Flaws Already Emerging in Obama's Second Term Foreign Policy

Foreign policy will continue to be less important than domestic policy, and the United States will continue to shift away from Europe.

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Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As we inch closer to President Obama's second inauguration we can rest assured that his second term will contain both continuity and change. By Friday, for instance, we may know whether Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts  and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are nominated for the posts of secretary of state and secretary of defense, respectively.

Adam Garfinkle (full disclosure: I've known Adam since 1995 and he serves on Foreign Policy Research Institute's Board of Advisers) at The American Interest recently wrote that President Obama's second term likely will be encapsulated by four statements:

  1. foreign and national security policy is less important than domestic policy, so the main emphasis should be to end inherited shooting wars, to avoid news ones in which we take the lead, and, insofar as it is possible, to avoid all intense or protracted crises that distract and detract from the domestic agenda;
  2. the Administration’s default drive in all non-presidential-level judgments is a form of liberal internationalism that credits the legitimacy of international law and institutions, and sees them as benign limiting influences on American unilateralism;
  3. the President’s inclination on those matters that reach his desk remains para-realist in the sense that, despite the sobering experience of the first term’s early “engagement” emphasis, he believes a deal is available with all interlocutors, democratic and non-democratic alike, if only the United States and/or its allies are willing to make the necessary concessions; and
  4. because of financial constraints and the so-far intellectually unsupported shift of military emphasis away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, the United States is moving de facto away from its post-World War II forward-presence grand strategy to one of offshore balancing, as epitomized by the new Air-Sea Battle doctrine.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This is a useful summation. On his last point about the Air-Sea Battle doctrine, there is this curious nugget from Sydney Freedberg's piece at AOL Defense about the concept and one of its leading advocates Andrew Krepinevich:

Krepinevich has been the leading non-government advocate of the Air Force-Navy "AirSea Battle" concept, seen largely as a war plan against Iran and China. But even that idea, he said, is still vague and underdeveloped compared to its inspiration, the Cold War "AirLand Battle" doctrine for defending Western Europe from the Soviets and South Korea from the North during the Cold War. It's so inchoate, in fact, that officials from America's Pacific allies have been showing up at CSBA [a national security think tank], wanting more detail that the Pentagon apparently isn't giving them.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

This is problematic. Sure, some elements of an operational concept must remain opaque, but a think tank should not be the go to place for our allies to find out about its finer points. Furthermore, as Krepinevich notes, an operational concept is not a strategy. If the centerpiece foreign policy goal of the second term is to complete the pivot to Asia, it must be based upon multiple ways and means and provide goals that are clear not only to ourselves but also to our allies, acquaintances, challengers, and threats. Otherwise we risk confusion that can help to needlessly fuel miscalculations.