Obama’s Incredibly Shrinking Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama’s trip to East Asia last month was all about shoring up America’s position in a region where a resurgent China is steadily engaged in revising the status quo.  But the most memorable part of the visit ended up being the diminished vision Mr. Obama projected of his own foreign policy.

Speaking at a press conference in Manila, Obama defended his conduct of foreign affairs in a way that was at once impassioned and uninspiring.  His approach, he argued, “may not always be sexy.  [It] may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows.  But it avoids errors.  You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

The minimalist vision Mr. Obama articulated was incongruous coming amid a tour designed to impress upon U.S. allies that the strategic shift to Asia, his signature foreign policy initiative, was still very much on track.  All the more so at a gathering alongside Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whom he ostensibly wanted to reassure about U.S. steadfastness in the face of China’s  revanchist behavior.  Indeed, his words were a far cry from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strong rebuke of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea four years earlier. Continue reading

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The Benghazi Bottom Line: Liars or Idiots?

Benghazi consulate attackThe renewed controversy over the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist assaults reinforces two broad criticisms made of Mr. Obama.  The first is that his foreign policy decision-making is heavily shaped by a national security inner team, drawn largely from the young staffers in his 2008 presidential campaign, that habitually subjects policy to political machinations.  The second is that this team presides over an especially defective policy apparatus.

As noted in earlier posts, these are charges even former administration staffers and otherwise sympathetic pundits advance.  As Vali Nasr, who worked on AfPak issues in the first term, argues in his new book, The Dispensable Nation:

….[T]he president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans [emphasis added].

This theme is echoed by others, including David Rothkopf and Thomas Ricks, both commentators who can hardly be labeled as partisan.  David Ignatius, the foreign policy columnist at the Washington Post, likewise contends that the administration’s response to key international issues is usually “driven by messaging priorities rather than sound, interests-based policy.”  On Benghazi in particular, he argues that the White House “spent more time thinking about what to say than what to do.”

The second theme, that of managerial incompetence, is underscored by Rosa Brooks, a former administration official at the Pentagon’s policy shop.  The Obama team, she noted recently, has created “an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture – one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks.”  This chaos, she claimed, results in “shallow discussions and poor decisions.”

Both critiques were given new life by last week’s release of 41 declassified State Department documents showing that White House staffers injected election-season spin into the official story-line about the September 2012 jihadi assaults on the U.S. diplomatic mission and a CIA annex in Benghazi that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. Continue reading