From ‘Yes, we can’ to ‘What do we do?’
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
It can’t be repeated often enough: While getting elected appears to be an insurmountable task, it is downright simple when compared to governing. This becomes even more evident after viewing the recent HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama. One cannot help but compare the film’s depiction of a brilliantly run, single-purpose, efficient campaign and its extraordinary, uplifting feeling with the weakness of the decision-making operation of the Obama administration.
Recent events, or nonevents, especially in the foreign policy arena, have made this point even more self-evident. That’s not to suggest that decision-making is easy or that it is wrong for presidents to try to avoid making mistakes. The Obama team, however, seems extraordinarily skittish about making decisions. The president and his advisers appear to have failed to learn that governing, unlike campaigning, is about much more than public relations, polls, and politics.
Deliberations over how to address the potential Iranian nuclear threat were under way during the campaign. Since taking office, Obama has repeatedly voiced his concern over the danger a nuclear Iran will pose for the United States, its allies, and to the region. Since the decision was made to engage Iran, there have been deadlines, Iran’s June elections and the election protests; more deadlines, discussions on nuclear weapons in October and November; International Atomic Energy Agency inspections; and more public, as well as presumably private, discussions among the United States and its allies as to how to respond to Iran. There is still no evidence of a definitive strategy emerging.
The UN Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany are waiting now for a decision concerning Russian reprocessing of Iranian nuclear fuel, French oversight, and continued IAEA inspections, plus some indication of China’s willingness to join in potential economic sanctions. The Iranians are winning the procrastination game. The administration does have options beyond more scheduled meetings and idle threats. The Obama team, however, seems unable to focus on a policy direction — whatever it might be.
In Afghanistan, the administration’s shilly-shallying continues as well. Following more than two months of high-level meetings of the president’s national security staff, the public continues to be told that the president will not be rushed into a decision over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Instead, the American people are treated to repeated leaks, secret cables making front-page news, rumors galore, and no decisions.
This is not to minimize in any way the importance of the decisions about the future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, but the choices have not changed significantly since General Stanley McChrystal’s 66-page memorandum to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. McChrystal’s memo requesting 40,000 additional troops was leaked either intentionally or inadvertently to the public at the end of September. (The absurd leak game continued last week with the publication of the memorandum opposing the troop build-up from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.)
Except for the cancellation of the Afghanistan election run-off on Nov. 2 following the highly questionable August general election results, there have been few changes on the ground to suggest a reason for further deliberations on the subject. Presumably the Pentagon and the State Department have sorted out all the options, assimilated all the intelligence, and “gamed” all the possible scenarios. The Obama team, nevertheless, appears confused and unable to make a decision.
Deliberations over the future of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation have been going on since George Mitchell was appointed special ambassador during the opening days of the administration. Regardless of what one’s position is on settlements, Palestinian elections, economic collaboration, and pre-conditions for negotiations, a confused Obama administration has appeared constantly to be responding merely to the latest news, the public reaction, and the freshest voices. The waffling reached its nadir during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Middle East two weeks ago, when she and her traveling party issued almost as many statements on the settlements as her plane stops in the region. In addition, the Jerusalem-Washington flap/non-flap over the on-again, off-again meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu during the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington only added absurdity to the image of a weak, unsure hand conducting U.S. foreign policy.
The business of running the country is not easy, but it requires more than decent, sincere intentions. The Obama supporters will stay with him — even if they do not like some of his decisions — but he needs to demonstrate decisiveness. If the current pattern of governing persists, many of the Obama enthusiasts from 2007 and 2008 will be left wondering what happened to their dreams.