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 NATO Snub is a Familiar Story

This month’s headlines chronicling the breakdown in U.S.-Israeli affairs and the personal disdain between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have overshadowed the continuing dysfunctions in Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that Mr. Obama has delivered what can only be regarded as an extraordinary snub to Jens Stoltenberg, who became the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization six months ago.  Obama is one of the few Western leaders not yet to have met with Stoltenberg and has deliberately passed up a chance to see him this week when Stoltenberg is in Washington.  Rogin notes that the NATO chief was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, though he requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

The upshot is that Obama is missing a good opportunity to firm up NATO solidarity in the face of Moscow’s on-going predations against Ukraine.  As Rogin concludes, “the message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.”  Moreover, given that Stoltenberg is a two-time prime minister of Norway, a meeting would have sent a powerful message to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark that are facing increased Russian provocations (here, here and here).

As I noted in an earlier post, Mr. Obama’s disinterest in America’s European allies is a long-standing story.  Beyond the foreign policy consequences of how the president has mismanaged relations with the continent, a surfeit of irony is also at work.  His promise to repair the damaged ties caused by the acrimony over the Iraq war guaranteed him euphoric welcomes in Berlin in July 2008 and in Prague the following spring.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in Berlin’s “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  That pledge is now so yesterday that some European leaders are reportedly longing for the days of George W. Bush.

[UPDATE, April 1: A more detailed version of this post is now up on The National Interest‘s website.]

[UPDATE, February 15, 2016: According to a new Bloomberg View report, the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is prepared to continue sitting on the sidelines as the continent grapples with a series of critical issues.

Also worth noting is last week’s column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, the newspaper’s former foreign editor.  He quotes a senior European diplomat as saying that Mr. Obama “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.”]

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Obama’s National Security Orphans

Even before he arrived at the White House, much was made about President Obama’s readiness to seek out wide-ranging opinions and employ a “Team of Rivals” for his decision-making.  But as my last two posts (here and here) argue, his reliance once in the Oval Office on an ever-tighter circle of advisers has actually stifled the flow of creative ideas and alternative perspectives that are vital to a well-functioning policy apparatus in the White House.  Two recent news items further underscore this point.

The first is a cover story in The Atlantic’s January/February issue.  It relates that in the spring of 2011 Mr. Obama asked Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator and military reform expert, to bring together a small working group to generate proposals on reshaping the Pentagon in the event he won re-election.  Among other experts whom Hart roped in was Norman R. Augustine, the widely-respected former chairman & CEO of Lockheed Martin who earlier in his career served as acting Secretary of the Army.  The group produced its report and then never heard back from Obama.

This is a regular theme for Obama.  Ahmed Rashid, a distinguished Pakistani journalist, recounts that Obama’s first presidential campaign recruited a strong expert team on AfPak issues (including Rashid) and then all but ignored it.  He did even not bother to consult it prior to his July 2008 trip to Afghanistan during which he made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Hamid Karzai’s political rivals, needlessly antagonizing the insecure Afghan leader and setting the tone for his administration’s deeply strained ties with its wartime partner in Kabul.

A few weeks following his November 2008 election, Obama announced the formation of a high-level panel of private citizens, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to advise him on economic policy.  Explaining the group’s mission, the president-elect declared:

The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking–and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren’t.

But once the board started work, Volcker became disillusioned with the White House’s propensity to use it as a public relations exercise rather than a mechanism for policy ideas.  In early 2011, the board was reconfigured.  Volcker was not consulted on this step and he was unceremoniously replaced as chairman by General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.  The new group, however, was not especially active – a condition the White House press secretary said was due to the fact that Mr. Obama was too busy to meet with it.  In the end, the administration decided not to renew its charter and its existence came to an unheralded end once the president was re-elected.

The second news item worthy of note is a post on The National Interest’s website by Lawrence J. Korb, who very early signed on to the first Obama presidential campaign and helped lead its military policy advisory team.  He notes that the 300 national security experts who served on a volunteer basis with the campaign took a considerable career risk since the Hillary Clinton campaign threatened to marginalize them if she ended up in the Oval Office.  Yet for all of their troubles, almost none of them were subsequently drafted into the Obama administration.  Instead, the new president opted to fill the national security bureaucracy with Clinton supporters and Bush holdovers.  A media account back then reported that Korb wrote the president to encourage him to look toward his own bench but never heard back.

Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber, as Mr. Obama once pledged, his administration’s instinct has been to build them up higher.  Domestic affairs and foreign policy have suffered alike as a result.  Unfortunately, the problem is only becoming worse, since the president has now stopped interacting with all but his most loyal staffers.

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The Real Problem in Washington is Obama’s Management Style

Steven Brill, a distinguished journalist with liberal political leanings, was on National Public Radio last week giving an overview of his new book about Obamacare’s bitter politics and disastrous rollout.  His remarks (audio and transcript here) reinforce the points I’ve made in my last post about how the management problems long undermining the Obama White House will derail the president’s hope of using the next two years to shore up his policy legacy.

Brill is particularly critical of the White House’s role in overseeing Obamacare’s botched launch in the fall of 2013.  He related in the radio interview that he received seven different answers from administration officials when he asked in the months leading up to the rollout who was ultimately in charge.  He exclaimed that “there have [sic] never been a group of people who more incompetently [launched] something.”  He emphasized that Obama’s tightly-knit inner circle – and especially Valerie Jarrett, who seems to function as Obama’s consigliere – shielded the president from numerous signals warning that all was not well.  As a result, Obama failed in the most basic task as a manager, since “he did not know what was going on in the single most important initiative of his administration.”

I’ve noted earlier that there are common themes connecting the Obamacare fiasco and the White House’s dysfunctional national security apparatus.  Brill’s remarks underscore a major one: The president’s closest confidants squelch the flow of bad news and dissenting advice into the Oval Office.

Criticism of Jarrett’s extraordinary influence on policymaking has risen as administration setbacks multiply.  Early on, a long profile in the New York Times magazine dubbed her “the ultimate Obama insider” while a review in the New Republic two months ago called her the “Obama Whisperer.”  Brill reports he’s heard from five senior administration officials that Jarrett is the “real chief of staff” in the White House on many issues.  And according to a top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, she is “not only Rasputin” – referring to the mystical figure who served as a private adviser to the last Russian czar – but also “the Berlin Wall preventing us from even getting messages to the president.”

It’s similar story for Denis R. McDonough, a former Obama campaign official who now serves as the White House chief of staff.  Two years ago I questioned whether he was the right choice for the job given that the criticism he attracted for running a very sloppy and politicized shop when he was the president’s deputy national security advisor.  Several months before the Obamacare launch, Time magazine reported that the West Wing under McDonough was fully focused on the rollout and that McDonough himself was spending two hours a day on it.  Brill adds that on the evening before the October 2013 launch, McDonough was reassuring everyone in sight that the website would work even more spectacularly than advertised.

In the weeks following the bungled rollout, Obama acknowledged that “We have to ask ourselves some hard questions inside the White House.”  Ron Fournier at the National Journal opined that the president needed “to fire himself.  Not literally, of course, but practically.  He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.”  Given his central role, some observers speculated that the axe would fall quickly on McDonough though in the end he managed to emerge from the episode unscathed.

The sharp rebuke the White House suffered two months ago in the midterm congressional elections occasioned a similar spat of advice.  A piece in Politico counseled the president to dump Jarrett, while Dana Milbank at the Washington Post urged him to sweep the White House clean of the yes-men culture personified by McDonough and Jarrett.  Instead, Obama has now reportedly stopped interacting with most of his advisers in favor of closeting just with McDonough and Jarrett.

As I wrote last week, the problem with all the talk about Obama now being free to pursue the policy agenda he’s always wanted is that he is only as good as the people he relies upon and the management style he’s installed in the White House.  Until the president realizes this, he’ll find the next two years to be as frustrating as the previous ones.  Domestic affairs will suffer, but so will U.S. foreign policy.

UPDATE, January 15: Writing today on the Daily Beast website, Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, underscores the points made above.  He argues that the White House’s failure to send President Obama or Vice President Biden to last weekend’s Paris unity march …

… demonstrated beyond argument that the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national security policy in the next two years. It’s simply too dangerous to let Mr. Obama continue as is—with his current team and his way of making decisions.

He advises that “Mr. Obama will have to excuse most of his inner core, especially in the White House. He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”  He adds that …

… Mr. Obama will have to thank his senior National Security Council team and replace them. The must-gos include National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, chief speech writer/adviser Ben Rhodes, and foreign policy guru without portfolio Valerie Jarrett.  He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.

UPDATE, January 20: In a television interview today, Denis McDonough took responsibility for the decision not to send a high-level representative to the Paris unity march.

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