Did Obama Set Trump Up for Failure in Asia?

Obama PivotDonald Trump is encountering a fusillade of criticism alleging that his approach to Asia is creating a vacuum that will be eagerly filled by Beijing.  But those making this argument would be much more honest if they acknowledged that part of the blame lies with Trump’s predecessor as well.

That Barack Obama deserves censure was made plain in a recent Washington Post interview with Max Baucus, the immediate past U.S. ambassador in China, who offered a remarkably critical appraisal of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills and policy toward Beijing.  Indeed, his remarks underscore long-time criticisms regarding Obama’s leadership shortcomings, as well as the real problem his administration faced in matching fine words and good intentions with concrete foreign policy actions.

One of the complaints Baucus registered concerns the fate of the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), the Obama administration’s project to build a U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia that would have brought together 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.  The TPP was a key component to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – aimed at shoring up the U.S. presence in a region that is increasingly under Chinese sway.

As Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong declared last year to U.S. business executives, ratification of the ambitious trade and investment agreement was widely seen in Asia as “a litmus test of your credibility and seriousness of purpose.”  TPP was denounced by both major candidates during the recent U.S. presidential campaign and officially torpedoed by the new Trump administration.  But even as the agreement was being negotiated, there were widespread suspicions about whether the Obama White House had the political gumption to see through the Congressional approval process.

Baucus makes clear that Obama himself deserves part of the blame for the TPP debacle.  The newspaper quotes him as saying:

The [Obama] administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that [U.S. Trade Representative] Mike Froman and several others in the bus had.  The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should. 

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills are nothing new.  Leon E. Panetta, the Democratic Party’s elder statesman who served as his second Pentagon chief, highlighted this inadequacy in a recent memoir, particularly what he calls the president’s “most conspicuous weakness” – “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”  Obama, he added, sometimes lacks fire, preferring instead to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”  As a result, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

Just before the memoir’s release, a senior Obama administration official conceded Panetta’s point, acknowledging that the president’s leadership style was “much more that of the lawyer than the CEO.”  Too often, and on too many important policy issues, Obama conceived of the presidency as an exercise in thought leadership rather than the engine for the messy politicking a pluralist democracy requires.  As a Bloomberg View columnist summed up on Obama’s last day in office,

… to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn’t necessarily result in good policy.

Obama’s frequent detachment from the policy process led to a huge disjuncture between his promise on shifting strategic focus to Asia – a region where the president once said “the action’s going to be” and “Here, we see the future” – and his actual accomplishments on this score.   Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, the Obama administration placed great rhetorical emphasis on the Asian pivot.  In early 2013, Tom Donilon, the U.S. national Security advisor, proclaimed that “when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, the United States is ‘all in’.”  Later that year, his successor, Susan Rice, insisted the pivot was “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.”  A few months before the administration’s term ended, she emphasized the president’s “profound commitment to the Asia Rebalance.”

But for all of these professions, Baucus states that the administration was never able to devise a coherent, sustainable policy for dealing with a rising China: “We’re much too ad hoc.  We don’t seem to have a long-term strategy, and that’s very much to our disadvantage.”

Indeed, many long questioned Obama’s determination to see through not only TPP’s implementation but also the buildup of military forces necessary to contest a more assertive China.  Just months before launching the pivot, he undermined his own credibility by signing into law the 2011 Budget Control Act and then did nothing in subsequent years to relieve the sharp pressures it imposed on the U.S. defense budget.  In March 2014, for example, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief acknowledged that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures].”  At the same time, a Japanese official told the New York Times, “If there’s real rebalancing, it is hard to find.”  Even more trenchant, the newspaper also quotes a long-time Asia hand who worked in the first Obama administration as saying that pivot was “ill-conceived and bungled in its implementation.”

As a consequence of Mr. Obama’s failure to back up his rhetoric with the necessary fiscal resources, the U.S. military currently confronts a severe readiness deficit at a time when Chinese military strength is noticeably increasing.  The U.S. Navy was slated to play a central role in the pivot, yet two-thirds of its mainstay F/A-18 strike fighters are currently grounded due to lack of spare parts or maintenance backlogs.   Overall, more than half of the service’s aircraft inventory – including fighters, transport, patrol and reconnaissance planes as well as helicopters – are presently out of service.  The U.S. Army reports that only three of its 58 combat brigade teams are capable of immediate deployment, while the U.S. Air Force states that it is “now able to keep only half of our force at an acceptable level of readiness.”  Astoundingly, U.S. military leaders recently testified that President Obama never personally discussed this readiness crisis with them.

These problems have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.  A new Chinese navy internal assessment concludes that China has now secured military supremacy in the South China Sea and that the United States “lacks both the ability and will to engage in a military conflict or go to war with us.”

Nor has the situation escaped notice among long-time U.S. allies.  Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, for example, stated last September that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”

And a recent Australian analysis concludes that “China now has the strategic initiative in South East Asia.”  It adds:

China now dominates militarily the central ASEAN region.  In times of peace and crisis, this military capability could be used to intimidate, bully or cajole regional states.  In times of limited regional war, China is now the odds-on favorite.

