Sunday, January 20, 2013

Linking tactics and strategy

The inauguration has stirred up a wave of punditry on Obama's foreign policy. Anne-Marie Slaughter cites the grand themes of three new think tank studies. While the rhetoric sounds persuasive, I suspect that the reports lack operational details that would make them truly useful to policymakers.

Fouad Ajami tries to label the president and his nominees for State and Defense "champions of retrenchment" who won't assert American power and will leave people in distress around the globe.  I guess he's most concerned about intervening in Syria, despite the chaos and uncertainty there, but I think he's right in suggesting that the administration's hesitance may be based on these ideas:

We are flat broke, with pressing priorities at home. Foreign engagements begin well and end in futility. We don’t know enough about the inner workings of these distant places to help more than harm. And besides, our embrace can suffocate those whose causes we might take up.
Are those points invalid? Not to me. Being cautious is far from being isolationists.

Then there's Jim Hoagland, longtime foreign correspondent whose views I usually find persuasive. Today, however, he's worried about a "loss of alliance cohesion" because of U.S. hesitations regarding Syria and the terrorism in North Africa. He says:
But I am increasingly worried by the lack of a strategic relationship between the individual tactical decisions, which often seem based largely on Obama’s needs, ambitions and/or prejudices (see “pivot to Asia”).
Worse: The problem may be even larger and more insidious. Interlocking modern revolutions in instantaneous global communications, social media, trade and means of warfare have created a world that increasingly grants neither the time nor the space leaders need to develop and implement coherent strategic options.
Hoagland is half right. There should be linkage and consistency with strategy and modern terrorism is still a threat to America and its interests. But we shouldn't be doing things mainly to make others feel good ["cohesive"]. We should do them because they are practical and make sense and can be accomplished. My biggest gripe with U.S. foreign policy over the past several decades isn't that the intentions were bad or the various policies inconsistent, but that we acted too often for symbolic reasons and without long term follow-through and revisions.

We don't need better bumper stickers with new strategic slogans. We need better engineers and mechanics and drivers to get the policy machinery to where we want it to go.

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