• Principle, rigor and execution matter in US foreign policy (2)


    Last of two parts

    Obama has tried to create a different principle for US operations. First, the conflict must rise to the level that its outcome concerns American interests. Second, involvement must begin with non-military or limited military options. Third, the United States must operate with an alliance structure including local allies, capable of effective operation. The United States will provide aid and will provide limited military force (such as airstrikes) but will not bear the main burden. Finally, and only if the situation is of grave significance and can only be dealt with through direct and major US military intervention, the United States will allow itself to become the main force.

    It is a foreign policy both elegant and historically rooted. It is also incredibly complicated.

    First, what constitutes the national interest? There is a wide spread of opinion in the administration. Among some, intervention to prevent human rights violations is in the national interest. To others, only a direct threat to the United States is in the national interest.

    Second, the tempo of intervention is difficult to calibrate. The United States is responding to an enemy, and it is the enemy’s tempo of operations that determines the degree of response needed.

    Third, many traditional allies, like Germany, lack the means or inclination to involve themselves in these affairs. Turkey, with far more interest in what happens in Syria and Iraq than the United States, is withholding intervention unless the United States is also involved and, in addition, agrees to the political outcome. As Dwight D. Eisenhower learned in World War II, an alliance is desirable because it spreads the burden. It is also nightmarish to maintain because all the allies are pursuing a range of ends outside the main mission.

    Finally, it is extraordinarily easy to move past the first three stages into direct interventions. This ease comes from a lack of clarity as to what the national interest is, the enemy’s tempo of operations seeming to grow faster than an alliance can be created, or an alliance’s failure to gel.

    Obama has reasonable principles of operation. It is a response to the realities of the world. There are far more conflicts than the United States has interests. Intervention on any level requires timing. Other nations have greater interests in their future than the United States does. US military involvement must be the last step. The principle fits the strategic needs and constraints on the United States. Unfortunately, clear principles frequently meet a murky world, and the president finds himself needing to intervene without clarity.

    Presidents’ limited control
    The president is not normally in control of the situation. The situation is in control of him. To the extent that presidents, or leaders of any sort, can gain control of a situation, it is not only in generating principles but also in rigorously defining the details of those principles, and applying them with technical precision, that enables some semblance of control.

    President Richard Nixon had two major strategic visions: to enter into a relationship with China to control the Soviet Union, and to facilitate an alliance reversal by Egypt, from the Soviet Union to the United States. The first threatened the Soviet Union with a two-front war and limited Soviet options. The second destroyed a developing Mediterranean strategy that might have changed the balance of power.

    Nixon’s principle was to ally with nations regardless of ideology — hence communist China and Nasserite Egypt. To do this, the national interest had to be rigorously defined so that these alliances would not seem meaningless. Second, the shift in relationships had to be carried out with meticulous care. The president does not have time for such care, nor are his talents normally suited for it, since his job is to lead rather than execute. Nixon had Henry Kissinger, who in my opinion and that of others was the lesser strategist, but a superb technician.

    The switch in China’s alignment became inevitable once fighting broke out with the Soviets. Egypt’s break with the Soviets became inevitable when it became apparent to Anwar Sadat that the Soviets would underwrite a war but could not underwrite a peace. Only the United States could. These shifts had little to do with choices. Neither Mao Zedong nor Sadat really had much of a choice.

    Where choice exists is in the tactics. Kissinger was in charge of implementing both shifts, and on that level it was in fact possible to delay, disrupt or provide an opening to Soviet counters. The level at which foreign policy turns into foreign affairs is not in the enunciation of the principles but in the rigorous definition of those principles and in their implementation. Nixon had Kissinger, and that was what Kissinger was brilliant at: turning principles into successful implementation.

    The problem that Obama has, which has crippled his foreign policy, is that his principles have not been defined with enough rigor to provide definitive guidance in a crisis. When the crisis comes, that’s when the debate starts. What exactly is the national interest, and how does it apply in this or that case? Even if he accomplishes that, he still lacks a figure with the subtlety, deviousness and frankly ruthlessness to put it into place. I would argue that the same problem haunted the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations, although their challenges were less daunting and therefore their weakness less visible.

    There is a sphere in which history sweeps a president along. The most he can do is adjust to what must be, and in the end, this is the most important sphere. In another sphere — the sphere of principles — he can shape events or at least clarify decisions. But the most important level, the level on which even the sweep of history is managed, is the tactical. This is where deals are made and pressure is placed, and where the president can perhaps shift the direction of history.

    Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not had a president who operated consistently and well in the deeper levels of history. This situation is understandable, since the principles of the Cold War were so powerful and then suddenly gone. Still, principles without definition and execution without precision cannot long endure.


    George Friedman is the chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. Friedman guides Stratfor’s strategic vision and oversees the development and training of the company’s intelligence unit.

    Publishing by The Manila Times of this GeoPolitical Weekly analysis is with express permission of Stratfor.


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