Hope Against Hope

A look back at what I've gotten wrong, and why I'm (mostly) not sorry.

Last week, I wrote about the lessons that President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have learned -- or should have learned -- from their mistakes over the last four years. The civilian side of government, I noted, doesn't have a "lessons learned" apparatus the way the military does. It should, but then, so should my line of work. Reporters can be called to account for factual errors, but columnists, who traffic in opinion, need not even acknowledge the category of "mistake." It is largely up to us to blow the whistle on ourselves. And this is what I propose to do this week.

In looking back through my columns of the past three years, I had no trouble coming up with my most egregious misjudgment: A year ago, on the eve of Egypt's parliamentary elections, I wrote that while Egypt's new government "may have a strongly Islamic cast, it won't actually be Islamic," since experts were predicting that the Muslim Brotherhood would win 15 to 40 percent of seats, with the rest divided among various forces, including Salafists. In fact, the Brotherhood and the Salafists took three-quarters of the seats in Egypt's new parliament.

But that's just electoral math. My deeper misjudgment was to think that, once in power, the Brotherhood would take democracy as seriously as they had while serving as a parliamentary minority under President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsy has taken his electoral victory as a mandate to demolish obstacles to his rule -- temporarily, he insists. The most reform-minded members of the Brotherhood have left the fold, but have not themselves become a significant political force. Egypt now faces a spreading politics of confrontation in which no party believes that it can afford to trust to democratic tactics. The situation is utterly fluid and unpredictable, but it is by no means obvious that Egypt's political marketplace will prove self-correcting.

Like any prudent columnist, I have hedged my hopefulness with cautionary notes. But I was too hopeful -- my besetting flaw. I put too much stock in Obama's ability to put a new face on America, which is to say that I shared the somewhat giddy expectations of many people in the administration. When I look back at what I wrote about the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama adopted in Afghanistan, I see that I was too willing to suspend my own skepticism about the civilian side of the policy. In 2010, I suggested, correctly, that "the organic time scale" of governance reform "is just too gradual to match any military timetable Americans will accept."

But then I contradicted myself. Earlier that year, I had spent time with soldiers and civilians in the critical southern district of Arghandab, as well as with officials in Kandahar and Kabul, who "believed that they could make a meaningful difference" by the time troops began to draw down, if only Afghan president Hamid Karzai would stop frustrating their efforts at reform -- a thought which I endorsed. But Karzai was never going to stop being Karzai, and my impulse that the institution-building effort could only work generationally, if at all, was right. I was too susceptible to their hopefulness.

Experience has been a painful teacher -- for the last two administrations, and for those who have invested in their soaring aspirations. And experience has taught us, among other things, that while America can blow things to smithereens, it cannot do nearly as much as it thinks to put them back together: "The world is so much more complicated, and so much more refractory, than we wish it to be; and our wishes all too often govern our understanding." That was me, writing about Iraq -- though it could have applied to plenty of other things. "It behooves us, then, to act with humility," I concluded, "and to try as best we can not to confuse what we wish to be with what can be."

Easier said than done, of course. Still, I have a paragon before me: I am in the midst of writing a biography of John Quincy Adams, a thoroughly astringent soul who, as a diplomat and then as secretary of state, admonished everyone around him of the potential calamities lurking beneath noble prospects. In his famous July 4, 1821 oration -- the one where he warned against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" -- Adams predicted that a policy of foreign intervention, even on behalf of the Greeks then struggling for independence from the Ottoman Empire, would corrupt the nation's republican spirit and alter "the fundamental maxims of her policy ... from liberty to force." If I had been around at the time, I'm sure I would have thought, as did Henry Clay and a great many other of the proto-liberal internationalists of the day, that President James Monroe should have spoken up for Greece. Adams persuaded him not to. And Adams did a magnificent job of advancing America's national interests. 

