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Opinion Five foreign policy lessons Obama hasn’t learned

The Obama administration has shown an uncanny ability to repeat foreign policy errors, apparently oblivious to our experience in the post-9/11 world.

You would think by now they would have learned the drill. For example: Where central authority collapses, jihadists opportunistically rush in. This was true in Iraq, Mali, Libya and Syria. Yet nowhere along the way did the administration seem to grasp this and take steps to break up this dangerous cycle (e.g. by acting more decisively in Syria) or even to protect Americans (e.g. Libya).

By now they should have learned at least five of the basics from National Security 101:

1. In the Middle East, elections are not the key to democracy; rather, respect for the secular rule of law, expanded civil liberties and protection for minorities should be the indicators as to whether a country is moving forward (e.g. Morocco) or backward. To that end, monarchies with political legitimacy that are willing to reform (e.g. Jordan, Morocco) stand a better chance than tin-pot dictators to create a functional, stable country.

2. We have to use what leverage we have. In some cases, that means turning off or limiting aid. In some instances, it requires both private and public persuasion. As Kori Schake put it:

The U.S. Congress has a much better record than the president at putting into place penalties for countries that don’t respect minority rights, religious freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Rather than skirt them, the administration should be working with Congress to strengthen restrictions — it can then have the pleasure of blaming Congress, a strategy that historically works to great success in trade talks.

3. Our adversaries are not going to help us. To a degree few imagined, the administration at various times (e.g. Russian reset with Hillary Clinton, John Kerry’s desire for a “special relationship” with China, Obama’s engagement of the mullahs) has deluded us into thinking we can talk our foes out of their own interests and/or appeal to some greater good (e.g. stopping genocide in Syria, completely isolating Iran). This is nonsense and sets us up for diplomatic dead ends (for which the administration has been endemically unprepared).

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4. Economics matter as much as constitutions. Dov Zakheim: “Most people, in the Third World and indeed everywhere, assign a higher priority to stability, safety, the ability to earn one’s living and provide for one’s family, education and a better future for one’s children, and, not least, the right to worship as one pleases.” A government that fails to deliver on those will fail. An American foreign policy that obsesses on the outward trappings of democracy to the detriment of a functioning economy will be ineffective.

5. While the president likes to fancy himself as a foreign policy wizard, recent events suggest he’s in over his head or inattentive (or both). His inclination to allow domestic, partisan concerns to swamp national security analysis and policy making has been disastrous, causing us to ignore dangers and retrench in the face of challenges. Other than a new president, we would be on more solid ground if the president at least would hire highly competent people willing to give the president bad news, not passive, inept figures. On Egypt, Elliott Abrams observes:

Secretary Kerry seems to ignore Syria and Egypt and to have an obsession with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The post of assistant secretary of state for Egypt has now been vacant for an entire year, and no one has even been nominated to fill it. The current ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, is rumored to be the likely nominee, but Egyptians who oppose the MB view her as having failed them and failed human rights in Egypt. If one defends her because she was simply following policy guidance from Washington, the buck stops in the Oval Office.

There are dozens of more truisms (e.g., effective foreign policy requires a robust military capability, stick by your friends), but no matter how mundane and obvious, they seem never have to permeated the Oval Office echo chamber. That is the president’s fault, but we all live with the consequences.