Biting the Bullet on Foreign Policy Making and Staffing Issues

Biting the Bullet on Foreign Policy Making and Staffing Issues

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Presidents who enter the White House without either foreign policy or administrative experience or both invariably have problems created by these specific deficits. These are evident in the Obama White House no moreso than they have been historically in other similar situations. The current manifestations are specifically apparent at the moment. While the administrative problem undoubtedly will be resolved soon, the foreign policy decision-making questions are more persistent and do not appear to moving to a very quick resolution.

The unbelievable mismanagement exposed by the Veterans Administration’s Inspector General’s report clearly suggests a level of management malfeasance which requires immediate correction. How fast Secretary Eric Shinseki will be dismissed is not clear, but Obama cannot permit him to remain as director given all that apparently already occurred on his watch. Regardless of General Shinseki’s superior prior credentials, his performance at the VA clearly calls for him to be replaced. Obama’s problem—as is the case with many administrators—is that he does not like to fire people; especially since in this case, as is also so often the case, it bears with it political fallout. Obama continues to demonstrate that he does not have tough enough skin to take the heat from critics. In this case he has no choice. Someone else needs to preside over cleaning up this tragic mess.

In the case of foreign policy Obama again suffers from wanting to be all things to all people. His conduct here as well manifests a reluctance to make hard decisions which might be unpopular and carry political consequences. Analysts and scholars have the luxury of spinning decisions before and after the fact.  Presidents require staff to help them study a problem; but they then must make the decision. Admittedly, U.S. foreign policy has a long history of tension between internationalism, on the one hand, and isolationism/protectionism, on the other. U.S. involvement in the world especially since America’s entry into World War I has generally dominated the isolationist voice which was so active in the 1930’s. The take-away from his 5 ½ years in the White House and his speech at West Point was a reaffirmation of President Obama’s conflicting personal attitudes in how he seeks to address this tension.

On the one hand, given his reading of national polls as well as his own personal reticence, he does not want to involve the U.S. globally in any situation which possibly might lead to a significant military commitment. On the other hand, he has a genuine concern for international humanitarian issues but apparently not if any action could possibly lead to engagements which cannot be contained without military involvements. (This in part must be the explanation for his backing out of responding more aggressively to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people last summer.) Diplomatic and economic assistance to finesse an international issue are acceptable means. Except for discrete and narrowly defined anti-terrorist actions, he very much wants to avoid future U.S. military engagements. 

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