Still, I tend to think of my bias towards hopefulness as not only a glandular condition but a conscious choice. Journalists are afraid -- almost terrified -- of being accused of naiveté. It was, for example, almost an article of faith in the media in 2007 that President George W. Bush's "surge" in Iraq would fail, disastrously; but I don't recall any of the naysayers being taken to task as harshly, for example, as were the sorry folk who predicted in 2003 that regime change would lead to a better, less brutal, Iraq. Courting accusations of naiveté can thus be its own form of journalistic integrity.

Early in the 2008 presidential campaign I wrote an article about Barack Obama's worldview. He had a worldview, I concluded; and it was the right one. Wrong, said my editor: The story is that he has a worldview, and nobody's buying it. That is what it looked like in September 2007. Of course he was the one who was wrong. (But he still made me change the piece.)

I do not, that is, want to be entirely cured of my folly; I am wary of John Quincy Adam's wisdom. Were he around today, Adams would have warned against the intervention in Libya, and would have advised the president to stand by the devils he knew. And yet I'm glad Obama stuck his neck out in Libya and elsewhere, and still wish he would take stronger steps in Syria. Last week, I wrote that Obama's extreme caution in Syria might come from over-learning the lesson of American limits. Pundits can over-learn lessons, too. Peter Beinart, an all-in supporter of the war in Iraq, repented of his folly by writing The Icarus Syndrome, a book that made the idealistic tradition in American foreign policy sound so reckless that he was rebuked in the New York Times Book Review by, of all people, the arch-realist Leslie Gelb. Yes, idealism can breed "hubris"; but it's hard to accomplish fine things without unreasonable expectations. 

Reviewing my 140-odd columns has given me many opportunities for mortification. I haven't even mentioned my extremely premature congratulations to ECOWAS, the West African organization, for restoring democracy in Mali in the aftermath of a coup (though, with Mali's government remaining hapless, the U.N. Security Council has just authorized ECOWAS to oust Islamist rebels from the country's north). It's been a salutary exercise; if I was chastened before, I am yet more so now. We are all more or less chastened after a decade of seeking monsters to destroy. So yes, let us practice humility rather than hubris. Let us lower our expectations. But not too far.


Terms of Engagement

Secretaries of Safe

Obama’s likely national security picks are going to reinforce his innate caution -- for better and for worse.

In each of the most recent two-term presidencies -- Reagan, Clinton, Bush -- the second term has featured a foreign policy significantly different from the first. One of the reasons for this is that presidents typically shuffle their national security staff between terms. In the Clinton era, the forceful Madeleine Albright replaced the difference-splitting Warren Christopher at the State Department. George W. Bush disposed of Colin Powell, whom he didn't listen to, in favor of Condoleezza Rice, whom he did, and then replaced the bellicose Donald Rumsfeld with the cautious Robert Gates at the Pentagon. Now we know that Susan Rice will not replace Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama's secretary of state, and it seems very likely that John Kerry will do so instead.

As I wrote recently, Kerry is more like Hillary Clinton in both temperament and worldview than any other even plausible candidate to replace her. And because Obama respects Kerry without being close to him, as has been true of his relationship with Clinton, foreign policy will probably continue to be formulated in the White House, and executed by the State Department. (During the second George W. Bush administration, by contrast, the center of policymaking shifted to State.) The break between Obama I and II will thus almost certainly be less drastic than Bill Clinton's change from waiting for Europe to act to seizing the mantle of leadership, or George Bush's from bombast and unilateralism to, well, slightly less bombast and unilateralism.

But administrations do change policy or mood for two other reasons: Because the world changes, and because officials learn from their mistakes. For Obama, 2013 will be different from 2009 because the Arab world is in tumult rather than paralysis, Europe is struggling to survive as a coherent entity, Iraq is yesterday's news, Afghanistan is waning rather than waxing, China's booming growth can no longer be taken for granted, and so forth. The administration has uniquely advertised its own change in posture by talking up the "pivot to Asia."

But what about second thoughts and lessons learned? The Bush administration discovered that going it alone has a high cost, and that legitimacy must be earned and not merely asserted. Of course, no one admitted that at the time; it just became obvious through action. The military, where mistakes cost lives, has institutions dedicated to scrutinizing past behavior; the civilian world is deathly afraid of admitting errors in public, and rarely does. One senior Obama administration official with whom I spoke eagerly ticked off a list of changes in the world, but then balked at the idea that he and his colleagues had misread their own environment.

