To Boldly Lead From Behind?

How Star Trek's Prime Directive explains Obama's foreign policy.

I've watched President Barack Obama's foreign policy for five years now. And I've finally figured what it's all about, thanks largely to Bob Woodward and Star Trek.

This is really not as strange a combination as it appears. Woodward's early reveal of Robert Gates's view, expressed in his new memoir Duty, that President Obama never really believed in the Afghanistan war or the surge is hardly a shocker. But it confirms something I've sensed for some time now.

Obama was only five when the hit series Star Trek made its debut in 1966. But I'd wager that the president must have loved the show and watched the reruns, because he modeled his key foreign policy doctrine after one of the most important themes of the series: the Prime Directive.

Now, the Prime Directive is a very complex principle. After all, this is a television show for most of us -- but a way of life complete with its own terminology and philosophy for its devotees. But essentially it boils down to this: Interference in the affairs of the internal development of an alien planet is strictly prohibited, whether or not the planet's inhabitants have knowledge of warp-speed travel or not.

The basic reasoning behind the Prime Directive, summed up by one of my favorite Star Trek spin-off captains, Jean-Luc Picard, is that "[h]istory has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."

There is only one exception that permits interference: when the mysterious and galactically catastrophic Omega molecules are detected. These particles are hugely unstable, and the careless and unplanned destruction of a single molecule can nullify subspace for many light-years around it, rendering faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel impossible.

If that happens, well ... there goes the show! So the Prime Directive is superseded only by General Order 0 -- the Omega Directive -- which permits Starfleet commanders to intervene when Omega particles are detected.

Don't get me wrong. Barack Obama isn't Commander James T. Kirk. Nor is space -- the final frontier -- the foreign policy world in which the president operates.

The most important difference between Star Trek and our current reality is that the emotional and volatile Kirk -- usually driven by some higher good or other moral purpose -- violates the Prime Directive when he sees fit, but President Obama -- much cooler and more temperamentally aligned with the Vulcan Spock -- never does.

Indeed, with the exception of the Libya intervention and his policy on drones (that's not really intervention in the affairs of an entire civilization ... right?), Barack Obama has scrupulously adhered to his version of Prime Directive. What would cause him to violate it -- what his own Omega Directive would be -- is not at all clear.

From the beginning of his administration, it was clear that Obama's principle of non-interference -- certainly on the military side -- in foreign and distant lands would represent the most important tenet of his foreign policy. It was exemplified, certainly, in the expressed mantra of getting America "out of profitless wars, not into new ones." He had already voted against the Iraq war as a senator, and while he identified Afghanistan as the good war, his heart -- as Gates makes clear -- was never in that one either. The Afghan surge was at its core the opening shot in a campaign of U.S. extrication; to anyone who was reading the administration's intentions, getting in deeper in fact was designed to facilitate an eventual run for the exits. This may be patently absurd in terms of logic, but it's true.

Even in Libya, things weren't what they seemed. Anyone who thought that the multilateral intervention there reflected the beginning of a Bush 43-like trend to nation-build or a muscular policy of supporting fledgling democrats against aging dictators was destined for disappointment. After all, the administration had helped show Hosni Mubarak the door in Egypt and made clear America had to be on the right side of history, but it then had neither the will nor skill to craft a robust and consistent strategy of engagement in response to fast-breaking events sweeping an entire region. (In fairness to the administration, given the complexity of the Arab Spring, what kind of comprehensive strategy was really possible anyway? To this day, none of the so-called foreign policy experts out there has offered a strategy that could have done any better -- that is done anything more than affect matters at the margins.)

If his risk-aversion wasn't altogether clear in the president's first term, it has become stunningly clear in his approach to Syria and Iran during the second. Whatever Kirk-like risk readiness there was among his leadership team for military intervention in places like Syria or even for cutting off all assistance to anti-democratic Egyptian generals, it stopped Spock-like at the water's edge.

The comparisons don't end with the Prime Directive, however. The other half of the Obama administration's foreign policy philosophy is the fundamental belief in diplomacy as the talking cure -- and this, too, is Star Trek-like in character.

To be sure, the universe is a dangerous place, and the Enterprise often finds itself in mortal peril, resorting to force in many of its adventures. But peaceful transaction, negotiation, rational discourse, and enlightened self-interest are in fact just as much the Star Trek way.

