The text of President Obama’s Iraq speech from last night is here. The parts that most interested me were, first, the idea of ‘time to turn the page’. Merely my view, of course, but it seems to me (along with practically all the other critics of the speech, to be sure) an ambiguous and ambivalent formulation aimed at avoiding having to address the question of victory or loss, among other things. But also of a piece with other terms important in the Obama administration’s foreign policy – particularly “multilateralism” and “engagement.” Like ‘turning the page’, they are susceptible of multiple meanings, addressed to multiple audiences, and the strategic ambiguity that elides certain difficult questions.
‘Strategic ambiguity’ is not without its uses; it is likewise not without its abuses. We tend to think of it in relation to things like nuclear standoff or a deliberately introduced uncertainty on the part of a regulator like the Fed. Used in a somewhat different way, it can be applied to deliberately ambiguous formulations such as the “one China” formulation that allowed mainland China and Taiwan each to claim legitimacy as “the” government and, in that peculiar circumstance, find a formulation that avoided a showdown that might lead to war. The problem, of course, is that such linguistic ambiguities become unstable as geopolitical circumstances shift.
To the extent that one can generalize about such things, I’d say that where ambiguity is the predominant part of the usage – that is, the ability to elide is the predominant strategic use – then at least a procedural flag should go up as to whether the use of ambiguity advances ends other than having to avoid hard questions. Hard questions for which one might pay at compound rates of trouble down the road. In other words, the question that needs to be asked at that point is whether the reach to ambiguity serves some reason other than having to answer the hard questions, and how good that reason is.
I’ve just completed a short book manuscript for the Hoover Institution Press on US-UN relations and the problems of ambiguity raised by the Obama administration’s appeal to “multilateral engagement.” Having written a sharp critique of the administration’s use of those concepts to avoid, in my estimation, certain hard questions, I have been slightly dismayed at the reaction of some of my friends in the EU reading the manuscript – they are one step ahead of me, and simply don’t believe the Obama administration means anything fixed by anything it says. In their view, my no-doubt brilliant manuscript is boring because it takes the Obama administration’s invocations of all these slogans such as multilateralism and engagement seriously. They think it is ammo expended on a shadow target, because they don’t think the administration means anything in particular by anything it says in its foreign policy. There’s no serious interlocutor with which a conservative commenter can debate – on this view from EU friends of mine who are all, without exception, European left wing social democrats.
When I ask why, if this is so, a US presidential administration would not be interested in staking out serious – even if, in my view, seriously wrong – foreign policy positions, the answer is, in some sense, reflected in President Obama’s speech last night – hence, my second interest in it. Commenters have noted, some with puzzlement, as to why the domestic economy figured in this speech. Seen through a domestic policy lens, it’s obvious – Americans, with upcoming elections, are worried about the domestic economy, and this foreign stuff, even when it is a major war, is merely a side-show and distraction from the domestic agenda that is, at bottom, both what American voters care about and what the Obama administration has always truly cared about, even if those two have sharply divergent views as to what the domestic policies should be, to judge by the polls.
Seen through a foreign policy lens, however, the answer is somewhat the same, but emphasizes a different point. That point is that the Obama administration proposes that the United States should embark on an extended period of in-turned focus upon its domestic issues but that, seen from the standpoint of the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, it looks very much like America wants a good, long, global nap. I’m a conservative critic of this whole idea; I don’t think that would work out very well for the United States, for our friends and allies, or really for anyone – including many of our enemies, active and passive – who rely on the US for the provision of certain basic public goods in both global security and the global economy.
But I would say that the way in which the President linked the foreign and domestic policies in last night’s speech – ambiguous, to be sure, but that, from this perspective, is part of the problem – is a modest indication of the Obama administration’s overall global strategic view that “multilateral engagement” is a rhetorical term for “American strategic withdrawal.” Your results may differ, of course, and I have no doubt that for many, they do. One could argue, of course, that the Obama speech was purely about the Iraq war, and a withdrawal from it, and not a larger withdrawal in a strategic sense; I understand that, though on balance I don’t think I’d agree.