"The problem with this administration," one senior official who works for an Obama cabinet department and is a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the president told me, "is that we don't do strategy, we do deliverables."
This is a common lament in modern Washington. Trapped within the news cycle like hamsters within a plastic exercise ball, the political and communications pros in the White House focus heavily on the next media event, the next speech, the next thing that advances the perpetual campaign that even lame-duck presidents seem compelled to conduct these days. The focus quickly becomes what announcement the president can make that is newsworthy enough to grab the next set of headlines -- the deliverable.
This is bad enough when what it promotes is short-sightedness. But in a Washington where it is hard to get anything substantively done, in which the cupboards are bare and the bankbooks moth-eaten, in which the political will to take risks in distant parts of the world is close to zero, the list of available deliverables becomes so slim and oomphless that by focusing on the deliverable one is focusing on empty symbolism.
As the president's upcoming trip to Israel reveals, this weakness is compounded by another impulse within the administration, which is the conviction that the president himself is an adequate deliverable. The president is seen too often by those close to him as such a powerful symbol that his mere appearance or the presentation of his views or support in the form of a speech is considered to be an adequate response to many a problem or need.
On the domestic front, this has led to a repeated phenomenon of the president framing an issue in an address -- say, health care or gun control -- but then stepping back and leaving it to others to actually make things happen. While this has seemingly been at least somewhat redressed recently with his outreach to congressional leaders on the budget, the approach seems to be driving Obama's current trip to the Middle East.
Perhaps the thinking is that getting on a plane and flying off to meet regional leaders is enough. Perhaps the fear was that U.S.-Israel relations had sagged so badly that the appearance of fence-mending alone was adequate. But whatever the case, as the president sets off for the region, expectations surrounding the trip are focused on photo ops and carefully worded statements and a soupçon of theater. This is all airy enough to be a good soufflé recipe perhaps, but nothing like meaningful foreign policy.
Further, as inadequate as the posing and posturing will be to moving the needle between the retrenching Israelis and the fragmented and obstructionist Palestinians, putting the trip in the context of the much more important regional problems that fester beyond Israel's borders makes the gestures only seem that much more hollow.
Syria in particular looms as perhaps the most worrisome sign of what a policy of fussing at the margins of an issue can produce. Not only are some 70,000 dead and perhaps two million people dislocated, but the ultimate fall of the Assad regime raises the specter of further slaughter and, worse in a geopolitical sense, the spreading of unrest, armed factions, and destabilizing trends to Lebanon, Jordan, and perhaps Iraq as well. "This could be Obama's Rwanda," one former top George W. Bush national security official told me. And even discounting for the political subcurrents that may have infused that comment, it is impossible not to wonder if the failure to act sooner in Syria may ultimately prove to lastingly damage both Obama's reputation and, much more importantly, the region and its people.