An Administration With Its Head Cut Off

The White House is running around from crisis to crisis without a game plan, much less a strategy. But leading from behind can actually work if you do it right.

It's just not fun anymore to critique the Obama administration's foreign policy -- it's like picking on the Chicago Cubs. Except the Cubs aren't consistently bad and their mistakes haven't accrued lasting damage to our country. 

Remember when the president frequented the trope of the Bush administration driving the country into a ditch? Sorry, but the Obama administration has driven American foreign policy Thelma-and-Louise-style off a cliff. It will take dramatic changes from a new administration to restore credibility in American judgment and competence.

There are three fundamental mistakes in the Obama White House's (for it is there that all national security policies are made in this administration) understanding of the world. The first is that if the United States steps back, other states will step forward and undertake the work we would like to have done. The second is that big ideas are a hindrance to managing international crises -- and they don't even bother to ask the higher-order question: "Why is this happening?" The third, (which ought to be impossible given the second misconception) is the sublime confidence to believe they know better than the countries immediately affected by crises.

The reality is that when the United States steps back, the states we want to have engaged in solving problems tend to step back even further, and the states that do not share our interests are more likely to see -- and take -- opportunities to act. Because the Obama administration does not have a theory of why events are occurring, they treat each event as unconnected to -- or, rather, without effect on -- the judgments and actions of others. And because they know best, they don't allow themselves to be persuaded by appeals from countries more directly concerned with the course of events than the United States might be.

So we lecture the Egyptians on authoritarianism, the Bahrainis on respect for minorities, and the Israelis on the need for peace with Palestinians. But as former CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis points out, we have no opinion on the underlying threat posed by political Islam -- the Obama White House doesn't even recognize it as the issue animating governments throughout the Middle East -- or a strategy to deal with it. The result is that we are unwilling to solve problems, and allies feel we undercut their efforts. We miss rare and important opportunities to advance interests and align allies to better manage our common challenges.

In addition to the Obama administration's misconceptions, there is, of course, the aggravating factor of insisting that any foreign policy choice other than their own is, as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes would spin it, an overreaction. The Iraq War is still the dominant narrative in U.S. foreign policy, and the White House understands such language invokes isolationist reflexes that can shield the president from criticism over doing too little. But there is a difference between making sound policy and political communications. The White House's aggressive efforts on this front actually cement the public belief that our range of choices is binary: direct U.S. military involvement or nothing. In truth, what Obama foreign policy desperately needs is more supple involvement and less telescoping down to military options. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they need "smart power."

That does not mean Secretary of State John Kerry ricocheting off to whatever crisis blares from the day's newspaper headlines. It means identifying the problem and arraying the means available to us to achieve our objectives. As King's College Prof. Lawrence Freedman argues so persuasively in his recent book, strategy creates power by using the means available to us more effectively than others can. Very often those means will not be those of the U.S. government; they will be setting allies up to be successful, and encouraging civic groups outside government control or international institutions. But these means can only be effectively harnessed to the government's purpose when the government influences how others think about the problem. The only way to lead from behind is through the power of developing a common understanding and the practical matter of quietly assisting allied efforts. Developing a common vision often requires allowing ourselves to be persuaded by others' views and it often requires supporting efforts by others even when we are not persuaded of their argument. But this is no less than we very often expect of them in support of our policies.

Take the war in Gaza. The administration has made a set of choices that aid Hamas. Surely that cannot have been President Obama's objective. Yet the White House's choices have served to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority with its own people; revive Hamas's fortunes as the resistance to Israel; alarm regional allies who are threatened by Iranian-sponsored violence; undercut efforts by Egypt to reassert itself as a regional mediator; marginalize regional allies motivated to act against jihadists in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine; further isolate Israel internationally; and shift moral responsibility for civilian casualties from Hamas (which uses civilians as human shields to launch missiles) to Israel (for engaging in defensive and necessary warfare).

Imagine instead that during the tense run up to this latest Gaza war, the Obama administration had a better hold on the greater forces at work in the Middle East: the crisis of governance and how that is being manipulated by political Islam. Imagine it had thought its way through the difficult dilemmas posed by democratization where militant Islamists have been the main vehicle for political dissent. Imagine it had sought out the views of countries that have supported our interests: Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, on how they view the challenge and what we could do to help them. Imagine if we facilitated cooperation among them by filling gaps in their capabilities. Imagine if we weren't shaken from defending their efforts by utterly predictable setbacks that can happen in imperfect democracies. Imagine we provided help without visibly swooping into take all the credit for what is achieved, instead praising them for making the world safer for Americans and for their own people. That is what leading from behind would look like, effectively practiced; it's called coalition warfare. It would protect and strengthen our allies, punish jihadists, constrain Iranian malignity, build cooperation among disparate American security partners, and incentivize Islamists toward political practices democratizing states can manage.

The president and his White House staff contend they are making smart long-term choices. But six years into this administration, what we are seeing now is the consequence of the president's long-term choices: an international order in which our friends are cowed and our adversaries emboldened. If President Obama wants a legacy larger than ending two wars to America's profound disadvantage, he needs to reconsider some fundamental beliefs about how international relations work. It is a tall order, but unless he does, his administration will continue lurching from crisis to crisis without success.

Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images


Why I Hope to Vote Republican in 2024

Face it: Hillary Clinton will be a two-term president, and I’ll vote for her. But a Democratic stranglehold on the White House is bad for America.

Will demographics be the death knell of the Republican Party? I hope not. I've always preferred Democrats, but I'll be disappointed if I never cast a vote for a Republican candidate. Let me explain. 

Times are tough in Republican circles. White men, the mainstay of the Grand Old Party, represent a shrinking share of the American population. Republicans thought they had a chance to recruit Latino voters because of overlaps on some social issues, but their candidates' apparent allergy to immigration may have destroyed that possibility. The Republicans have been able to control the House of Representatives by aggressive redistricting through state assemblies, but that advantage may also be on the wane.

Only a sort of pendulum reaction by young people disillusioned by the Obama administration -- though they are probably as open to other Democrats as to Republicans -- offers any hope now. But young voters are among the Americans most concerned about inequality, which many Republicans refuse to take seriously. Moreover, as younger voters begin to appreciate the benefits of health insurance, they may find new faith in the Democratic Party. 

Of course, political preferences can change over time. There's the famous quote often attributed -- probably incorrectly -- to Winston Churchill: "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart; if you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." I'm a few years past 35, but that's not the reason that I hope will push me to vote Republican.

No, I want to vote Republican because I think that more than one party can propose a viable plan for the country's future. The idea that policy can take only one direction, corresponding to a single platform or set of beliefs that isn't better served in any way by any other party's platform, speaks more of ideological zealotry that pragmatic realism. Policy issues are not all black and white or arranged along a single spectrum; they can be multidimensional and require complex solutions. 

Though neither party in the United States seems prepared to give the other credit for good ideas, voters can be more discerning. In the last presidential campaign, I preferred a few of Mitt Romney's views on trade and foreign aid to those of Barack Obama. I've also liked some of what I've heard on taxes from Rob Portman and immigration from Marco Rubio. I still voted for Obama, though -- not because I abhorred Romney so much but because I worried about the people who would surround him.

I wouldn't always have had such fear. When I was a kid, I heard my friends' parents described as Reagan Democrats. At that time, the gap between the parties on social issues, in particular, was much smaller. You could vote for a presidential candidate without fearing that his party would force him into a much more extreme mandate. That's less true now. George W. Bush was seen as a centrist before his election; some commentators even wondered whether there was much to choose between him and Al Gore. In the end, Bush became the servant of one of the most warmongering and economically corrosive strands of so-called conservatism that the nation had ever seen. Gore, meanwhile, became the environmentalist antihero of big business's nightmares. Today, whether through one man's pliability or the other's embrace of a signature issue, the difference between them is clear. 

For me to vote Republican, the GOP will have to shed some of its more odious baggage -- the bogeymen that give even some of their own candidates, like Jon Huntsman, the willies: opposition to gay rights, hostility towards immigrants, hindrances to voting, counterproductive fiscal policy, denial of science, and the like. The sooner they do, the better it will be for the nation.

That's because the nation needs variety at the top, and it's heading for a period of very little variety indeed. Like the bookies, I fully expect Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election in 2016, and I fully expect to vote for her. As an incumbent she'll be hard to beat in 2020, and a victory would mean 16 years of Democratic rule, the longest uninterrupted mandate for one party since Roosevelt and Truman.  

But no matter how much integrity Obama and Clinton may have, entrenched power breeds complacency and often, as in the old adage, corruption. (I'm not even mentioning the family dynasties that could pit another Clinton against another Bush sometime in the next six years.) Moreover, the same leadership is not appropriate for every moment in history. Churchill's Tories led Britain in wartime, but Clement Attlee's Labour Party oversaw its reconstruction.

To back up the point, consider this list of the most functional democracies from the Economist Intelligence Unit. No party has currently held the position of head of government for more than nine years: 

Compare these data to the political histories of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where the same party has ruled for more than half a century; or nominal democracies where a single party dominated for roughly three decades, like Angola and Malaysia; or hereditary monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Brunei. Pluralistic governments need a constant flow of new ideas, and that means turnover. 

So how much variety and turnover are enough, or too much? Arguably, the United States would never have elected Obama if part of the electorate hadn't been so disillusioned with Bush. But would the country have been better off with two presidents whose policies stayed closer to the center? Likewise, are two four-year terms -- at most -- enough for a president to focus on the long term, especially when Congress has elections every two years?

To be sure, a long reign by Democrats in the White House could eventually spell its own end. Complacency and corruption tend to go hand in hand with prolonged periods in power, even in highly democratic countries, and voters might revolt. I'm not saying this has happened yet -- indictments and convictions of high-ranking federal officials are down under Obama versus under Bush -- but it might well happen with enough years of any one party at the top. And those years have a way of multiplying in many countries; they can also lead to consolidation of control, as South Africa and Argentina have recently shown.

I would much rather that Democrats' time in the White House ended because of a strong Republican alternative than because of their own debasement and decay. Hopefully, a worthy Republican candidate -- and a more centrist, up-to-date Republican Party -- will be able to sway me by 2024.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic