The man and the machine: in search of Barack Obama

In his first two years in office, President Obama had six foreign-policy goals. None has been achieved.
Roger Hardy
31 May 2011

A couple of weeks ago Ryan Lizza, a journalist at the New Yorker, went in search of an Obama doctrine. He had difficulty finding one. Obama, he concluded, was a foreign-policy novice veering uncertainly between idealism and realism. I think there is a bit more to it than that. We need to look at the man and the machine.

When I arrived in Washington in September last year, I asked Lee Hamilton – the then head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think-tank where I was to be based for the next six months – if he could help me understand how Washington works. ‘Some of us,’ he replied, ‘are not sure it does.’

Slowly, I learned that Washington is a huge, complex Heath Robinson contraption which Americans – including insiders – don’t really understand and indeed are rather afraid of; and that the biggest, most expensive, and most powerful part of the machine is the security establishment, made up of the military, the 16 intelligence agencies – and, one must add nowadays, a vast army of contractors.

Last year, the Washington Post reported that the top-secret world the government had created in response to 9/11 had become ‘so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, [or] how many programs exist within it’. The Post estimated that, since 9/11, the number of people with top-secret security clearances had mushroomed to 854,000 – of whom almost a third were contractors.

This security establishment costs staggering sums. In round figures, the defence budget is $700 billion; the intelligence budget $80 billion. The State Department, in contrast, gets a mere $50 billion (the lion’s share of which goes to the US Agency for International Development).

A state with an army, or an army with a state?

All this has two important consequences. First, the security establishment has grown to such a size that no one – the president included – is in control of it. As William Pfaff has observed, it may be said of America, as it was once said of Prussia, that it is an army that owns a state. The second consequence is the militarisation of foreign policy. The dominant player in the foreign-policy process – on the big issues of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the ‘war on terror’ – is not the State Department or the White House but the Pentagon.

Barack Obama might wish it were otherwise. He knows that, by any rational calculation, an America struggling to emerge from recession can’t afford such huge security bills. The war in Afghanistan alone is costing $10 billion a month. But to change this situation Obama would have to master the bureaucratic jungle that is Washington – and tame the biggest beast in that jungle, the military/security establishment. He has not done either.

The six (missed) goals of Barack Obama

In his first two years in office, Obama had six foreign-policy goals:

  • to withdraw from foreign wars (billed as ‘legacy issues’, coded language for saying they were Bush’s fault),
  • to cut the size and budget of the military,
  • to dethrone the ‘war on terror’ as a foreign-policy obsession and make it compatible with the rule of law,
  • to end, or at least reduce, the deep-seated animosity between the Muslim world and America,
  • to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians a priority,
  • to get out of the democracy-promotion business.

Leaving aside the last (un-stated) aim, which I’ll return to in a moment, these are worthy goals. How far has Obama achieved them? With regard to the two foreign wars, he is in the process of withdrawing from the one (Iraq) and desperately trying to turn around the other (Afghanistan). I found virtually no one in Washington who foresees a good outcome in Afghanistan. (For those with the stomach for it, Bob Woodward’s account of the president’s long agonising over the issue, Obama’s Wars, is required reading.)

As to the military, Obama is talking about cutting its budget, but it remains to be seen whether vested interests – in Congress as well as the military itself – will allow this to happen. On the ‘war on terror’, while dropping the term itself, Obama and his team have, almost unwittingly, retained its mind-set. They have extended the war into Yemen, quadrupled the number of Predator strikes against Al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan, and kept open Guantanamo and the system of military commissions associated with it.

As to outreach to the Muslim world, the Cairo speech of June 2009 in which Obama offered a ‘new beginning’, based on mutual interest and mutual respect, is now a distant memory. His mishandling of the Palestinian issue is only one of the reasons – though an important one – why, here too, promise has not been matched by performance.

Finally, his attempt to back off from promoting democracy – something Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ had made toxic – has come up against the new reality of the Arab Spring. From the start, the president zigged and zagged. He and his top officials made the mistake of talking too much. They were slow to see their own irrelevance – their essential inability to determine the outcome of events on the ground. Then came Libya – where, irony of ironies, an administration anxious to disengage from conflict in the Middle East came, reluctantly, to commit itself to support the anti-Gaddafi forces. Within weeks it found itself half-in and half-out, desperate to offload the problem onto the Europeans. (Libya, incidentally, is the one big issue on which Obama has overruled his defence secretary, Robert Gates, who must now feel events have vindicated his deep scepticism about military intervention in such circumstances.)

In his Middle East speech of 19 May, Obama offered his support to Arabs struggling to break the chains of dictatorship, spoke up for the rights of women and minorities, and urged Israel to withdraw to essentially the 1967 lines. All very fine and large. But who now believes he will follow through?

The Obama enigma

So is there an Obama doctrine? The New Yorker article suggests, half-seriously, ‘leading from behind’: a distinctly un-American bumper-sticker. Since then, of course, the president has basked in the glow of the operation that killed Bin Laden, becoming, briefly, the John Wayne figure Americans appear to yearn for in their leaders. But the cap does not fit. No one really believes in Obama the warrior-president, least of all, one imagines, the man himself.

A doctrine is not, by itself, very important. The hunt for one reflects a desire to sum up a president and what he stands for; and in Obama’s case, he is not easy to fathom. Another president – a Ronald Reagan perhaps, or a George W. Bush – coming to office with little experience of world affairs, might have delegated foreign policy to others. Obama has not. On issues ranging from Afghanistan to the Arab Spring, he has by all accounts involved himself closely in the detail of policy-making. He, rather than Hillary Clinton, has ownership of the big issues – which means, of course, that he is responsible for the strange, weak, inconsistent thing that is US foreign policy today.

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