Leading Blindly across a Minefield

January 2, 2013 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Regions: United States

Leading Blindly across a Minefield

Mini Teaser: The international system is at a transformative moment. Yet President Obama has failed to set a direction for America.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. SimesPaul J. Saunders

AS HE begins his second term in office, President Barack Obama must reconsider his foreign-policy priorities. Though the president successfully convinced Americans that he could handle international affairs more effectively than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, this was not a particularly demanding standard since Romney identified himself all too closely with the legacy of former president George W. Bush to the extent that he focused on foreign policy at all. And it took little effort at a time when Americans were preoccupied with domestic concerns and thus largely satisfied with clichés and pandering on issues. Obama now has a real opportunity to lead if he is prepared to start a serious national debate on America’s role in the world.

At another time, Obama’s cautious, tactical and reactive approach to foreign policy might be sufficient. The problem today is that we are present at the creation of a new international system in which the United States and its allies remain predominant but are no longer unchallenged. The rise of “the rest”—emerging powers that don’t necessarily share Western interests or values—is changing international security, economics and politics. Though “the rest” are not unified, and emerging powers such as China face their own serious challenges, most share a degree of frustration with the Western-defined international order. Many likely are prepared to be responsible stakeholders but believe that being a stakeholder at all means having a role in writing the rules and connect this role to their own national interests and dignity. The United States needs a proactive strategic policy to preserve its international leadership and can ignore changing realities only at grave peril.

While Republicans criticized Obama for “leading from behind,” the real problem is that Obama and America’s other post–Cold War presidents have been leading blindly, without attempting to set a clear direction or even to look ahead on the path we are traveling. This has exacerbated many international problems and intensified some national threats. A vivid example is the Clinton administration’s obsessive involvement in the civil wars in the Balkans, which distracted attention from greater dangers, including Al Qaeda. Responsibility for the September 11 attacks lies with Osama bin Laden and his minions, but the responsibility for protecting Americans was squarely in the hands of the Clinton administration and an inertia-driven Bush administration. Each neglected to make Al Qaeda a major priority and thus contributed to tragedy.

Eleven years later, political and public discussion of the September 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrates little progress. In this case, Republican criticism has concentrated on apparently inaccurate statements about the source of the attack by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Few have asked more fundamental questions about Obama’s intervention in Libya, despite the fact that it was never approved or even adequately discussed by Congress.

In fairness, Obama is right in pointing out that Rice was speaking on the basis of talking points that others had prepared. Still, it is legitimate and important to ask how those talking points were developed and what Rice may have known when she delivered them. But a far more significant question is this: Why did she develop seemingly enthusiastic support for a poorly explained war to remove an aging tyrant who had renounced nuclear weapons after receiving American guarantees and no longer presented a threat to the United States or its allies?

Absent Libya’s predictable postintervention instability and America’s postintervention presence there, attacks like the one that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues probably wouldn’t have happened. Moreover, one of the war’s most globally visible outcomes—a U.S.-backed militia mob’s brutal killing of Muammar el-Qaddafi on video—runs counter to American values, whatever Qaddafi’s crimes.

Regionally, the U.S.-led attack after Libya gave up its WMD programs and sought to reenter the international system cannot but deter Iran from making a similar choice. And globally, Obama’s liberal interpretation of the UN resolution intended to protect Libyan civilians has made Chinese and Russian support for a resolution on Syria unattainable. Though we are certain that Rice and others in both parties who favored the war in Libya meant well, their good intentions are not an excuse for apparently minimal scrutiny of its likely consequences in Libya and beyond. Egypt’s unfolding political crisis is another reminder of the dangers in nearly automatic support for Arab revolutions, a lesson that appears to have had little impact on the Obama administration as it deepens American involvement in Syria step-by-step.

In fact, the United States has operated without a clear foreign-policy compass for the last two decades. The George H. W. Bush administration’s successful management of the end of the Cold War without widespread conflict and chaos in a region with thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction was America’s last deliberately formulated and successful strategic project. Since then, U.S. priorities have been difficult to understand.