But they have, if not at all as disastrously as George Bush and his team did. Obama believed, and those around him believed perhaps even more strongly, that his own oratorical and convening gifts -- the sharp break from Bush which he was prepared to make -- was itself a powerful diplomatic tool that would raise America's standing in the world and change its relations with adversaries and rivals. The policy of "engaging" even adversaries like Iran and North Korea was based both on a calculus of mutual interest and on the magic of a new moment and a new man. But it turned out that the "Obama Effect," as one senior State Department official called it, was much weaker than expected. "The idea was that there would be something reciprocal from bad actors," the official said, "and we found out very quickly that wasn't the case. We've gone back to a more traditional sort of approach."

Obama believed that Bush had unnecessarily alienated almost everyone -- bad actors, Russia, China, Western allies -- and that a new policy of "mutual respect for mutual interests," as he often put it, could serve as an emollient. The new policy worked in Europe, the one region where leaders and citizens cherished Obama's gifts as much as American voters did (or more). It worked temporarily in Russia, whose leaders wanted to patch up relations with the United States in the aftermath of the war with Georgia. It did not work in China, however, where both Obama and Hillary Clinton hoped that putting aside irritants like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights would lead to progress on a range of bilateral and global issues. China, like Iran, did not see its interests as "mutual" with those of the United States, and so simply pocketed the American show of respect.

One official I spoke to argued that Clinton had never been quite as persuaded of the magic of engagement as Obama had been, and that in any case both understood that trying and failing to repair relations with Tehran and Beijing put Washington in a stronger position to get tough with them afterwards. That is, no mistake -- so no lesson. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that it's hard to learn a lesson from a policy which does not work out as you had hoped but also does not ruinously fail. But the proof of the learning process is in the subsequent action. White House policy towards Iran, Russia, China, and others now feels more traditional than "transformational," to use a word once very much in vogue. There has been a regression to the mean.

And this is true beyond the realm of bilateral relations. In early speeches and in his national security strategy, Obama laid great stress on rebuilding international institutions. He has, in fact, embedded the G-20 at the heart of global economic policymaking, but he has also learned the limits of bodies like the United Nations. "American leadership," says an administration official, "will depend on our capacity to mobilize a coalition of countries to solve a particular problem" -- that is, on what George Bush would have called "a coalition of the willing." And Obama's conduct of the war on terror has of course come to resemble Bush's. A policy initially described as "countering violent extremism" -- and intended to mix soft power, diplomacy, development, criminal justice, and military strikes -- has gradually given way to a militarized approach involving drones and special forces.

On balance, we should be grateful that Obama has learned useful lessons from mistakes of modest proportions. White House policy in the second term is likely to be more chastened, and to raise fewer expectations that it cannot satisfy. The pivot to Asia will allow the president to operate in a region which does not require impossible choices under the most urgent conditions. And a national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would offer the prospect of stability, caution, and realism.

I wonder, though, if there is a danger of some learning some lessons too well. Obama has found that the world is more intransigent than he had thought, and American influence more limited. This has reinforced his own cautionary impulses. He now faces a calamity in Syria, and he has responded by giving it a wide berth. John Hannah of FP's Shadow Government blog recently accused Obama of failing to act decisively in Syria out of craven political calculations.  I think Hannah is right that Washington should have acted weeks or months ago, but wrong about the motive for inaction. The president and his team are now deeply imbued with an awareness of the limits of American power in the face of profound upheavals. They know all too well that a forceful American role can make things worse.

As George W. Bush erred on the side of recklessness, Obama is now erring on the side of caution. He should have helped to organize and equip the Syrian insurgents while the rebellion was still largely local; now the war is turning into an international jihadist cause, and thus giving the United States and other outsiders yet more reason to hesitate. The effect has been to allow a very bad situation to get very much worse. Lessons may have been learned. But a president who was once prepared to take risks to change the world seems to have lost sight of his courage.