Michael KreponThe Absence of Ambition

As President Obama looks beyond the water’s edge in search of achievement and for relief from Republican hyper-partisanship, he sees a barren and smoldering landscape, with problems from hell in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, a Putinized Russia, and a China that is asserting territorial claims in troubling ways. What’s a President to do? While trying to tackle hard problems can make them more complicated, not tackling at least some of them in a serious way increases the likelihood that they will get worse. Success will come, if at all, against long odds. Without trying, lack of success guaranteed.

This unwelcome landscape helps explain the modesty of the Obama administration’s ambitions. If one is unlikely to make serious progress on very hard problems, and if Sisyphean efforts might well complicate matters further, why try? The reason is pretty elementary. Trying may, indeed, lead to error, but the absence of trying means a greater likelihood of failure.

President Obama’s foreign and national security policies lack ambition. No wonder he is making little progress on the security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.

Without ambition, firefighting becomes the administration’s default position, as was evident during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Either she didn’t seek or wasn’t given the lead on the Middle East, China, Russia and nonproliferation portfolios. It’s perfectly acceptable for the White House to hold on to every one of them, but what’s the point of doing so in order to pursue modest initiatives?

Administrations that make their mark on the world have great ambition at rare junctures of dramatic change and opportunity. It’s the Obama administration’s lot to operate in a changing international environment that seems devoid of opportunity.

Some problems from hell might burn themselves out and others must be handled with care, especially after expending so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars that are poorly conceived and planned are unlikely to end well, and have a properly chastening effect.

The George W. Bush administration’s use of hard power created quagmires and hastened disruptive, tectonic shifts. The Obama administration’s use of soft power has not increased U.S. persuasiveness abroad. So, what is an administration to do when not one hard and consequential problem seems ripe for diplomatic accomplishment?

Diplomatic risk-taking is a high wire act, with only four potential wire-walkers: the president, vice president, the Secretary of State, and the national security advisor.

Secretary of State John Kerry, unlike his predecessor, has been cleared by the White House to walk the high wire. He has decided that a renewed effort to seek an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is worth the effort and that failure to try is likely to have dire consequences. His high wire act stands in stark contrast to the administration’s apparent lack of ambition on other hard national security problems.

The Obama administration can’t be blamed for its lack of ambition in dealing with Vladimir Putin, whose choices continue to mortgage Russia’s future. He might shift gears out of pragmatic necessity, but optimism is not a word readily associated with Vladimir Putin.

Opportunities for a strategic opening with Beijing offer more hope. As discussed in previous posts, the most promising avenue of increasing strategic cooperation with China lies in space, rather than on nuclear issues. A collaborative space initiative and a code of conduct setting or strengthening norms for responsible space-faring nations could have strategic import. But so far, there are no takers for high-wire walking between Washington and Beijing.

Pakistan has a new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who wants to increase trade and otherwise normalize relations with India. He and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have appointed trusted individuals in a back-channel, eliciting the usual qualms from the usual quarters. Spoilers are at work, creating incidents along disputed borders. Washington has no place getting in front of this process, but can’t even be found in the rear-view mirror.

North Korea has a new, young leader who has started out by making poor decisions. Washington has chosen not to see whether, with China’s help, he might embark on a different course. Instead of direct dealings with Kim Jong-eun, the Obama administration seems content with tepid multilateral approaches that offer little prospect for gain.

The most glaring absence of ambition at present appears to be in the run-up to nuclear negotiations with a newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A window of opportunity for significant deal making may well be narrow, but it is now open. This window will shut quickly if the Obama administration approaches the renewal of talks with an abundance of timidity, as if the next move depends on how Tehran reacts to its last cautious gambit.

Sanctions, no matter how harsh, are a means to an end. Like sanctions, the threat of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities will not help produce a satisfactory diplomatic settlement — unless an ambitious US initiative is forthcoming. Many seasoned diplomats, including Gary Samore and Bob Einhorn, who have recently departed from the Obama administration, have called for a more ambitious negotiating approach. Gary and Bob are not known for throwing caution to the wind, and have good reason to be skeptical of success. And yet, they and many others still call for an ambitious offer before window-closing time. If the effort is made, success may well remain elusive. If an ambitious proposal is not offered, failure seems assured, with consequences to follow.

What ever happened to the audacity of hope?

Note to readers: A variant of this essay appeared in the 8/14 issue of Politico.


  1. krepon (History)

    Steve Walt, someone I admire, has taken strong exception to my critique in his blog at foreignpolicy.com, concluding that President Obama has been, if anything, too ambitious. Here’s his take:

    Is the problem really “lack of ambition”? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to “reset” with Russia, “pivot” to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the “Arab spring,” and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on “development and diplomacy.” Or so he and his minions said.

    Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, “America must lead the world” vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn’t challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won’t be safe if their country can’t determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.

    For the entirety of Steve’s rebuttal, click on http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/16/does_obama_lack_ambition

    My response to Steve is as follows:

    Seems to me you are equating ambitious words and lofty sentiments in speeches with the reality of an overly ambitious foreign policy. Where has the President or his top lieutenants actually applied the time and effort required to turn words into deeds?

    New START? Not exactly a world without nuclear weapons. Instead, an essential step to extend monitoring provisions, but extremely modest reductions that have now been reached seven years before the Treaty’s end date.

    Reversing climate change? How?

    Afghanistan? A modest troop increase, with the promise of an early reversal — a sure sign of Presidential wariness about achievable outcomes after a decade of war.

    Drones? Drones reflect punishment, not ambition.

    A two state solution for Israel and Palestine? Yes, thankfully and belatedly, the administration is applying the high-level effort necessary to take a run at this.

    Sorry, I just don’t see this as an abundance of ambition.

  2. Rene (History)

    I think Obama is simply not a leader. He doesn’t have a vision and a drive within himself to shape US foreign policy. And perhaps that’s partly the result of Republican hyper-partisanship, as you put it.

    He, and basically the whole gamut of foreign policy elite, also face the problem of wanting to have their cake and eat it. They want to ensure US hegemony and also have sensible resolution of foreign policy problems. Not going to happen. An example that’s right in front of our eyes is Iraq and Syria. Obama should have restricted Saudi Arabia’s interventions in Iraq and Syria. He didn’t. Partly because the Saudi goal of hurting Iran (I mean “balancing”) was consistent with the hegemonic aspirations of Washington foreign policy elite. But now we have two civil wars with no end in sight, and hundreds of thousands of people dead. The letting loose of the Saudis has indeed “balanced” Iran, and it’s appeased the Saudis, but it’s a growing disaster with long term implications. Responsible leadership could have controlled the situation, but it ran counter to hegemonic ambitions and therefore didn’t happen.

    Same with Iran, North Korea, Russia, etc. You cannot look at these problems through the lens of hegemony and at the same time be able to engage substantively and responsibly. So things continue to go awry.

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Sounds like both Walt and Krepon agree that Obama should focus on a few important matters, including the Iran negotiations. Krepon sees few opportunities to make a mark, so Obama should choose one or two important projects of the many worth doing and really focus attention on them. Walt sees few projects worth doing; Obama is spread too thinly and should narrow his attention to projects worth doing.

    So Obama should focus on Iran. That should keep the Obama administration busy for a while. Can both Walt and Krepon be wrong on this?

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Back in 2012, looking at the Republican Presidential candidates that the Republican rank and file clearly did not want, I told several people that he problem was that politicians want to spend money on things: a big Navy, a new highway system, a moon landing program. The only thing a president could *do*, until the economy improved, was cut spending and balance the budget.

    —My point is despite standard complaints by Republican of “Big Government,” if the money was there, the Republican politicians most likely to win the office would want to spend money on a legacy of some sort. But the money isn’t there.

    —I feel like this idea should apply to foreign policy, but I cannot think how it does. If it does, I mean.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    Despite the bomber’s more than half-century of service, the Air Force believes that modifications and overhauls have made the B-52 ageless. Now engineers and technicians are working on a contract worth up to $11.9 billion for an array of upgrades to bring the B-52 Stratofortress fleet or 76 bombers into the 21st century. Boeing says the plane could fly well into its 100th year

    —Mr. Krepon: for some reason I remember reading that the same artistic style of cave paintings was used for 10,000 years, unchanged, for generation after generation of cave-man artists.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    Hiroshima, judged to be the most important work of journalism during the 20th century, tells the story of six people who survived the nuclear explosion there 68 years ago this month. The book’s impact has been profound. His style of reporting on the incident adopted many of the techniques of fiction writing and led to a form of reporting called “New Journalism

  7. Bradley Laing (History)



    All this time we thought Mister Softees, the ubiquitous-during-summer neighborhood ice cream trucks, were placed on this earth to combat just the summer swelter, but as Daryl at Throwin’ Wrenches pointed out recently, the trucks were also tapped to play a role in our nation’s Civil Defense network during the 1950s.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Mr. Krepon: if Assad’s government in Syria is overthrown, do Syrian government documents about the “Box on The Euphrates” become available?

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    PARIS — France will soon declassify secret defense documents detailing Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons in defiance of international conventions, a government source said Sunday