President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Asia makes vividly undeniable what has been clear in certain quarters for some time: The administration's foreign-policy agenda has lost its mojo. Watered-down Syria resolutions, overhyped Iranian diplomatic overtures, and an understandable preoccupation with the U.S. fiscal melodrama do not obscure a fundamental truth -- Obama is really struggling on foreign policy. This is obvious to anyone who has served in positions of responsibility in the foreign-policy arena, and the American public has noticed too. With the highest disapproval ratings on foreign policy in his entire tenure, it is time for Obama and his foreign-policy team to step back and reconsider what they are doing. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but accomplishing that feat will require some fresh strategic thinking.
The pundit community is mostly focused on how to jump-start a healthy domestic political process. But even if fixing the domestic political dysfunction is indeed "Job No. 1," there is plenty of work to be done on the foreign relations front as well. Moreover, Obama and his team must also plan for the undesirable contingency that the domestic political crisis could worsen before it improves. We may face months of continued paralysis at home, and the international challenges will not wait for the resolution of the domestic challenges. The president cannot afford to let his foreign-policy languish -- or worse, to try to obscure domestic setbacks with faux diplomatic "breakthroughs" that come at the cost of sacrificing long-term U.S. national security objectives.
What Obama needs is a rebooted foreign-policy agenda, one that identifies real opportunities and confronts real challenges, and that can be pursued even if the domestic political crisis lingers. As the "loyal opposition," we at FP's Shadow Government blog have not been shy to point out when and where we think the Obama administration's policies have been wanting. But we are patriots first and Republicans second, and for our nation's sake we fervently do want to see American foreign policy succeed. We are also all former policymakers, and we know firsthand the profound difficulties in crafting and implementing successful policies. Many of us served during the second term of George W. Bush's administration, so we understand what it feels like to work in a presidency facing declining approval ratings, widespread pundit criticism, violent turbulence in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism, and agonizing challenges elsewhere in the world.
We also understand how hard it is to manage the daily deluge of the inbox, let alone find even a few minutes to think about new policy ideas. With that in mind, our contributors have each taken up the question "What one specific new policy proposal can I suggest to the Obama administration that could be realistically achieved in the next three years?" So, for our friends and readers in the Obama administration -- and we know there are at least a few of you -- we hope you will find the following helpful.
Peter Feaver: Time for a New Strategic Narrative
John Hannah: Settle Scores With Those Who Have Killed Americans
Mike Green: Save the Pivot to Asia
Mark R. Kennedy: Fast-Track Trade Promotion Authority
José R. Cárdenas: Think Trade in the Americas
Jean M. Geran: Protect Young Hearts and Minds
Will Inboden: Build a Partnership for Energy in North America
Paul Bonicelli: Reach Out to Our Allies
Dov Zakheim: Help King Abdullah II Now
Kori Schake: Return to Smart Power
Peter Feaver: Time for a New Strategic Narrative
President Barack Obama needs a new strategic narrative, explaining his vision of America's role in the world. It is unlikely that Obama will be able to change how he acts in the world without changing how he talks about the world.
Obama has stuck with a strategic narrative that I dub "the tides of war" narrative for well over five years. It consists of a series of stark claims that show up repeatedly in presidential set-piece speeches and extemporaneous remarks:
- The tides of war are receding.
- Al Qaeda is decimated, so the threats we face are receding.
- We are ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
- It is time to stop doing nation-building abroad and start doing it at home.
The narrative has been tweaked over the years. For instance, as the terrorist threat continues to metastasize in ways that are undeniable, the al Qaeda boast gets qualified with "core al Qaeda" or "the original core al Qaeda that planned the 9/11 attacks." Likewise, it used to be that we were "responsibly" ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- or even that we were "ending those wars more responsibly than we began them" -- but as that boast has grown manifestly hollow, it has reduced to simply claiming that we are ending them.
But the central thesis of the narrative has stayed intact, and it remains the most parsimonious predictor of Obama's policy choices.
This narrative has also worked, in a political sense, quite well for Obama. It went head-to-head with Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney's alternative narratives in competing for the hearts and minds of the American public and beat McCain and Romney soundly.
It continues to work politically for Obama, which is why he sticks with it even though it is clearly dysfunctional in a policy sense. Every tenet in the thesis has received a thumping from world events in recent years, so, to expert ears, the strategic narrative sounds increasingly pathological.
Even many supporters of Obama are likely to concede that this strategic narrative is dissonant in light of the policy fiascos in Syria and Egypt, not to mention a looming potential fiasco in Afghanistan. Critics from outside the president's inner circle would say the narrative yielded those fiascos -- and would add additional bitter fruit in Libya, Iraq, and Iran.
Even if this narrative is held more or less blameless for these policy failures, it should be obvious that it is past time to replace this narrative with one that better accounts for the reality of America's sharply deteriorated global position. A new narrative would not need to embrace declinism -- it could easily encompass renewal. But it must begin with reality, and the administration's prevailing narrative does not.