Shadow Government

President Obama Had a Terrible Holiday Weekend. But Does He Know It?

I had a bad Labor Day holiday, but my troubles don't matter much. President Obama's was decidedly worse, and unfortunately his matter a lot. The crucial thing, though, is that I know I had a bad couple of days. It is not clear to me that President Obama realizes that he did, and that should trouble all of us.

First, my tale of minor woes. I was in Washington for the Annual American Political Science Association meeting. Several thousand political science professors in the same hotel may sound like a lot of fun (or maybe it doesn't) but it usually is not as eventful as it was this year.

Around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were all rousted out of bed because of a fire at the hotel. Reports are still pretty sketchy, but local firefighters and police told us that there was an arsonist who set several fires and was loose in the building over the course of the next six-plus hours. I had to be escorted to my room by the police to retrieve my bags to make my flight. In the end, fortunately, no one was hurt. (Some wounded pride aside, that is. It is hard to retain one's dignity walking around in pajamas and nightgowns, and, alas, the image of some of my more distinguished colleagues in their bedclothes will haunt me for some time.)

Rounding out the weekend, I received a death threat after I presented at a panel on the National Security Agency. My remarks were not all that provocative (I will post them in a later piece), but they drove at least one troubled soul to send me a vicious email that the authorities found particularly disturbing.

So it was not my best couple days.

Still, it was a better holiday weekend than the president's. The centerpiece was his "we have no strategy" press conference, for which he has been roundly criticized. It feels unsporting to pile on now to the primary line of critique: yes, the president gets points for being honest about the strategic disarray within the administration, but those points do not compensate for his failure to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with a threat that has been evident for many months.

In the midst of this, I have seen surprisingly little commentary on how the president's gaffe reveals the dysfunction within the president's vaunted communications' team. It was a mistake to send the president out to speak in between major meetings (he spoke after one meeting and before another that was scheduled for later in the evening), because even if the president did have a coherent strategy, the time to announce it is after the meeting where they decide it, not before. There have been other own-goals like this in recent months -- the decision to hype the prisoner swap that secured Bergdahl's release was also a major self-inflicted wound -- and while the WH spinners dismiss this as petty inside-the-beltway carping, what the own-goals have in common is that they mystify seasoned experts on both sides of the aisle. You do not have to be a partisan critic to see that the administration's messaging efforts have made several bad situations worse. (Another possible common element is that they may reveal a staff to be dog-tired or have lost the ability to tell the boss hard truths.)

The president's remarks amounted to a rebuke of his interagency team and it is a rebuke that at last some on the team do not appreciate. If the president wanted his team to tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, he could have told them that in private. Usually, a president reserves a public rebuke for when someone is about to be fired.

But that does not seem to be in the cards. In fact, over the weekend, as the White House swung into damage control, the dominant talking point was that there was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the president's team bragged about the president's great calmness under fire, as if what we have been observing is a virtuoso performance of the sort that would inspire Rudyard Kipling to wax poetic.

It is telling that the White House sent out the campaign spinners and not the foreign policy experts to sell this particular line. There are few serious experts with real experience in government willing to defend the President's recent handling of foreign policy, and his own team -- both the former members and, more strikingly, the current principals -- have been clearly signaling that they are as dismayed by what is unfolding as are those of us watching from afar.

Which raises the obvious question. Does President Obama know that he and his team are struggling? Or does he believe the spin he sent the team out to offer this weekend? Some people much closer to the president than I am assure me that the president knows he has not done well, but others, particularly reporters who talk extensively with senior White House staff say they are not so sure.

The thought that the president really believes that the criticisms coming from all corners can just be dismissed as partisan sniping makes my bad couple days feel even worse.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The U.S. Needs a New Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016 (A Four-Part Series)

Part One: Why It's Needed

It is a little more than two years before the next presidential election, but foreign policy might figure more prominently in the 2016 cycle than it has in recent elections. World events are deteriorating -- rapidly -- and national security is more on people's minds. There is widespread popular discontent with the current administration's foreign policies -- even some prominent Democrats are raising significant questions about the direction of U.S. strategy. Republicans have not settled on a consistent foreign-policy vision, but they are searching for one. The time is ripe to start thinking about what an alternative foreign policy should be.

