Obama’s presidency: From chasing history to retreat

Ousting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel fits a pattern in the Obama style of governance

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

If we were to rewrite U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech of 2009 in a way that would be more in sync with his today’s Middle East policy, the last two lines would resemble this: “we turned back and faltered; and with eyes fixed on the polls we carried forth the policy of containment with less regard to future generations.” The discrepancy of Obama’s words in 2009 and his track record thereafter were more accentuated this week with the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who disagreed with the White House on the handling of both the Syria and Russia policies.

Sacking Hagel partly because of discord of opinion after his two memos calling for a more defined policy on the Assad regime and vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin, is a slap to Obama’s own vision in 2009. Obama then wanted to emulate Abraham Lincoln and appoint in the top administration posts a “team of rivals” whose differences of opinion would drive debate and a competent decision-making process. But that was then and this is now. The president’s team today is more insulated and volatile to criticism than any time before since taking office, and the decision-making process on foreign policy is more confined to the White House and a group of political operators rather than experienced hands and visionaries.

From Holbrooke to Hagel

Ousting Hagel fits a pattern in the Obama style of governance that, despite the lofty Lincoln rhetoric, has rewarded agreement and personal relations over foreign policy experience. The early indicators in this trend started in 2009 by the White House marginalizing the late Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke who set out long term plans for resolving the conflict in those countries. We learn from both Vali Nasr’s book “The Dispensable Nation” and David Sanger’s “Confront and Conceal”, that Holbrooke’s bold ideas were rebuffed by the White House and the political operators around Obama chose instead to draft the Af-Pak policy based on public polling and the appetite for withdrawal.

Obama’s shakeup will likely translate into an even more insulated decision-making process in the National Security Council

Joyce Karam

Holbrooke saw the writing on the wall and a long line of foreign policy heavyweights followed him in criticizing Obama’s circle of amateur White House advisors. Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford all highlighted after their exit the same political malaise in the Obama Presidency: an over-dependence on an inner circle of political operators to make major war and peace decisions. At times, there is no decision, because of the president’s own reluctance and indecisiveness. It was Obama’s walk in the Rose garden with his aide Dennis McDonough that decided to backtrack from action against the Assad regime for using Chemical Weapons, and it was the domestic political calendar that set out the withdrawal dates from Iraq end of 2011 despite security challenges. Sure enough, both policies crumbled. Assad, whom the administration once called a “dead man walking” will likely outlast Obama in office, and the Iraqi withdrawal is being reversed with the resurgence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the dispatching of U.S. military “advisers”.

Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden or what Hisham Melhem calls the “adults” in the room, are more or less pushed aside by speech writers and former Congressional staffers. It is no wonder that Egypt and Israel felt at ease embarrassing Kerry during the last Gaza war, and it is no surprise that Biden’s trip to Turkey did not bring any tangible results. National Security Advisor Susan Rice according to U.S. diplomats has more influence on the President’s Middle East policy than Hagel, Kerry and Biden combined.

Dampen expectations until 2016

Obama’s shakeup, scapegoating Hagel while keeping -until now- the White House team intact, will likely translate into an even more insulated decision-making process in the National Security Council while downsizing the impact of both the State Department and the Pentagon. The administration has not been able to find a replacement to Hagel yet. Michele Flournoy, and Senator Jack Reed were on the shortlist of potential candidates for the job, but have both signaled that they are not interested in taking the responsibility. Can anyone blame them? Leading the Pentagon for two years and micromanaging two wars with incomplete strategies while being trumped by White House aides, is not an attractive job description.

Kicking the can down the road is the most likely strategy for the Obama administration in the Middle East in the last two years in office. The Peace Process is long past dead and the Iran deal is very far from certain as the new Congress threatens sanctions and the Vienna talks fail at even producing a joint outline. In Syria, Obama was clear following the midterms’ loss that “our focus in Syria is not to solve the entire Syria situation, but rather to isolate the areas in which ISI[S] can operate.” Iraq will be the more urgent priority for the administration, at least to leave it in a place that Obama inherited in 2008, after the counterinsurgency strategy helped roll back al-Qaeda and pro-Saddam militias.

Hagel had called for “strategic agility” and a pro-active policy that gets ahead of the problems. His departure and the balance inside the administration suggest that Obama will continue moving in the opposite direction that Hagel recommended, embracing endless policy reviews and half-hearted but politically convenient strategies.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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