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When Will Obama Grow Some Cojones for Democracy?

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Democratic presidential candidate foreign policy adviser extremely disappointed with Obama’s response to the Middle East & North Africa Crisis and the lack of true expertise among his so called “expert” foreign policy advisers.

I’ve worked on presidential campaigns since 2000, writing foreign policy statements for a prominent presidential candidate in 2004, and supporting Barack Obama from the start in 2008.  I must say, however, I’m extremely disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy response to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) democratic movements.  

I expected more from Obama than inaction in dealing with the MENA situation.  I was completely against the neo-conservative approach to MENA during the Bush Administration, but Obama’s lukewarm response is making me feel nostalgic for a more interventionist approach to support democracy in MENA.  

Consider the situation in Libya.  If you listen to the international media, it’s clear that the world expected a faster response from Obama to Libya.  And I agree.  Consider some of the weak responses of this administration to Libya:

– Saying you’re putting sanctions on Libya but saying you’re announcing them only after US citizens were out of harm’s way –> sends message that you can stop US from intervening by holding our people hostage

– Sending ferries to rescue US citizens in Libya, while other countries sent jets/ships, and then saying because of bad weather you had to postpone operation.  Hello?  We have a fleet in the gulf?

– Cutting diplomatic ties with Libya, closing our embassy –> I would have taken non essential personnel out, left intelligence operatives, need our own eyes & ears on ground

– Dilly dallying on no fly zone, this is a no brainer that would win us points with people throughout Arab world, seems White House doesn’t have Arab pulse right now

– Announcing that you’ll be meeting to announce that you’ll be meeting again to announce that you’ll meet again to make a decision, which you will announce at a future date

– Etc.

A prominent Democratic friend of mine who is connected to some high-ranking people in the Obama administration pointed out that some who work for Obama in State, Defense, etc. have told him that they are just punching the time card to get a really high paying lobbying gig or bigger appointment post-Obama.  So we’ve got clock punchers rather than leaders.  He doesn’t see anyone in the Obama administration who’s comparable to Kissinger, Brzezinski, or even James Baker in terms of international vision. As he noted:  “At least the neo-cons had a vision, it was lousy and wrong but Obama/Clinton is like a sequel of Warren Christopher except during a crisis.  Remember the joke whenever the State Dept would have a round of cuts during Christopher’s tenure at State? The diplomats would say ‘this would never happen if Warren Christopher were alive.”

Why does every good Democratic presidential candidate get sucked into the Clintonista moderation ideology?  Heck, the biggest foreign policy achievement of Clinton occurred in Kosovo supposedly because General Wesley Clark went rogue.  They claim to be foreign policy hawks, but they’re not.  Seriously, where are the true principled hawks from the FDR, Truman & JFK era?  It seems like today’s Clintonista-Obama hawks care more about lobbying contracts than about advancing the export of the greatest invention the United States has ever made: democracy.

Everett Hughes wrote about “guilty knowledge,” or the phenomenon that professionals will always pretend to know things they don’t because others expect them to.  This was originally in the context of doctors and patients.

But we can see this in foreign policy too.  A lot of the so-called experts, say in Islamic fundamentalism, get the expertise as a result of their doctoral work.  Let’s assume the typical PhD person got a liberal education in his/her Bachelor’s degree, so no specialization there, then went straight to a PhD.  Two years of theoretical and methods coursework, if not three.  No specialization there on the topic of Islamic Fundamentalism.  In general, 6 mo to 1 year of research, if you’re lucky, and if you’re really lucky, the person will have conducted a few months to a year of actual fieldwork in a Muslim setting.  Then 6 months to a year of writing and defense.  But then consider that when we speak of years, it’s actually far less time, for this person has to do teaching and research duties for their advisor in areas that may or may not correspond to Islamic fundamentalism.  But by age 27, that 1 year of true field research is treated as “expertise on Islamic Fundamentalism.”  There’s the guilty knowledge.  This person knows this, and if not, s/he is overconfident and probably not to be trusted when doling out advice.

Of course, this isn’t enough to be national security adviser.  But let’s see what they do after that.  They’ll work as policy analysts on presidential campaigns, where the PhD will be the expertise.  They will speak authoritatively on the subject, even when their authoritative knowledge is limited.  From campaign to campaign, they will go up through the ranks.  If their candidate gets elected, they may get to serve as national security advisors.  But this is not empirical work; it’s about seeing data and doling out advice, which may or may not be based on good evidence.

The media will mention them as experts, further cementing their expertise.  In between campaigns, some work as lawyers because they have a JD.  That means they do NO research on their area of expertise.  Those that work at think tanks fare a bit better, but they’re no longer doing true academic research on the subject.  It’s mostly anecdotal and books.  So unless they’re academics, whose research is fairly static (i.e., focused on Islamic fundamentalism from PhD through tenure to full professorship), they’re unlikely to fulfill the expectations of their “expert” roles.

In short, most of Obama’s foreign policy experts are folks who were experts in that 1 year or so that they did their empirical research to get their PhDs, which in the case of a national security adviser who got a PhD say at age 30 and is now 50 means 20 years ago, in which time the world has changed.  And even if the expertise in Islamic fundamentalism is not stale, it is unlikely to be helpful to deal with other foreign policy matters, like North Korea.

How does the foreign policy professional deal with the guilty knowledge?  S/he has a network of academics & other so-called experts who s/he consults with, so s/he can then go out and claim expertise in these other areas based on, you guessed it, expert hearsay…  😉

But pointing fingers at our political professionals is just too easy.  Even our Democratic candidates and voters seem too uninterested in foreign policy. One presidential candidate’s ignorance was appalling.  Even after dozens of briefings with “experts” from State, CIA, etc. he publicly stated that none of his briefings had indicated that Pakistan was unstable!

  • DrGood

    Look at Susan Rice speaking at the UN Security Council yesterday.  Does anyone believe the bloodshed in Bahrain and Egypt would have stopped without Obama and Clinton working their behind-the-scenes magic to force those governments to exercise restraint?  If anything, Obama is just not advertising the accomplishments of his pragmatic approach to foreign policy as well as he should.  But doubt not, Obama is taking a very hands on approach to the Middle East.  If the neocons were in charge, they would’ve already loused everything up as they did with Iraq/Afghanistan.  Or don’t you remember?!