Rancid Foreign-Policy Puddings

by Harlan Ullman

Winston Churchill famously disliked puddings because they “lacked a theme.” President Barack Obama and his administration inherited a series of rancid foreign-policy puddings from George W. Bush, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, unfortunately, President Obama’s foreign policies, like Churchill’s puddings, lack a theme.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the most visible foreign-policy issues as the new president took office. But the international agenda has been dominated by other problems as well, including Iran and its nuclear ambitions coupled with Israeli responses; the so-called rise of China; Russia; the international financial crises; the Arab Spring; and the fight against Al Qaeda associates and terror. And the pernicious domestic political environment, in which the number-one aim of Senate Republicans was to make Obama a one-term president, would prove unhelpful in the extreme.

These foreign-policy issues remain difficult if not intractable. And, given his inexperience, the president could not reasonably be expected to be up to speed from day one. Yet, even given these realities, three major flaws in Obama’s foreign policy persist today and have handicapped his performance in the international realm.

First was his undue reliance on domestic political advisers rather than foreign-policy experts. Second was his preference for simple answers to complicated problems. And third was the absence of a disciplined, well-messaged explanation of foreign-policy choices.

Several disclaimers are important: George W. Bush’s decision to pivot from the successful ejection of the Taliban from Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and invade Iraq a year and a half later, based on the theological urge to transform the geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East, was perhaps the greatest foreign-policy blunder in American history. The financial meltdown of 2008 required prompt remedial action, which it got from Obama. And the president deserves credit for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

When Mr. Obama assumed office, he had no foreign-policy experience or credentials. Thus it was imperative that he choose able senior national-security officials, and he did so. But then he relied too heavily on his kitchen cabinet of Chicago pals for that advice. He also turned to a number of politically reliable rather than strategically savvy appointees who held second-tier positions but ultimately played dominating roles. Calling the war in Afghanistan “good” and the conflict in Iraq the “bad war” demonstrated the first two strategic flaws in Mr. Obama’s thinking and was a precursor for many of the disappointments, errors and failures that would follow.

This good war/bad war rationale was invented in 2008 specifically to further his prospects in the presidential campaign against his far more experienced Republican rival, John McCain. The Bush decision to launch a war to eliminate nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the Afghans after the Taliban had been (temporarily) driven from power was an ideal and tempting political vulnerability to exploit.

Americans always prefer engaging in a good rather than a bad war. Hence, for electoral and not strategic reasons, Obama would extricate America from Iraq regardless of the cost of failing to force Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to accept a longer-term U.S. presence in that country. Then he would focus instead on Afghanistan. Sadly, the departure from Afghanistan and the subsequent strategy became defined by setting an end date of 2014 for leaving rather than having a coherent withdrawal plan in place first, a fault of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Having made this good war/bad war foreign-policy judgment prior to assuming office, Obama compounded this error during his first few months in the White House. The administration launched an Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) study to determine a strategy for the “good war.” Unfortunately, the White House failed to provide firm guidance to the military, which recommended a “surge” of eighty thousand troops to provide minimum risk and maximum chances for success. Obama was not about to tolerate such an escalation. The resulting compromise included a surge that added an additional thirty thousand troops, provoking a subsequent controversy that eventually ended with the relief of the commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, after a Vanity Fair story portrayed his staff as critical and disrespectful of the administration in general and Vice President Joe Biden in particular.

The strategy was further flawed by a name that reversed priorities—AfPak. The key to any solution was and remains Pakistan. Because of this inverted logic, priorities were wrongly set. The consequence is an Afghanistan close to civil war as NATO and U.S. forces prepare to leave. Pakistan, meanwhile, is riddled with the worst excesses of Taliban and Salafist extremism and violence as its economy continues to deteriorate and anti-Americanism reaches new heights.

A second example of this tendency for seemingly “ready, fire, aim” policy decisions emerged earlier this year when Obama announced a strategic pivot to the Pacific and to Asia. This was an overly simplistic response to a very complicated issue of a modernized and economically viable China that was assumed to be casting a worrisome shadow on the region. Had the administration used the term of “rebalancing,” preferred by the Pentagon, it could have argued that the United States had vital interests in Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and South Asia as well as Africa and Latin America and would reorder its priorities according to circumstances. This would have been a sounder, more acceptable policy. Instead of reassuring allies around the globe, the opposite occurred, and China remained unimpressed along the way.

Of course, a presidential campaign is not the best forum for serious foreign-policy debate. Too often it is reduced to sound bites for political parries and thrusts on serious matters, such as the attack in Benghazi that killed our ambassador and his protection detail; turmoil in Syria; the emergence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb and Africa; branding China a currency manipulator and Russia as our number-one geopolitical foe. And GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s current statement of his foreign policies, even excluding his foolish comments about China and Russia, is shallow while offering few specifics.

The international realities that neither candidate has acknowledged are ignored at our peril. The United States retains the world’s most powerful economy and military. But, as power readily diffuses globally, leveraging these advantages to maintain influence requires brains, sophistication, cunning and subtlety. That in turn means more and perhaps different types of alliances and partnerships in which the United States cannot rely only on its dominance for successful outcomes.

The nature of conflict also has changed. Wars are no longer fought between states and conventional armies and navies (although, while less likely, they cannot be entirely dismissed). Instead, conflicts today are about and among the people who are what Clausewitz called the strategic center of gravity. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is small numbers of insurgents and nonstate actors such as religious and ideological extremists that constitute part of the “new enemy” Thus, winning the rest of the populace, or at least grudging support from them, is a vital aim that military force alone will never achieve.

Forty-three years ago, Richard Nixon assumed office and began what would be called a policy of “triangular politics” designed to wean China away from the Soviet Union and use that leverage to America’s advantage. Today, the need is for “multilateral politics and partnerships” to advance American interests cleverly and with sophistication in a far more complex, complicated, interconnected and informed world. And economic, financial and trade responses assume particular importance, in many cases eclipsing military and traditional balance-of-power considerations.

Mr. Obama’s foreign policies have so far ignored these realities and eschewed new and creative means to cope with them. While Romney stealthily has masked his policies, he too, if elected, will need to respond with sound, well-conceived and well-articulated answers. Without such an approach, America’s foreign-policy pudding will not only lack the kind of theme desired by Churchill but could also prove inedible.

Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council.