Rancid Foreign-Policy Puddings

Winston Churchill famously disliked puddings because they “lacked a theme.” President Barack Obama and his administration inherited a series of rancid foreign-policy puddings from George W. Bush, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, unfortunately, President Obama’s foreign policies, like Churchill’s puddings, lack a theme.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the most visible foreign-policy issues as the new president took office. But the international agenda has been dominated by other problems as well, including Iran and its nuclear ambitions coupled with Israeli responses; the so-called rise of China; Russia; the international financial crises; the Arab Spring; and the fight against Al Qaeda associates and terror. And the pernicious domestic political environment, in which the number-one aim of Senate Republicans was to make Obama a one-term president, would prove unhelpful in the extreme.

These foreign-policy issues remain difficult if not intractable. And, given his inexperience, the president could not reasonably be expected to be up to speed from day one. Yet, even given these realities, three major flaws in Obama’s foreign policy persist today and have handicapped his performance in the international realm.

First was his undue reliance on domestic political advisers rather than foreign-policy experts. Second was his preference for simple answers to complicated problems. And third was the absence of a disciplined, well-messaged explanation of foreign-policy choices.

Several disclaimers are important: George W. Bush’s decision to pivot from the successful ejection of the Taliban from Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and invade Iraq a year and a half later, based on the theological urge to transform the geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East, was perhaps the greatest foreign-policy blunder in American history. The financial meltdown of 2008 required prompt remedial action, which it got from Obama. And the president deserves credit for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

When Mr. Obama assumed office, he had no foreign-policy experience or credentials. Thus it was imperative that he choose able senior national-security officials, and he did so. But then he relied too heavily on his kitchen cabinet of Chicago pals for that advice. He also turned to a number of politically reliable rather than strategically savvy appointees who held second-tier positions but ultimately played dominating roles. Calling the war in Afghanistan “good” and the conflict in Iraq the “bad war” demonstrated the first two strategic flaws in Mr. Obama’s thinking and was a precursor for many of the disappointments, errors and failures that would follow.

This good-war/bad-war rationale was invented in 2008 specifically to further his prospects in the presidential campaign against his far more experienced Republican rival, John McCain. The Bush decision to launch a war to eliminate nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the Afghans after the Taliban had been (temporarily) driven from power was an ideal and tempting political vulnerability to exploit.

Americans always prefer engaging in a good rather than a bad war. Hence, for electoral and not strategic reasons, Obama would extricate America from Iraq regardless of the cost of failing to force Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to accept a longer-term U.S. presence in that country. Then he would focus instead on Afghanistan. Sadly, the departure from Afghanistan and the subsequent strategy became defined by setting an end date of 2014 for leaving rather than having a coherent withdrawal plan in place first, a fault of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

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Sin Nombre (November 5, 2012 - 7:05am)

Harlan Ullman wrote:

Today, the need is for “multilateral politics and partnerships” to advance American interests cleverly and with sophistication in a far more complex, complicated, interconnected and informed world. And economic, financial and trade responses assume particular importance, in many cases eclipsing military and traditional balance-of-power considerations.Mr. Obama’s foreign policies have so far ignored these realities and eschewed new and creative means to cope with them. While Romney stealthily has masked his policies, he too, if elected, will need to respond with sound, well-conceived and well-articulated answers.

Well now here's a grab-bag of non-sequiturs for you: First, that the conduct of foreign affairs ought to have a "theme" despite the seemingly reasonable idea that different foreign affairs issues require different approaches. Secondly then, but still on the basis that the best leader should nevertheless articulate a foreign policy "theme," there is Mr. Ullman's essential endorsement of Romney who Ullman himself views has ... "stealthily masked" his policies. (!) And then thirdly there's the fact that to the quite large degree Romney has spoken about his foreign policy preferences that they are not just somewhat different from Mr. Obama's but, it might be said, are supremely based on the very "military and traditional balance-of-power considerations" that Mr. Ullman says he disdains. And, fourthly if certainly more arguably, it can seem more than a little funny to be hearkening back to Churchill given the foreign policy "themes" of his life and the major and then even world-historical disaster he led his country into given same: Stauchly pro-colonialist and imperialist at exactly the point in history that the world was rejecting same so causing his country great hatred and conflict and loss, Churchill, with the greatest possible air of the dilletante about him every time, essentially fell in love with war and its "glories" and so serially (and thematically) advocated what turned out to be anywhere from merely huge defeats (e.g., at Gallipoli in WWI), to the ultimately devastating one for his country that it still hasn't really recovered from (WWII, as he fought it). (I.e., staking Britain to war at exactly the wrong time against Hitler and exactly when Britain could not keep the promise that he had it make—to Poland—and exactly when he could have let Hitler blunt his spear first against the Soviets.)  All in all, rather a mess Mr. Ullman. 

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