Restarting The Engines

Niall Ferguson’s  Wall Street Journal article examining “The Real Obama Doctrine” has been widely cited in the media to explain the administration’s foreign policy failure.  But it also contains three points that bear upon future events.


The first is Ferguson’s realizaton that Obama’s publicly articulated strategy was a legend.  It was never operative. “I have spent much of the past seven years trying to work out what Barack Obama’s strategy for the United States truly is. For much of his presidency, as a distinguished general once remarked to me about the commander in chief’s strategy, ‘we had to infer it from speeches.’ … At first, I assumed that the strategy was simply not to be like his predecessor—an approach that was not altogether unreasonable, given the errors of the Bush administration in Iraq and the resulting public disillusionment.”But like a detective peeling back layers in a case the historian soon began to realize Obama’s goal was far more ambitious.

The second discovery Ferguson made was that Obama was not out to merely repudiate Bush, but to deliberately undo Ronald Reagan, indeed dismantle the entire postwar edifice from Harry Truman onward. He had a vision of restoring the world to its paradisal state before Western meddling:“to create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future.”  Some would regard this approach as risky.  Hence it buried beneath layers of misdirection.

Ferguson describes the moment when the scales dropped from his eyes:

I now see, however, that there is more to it than that.

The president always intended to repudiate more than George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In a 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama made clear that he was turning away from Ronald Reagan, too. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he jeered, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”


The third point Ferguson makes is that while Obama succeeded in carrying out his real doctrine under the breezy banner of we “don’t do stupid sh–” the results were the opposite of his expectations.  Instead of Paradise Lost it was a case of Hades Found.

It is clear that the president’s strategy is failing disastrously. Since 2010, total fatalities from armed conflict in the world have increased by a factor of close to four, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Total fatalities due to terrorism have risen nearly sixfold, based on the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism database. Nearly all this violence is concentrated in a swath of territory stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there is every reason to expect the violence to escalate as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post-American hegemon. …

Today the U.S. faces three strategic challenges: the maelstrom in the Muslim world, the machinations of a weak but ruthless Russia, and the ambition of a still-growing China. The president’s responses to all three look woefully inadequate.

Things are now so bad the media are now actually talking about the possibility of accidentally stumbling into World War 3.  Not seriously yet, but for the first time since 1989 it has become plausible.  Fear has made a comeback with the headlines full of stories about the expanding conflict in the Middle, possible civil strife in Turkey, millions of Middle Easterners landing on Europe’s shores, Russian tanks in Eastern Europe and Syra, and a possible collision between China’s fortified islands and the US Navy.


Most of this will be old ground to readers of the Belmont Club. What is new is that the mainstream media outlets are taking these themes up. The New York Times editorial board has called Obama’s Syria policy “hallucinatory”.  The Washington Post printed an article by  Condoleezza Rice and Robert M. Gates suggesting how Obama can dig himself out of a hole. When the NYT starts talking that way and the Washington Post offers friendly advice it’s a clear that important people are worried about the president’s competence.

Yet the worry has not translated into a consensus about what to do next.  The American Interest makes the argument that Democrats are moving to the left faster than the Republicans are moving to the right, which in any case means the political center is splitting apart.  The country is more divided than ever.  That is manifesting itself in the conservative revolt against the Republican house leadership and the “grassroots” Democratic uprising against Obama. In both cases there is anger and fear without a clear outlet. Mark Levin is probably engaged in wishful thinking when he proclaims that it’s time to impeach president Obama.

Washington seems unable to do anything at present. The Republican inability to lead an impeachment is matched by the impotence of the president and his party actually get anything done. Obama’s failures have not only created a crisis abroad, they have created a crisis at home in the form of political paralysis. 

At least the Republicans are in the process of determining, through the process of rebellion, what the future of their party will be.  The Democrats are a long way from resurrection, having yet to die as a party, though they have managed to rot. For the moment, both wings of the Washington elite are out of money, credibility and moves.  It will take some time to shake things out.


At a time of world crisis events there is nothing but the sight of exhausted political fighters, shambling around the canvass throwing slow motion punches at the air, with all thoughts of a knockout gone, straining every effort to stay on their feet until the bell rings. Nobody really knows what to do know but dance the same old, same old and hope for the best.  A speech here, an investigation there, a talk show every now and again.  The difference is that it doesn’t seem to work any more.

It’s possible events have taken the world beyond anybody’s control, with bad actors still rushing into the fray expecting restraint only to find none and in their surprise becoming engaged beyond their limit. What is certain is a growing number of observers are slowly becoming aware of the rising wind, growing in fury all the time. Ferguson still thinks the system can ride it out.  He says if “this president has sown the wind. His successor will reap the whirlwind.” But the necessary question is “how big is this whirlwind”? Otherwise the successor will be in for it.

That is question no one has an answer to.

If the whirlwind is too big future historians will regard the tragedy of the SS El Faro, a large American crewed cargo ship which sank under Hurricane Joaquin in October 1, 2015 as a metaphor for the age. A ship the size of the El Faro should ordinarily have survived even Joaquin. What doomed the ship was the loss of propulsion at the time it needed it most.

Around 7:30 a.m. on October 1, less than 30 hours after the ship sailed from Jacksonville, the United States Coast Guard received a satellite notification that the vessel had lost propulsion, taken on water—though flooding was contained at the time of the message—and had a 15-degree list. According to TOTE, the loss of propulsion is what ultimately sealed the fate of the El Faro, leaving the vessel helpless within the approaching hurricane.


That is the precise problem with the West.  It is now dead in the water with the captain unwilling to admit it will not answer the bell, nor even to confess that he cannot read the compass. There is the sound of boilermen fighting in the engine-room over who will be chief engineer. The European passengers, alarmed by this state of affairs, are milling about the deck. Now to top it off, an eminent navigator has been over the skipper’s charts and reports to the surprised passengers that he has puzzled out the “real destination” of the ship.  It is not San Juan, Puerto Rico but the Bermuda Triangle where the Worker’s Paradise and the Fountain of Youth may be found.

The two questions: how big is the coming storm and when will the ship get underway again are ones that no one can answer.  Complex systems are unpredictable.  Competent managers don’t tinker with them unless they know what they are doing. When president Obama made a series of what he imagined were reversible course changes he accidentally initiated a series of cascading events that have not ended yet.  Now he finds he can’t get back to where he was before. What started as a Three Hour Tour has now become much more dangerous than he bargained for.

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