In high school, when I wandered the aisles of the downtown library, a certain dread would begin to hover. Reading had always been a favored pastime, but for some reason I could not shake the weight of the books. There were so many. It was all too much as James,and Melville loomed. But why? Was my paralysis steeped in my inability to see an individual book or did I feel a need to address every book simultaneously? Whatever the case, the shelves did not form a pool of knowledge but acted more like a frozen tidal wave. Where would I start? How could I start? Was it best to flee?
Obama said there were two bits of advice his predecessor gave him when he handed over the keys to the White House. George W. Bush said Obama would need to exercise and stay fit for the position would do its best to break him. Also he would need copious amounts of hand sanitizer for the hand shaking would never end.
Besides exercise and compulsive cleaning, a president also needs a vision to guide him through the crucible of a crisis. But then again, maybe it’s better to be flexible. After all there are basically two approaches when making a political decision.
- Have a belief and apply it to the circumstance.
- Review the circumstance and derive a belief.
What’s the better approach? Well the Neo-cons in the George W. Bush administration were so confident that toppling the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was the best way to install democracy in the Middle East they didn’t even bother to prepare for the transition. Instead, they sent a mid-level diplomat in a blue suit and combat boots and told him to figure it out.
As a newly elected US Senator, Barack Obama had a front row seat to this debacle and it made an impression. In fact, it made him swing so far in the other direction some of his critics felt he had no vision at all. “The president’s foreign policy lacks a set of guiding set of principles,” noted Danielle Pletka, Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute. (Parshley, 2012) “He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes,” added Zbigniew Brezezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. (Lizza, 2011)
I believe Obama had one over-all belief when it came to foreign policy. He harped on it over and over in cabinet and security meetings. His credo was simple: Don’t do stupid shit.
When it came to foreign policy, Obama did not want to get entangled in any more wars. He had enough spinning plates with the conflicts left behind. Wary of forming some grand world doctrine that would hem in his new administration he tended to side with political approach (b) when it came to dealing with countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. From a negative perspective did he fully resolve any of these thorny issues? No. From a positive perspective, did his administration make any of these thorny issues worse? No.
I think it is a false assumption to think that every problem has a solution. Sometimes there are no good outcomes. Sometimes the options range from bad and worse to “you really don’t want to pick this one.” Then there are options that aren’t options at all.
Bob Woodward highlighted this dilemma in his book Obama’s Wars when it came to determining how many troops Obama should send into Afghanistan to stabilize the county so he could eventually get all the troops out:
“So let me get this straight, okay?” Obama asked [his generals]. You guys just presented me four options, two of which are not realistic” (the 85, 000 [troops] dream and the 20,000 hybrid). Of the remaining two (the 40,000 and Gate’s 30,000 to 35, 000) he noted their numbers were about the same… “So what’s my option? You’re not really giving me any options.”
It didn’t get much better for Obama when Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi started sending 27,000 troops across the desert to quash a rebellion in Benghazi. There was a belief in the world community that Gaddafi would not only put down the rebellion he would also commit wholesale slaughter in the city of a million people.
A debate quickly sprung up in the administration as to whether the United States should impose a no-fly zone over the country. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was for and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was against.) It was a popular military tactic for it had worked in the past conflicts like Iraq Part I and Kosovo. Plus, it didn’t involve any military boots on the ground, even ones wearing dark blue suits. Only one problem: When Obama started asking the military the effectiveness of a no fly zone, the generals told him it would be pretty ineffective considering all of Gaddafi’s troops were racing across the desert in tanks and jeeps and not flying in helicopters or planes.
Obama decided to up the ante and bomb the tanks and jeeps on the ground instead of shooting down the planes and helicopters that weren’t in the air, but would it be enough?
Recently, Obama admitted that helping topple the Gaddafi regime and not sticking around to help form a stable government is his biggest foreign policy regret. But isn’t that what we are still trying to do in Afghanistan after twenty-plus years?
“Nothing comes across my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama told Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair. (Lewis, 2012)
Maybe regret is inevitable and not losing ground can be considered a win. Still it’s hard to change a campaign slogan from “Yes we can!” to “Let’s try not to make things worse.”