By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — When Attorney General Eric Holder says that the Islamic State that has taken root in Iraq and Syria poses a “deadly” threat, and that he has “extreme, extreme concern” about its bomb-makers, that sounds like an emergency. Yet the Obama administration hasn’t settled on a coordinated, aggressive response that might prevent this inferno from spreading.
The delay in framing a credible plan for stopping the Islamic State is part of a larger worry about President Obama’s foreign policy. Even when this White House has good basic strategies, there is too often a lack of follow-through to coordinate the tools of national power. There is no prize for good intentions here. Performance is what matters. That’s as true of America’s relations with traditional allies, such as Germany and Saudi Arabia, as it is of combating adversaries.
A case study of this implementation problem was the administration’s proposal last month for $500 million for the U.S. military to train and equip a stabilization force that could check the extremists in liberated areas of Syria. This is a good idea, with the personal blessing of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff, who had been skeptical about some other proposals for U.S. involvement in Syria. After months of hesitation, the White House backed it.
But after the program was pitched on Capitol Hill, the administration agreed with congressional critics that there still were too many loose ends, and it went back to the drawing board for more work on how the rebels would be recruited, trained and deployed.
A retooled Syria program may be back by September, but, sorry, folks, it’s too late in the game for such missteps and delay. When the nation is facing what the attorney general agreed is a “clear and present danger,” the president must mobilize the U.S. government. He needs to decide on a strategy and implement it. And he should communicate his plans clearly to the country.
Some of the angst about Obama is overdone. As with the famous quip about Richard Wagner’s music, Obama’s foreign policy is sometimes “better than it sounds.” Obama’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been steady and generally successful. His decision to seek a unity government in Iraq before launching U.S. airstrikes has been correct. Secretary of State John Kerry’s success last weekend in brokering a unity government in Afghanistan was also significant.
My colleague Fred Hiatt rightly noted this week that Obama needs a stronger “team of rivals” that can challenge his ideas in foreign policy. But what he really needs is clarity and impact. That means a national security orchestra that can follow a well-written score, and a conductor who keeps the beat.
In foreign policy, the conductor is the national security adviser, Susan Rice. She is the chief implementation officer. She needs to help Obama improve performance in the remainder of his second term, with this team or a different one. It won’t be enough for Obama to give a good strategy speech every few months, as he did at West Point in late May. The White House needs to communicate its plans and directions every day, in a hundred subtle ways. Rice was attacked so viciously in the Benghazi uproar that she has kept her head down, to a fault. To succeed, she needs a higher profile, and a firmer hand.
A case in point is the U.S. relationship with Germany, America’s most important ally in Europe. We’ve known for a year that Germans are anguished about revelations of NSA and CIA spying. You may think, as I do, that these reactions are overwrought, but that’s all the more reason for U.S. intelligence activities to be managed effectively from the White House.
Rice has met with her German counterpart to try to heal the breach. Talks broke down because the U.S. wouldn’t offer the no-spy pact the Germans wanted, and Germany was wary of the enhanced intelligence cooperation the U.S. proposed. The unfortunate result: The Germans last week jumped on some murky CIA operations and decided to expel the station chief — the first time I recall that happening with a NATO ally.
You can sympathize with the White House’s situation in a chaotic world that simultaneously craves and resents American leadership. But when core U.S. national security interests are involved — as in combating the Islamic State, or maintaining the strongest possible alliance with Germany — the White House must break through whatever resistance or inertia it encounters. The rest is excuses.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.