Donald Trump may well be hastening the day when American leadership in East Asia is eclipsed by China.  But if that were to happen, one should not lose sight of the previous president’s role.

UPDATE (March 29): A Financial Times article today reports:

Even some US officials privately acknowledge that China has won the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot. In the annals of American decline, this episode will surely loom large….

….Much of the fault lies with Barack Obama, the former US president, and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

An earlier version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.

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Mattis Shines a Poor Light on the Obama White House

800px-james_mattisMy previous post focused on the unnoticed irony involved in the appointment of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, given the Obama administration’s treatment of him when he was head of the U.S. Central Command.  But the Mattis story also underscores two other themes articulated in a number of earlier posts.  The first point regards the utter disingenuousness of President Obama’s once-regular threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  The second is about the dysfunctional character of the Obama national security process.

A recent Washington Post report about the relationship between General Mattis and the Obama White House emphasizes the overriding priority Mr. Obama put on reaching an accommodation with Iran over its atomic ambitions.  In the summer of 2011, Mattis proposed to undertake a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the causalities Tehran-backed militias were inflicting on U.S. forces in Iraq.  The plan reportedly prompted “heated discussions” in Washington that “stretched out for weeks” before it was ultimately rejected by President Obama.  As the newspaper notes, Mattis concluded from the episode that “Obama White House was unwilling to take the fight directly to the Iranians, even when they drew American blood.”

More ructions between Mattis and the White House soon followed.  A second “heated debate” took place during late 2011 and early 2012 when Mattis asked for contingent permission to take preemptive action against any Iranian attempt to mine the strategically-critical Strait of Hormuz.  As the Obama team began to engage in multilateral talks with Iran in the summer of 2012, Mattis further raised hackles by “relentlessly [drilling] the U.S. military’s war plan for Iran” and by emphasizing in his reports to Washington the destabilizing role Tehran was playing in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.

By early 2013, tensions had grown such that Mattis was unceremoniously removed from his post.  Although the Obama administration did not present his ouster as a rebuke, Mattis is reportedly convinced that “he had been dismissed early for running afoul of the White House.” Dennis Ross, who was then Obama’s point person on Iran policy, is also quoted in the newspaper as saying:

It was a kind of culture clash.  There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative. And as time went by, this became increasingly less acceptable to them [emphasis added].

It is, of course, a president’s prerogative to choose his own military commanders and dictate the perimeters of their conduct.  But note the striking disjunction between what was going on behind the scenes with Mattis and what Mr. Obama was publicly saying in 2012.  In that year’s State of the Union address, the president stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”  In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”  “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. Obama then followed this up with a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”

This blog has long been suspicious (see here and here) of the sincerity of the threats President Obama was making at this time about his willingness to undertake military action, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear program.  The Washington Post report further reinforces these doubts.

The Mattis story also exemplifies a regular criticism made about the Obama policy-making process – that his national security inner team was not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.  Commenting on Mattis’s ouster from CENTCOM, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed at the time that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”

A number of previous posts (here, here, here and here) have detailed the Obama White House’s intolerance of critical advice, even when it came from inside the administration.  And the Washington Post article bolsters this point, quoting Leon E. Panetta, who was Defense Secretary at the time, as saying about the debate triggered by Mattis’s plans for retaliating against Iran:

There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive.  But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions [emphasis added].

Senate Democrats heaped high praise on Mattis during his confirmation hearing because they saw his experience as something that will add stability and balance to the new Trump team.  But they showed no awareness that his story also illuminates the real deficiencies of President Obama’s national security policies.

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The Irony of the Mattis Appointment

800px-james_mattisThe easy confirmation of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary entails no small amount of irony.  Senate Democrats perceive the retired Marine general as someone who will speak unvarnished truth to a new White House team they fear will try to insulate Mr. Trump from unpalatable news and disagreeable perspectives.  But left unremarked upon is that his earlier tenure as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, was cut short by the Obama administration for doing precisely that.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

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Obama’s Disinterest in Europe: An Update

bored-obama-3Two earlier posts (here and here) argued that President Barack Obama has largely been disinterested in America’s European allies.  Although this view attracted criticism from those insisting I exaggerated the case, evidence has continued to roll in buttressing my position.

The newest piece of proof comes courtesy of DC Leaks, a website that has posted materials purloined from, among others, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.  Included in its collection are emails hacked from the personal Gmail account of General Philip Breedlove, who until recently served as NATO’s supreme military commander.

Two of Breedlove’s notes are particularly striking.  In the first, he writes to Colin Powell in September 2014, six months after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea peninsula, seeking the former U.S. Secretary of State’s assistance in re-energizing the Obama administration’s focus on European affairs.  Breedlove confides that “I do not see this [White House] as really ‘engaged’ on Europe/NATO.”

A second note in March 2015 concerns the extraordinary snub Mr. Obama had just delivered to Jens Stoltenberg, who months earlier had been appointed as NATO’s secretary general.  Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, all passed up a chance to confer with Stoltenberg during his visit to Washington even as Russian depredations against Ukraine continued.  According to a media report, Stoltenberg requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

Commenting on the incident, Breedlove laments to a friend that “This is a mess.  I do not understand our [White House].”

