Small Wars Journal

The President’s Not-So-Stunning Moment of Candor

Sat, 08/04/2012 - 8:53am

About three months ago, the 24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere were aflame with news of President Obama’s comments to Russian President Medvedev regarding European missile defense, picked up on an open microphone and heard by a platoon of reporters.  The President noted:  “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but its important for [Putin] to give me space…This is my last election.  After my election I have more flexibility.”[1]  Stated more plainly, the President, in a private conversation unknowingly made public through a technical oversight, admitted that domestic politics and international affairs are inextricably interlinked, and that candidates standing election sometimes must have different positions than candidates unburdened by concerns about politics.  Well, knock me over with a feather.  Who knew that domestic politics and foreign affairs were linked?

Honestly, this writer cannot quite get his head around what it is everyone cannot get their head around.  Did anyone honestly labor under the delusion that domestic politics do not affect the conduct of foreign affairs, and vice-versa?  Do the American people really expect that the President’s posture on missile defense would not change depending on his position in the election cycle?  That such a dynamic does not have enormous historical precedent in American politics?  As recently as the administration of the 43rd President, decisions on the Iraq invasion and hesitance to increase the force footprint in Iraq likely were driven by the November, 2004 election.  Decisions on military escalation in Vietnam were driven by the 1964 and 1968 general elections, and Nixon’s Vietnamization campaign was born partially out of political calculus as he looked toward the 1976 race.  Woodrow Wilson adopted a noninterventionist agenda based principally on domestic politics until World War I became inevitable, and Lincoln’s choice to remove McClellan as his army commander in 1862 likely were made with one eye on victory and the other focused on 1864.  Even unparalleled wartime leader FDR factored electoral politics into his decisions to stay out of WWII after the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 rollup of the low countries and France, prioritizing continued, fragile domestic economic recovery as a political consideration until the day which lives in infamy.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to understand this dynamic merely as an unfortunate instance “of that’s just how it is.”  In fact, it is that way by design, and it is part of the grand bargain the electorate makes with a President each time he is elected or re-elected:  we know tacitly that priorities will change, and the electorate makes calculated guesses based on our collective estimate of how far one way or the other he will sway once safe from being cashiered.  Presidents are political actors, by definition.  Each president is also the chief economist, strategic leader, a noteworthy social icon, super-Attorney General and head law enforcement officer, and chief diplomat for the nation.  The President is required to balance all of these roles, and to prioritize each at different points in the historical cycle of a presidency.  In fact, whether we want to admit or not, we expect a President to be a political actor and to prioritize politics at times:  who wants to follow a loser who accepts political defeat as a fait accompli?  Domestic politics is merely a reflection of national priorities, even if there is not always a 100% match, as one subsystem lags or leads the other.

The real issue that national security professionals, the diplomatic community, and the electorate should register and monitor is the insertion of politics as the principal motivator of a president’s strategic, economic, and administrative decisions.  We should understand and even tacitly encourage the president to be a competitive politician with the will and desire to win.  Our national communities of interest have a responsibility to help the president shape his priorities through the delivery of sound, prudent, well-reasoned advice and advocacy which has but one agenda:  the economic and social health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the nation.  That is the standard against which we should judge a president’s performance, taking into account his or her entire body of work, not individual data points hyperbolized into something greater than they really are.

As the electoral frenzy waxes toward November, we can expect the administration to engage in additional political calculation as it shapes national security decisions this year.  We should expect it as a natural byproduct of the electoral process.  Political leaders have to be responsive to the will and priorities of the people, expressed through a number of mediums – polls, online, broadcast and print media, the political actions and statements of allies and rivals, and national economic performance, among other cues.  As this President makes decisions on weighty national security issues such as Syrian intervention, counterterrorism policy, cybersecurity, missile defense, U.S. policy on Iran, China, North Korea, and Mexico, the South Asian security dilemma, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polity should expect political considerations to factor into the administration’s decisionmaking calculus as a vehicle for continuing his national security agenda into the next term.  The clamor from some quarters for a national security decisionmaking process free of domestic political constraints is not only naïve, it is unwise in terms of its abstraction from the national will.

[1] David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren, Obama seeks more time on missile defense, Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2012.




Wed, 08/15/2012 - 8:40am

What's the alternative that those in "national security decisionmaking" positions -- who according to this article seem to be clamoring to be freed from political constraints -- are proposing? That the reliance of the commonwealth ought to be invested in their particular brains and goodwill about what is best for "the economic and social health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the nation"?

I guess they figure they've earned that kind of leeway in the exercise of power. After all they have emerged, after wrestling their way to the top layer of some executive-branch bureaucratic heap -- by means both fair and foul no doubt -- wholly rational, clear-eyed, and not to mention utterly devoid of self interest.

As "national security professionals," no less! Right...

LTC Bracknell used five paragraphs expounding upon the obvious, that foreign policy is affected by domestic politics. But he missed the obvious reason people were upset by Mr. Obama's statement. People were upset because the words, their tone and the setting in which they were uttered made it plain that Mr. Obama thought he would be able do things pleasing to Mr. Putin, and displeasing to the Americans, in the future. He passed a private (he thought) message to a foreign dictator that they could do business just as soon as he didn't have to worry about what those annoying American voters thought. LTC Bracknell missed this even though he stated "Political leaders have to be responsive to the will and priorities of the people..." and Mr. Obama's words made it clear that he intended to be anything but.

There is a supercilious tone to LTC Bracknell's comments. How could those dumb flyover people not get it? Us dumb flyover people get it all right. We get it perfectly well. What we don't like is when a sitting President tries to secretly state his intention to a foreign tyrant that he will ignore the wishes of the Americans just as soon as the situation will let him get away with it. I don't understand how LTC Bracknell didn't get that.