Obama: Can the “Lonely Guy” Be an Effective Foreign Policy Leader?

UPDATE (November 25): In a just-released CNN/Opinion Research poll, only 40 percent of Americans rate President Obama as an effective leader, a figure that is down 12 percentage points from June.

In earlier posts (here, here, here and here), I’ve argued that the Obama administration’s national security process is plagued by extreme insularity, centralization and politicization.  Ultimately, however, these institutional problems are a reflection of the person sitting in the Oval Office.

The deepening Obamacare fiasco has raised plenty of questions about President Obama’s leadership qualities.  But two reports this week highlight continuing concerns about his skills as a national security manager.  The first is by Rosa Brooks, a former administration staffer who has been vocal about Mr. Obama’s leadership failings on the foreign policy front.  In a piece appearing in Politico’s new magazine, she calls attention to the growing tensions between President Obama and his top military advisers:

In my interviews, however, many senior military leaders complained of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. ‘The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute,’ laments a former military official, ‘so they have no time—they’re almost incapable of strategic thinking.’

Brooks also quotes another retired senior general, who says: “I don’t understand the process by which the White House is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions. … There’s an appearance of consultation, but you know you won’t be listened to.”

The second report is in the Daily Beast regarding a serious rift between Susan E. Rice, the president’s new national security advisor, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry over how to approach the new military-backed government in Cairo.  The divide has created a policy muddle, with Egyptian officials reportedly…

… receiving diverging messages from the U.S. government’s various parts, causing confusion as they try to decide how to react to recent U.S. actions. For example, the administration has not told the government of Egypt what exactly it must do to get the partial aid suspension lifted, said a source close to the Egyptian government.

The confusion has also contributed to the remarkable breakdown in U.S.-Saudi relations over the past few months.

To be sure, sharp differences over foreign policy are a feature of every administration.  But what is striking is how long Mr. Obama has allowed them to fester.  As the Daily Beast observed, the problem with the administration’s Egypt policy is that it is not only hampered “by internal tensions but also by being ad hoc and reactive, without a long-term strategy dictated by President Obama.”

The president’s inattentiveness to foreign policy problems is not a new development.  As I noted earlier, he turned a blind eye to the sophomoric squabbling that consumed his national security team during the key 2009-10 period when his Afghan troop surge was underway.  One consequence was that promising leads about the Taliban’s readiness for a peace settlement – including one involving King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – languished for months.

Even sympathetic observers are now beginning to take notice of Obama’s lackadaisical approach to policymaking.  Six months ago, Joe Klein, Time magazine’s political columnist, lamented that “his unwillingness to concentrate — and I mean concentrate obsessively — on making sure that government is managed efficiently will be part of his legacy.”  And Dana Milbank at the Washington Post tagged him as “President Passerby [who] needs urgently to become a participant in his presidency.”  Last month, an article in this newspaper quoted William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, as saying:

Compared to the president I served, this president doesn’t seem to be as relentlessly curious about the processes of government — whether the legislative process or the implementation process or the administrative and bureaucratic process.

The article added that:

Former Obama administration officials said the president’s inattention to detail has been a frequent source of frustration, leading in some cases to reversals of diplomatic initiatives and other efforts that had been underway for months.

Picking up on this point, Todd Purdum, a national editor at Vanity Fair magazine, has dubbed Obama “the lonely guy” – a man of such resolute solitude that he is now unmoored from the management of his own administration.   Contrary to those who see Obama as possessing a surfeit of self-confidence, Purdum reports that …

… at least one former senior administration adviser has argued that the trait springs from the opposite source: a basic insecurity on the president’s part, one that keeps him from surrounding himself with strong intellectual rivals in either the White House or the Cabinet. Competent they may be, but with Hillary Clinton gone there is no figure of unquestioned stature. He has quietly purged from his inner circle those most likely to stand up to him….

Mr. Obama’s counterparts abroad seem to have come to the same conclusion.  Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal notes that “World leaders do not understand what his higher strategic aims are, have doubts about his seriousness and judgment, and read him as unsure and covering up his unsureness with ringing words.”  And she quotes a former senior U.S. diplomat as saying: [Obama] doesn’t know what to do so he stays out of it [and] hopes for the best.”

From the mishandling of the Syrian crisis to the health care imbroglio, the past few months have cast a harsh light on the drawbacks of a governing style that is big on ideas but has little interest in details.  Several weeks ago, the president conceded to a group of Obamacare supporters: “Let’s face it, a lot of us didn’t realize that passing the law was the easy part.”  The time has come for a similar revelation on foreign policy.

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The Conventional Wisdom is Schizoid about U.S. Global Power

The conventional wisdom about America’s global standing wants to have it both ways.  The narrative about last month’s fiscal melodrama in Washington emphasizes how wildly dysfunctional domestic politics are quickening the country’s strategic decline and how China is emerging as the beneficiary.  Yet at the same time the outrage over U.S. global surveillance efforts has produced a contrary image – a technology and security hegemon run amok.

As I note in a new article for Asia Sentinel, the conventional wisdom embodied in the first perception has been consistently wrong about China’s ability to translate its huge financial holdings into policy leverage vis-à-vis the United States.  Curiously, this is a fear shared all along the ideological spectrum within the United States. 

Sarah Palin, the matron of the Tea Party movement, expressed this sentiment the other week when she spoke about the danger of borrowing so heavily from China and warned that “We are going to [be] beholden to the foreign master.”  But Barack Obama famously sounded the same theme during the Senate’s debt ceiling debate in March 2006 when he cautioned that “the more we depend on foreign nations to lend us money, the more our economic security is tied to the whims of foreign leaders whose interests might not be aligned with ours.”

