The Accidental Domestic President

For Barack Obama, the world will have to wait.

Woodrow Wilson famously told a friend, just before taking office, that "it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." George W. Bush, yet more innocent of the subject than Wilson, might well have said the same thing, had he been one to traffic in the ironies of fate. So might have Bill Clinton. It's a typical pattern for U.S. presidents to find their domestic agenda upended by unforeseen crises abroad.

Barack Obama is the rare, perhaps unique, example of the opposite phenomenon. As a candidate, Obama's message of change applied equally to "the ways of Washington" and to America's place in the world. He had, as I concluded after spending time with him in the summer of 2007, a real worldview; he spoke of foreign affairs not in the language of threat but of opportunity, offering a new voice, and a new face, with which America could enlist allies to shape a new world order and tackle global warming, nuclear nonproliferation, the problem of fragile states.

That was then. When the White House announced last week that Obama would postpone a planned trip to Asia to lobby for his health-care legislation, it confirmed that foreign policy would take a back seat to America's grave domestic and political problems. The economic crisis, of course, had radically reshaped Obama's scale of priorities long before he assumed office; foreign affairs took up less than a quarter of his inaugural address. And then Republican intractability sent the debate over health-care reform into one sudden-death overtime after another. The world beyond America's borders is of course no less salient, and no less threatening, than ever; but Americans are looking at it through the wrong end of the binoculars. Even the facts seem different today: As the economy has continued in crisis, fewer and fewer Americans say they believe that human activity is chiefly responsible for global warming -- presumably because if we were causing the Earth to heat up, we would have to do something to stop it.

The Great Depression deepened the isolationist spirit of the 1920s to the point that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a committed internationalist, was forced to sign and enforce the odious Neutrality Act of 1935. Today, the United States' most passionate political movement, the Tea Party, has virtually nothing to say about foreign policy. The only reason a larger chunk of Americans haven't become ardent isolationists is that the threat of terrorism is so much more vivid today than the threat of fascism was in the 1930s. Anger and fear still sell: Both Sarah Palin and Scott Brown have struck a chord among the Tea Party faithful by criticizing Obama for seeking to close Guantánamo and proposing to try accused terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal criminal court.

Obama has not, of course, given up on hope. Sometime over the course of the next month he will presumably release a formal statement of policy known as the nuclear posture review, which will mark the first step on the long journey toward eliminating nuclear weapons that he promised during the campaign and reiterated in his Prague speech last April. But the atmosphere of exuberant possibility raised by Prague has long since dissipated, both because the publication of the review has been so long delayed and because, according to a wide range of officials in and out of the administration, the original vision will be much compromised. How could it be otherwise? Americans are no longer in the mood for transformative visions. Perhaps fear of the worst is always stronger than hope for the better; certainly it is now.

The review has been delayed not only by fierce internal discussion but by the months-long debate over AfPak strategy, which put almost all other foreign-policy concerns on the back burner. Obama hadn't expected that, any more than he had expected the worst recession in 70 years. Foreign-policy-as-opportunity was eclipsed by foreign-policy-as-crisis-management, much as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan pushed Jimmy Carter's human rights policy to the sidelines. And then, of course, the whole subject was buried beneath the avalanche of health care. The AfPak debate feels almost as long ago as the Prague speech. As Peter Baker observed last week in the New York Times, the president has only glancingly referred to the decisive battle for Marja since it began almost six weeks ago.

Nothing, of course, is permanent in politics. I was foolish enough to write in the early fall of 2007 that voters weren't buying Obama's worldview; a year later, they elected him president. Obama has just gained a momentous and cathartic victory on health care; it's impossible to predict today how much additional political space, if any, will open up as a result. Joblessness, of course, remains extremely high by historic standards. Unless and until it subsides, foreign affairs will matter even less than usual (unless something terrible happens), and Obama and his team will be torn between making good on the transformative vision of the campaign and accommodating the dour and negative public mood, which right now seems to be relentlessly bearing the Democrats toward a 1994-style Waterloo in the midterm elections.

