Team Obama's Empty Suitcases
President Obama and his most senior foreign-affairs and national-security officials have made quite a few high-profile overseas trips in the last few weeks. But other than lots of frequent-flier miles, the administration has precious little to show for all the jet fuel burned.
Secretary of State John Kerry kicked things off with a nine-country tour through Europe and the Middle East. Even before takeoff, the trip was clouded by controversy. The State Department’s announcement that Israel would be excluded from the itinerary was a real head-scratcher, given that Air Force One would be jetting to Israel just a few weeks later. A Kerry stop in advance could have paved the way for a more substantive presidential visit. The secretary’s deliberate dodge of the Israelis was a strong signal that President Obama would be pursuing nothing serious in his subsequent visit with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And that certainly proved to be the case.
Kerry was serious about one thing on his European-Middle Eastern trip, however: Syria. Yet, even here, the State Department downplayed expectations, billing the secretary’s travels as a “listening tour.” Mostly, what he heard was complaints about the shortcomings of the administration’s foreign policy. These complaints came from the Europeans, the Russians and Syrian opposition leaders.
The opposition was so disenchanted that they threatened to walk out of the “Friends of Syria” Conference in Rome. Kerry scrambled to salvage the conference (and the trip) by talking about stronger support for non-Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition. But the more he wanted to deliver, the more he seemed at odds with a White House that has been stubbornly reluctant to step up overt support for the rebels.
Underwhelming as Kerry’s trip proved to be, it looked something like a triumph compared to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s trek to Afghanistan. Hagel was greeted by a suicide bombing, followed by harsh criticism from the Afghan president. Supposedly, the trip was to bring some insight and clarity to the secretary’s most pressing short-term operational decision: how big a U.S. military footprint to leave in Afghanistan after the drawdown. There was no indication that happened.
President Obama then embarked on his highly anticipated visit to the Middle East. The White House seriously downplayed expectations for the trip. That was smart. It was evident the president had nothing new to offer on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has moved consistently backward since he came into office.
On the plus side, Obama did appear to have bridged the schism that had arisen between Israel and the United States over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. However, the “joint position” on Iran should have been a no-brainer from day one. The fact that it gets graded as an accomplishment indicates how amazingly low the administration has set the threshold for success.
Kerry rounded out the whirlwind month with quick, unannounced fly-ins to Iraq and Afghanistan. Both trips appeared to be little more than damage control. In Baghdad, the secretary complained to the government about the air bridge through Iraq that is keeping the weapons pipeline to the Assad regime open. In Kabul, he got the Afghan president to back off some of the angry talk he had leveled at Hagel.
So, what does all this hither-and-thither add up to?
First, all the president’s men are engaging where they have to—not where they want to. For all the talk of the Asian pivot and grandiose plans for a free-trade deal with the European Union, the foreign affairs A-Team is spending most of its time putting out fires.
Second, the administration isn’t getting to pick the “when” either. Officials spent a lot of time on press conferences and high-level meetings on foreign-policy questions that gained no traction on Capitol Hill, much less beyond the Beltway. Congress remained focused on guns, immigration, jobs and sequestration. And Iraqi airspace issues can’t compete on Main Street with NCAA brackets, The Bachelor, and the new lineup of Dancing with the Stars.
Third, it is clear the White House doesn’t have a plan. None of these trips was preceded by the kind of groundwork needed to pave the way for implementing a substantive agenda. All the administration had to offer was “being there.” Doing as little as possible appears to be the new measure of success.
Fourth, the administration clearly doesn’t have the coherent top-level foreign-affairs and national-security policy team it had in the first term. The integration of effort is clearly not there yet.
Moreover, it appears that President Obama is now starting to reap the blowback from the misguided foreign-policy approach of his first term. The Obama Doctrine placed a premium on outsourcing leadership responsibilities to international organizations. The situation in Syria is a poster child for how well this lead-from-behind (if at all) approach works.
The Obama Doctrine emphasized engagement with the world’s most contentious actors, even if meant sometimes paying less attention to our friends and allies. The recent trips showed the White House is no closer to getting the likes of Hamas and Iran to do the right thing, and that U.S. officials have to do a lot of fence mending with our own friends.