Not an episode of the old series went by without an alien ambassador or delegation from some planet presenting some new idea for interplanetary cooperation. After all, this is the 23rd century, and although there had apparently been a World War III, the earth had survived. So Kirk's planet must finally have learned a thing or two about how to live together peacefully.

Obama's commitment to talking, not shooting, was also evident from the beginning of his administration. A young, internationalist-minded president with transformative pretentions both at home and abroad believed he could change his world. His supporters and much of the international community encouraged this thinking, too. (Look no further than Obama's 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for proof of this.)

Predictably, during his first term, aspirations surpassed capacity, expectations trumped delivery, and rhetoric exceeded results. By the end of 2010, neither engaging Iran, resetting relations with Russia, nor moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward had succeeded. And it appeared that the "yes we can" president had become a "maybe we can't" leader.

Since then, much of Obama's transformative pretentions have given way to more grounded realities. But the faith in engaging diplomatically rather than dropping bombs hasn't weakened. The Starship Diplomacy has plenty of warp drive, and its captain, Secretary of State John Kerry, plans to cover millions of parsecs in the next several years.

For Obama, this journey is clearly designed to protect his Prime Directive and thus avoid war and messy military interventions. Just think about the journeys of the Diplomacy so far.

In Syria, the goal of negotiations was to avoid an open-ended military intervention. Even the president's professed red line for war -- the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians -- became a catalyst for deal-making and a trade: If the chemical weapons go, President Bashar al-Assad stays. (I have no empirical evidence to prove it, but I'm also convinced that the president's desire to avoid military action in Syria was driven by his conviction that striking there would have triggered a proxy war with Iran and would have made a deal on the nuclear issue much harder.)

The same logic of using diplomacy to preempt war applies to negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program. The president's Iran policy aims to achieve three things: avoid an Israeli strike against Iran; preempt the need for an American one; and delay Iran's becoming a nuclear weapons threshold state on Obama's watch. Let Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton deal with it. And in Obama's view, the only way to do these things, and thus protect the Prime Directive, is to use diplomacy to render unnecessary the need or desire for military action.

I don't mean to suggest that Obama is a pacifist. He's been a wartime president and a tough trader in counterterrorism since his first day in office. And unlike the United Federation of Planets, the point of his Prime Directive isn't purely moral or philosophical. Rather, for Obama, the Prime Directive is driven by a practical belief that the use of military power in open-ended situations to achieve political objectives abroad is risky, costly, unpopular, and likely to undermine what he really cares about: his domestic agenda. After all, the success of his presidency will be shaped more by whether he can regain the momentum on his now troubled health-care initiative, the economy, and other social issues like immigration than by looking for Klingons to fight. What's more, Obama is correctly reading the public, who also have a stake in wanting strict adherence to the Prime Directive. Coming off the two longest wars in American history and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama presides over a people fed up with foreign adventures and wanting to be healed at home.

Under what circumstances would the president violate the Prime Directive, abandon the Starship Diplomacy, and consider serious and sustained military intervention in a foreign land? In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, and based on everything he's said and done to date, I can see only one situation: another catastrophic terrorist attack on the homeland.

Whether you agree with Obama or not, his Star Trek approach to foreign policy is actually quite logical, a Vulcan might say. The ultimate goal, after all, is to live long and prosper -- as a nation, as a people.


Reality Check

Confidence Man

John Kerry has the skill, toughness, and ego to be a great secretary of state. But will the world let him?

I've met John Kerry only once. Earlier this year, I was invited to a dinner at the State Department with the secretary and a few others to talk about U.S. options on Syria.

The secretary asked more questions than he answered and didn't reveal much about the specifics of where he stood. But it was stunningly clear from the direction of the conversation that he believed Washington needed to find a way to do more -- much more. I didn't. And Kerry for sure wasn't convinced by my Dr. No point of view. I give him credit for including me. But rarely have I encountered anyone -- let alone a secretary of state -- who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else's.

This sense of self-confidence is the hallmark of the Kerry style of diplomacy. No problem is too big that it can't be made better. Trying and failing isn't ideal; but it's better than not trying at all. And if given enough time and focus -- will and skill, too -- there's always a way forward.

