'Obama Just Can't Say It'

Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.

Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:

"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."

Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?

Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.

But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership. 

But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.

The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.  

By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.

In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.

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National Security

Are U.S. Interests REALLY at Stake in Egypt, Syria, etc.?

I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:

"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"

Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:

"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."

Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?" 

Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?

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