Friday, August 7, 2015

Bedlam in Washington

The Obama administration’s way of making foreign policy decisions has come under scrutiny lately as it adopts new, seemingly paradoxical, policies in the Middle East.

From the start, President Barack Obama concentrated foreign policy matters in the White House. This has led to a bloated National Security Council, which the Washington Post argues “has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.”

After the first term, a number of former foreign policy officials criticized this. In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, complained that two groups benefited from the over-centralization of policy, both with limited foreign policy experience: the president’s domestic political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, which promised “swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action…”

However, very little appears to have changed since Nasr published his book in 2013. Indeed, things may have gotten worse as the United States’ incomprehensible behavior in Syria can attest. The administration’s actions in the Middle East have been so confusing that the repercussions are bound to be long-lasting. Today, two of Washington’s most prominent regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, deeply mistrust America.

A powerful National Security Council need not mean an incoherent foreign policy. Under Richard Nixon, the NSC was headed by Henry Kissinger, with whom the president shared a worldview. And Kissinger kept tight control over his institution, gave it direction, and, thanks to Nixon’s interest in foreign affairs, could rely on the president not to make all his decisions primarily through a prism of domestic political calculation.  

Today a very different reality exists. The national security advisor, Susan Rice, does not seem to have imposed a clear political vision on her institution, nor has she been able, it seems, to overcome the influence of Obama’s domestic policy advisors. She took office in June 2013, and events in Syria since that time have repeatedly exposed her shortcomings.

The role of the national security advisor is to coordinate the decisions and actions of the different bureaucracies that have a say in foreign policy. The national security advisor must also have the capacity, thanks to his or her proximity to the president, to devise a broader strategy and cohesive policies that are in lockstep with the president’s priorities, and, above all, that fit in with one another in a consistent way.

In Syria we have seen the precise opposite of this. Everything the administration said it would not do there, it has ended up doing; and everything it has said it would do, it has not done, or has done without any conviction.

Last year Obama resolutely played down the idea of extending the battle against ISIS to Syria, preferring to focus on Iraq. At the same time the United States continued to oppose the establishment by Turkey of a safety zone in Syria. But today, the president has reached an agreement with Turkey that allows for such a zone, and that also permits coalition aircraft to use the Incirlik air base to be launched against ISIS in Syria. Washington has gone further, saying it would use its aircraft to defend “moderate” armed groups against extremist foes.

The fate of the ‘moderates’ is a good example of the administration’s lack of seriousness in Syria. For a long time the administration vowed to arm and train moderate groups, and requested $500 million to do so. Yet in July, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reported that only 60 rebels had been vetted and trained to date. Soon thereafter several ‘moderates,’ including their leader, were kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. That is what prompted Washington to say that it would deploy aircraft to protect its allies.

All this would be laughable if the administration’s actions and omissions did not mean more lives lost. This was evident in August 2013, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fired chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing up to 1,700 people. At the time Obama described a chemical attack as a “red line,” vowing to retaliate militarily if one took place.

Instead, at the last minute Obama changed his mind, agreeing to a Russian scheme to remove the chemical weapons from Syria. Nor was Secretary of State John Kerry consulted. He looked out of the loop when Obama’s decision came even as Kerry was advocating a military response before Congress.

This was Rice’s first major test and she failed, as the White House and State Department seemed to be on very different wavelengths. During Nixon’s first term the secretary of state then, William Rogers, was marginalized by Kissinger. Rice has not quite been able to do so to Kerry, who played a central role in negotiating the recent nuclear accord with Iran. Yet the secretary of state must be suffering: he and his staff were only told late in the game about negotiations with Cuba by NSC officials, and the Iran deal must have been gratifying payback.

But solely blaming Rice and her staff is too kind. The person most responsible for the foreign policy muddle is Obama himself. The president has often praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, on the Lincoln administration and the strong, clashing personalities who served the president.

This was Obama’s way of saying he sought to lead an administration of forceful individuals, no matter what their disagreements. This shows the president’s tolerance for confusion, and his hubris. Abraham Lincoln always had a clear sense of direction. No one would confuse Obama with Lincoln.

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