Why an alternative? Besides its unpopularity, our current foreign policy is not working very well. Analysts may argue whether dangerous events are caused by U.S. policy, or whether they are beyond our control, but we should expect at the very least that our government's policies improve America's position in the world. We should also expect them not to make matters worse. Presidential candidate Barack Obama raised a very high bar for himself when he first took office. Well-known is his grandiose promise that his nomination brought "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal." Less remembered now is his campaign speech from July 2008, when he pledged a completely new course in U.S. policy, one that promised "to face down the threats of the 21st century just as we did the challenges of the 20th."

The question is whether this has been done. Have we "faced down" those threats? Or have we sidestepped them or even made them worse?

By any reasonable standard the world is a more dangerous place today than it was in 2008. Terrorists we had thought were vanquished are now back with a vengeance, not only reversing the hard-fought gains we had made in Iraq but once again potentially threating the American homeland. Despite the Obama administration's claims that the threat of terrorism had been receding, the number of global terrorist attacks and fatalities has soared in recent years, reaching a record high in 2013, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. The State Department, using the same University of Maryland study, reports that the number of terrorist attacks in the world increased by 40 percent in 2013 (from 6,771 in 2012 to 11,952 in 2013). Not only is the threat of global terrorism on the rise, it is metastasizing into strains that are more violent, better armed, better funded, and more difficult to counter.

America's geopolitical position in the world has deteriorated as well. Violence and instability in the Middle East and North Africa are far worse today than in 2008. Iraq was then on a trajectory of stability. Today it is falling apart and in the thralls of a barbaric civil war. The outbreak of the war in Syria cannot be blamed directly on U.S. policies, but its spread can be attributed to inconstant and passive U.S. leadership. Libya is a failed state wracked by violence and instability, partly because of our failure to make any consequential stabilization and reconstruction effort after the campaign to topple the Qaddafi regime. U.S. relations with onetime close ally Egypt are far worse than in 2008, and U.S. partners in the region Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are under threat from the proliferation of terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While America's star in the Middle East is down, Iran's is up: Tehran arguably has more influence inside Iraq than the United States does. And despite years of negotiations, Iran is much closer today than in 2008 to a nuclear weapons capability.

Matters are not much better elsewhere. For the first time since the end of World War II, Russia is engaged in a hot war to change the borders of a European state, challenging the political order of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. In Asia, China is increasingly aggressive and is intimidating not only its neighbors but also the United States. Afghanistan is highly unstable and is in danger of falling back into civil war or even Taliban rule after all our forces leave there in 2016. In Latin America, failing, criminalized states have emerged in recent years in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, contributing to our illegal immigration problem; moreover, Russia has stepped up strategic partnerships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. In Africa, virulent and violent terrorist groups have emerged in Mali and Nigeria, which have been fueled by illicit arms from Libya and which have helped turn the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa into a new frontier of global terrorism.

In the midst of this, America's standing in the world -- and arguably its influence -- has diminished. A two-star Chinese general and dean of China's National Defense University, Zhu Chenghu, suggested to Western audiences earlier this summer that he thinks America is in decline. He may not speak officially for the Chinese leadership, but it is no secret that many in China see America as a waning power. The same is true of people around Russian President Vladimir Putin; one hears often of Russia's weaknesses as reason not to be overly concerned about Putin's aggressive behavior, but it would not be the first time in history that an inferior power, sensing weakness in its opponent, took on a more powerful foe in a high-stakes gamble. At the same time many of America's allies worry that the United States is increasingly unreliable and retreating from the world. And while global attitudes about America are not as negative as they were in 2007 to 2008, the 2009 "Obama bounce" in the global stature of the United States is, according to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, slipping substantially "due to the diminishing popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama himself in some nations."

It may be hyperbole for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to say, "The world is exploding all over," but not by much. President Obama's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said last year in testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee that, "I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." And no less a supporter of President Obama's policies than his own Attorney General Eric Holder recently said that reports of bomb makers in Yemen partnering with the Islamic State (IS) are "more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general."

There are two questions raised by these assessments. The first is whether a more dangerous world is actually a threat to the United States? The second is how much of it is the fault of U.S. policy?

Let's take the first question. Given our global status you would think that, by any definition, a more dangerous world is a big problem for the United States. But not everyone agrees. Some argue that we are actually better off today because we are "ending" America's wars. Others contend that threats may be on the rise but there is little we can do about them. America is more or less in a state of relative decline, they say, as other powers rise to take her place. We had best get used to our new diminished role in an increasingly "complex" multipolar world of diffused power, which no one -- not even Barack Obama -- can control.

