Even before becoming Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger understood how hard it was to make foreign policy in Washington. There “is no such thing as an American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in 1968. There is only “a series of moves that have produced a certain result” that they “may not have been planned to produce.” It is “research and intelligence organizations,” he added, that “attempt to give a rationality and consistency” which “it simply does not have.”
Two distinctively American pathologies explained the fundamental absence of coherent strategic thinking. First, the person at the top was selected for other skills. “The typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society,” noted Mr. Kissinger, “is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office.”
Second, the government was full of people trained as lawyers. In making foreign policy, Mr. Kissinger once remarked, “you have to know what history is relevant.” But lawyers were “the single most important group in Government,” he said, and their principal drawback was “a deficiency in history.” This was a long-standing prejudice of his. “The clever lawyers who run our government,” he thundered in a 1956 letter to a friend, have weakened the nation by instilling a “quest for minimum risk which is our most outstanding characteristic.”
Let’s see, now. A great campaigner. A bunch of lawyers. And a “quest for minimum risk.” What is it about this combination that sounds familiar?
I have spent much of the past seven years trying to work out what Barack Obama’s strategy for the United States truly is. For much of his presidency, as a distinguished general once remarked to me about the commander in chief’s strategy, “we had to infer it from speeches.”
At first, I assumed that the strategy was simply not to be like his predecessor—an approach that was not altogether unreasonable, given the errors of the Bush administration in Iraq and the resulting public disillusionment. I read Mr. Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech—with its Quran quotes and its promise of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”—as simply the manifesto of the Anti-Bush.
But what that meant in practice was not entirely clear. Precipitate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, but a time-limited surge in Afghanistan. A “reset” with Russia, but seeming indifference to Europe. A “pivot” to Asia, but mixed signals to China. And then, in response to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, complete confusion, the nadir of which was the September 2013 redline fiasco regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria and Mr. Obama’s declaration that “America is not the global policeman.”
An approximation of an Obama strategy was revealed in April last year, at the end of a presidential trip to Asia, when White House aides told reporters that the Obama doctrine was “Don’t do stupid sh--.”
I now see, however, that there is more to it than that.
The president always intended to repudiate more than George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In a 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama made clear that he was turning away from Ronald Reagan, too. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he jeered, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Mr. Romney’s reference to Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” now looks prescient, whereas the president’s boast, in a January 2014 New Yorker magazine interview, that he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now” looks like hubristic rejection of foreign-policy experience itself. Two months later, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.
Mr. Obama also had his own plan for the Middle East. “It would be profoundly in the interest” of the region’s citizens “if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Mr. Obama said in that same interview. “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . predominantly Sunni Gulf states and Iran.”
Now I see that this was the strategy—a strategy aimed at creating a new balance of power in the Middle East. The deal on Iran’s nuclear-arms program was part of Mr. Obama’s aim (as he put it to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in May) “to find effective partners—not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya.” Mr. Obama said he wanted “to create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future.”
The same fuzzy thinking informed Mr. Obama’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week, in which he first said he wanted to “work with other nations under the mantle of international norms and principles and law,” but then added that, to sort out Syria, he was willing to work with Russia and Iran—neither famed for spending time under that particular mantle—so long as they accepted the ousting of yet another Middle Eastern dictator.
A fighting chance for a better future in the Middle East? Make that a better chance for a fighting future.
It is clear that the president’s strategy is failing disastrously. Since 2010, total fatalities from armed conflict in the world have increased by a factor of close to four, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Total fatalities due to terrorism have risen nearly sixfold, based on the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism database. Nearly all this violence is concentrated in a swath of territory stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there is every reason to expect the violence to escalate as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post-American hegemon.
Today the U.S. faces three strategic challenges: the maelstrom in the Muslim world, the machinations of a weak but ruthless Russia, and the ambition of a still-growing China. The president’s responses to all three look woefully inadequate.
Those who know the Obama White House’s inner workings wonder why this president, who came into office with next to no experience of foreign policy, has made so little effort to hire strategic expertise. In fairness, Denis McDonough (now White House chief of staff) has some real knowledge of Latin America. While at Oxford, National Security Adviser Susan Rice wrote a doctoral dissertation on Zimbabwe. And Samantha Power,ambassador to the U.N., has published two substantial books (one of which—“A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”—she will need to update when she returns to academic life).
But other key players are the sort of people Henry Kissinger complained about more than half a century ago: Michael Froman, the trade representative, was one of Mr. Obama’s classmates at Harvard Law School; Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken is a Columbia J.D.; éminence grise Valerie Jarrett got hers from the University of Michigan. What about Secretary of State John Kerry? Boston College Law School, ’76. Not one of the people who advise the president could claim to have made contributions to strategic doctrine comparable with those made by Mr. Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski before they went to Washington.
Some things you can learn on the job, like tending bar or being a community organizer. National-security strategy is different. “High office teaches decision making, not substance,” Mr. Kissinger once wrote. “It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.” The next president may have cause to regret that Barack Obama didn’t heed those words. In making up his strategy as he has gone along, this president has sown the wind. His successor will reap the whirlwind. He or she had better bring some serious intellectual capital to the White House.
Hoover Institution fellow Niall Ferguson’s first volume of his Henry Kissinger biography has just been published by Penguin.