Sunday, April 21, 2013

Obama rewrites the U.S. contract abroad

After the bomb attacks in Boston Monday, President Barack Obama hesitated to call them acts of terrorism. Obama and his officials soon rectified their conscious error, but the president’s reaction told us much about his refusal to define events in such a way that he might become a prisoner of his response to them.

Obama acted like any lawyer would. Had he defined the bombings in Boston as terrorism, this would have tied his hands. He was right to be wary. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” that set in motion an array of far-reaching governmental measures. Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, with its restrictions on civil liberties; there was metastatic growth in U.S. intelligence agencies, creating a vast bureaucracy whose effectiveness remains questionable; and soon there were wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I supported those wars, but the mass murders in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were not linked to Saddam Hussein, despite administration efforts to draw such a link.

All this must have gone through Obama’s mind when he heard of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. The president didn’t want to use a word that would give law-enforcement, the military and intelligence agencies leeway to take measures that he might oppose but would also have to endorse. As usual, Obama read the world as he would a contract, but in this case his failure to call a spade a spade backfired, as he sidestepped what seemed obvious to all, before later undermining his thinking by using the “terrorism” designation.

The impulse to keep doors closed is very much a part of Obama’s approach to foreign policy – and it is fair to assume that his initial reading was that the Boston attacks might have been the result of foreign involvement, regardless of who was actually behind them. But Obama is hardly alone. U.S. policy abroad has always been reactive, tied into the vicissitudes of domestic politics, formulated without foresight or a clear strategy. That is why it tends to be ad hoc, waxing and waning depending on political realities and the public mood.

This was the view of George Kennan, one of the great observers of American foreign policy, who, as a diplomat in Moscow after World War II, inspired what became America’s Cold War grand strategy: containment of the Soviet Union. As John Lewis Gaddis recounted in his biography of Kennan, he lamented the U.S. propensity to fight wars without an “eye on the future.” Paraphrasing Kennan’s thoughts, Gaddis wrote “the U.S. government was woefully deficient at grand strategy, if by that term one meant the ability to coordinate all available means with fundamental policy ends.”

Containment was of course a major exception, even if, over time, it was repeatedly transformed and revised as it hit against global realities. Presidents after the Cold War, with containment no longer there to guide them, have struggled to lend overriding meaning and consistency to American behavior overseas. Bill Clinton usually sought to work through multilateral channels on crises. This led to the United Nations’ humanitarian effort in Somalia, which precipitated a military failure and withdrawal. Clinton acted boldly in the former Yugoslavia, through the NATO alliance, when European efforts had failed to put an end to the Bosnian conflict. And the U.S. did the same in Kosovo, from where NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces.

Bush, who initially seemed to promise American foreign policy minimalism, was transformed by the September 2001 attacks. In the aftermath he sought to justify pre-emptive military responses to emerging threats, before emphasizing democratization. Both these approaches were seen as creating a framework for aggressive interventions abroad, and for regime change. When Obama came to office he reversed this through more restricted foreign policy realism, where the U.S. would only pursue its vital interests.

Yet Obama’s foreign policy has belied this. The situation in the Middle East dramatically changed after December 2010, when the Arab uprisings broke out. Yet Obama never adapted American policy accordingly. Instead, he disengaged from the Arab world, having already accelerated the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, then wasted two years before altering his position on the war in Syria (and even then ever so timidly), though Bashar Assad’s downfall will surely weaken Iran, America’s main regional adversary.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has had no consistent rationale for its presence. Under Obama, it first expanded its military deployment and adopted a counterinsurgency strategy, only to change tack and focus on counterterrorism, before announcing that it would withdraw its troops by 2014. As the academic Vali Nasr has written in a scathing new book on Obama’s policies, there was no real political component to Afghan policy, with too much ceded to the military and to inexperienced political operatives around Obama.

Nasr was an aide to the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why his criticism stings. “The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy,” he argued, “has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan and the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.”

Nasr has been no less severe on the Syria policy, writing that Washington’s “lean back and wait” approach “has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East.”

Doing less is not always bad, and Obama’s restraint on the Boston bombings reflected an understandable skepticism with America’s tentacular security apparatus. But the president is also a great believer in big government, except overseas. There, Obama has done little thinking, and offered even less attention, embracing a standoffishness and lack of imagination that are difficult to explain.

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