I was one of those who gave President Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly last month a mixed review. I found it oddly contradictory and was a bit disappointed by the unfavorable spin-to-candor ratio, which usually is a decent indicator of whether a strategy will be effective.
I assumed then that the deficiencies were primarily an indication of a work-in-progress. Sometimes the calendar forces a president to speak publicly on an issue before he and his team are ready with a coherent policy. I assumed the artificial UNGA schedule was one of those times.
Apparently, I was wrong. According to a mostly sympathetic account in yesterday's New York Times, what the president unveiled at the UN was not a work in progress. It was the finished product of over a month of strategy review sessions at the White House, one that reportedly began well before the Syrian chemical weapon's attack put the administration's Middle East troubles in such sharp relief.
(It is surprising to hear that the review supposedly pre-dated the unraveling of Syrian policy. If they really had the outline of a coherent larger strategy when the Syrian crisis hit, that strategy did not seem to have much impact on the way administration policy unfolded. But I know that the administration similarly claimed to have conducted a major review of the prospects for political reform in the Middle East right before what became known as the Arab Spring broke out. In that case, too, the evidence for the review's impact was hard to discern.)
Reportedly, the review included no one outside of the White House -- not even from the administration's own interagency team. A tightly knit group can sometimes avoid the least-common-denominator trap that large committees are prone to fall into. But a tightly knit group is prone to group-think, and that may explain why the president's speech was so unsatisfying.
Learning that there was a sustained White House review process behind it raises as many questions about the strategy as it answers. Wouldn't a team of serious strategists be more troubled by the incoherency in the strategy, especially if they were expecting it to guide the remaining three years of Obama's term? Perhaps the answer is that this was an initial White House draft, and what is needed now is to vet the strategy more broadly, both within the interagency and, perhaps, with experts not on the payroll.
Here are some questions that vetting could profitably explore:
- What are the consequences for downgrading -- some might say, neglecting -- Egypt?
- If one of the few remaining priorities is cutting a deal with Iran, don't we weaken our negotiating hand by distancing ourselves from Saudi, UAE, etc? If the administration is willing to disavow the Saudi partnership, how will it hope to shape regional responses in the wake of failed negotiations with Iran? The answer cannot be, "failure is not an option," since it is a very real possibility notwithstanding some hopeful atmospherics around the early negotiations. A prudent strategy must hedge against such foreseeable problems.
- What about the erstwhile partnership with Turkey that Obama-Erdogan trumpeted a couple years ago? How does this strategy leverage that relationship?
- Does telegraphing weakness in the Middle East really strengthen our position in Asia or does it simply compromise our position there? What is the record of success for an administration locking in losses in one region in the hopes of recouping them elsewhere?
- If the Obama administration is so quick to reject its own statements of two years ago (e.g., on supporting democracy in Middle East), what assurance does anyone have that they won't just as quickly reject this latest new strategy?
- What is the strategy's assumption about the fruits of "ending the wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course, President Obama did not end those wars, he only ended U.S. involvement in those wars. If security continues to unravel in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the premise of the strategy -- that the United States has no national security interests at risk there -- still valid?
- How is the administration going to mitigate the conflict in Syria when it is signaled quite clearly that it is reluctant to intervene in Syria?
As I noted in my initial review, the best part of the UNGA speech -- and thus the best part of the WH strategy review -- was when the president spoke convincingly about the danger of American retreat from a vigorous global role. He is absolutely right about that. The worst part of the speech -- and thus the worst part of the WH strategy review -- was that the president did not seem to be aware of how much the rest of the speech signaled precisely that kind of retreat. Hopefully that disconnect will get fixed as the strategy gets translated into implementable policies.