Obama's foreign policy: big ideas, little implementation

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius speaks with former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, about the greatest success and shortcomings of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Before the 2008 election, two former national security advisers recommended that the next president craft a foreign policy strategy to align the United States with a "global political awakening" that was transforming the world.

Two years later, as Tom Donilon prepares to take the national security adviser post, these illustrious predecessors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, are making essentially the same recommendation. They argue that U.S. foreign policy needs a clearer strategic framework that can take advantage of President Obama's ability to speak to the world -- a dialogue that has unfortunately been handicapped in Obama's first 21 months.

Brzezinski, who served under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, urged Donilon to stretch beyond his past experience as a manager of the foreign policy process: "I don't believe the central role of the national security adviser is to make the trains run on time. It's much more a matter of deciding what the schedule ought to be, and where the trains should be heading." The adviser's job is to "flesh out" ideas into a strategy, argued Brzezinski, and then "supervise, coordinate and enforce" its implementation.

Both Scowcroft and Brzezinski credited Gen. Jim Jones, who recently announced his departure, for trying to create an effective policy structure. Brzezinski said that Jones's authority had been limited by the "intrusion of top domestic political advisers," which had reduced his effectiveness.

"Obama has suffered in foreign policy by having to focus so much on the economic crisis," said Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for Republican presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford.

I asked Scowcroft and Brzezinski to sit down for a brief reprise of the discussions we had in 2008 that resulted in a book called "America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy." What struck me this time was that the bipartisan agenda they framed two years ago was still mostly valid. Although Obama nominally supported most elements of this strategy, he hasn't been able to advance it very far.

The former advisers agreed that Obama's biggest strategic success had been his engagement of Russia. "The 'Russia reset' worked well," said Scowcroft. "It caught the essence of what the problem was."

The two men cited the Israel-Palestinian peace process as Obama's most important unfinished business. Both have argued often that the president should have started by outlining the basic parameters for a Palestinian state, as they have emerged in negotiations over the past 40 years.

Brzezinski contended that it was "pathetic" to see the United States making big concessions to Israel this month -- ones that should be reserved for a final "grand bargain" -- simply to add another 60 days to a temporary freeze on Israeli settlements. If the peace process should collapse, Scowcroft argued that it still would make sense for Obama to specify the terms of a U.S. peace plan.

What perplexed both men was the disconnect between Obama's strategic vision and what he has been able to achieve. "He makes dramatic presidential speeches," said Brzezinski, "but it's never translated into a process in which good ideas become strategies." One complication, both noted, was a process of "subcontracting," in which major policy areas such as Middle East negotiations and Afghanistan-Pakistan have been handed over to special representatives.

On Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, the toughest issue facing Obama, both men favor a continuation of current strategy -- with the goal of gradually negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban under a broad umbrella of regional support. As was the case two years ago on Iraq, Brzezinski favored a quicker move for the exit, while Scowcroft warned of "leaving an open, bleeding wound" with too hasty a departure.

Obama's challenge is that he raised expectations. Recall the absurdly premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize last year. When he boldly called for a new course in the Middle East in his Cairo speech, or convened a summit of 40 world leaders to discuss nuclear nonproliferation, people around the world expected he would deliver something big. So far, they have been disappointed.

To sum up what I took away from these bipartisan gurus: Obama's achievement is that he has reconnected America to the world. The United States was much too isolated and unpopular when he came into office. That isn't so true now. But even though the United States is less hated, it may also be taken less seriously by other nations. Obama has turned the page in American foreign policy, but he hasn't written enough yet on that fresh, blank space.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company