Shadow Government

Mr. President, Leave the Strawman in Manila

President Barack Obama's defensive remarks yesterday in Manila trying to explain his foreign policy strategy have garnered substantial headlines. His refusal to describe any strategic principles and priorities was notable, as was this lament:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force ... why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? ... Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.

The president's comments were revealing of how he perceives himself and his approach to national security. Part of that self-image depends on a continuing caricature of his predecessor, George W. Bush. As a partisan matter this is not surprising, given that a big part of then-Senator Obama's campaign success in 2008 came from his critique of the Bush foreign policy. However, now that Obama is well into his second term, it is evident to just about everyone except those willfully trapped in the White House bubble that the sell-by date of the strawman expired long ago.

For those willing to take a closer, more objective look, the Obama foreign policy has actually been more militarized than the president acknowledges, while the Bush foreign policy was much less militarized than the current White House caricatures of it. Yesterday I gave a lecture on the recent decades of American foreign policy, and I began by asking the audience these two questions:

First, which American president did all of the following?

  • Launched a war without Congressional authorization against a Middle Eastern dictator accused of WMD possession and tyrannizing his own people, then failed to plan for post-conflict reconstruction while terrorists proliferated and the country fell into chaos;
  • engaged in unilateral use of force and targeted killings without U.N. sanction against suspected terrorists, including American citizens;
  • made extraordinary claims for executive power as commander-in-chief;
  • called for the spread of democracy in the Middle East;
  • kept terrorist suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay.

The answer is President Obama.

Second, which American president did all of the following?

  • Resisted strong appeals to attack Syria over its WMD program;
  • refused to attack Iran over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • refused to attack North Korea over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • worked to close Guantanamo Bay;
  • signed an agreement with the government of Iraq for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

The answer is President George W. Bush.

Lest the above be misconstrued, of course many of the bullet points that I ascribe to one administration could easily be applied to the other. Obama has also refused to use force on many occasions, and Bush invaded Iraq and pursued an aggressive counterterrorism policy. My point is simply that caricatures depend on cherry-picking a few data points, rather than doing the harder work of evaluating the full range of an Administration's policies. Obama no doubt hopes that today's pundits and tomorrow's scholars will take such a fair and comprehensive approach in studying his administration. It would help if he would do the same for his predecessor.

The president's larger reluctance to articulate a doctrine or set of principles guiding his foreign policy is understandable on one level, as such doctrines can be overrated and unduly confining. But in the case of this administration, I continue to worry that it reflects a continuing approach to national security policy that is reactive, ad hoc, and unduly shaped by domestic political concerns. I have suggested before that the search for an "Obama Doctrine" is futile since Obama himself has not devoted sufficient attention to foreign policy to develop one. His dismissive response to the press query is perhaps an inadvertent confirmation of this theory. Hopefully the Administration's forthcoming National Security Strategy will help answer some of these questions.

There is one other irony in the president's lament yesterday about the criticisms of his foreign policy. Contrary to his caricature, his administration's main failing has not been the refusal to employ American military force, but rather a failure of diplomacy. Effective diplomacy includes the full spectrum of tools ranging from personal relationships with foreign leaders, to making credible commitments with allies and adversaries, to robust economic measures (including the carrots of free trade agreements and the sticks of sanctions), to security assistance that does not involve American forces. A common denominator across the range of challenges facing this White House -- including Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and Asia -- has been the insufficient use of robust diplomacy. Addressing that deficit would be a good start in redeeming the final two and a half years of the administration.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

America Got Game

My friend, Kim Holmes, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has written a wonderful book called Rebound that analyzes what made America great, what caused us to get off course, and how to return to greatness. This is not a "let's manage decline" book, but a "let's tap what made us great, build on it, and ensure that America leads for the rest of the 21st century" book. I am particularly taken by his prescriptions for how we shape a freer, more prosperous world. The title, Rebound, comes from basketball (of course), and he reminds the reader that one player's miss offers another a chance: The rebound, he argues, often goes to the player with the most skill and determination, and basketball is about making the most of opportunities, learning from mistakes, and making the least mistakes.

