These days, President Obama’s foreign policy has come in for a lot of sharp criticism—and not just from his political enemies. Now, even his supporters are struggling to defend his puzzling policies toward the civil war in Syria (are we arming the rebels or not?) and the recent military upheaval in Egypt (is it a coup and do we cut off U.S. aid, or not?). Also, what is Obama’s policy toward Iran? Are we waiting to see whether we can negotiate a sensible compromise on Iran’s nuclear program with the new president, who seems to be so much more accommodating than his predecessor, or are we preparing for an American, or an Israeli, military assault?
So many questions, so few answers. Indeed, often there are no answers—just an odd silence from the White House, when clearly there should be an explanation of the president’s overall strategy not just to the American people, but to America’s allies as well. Obviously, the president is being exceedingly cautious about his next steps in the turbulent Middle East. What is the best strategy for the U.S.? What makes the most sense?
Maybe this should be the time for another “solarium seminar” on American foreign policy. Let me explain.
During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a wartime hero, ridiculed President Harry Truman’s sensible, if cautious, policy of the “containment” of Soviet expansionism. Ike said he had a better idea. Encouraged by his advisers, he projected a new tough line toward Moscow—in effect, that the U.S .would “roll back” the Iron Curtain and “liberate” the “enslaved” peoples of Eastern Europe. Good campaign fodder, no doubt, but highly questionable, dangerous policy. When Ike won the election, it took him little time to realize that his campaign “roll back” strategy made little real sense—but what made more sense? What policy better satisfied, and could better protect, America’s national security interests?
What did Ike do? He gathered his most senior advisers in the little-used solarium room on the top floor of the White House. There, in secret meeting after secret meeting, they debated their policy options. Ike, seeking consensus, divided them into three groups, encouraging them to come up with an overall strategy: one, led by strategist George Kennan, ended up favoring the old “containment” policy. Others, who could be described as realists, more skeptical of communism’s true intention toward the U.S., pressed for a muscular containment policy, but one that sought to avoid confrontation with the Soviet Union, if at all possible. And, finally, there were the hawks, for whom war with Moscow was likely, and the U.S. should begin to prepare for it by launching a huge arms program. For them, “roll back” was the policy option of necessity.
If anyone got wind of their deliberations, they were to be misled into believing this was the innocent-sounding “First National War College Roundtable Seminar,” another one of those government panels that produced studies that no one read. In this way, further inquiry was discouraged.
But it was this seminar, which Ike called the “solarium project,” that ultimately produced the anti-communist policy followed by one administration after another until December, 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and communism ceased to be America’s major foreign problem.
For the next decade, during the Clinton years, the U.S. struggled to find another overarching policy to satisfy the interests of the country. But, no luck. It was only when al-Qaeda terrorists struck the US on 9/11, in a surprise attack reminiscent of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that government strategists realized that the U.S. faced an existential threat from global terrorism. But given the nature of global terrorism—the absence of a specific address, the shadowy nature of the threats, the interlacing of religion, the rise of Islamic fanaticism—it remains a difficult chore for policymakers to produce an overarching policy package that will meet the needs of the nation.
Communism had an address—it was the Kremlin. Global terrorism has no address, and it is not even clear if it has a leader, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to come up with an overall strategy to meet each unexpected eruption. For example, when the Egyptian military stages a coup and throws the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, what is the proper American response? The absence of an overall strategy makes this question hard to answer. When the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria begin to fight one another, adding another level of confusion to the situation, raising the prospect of an Assad victory, what should the U.S. do—send weapons, as it promised to do several weeks ago, or hold back, as it appears to be doing now? Deeper engagement or another retreat?
It may be time for Obama to summon his top advisers to the White House solarium, call this super-secret gathering the “Second National War College Roundtable Seminar,” divide it into three groups, encourage a spirited, unafraid exchange of views, and maybe a consensus will emerge—a new global policy that would help the U.S. meet the new challenges of our time. Minimally, another solarium seminar might help the president make up his mind about what to do next in Syria and Egypt. Good luck.
The upshot is an environment in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have to engage with an ever more challenging world, even as they’re on shaky ground at home. This can fuel doubts among our allies and overconfidence among our adversaries, and leave us all more vulnerable as a result.