Mr. Obama carried this line into his first presidential campaign.  In July 2008, he argued that taking out “a credit card from the Bank of China” was “unpatriotic.”  A few months earlier, he talked about the changing dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship and conceded that:

It’s very hard to tell your banker that he’s wrong. And if we are running huge deficits and big national debts and we’re borrowing money constantly from China, that gives us less leverage. It give us less leverage to talk about human rights, it also is giving us less leverage to talk about the uneven trading relationship that we have with China.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up this line, privately fretting about “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” and suggesting to news media that traditional concerns about human rights had to be put aside in order to work with Beijing on the global economic crisis.

Others, too, joined the chorus.  Two years ago, economic policy expert Arvind Subramanian colorfully opined that America’s growing financial dependence would eventually allow China to oust the United States from its long-established military position in the western Pacific (– a view he has now quietly revised).  And Peter D. Kiernan, a former Goldman Sachs partner, sounded the alarm about how America risked becoming Beijing’s bitch. 

There is no question that the United States needs to get its financial house in order.  The Congressional Budget Office warns in a new report, for example, that America’s long-term fiscal posture looks increasingly shaky.  But the widespread angst about the deteriorating financial balance of power between the United States and China is wildly overplayed.

Overwrought, too, was the instant analysis about how last month’s U.S. government shutdown and debt ceiling debate is another signpost on the path to strategic decline.  Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example contended that “American political dysfunction is hastening the emergence of a post-American world.”  Yet for all of the histrionics in Washington, it’s worth noting that the yield on ten-year U.S. Treasury bills hardly moved and the risk of a sovereign debt default was exceedingly small.  Noteworthy, too, is that just six months earlier Haass was bucking prevailing opinion and proclaiming that “we could already be in the second decade of another American century.”

The conventional wisdom is a temperamental thing even in the hands of the most skilled experts.  This becomes clear when examining the hue and cry over the National Security Agency’s global electronic snooping.  The general image here is of a highly-organized and well-equipped government taking full advantage of its country’s capacity for technological innovation and big-data processing to develop the world’s most sophisticated surveillance network. 

Whatever one thinks of their utility, legality and propriety, the NSA’s overseas capabilities are astoundingly impressive: monitoring the personal communications of scores of government leaders around the world; scooping up on a monthly basis hundreds of millions of digital communications in Europe alone; ingesting a daily tsunami of data on worldwide banking and credit-card transactions; and harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world. 

As the New York Times put it recently, the NSA is “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities” which has “an almost unlimited agenda.  Its scale and aggressiveness are breathtaking.”  The distinguished European pundit Josef Joffe notes that the message sent to the rest of the world by the unconstrained exercise of such vast power is “We do it because we can.”

True, disclosures about the NSA’s feats have dented America’s reputation and perhaps undercut its more tangible diplomatic and economic interests.  But it is also the case that the global outrage is partly rooted in envy, as Bernard Koucher, a former French foreign minister made clear in a radio interview: “The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us.  Let’s be honest.  We eavesdrop, too.  Everyone is listening to everyone else.  But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”

Just a decade ago, the conventional wisdom fancied the United States as an űberpower that could easily afford to disregard the sensibilities of its closest allies.  Just a few years later, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the perception shifted radically to a wearying hegemon about to be outpaced by China.  And sometimes, as the last month or so illustrates, it just seems can’t make up its mind.

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Similar Problems Subverting Obamacare and U.S. Foreign Policy

The management flaws now coming to light in the implementation of the president’s signature domestic achievement have long been evident in the foreign policy realm.  As I argue in a new essay on Fair Observer’s website, the White House’s policymaking machinery is overly insular, centralized and politicized.

Dana Milbank, the Washington Post columnist who is generally supportive of Mr. Obama, had a hard-hitting piece last week that argued:

Like his predecessor, [Obama] has rewarded loyalty and surrounded himself with like-minded advisers disinclined to dissent. This, combined with a Bush-like fetish for secrecy, has left the president in a bubble, struggling to find support in Congress or among the public.

This is the same message that former administration staffers and friendly observers have been making for a while regarding the administration’s foreign policy initiatives, though it is striking how the White House continues to pay no heed.  A current case in point is the fundamental review of U.S. policy in the Middle East conducted this past summer.  The New York Times the other week quoted Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security advisor, as saying that the review was done “in a very critical and no-holds-barred way.”  Disconcertedly, however, it also notes that the exercise was very much an inside job, done by “a tight group that included no outside of the White House.”  One wonders whether Ms. Rice noticed the disconnect.

Read my entire essay here.

It’s worth noting that one common element in the Obamacare fiasco and the administration’s national security dysfunctions is the role of Denis R. McDonough, a key aide in the 2008 presidential campaign who then went on to serve as deputy national security advisor before being tapped earlier this year as the White House chief of staff.  Rosa Brooks, who served in the Pentagon’s policy shop during the first term, charged a while back that McDonough was among those shutting out dissenting voices during national security planning, as well as so chaotically managing the interagency policy process that, as Brooks puts it, “shallow discussions and poor decisions” were all but inevitable.

In an earlier post, I observed that “Chief of staff selections say much about a president’s management style and policy predilections.  On both counts, McDonough’s promotion may signal trouble ahead as the second term begins.”

If he hopes to salvage his remaining years in office, Mr. Obama needs to quickly fix his broken White House.  Paying attention to outsiders with alternative views would be a very good start.

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