Friday, 20 May 2011

Don't read this blog. Read this article.

Sorry for the lack of blogging yesterday. True fact - I was unexpectedly late and excessively wine sloshed from attending the book launch dinner for my husband's former colleague's new book on Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yes, I live exactly the life that the populist right imagine I do.

But you shouldn't be reading my blog anyway - instead, if you haven't already, you should be reading Ryan Lizza's fascinating article taking a close look at the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Go on. Read it.

The piece isn't hagiographic towards the President, nor is it pointlessly critical - just an honest attempt to understand the different forces within the administration and how Obama himself is evolving as a foreign policy thinker.

I do think the piece is interesting and well written - the empty place at the heart of it, to me, is that so much of it seems based on the perceptions of people who witnessed the key events in the decision-making, but weren't themselves the main players. These "sources close to the White House" type articles always seem to me to overplay the degree to which the interpersonal politics is responsible for decision-making. Understandably, since people at that level spend a lot of time frustrated by the interpersonal politics. But I suspect that more often than not these relationship issues are caused by the policy positions, not the other way around. For instance, Lizza writes:
But the Afghanistan decision, like all government work, was driven by politics and ideology. Obama’s eagerness to keep his campaign promise, the military’s view that reducing troops meant a loss of face, Clinton’s decision to align with Gates, and Holbrooke’s inability to influence the White House staff all ultimately conspired to push Obama toward the surge.
OK. But wouldn't another way of putting it be to say that Obama had been persuaded by the need for a surge during the campaign (presumably that's why he made that promise, yes?) and the onus was now on the advisors who disagreed to prove their case. Hillary Clinton seems to have aligned herself with Gates because she agreed with him about a lot of policies, not just to bolster her position - although it may have had that effect. And the article then goes on to show that she had no compuction about strongly disagreeing with Gates later on in calling for Libyan intervention. And as for Holbrooke - another way of saying "inability to influence White House staff" would be "failure to persuade."

Anyway, the article sketches a fascinating fresh portrait of the age-old cross-party dispute between foreign policy realists and interventionists, and makes the case that Obama doesn't align with either party but focusses more on a situation-specific analysis of the plausible outcomes in each case. Lizza calls him "The Consequentialist".

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