Where Have All the Strategic Thinkers Gone?
Posted by Michael Cohen
There was a pretty interesting article in the Washington Post today about Hillary Clinton's tenure at State Department and it pretty much confirmed my suspicions about our Secretary of State - she's a great public diplomat and administrator, but not much of a strategic thinker.
As Stewart Patrick noted, she struggles with priorities and questioned whether she has a "grand strategic vision." This was basically part of the deal when Obama picked her; Hillary would serve as a great "face" for America to the world; she would invest time and energy in public diplomacy, something that was critically important after the tumult of the Bush years. But at the same time it was hard to expect much from her from a strategic standpoint. After all, she doesn't have an IR or even foreign policy background and doesn't appear to have spent a lot of time thinking about the future of American foreign policy.
It was very striking, for example, that the article recounted the experience of a young State Department FSO who was pushing the idea of engaging with "non-governmental power centers in Pakistan" while Clinton expressed skepticism. The story has a happy ending as the FSO was promoted, but the fact that the Sec State didn't agree about the importance of this issue is surprising. At a time when non-state actors are rising in importance - and Pakistan's non-governmental sector has been at the forefront of pushing for democratic change and adherence to the rule of law - it's hard to understand Clinton's skepticism. If this anecdote is any indication, she seems to be quite the foreign policy realist (although granted it's hard to draw too much of a conclusion from just one anecdote)
It wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing to ask the Secretary of State to focus on public diplomacy if President Obama had placed strategic thinkers in other areas of the national security bureaucracy, but he hasn't. Jim Jones and Bob Gates are obviously smart men, but one doesn't get the sense (particularly from the former) that they are focused on recalibrating US strategy. Indeed, one could fairly ask where are all the Obama campaign aides that were pushing the idea of a new mindset for American foreign policy - because they don't appear to be in the higher reaches of Obama's foreign policy team.
If you look at Obama's foreign policy to date, this has clearly been a problem. You have John Brennan saying back in August that we need to get away from the jihadist terror fixation that defined the Bush years . . . and yet then you have Obama sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and spending the lion's share of his foreign aid request in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. We're now 14 months in to the Obama presidency and we still haven't seen a national security strategy, or the results of the QDDR process - just a QDR that continues the US reliance on military power and the overly broad definition of US global interests.
I realize that it's a lot to expect for things to change overnight and clearly the process of changing the mindset of American foreign policy is the work of generations. But I do worry that Obama has failed to put the pieces in place to realize this goal and that he seems intent, at least for now, to nibble around the edges of American foreign policy. But at a time when a new orientation for the way America's interacts with the world is desperately needed indefinitely delaying more systemic change is a recipe for continued strategic drift. Obama has surrounded himself with smart, competent individuals in his key foreign policy positions - but smart and competent is not what America needs today.