The Clinton administration attempted to consolidate Bush’s success in ending the Cold War by bringing Russia into the West. But it lacked its predecessor’s nuanced strategic thinking and prudence and, as a result, alienated Russia’s elites and most ordinary Russians with its support for the corrupt, inept and semiauthoritarian Yeltsin government’s domestic policies and its almost contemptuous dismissal of Moscow’s international perspectives. This was particularly evident in European security matters, including in the former Yugoslavia, where the administration often attempted to claim the high moral ground without reflecting on the real-life consequences of its actions and displayed considerable hubris in believing that it could solve all the region’s problems. Because U.S. policy was reckless and uninformed, its ultimate impact was the opposite of its intent.

Reacting to Clinton’s failures in both Russia and the Balkans, candidate George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy, and his future national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, warned against nation building. Once in power, however, the Bush administration responded to the tragic September 11 attacks on the United States with the foresight, planning and deliberation of a drunken sailor. Though there were no further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, this real accomplishment came at a staggering and largely avoidable cost in the administration’s unnecessary war in Iraq and its mishandled war in Afghanistan, the former of which in particular fed alienation from rivals and friends alike.

OBAMA LED Americans and others to believe that he would launch a major reevaluation and readjustment of U.S. foreign policy—even managing to win a Nobel Peace Prize based on these inflated promises—but eventually adopted a go-with-the-flow foreign policy on almost every major issue. In practice, Obama’s politically expedient embrace of conventional wisdom produced “Bush lite” policies on issues like China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan but without the Bush team’s sharp elbows. Thus far, it has not been much more effective in serving U.S. interests or in avoiding damage to relationships with other key powers. Looking ahead, four issues require particular attention: China, Iran, Israel, and the tension between American interests and principles.

China is the most complex challenge, in that it is simultaneously a rising power with revisionist aims in Asia and possibly beyond as well as a major economic partner of the United States and its allies around the world. America and China have a shared interest in a stable global economy, continued bilateral trade and even a secure U.S. dollar, but they could find themselves on a collision course in East Asia. Because of China’s size and growing power, an à la carte relationship based on a U.S. expectation that China will accede to U.S. preferences on key issues while Washington pursues its own goals without regard to Chinese interests and preferences is unlikely to be sustainable. Yet, if it plays its cards right, Washington can have a considerable impact on China’s choices—particularly when U.S. policy is coordinated closely with allies in Europe and Asia.

Although the Obama administration has made Iran a central focus of its foreign policy—and the president has been more cautious than many of his critics—the administration has not adequately explained why it is intolerable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran is highly undesirable, particularly given its leaders’ record of support for Hamas and Hezbollah radicals and their reckless rhetoric. But it was also highly undesirable for the Soviet Union and China to develop the bomb. The ussr attained nuclear parity, had decisive conventional superiority in Europe and actively supported terrorist organizations. China’s Mao Zedong said that he would sacrifice millions of his citizens for the cause of global revolution. More recently, it was highly undesirable for North Korea to build its small nuclear arsenal. Still, the United States has successfully deterred nuclear attack on itself and its allies for more than six decades through its own powerful nuclear arsenal as well as its network of alliances, security guarantees and sanctions.

Despite the extensive and justifiable criticism of Iran’s regime, no one has made a credible case that Tehran’s leaders are suicidal—which they would have to be to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or Israel, each of which has many more nuclear weapons than Iran could have any time soon. If Iran’s leaders are not suicidal, the main danger posed by a nuclear Iran lies in its possibly more aggressive foreign policy. The United States and its allies successfully have handled far worse in the past. This does not mean that America should be resigned to a nuclear Iran. However, taking history into account, it does suggest that Washington needs a contingency plan if Iran indeed tests a bomb. The best contingency plan—which could be pursued now and could deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon by limiting its benefits—would be a new regional-security system. Missile defense can also be important to both the United States and Israel. Finally, however, the administration should be aware of the danger of making Iran the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, something that exaggerates Tehran’s significance and diverts attention from other priorities.

Image: Pullquote: While Republicans criticized Obama for “leading from behind,” the real problem is that America’s post–Cold War presidents have been leading blindly, without attempting to set a clear direction or even to look ahead on the path we are traveling.Essay Types: The Realist