As President Obama looks beyond the water’s edge in search of achievement and for relief from Republican hyper-partisanship, he sees a barren and smoldering landscape, with problems from hell in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, a Putinized Russia, and a China that is asserting territorial claims in troubling ways. What’s a President to do? While trying to tackle hard problems can make them more complicated, not tackling at least some of them in a serious way increases the likelihood that they will get worse. Success will come, if at all, against long odds. Without trying, lack of success guaranteed.
This unwelcome landscape helps explain the modesty of the Obama administration’s ambitions. If one is unlikely to make serious progress on very hard problems, and if Sisyphean efforts might well complicate matters further, why try? The reason is pretty elementary. Trying may, indeed, lead to error, but the absence of trying means a greater likelihood of failure.
President Obama’s foreign and national security policies lack ambition. No wonder he is making little progress on the security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.
Without ambition, firefighting becomes the administration’s default position, as was evident during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Either she didn’t seek or wasn’t given the lead on the Middle East, China, Russia and nonproliferation portfolios. It’s perfectly acceptable for the White House to hold on to every one of them, but what’s the point of doing so in order to pursue modest initiatives?
Administrations that make their mark on the world have great ambition at rare junctures of dramatic change and opportunity. It’s the Obama administration’s lot to operate in a changing international environment that seems devoid of opportunity.
Some problems from hell might burn themselves out and others must be handled with care, especially after expending so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars that are poorly conceived and planned are unlikely to end well, and have a properly chastening effect.
The George W. Bush administration’s use of hard power created quagmires and hastened disruptive, tectonic shifts. The Obama administration’s use of soft power has not increased U.S. persuasiveness abroad. So, what is an administration to do when not one hard and consequential problem seems ripe for diplomatic accomplishment?
Diplomatic risk-taking is a high wire act, with only four potential wire-walkers: the president, vice president, the Secretary of State, and the national security advisor.
Secretary of State John Kerry, unlike his predecessor, has been cleared by the White House to walk the high wire. He has decided that a renewed effort to seek an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is worth the effort and that failure to try is likely to have dire consequences. His high wire act stands in stark contrast to the administration’s apparent lack of ambition on other hard national security problems.
The Obama administration can’t be blamed for its lack of ambition in dealing with Vladimir Putin, whose choices continue to mortgage Russia’s future. He might shift gears out of pragmatic necessity, but optimism is not a word readily associated with Vladimir Putin.
Opportunities for a strategic opening with Beijing offer more hope. As discussed in previous posts, the most promising avenue of increasing strategic cooperation with China lies in space, rather than on nuclear issues. A collaborative space initiative and a code of conduct setting or strengthening norms for responsible space-faring nations could have strategic import. But so far, there are no takers for high-wire walking between Washington and Beijing.
Pakistan has a new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who wants to increase trade and otherwise normalize relations with India. He and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have appointed trusted individuals in a back-channel, eliciting the usual qualms from the usual quarters. Spoilers are at work, creating incidents along disputed borders. Washington has no place getting in front of this process, but can’t even be found in the rear-view mirror.
North Korea has a new, young leader who has started out by making poor decisions. Washington has chosen not to see whether, with China’s help, he might embark on a different course. Instead of direct dealings with Kim Jong-eun, the Obama administration seems content with tepid multilateral approaches that offer little prospect for gain.
The most glaring absence of ambition at present appears to be in the run-up to nuclear negotiations with a newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A window of opportunity for significant deal making may well be narrow, but it is now open. This window will shut quickly if the Obama administration approaches the renewal of talks with an abundance of timidity, as if the next move depends on how Tehran reacts to its last cautious gambit.
Sanctions, no matter how harsh, are a means to an end. Like sanctions, the threat of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities will not help produce a satisfactory diplomatic settlement — unless an ambitious US initiative is forthcoming. Many seasoned diplomats, including Gary Samore and Bob Einhorn, who have recently departed from the Obama administration, have called for a more ambitious negotiating approach. Gary and Bob are not known for throwing caution to the wind, and have good reason to be skeptical of success. And yet, they and many others still call for an ambitious offer before window-closing time. If the effort is made, success may well remain elusive. If an ambitious proposal is not offered, failure seems assured, with consequences to follow.
What ever happened to the audacity of hope?
Note to readers: A variant of this essay appeared in the 8/14 issue of Politico.