Barack Obama and Strategic Patience

Last week, the White House published its second and last National Security Strategy of Obama’s presidency. The NSS, a 26-page document, is supposed to define a world vision, the “grand strategy” motivating the actions of the president and his team. Observers generally read the document to look for a major unifying principle guiding the president’s actions, more often than not to incorporate it within the great schools of thought to which international relations experts are partial: realist, idealist, multilateral, unipolar, etc. In particular, it can announce new doctrines regarding military engagement. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 2002 NSS put forward the controversial doctrine of “preventative war,” which was used to justify the intervention in Iraq.

It is unlikely that the 2015 document will leave a mark on its era in the same way. It is the result of a long bureaucratic process, and the text suffers from it, each department benefiting in some way: No region or theme should be forgotten, left to fall between the cracks. The publication, for that matter, is two years late – a symbol of the difficulty in producing a document when crises multiply and effectively render the text obsolete, as with Ukraine, Daech, etc.

It is difficult to establish Obama’s strategic direction when his presidency is primarily defined by its opposition to his predecessor’s failures. Starting from the introduction, the document welcomes the resumption of growth, decline in unemployment, and the end of the two Bush-era wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, certain concepts provide useful insights on how the administration sees its international actions so far, or at the very least, justifies them a posteriori. In particular, it announces the direction of Obama’s last two years as president.

The Risks of Over-reach

Unsurprisingly, the text mentions the necessity of American leadership (the term “lead” is repeated more than 100 times throughout the 26 pages) but tempers this with a warning against the risks of over-reaching or of unilateralism: “The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But, we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the overreach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear …” Later comes the phrase that has sparked the most debates: “The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence.”

As indicated by researcher Thomas Wright in an analysis of the document, strategic debate in Washington over the nature of the threats faced by America today can be broken down into two factions. The first feels that the international system built in the wake of the Cold War is being deeply called into question. In particular, this is the thesis postulated by Henry Kissinger in his last book, “World Order,” and also by analysts such as Robert D. Kaplan (“The Revenge of Geography”) or Walter Russell Mead (“The Return of Geopolitics”). Russian aggression against Ukraine, the collapse of the nation-state system in the Middle East, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a nuclear Iran: Rather than a series of isolated crises, this is the international order itself, founded on standards of rights, respect for sovereignty, and trade expansion, supported by an American leadership whose founding principles are now threatened by revisionist powers.

A second faction, to which the National Security Strategy belongs, takes the opposing view to this vision: The fundamentals of the American economy are good, and the main challenges are of a different kind, which are transnational and linked to the risks of globalization. So, if “Russian aggression” is unambiguously condemned in these terms in the document, Russia isn’t mentioned among the eight strategic threats faced by America: the “catastrophic” attacks on American soil, attacks against American citizens abroad or their allies, the economic crisis, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, climate change, the disruption of energy markets, and the security consequences of failed states.

Despite appeals to American leadership, the text is fundamentally practical faced with what American power can achieve. The United States cannot respond alone to international challenges: “In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that can be solved by the United States alone.” The greatest risk would be to forget this.

As emphasized by Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice during the NSS conference presentation: “But, too often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective … We can’t afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle.” Consequently, the main risk to which American diplomacy will expose itself would to be over-react, to find itself trapped in a dynamic of “overreach.” When the White House’s adversaries denounce Obama as being too reflective and hesitant, indeed, only reactive faced with international crises, his defenders beg for him to hold out and resist short-term media or partisan pressure.

An Isolated White House?

However, criticisms of the president’s diplomacy multiply and are reinforced in Washington, first and foremost by the Republican Congress. John McCain, Barack Obama’s opponent in 2008 and a neoconservative favorite, is the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, where he can exert influence in favor of his preferred causes: the conflict with the Kremlin, support for Syrian opposition, and an increase in the defense budget. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker, is involved in an effort to ensure that any agreement on a nuclear Iran be ratified by Congress, even if the White House has already affirmed its intention to veto all initiatives related to this.

A significant number of Democratic Party members, particularly those close to Hillary Clinton, are also beginning to position themselves in opposition to the president’s foreign policy. Currently in precampaign for the Democratic nomination (for which she is currently heavily favored), Hillary Clinton is careful to distance herself from certain positions held by the White House. This approach cannot be considered to be uniquely electoral: Hillary Clinton, who had actively supported the war in Iraq, is close to the liberal interventionists in the Democratic faction and much less timid regarding the use of American power. In an important interview given last summer, she took positions similar to Republican hawks on subjects like Israel, Syria, and a nuclear Iran. And Democratic strategists no longer hesitate to distance themselves from the president.

Subsequently, a high-profile report, co-signed in January by influential think tanks, proposed supplying weapons to the Ukrainian government in order to counter attacks. The fact that the primary signatories (Strobe Talbott and Michele Flournoy) are close to the former secretary of state hasn’t escaped numerous observers. If the new secretary of state, Ashton Carter, also comes out in favor of this option (before the Minsk ceasefire), nothing indicates that the White House is leaning in this direction.

Is the White House more and more isolated? Perhaps, but the president will continue to have the last word in strategic debates that will motivate the next two years: agreement over a nuclear Iran, the decision to intervene in the Middle East, etc. The National Security Strategy will not re-assure critics denouncing a White House engrossed in domestic policy issues. If President Obama shows renewed boldness over internal issues (such as immigration) since the midterm elections, it is unlikely that this will be the case when it comes to the international stage. It’s a small step from patience to passivity.

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  1. President Obama is thoughtful and careful about foreign policy. Most of America’s past military interventions have been at least partial failures if not outright disasters. A wise leader is well advised to approach war and peace with this in mind, and we have such a leader, who is not afraid to be cautious.

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