Perhaps the nuclear review will offer some guidance to the president's inclinations. During the 2008 primary campaign, no single issue more powerfully illustrated the difference between Obama's promise of decisive change and Hillary Clinton's cautious incrementalism than his repeated vow to eliminate nuclear weapons, to discard the old paradigm of deterrence in favor of a genuine commitment to nonproliferation. Traditional, battle-scarred Democrats -- like Clinton -- typically avoid calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons for fear of being branded soft on defense. Obama, however, insisted that U.S. national security requires discarding the hard line in favor of the soft.

And now? Obama has already made a large gesture to mollify Republicans, senior military officers, and the nuclear labs by budgeting a 13 percent increase for U.S. nuclear infrastructure at a time when other agencies are being flatlined. His senior officials have ruled against almost all changes in policy -- such as a pledge of "no first use" of nukes -- which might be criticized as too soft. What remains of the Prague vision is the promise to delegitimize nuclear weapons by sharply restricting the scenarios in which they could be used, and to make a down payment on the goal of eliminating such weapons by driving toward much deeper cuts than are envisioned by the current talks with Russia.

If these vows, solemnly undertaken and often repeated, are grossly compromised or reduced to high-flown twaddle, we will know that Obama has accepted an era of reduced expectations. That would be the politically prudent choice. But Obama kept selling his vision in 2007 even when polls and short-sighted journalists suggested he was foolhardy to do so. He didn't take the prudent path on health care, and yet emerged the winner. He is a pragmatist; but he's no cynic. Perhaps, even in the face of public apathy and Tea Party hostility, he'll make good on his promise to restore American leadership.

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Terms of Engagement

Our Money in Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke is getting serious blowback for his efforts to radically reshape U.S. aid programs in South Asia's most dangerous state. But maybe he's onto something.

Of the many levers Obama administration officials have installed on the mighty console that is AfPak strategy, the one to which the least attention has been paid is almost certainly the civilian assistance program in Pakistan. If journalists are embedding with USAID operatives in the vast, Taliban-plagued province of Baluchistan, not many of us have heard about it. And yet senior U.S. officials, most prominently Vice President Joe Biden, regularly note that Pakistan, with its 180 million people and nuclear stockpile, matters to the United States far more than Afghanistan. Thanks in no small part to Biden, who pushed legislation to massively increase civilian aid, Congress last fall passed the so-called Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorizing the expenditure of $7.5 billion in Pakistan over the next five years. Nowhere else does so much hang on the success or failure of development assistance.

And in few other places has the United States spent so much money so thoughtlessly in the past. In The Idea of Pakistan, historian Stephen P. Cohen concludes that decades of U.S. aid strengthened the hand of Pakistan's Army without making it pro-American and had economic consequences no less ambiguous, bolstering elites and self-appointed middlemen. And just as White Houses in the past had given Pakistan's rulers lavish rewards for support in the Cold War, so George W. Bush's administration gave the country's military $10 billion in barely supervised funds in exchange for pledges of support in the war on terror -- pledges that were honored more in the breach than in observance. Bribery is one rationale for foreign aid -- Hans Morgenthau, that pitiless realist, argued that it was the only sound rationale -- but not when the party in question refuses to stay bribed.

Bribery, in any case, is no longer enough. The AfPak strategy constitutes a recognition that U.S. national security now depends upon producing internal change in states -- the kind of change development assistance (as opposed to, say, regime change) is designed to bring about. One of the least plausible aspects of that strategy is the expectation, in Afghanistan, that the "civilian surge" will have begun making a difference by the time U.S. troops begin to draw down, in mid-2011. The Pakistan policy requires no such short-term miracle; indeed, the five-year time frame of Kerry-Lugar-Berman is meant to signal to Pakistanis that the U.S. commitment will not be episodic, as it has been in the past.

The money will start flowing in the next few months, and when it does, it will look very different from the aid program of recent years. Congress has earmarked $3.5 billion for "high impact, high visibility infrastructure programs" -- power plants, highways, water treatment facilities, and the like. In recent decades, aid dogma has focused on "capacity building" rather than the building of things. Now it's China that constructs dams and railroads in Africa (and Pakistan) -- and gets the credit for it. Leaving aside the respective merits of these two approaches, people can see the effect of dams a lot more easily than they can the effects of "technical assistance." When Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, first began traveling around the country, he and his team got an "earful," according to a State Department official, from Pakistanis who said that U.S. aid was effectively invisible. "Our aid was not supporting our political objectives," he told me. That is, it wasn't making a dent in the overwhelming hostility that many citizens feel toward the United States, which is a huge handicap in persuading Pakistan to confront the militants.

