Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 08:28 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 08:28 | SYDNEY

Obama\'s missed opportunity



27 October 2010 12:18

Some weeks ago, President Obama replaced his National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones, with Jones' former deputy, Tom Donilon. As high level appointments go, it came as no major surprise. By this account, Jones took the job reluctantly and wasn't expected to hang around, having been unable to secure access to Obama or his inner-circle, much less impose himself on policy-making.

While Jones is obviously no loss, I can't help wondering whether — in filling the position with a Washington insider like Donilon, somebody steeped in the conventional assumptions  of US foreign policy — Obama might have missed yet another opportunity.

Of course, Donilon was the safe choice. He has been acting in the job, albeit informally, and to the extent that he has doubts about the strategic value of Afghanistan – and is vaguely aware that something much bigger is happening in East Asia — seems to exercise at least some good judgement.

As a veteran operator, he might also be suited to the bureaucratic role of the NSA. This involves arbitrating between agency heads and insulating the president from ideas designed to promote the organisational welfare of the State or Defence Departments, the CIA or, most recently (if Bob Woodward's book is anything to go by), the US military.

These are important functions, to be sure, but Obama needs something else, something more. Above all, he needs a grand-strategist who understands how the many strands of US strategic policy fit together and is able to distill them into a set of organising principles.

With his foreign policy foundering, Obama should have taken the time to find his Kissinger, an adviser with an intuitive understanding of American interests and priorities, a realistic appreciation for the scope and limits of power, and sensitivity to the consequences that actions might be expected to produce.

It's become a very American thing, especially in the post-Cold War era, to conceive of the world in terms of a succession of universal problems to which the US must offer a solution. Yet this approach hasn't worked. It's been costly, ineffectual and indiscriminate. By systematically overestimating the willingness of others to acquiesce to American solutions, it has also engendered in US foreign policy a debilitating level of incoherence.

Today, perhaps more than ever, different aspects of the same foreign policy are colliding, so that efforts in one area are undermining those in another. In the Middle East, Obama is trying to curb Iran's expanding influence. At the same time, he's withdrawing US forces from Iraq, leaving Iran in precisely the dominant position he's trying to deny it. In South Asia, Obama is trying to consolidate ties with India to balance China, but can't because Pakistan, on whom the US also depends, will not allow the US and India to get close.

Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, likewise, seeks to reduce the salience of nuclear deterrence by placing greater emphasis on conventional deterrence, even though America's conventional advantage, as Hugh White has pointed out, is diminishing, not expanding.

It's these kinds of contradictions that a good NSA should help to resolve, or at least clarify. That also depends, however, on the president acknowledging his limits and being prepared to extend some intellectual licence. A colleague here in Washington once said to me that, in foreign policy, Obama suffers from a 'humility deficit' – that is, he reserves for himself the role of grand strategist, preferring advisers to act primarily as enforcers. This latest appointment, unfortunately, seems to affirm that judgement.

Photo by Flickr user San Diego Shooter, used under a Creative Commons license.

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