These views are profoundly mistaken in our view. Our wars are not "ending." After a period of peace and stability, the war in Iraq is back, and Afghanistan is on the precipice of more fighting once we leave. As the renewed airstrikes against IS show, the assumption that we could simply walk away and let the Iraqis do the fighting by themselves proved to be an illusion.

Every one of the worsening trends in world affairs directly threatens American security, interests, and values. There is no escaping them. A violently disordered region in Iraq controlled by terrorists who have vowed to take their fight to New York is a direct threat to the American people. A Russian leader who uses subterfuge, infiltration, and military intervention to upend the European order is a direct threat to our strategic interests. And a civil war spinning out of control in Syria threatens the stability of the entire Middle East, which has for decades been a region of vital strategic importance to the United States.

Nor is it true that America's days as a world leader are over. The United States is still the indispensable country for maintaining international order and shaping world events in a positive direction. No other country has its capacity, capability, reputation, and will -- not the Europeans, not the United Nations, and certainly not America's rivals, Russia and China. As percentage of GDP we spend far less on defense today than we did in the 1960s or even the 1980s, which suggests that all the talk of limited resources is about political priorities and will, not economic necessity.

As for the second question of whether all the bad things happening in the world are President Obama's fault, the answer is of course "no." He is not responsible for age-old hatreds or artificial colonial boundaries in the Middle East. Nor is he to blame for the fanaticism that burns in the hearts of terrorists. And it's true he didn't start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides, he has had some tangible security successes, like getting Osama bin Laden and degrading the old leadership of al Qaeda, and helping convince Syria to destroy some of its chemical weapons.

But if he is to get credit for these achievements, he must also be held accountable for his failures. Either because of neglect, ideology, or inconstancy, the president has made matters much worse in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Central America (and may be about to do the same in Afghanistan). He abandoned Iraq too quickly; attacked Libya without adequate follow-up; flip-flopped too many times on Egypt and Syria; and turned a blind eye as the "northern triangle" of Central America was overrun by drug cartels. On his watch the threat of terrorism against the United States is arguably at its most severe since Sept. 10, 2001. And despite the high-profile summits on Africa, many regional experts regardless of party affiliation are disappointed that U.S. Africa policy has been less energetic than in previous administrations.

The same thing is true with respect to the Russia "reset" policy. The whole policy was sold on the naïve premise that reaching out to Russia would bring greater cooperation from Moscow. The exact opposite has happened. Russia has grown much more aggressive and has forced the administration to abandon completely the reset policy. While this may be rationalized as a "smart" policy merely adjusting to a changing "reality," it should be remembered at the time that the president's critics predicted it would come to this, and yet he ignored them.

One could argue that other achievements balance the scale in the administration's favor. They could point to the successes we mentioned earlier, or list scores of supported international programs dedicated to global health, women's rights, climate change, arms control, and other causes. Or they could even claim that things would have been worse had the president done what his critics wanted -- like support the moderate rebels or launch airstrikes against Syria. But at the end of the day, the success of a foreign-policy strategy must be measured not by well-intentioned programs or by hypothetical claims of wars avoided, but by whether the state of the world has improved and America's security position is better.

By these measures the current approach has failed. The world is a more dangerous place. The threats to American security are higher. And specific crises vital to our interests are worse as a result of specific U.S. decisions and policies. All the millions of dollars spent on international programs -- and indeed all the time effort put into nuclear arms treaties and negotiations -- have done precious little to stop the rising tide of threats to America and the world. If the administration wants to take credit for stopping all the hypothetical "bad stuff" (usually characterized as "wars" averted) that they claim their opponents wanted, it is only fair they accept full responsibility for the consequences not only of their actions but also their inaction.

We can and must do better, but to do so we have to answer some hard questions.

What are the underlying causes of current policy failures? It's not enough to ascribe blame and question motives. Nor is it useful to personalize criticism against President Obama himself. He will not be on the ballot in 2016, even if his legacy will. But we do have to understand why certain policies are not working so as not to repeat them.

Nor is it enough merely to criticize. We need lay out a different set of principles. From them we can deduce specifically what can be done differently to restore America's reputation, credibility, and leadership role in the world.

In the next installment in this series we will attempt to answer these questions. The purpose, once again, is to spark a debate looking forward to the presidential election in 2016. This should not be a partisan exercise. The presidential contenders who wish to challenge the current approach -- whether they are Democrat or Republican -- need to focus on what's wrong and try to fix it. They will have some hard thinking to do.

Win McNamee/Getty Images