In Search of Goldilocks
An invitation to write briefly on how has the Obama administration shifted the goals and modalities of U.S. foreign policy and with what successes and shortfalls immediately raises the temptation to reply: "not at all" or "too much" or "stay tuned". An offer to tie responses to particular speeches is also tempting as an organizing device since President Obama prides himself on presenting an image of command and control, with the often conflicting imperatives of domestic politics and the international system in rough alignment. Whether appearing before West Point graduates or striding briskly down a red carpet to a White House podium to lay out a delayed "strategy" for dealing with ISIS or ISIL, we are to conclude that a smart man mid-way in his second term as President with elections looming in 2014 and 2016 is managing crises ranging from Russian "aggression" in Ukraine, to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa to a third war in Gaza with "smart power", along with doing something more specific about climate change and Chinese-Japanese tensions. A tall agenda for a tall man.
The constant demands of the 24 hour news cycle plus the uneven content of blogs and opinion pages reinforces the sense that command and control is a sometime thing. Similarly, "smart power" may be more persuasive around a seminar table than on the ground where such crises are actually unfolding. Against a backdrop of paralysis and hyper-partisanship in Washington, looking more carefully at a regional setting like the Middle East may illustrate whether the three replies set out above might be accurate in what is (stubbornly) a messy rather than parsimonious world. That much Obama himself has stressed, often to the derision of his critics.
A generational perspective helps in understanding that the options in any given context are shaped by what has already taken place and the conclusions, however partial or wrong-headed, drawn by both scholars and policymakers. Writing this commentary on the ingrained American goals versus means conundrums after living through 10 presidencies and watching the lengthy Ken Burns documentary on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, I am struck by the continuity of these tensions, especially the vitriol of the U.S. public debate and the assertions of insider knowledge, as the annual ritual of the opening of the UN General Assembly took place.
As world leaders gathered to posture, preach and possibly do deals, the Middle East's turmoil has apparently increased, culminating in the cyclical resumption of violence in Gaza. Prospects for a possible nuclear deal with Iran still require imaginative diplomacy and compromise to bridge gaps. Throughout the region, national political leaders are coping with their own domestic politics, their own internecine battles, their own mistakes and miscalculations, their own image production from Turkey to Libya and beyond.
At home assertions of American executive versus legislative authority in dealing with state and non-state actors persist, with the newer ISIS/ISIL component being the capacity of the "militants" or "terrorists" to hold territory as well as hostages. Executing them in barbaric fashion illustrates a mastery of propaganda techniques and underscores their paradoxical effort to establish a medieval "caliphate" with modern technological recruitment videos. Abroad the United States is condemned as hypocritical until its logistical advantages are actually needed to cope with public health emergencies or disaster relief.
The often noted flaws of Obama personally, his hesitation and caution, his muddled roll outs of vital domestic or international goals at the ground level, like health care and ISIL strategy, his "red lines" about Syria that are ignored later, his insistence that the U.S. does not do 'stupid stuff" spark withering criticism. Yet the fact that all of his recent predecessors from Truman to both Bushes have done so is less consequential than the absence of Plans B (or C or D) when Plan A, say the collapse of the poorly designed John F. Kerry-led negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, is a more serious fault. So serious that any longer term attainments like coalition building on longer term issues like climate change will be ignored as will be the outcome of targeted sanctions on Russian energy companies in terms of marginally changing Putin's behavior. Too little, too late, "leading from behind" will be the headlines or sub-texts for impatient audiences at home or abroad.
Generational perspectives help in asking perennial questions including whether the means are relevant to the goals rarely, it appears. Is it possible for U.S. foreign policy to be coherent and consistent? Does it matter? Is the real problem now that elected officials and the attentive public (if there still be such!) do not want to decide whether it time is to forsake the presumed attributes of superpower status (such as they may be defined), or the familiar hazards of American exceptionalism as a powerful self-image. Are these actors too eager to shed the responsibilities that are still part of it, the better to concentrate on matters at home as if this boundary between domestic and "foreign" still exists?
Linda B. Miller, Brown University and Wellesley College
Argentia Editorial Team