Blog No. 87. The President, the Contenders and ISIS

The President’s recent address from the Oval Office was clearly intended to reassure the nation. Whether anyone in fact felt reassured is highly questionable. As many observers noted, he offered nothing new to a strategy that has shown little sign of success thus far and gives little reason to believe that it will be more successful going forward. In fairness to the President, however, none of the current candidates for the presidency have offered a particularly persuasive path to a successful outcome for our struggle with ISIS and related elements of radical Islam.

The most detailed and comprehensive proposal for combating ISIS was provided by Hillary Clinton in a speech on November 14. Clinton’s proposal was similar to Obama’s existing policy, notably in prescribing a highly restricted role for American ground troops and hopeful reliance on the “65 country coalition.” It differed principally in a tone of greater urgency and a recognition, even before the San Bernardino shooting, that the past and present levels of effort were insufficient: […]

Blog No. 79. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan: The Obama Legacy aka The Fruits of the Tree of Leading From Behind.

If we had our way, the term legacy would be checked at the front door of the White House at the beginning of every administration and left unused until after completion of the inevitable presidential library. But this is a special time. We have not in our lifetime seen a president and a White House so explicitly driven by considerations of the incumbent’s legacy. (As one unscientific measure, a click of “Obama” and “legacy” on Google yielded 63,800,000 hits.) […]

Blog No. 71. The Annals of Leading From Behind, Part I

Part I. The Islamic State and the Search for a Strategy

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that President Obama has never, at least publicly, described his policy as “leading from behind.” The phrase originated in a 2011 article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker and was attributed to an unidentified “adviser” to Obama, later said to be a (still unidentified) “White House official.” The phrase was initially used with respect to American strategy in Libya, but so many found it an apt description of Obama’s approach in the Middle East generally and, indeed, throughout the world that it took hold. (That etymology will remind some of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 address, which came to be widely known as his “malaise speech” although Carter never used that word, speaking rather of a “crisis of confidence.”)

In any case, it does seem to us that the President has been attempting to lead from behind both in confronting the Islamic State and in dealing with Russia’s adventurism in Europe. The essence of the strategy appears to be to limit America’s commitment, militarily and otherwise, while encouraging others to make greater commitments. This approach worked well for Tom Sawyer in getting his friends to whitewash a fence, but its application in foreign policy is far more difficult. This Part I will discuss the Islamic State and Part II will take up the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. […]

Blog No. 66 The Iran Framework: Squaring the Circle or Creative Cosmetology?

On April 17, President Obama called for “creative negotiations” that would allow the Iranian negotiators “to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.” He might have added that negotiations will have to be at least as creative to find a formula that will also acceptable to the American body politic. Critics of the previously announced framework might be forgiven for describing the process as “creative cosmetology in porcine beautification” aka putting lipstick on a pig. We would not be quite so harsh, but remain skeptical that the agreement with Iran, whatever its final terms might be, will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. At the same time, we are also skeptical that rejecting the agreement, or attempting to significantly renegotiate its basic terms, would be any more effective in seeking that end.Blog 66 lipstick pig

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Blog No. 62 The GOP Letter to Iran and the Road Ahead

It sometimes appears that the capacity of Congressional Republicans for self-embarrassment is inexhaustible. Most often it is the Republicans in the House who are the mischief-makers while their colleagues in the Senate, with some notable exceptions (see, Cruz, T.), offer a measure of maturity. In the case of the letter to Iran, however, it was the Senate Republicans who provided the “What were they thinking of?” moment. […]

Blog No. 61 The National Security Strategy, the Islamic State and Ukraine

Part I. The National Security Strategy and The Islamic State

We believe that the assaults by the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and by Russia and its proxies in Ukraine, represent clear and present dangers to the national security of the United States. The circumstances in each area of conflict are obviously quite different, but they have in common the absence of any clear strategy on the part of the Administration for dealing with them. Indeed, despite routine expressions of disapproval, and sometimes condemnation, the concern of the Administration more often seems to be one of almost studied nonchalance. That is clearly the tone of the National Security Strategy (NSS) issued on February 6. Apart from vague references to coalitions and partnerships, the emphasis seems more on what we will not do than what we will do. The NSS received relatively little attention in the media when it appeared, and the members of the public who have actually read it could probably fit without crowding into a rather small stadium. Yet it is an important document that should be read, if not in its full 28 pages, at least for the 2 page personal Introduction by the President. It is available here. […]

Blog No. 59. The State of the Union Address: Barack Obama’s Parallel Universe and the Challenge for Republicans

On the day of the President’s State of the Union address, a writer in The Washington Post was moved to wonder “Do we even need a State of the Union address anymore?” It is unlikely that the writer’s doubts were assuaged by the President’s performance that evening. The President assured us on the one hand that everything was really quite splendid both at home and abroad, but also insisted that our domestic tranquility requires a lengthy and expensive set of initiatives. Indeed, listening to the address, one had the feeling that it might have been titled “No Proposal Left Behind.” In fact, however, the President declined to renew many of the proposals that he had presented a year ago and which had been largely ignored by the 113th Congress. (A PBS NewsHour analysis indicated that out of 18 proposals urged in 2014, only 2 rather minor ones had been adopted.) Now that Republicans control the Senate as well as the House, and enjoy an even larger majority in the House, the President’s prospects for legislative achievements are hardly brighter. […]

Blog No. 58 Charlie Hebdo, Barack Obama, and Radical Islam

In the wake of the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in Paris, President Obama was been robustly criticized for his failure to attend the rally of solidarity in Paris, or even to send a high level representative. We believe that the criticism was justified. Indeed, even the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, acknowledged that a mistake had been made, a remarkable admission for a White House from which mea culpas do not escape easily. Earnest, however, did not offer any credible explanation of how or why the mistake had been made. It may be plausible to claim that adequate security for the President could not be provided on short notice, but presumably the security needs of Vice President Biden could have been satisfied by the arrangements put in place for forty world leaders. And one of the more curious footnotes was the unexplained failure to attend even by Attorney General Holder who was already in Paris. […]

Blog No. 54 After Hagel: Who and What?

For several days, the media was awash in stories about the dismissal (half-heartedly disguised as a resignation) of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. In the usual blend of reporting from anonymous sources and outright speculation, various theories were advanced as the reasons for his departure. While such theories commanded a certain amount of gossipy interest, they were largely beside the point. We often see things rather differently from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but this time we think they each had it right. […]