Commentary Magazine


Topic: strategy

The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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RE: Lauder Takes On Obama

Well, the floodgates might not be wide open yet, but the drip, drip of criticism from Jewish organizations is starting. The ADL releases the following statement from Abe Foxman concerning Obama’s new approach to Israel:

The significant shift in U.S. policy toward Israel and the peace process, which has been evident in comments from various members of the Obama Administration and has now been confirmed by the president himself in his press conference at the Nuclear Security Summit, is deeply distressing.  Saying that the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines U.S. interests in the broader Middle East and the larger issue of resolving other conflicts is a faulty strategy. It is an incorrect approach on which to base America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and its relationship with its longtime friend and ally, Israel.

ADL has long expressed its concern from the very beginning of the Obama Administration about advisers to the president who see the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major impediment to achieving the administration’s foreign policy and military goals in the wider region.  The net effect of this dangerous thinking is to shift responsibility for success of American foreign policy away from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and directly onto Israel.  It is particularly disturbing in light of the blatantly disproportionate number and the nature of statements issued by this administration criticizing Israel as compared to what has been said about the Palestinians.

The best way to move the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians forward is for all parties to demand that the Palestinians abandon their tactic of “just saying no” and insist that the rest of the Arab world move toward normalization relations with Israel.

Obama, by choosing to acknowledge the obvious — that he sees the U.S.-Israel relationship in fundamentally different terms than his predecessors — has allowed Jewish leaders to do the same. The notion that American Jewish leaders are buying access or influence with the Obami by staying mum has been blown to smithereens. It has only, it seems, emboldened the president to turn up the heat on Bibi and pursue his turn toward the “Muslim World.”

Obama last year said Middle East diplomacy was lacking honesty — that we should say in public and private what we mean. That’s good advice for American Jewish leaders — be honest, be clear, and be emphatic. Obama’s not hiding his contempt for Bibi, for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and for Jewish American leaders. They should be equally uncensored in their views of his policies. We’ll see if others follow Lauder and Foxman.

Well, the floodgates might not be wide open yet, but the drip, drip of criticism from Jewish organizations is starting. The ADL releases the following statement from Abe Foxman concerning Obama’s new approach to Israel:

The significant shift in U.S. policy toward Israel and the peace process, which has been evident in comments from various members of the Obama Administration and has now been confirmed by the president himself in his press conference at the Nuclear Security Summit, is deeply distressing.  Saying that the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines U.S. interests in the broader Middle East and the larger issue of resolving other conflicts is a faulty strategy. It is an incorrect approach on which to base America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and its relationship with its longtime friend and ally, Israel.

ADL has long expressed its concern from the very beginning of the Obama Administration about advisers to the president who see the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major impediment to achieving the administration’s foreign policy and military goals in the wider region.  The net effect of this dangerous thinking is to shift responsibility for success of American foreign policy away from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and directly onto Israel.  It is particularly disturbing in light of the blatantly disproportionate number and the nature of statements issued by this administration criticizing Israel as compared to what has been said about the Palestinians.

The best way to move the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians forward is for all parties to demand that the Palestinians abandon their tactic of “just saying no” and insist that the rest of the Arab world move toward normalization relations with Israel.

Obama, by choosing to acknowledge the obvious — that he sees the U.S.-Israel relationship in fundamentally different terms than his predecessors — has allowed Jewish leaders to do the same. The notion that American Jewish leaders are buying access or influence with the Obami by staying mum has been blown to smithereens. It has only, it seems, emboldened the president to turn up the heat on Bibi and pursue his turn toward the “Muslim World.”

Obama last year said Middle East diplomacy was lacking honesty — that we should say in public and private what we mean. That’s good advice for American Jewish leaders — be honest, be clear, and be emphatic. Obama’s not hiding his contempt for Bibi, for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and for Jewish American leaders. They should be equally uncensored in their views of his policies. We’ll see if others follow Lauder and Foxman.

Read Less




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