The Way Ahead in US Foreign Policy: Spin, or Spinning Out of Control?


2013-12-16 By Harald Malmgren

The path to Presidency of the United States is through a complex, volatile battlefield of competing ideologies, domestic political and financial objectives, and survival skills of incumbents and vested interests.

The weapons and tools needed to prevail include encouragement of hope for a better tomorrow, promises of change from the past, and cleverness in highlighting flaws of an opponent. 

However, once victorious in campaigning, the tools needed to manage the complex political, economic, and legal system of America are very different. 

How Presidential decisions are made has vast implications domestically and internationally.

The rapid pace and mind-bending variety of issues that rise to the top have been made enormously more difficult to manage in recent years.  The age of full time, real time information from everywhere about almost all human activity is overwhelming.

Moreover, so much information coming so fast enables every member of Congress, every state and local official, and even every citizen to take a position and try to assert influence.

Presidents cannot rely on oratory, or threats, or exercise of Executive authority to overcome opposition.  

21st Century technologies require Presidents to manage a complex decision process in which responsibility is delegated to many subordinates, some close by and some remote from the White House.

However, devolution of decision-making requires a management mechanism for implementation and enforcement of Presidential policies.

That elaborate decision process requires consensus building among competing opinions and demands, because decisions can only be executed and enforced if there is broad enough support, among the Executive Branch, the Congress, and even the Courts.  The primary job of a modern day President is management, and building confidence of politicians, citizens, and governments of other nations in how effective the management process is in delivering credible outcomes.

Lately, the President and White House staff have been preoccupied by major malfunctions in the rollout of “Obamacare.”  The rollout of a new US Department of Health and Human Services website for enrollment in the new insurance plans under “Obamacare” was disrupted by system crashes and incorrect transmittal of information from individuals to insurers. In October and November the rollout of ACA revealed Presidential promises about ability of Americans to retain their previous health insurance and doctors could not be fulfilled.

"I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out." Credit AP Photo August 31, 2013.
“I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.” Credit AP Photo August 31, 2013.

A severe drop in Congressional and public “trust” in the President and his Administration seems to have developed.

There was also gradual public recognition of likelihood of much higher health care insurance costs beginning in the next year or two, at a time when family incomes after taxes were no longer rising, and indeed had been shrinking slightly in recent years.  In November and December, public opinion polls showed dramatic decline of support for President Obama and for incumbent Democrats in Congress in reaction to evolving news about negative consequences of the new health care initiative.

The domestic political damage was so severe that WH aides instructed government officials to stop referring to the new health care insurance programs as “Obamacare,” and instead talk publicly about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is the technical name of the new national health care insurance framework.

The rapid decline in domestic political support for the President has been associated with doubts about Administration credibility or “truthfulness.”  Continuous ambiguities and misleading statements about other matters, including the IRS scandal, the Benghazi events, and WH assertions about Syrian toxic gas episodes accumulated in raising voter skepticism about WH truthfulness.

Preoccupied by these domestic political mishaps, the Administration appeared to be inconsistent and unfocused on other policy priorities, particularly in response to foreign events and pursuit of avowed foreign policy objectives.

Early in his first term of office, President Obama overruled a complex weapons technology exchange and production agreement with India that had been the result of several years of US-Indian exploration of ways to interact more actively in maintaining stability of security in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. 

Obama’s Ambassador to Delhi worked out a tentative agreement with Indian PM Manmohan Singh that would have provided access to the newest US aircraft technologies and production sharing.  The White House overruled the US Ambassador and DOD was ordered to offer older technologies.

The Indians, having been courted for several years by the US, and delicately adjusting their own stance on relations with the US, were angered, and the lengthy efforts to enhance US-Indian security relations were abruptly discontinued.  Even now, some years later, the tentative exploration of enhanced US-Indian security cooperation remains highly controversial among high level Indian politicians.

Having put personal emphasis on the US “Asia pivot,” President Obama suggested a shift from the historic primacy of US relations with Europe, across the Atlantic, to greater focus on US interaction in the future of the Asian Pacific region. 

His principal means of cementing the pivot with new relationships was to be the TransPacificPartnership (TPP), opening trade, financial markets, investment, and technology flow with those nations willing to join.  At first Chinese leaders perceived this pivot in terms of a US policy of economic, political, and military containment of China, but the Administration also emphasized a parallel effort to “normalize” and calm relations with China.

When domestic political turbulence escalated, the President cancelled his planned visits to the Asian Pacific aimed at moving the TPP forward.  The Asian nations saw this cancellation as a sign of Presidential loss of attention or interest.

China saw the shift in Presidential focus as opportunity to “push the fences” between itself and its neighbors.

Successful completion of TPP would require Congressional approval of a new fast-track trade negotiating authority, or TPA. However, at this turbulent moment in domestic politics, some of Obama’s key political supporters, including labor unions and labor-sensitive Congressional Democrats, expressed opposition to TPA.

