Here's what President Obama needs to do:
1. Get a Strategy. No, really. We don't currently seem to have one, grand or otherwise. We've got "the long war" -- but we don't seem to have a long game. Instead of a strategy, we have aspirations ("We want a stable Middle East") and we have laundry lists (check out the 2010 National Security Strategy). But as I have written in a previous column, there's no clear sense of what animates our foreign policy. And without a clear strategic vision of the world, there's no way to evaluate the success or failure of different initiatives, and no way to distinguish the important from the marginal.
What does President Obama see as the one or two gravest threats to the United States? What are our one or two biggest opportunities? Is terrorism an existential threat to the United States, or a marginal threat, overshadowed by the long-term dangers posed by climate change, pandemics, and a highly manipulable global financial system? Should we focus on increasing ties in Asia, or focus on our neighbors in Central and South America? Is the United States trying to maintain global preeminence, even if it comes at the expense of other states -- or are we trying to foster a global order in which the United States is but one of many strong countries, all constrained by a robust international network of laws and institutions?
If President Obama lacks a clear strategic foreign policy vision, it's partly because the strategic planning shops within the White House's National Security Staff (NSS) and the State Department have been marginalized and disempowered. Within the NSS, the Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop, without the clout to bring senior officials to the table for longer-term strategy discussions. At the State Department, the Policy Planning office -- once run by such legendary figures as George Kennan and Paul Nitze -- was handed off, after Anne-Marie Slaughter's departure, to a young lawyer whose credentials include ample brains and a stint as a Clinton campaign aide, but no prior foreign policy experience.
If President Obama ekes out a victory on November 6, he should take a strategic pause. He should ensure that influential and credible people are appointed to lead the various strategic planning shops, and insist that his senior officials participate in a process to develop a clear, concise and articulable strategy, one that can guide future U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions.
2. Get some decent managers. The interagency process is in a state of permanent crisis. The schedules of senior officials are constantly disrupted by pop-up Deputies Committee meetings, often called on short notice, with minimal time for preparation and thought. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly scheduled more than 700 Deputies Committee meetings and 200 Principal's Committee meetings between January 2009 and October 2011. Meetings occur at all times of the day and the week, with little prioritization, causing burn-out for exhausted staffers (and reducing institutional memory when the burned out staffers quit after a year or two). Often, the constant meetings produce only inconclusive results. As a friend once put it to me, "It's all churn, no butter."
And although the National Security Staff lacks the personnel or the depth of experience and expertise to be the primary font of policy, the NSS appears to view the Cabinet-level departments and agencies as mere implementers of policies created by the White House, rather than as sources of ideas and expertise. As a result, the schedule and agenda for senior level-discussions is driven almost entirely by a small number of NSS staff, making it difficult for other issues and perspectives to be brought to the fore.
It doesn't need to be that way. President Obama should find some decent managers to run the NSS -- honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results.