Why Obama’s Foreign Policy Process is Broken
Policy + Politics

Why Obama’s Foreign Policy Process is Broken

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Egypt continued its quick descent into chaos Wednesday, with more clashes between Islamists and pro-reform supporters. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were placed under arrest just a day after 51 of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed by the military.

Despite the fast-moving pace of events in Cairo, the Obama administration has been oddly silent. This comes just days after U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson expressed support for Morsi, a statement quickly contradicted by the State Department. The Obama administration’s most public stance on Egypt is that what has happened there is not a coup, despite the fact that the military, which removed a democratically elected president, meets the precise definition of a coup.

Obama’s failure to characterize events in Cairo is a strategic one: if the United States acknowledges a coup, it has to cut $1.5 billion in funding to Egypt, removing leverage. The confusion following Morsi’s ousting, followed by the radio silence in the days since, is indicative of how Obama had handled similar crises.

“They’ve not done a very good job of crisis management,” Josh Foust, a fellow with the American Security Project, told The Fiscal Times. “They haven’t been able to get ahead of the curve, haven’t been good at managing public opinion, and they haven’t been good at having some sort of response plan in place.”


This lack of preparedness has been apparent in recent weeks. The White House took a hands-off approach to the Libyan conflict. It failed to act quickly after reports of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It allowed Edward Snowden to escape from Hong Kong to Moscow, keeping the NSA leaker in the news for weeks. And it’s dithering on its long-term plans for Afghanistan.

The void caused by delayed White House action has allowed others to dictate the international conversation.

This pattern has led critics to claim that the foreign policy operation within the Obama administration is reactive, rudderless and dominated by political, not geopolitical, concerns. New poll numbers show these criticisms have also caught on with the general public.

These critics are not coming from conservative think thanks. They’re coming from former Obama administration officials.

For instance, Vali Nasr, who served as senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke when he was ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said this of Obama’s Afghan policies: “Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.”


Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011, said this about Obama's Syria policy: "Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say."

And Rosa Brookes, a former senior adviser at the Pentagon, attacked Obama for his failure to outline a broad, sweeping foreign policy strategy. "The Obama administration initially waffled over the Arab Spring, unable to decide whether and when to support the status quo and when to support the protesters. The United States used military force to help oust Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, but insisted at first that this wasn’t the purpose of the airstrikes — and without any clear rationale being articulated, the use of force in seemingly parallel situations seems to have been ruled out."

All three no longer work for the president. But all of their criticisms share one central theme – Obama does not have the personnel in place to outline and execute a broad international strategy. At the heart of this problem is a disconnect between the State Department and the White House’s national security team.

The best way to illustrate this disconnect is to look back to the Bush White House. Members of Bush’s inner circle included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They were included in the president’s decision-making processes, and were then able to take the strategy back to their respective departments and execute it.


Say what you will about Bush’s actions. But it’s undeniable that the world spent eight years reacting to the United States, not the other way around.

Compare that to the Obama White House. Hilary Clinton was given the State Department as a consolation prize. Because of her clout, State operated in an orbit separate from the White House.

In his second term, Obama has brought in Susan Rice as national security adviser, a long-time political ally who is protective of the president and vice versa. John Kerry and the president are friendly, but they don’t share much history.

This has lead to a lack of communication and strategy coordination between Obama and State. Now, America is reacting to events instead of shaping them.

According to Nasr, this dynamic also politicizes Obama’s response to international events. "The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics," Nasr, who is now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote recently.

But the State Department has also played a role in the feckless response. While Egypt moved closer to chaos, Kerry was in the Middle East attempting to restart a long-dormant peace process between Israel and Palestine. On the day of the Egyptian coup, he was on a yacht.

“The State Department has really struggled post-Hillary,” Faust said. Kerry “was born to be a diplomat. He wasn’t born to be a department head.”