The recent midterm election has left President Obama utterly defeated after the Republican takeover of the Senate. By definition, and by any American standard, Obama is now a Lame Duck president having no control over neither Senate nor Congress in a time where domestic economy is stagnant, global economy flattering, humanitarian and dıplomatic crisis erupting everywhere on a daily basis. Obama’s popularity among the fellow American voters hits the lowest level around %38. The last remaining area that the president might prove himself as an effective president in his remaining two years is foreign policy. Unfortunately, Washington’s foreign policy nowadays is guided as a response to popping up crisis and developments here and there are having no sign of long term planning.
My question is today pretty much straight forward: what is the essence of a grand strategy that might save Obama’s legitimacy? My answer is very simple one, which can be summarized as 1 ‘decide’ and 3 ‘pick-up’: i) prioritize your aims and have a clear purpose for all of them (1 decide) and craft your foreign policy accordingly (first pick-up); ii) Pick-up the appropriate strategy that reduces the cost, increase the benefits (second pick-up) iii) Pick up the appropriate tools to get the things done on the ground (third-pick up). I am not trying to reinvent wheel by arguing these obvious points; let me try to fill in a little bit more as I proceed in the writing.
i) Prioritize your aims, have a clear purpose for all of them and craft your foreign policy
First and foremost, after reviewing all available capacities and innovative ways to act, a successful foreign policy initiative should prioritize its aims according to the same facts on the ground. Therefore, Obama has to have a clear aim on every issue and communicate these aims as ultimate purpose of his foreign policy to not just his own foreign policy crafts but also other allies and partners. In other words, know what you want and let them others know it as well. From harsh critics of his own aides, such as former defense and state secretaries Gate and Panetta, Clinton, or some other critics coming from senior officials such as Kissinger, Obama’s foreign policy is “ambivalent” if not anything else. He seems to have no strategy at all on any thing (as it is evident in his ISIS-Iraq and Syria policy or in policy of not making stupid-stuff) leave alone a grand strategy, which might make him successful in the foreign policy realm, which always requires long term planning and strategizing.
As a matter of fact his crafting foreign policy is evident of this ambivalent ends and means in thinking about foreign policy. Foreign policy is a team sport; you cannot make up a good team by just picking the best and brightest. You need to pick up the most appropriate option for every position, which eventually makes your team performing better together. After six years on the job, Obama is still deviating and putting such leeway in crafting his foreign policy. As an argument that Bush Jr. might be not the best president, but at least, he had his own idea about the world (like it or not), a strategy to implement that idea (like it or not) and a right people to craft that idea into a foreign policy (again like it or not). Obama lacks almost all of these. The right way to do this is not picking up someone (as Obama did as he nominated Gates, Clinton, Hagel or Kerry and many other for the particular positions) and thinking later on what to do in foreign policy, but first deciding what to do in foreign policy and then picking up the right person for that particular task. Obama has done the former version of crafting his foreign policy, which eventually created a constant cacophony. By the way, there is centralization of decision making towards the White house, including a small numbers of national security advisors, which created ineffectiveness and conflicting for the policies that erode Washington standings.
ii) Pick-up the appropriate strategy that reduces the cost and increases the benefits
Points of departure in strategizing foreign policy must be based on facts not on false analogies or interpretations. As Jeffrey Record pointed out foreign policy often become an area in which use and abuse of history as siding with wrong analogies turns to be a common mistake. Obama did and still does this pretty much. He had found his own destructing analogies given when he got elected in 2009, daunting Afghan and Iraq war. He found that he had to fight these wars, but he does not see them his own wars. This could be understandable after all he promised to finish these commitments as part of his presidential campaign. But he has built parallels between all issues and these two ongoing wars, which is pretty much ridiculous. War on terror and Afghanistan’s invasion was a war of necessity whereas war in Iraq was Bush’s war of choice. Obama has never been even close to make a war out of necessity or choice. The closest point he could make such decision was his blurring red line on Syrian Chemical weapons use. Even at that particular issue, he didn’t necessarily have to wage a war on his own, yet he could and should just lead behind as he had done during Libya crisis. At the end of the day, he has ended up with a war on ISIS (“The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, by the wrong means and tools”).
No one knows exactly what the future will bring. But if you are a kind of passive bystander without taking any active role in shaping tomorrow, the only business you can involve with will be in trying to prevent it happening. America has no luxury to stand idle to anything in the world affairs. It should have an active stand by preparing strategies that lead the future. That is why Obama’s understanding of the essence of security and balance of power in world affair is troublesome. Expecting more contribution from allies and partners or regional countries or searching for collective actions and multilateral solutions is something else and standing idle to the security issues is quite something different. The second is not an option for America and this is the reason for that America must have quite numbers of strategies to lead the way out.
iii) Pick up the appropriate tools to get the things done on the ground
Last but not least, Grand strategy refers to the set of political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools and strategies to advance a state’s own national interest. In this sense, Grand strategy is the art of reconciling ends and means.
America is the richest country in terms of available tools to get the things done from effective diplomacy to punishing military power. The essential is to finding a mix of these available tools (carrots and sticks) to the acceptable solutions.
On the surface, in terms of Obama’s foreign policy, the greatest challenges come from two hot spots: i) crisis in the Middle East including Iranian nuclear issue and Syrian crisis even though he desperately tries to avoid from those crisis; and Ukraine-Russia axis. His Asia pivot strategy and handling relations with China seem working out pretty much well. His ambitious effort to solve Iranian nuclear issue by diplomacy deserves to be praised. His willingness to find common ground in climate change issues is priceless. His staunch stand against Russian aggression in Ukraine is well noted. This is because he has a real strategy and appropriate crafting and tools for these affairs. But he keep continuously failing to show leadership where it utmost important.
I will dwell on this more next week with a piece on Syrian issue.