Holmes cites a series of changes in values, as well as social and financial indicators -- all going the wrong direction. The sum of these indicators is what is driving the average American, according polling, to have less confidence in the future, and to sense that something is very wrong with the country. What are the stakes if we don't change the path we are on? First, Holmes says, it will be far harder to achieve the American dream, and second -- and far more dangerous -- America could lose the "mastery over its own fate and security." In other words, decline would take America's independence of movement, reduce its options and, in essence, lose a significant part of our freedom.

Decline, he argues, is not something that happens overnight -- it is gradual, progressing over decades and driven by the slow acceptance of more limited financial, societal, and global horizons for the United States. Decline also isn't a foregone conclusion. Americans shaped their destiny and they can correct, putting themselves back on the right course -- that is, after all, how American got to great in the first place. But the book isn't a pitch for recreating the past or embracing nostalgia. Instead, it asserts the importance of regarding the lessons of the past and applying them to the challenges of today; there are some things from the past that are best left behind and some of the changes in society have made America better.

Holmes's telling starts with what made America great -- its people, its sprit, and its form of government. The values that made America great, such as frugality, hard work, honesty, and deferred gratification of various appetites, were operational from 1775 until about 1956. Mediating bodies such as churches and a rich network of self-organized civil society institutions, which created deep social capital, played a central and constructive role in the shaping of America.

So what went wrong? The values that once made America great were replaced: A counterculture became the establishment, government displaced civil society, and non-government actors were weakened in the process. In the last 50 years our constitutional form of government has been weakened and warped.

Foreign policy is where the book is strongest -- that's what Holmes does for his day job, and he saves some of his strongest criticism for what he calls the New Liberal Internationalism. He pins the birth of this movement to Noam Chomsky's 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," that argued that the architects of Kennedy and Johnson's foreign policy (in line with a tradition of "American progressivism") were committing treason against their own class and the truth that America was too nationalistic -- the "pious posturing about liberty was merely a cover for greedy capitalists who wanted to dominate world markets," as Holmes paraphrases. American idealism in foreign policy, Chomsky argued, was an intentional lie.

Holmes wrote this book before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and he argues, presciently, that, "the world is too small for us to hide. And if there is anything that we learned from World War II -- and from neglect of Al Qaeda in the 1990s-it should be this: there are no impermeable national borders when it comes to U.S. national security." His vision for a strong strategic agenda for the United States today demands that it: maintain a global balance of power; ensure absolute military superiority over potential foes; prevent terrorists from killing us or our friends, or taking over countries; undertake military interventions only when our national security requires it; avoid the diplomatic minutia of the new liberal internationalism; and create a global economic freedom agenda. All I can add is "amen."

The section calling for a global economic freedom agenda will almost certainly get the least attention. As someone who thinks about and works on soft power issues and how to make them work for the United States, I found his recommendations fascinating and constructive. Holmes argues that national security is not just about armies but about the world economy and he argues that the United States has a big role in restoring the health of the global economy because doing so is in our national interest. It should contribute to the transformation of developing country economies by encouraging their liberalization and invest in higher standards of governance (something I have written about for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here).

He argues for more attention to the rule of law and eliminating corruption as ways of reducing inequality. I can't agree more. He also argues the global free trade system should be revitalized, which also sounds like a good idea to me. He argues that the United States should be exporting and promoting free enterprise in a much more focused and systematic way. He advocates the use of foreign assistance and diplomacy capital to encourage private property and, interestingly, thinks that we should be fighting "crony corporatism" of state owned enterprises, such as those in China, which is a problem for many countries. This global economic freedom agenda, he correctly says, should be based on the fundamental human right to be economically free.

How do we best grab the jump ball and take another shot at greatness? Holmes argues that there will be some event or events that will wake us from our lethargy and that it will require sustained leadership. This means, to me, that Republicans will need control of one or both houses of congress, and that we will need a Republican president who runs on this vision and brings the Republican party, the American people, and ultimately the Democratic party along with us.

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