Only someone with this kind of can-do attitude would venture into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy against such extremely long odds; keep pushing for a Geneva conference to end Syria's civil war with the faintest of hopes of success; and (not or) be bullish on a deal with Iran that has alienated key U.S. allies and much of Congress, too.

Having watched Kerry operate for almost a year now, I'm less interested in an interim report card on his record. It is way too soon for that. What intrigues me more are the trend lines, and specifically what will be required at the end of the day for him to be judged a truly consequential secretary of state, let alone one of America's best. Perhaps this isn't his goal. But watching John Kerry -- the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy -- I'd be stunned if it wasn't.

Having worked for and watched a number of his predecessors, I've identified at least five elements that need to be present for success. In Kerry's case, they're all there, at least on paper. Each has a fairly large asterisk, to be sure. And much will have to break his way to admit  him into the secretary of state hall of fame.

Is there real opportunity?

I don't care how smart, brilliant, or passionate a secretary of state may be, unless the world cooperates, significant success -- let alone real breakthroughs -- aren't possible. It's the interaction between human agency and circumstance that usually defines what happens and doesn't in international politics.

The notion that secretaries of state -- or presidents, for that matter -- make their own breaks and luck is true enough, provided there's enough raw material out of which to fashion success. For all of Henry Kissinger's brilliance and negotiating skills, had there not been an October 1973 War, there would have been zero chance to for him to produce three Arab-Israeli agreements in 18 months. Had the Soviet Union not been in its last gasps, neither George Shultz nor Ronald Reagan would have been able to pursue successful arms control agreements and end of empire diplomacy. Had Saddam Hussein not invaded Kuwait, James Baker could never have gotten the Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Conference.

So are there real chances for transformative change in Kerry world? The Middle East is certainly in flux; and that's where the secretary is spending most of his time. But a lot of motion doesn't necessarily mean movement that can be channeled into agreements. And one success -- an interim agreement on Iran, for example -- could actually create other complications, such as alienating key U.S. allies (if my read on Benjamin Netanyahu is accurate), making much more difficult progress with the Palestinians. Indeed, the U.S.-Russian framework accord to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons -- seen by most (now that it's being implemented) as something of an achievement -- resulted in bucking up Assad and will likely have negative consequences for the other Geneva accord on Syria the secretary would like to broker. And let's be clear: even a temporary deal with Iran would be no guarantee that a final agreement will be reached, or that U.S.-Iranian relations are going to be transformed.

Still, Kerry has the kind of running room both abroad and at home that his predecessor never did. Hillary Clinton was constrained by President Barack Obama's controlling nature, her own risk aversion, and a lack of real opportunities. Kerry's world may not offer up the kind of opportunities for transformative change along the lines of a dramatic opening to China, Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem; or the collapse of the former Soviet Union. But it may well be a world marked by potential transactions and smaller deals of consequence.

I think Kerry gets this, though it's hardly surprising that he aspires to much more. That's fine so long as he doesn't get carried away and allow rhetoric to outstrip action or to obscure a realistic assessment of what can actually be accomplished. These are traps that Kerry needs to be careful to avoid. His supreme confidence in public leads him too frequently to overdramatize: for example, comparing Assad's use of chemical weapons to Munich or warning of last chances for Middle East peace and a third intifada should no agreement be reached.

Are you in the middle of the mix?

The Hippocratic Oath also apples to diplomacy: above all, do no harm. But while prudence is critically important in diplomacy, giving yourself a chance to succeed is too. And you can't do that by just sitting on the sidelines. I hate turning U.S. foreign policy into a breakfast analogy, but it's true that omelets can't be made without breaking eggs.

The evidence to date that Kerry wants to cook is pretty clear: negotiating a U.S.-Afghan security agreement; putting together a U.S.-Russian framework agreement to destroy Assad's chemical weapons; working toward a political solution to the Syrian civil war; gunning for an interim deal with Iran on the nuclear issue; and relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Granted there's a lot more process still in these enterprises than real sustainable accomplishment, but Kerry's in the game. His situation reminds me of the joke about the guy who jumps off the top of a 10-story building. As he's passing the 5th floor, somebody yells out, "How you doing?" "So far, so good!" he replies.