White House aides seemed highly reluctant to confront Obama’s base about trade issues at a moment when Congressional elections next year were being put in play by domestic controversies.  TPP simply faded into the background.  Efforts to seek Congressional action were postponed indefinitely.  While it remained theoretically possible to seek passage of TPA legislation in 2014, the probability of success in Congress would decline as 2014 Congressional elections came closer.  Experienced politicians in both parties saw TPA as something to be considered in 2015, at the earliest.

Other nations took note that the Asian pivot had been relegated to a “pending business” portfolio, sidelined by US domestic political priorities. 

Congress took note that the President was not ready for multi-tasking trade issues alongside domestic efforts to quell growing unrest among Democrats and hardening of opposition to the President’s agenda among Republicans.

Vice President Biden was dispatched to attend TPP meetings and ease tensions with China, but his authority in matters of trade negotiations, trade legislation, and military positioning were questioned in Congress as well as in a number of Asian capitals.

Perhaps Putin has a different concept of reset than Washington does?
Perhaps Putin has a different concept of reset than Washington does?

After asserting that use of toxic chemicals by Assad’s army would be a “red line,” the President hesitated and appeared to be vacillating about willingness to act when it was alleged that Assad had gone ahead to cross Obama’s red line.  At first, the President sought authority from Congress to respond to Assad’s red line challenge with a limited military strike, suggesting that Obama was hesitant to act without public support of Congress.

When Putin suggested an initiative to eliminate the threat of chemical warfare by gaining agreement of Syria to dispose of such weapons, the President seized the opportunity to avoid military action, and even to avoid a potential Congressional division of opinion. 

While the Putin initiative was a welcome political development, it was viewed by many Americans as Presidential weakness, and especially as a US concession to Putin, in effect a “loss of face” by the President to a Russian leader much disliked by the American public.

The GCC Sunni Kingdoms viewed this volte face as Presidential weakness and vacillation. 

Most likely Assad viewed it as a turning point in his favor, and Putin as an opening to exploit other openings in US fences around the Middle East, Africa, and even Cuba.  Putin announced publicly that Russia would enhance its military presence in the Arctic.

The US-Iran diplomatic breakthrough in recent weeks was warmly welcomed by press and media, but generated turbulent controversy in Congress.

Moreover, it was disclosed that the Administration had been conducting secret talks with Iran’s new leadership for more than a year, without consultation with political leaders in Washington or with leaders of other strategically important “friends” in the Middle East, including Israel and the Sunni Kingdoms of the Gulf.

The Saudi leaders see themselves engaged in a Cold War with Tehran for regional influence, so Shiite actors in Iraq, Bahrain, etc., are often perceived and treated as Iranian proxies. But this strategy of stirring up sectarian tensions to mobilize domestic and international opposition to Tehran and Iranian-supported foreign regimes is risky. And differences over Syria have introduced a new source of acute and protracted tension in the Iraq-Saudi relationship. Credit Image: Bigstock
The Saudi leaders see themselves engaged in a Cold War with Tehran for regional influence, so Shiite actors in Iraq, Bahrain, etc., are often perceived and treated as Iranian proxies. Credit Image: Bigstock

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly scorned the President’s secret actions, and leaders of GCC kingdoms openly expressed anger and a sense of further betrayal by the US Administration, after Obama’s failure to act militarily in Syria.

The White House had expected political stress between the White House and Israel, but members of Congress seemed surprised and apprehensive.  Perhaps more important, it subsequently became evident that the White House did not anticipate the severity of negative response from Saudi Arabia and the other GCC member kingdoms.

It has now become evident that the Sunni Arab kingdoms also felt existentially threatened by a nuclear Iran, and were now likely to seek buildup of their own military and nuclear capability as a deterrent to Iran in the future. 

For example, the Saudis are already actively seeking acquisition of submarines that might be capable of sea-launched missile attack on Iran.  Ironically, the US initiative to reduce tensions with Iran’s leadership seems to have set in motion a major armaments buildup in the Gulf.

(The French, well aware of the Sunni Royals’ sentiments, were quick to ally themselves with the GCC, in hopes of becoming major beneficiaries of GCC purchases of military weaponry.)

Questions are now being quietly raised among members of Congress whether the President and US Secretary of State had gained other concessions from Iran’s leadership, particularly moderation of Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and in support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

The President and State Secretary Kerry have vigorously argued against further Congressional action to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

However, there seems to be significant distrust in Congress about Iran’s seemingly abrupt turn from confrontation to conciliation, and distrust in the Obama/Kerry capability to manage successfully a transition to peaceful relations in US relations with Iran.  

As a practical hedge against possible Iranian deception, Administration aides have been advising US companies to move cautiously in exploring restoration of business with Iran, and suggesting to other governments in Europe and Asia to avoid a destabilizing race to restore normal relations with Iran before further nuclear weapons assurances are negotiated with Iran’s leadership in the first half of 2015.

