reinforce one another. While daily headlines focus on internal tumult in places like Egypt and Syria, the deeper fault lines crisscross the entire region in a byzantine web, sometimes along national borders and sometimes across them, sometimes along confessional lines and sometimes through the heart of Islamic theology.

The four contests are:

The Great Power Contest. This contest is primarily between Russia and the United States, with Britain, France, and China also playing active albeit secondary roles. For the United States the question is whether it will remain the predominant outside power within the region; for Russia the question is how much Moscow can erode America's standing. The war in Syria is the most visible proxy conflict in this contest, but Russian and Chinese efforts to shield Iran's nuclear program are also expressions of their efforts to play spoiler roles and undermine American interests.

The Regional Power Contest. This is the conflict over which Middle Eastern nation(s) will be the dominant power in the region. For some time the standoff has primarily been between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but now others such as Turkey and Qatar are jockeying for position and seeking to extend their influence. The alliances are ever shifting; a year ago it appeared that the Saudis and Qataris were aligned in their support for the Syrian rebels, but recent weeks have seen a much-commented split between the two over which Syrian factions to support and in Egypt over whether to back the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar's choice) or the military (Saudi Arabia's preference). Not to be overlooked is the more profound shift represented by Egypt's implosion and diminished regional influence, and thus the apparent end (or at least suspension) of the decades-long rivalry between Cairo and Riyadh for regional leadership.

The Religious Contest. This is the Sunni-Shiite conflict, articulated most expansively by Vali Nasr in his 2006 book The Shia Revival. The fault lines in this contest are not along nation-states per se but rather among the Sunni and Shiite leadership and communities across the region. While sometimes coextensive with nation-states and represented by particular governments (primarily Iran for the Shiites and Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis), the contest is ultimately transnational and cuts across confessional lines in countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. This contest helps explain the irritating acquiescence of Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government in Iranian-Hezbollah support for Bashar al-Assad's regime. In turn this contest has its own multiple sublevels and internal rivalries, such as Shiism's struggle between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's more quietist school and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's militancy, or the multiple competing claimants to the theological mantle of Sunni leadership.

The Ideological Contest. This conflict is between Islamism and pluralism. While this contest also has an irreducibly religious dimension, ultimately the debate is over what will be the dominant mode of political organization in the region: Islamist ideology or pluralism. The former seeks to impose a narrow, politicized version of sharia law and brooks no dissent; the latter protects political space for a diverse array of participation, religious and secular. Pluralism is obviously inherent in liberal democracy, but pluralism is also quite possible under benign autocracies and monarchies. It has a moderating effect in its own right and can also play an important role in economic and political liberalization. Like the Sunni-Shiite contest, this ideological conflict is also primarily taking place within Islam. But non-Muslims, especially Egypt's Coptic Christians and other religious minorities across the region, are also active participants in the debate and have an existential stake in its outcome.

These four contests are not discrete and exclusive, but are taking place simultaneously and often feeding on each other. In some cases the primary actor is the nation-state; in others it is a transnational religious community or political movement. In some cases the main instrument in the contest is force; in other cases it is diplomatic, economic, ideational, even spiritual. In some cases the stakes are a classical realpolitik question of which nation-state will emerge stronger; in other cases the stakes are an existential question of whether a particular nation-state can even survive -- and whether the nation-state model itself will continue to be the basic political unit in the region. In a few cases the outcomes will merely be local concerns; in most cases the outcomes will substantially implicate American interests.

The challenges in crafting a coherent strategy in this milieu are manifest. Setting priorities among the various contests is hard, as is finding levers of influence among a limited set of options. Sometimes advancing a strategic equity in one contest can diminish a strategic equity in another contest. Such is the case with Syria, where all four contests are in acute tension, most visibly in the mantra that intervening to curtail Russian and Iranian influence could also strengthen the hands of violent Islamists.

In the face of these challenges, the White House's approach to the region seems to have been a combination of "hands up and hands off" -- that is, throwing its hands up in exasperation at the multiple conflicts and limited options, and consequently adopting a hands-off posture. Barack Obama's administration has relentlessly told itself about all the negatives of engagement in the region and in the process has created a set of self-fulfilling prophecies.

When considered in the aggregate, however, the United States has substantial interests in the outcomes of these four contests, including preserving its influence as a stabilizing force in the region, encouraging pluralism as an antidote to radicalization, and preventing regional dominance by other malevolent actors, especially a nuclear Iran. Just as the several contests are linked to each other in their negative consequences, so could positive developments on one front lead to progress on other fronts.

Where to start? Addressing the four contests can begin with a focus on two countries, Egypt and Iran, and one issue, religious freedom. In Egypt, the erstwhile Muslim Brotherhood government's overreach and ineptitude significantly damaged the brand equity of Islamism. As Michael Singh and Robert Satloff have pointed out, the new Egyptian government provides an opportune moment for a needed reset to the U.S. relationship with Egypt and thus the region. In Iran, as John Hannah highlighted, the election of Hasan Rouhani presents an opportunity for an invigorated dual-track approach that would reassert American leadership: increased support for the freedom aspirations of the Iranian people and increased pressure on the nuclear program in the form of a credible threat that arrests Tehran's dissemble-and-delay tactics. Such renewed initiative with Egypt and Iran, two historical leaders in the region, would also restore U.S. credibility with Saudi Arabia, a third regional leader. Meanwhile, promoting religious freedom across the region would help encourage authentic pluralism, ameliorate extremism, and allow space for Islamic political participation while guarding against intolerant Islamism.

Two and a half years after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation set an entire region ablaze, the contours of the multiple contests are now clear. And past rationales for American passivity now pale in comparison with the compelling American interests at stake in the outcomes of each contest.

DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images