Not Too Late for Obama to Rectify Foreign Policy Errors, Bring in New Advisers
President Obama’s comments in response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris appeared inadequate and, for some, including his political counterparts in Europe as well as members of his inner circle (namely former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Senator Dianne Feinstein) it elicited a critical reaction.
It is clear to people who have worked with President Obama that he is one of the smartest elected officials of our generation. To be elected President of the United States — perhaps the most difficult and competitive political achievement in the world — while raising more than a billion dollars and defeating a Clinton in the process, requires an individual with exceptional qualities.
In examining the Obama foreign policy team’s vulnerabilities and lack of strategy, it is easy to identify similarities to the foreign policy mindset of President Clinton’s administration, which was one of inaction and indecisiveness. Many geopolitical analysts identify the mindset that prevailed under Clinton as directly responsible for several of today’s most pressing issues, including the US-Russia relationship, the power of fundamentalist Islam, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and, most importantly, the erosion of the United States’ prestige as a leader on the international stage.
Many of the issues that the Obama administration faces today resemble those that the Clinton administration faced. Parallels can be drawn between the Clinton Administration’s handling of the North Korean nuclear issue and Obama’s handling of Iran, between Clinton’s inaction on Rwanda and Obama’s inaction on the Syrian crisis, Clinton’s reluctant intervention in Kosovo and Obama’s reluctant intervention in Libya, and between Clinton’s minimalist approach to Al Qaeda and Obama’s to ISIS.
From the outset, Obama recognized his inexperience in the foreign policy arena and astutely selected a foreign policy savvy vice president in Joe Biden.
Moreover, for the first time in recent history, Obama sub-divided and delegated many of the responsibilities traditionally assigned to the secretary of state to senior officials (Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, John Kerry and Susan Rice). These officials, each of whom is qualified to be secretary of state, could allocate time to specific regions that the secretary of state would not be able tackle alone, which was a strategy to achieve monumental results within a president’s three-year political window.
Still, despite good intentions, and Obama wisely compensating for his own vulnerabilities by including seasoned veterans on his team, his foreign policy strategy, in many cases, seems to be inadequate, slow in response, and lacking coherence.
What is the reason for this inconsistency?
Interestingly, many of the same people who were members of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team are now part of Obama’s senior foreign policy team. A recent article in the Washington Post by Karen DeYoung revealed that, after seven years, the Obama administration’s foreign policy is still divided into two camps — with the Clinton people on one side and the Obama inner-circle on the other, as evidenced by the article’s claim that the secretary of state was not even in the loop when the agreement with the Cubans was initiated.
Following his election in 2008, Obama warned, “One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink, and everybody agrees with everything, and there’s no discussion and there are not dissenting views.” But when his opportunity came to staff his foreign policy brain trust, instead of choosing a team with diverse opinions to avoid the dogmatism and groupthink that characterized his predecessor’s administration, he filled the positions with many individuals who would go on to perpetuate the mindset that prevailed during the Clinton administration, a groupthink mindset of appeasement and inaction, which produced relatively little in terms of concrete, coherent, clearly-defined policy, both during the Clinton era and now.
President Obama has little more than a year remaining in office. It is not too late for him to bring in the diverse group of advisers with new ideas; not too late to break with the unproductive groupthink of the past seven years, the very kind of groupthink he set out to avoid. His team needs to be united and streamlined for efficiency and clear communication, but also open to new ideas with a mindset capable of focusing upon and taking decisive action. Global issues require a new approach, and a new approach is required to prevent lasting strategic mistakes that may be difficult for an incoming president to reverse.