Obama’s likely national security picks are going to reinforce his innate caution — for better and for worse.


 In each of the most recent two-term presidencies — Reagan, Clinton, Bush — the second term has featured a foreign policy significantly different from the first. One of the reasons for this is that presidents typically shuffle their national security staff between terms.

In the Clinton era, the forceful Madeleine Albright replaced the difference-splitting Warren Christopher at the State Department. George W. Bush disposed of Colin Powell, whom he didn’t listen to, in favor of Condoleezza Rice, whom he did, and then replaced the bellicose Donald Rumsfeld with the cautious Robert Gates at the Pentagon. Now we know that Susan Rice will not replace Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, and it seems very likely that John Kerry will do so instead.

As I wrote recently, Kerry is more like Hillary Clinton in both temperament and worldview than any other even plausible candidate to replace her. And because Obama respects Kerry without being close to him, as has been true of his relationship with Clinton, foreign policy will probably continue to be formulated in the White House, and executed by the State Department. (During the second George W. Bush administration, by contrast, the center of policymaking shifted to State.) The break between Obama I and II will thus almost certainly be less drastic than Bill Clinton’s change from waiting for Europe to act to seizing the mantle of leadership, or George Bush’s from bombast and unilateralism to, well, slightly less bombast and unilateralism.

But administrations do change policy or mood for two other reasons: Because the world changes, and because officials learn from their mistakes. For Obama, 2013 will be different from 2009 because the Arab world is in tumult rather than paralysis, Europe is struggling to survive as a coherent entity, Iraq is yesterday’s news, Afghanistan is waning rather than waxing, China’s booming growth can no longer be taken for granted, and so forth. The administration has uniquely advertised its own change in posture by talking up the “pivot to Asia.”

But what about second thoughts and lessons learned? The Bush administration discovered that going it alone has a high cost, and that legitimacy must be earned and not merely asserted. Of course, no one admitted that at the time; it just became obvious through action. The military, where mistakes cost lives, has institutions dedicated to scrutinizing past behavior; the civilian world is deathly afraid of admitting errors in public, and rarely does. One senior Obama administration official with whom I spoke eagerly ticked off a list of changes in the world, but then balked at the idea that he and his colleagues had misread their own environment.

But they have, if not at all as disastrously as George Bush and his team did. Obama believed, and those around him believed perhaps even more strongly, that his own oratorical and convening gifts — the sharp break from Bush which he was prepared to make — was itself a powerful diplomatic tool that would raise America’s standing in the world and change its relations with adversaries and rivals. The policy of “engaging” even adversaries like Iran and North Korea was based both on a calculus of mutual interest and on the magic of a new moment and a new man. But it turned out that the “Obama Effect,” as one senior State Department official called it, was much weaker than expected. “The idea was that there would be something reciprocal from bad actors,” the official said, “and we found out very quickly that wasn’t the case. We’ve gone back to a more traditional sort of approach.”

Obama believed that Bush had unnecessarily alienated almost everyone — bad actors, Russia, China, Western allies — and that a new policy of “mutual respect for mutual interests,” as he often put it, could serve as an emollient. The new policy worked in Europe, the one region where leaders and citizens cherished Obama’s gifts as much as American voters did (or more). It worked temporarily in Russia, whose leaders wanted to patch up relations with the United States in the aftermath of the war with Georgia. It did not work in China, however, where both Obama and Hillary Clinton hoped that putting aside irritants like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights would lead to progress on a range of bilateral and global issues. China, like Iran, did not see its interests as “mutual” with those of the United States, and so simply pocketed the American show of respect.

One official I spoke to argued that Clinton had never been quite as persuaded of the magic of engagement as Obama had been, and that in any case both understood that trying and failing to repair relations with Tehran and Beijing put Washington in a stronger position to get tough with them afterwards. That is, no mistake — so no lesson. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that it’s hard to learn a lesson from a policy which does not work out as you had hoped but also does not ruinously fail. But the proof of the learning process is in the subsequent action. White House policy towards Iran, Russia, China, and others now feels more traditional than “transformational,” to use a word once very much in vogue. There has been a regression to the mean.

And this is true beyond the realm of bilateral relations. In early speeches and in his national security strategy, Obama laid great stress on rebuilding international institutions. He has, in fact, embedded the G-20 at the heart of global economic policymaking, but he has also learned the limits of bodies like the United Nations. “American leadership,” says an administration official, “will depend on our capacity to mobilize a coalition of countries to solve a particular problem” — that is, on what George Bush would have called “a coalition of the willing.” And Obama’s conduct of the war on terror has of course come to resemble Bush’s. A policy initially described as “countering violent extremism” — and intended to mix soft power, diplomacy, development, criminal justice, and military strikes — has gradually given way to a militarized approach involving drones and special forces.

On balance, we should be grateful that Obama has learned useful lessons from mistakes of modest proportions. White House policy in the second term is likely to be more chastened, and to raise fewer expectations that it cannot satisfy. The pivot to Asia will allow the president to operate in a region which does not require impossible choices under the most urgent conditions. And a national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would offer the prospect of stability, caution, and realism.

I wonder, though, if there is a danger of some learning some lessons too well. Obama has found that the world is more intransigent than he had thought, and American influence more limited. This has reinforced his own cautionary impulses. He now faces a calamity in Syria, and he has responded by giving it a wide berth. John Hannah of FP’s Shadow Government blog recently accused Obama of failing to act decisively in Syria out of craven political calculations.  I think Hannah is right that Washington should have acted weeks or months ago, but wrong about the motive for inaction. The president and his team are now deeply imbued with an awareness of the limits of American power in the face of profound upheavals. They know all too well that a forceful American role can make things worse.

As George W. Bush erred on the side of recklessness, Obama is now erring on the side of caution. He should have helped to organize and equip the Syrian insurgents while the rebellion was still largely local; now the war is turning into an international jihadist cause, and thus giving the United States and other outsiders yet more reason to hesitate. The effect has been to allow a very bad situation to get very much worse. Lessons may have been learned. But a president who was once prepared to take risks to change the world seems to have lost sight of his courage.

Foreign Policy


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