But will building big things that make people's lives better really improve the United States' image in Pakistan? Doing so hasn't done much good in Egypt, where no one seems to thank America for the roads it has built and the electricity it has provided. (More than 60 percent of Egyptians -- and 90 percent of Pakistanis -- said in a poll last summer that the United States abuses its power to "make us do what the U.S. wants.") Anti-Americanism in much of the Islamic world is structural: Leaders enhance their shaky legitimacy by lashing out at Uncle Sam, and people eager for a scapegoat find one in the United States (or Israel). American policy, or American aid practices, serves as a handy pretext. Still, it is in the U.S. interest to remove that pretext as far as possible: Let's build some power plants and see what happens.


The other thing Holbrooke heard was, "You never ask us what we need; you just do these programs that you think we ought to have." This is a longstanding lament, and both the Kerry-Lugar bill and the administration's AfPak strategy stipulate that Pakistanis will play a much larger role in choosing, executing, and monitoring projects than they do now. In part because improving relations with Pakistan is so central to his job, Holbrooke immediately began rejecting contracts USAID had drawn up with U.S. contractors. That didn't sit well with some; a senior USAID official, C. Stuart Callison, wrote an anguished memo to Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department, claiming that the new policy was "shockingly counterproductive" and would subordinate development goals to political considerations.

Political considerations, in a way, are just the point. Aid that harms America's standing -- because Pakistanis see it as highhanded -- is a bad idea even if it works. But it's also true, as Callison wrote, that aid policies that don't produce real change inside Pakistan scarcely advance President Barack Obama's overall counterinsurgency goals. Can America do both? Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a real state, a real middle class, a real civil society. But it's hard to find independent actors in so deeply feudal a society. Brian Katulis, a regional expert at the Center for American Progress, says that though going through local NGOs and local government bodies is "the right instinct," he's skeptical that U.S. officials will be able to navigate the political interests of local players to choose people who will actually perform.

Holbrooke is prepared to err on the side of Pakistani engagement. How, after all, can you build local capacity unless you ask people to take responsibility? More to the point, this is what it means to incorporate development assistance into larger foreign-policy goals: If Obama is to overcome the terrible failure of trust with Pakistan, he must not treat Pakistanis as hapless objects of American charity. Pakistan, as the State Department official noted, "has forced a serious re-evaluation of the relevance of aid to our foreign-policy objectives."

Whatever the United States was doing before didn't work for Pakistan, and didn't work for America. Clearly, it's time to try something else. The danger, though, is that Holbrooke will find a way of helping the U.S. image in Pakistan, and thus advance key national security goals, without really producing change inside the country. Perhaps, therefore, Pakistan should force the United States to re-evaluate aid policy even further. Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, argued in a recent op-ed that aid will continue to fortify Pakistan's deeply entrenched elites unless the United States finds an entirely new way of delivering it; she proposed inviting a wide array of groups and individuals to bid for aid projects, much as the Obama administration is now doing in the education world with its $4.3 billion grant program known as Race to the Top.

A more far-reaching proposal comes from the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank that has proposed (pdf) that funders sign contracts with recipient states in which both sides agree on a specific desired outcome -- say, increasing the reach of basic health services by a fixed percentage -- and then the donor leaves the government wholly free to reach the outcome in any way it sees fit. The donor begins to pay only when the government begins to show results. (A mutually-agreed-upon third party audits the recipient's progress.) "Cash on delivery aid," as authors Nancy Birdsall and William D. Savedoff have dubbed the idea, offers accountability for donors, autonomy for recipients, and transparency for citizens of both countries. A corrupt or incompetent government -- Pakistan's, for example -- could fail to hold up its end of the bargain. But are Americans really prepared to hand over scarce resources to such a state -- even if doing so helps their image?


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