photo by Flickr user cmccain202dc
The hallmark of an effective executive is the ability to recognize the world as it is, rather than as he or she would like it to be, and to make decisions accordingly.
President Obama, the activist-lecturer-author turned politician, never held an executive job prior to moving into the White House, and has since demonstrated time and again that he lacks this essential trait. His skill set is built for persuasion and argument, not decision-making and execution. He typically convinces himself that things are going swimmingly, and when it turns out they are not (examples: the Affordable Care Act rollout and the scandal over excessive waits at Veterans Administration hospitals), his aides assure us that nobody is angrier or more surprised than the president. Effective chief executives rarely need to get angry. They are even more rarely surprised.
Domestic missteps can have big consequences, of course, but it is in foreign affairs that the really world-changing events tend to unfold. We will all be reminded of this a few days from now when Obama and other leaders gather at the graves of Allied soldiers to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the assault on Normandy. A more realistic assessment of Hitler’s prewar intentions might have made that assault unnecessary; millions of lives were lost in Europe because Allied leaders refused to believe that Germany’s Nazi leader was as dangerous as he looked.
Joining Obama and other Western leaders at Normandy this week will be Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is no Hitler, but he has been similarly methodical in his aggression, and Obama (along with many of his European counterparts) has been slow both to acknowledge this reality and to respond.
Just last week, at West Point’s commencement address, Obama set out a vision of the world that was geared less to reality and more to his desire to be remembered as the president who ended foreign wars. To make that case, the president argued that our major threat is terrorism and not, by extension, the governments that have nurtured it (such as the Taliban, with whom the president executed a prisoner swap over the weekend) and other expansionist regimes that view any display of weakness as an opening to pursue their aims by force.
Terrorists killed approximately 3,000 people on 9/11. They are, indeed, a constant threat to Americans, at home and abroad. We should not overlook or downplay the threat. But are they really the single greatest threat to our security, as Obama contends?
Is terrorism the biggest threat in a world in which North Korea has at least primitive nuclear weapons and is working on missiles to deliver them? Where we are convinced that Iran, despite its protestations, is bent on acquiring the same sort of weaponry? Where Russia and China both clearly show expansionist tendencies and a willingness to throw their weight around whenever they feel safe from contravening pressure from the United States?
China and Russia have both had serious problems with terrorism themselves, China as recently as last month. Yet if a Chinese leader said publicly that terrorism was the country’s most urgent national security issue, he would be widely perceived as crazy.
The United States carries a disproportionate share of the load to keep industrialized democracies safe from those who would rather steal our prosperity than build their own. Many in Western Europe, in particular, are content to stay safe under the American security umbrella while griping about the economic policies that help pay for it. It is clear that America cannot be the world’s only protector everywhere.
But to argue that it shouldn’t play that role anywhere is to throw up our hands and say that we won’t act on any problem until it is an imminent existential threat to Americans’ lives or livelihoods. This is a policy that we have seen, more than once, leads to greater costs in blood and money over the long run.
In his commencement address, Obama said that “America must always lead on the world stage.” What he offers, however, is not leadership; it is rhetoric that is as misdirected as it is empty. The concerns of both his critics and his allies were evident in the largely negative reactions, in the media and elsewhere. Even his audience at West Point, The New York Times reported, offered a mostly subdued reception. Many had hoped this speech would represent a bold re-energizing of Obama’s foreign policy strategy. Instead, it offered mainly more of what had drawn the criticism in the first place.
As Obama himself observed near the end of his speech, “Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty.” The problem is that he didn’t stop there. He went on to add: “But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be - a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.”
It works as rhetoric, but not as executive leadership. Foreign policy should be based on the world we inhabit, not the one we wish for. Obama may wish that terrorism were this country’s greatest threat, but wishing won’t make it so.