Lind explains why Obama’s foreign policy will fail

Another brilliant essay by William Lind:  ” If Wishes Were Horses. . .”, #285 in his series On War, 8 December 2008.  The FM site has many articles on the two themes he discusses.  Of esp import now is reform of the State Department — the necessary element for success of Obama’s policies.  Links to 4 posts about this appear after the excerpt.

Excerpt (bold emphasis added):

Panglissading through reality, the New York Times recently offered the sort of thoughtlessly sunny picture of the Obama administration’s security policy that lulls children to sleep but leaves adults restlessly wakeful. In a front-page story on December 1, “A Handpicked Team for a Foreign Policy Shift” by David Sanger, the Times reported that the new administration’s key national security policy appointees were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military’s huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the coming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

Whether they can make the change…”will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency,” one of his senior advisors said recently.

In the best Christmas spirit of my old friend Mr. Scrooge, I will spoil the story by spilling the ending up front. The “great foreign policy experiment” will fail. It will fail for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical.

The practical reason is that, no matter how much money you give them, our State Department and other civilian agencies cannot produce a product.

Over the years, I have heard one ambassador after another say, “I had to turn to the military because they are the only people who can get anything done.” If you give the U.S. military an order, something usually happens. It may happen late, clumsily, and expensively, but still, something happens.

In contrast, with State and other agencies, most of the time nothing happens. That is true even when budgets are ample. Why? Because the internal culture of our civilian agencies is so rigid, bureaucratic, risk-averse and rule-bond that they cannot act.

Often, the people at the working level are quite talented. They want to do the assigned job. But the internal focus of their agency is so strong they cannot, at least without risking their careers. A single broken rule or bent regulation, undotted i or uncrossed t, and they quickly learn to follow the regs and forget about the product. So nothing happens.

The Obama administration may wish this were not the case. Worse, it may pretend it is not the case, and learn only by failure. But if it is serious about its “one great foreign policy experiment,” it must start be reforming the internal culture of the State Department and all related agencies. That is a long-term and difficult undertaking. As to wishes, well, if wishes were horses, we would all get rich collecting golden road apples.

The second reason the great experiment will fail is that it represents a failure in strategic theory. In effect, it says that the Bush administration’s debacle was a result of not of mistaken ends, only of mistaken means.

America will start to endeavor to govern the world, “preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.” We will insert ourselves everywhere, exporting “democracy” and “human rights,” aka Brave New World. We will re-make other societies in our own image, whether they want us to or not (no one does). This time, it will work, because instead of Marines, we will storm the beaches with brave State Department lads, armored with blue suits and armed with briefing papers and bottles of sherry.

In fact, our offensive grand strategy is itself the root of our failures. We cannot re-make societies in our own image, regardless of the means employed. Attempts to do so are doomed to failure, and so long as we insist on undertaking them, we are doomed to imperial overreach, with its inevitable consequences of decay and decline.

Some so-called “conservatives” may object to the Obama administration’s great experiment because it will take money away from the Pentagon. That merely shows the right’s usual instinct for the capillaries. We would take half the defense budget, pile it in heaps, set it in fire and roast marshmallows over it and gain no less from it than we do now. The real issue is whether America’s grand strategy should be offensive or defensive. From President Washington to Senator Robert A. Taft, conservatives knew it should be the latter. That should be the critique conservatives offer, and it is one to which the Obama administration should pay thoughtful attention.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below. You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts on the FM site about the State Department:

  1. Truly cracked advice to the State Department, receiving wide applause, 13 February 2008
  2. Ready, Aim, “foreign policy” away, 7 March 2008
  3. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
  4. The State Department needs help, stat!, 22 December 2008

10 thoughts on “Lind explains why Obama’s foreign policy will fail”

  1. Sometimes I disagree with Lind’s analyses, but in this case I think he may have something.

    Only time will tell.

  2. I agree and disagree with Lind. This will fail, but not because The State Dept. is any more diseased or compromised than the rest of a typical bureaucracy. The State Dept. exists to create stability. It handles day-to-day working relationships between the US and whatever country we want our people, government and businesses to be able to do work in.

    This sort of activity involves a lot of reassurance and cooperation. This doesn’t involve changing a lot of things. Change tends to make other countries nervous and less likely to want to work with the US at all. When we get along passably well with a foreign government, there isn’t any reason to involve the military much at all, unless we’ve signed some type of defense agreement. If we’re at perpetual loggerheads with someone (e.g. North Korea), the State Department won’t be a very effective organization. People who refuse to even accept their request for a meeting are pretty much immune from the State Dept’s power.

    Barack Obama’s mistake seems to be his belief that we can somehow convince Kim Il Jung, or (Amhadinejad, or Hugo Chavez, et al..) that they should stop being who they are as human beings and suddenly talk to the State Dept. The sad truth here is that these people tend to rebuff the State Dept. and then leave that encounter with an unrealistic and dangerous belief that the POTUS sent in The State Dept. because the US lacks the will to do what’s necessary to get our way.

  3. Much of our current foreign policy failures was precedented by the rites controversy.

    Jesuit missionaries traveling to China in the late 16th and early 17th century attempted to adapt Christian liturgy to native Chinese customs. The Dominicans, claiming that Latin rites must be adopted, challenged this.

    The matter was referred to the Pope. The Chinese emperor, upon learning that his subjects’ affairs were being arbitrated abroad, expelled them.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great analogy; thank you for posting it!

  4. Fabius, here is an interesting link I found on Information Dissemination. I think it is germane to the discussion at hand.

    The Human Element: When Gadgetry Becomes Strategy“, H. R. McMaster, World Affairs Journal, Winter 2009.

    H. R. McMaster is a U.S. Army Colonel. He is author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components.

    Fabius Maximus replise: Thank you for posting this link. Anything by McMaster is appropriate on this site.

  5. Hillary Clinton’s remarks to Congress yesterday (cited approvingly by Juan Cole today) hadm much the same tone — we will use all tools — economic, cultural, diplomatic, military6 — in pursuing our foreing policy goals. This doesn’t mean the goals will change; they still add up to maintaining an empire. (HC apparently imagine herself a stronger Sec State than Colin Powell or Condileeza Rice.)

    Lind is right that the change in style will fail. One can also add that it won’t even get off the ground, since the Pentagon’s entrenched position will resist competition.

  6. Fabius Maximus replies: Great analogy; thank you for posting it!

    Based upon various conversations I have had with Jesuits over the years, they are still hopped up over the Rites Controversy.

    Jonathan Spence, in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, discusses the Jesuit mission to China.

  7. Lind is right that militarily an offensive posture on land in Asia is a sure loser for the US, barring genocide or slavery. However it’s not inconsistent with anything Obama has said that we can take such a position, militarily.

    When it comes to propaganda and other forms of soft power, we could be way more savvy and aggressive. There are myriads of quotes that could be culled for example from the Koran and the Traditions that would prove what sadistic cowards the Taliban are for throwing acid in the faces of young girls for learning to read… if we put those out in Persian with photos, rather than sending feckless, clueless automatons like Karen Hughes out there, we could make some real headway.

  8. I am not quite sure I can buy Lind’s “practical” point. Off the top of my head, The Millennium Challenge Account, PEPFAR, and the FSO led PRTs in Iraq all seem to be working just swell.

    Not that I do not think State and USAID need institutional reform- they do. However, stating that Foreign Service (and other similar agencies) cannot produce anything seems to be playing loose with the facts.

    ~T. Greer, no fan of pretense.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Lind is a master of overstatement, a vituoso of overstatement. Nobody of sense seriously uses words like “always” and “never.” As a clue to his fans, he also claims to chat with Kaiser Wilhelm II — which should suggest a somewhat playful attitude in these essays.

    Appropriately so. One can only laugh or cry when considering American’s grand strategy. This site mostly does the latter; Lind does both (at one time or another).

  9. Looks like this article ended up being totally off base!

    We are rebuilding our alliances around the world, ending two wars, and killing our top enemies.

    Go Obama!

    1. It’s alwasy good to hear from the true believers in the Gamma Quadrant!

      • We were kicked out of Iraq (by the Status of Forces agreement signed by Bush Jr), accomplishing none of our strategic goals.
      • Obama’s surge in Afghanistan accomplished little or nothing. How our allies are leaving, Obama’s retreating — while signing an agreement keeping us tied to the Afghanistan tar baby for another decade. Reforce failure, the sure road to ruin.
      • Obama has alientated Pakistan, one of our key regional allies. We’re hated by a large fraction (perhaps a majority) of the population, probably seriously weakening our regional status for the next generation.
      • Obama’s vacilatting and contradictory posture to the Arab Spring has created widespread dissatisfaction in the Middle East. Both among the ruling (tyrannical) elites and the people. Bombing Libya, supporting Israel’s land-grabs, systematic lies about Iran, contradictory policies towards Egypt’s regime change — and most of all, for leading the next phase of the US crusdade against Islam (no matter what our intent, that’s the appearance — both foreign and domestic).
      • As for killing our enemies, Obama’s expanded assassination program has sown the Hyra’s teeth. For each Islamist fighter (or wife, child, or neighbor) we kill, two more spring up to replace him.

      The sad aspect of Jane’s comment: Obama’s policies that she cheers are almost identical to Bush Jr’s. Did she say “Go Bush!” during his two terms in office?

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