Voice

The Deliverable-in-Chief

Is Obama’s light-footprint diplomacy inviting tomorrow’s problems?

"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.

What could the United States and its allies have done? Well, it is undeniable that we could do more than we have so far. We could have worked with our allies to impose a no-fly zone over the country, to establish humanitarian corridors for the dislocated, to make regions of the country off-limits to the fighting, and to arm select rebel groups. We could have put more pressure on the Russians to abandon their criminal support of Bashar al-Assad -- and let's be clear, if Assad and his cronies are ever brought up on human rights violations, their Russian sponsors and enablers ought to also be held accountable. We could have worked more aggressively with regional leaders to support their militaries taking a more active role in the crisis. Indeed, by the standards of past U.S. responses to similar crises, the reality is we could hardly have done less.

Iran too will come up as an issue in the president's discussions. He will again offer himself and his resolve as the principal U.S. deliverable. But the reality of the situation is illustrated well by the lead story in Monday's Washington Post suggesting that the U.S. sanctions regime -- robust as it no doubt is -- has yet to have the desired effect of dissuading the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. This is a classic dog-bites-man story. No one who has studied sanctions believed that they would have much effect. Sanctions almost never do.

Much has been made of this administration's "light footprint" approach to counterterrorism. What has received less attention is its simultaneous "light footprint" approach to every other aspect of its involvement in the Middle East. Maybe this is sensible. Certainly, as we reflect on this week's 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we can see that overreaction and too much intervention certainly carries with it great risks and high price. But, we are also learning of a great hidden cost associated with fiascos like our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We overreact to our overreactions. We conclude that the only alternative to too much is too little.

The problem of course, is that doing too little to address problems -- focusing on photo ops rather than the real strategic spadework needed to put a lid on the region's unrest, on building new alliances and new partnerships and on mustering the resources necessary to support them -- invites the kind of calamities that require much more costly interventions or dangerous outcomes later on. Appeasement was the natural response to the horrors of World War I. It was also a fatal error.

I am not saying America needs to single-handedly intervene to clean up the problems of the Middle East. We have proven the hard way that we can't and we shouldn't. Rather, we need to figure out how we can act more effectively in concert with others. This requires a strategic vision of a new set of alliances and mechanisms designed to deal with the kind of problems the Middle East is sending our way. It actually requires that we realize that the Israel-Palestine issue is not only not central to U.S. concerns in the region, it is a dangerous distraction.

If the president really wanted to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, he would be better off traveling to Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and London to work on remaking a more effective alliance with America's European partners there who are essential to any lasting solution, to Moscow to explain to the Russians that he will no longer coddle them if they will so recklessly endanger regional and international stability, to Beijing to find a way to deepen U.S. working relations with China, and to the moderate countries of the Middle East to encourage the formation of a more effective partnership to find regional solutions for regional problems. Obama would also do the heavy lifting on Capitol Hill and with American voters to find more money for real aid programs today to avoid costlier interventions tomorrow. These efforts will no doubt be frustrating, time-consuming, and take place behind the scenes -- and, it must be acknowledged, some limited progress is already being made on some of these fronts. But more must be done. Time is running out on some of these problems, and it is hard not to wonder if, with regard to Syria and Iran, at least, we will all too soon reap the whirlwind.

In other words, not only is the president an inadequate deliverable for the problems faced by Israel and the Palestinians, he is delivering that inadequate deliverable to deal with the wrong problem at the wrong time in the wrong way. It is time, as many in high places on the Obama team well know, for strategy to supplant optics in America's national security strategy and diplomacy.

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David Rothkopf

Lessons Learned (and Not)

Seven things we've learned after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ten years ago this March, George W. Bush launched America's invasion of Iraq. Had Twitter existed back then, #ShockandAwe would have been trending. Ground operations advanced quickly. By May, the president stood in front of a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." Simultaneously, in a less-heralded but perhaps even more egregiously premature assessment, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared the end of "major combat" in Afghanistan. At the time, only 8,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan. Today, more than eight times as many are there.

These conflicts will not only define America in the eyes of the world for many decades to come, but they will also shape the views of a generation of men and women who will decide where, when, and how the United States will flex its muscles internationally. That can be beneficial if the right lessons are drawn. But in an America that simply wants to get out and not look back, the absence to date of orderly, critical analysis of where the country went wrong has been striking.

Nothing underscores this more than this spring's other major anniversary, albeit one likely to pass largely unnoticed. On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops withdrew from South Vietnam, which fell into communist hands just two years later.

If Vietnam seems remote, a baby-boomer nightmare far removed from the world of drones and cyberattacks, look again. The ghost of Vietnam has been omnipresent for years in planning by senior U.S. officials and military officers -- sometimes leading to successful initiatives, sometimes placing a phantom hand on the tiller of state and guiding policies into the shoals.

