Our Manic White House

Maybe it makes sense to roll out a frenzy of big new ideas on the economy. But the White House is doing the same thing with foreign policy—and it’s dangerous.

Hardly a day goes by that the Obama brain trust isn’t promoting some big new idea or proposal on foreign policy and the economy. What with the financial community clamoring for reassurances, a case can be made for a flow of big new ideas on the money front. But it’s certainly a bad practice to constantly fill the international airwaves with bold new initiatives, new thinking, and commentary.

Just take a look at this bewildering array of treats.

The Obama team is dispatching two—count them—envoys to Syria because Syria, it turns out, is the “key” to Arab-Israeli peace, Iran, and other good things. But it seems a stretch to believe that President Bashar al-Assad would ever take the political risk of getting out ahead of the Palestinians in seeking peace with Israel, and it seems odder still that the road to Tehran leads through Damascus. By all means, send the envoys (one from Iran honcho Dennis Ross and one from Mideast honcho George Mitchell) and open up that line—but without thinking it’s the yellow brick road.

The constant flood of big ideas suggests something worrisome about Obama: that he is so self-confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion.

The White House took the occasion of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit this week to redefine America’s half-century-long “special relationship” with Great Britain. The brain trust, speaking through the White House press office, called it a “special partnership” instead. Some will say this is no big deal. But when looked at in the context of Obama’s rather curt treatment of the PM at their joint news conference (no flags behind them, no opening greeting, etc.), it sends an impression that could rocket harmfully around Britain and Europe.

It could be read as the US downplaying the importance of Britain, which would be a bad message. London remains our most reliable ally in the world. It could be seen as another step in downgrading Europe generally and upscaling America’s relations with Asia, also a questionable move. There’s no doubt that the Obama team is on an Asian binge, as it gazes across the Pacific and beholds the “wonders” of the economies of India and China, which are expected to show actual growth as the rest of the world declines. But while it’s good and fine to try to bolster these new relationships, it would be a miscalculation to think Beijing or New Delhi is anywhere near willing or able to replace Britain and our other European allies as genuine partners who share the load. India and China are very inward-looking and will remain fixated on their internal economies for a long time.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried her hand at reformulating the US position on human rights in China, telling Chinese leaders publicly that this administration wouldn’t allow such considerations to interfere with other matters, particularly financial transactions. Now, it’s sensible to convey this message privately, if done very carefully. Unfortunately, the United States does desperately need continued Chinese investment in American securities, particularly Treasury bills. It’s essential to fund our enormous trade and fiscal deficits.

But it is unwise to say so publicly or too starkly in private. The public utterance devalues America’s standing on human rights. Cashing in the human-rights card in public or private on the altar of Chinese investments gives free power to Beijing. It tells them that their investing end of the mutual economic relationship is more important than our buying end. Bad bargaining.

Then there was that little slip of the tongue about talks with Iran that garnered headlines during Clinton’s trip a few days ago. It seems a member of her traveling party told reporters that the administration thought it was “unlikely” that Iran would accept Washington’s offer for negotiations. Talk about off-message. Just at the time the White House wanted to convey nothing but positive noises about opening doors to Tehran, this little negative note was jarring.

Some suspected it was deliberate, a Hillary ploy to please the Israelis, to show them that the Obama brain trust was not rushing headlong into Iran’s embrace. But the truth was that it was simply a traveling blabbermouth, whom the White House duly unearthed and punished. Given the whiplash of this White House, a very unusual trait for Democrats, one almost feels the blabbermouth’s pain.

Don’t forget either the White House’s bold proposal to the Soviet Union, I mean, Russia: If you help us prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, we won’t build the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic that appear to offend you. Obama said on Wednesday that this was only a statement of the obvious, namely, if the Iranian threat went away, so would the American missile deployments.

But this was another big idea gone awry, as people who know Moscow could have forewarned the White House. President Dmitry Medvedev quickly responded that he would have none of it. The way to approach Moscow is not with piecemeal scams, which Soviet, I mean, Russian leaders won’t buy. The approach has to be strategic, sitting down with the bosses there and working through an overall new strategic relationship. Russian leaders want their country to be seen again as a great power alongside the US on top of the mountain. And the Obama brain trust is said to be working on just such a plan, which makes their piecemeal missile offer all the more questionable.

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There are more examples of this flight to skywriting proposals and new thinking, but it’s more useful at this point to focus on the reasons behind all the intellectual fireworks. In the first place, the Obama team wants to show the world that it’s not the Bush team. But really, even the lamest minds have already glimpsed that inescapable reality. It’s enough for the White House and the State Department to demonstrate in public statements that they truly understand the nature of the problems around the world and are prepared to play a leadership role and work with the countries involved in order to solve those problems. It’s not the world that expects daily miracles, it’s cable-TV news and the White House.

The flood of big ideas also suggests something about Obama that is worrisome: that he is so self-confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion. But strategic decisions go well beyond smarts, which our president has in abundance. They need to be based on experience, on knowing what works and what doesn’t and why in the critical implementation process. In good part, this requires experienced staffing, which Obama and his top aides simply do not have. Absolutely essential positions at the undersecretary and assistant secretary levels are vacant throughout the executive branch. Walk through the corridors of the new administration’s offices and you will see mostly empty desks at senior and mid-levels. There’s no way complicated initiatives can be adequately staffed without these people.

Obama and his frantic brain trust should trust themselves enough to slow down— now. They’ve got plenty on the table already that needs careful fleshing out. Ultimately, the way to prove that they are much better than Bush is not just to be smart and say smart things, but to take actions that succeed.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.