The Need for New Blood at State Dept.: Obama’s Problem with the ‘Vision Thing’

By Andrew J. Bacevich | ( –

En route back to Washington at the tail end of his most recent overseas trip, John Kerry, America’s peripatetic secretary of state, stopped off in France “to share a hug with all of Paris.” Whether Paris reciprocated the secretary’s embrace went unrecorded.

Despite the requisite reference to General Pershing (“Lafayette, we are here!”) and flying James Taylor in from the 1960s to assure Parisians that “You’ve Got a Friend,” in the annals of American diplomacy Kerry’s hug will likely rank with President Eisenhower’s award of the Legion of Merit to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and Jimmy Carter’s acknowledgment of the “admiration and love” said to define the relationship between the Iranian people and their Shah.  In short, it was a moment best forgotten.

Alas, this vapid, profoundly silly event is all too emblematic of statecraft in the Obama era.  Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance.

Not one of the signature foreign policy initiatives conceived in Obama’s first term has borne fruit. When it came to making a fresh start with the Islamic world, responsibly ending the “dumb” war in Iraq (while winning the “necessary” one in Afghanistan), “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations, and “pivoting” toward Asia, mark your scorecard 0 for 4.

There’s no doubt that when Kerry arrived at the State Department he brought with him some much-needed energy.  That he is giving it his all — the department’s website reports that the secretary has already clocked over 682,000 miles of travel — is doubtless true as well.  The problem is the absence of results.  Remember when his signature initiative was going to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal?  Sadly, that quixotic plan, too, has come to naught.

Yes, Team Obama “got” bin Laden.  And, yes, it deserves credit for abandoning a self-evidently counterproductive 50-plus-year-old policy toward Cuba and for signing a promising agreement with China on climate change.  That said, the administration’s overall record of accomplishment is beyond thin, starting with that first-day-in-the-Oval-Office symbol that things were truly going to be different: Obama’s order to close Guantanamo.  That, of course, remains a work in progress (despite regular reassurances of light glimmering at the end of what has become a very long tunnel).

In fact, taking the president’s record as a whole, noting that on his watch occasional U.S. drone strikes have become routine, the Nobel Committee might want to consider revoking its Peace Prize.

Nor should we expect much in the time that Obama has remaining. Perhaps there is a deal with Iran waiting in the wings (along with the depth charge of ever-fiercer congressionally mandated sanctions), but signs of intellectual exhaustion are distinctly in evidence.

“Where there is no vision,” the Hebrew Bible tells us, “the people perish.”  There’s no use pretending: if there’s one thing the Obama administration most definitely has not got and has never had, it’s a foreign policy vision.

In Search of Truly Wise (White) Men — Only Those 84 or Older Need Apply

All of this evokes a sense of unease, even consternation bordering on panic, in circles where members of the foreign policy elite congregate.  Absent visionary leadership in Washington, they have persuaded themselves, we’re all going down.  So the world’s sole superpower and self-anointed global leader needs to get game — and fast.

Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently weighed in with a proposal for fixing the problem: clean house.  Obama has surrounded himself with fumbling incompetents, Gelb charges.  Get rid of them and bring in the visionaries.

Writing at the Daily Beast, Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with “strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”  Translation: the sort of people who sip sherry and nibble on brie in the august precincts of the Council of Foreign Relations.  In addition to offering his own slate of nominees, including several veterans of the storied George W. Bush administration, Gelb suggests that Obama consult regularly with Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Baker.  These distinguished war-horses range in age from 84 to 91.  By implication, only white males born prior to World War II are eligible for induction into the ranks of the Truly Wise Men.

Anyway, Gelb emphasizes, Obama needs to get on with it.  With the planet awash in challenges that “imperil our very survival,” there is simply no time to waste.

At best, Gelb’s got it half right.  When it comes to foreign policy, this president has indeed demonstrated a knack for surrounding himself with lackluster lieutenants.  That statement applies equally to national security adviser Susan Rice (and her predecessor), to Secretary of State Kerry (and his predecessor), and to outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.  Ashton Carter, the technocrat slated to replace Hagel as defense secretary, comes from the same mold.

They are all “seasoned”  — in Washington, a euphemism for bland, conventional, and utterly unimaginative — charter members of the Rogers-Christopher school of American statecraft.  (That may require some unpacking, so pretend you’re on Jeopardy.  Alex Trebek:  “Two eminently forgettable and completely forgotten twentieth-century secretaries of state.”  You, hitting the buzzer:  “Who were William Rogers and Warren Christopher?”  “Correct!”)

Members of Obama’s national security team worked long and hard to get where they are.  Yet along the way — perhaps from absorbing too many position papers, PowerPoint briefings, and platitudes about “American global leadership” — they lost whatever creative spark once endowed them with the appearance of talent and promise.  Ambition, unquestioned patriotism, and a capacity for putting in endless hours (and enduring endless travel) — all these remain.  But a serious conception of where the world is heading and what that implies for basic U.S. policy?  Individually and collectively, they are without a clue.

I submit that maybe that’s okay, that plodding mediocrity can be a boon if, as at present, the alternatives on offer look even worse.

A Hug for Obama

You want vision?  Obama’s predecessor surrounded himself with visionaries.  Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, products of the Cold War one and all, certainly fancied themselves large-bore strategic thinkers.  Busily positioning the United States to run (just another “i” and you have “ruin”) the world, they were blindsided by 9/11.  Unembarrassed and unchastened by this disaster, they initiated a series of morally dubious, strategically boneheaded moves that were either (take your pick) going to spread freedom and democracy or position the United States to exercise permanent dominion.  The ensuing Global War on Terror did neither, of course, while adding trillions to the national debt and helping fracture great expanses of the planet.  Obama is still, however ineffectually, trying to clean up the mess they created.

If that’s what handing the keys to big thinkers gets you, give me Susan Rice any day.  Although Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” may never rank with Washington’s Farewell Address or the Monroe Doctrine in the history books, George W. Bush might have profited from having some comparable axiom taped to his laptop.

Big ideas have their place — indeed, are essential — when the issues at hand are clearly defined.  The Fall of France in 1940 was one such moment, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized.  So too, arguably, was the period immediately after World War II.  The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had left a dangerous power vacuum in both Europe and the Pacific to which George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and their compatriots forged a necessary response.  Perhaps the period 1968-1969 falls into that same category, the debacle of Vietnam requiring a major adjustment in U.S. Cold War strategy.  This Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger undertook with their opening to China.

Yet despite the overwrought claims of Gelb (and others) that America’s very survival is today at risk, the present historical moment lacks comparable clarity.  Ours is not a time when we face a single overarching threat.  Instead, on several different fronts, worrisome developments are brewing.  Environmental degradation, the rise of China and other emerging powers, the spread of radical Islam, the precarious state of the global economy, vulnerabilities that are an inevitable byproduct of our pursuit of a cyber-utopia: all of these bear very careful watching.  Each one today should entail a defensive response, the United States protecting itself (and its allies) against worst-case outcomes.  But none of these at the present moment justifies embarking upon a let-out-all-the-stops offensive.  Chasing after one problem would necessarily divert attention from the rest.

The immediate future remains too opaque to say with certainty which threat will turn out to pose the greatest danger, whether in the next year or the next decade — and which might even end up not being a threat at all but an unexpected opportunity.  Conditions are not ripe for boldness.  The abiding imperative of the moment is to discern, which requires careful observation and patience.  In short, forget about strategy.

And there’s a further matter.  Correct discernment assumes a proper vantage point.  What you see depends on where you sit and which way you’re facing.  Those who inhabit the upper ranks of the Obama administration (and those whom Leslie Gelb offers as replacements) sit somewhere back in the twentieth century, their worldview shaped by memories of Munich and Yalta, Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall, none of which retain more than tangential relevance to the present day.

You want vision?  That will require a new crop of visionaries.  Instead of sitting down with ancients like Kissinger, Scowcroft, Brzezinski, or Baker, this president (or his successor) would be better served to pick the brain of the army captain back from multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the moral theologian specializing in inter-religious dialog, the Peace Corps volunteer who spent the last two years in West Africa, and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur best able to spell out the political implications of the next big thing.

In short, a post-twentieth century vision requires a post-twentieth century generation, able to free itself from old shibboleths to which Leslie Gelb and most of official Washington today remain stubbornly dedicated.  That generation waits in the wings and after another presidential election or two may indeed wield some influence.  We should hope so.  In the meantime, we should bide our time, amending the words of the prophet to something like: “Where there is no vision, the people muddle along and await salvation.”

So as Obama and his team muddle toward their finish line, their achievements negligible, we might even express a modicum of gratitude.  When they depart the scene, we will forget the lot of them.  Yet at least they managed to steer clear of truly epic disasters.  When muddling was the best Washington had on offer, they delivered.  They may even deserve a hug.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Andrew Bacevich


Related video added by Juan Cole:

AP: “Kerry: Wants to ‘share a Hug’ With Paris”

6 Responses

  1. Brian A. Hayes

    Need the vision that Dr. King laid out in The Beyond Vietnam Sermon penned by Dr. Vincent Harding . King understood the Noble PP

  2. cue lennon singing, “–stuck in the muddle with you”. good thoughts: and i suppose u.s. foreign policy suffers from the same cultural mass-delusion that has plagued our economy– namely, that the VIP who ostensibly represents an institution, industry, or nation, can productively “lead the change process”; therefore we tend to focus on brokering strategic alliances VIPs and institutions (Ex: the house of Saud) which, often as not, end up filing for bankruptcy (in the corporate model) or else dissolve into uncontrollable sectarian chaos (in the nation model). but of course: VIPs real core competency is meeting with/being VIP-y with other VIPs, so of course Gelb/Kissinger will suggest a bold strategic meeting with, say, Modhi– promising, what shall we guess, maybe greater access to cheap iron ore (from australia or brazil) to “pivot” our economic manufacturing dependency away from China, etc, semi-clever sounding bull-hockey. or maybe we promised Modhi we would let India take over Foxconn’s line of production. or maybe we promised nothing of substance, and the entire thing was to make VIPs in china jealous/anxious of our very special relationship. anyways: the game of diplomacy, being so played, being at the end of the day just a pseudo-aristocratic ritual/game, does little to protect us/adapt to real change– and thus it hath been from the age of metternich. although maybe the key personality by which to analyze the u.s. policy elite would be elihu root. blah. huzzah for middling meddling muddlers!

  3. I generally agree with Mr. Bacevich on foreign affairs; however, to argue that Obama didn’t perform up to standard is a false equivalencey at best, and at worst a gross mischaracterisation of circumstance. To be fair, Obama entered office with his furture far more constrained than any previous President in US history: His foreign policy was set by the previous – blunder prone administration. An administration that essentially made the wrong decision on every policy conceivable; an adminstration that was soley focussed on “transformation” in their own right (no pun intended).
    That aside, his role was doubly and uprecedently constrained by the having the unbelievable bad luck to be the only president in history to have both a domestic induced financial crisis – with global proportions- to deal with while simultaneously dealing with two full blown foreign wars and several smaller conflicts at the same time. This was also compuounded by a congress hell bent on obstructing him in an unprecedented manner. Frankly in the context of his domestic and foreign affairs reality, he’s done surprisingly well. The Right’s paragon of virtue, Reagan did the same thing Cheney/Bush administration did – transformative foreign policy while ruining the domestic economy. This ruined Bush Sr. and yet Obama managed to survive exponentially more damaged foreign and domestic realities.
    Anyone foolish enough to have thought he would be truly transformative like some kind of black jesus, clearly shouldn’t be a commenter on these issues. His only course of direction possible was to try and recover, not transform US policy. He had no chance to try anything transformative because he and his administration was constrained by historical forces beyond anyone’s control. America is NOT exceptional, but rather quintessentially imperial – just like every other empire and as such is a very difficult “ship of state” to turn within an 8 year (really 6 at best) term.
    In contrast, the next president will be given an economy that is relatively healthy and with no major wars to contend with just like every other president in US history.
    I think Mr. Bacevich’s argument is really about the transformative period of the Baby Boomer decline in power. Obama isn’t one, but the remenants of the Boomer disaster which are desperately trying to extract maximum benefits from a system that they benefitted greatly from, which is perpetuating and extending the very problems that he was discussing. I agree; the Boomers have screwed us for too long for their own self-serving and greedy benefit. That demographic shift will truly be the transformative moment that we all hope for.

    As the Onion posted when Obama won, “Black man given nation’s worst job”.

    Historically speaking, I suspect that Obama will be remembered by most americans as an exceptional president, and even more likely an exceptional ex-president – more so than any modern president. His moment to be truly unconstrained will prove his transformative potential Mr. Bacevich.

  4. Dr. Bacevich,
    Why do you give the Obama Team a pass on their collective failure to close Gitmo ?

    There is no aspect of closing it down that poses any significant national security hurdle.
    the Democratic Party fears that actually closing it would help Republicans get elected.
    That’s it.
    That’s the only thing that’s keeping them from following through.
    Closing Gitmo might cost $ 2 Billion, but would save maybe $ 5 Billion, so the problem isn’t the monetary cost.
    When this foreign policy team finds a core belief or principle that they can rally around,
    (they might check out the “Declaration of Independence,)
    then the “vision thing” will take care of itself.

  5. Sure Obama inherited the (horrific? catastrophic?) policies of the era of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et. al. But Obama has gone much further than they did. The Mesopotamia region had high levels of intermarriage between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims but Paul Bremer, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, mandated religious segregation, fomenting sectarian violence. Plus, the Baathist state apparatus was dismantled, and the Iraqi military was dismissed en masse.

    Danesh (ISIS) recruited them along with technocrats and well-educated, experienced government officials. Has Obama’s team done anything to decrease sectarian policies? No, they have exacerbated them by supporting extremely corrupt leaders with little or almost no popular support. Yemen and the Gulf of Aden is strategically located. But drone killings have made Yemen among the most important regions for recruiting jihadists. Yemen had higher rates of unemployment than Greece during the austerity period (that might now be challenged) and was the poorest country in North Africa. Destroying schools, hospitals, mosques and killing thousands of civilians has not been a means of “winning hearts and minds.”

    The fanaticism of the Wahabi/Salafist form of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia, our closest ally among Arab OPEC countries, has produced many of the most extreme jihadists. But the U.S. has always adopted a schizophrenic foreign policy. It is shocking to consider that the U.S. has never supported secular independent nationalism but instead, its converse: religious extremism. We consider any leader/regime “moderate” if they support U.S. interests rather than their own domestic needs. So, the 2011 “Arab Spring” was undermined by the fear of U.S. leaders that the wrong people would come to power.

    The Asia-Pacific policies of the Obama administration have been predicated on “containing” China. So more bases opened and more soldiers stationed in countries that form an arc around China such as in Darwin, Australia. This is a failed policy because the U.S. needs China for many of the most pressing issues whether the global economic crisis, climate change, dealing with North Korea, and border disputes in what we can call Northeast Asia and Central Asia. Despite huge structural problems and urban-rural inequality and massive corruption, China is a global power. There is no way to prevent China from continuing to exert its presence culturally and throughout the world economy. China spends a pittance on its military and is instead, investing in technology and in regions where the U.S. has largely ignored. Few people have taken notice of how much China has been investing in Africa. Here is an article worth reading: link to

    There is little positive one can say about Putin’s Russia but U.S. provocation in the Ukraine (via a coup) and the expansion of NATO into Russia’s historic sphere of influence (in the Ukraine and Central Asia) has been a disaster. Putin’s moves in the Crimea are hardly surprising even if ultimately dangerous. The “rollback” strategy to dismantle Russian influence in the Caspian Sea region, has led to U.S. covert affairs in Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldavia. Obama has done nothing to stop this and has even been more aggressive than his Presidential predecessors. Is this not something reminiscent of the buildup to the Cuba Missile Crisis, which we now know almost led to nuclear war as the Cold War History Project has revealed?

    The territories that comprise Mesopotamia, West Asia, North Africa and the Gulf States are poorly understood by elite American officials. They routinely ignore reports by linguistically proficient analysts in the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA. An internal 2009 CIA report entitled, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” clearly indicates that targeted killings de-stabilize fragile states and almost always lead to disastrous consequences. Yet, the Obama team has not been deterred. You can read the report here: link to

    There is enough expertise among the staff of our government agencies who have indeed developed alternative policies. There are also more students and career state employees studying Persian (Farsi), Modern Standard Arabic, Turkish and Central Asian languages at American universities than a decade ago (and fewer studying Japanese).

    But we live in a culture of fear. It’s career suicide if you typically write reports that fail to correspond to what your superiors want to hear. The same is true of reporting breaches of security or wrong-doing. Obama’s record of intimidation of whistle-blowers makes it less likely for people to report something is amiss.

    We also live during an era saturated with mixed messages. Few people know that the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups hold conflicting views. Turkey remains a critical ally of the U.S. There is now incontrovertible evidence that ISIS would not be financially viable without the ability to slip through Turkey to sell oil, collect military hardware and other essential resources. Iran has the military capability to destroy ISIS but the U.S. remains suspicious of Iran partly out of fear that its Shi’a majority would forge links with the Shiites in Iraq despite the horrific 8 year war between Iraq and Iran. So, again, we have a schizophrenic policy of attempting to maintain Iran’s international isolation while also trying to create closer ties with Iran (which Iran wants and needs much as was the case with China in 1979 after the 10 year Cultural Revolution decimated Chinese society). But how many scholars, public intellectuals and politicians would have the moral courage to challenge the prevailing consensus that Iran is evil?

    If there is one thing we might want to reflect on in the aftermath of 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the various proxy wars the U.S. has fought from then to the present it is this: “shock and awe” warfare will never achieve viable political outcomes; only greater political grievances that can become the best recruiting strategy for political opportunists in asymmetric conflicts. And as Juan Cole wrote about on Jan. 7th, each time the U.S. and our allies overreact to acts of violence/terrorism, we lose because our adversaries (usually people from countries we have either invaded or acted aggressively towards), foment crises that ineluctably leads to greater loss of democratic freedom, more social unrest and a climate of fear (thus “sharpening the contradictions”).

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