At a NATO summit two months ago, Obama declared that “in good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”  But many of his actions have registered the opposite message, so much so that the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee even blames the president for begetting Donald Trump’s skepticism of the NATO alliance.  (For a similar view by a U.S. foreign policy pundit, see here.)

Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won over European hearts by promising not to conduct himself like George W. Bush and the continent gratefully responded by awarding him a Nobel peace prize in the mere anticipation he would live up to his promise.  He has indeed been true to his word, though very much not in a way European leaders had hoped.  Reflecting on Obama’s legacy for U.S.-European relations, Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain, recently concluded that “the lasting impression that Barack Obama will leave us [Europeans] with is one of disenchantment.”

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Obama’s Intelligence Scandal: An Update

ImageAccording to news reports, a large group of intelligence analysts working at the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, have formally complained that their superiors altered assessments about the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in order to adhere more closely with the Obama administration’s public line that the military campaign against these groups is progressing well.  As I argued in a previous post, the emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique about Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy – that his national security inner team is excessively focused on the dictates of domestic politics and is not above squelching dissenting views.

The Daily Beast, which has taken the lead in breaking this story, now reports that the intelligence scandal has broader dimensions: Two senior analysts at CENTCOM, including the top expert on Syria, have been ousted from their positions due to their assessments casting doubt on the viability of the Obama administration’s plans to arm rebel groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In a separate report, the publication also claims that the CENTCOM work environment has turned “toxic” and “hostile” as top officials there have created a culture of intimidation.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the House intelligence committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the scandal, has complained that CENTCOM is deleting relevant documents and harassing analysts it wishes to interview.

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How Sincere were Obama’s Threats to Stop Iranian Nuclear Proliferation?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s detailed exposition in The Atlantic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy outlook has sparked a wave of media commentary as well as damage-limitation efforts by the White House.  Based on a series of far-reaching interviews with the U.S. president, the piece contains a number of fascinating revelations, including Obama’s high regard for his own decision-making ability and corresponding disdain for the leadership skills possessed by many of his counterparts on the world stage; his suspicion of Washington’s foreign policy cognoscenti who he believes adulate the idea of deterrence credibility and in any case reflect the interests of their Jewish and Arab benefactors; and his disregard for America’s traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East.  On this last point, Goldberg quotes Obama as saying “free riders aggravate me” – a sentiment that Donald Trump holds as well.

So far, however, the exegesis of Obama’s views has missed a fundamental issue: How can a president who makes plain his deep aversion to new strategic entanglements in the Middle East and believes (in Goldberg’s words) that the region “is no longer terribly important to American interests” also insist his earlier threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons were entirely serious?

There is a gaping logical disconnect – nay, an outright contradiction – between these two tenets given that any military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was bound to trigger even greater levels of regional violence and instability that Mr. Obama so obviously wants to keep at arm’s length.

Read the full essay at The Diplomat.

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Obama and Europe’s Lament

My post a year ago about the breakdown in President Obama’s relations with European leaders elicited pushback from those insisting I exaggerated the discord.  But on-going developments have only bolstered my case.

Consider the report a few months ago by John Vinocur, formerly executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune (now re-named the International New York Times).  He noted a growing disenchantment among European political and policy elites with the caliber of Mr. Obama’s leadership on policy toward Russia as well as an increased willingness to give public expression to this view.  “The U.S. president is getting openly dissed,” is how he put it.  Moreover, the absence of American leadership was causing European officials to see no alternative but to make accommodations with Moscow.

A similar assessment is offered by Roger Cohen, formerly the New York Times’ foreign editor and Berlin bureau chief, who now writes an op-ed column.  In a piece earlier this month, he excoriated President Obama’s approach toward Syria for, among other things, contributing to “a potential unraveling of the core of the European Union as internal borders eliminated on a free continent are re-established as a response to an unrelenting refugee tide…”

Cohen quotes a senior European diplomat as saying: “The Syrian crisis is now a European crisis.  But the president is not interested in Europe.” Cohen adds: “That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.”

Likewise, Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is simply unwilling to do anything substantial to address the multiple crises gripping the region.  He quotes a French policy leader as stating: “There is a growing sense that this U.S. administration is focused on establishing a legacy on what has already been achieved rather than trying to achieve anything more.”

Rogin adds…

During the first day of the conference, the U.S. role in Europe was hardly mentioned in the public sessions. In the private sessions, many participants told me that European governments are not only resigned to a lack of American assertiveness, they also are now reluctantly accepting a Russia that is more present than ever in European affairs, and not for the better.

Nine years ago, when Mr. Obama first embarked on his presidential campaign he differentiated himself from George W. Bush by stressing a determination to rebuild U.S. alliances with other countries.  And on the night when he was elected to the Oval Office he pledged that “a new dawn of American leadership” was at hand.  European leaders these days must wonder whatever happened to that guy.

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