6th February 2012: Peter Feaver on Obama’s National Security Record

Peter Feaver‘s book Armed Servants (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2005) is a masterful study of civil-military relations.


I reach different conclusions, though, to Feaver’s Shadow Government critique of the Obama administration’s national security record.


Feaver argues:


1. Obama’s foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own.


Here, Feaver quotes an argument that Thomas Friedman first raised. Friedman makes several assumptions:


(A1) Obama’s campaign rhetoric would translate into Obama administration policy;

(A2) Bush’s policies have traceable continuity with Obama administration actions; and

(A3) Obama is responsible for operational and scoping failures.


A1 is unrealistic to succeed: few campaign promises survive their impact with the Beltway. There is too much bureaucratic interest to keep Guantanamo Bay operational, for instance. A2 and A3 enable Republicans to engage in George Lakoff-like framing games: juxtapose Bush’s success (A2) with Obama’s failures (A3). This is brilliant if you’re a Karl Rove-like political consultant. Except, as Thomas Ricks pointed out, Obama wasn’t responsible for failures like the 2003 Iraq War decision. (Or, North Korea going nuclear and the problems with the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.) As Feaver knows, administrations can have both political continuity with their predecessors and can adapt to emergent security dilemmas. A3 introduces civil-military tensions, coordination problems amongst government departments, and the challenge of translating strategy into implementable operations. There’s the genesis here of an interesting academic journal article.


Feaver then suggests:


Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor — it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor?


This very interesting question also has several assumptions:


(B1) Political administrations and the United States President (executive power) shape the ‘contexts of use’ of instruments of power.

(B2) The instruments of power are transferable between different political administrations.

(B3) Instruments of power are capabilities that can emerge, develop, be sustained, or decay over time (diachronic orientation).


The late Terry Deibel’s book Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) is one of the best conceptual analyses on instruments of power and B3: diplomatic, informational, military and economic. Regarding B2, the Bush administration’s record will remain debated: it re-engaged with counter-insurgency for Afghanistan and Iraq; reviewed intelligence after the September 11 attacks and the 2003 Iraq War decision; and failed to deal with A.Q. Khan’s covert nuclear proliferation network. But other capabilities might have developed regardless of the political administration assumed in B1: the legislative and judicial branches can shape the scope and use of instruments of power;  Stephen Brooks’ Producing Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007) makes the case that multi-national corporations can affect innovation and threat perception; and P.W. Singer’s Wired for War (New York: Penguin, 2009) documents how robotics research for drones has taken decades. As Feaver concedes, many of the capabilities he mentions were developed in the Clinton administration and a few can be traced to the Reagan administration and earlier. Likewise, the Obama administration’s focus on Special Operations Forces capabilities recalls John F. Kennedy’s nurturing of SoF capabilities. E-diplomacy is one capability that has matured during the Obama administration (if you believe it has credibility); so has a renewal of the United States-Pacific alliance structure.


Feaver asks:


So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama’s successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?


Obama is constrained by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and by the fallout from the 2007-09 global financial crisis. So, a potential incoming Republican or a second term Obama administration might face more of a clean slate, and more demands to renew the United States’ national economic infrastructure. One challenge to a Republican administration would be how to deal with Obama’s multi-lateral approach.