So are there downsides to being diplomacy's Energizer Bunny? Sure. You take a lot of heat for being naïve, overextended, too eager for the deal. And there's always the risk of being taken for granted. A secretary must maintain a certain amount of detachment, creating the mystique of being unavailable and inaccessible. It creates authority. Too many phone calls, meetings, trips and you become part of the political furniture. It took us almost two years to persuade Baker to take up the Arab-Israeli issue. We kept telling him he had to engage; and he kept telling us, "no." And he was right to wait and engage at the right moment. Kerry could borrow a page out of Baker's book.

Do you have strong partners?

You tell me. Carter and Kissinger had Anwar Sadat. Nixon and Kissinger had Zhou Enlai and Leonid Brezhnev; Reagan, Shultz, Bush 41, and Baker had Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, with the exception of Putin (who's strong but ornery), Kerry is dealing with either highly constrained partners like Syria's fractious opposition and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas, or politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani, who are either unable or unwilling to risk much.

Moreover, Kerry has a few silent partners who aren't at the table. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Syria's Bashar al-Assad are critically important to his diplomatic efforts, but he has no contact with them and thus not much influence. Successful secretaries of state who achieve consequential things aren't about one hand clapping. They need partners. The question is whether or not those he's dealing with are able to make deals, let alone grand bargains. So far the picture is quite mixed. At best, it seems, Kerry has partners who are prepared for only limited transactions. And these will be hard enough to sustain.

Does the president have your back?

In Kerry's case, this is a fascinating question. So far, Obama -- the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon -- has allowed Kerry to get into the middle of the mix in a way he wouldn't do for Clinton. Up until now, he has dominated; not delegated.

But now the president has no choice. The clock's ticking down on his second term. There are just too many potential headaches out there that need attention. And he needs a manager. The question is whether or not he's prepared to take risks on the big issues that resonate politically, or more to the point, to allow Kerry to do so. Obama has his own fair share of domestic problems of late and has been pretty quiet when it comes to big foreign policy questions and the Middle East.

On Iran, the White House appears ready to entertain a good deal of unpleasantness and tension with Israel and Congress in order to get an interim deal with Tehran. On the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it's not at all clear. But if the president wants to have even the chance of a deal, he's going to have to not only empower his secretary of state but step up and own the negotiations himself at the appropriate time. Right now, particularly in view of the U.S.-Israeli brouhaha over Iran, that seems highly unlikely. Obama and Kerry have created a process where decisions on both Iran and peace with Palestine can only overload Israeli circuits. And a weakened president hammered on problems at home by Republicans (and many in his own party) can't afford to risk blowing too many fuses at once.

Can you pull off a signature achievement?

When it's all over, the question on which John Kerry's legacy as secretary of state will rest is whether he's done something extraordinary. That's not to say he couldn't be judged as a fine secretary of state without some extraordinary accomplishment. But to be a truly consequential one, he'd have to take on a problem that normal human beings saw as really tough (and truly important) and make a major contribution toward resolving it. Kerry has the stamina, will, and smarts. And while his extreme confidence and fiery rhetoric worries me at times, I suspect if given the opportunity he'd do well.

But that's really the point, isn't it? The basic problem may not be Kerry at all. The mix of factors conspires against him: a risk-averse and weakened White House focused more on a domestic agenda; the absence of strong, trusted partners abroad with which to cooperate; and the cruel reality that each of the major problems he seeks to solve is interrelated is galactically complex ways. I know this comes off like State Department insider rationalization. But it's sometimes difficult for those without experience in the business to understand how hard it is to get anything done, particularly in the Middle East. This isn't mindless cheerleading for Kerry; it's a defense of a reality that many too easily lose sight of.

This is particularly true if Kerry believes that the Arab-Israeli peace process is to be his signature legacy. And given the time he's spent shuttling between Washington and Jerusalem, it's clearly the issue he's most visibly identified with and passionate about. Right now, I don't see it. An interim deal with Iran will only increase the odds against it if Netanyahu is left isolated, angry, and aggrieved. The peace process was already in trouble. This isn't going to help.

Maybe the era of heroic U.S. diplomacy, where secretaries of state could tackle huge problems solo, is over. Maybe the era of Hollywood-like diplomatic endings is through. And yet, John Kerry is still trying to play the leading man. I guess we're still only through the first act: there's still plenty of time left on his clock for success ... and for failure, too.