The officers who led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan studied the lessons of insurgency learned in Vietnam, clearly shaping their thinking. Gen. David Petraeus, who attended West Point during the last years of the Vietnam War, titled his doctoral dissertation The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam. In his memoir, Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan war general fired by President Barack Obama, tells the story of a "memorable night in Kabul" when he and diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who served in Vietnam as a young Foreign Service officer, telephoned historian Stanley Karnow to ask about the lessons that disastrous war holds for today's Afghanistan conflict. Holbrooke spoke openly and passionately about the need to avoid that fate -- an endless, costly war. But as McChrystal writes, "the lessons to be drawn were anything but incontrovertible." The same might be said about the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, but nonetheless we must try to identify those we can. Here are a few.

1. The Powell Doctrine still resonates. Shock and awe was supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of the post-Vietnam impulse not to get bogged down in another quagmire. It was the Powell Doctrine: Set clear goals, invest sufficient resources, minimize casualties, and have an exit strategy -- Las Vegas-style, making the points with pyrotechnics and news releases. But you have to follow the full prescription. You have to not only set goals but set the right ones -- whether it's destroying an enemy or rebuilding a society. When they get muddled, problems follow. And you must have a genuine exit strategy that stops you from wading farther into a swamp, which is different from simply announcing a victory. See the first Gulf War for an example of it working. Needless to say, things didn't pan out the second time around.

2. Beware your past failures. Obama's foreign-policy leadership team was all hugely influenced by Vietnam -- one regional ambassador even told me that he has never had a discussion with John Kerry regarding Afghanistan in which the now secretary of state did not raise the subject. Obama's hesitance to get drawn into Libya (except in a very limited way) and Syria is emblematic of this worldview, as is the focus on "light-footprint" options, such as drones, Special Forces, and cyberattacks, that seem to offer an escape from the Vietnam syndrome.

But that syndrome can also push America into premature announcements of exits (Iraq and Afghanistan), the use of morally dubious means (drone wars), or hesitation to intervene where it might serve U.S. national interests or the global good (Syria, possibly Iran, and perhaps even places such as Mali).

3. Know your enemy. Consider Afghanistan. If a reasonable goal were to defeat the enemy that caused the 9/11 attacks, the United States nonetheless got into trouble when it asserted that the Taliban, by supporting al Qaeda, were part of that enemy. To defeat them, the country lurched into an alliance with Pakistani agencies that probably did as much or more to support America's terrorist adversaries as they did to help the United States. In Iraq, it took years to realize that the Sunni insurgents could be, if not brought over to America's side, at least taken off the battlefield. Sadly, in Vietnam, the United States never understood that it was fighting an indigenous nationalist insurgency, not a communist plot directed by Moscow and Beijing.

4. Know your limitations. The United States may be the world's most powerful country (it still is, by a lot, and will be for many decades), but that does not mean it has the power to achieve whatever it seeks to do. The country faces financial constraints. There are limits to what its allies are willing to support. There are cultural, historical, geographical, and demographic obstacles that the United States can never surmount. This means that we must test our theories relentlessly -- and then retest them and then test them again. Intransigence or groupthink must not be confused with leadership or clarity of vision. Situations change. So too should policies.

5. Beware of certainties. Afghanistan to many -- me among them -- was "the good war." It was the one America should be fighting rather than Iraq. In the end, however, the likelihood of achieving any lasting positive results there is even remoter than it appears to be in Iraq, which is saying something given how volatile and worrisome conditions in Iraq are. The United States is likely to end in Afghanistan by handing considerable power or at least opportunities back to the Taliban, placing bets on a corrupt, weak regime, and leaving the people, notably the women of that country, vulnerable to new horrors. And there's nothing good about that.

6. Beware your last success. Bad historical analogies are common -- and not just when it comes to Vietnam. The Middle East was not Eastern Europe and did not welcome Western "liberation." No flowers or sweets greeted U.S. troops along Baghdad's streets -- only IEDs. And the surge in Iraq was not an indicator that a similar approach would work in Afghanistan, as Petraeus discovered far too late to make a difference.

7. Wars are often won by diplomats and businessmen -- not soldiers. If history shows one thing, it is that we seldom have sufficient perspective to know what is in our long-term interest. At the end of the war, Vietnam, after all, was universally regarded as a failure. Today, however, the country has something like a market economy and is integrated into Southeast Asia -- and the Soviet Union is gone, in part because it bled out economically while supporting ideological allies like the North Vietnamese.

The bottom line is simply this: America ignores these lessons at its peril. Both Iraq and Afghanistan in some way are reactions to Vietnam -- but also reminders that the opposite of a policy failure is no guarantee of success.

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