The Chinese competition with the United States is heating up in the Pacific. The Chinese approach to competition with the United States really is based on the game of go, where presence and eroding the adversary's strength is the objective, not blowing them up. Credit Image: Bigstock
The Chinese competition with the United States is heating up in the Pacific. The Chinese approach to competition with the United States really is based on the game of go, where presence and eroding the adversary’s strength is the objective, not blowing them up. Credit Image: Bigstock

In the late days of 2013, China unexpectedly declared a new ADIZ defense perimeter extending far out from the coast of mainland China and including the Senkaku/Daiyu Islands, which Japan long claimed were part of its national territory.  The new ADIZ perimeter also included frequent flight paths of Japanese commercial airlines to various destinations in East Asia, and brought China’s military reach much closer to US bases in Okinawa.

The White House initially failed to organize an Administration response to China’s unilateral action, and confusion ensued between US, Japan, South Korea, and other Asian nations regarding both commercial aviation parameters and military areas of engagement.    

Vice President Biden was sent to “clarify” the apparent disruption to otherwise “improving” US-Chinese relationship, but Biden did not demand a rollback of the ADIZ, nor even secure an unambiguous understanding about the legitimacy and future operability of the ADIZ.  Most likely unintentional, the US sensitivity to Japan’s position seemed to be overlooked.  By failing to define China’s ADIZ as something not achievable unilaterally, but subject to international negotiation, the US implicitly let the existence of the ADIZ stand even if not immediately enforced by the PLA.

In these ambiguous circumstances, the South Korean government immediately followed by asserting a new ADIZ of their own, overlapping that of China and closing the security gap between the Koreas and Japan.  As for Japan, Chinese warnings of brutal response if Japan challenged China’s new perimeter simply ramped up China-Japan tensions.  It almost seemed that China’s PLA would welcome a limited, but deadly skirmish with Japan’s SDF.

As the end of 2013 approached, US foreign policy was confronted with a number of new, critical tests of US foreign and security policy positions on such varied questions as relations between the US and China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, etc. as well as on USAF, USN and USMC repositioning of forces in the Asian Pacific region.  Together will apparent alienation of US relations with the GCC kingdoms and heightened tensions with Israel, a growing degree of foreign policy apprehension will likely also cast a public cloud of loss of confidence in the run-up to Congressional elections.

These political and security strains unfolded at the time of an uncoordinated and ill-thought-through Treasury Department initiative to criticize aggressively Germany’s continuously strong balance of payments surplus while maintaining crushing fiscal austerity pressure on most of the rest of Europe.  US Treasury Secretary Lew’s public attack on Chancellor Merkel’s government, before a new coalition was fully in place, escalated Washington-Berlin political strains to the point where German diplomats privately remarked this represented the worst period in the bilateral relationship since the middle of WWII.

Returning to the issue of what constitutes an effective Presidency, the present Administration has obviously had great difficulty demonstrating continuity and determination in its relations with both friendly governments as well as unfriendly or troublesome governments.  The perception abroad (although even in Canada) is that the US leadership feels conflicted and threatened, overcome by the need for managing both domestic and international challenges at the same time.  In Congress, there are growing signs of serious rifts not only among Republicans but also among Democrats on both domestic and foreign issues.

The White House has presented an imaginative array of explanations for its delays and inconsistencies in actions, but its “spin” seems to be losing effectiveness with Congress, with a growing number of voters, and with many foreign leaders.  The President’s multi-tasking management and decision system seems to be faltering. Confidence in US Government leadership among other nations in continuity, clarity of direction, and willingness to execute its declared intentions seems to be fading.

Ironically, the perception of US passivity is encouraging a new arms race as other nations seek to strengthen their own security in an increasingly threatening context of weak economies, domestic political unrest, and challenges from neighbors.

Spin is a routine foreign policy tool, often sufficiently effective to maintain stability in foreign relations.

Are world events now spinning out of control for this Administration?

Editor’s Note: Dr. Malmgren is a noted global analyst with significant global experience in Europe, the Gulf and Asia.

(Credit: Malmgren)
Harald Malmgren

At Yale University Malmgren was Scholar of the House and research assistant to Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, graduating BA summa cum laude in 1957. At Oxford University, he studied under Nobel Laureate Sir John Hicks, and wrote several widely referenced scholarly articles while earning a D.Phil. in economics in 1961. After Oxford, he was appointed to the Galen Stone Chair in Mathematical Economics at Cornell University.

He began government service under President Kennedy as an adviser to the Secretary of Defense. Under President Johnson he became the first Assistant US Trade Representative. He left government service in 1969, to head research at the Overseas Development Council, and to serve as adviser to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

At that time, he authored International Economic Peacekeeping, a guide for negotiations on trade liberalization during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971-72 he also served as principal adviser to the OECD Secretary General and as a senior adviser to President Nixon on foreign economic policies. President Nixon subsequently appointed him the Principal Deputy US Trade Representative, with the rank of Ambassador. In this role he served Presidents Nixon and Ford as the US chief trade negotiator.

In 1975 Malmgren left government service, and was appointed Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. Since 1977 he has been adviser and strategist for international corporations, banks, investment banks, and sovereign wealth funds. He has also advised finance ministers and prime ministers of a number of governments around the world. Over the years, he has continued writing on economics, markets, and public policy. He also serves as Chairman of the Cordell Hull Institute in Washington, a private, not-for-profit “think tank” which he co-founded with Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State.

For an earlier version of this piece see Breaking Defense: