How the U.S. Went Wrong and Why

It is tempting to simply list all the ways the Obama administration -- particularly Secretaries Kerry and Hagel -- has been wrong on foreign and defense policy. After all, Russia/Ukraine, Syria, Iran, China, and Israel/Palestinians are nothing to sneeze at. But finding a common thread among the mistakes might be the beginning of a corrective policy -- if not by this administration, then perhaps by Congress or the next administration.

The common thread is hubris, the supreme confidence that what you think is what everyone thinks -- they’re just waiting for you to show up. Hubris is the natural state of affairs in the faculty lounges of major universities and, most likely, in the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” in which the president, Hagel, Biden, Clinton, and Kerry all served. A subdivision of hubris is the conceit that words equal action; that what is said is what is done. It is a subdivision because if you think there is no political or economic or social disagreement, then everyone must just be waiting for you to perorate.

Secretary of State Kerry called Vladimir Putin’s restoration of Crimea to the status of Russian territory, “19th Century thinking in the 21st century,” while Putin pocketed Crimea and considers cutting off the gas flow through Ukraine to Europe.  He is, apparently, unoffended by a reference to the Tsars he considers Russian patriots.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried empathy, authorizing release of the details of U.S. cyber warfare doctrine to China in a bid to win similar cooperation from Beijing. So far, China has not reciprocated. Bill Gertz wrote in the Washington Times, “Instead of pressing the Chinese to curb cyberattacks, the defense secretary said the Pentagon has sought to ‘be more open about our cyber capabilities, including our approach of restraint’…for the first time ever, the Pentagon provided Chinese officials with a briefing on U.S. doctrine on cyber capabilities. Lt. Col. Damien Pickart said, ‘The purpose of this briefing was to increase transparency of one another’s military cyber activities and intentions.’”

Transparency appears to have been the policy of only one side.

Empathy didn’t work with Iran, either.

At the UN General Assembly last year, President Obama ascribed motives and goals to the Iranian regime that mirror American motives and goals, assuaged what he said were their concerns, and promised what he thought was a better future. "I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship based on mutual interests and mutual respect."

But if Iran doesn't believe we have "mutual interests" and instead seeks a future in which the Islamic Republic is the hegemonic Gulf power and the United States is banished, the nuclear program is not an "issue" to be "resolved," but a means toward a considered end -- an Iranian end.

Secretary Kerry claimed the P5+1 deal signed in November with Iran would provide greater transparency and a longer breakout time from nuclear capability to nuclear weapons. He crowed on Politico’s  "State of the Union" program, "I believe that from this day, Israel is safer. We are going to expand the amount of time in which (Iran) can break out… have insights to their program that we didn't have before. Israel, if you didn't have these things, would be seeing Iran to continue on a daily basis to narrow the breakdown (sic) time."

He also said sanctions on Iran would be lifted only by a "tiny portion,” which would be “very limited, temporary and reversible… So believe me, when I say this relief is limited and reversible, I mean it.” 

Just words. Since then the Iranians have announced their defense capabilities will not be subject to negotiation (including the Parchin Plant that the West believes is nuclear weapons related) and that Iran will never give up its nuclear program. In addition, Kerry told a Senate hearing this week that Iran now has the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear bomb in two months.“I think it’s public knowledge today that we’re operating with a time period for a so-called ‘break-out’ of about two months. That’s been in the public domain.”

And as for sanctions, our allies are cashing in on the newly opened Iranian gravy train -- including still-embargoed dual-use technology -- and American companies are doing the same. The Treasury Department gave Boeing and GE permission to sell aircraft parts to the Islamic Republic to service 18 planes sold before the Revolution. That may not sound impressive, but it bears noting that the first part of the Syrian sanctions lifted by President Obama in 2009 included aircraft parts. By the time the sanctions were reinstated in 2010, Assad’s planes were flying. “Barrel bombs” were the result.

This raises the whole, “Assad is a reformer,” conversation, promoted by Secretary of State Clinton when Kerry was still a senator. The assumption was that Assad wanted the benefits of association with the West more than he wanted to crush dissent. When she determined that her words had no impact on Assad, Mrs. Clinton turned them on the Syrian people, “When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?”

Nearly 200,000 dead, use of chemical weapons, and 2 million refugees later, the U.S. still has no Syria policy beyond words. Manuel Roig-Franzia used a lot of words in a panegyric to Samantha Power in the Washington Post. “Power, 43, is saddled with unusually high expectations… In one of her early acts after becoming ambassador in August, she delivered a high-profile speech arguing for limited airstrikes in Syria. The strikes never happened… ‘I’m sure for some who counted on me to end the war in Syria within my first semester here,” she says one afternoon at her office, pausing to chuckle, “I’m sure I’ve disappointed.’”

The chuckle, and a self-reference as the "genocide chick" aren’t funny, but they make clear the difference between the talk-is-action world of universities and think tanks, and the real world in which people die, even after convening a “Genocide Prevention Board.”

And finally, the Palestinians. The administration assumed that Palestinian goal was an independent country. Palestinian objections to the permanence and legitimacy of Israel, to Israel controlling Jerusalem and to giving up the so-called “right of return” could be overcome with money and political favors. Imagine how surprised Secretary Kerry and President Obama were when Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington and told the President “no” three times while seated in the Oval Office.

Try as he might to leave the impression that Israel scuttled the talks, it is clear that Kerry was so taken with the importance of HIS plan for Middle East peace that he never entertained the possibility that one of his interlocutors had different goals.  That is the definition of hubris, and explains not only how wrong the administration has been, but also why.

It is tempting to simply list all the ways the Obama administration -- particularly Secretaries Kerry and Hagel -- has been wrong on foreign and defense policy. After all, Russia/Ukraine, Syria, Iran, China, and Israel/Palestinians are nothing to sneeze at. But finding a common thread among the mistakes might be the beginning of a corrective policy -- if not by this administration, then perhaps by Congress or the next administration.

The common thread is hubris, the supreme confidence that what you think is what everyone thinks -- they’re just waiting for you to show up. Hubris is the natural state of affairs in the faculty lounges of major universities and, most likely, in the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” in which the president, Hagel, Biden, Clinton, and Kerry all served. A subdivision of hubris is the conceit that words equal action; that what is said is what is done. It is a subdivision because if you think there is no political or economic or social disagreement, then everyone must just be waiting for you to perorate.

Secretary of State Kerry called Vladimir Putin’s restoration of Crimea to the status of Russian territory, “19th Century thinking in the 21st century,” while Putin pocketed Crimea and considers cutting off the gas flow through Ukraine to Europe.  He is, apparently, unoffended by a reference to the Tsars he considers Russian patriots.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried empathy, authorizing release of the details of U.S. cyber warfare doctrine to China in a bid to win similar cooperation from Beijing. So far, China has not reciprocated. Bill Gertz wrote in the Washington Times, “Instead of pressing the Chinese to curb cyberattacks, the defense secretary said the Pentagon has sought to ‘be more open about our cyber capabilities, including our approach of restraint’…for the first time ever, the Pentagon provided Chinese officials with a briefing on U.S. doctrine on cyber capabilities. Lt. Col. Damien Pickart said, ‘The purpose of this briefing was to increase transparency of one another’s military cyber activities and intentions.’”

Transparency appears to have been the policy of only one side.

Empathy didn’t work with Iran, either.

At the UN General Assembly last year, President Obama ascribed motives and goals to the Iranian regime that mirror American motives and goals, assuaged what he said were their concerns, and promised what he thought was a better future. "I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship based on mutual interests and mutual respect."

But if Iran doesn't believe we have "mutual interests" and instead seeks a future in which the Islamic Republic is the hegemonic Gulf power and the United States is banished, the nuclear program is not an "issue" to be "resolved," but a means toward a considered end -- an Iranian end.

Secretary Kerry claimed the P5+1 deal signed in November with Iran would provide greater transparency and a longer breakout time from nuclear capability to nuclear weapons. He crowed on Politico’s  "State of the Union" program, "I believe that from this day, Israel is safer. We are going to expand the amount of time in which (Iran) can break out… have insights to their program that we didn't have before. Israel, if you didn't have these things, would be seeing Iran to continue on a daily basis to narrow the breakdown (sic) time."

He also said sanctions on Iran would be lifted only by a "tiny portion,” which would be “very limited, temporary and reversible… So believe me, when I say this relief is limited and reversible, I mean it.” 

Just words. Since then the Iranians have announced their defense capabilities will not be subject to negotiation (including the Parchin Plant that the West believes is nuclear weapons related) and that Iran will never give up its nuclear program. In addition, Kerry told a Senate hearing this week that Iran now has the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear bomb in two months.“I think it’s public knowledge today that we’re operating with a time period for a so-called ‘break-out’ of about two months. That’s been in the public domain.”

And as for sanctions, our allies are cashing in on the newly opened Iranian gravy train -- including still-embargoed dual-use technology -- and American companies are doing the same. The Treasury Department gave Boeing and GE permission to sell aircraft parts to the Islamic Republic to service 18 planes sold before the Revolution. That may not sound impressive, but it bears noting that the first part of the Syrian sanctions lifted by President Obama in 2009 included aircraft parts. By the time the sanctions were reinstated in 2010, Assad’s planes were flying. “Barrel bombs” were the result.

This raises the whole, “Assad is a reformer,” conversation, promoted by Secretary of State Clinton when Kerry was still a senator. The assumption was that Assad wanted the benefits of association with the West more than he wanted to crush dissent. When she determined that her words had no impact on Assad, Mrs. Clinton turned them on the Syrian people, “When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?”

Nearly 200,000 dead, use of chemical weapons, and 2 million refugees later, the U.S. still has no Syria policy beyond words. Manuel Roig-Franzia used a lot of words in a panegyric to Samantha Power in the Washington Post. “Power, 43, is saddled with unusually high expectations… In one of her early acts after becoming ambassador in August, she delivered a high-profile speech arguing for limited airstrikes in Syria. The strikes never happened… ‘I’m sure for some who counted on me to end the war in Syria within my first semester here,” she says one afternoon at her office, pausing to chuckle, “I’m sure I’ve disappointed.’”

The chuckle, and a self-reference as the "genocide chick" aren’t funny, but they make clear the difference between the talk-is-action world of universities and think tanks, and the real world in which people die, even after convening a “Genocide Prevention Board.”

And finally, the Palestinians. The administration assumed that Palestinian goal was an independent country. Palestinian objections to the permanence and legitimacy of Israel, to Israel controlling Jerusalem and to giving up the so-called “right of return” could be overcome with money and political favors. Imagine how surprised Secretary Kerry and President Obama were when Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington and told the President “no” three times while seated in the Oval Office.

Try as he might to leave the impression that Israel scuttled the talks, it is clear that Kerry was so taken with the importance of HIS plan for Middle East peace that he never entertained the possibility that one of his interlocutors had different goals.  That is the definition of hubris, and explains not only how wrong the administration has been, but also why.