Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Learning Curve Option is Already Around the Bend

By Barry Rubin

A well-connected and experienced policymaking friend mentioned in passing the question of whether the Obama Administration is still in the midst of a "learning curve" that might bring about a more realistic, workable foreign policy.

This is precisely what I expected to happen in late 2009. The only question was whether the improvement would be a small or big one. After all, there was a consistent pattern over many years in which new presidents and their colleagues gained wisdom after initial missteps.

But, in this case, nothing happened.

The administration's term (first term? only term?) is now one-third over. If there was going to be a learning curve it would have curved by now. Most likely, this is as good as it gets.

Where do learning curves come from?

--The accumulation of experience. You do things and observe what works and what doesn't. The great Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, so a friend who played for him told me, insisted that one learns a lot more from defeat than from victory.

Thus, it's possible to grow in a job. But if you don't learn from criticism or rethink your conceptual approach, you just keep repeating the same stuff. I cannot think of a single issue--save perhaps that it isn't a good idea to bash Israel--where this administration has learned from experience. Can you?

--Personnel changes. If new people come into power or the balance of influence among them changes, policy shifts. A good example is how National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice became the dominant force in the latter part of the George W. Bush Administration and shifted away from the democracy-promotion approach as well as on other issues. The Obama Administration, however, has had virtually no such shifts.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who could make things a lot better if listened to at all, has been marginalized. Someone like Dennis Ross, who could give some good advice on the Middle East, is isolated. These two are trotted out to endorse administration policy at best. No salvation yet on this front.

--A serious rethinking of ideology and world view. Obama seems to be about the last person to be capable of self-criticism and self-change. Something I realized while watching Obama's press conference is that he seems to think that if government follows the right procedures and has the right ideas the outcome is somehow secondary.

Which reminds me of an an actual incident. A professor gives a paper explaining how countries decide whether or not to get nuclear weapons. A student responds by listing a number of exceptions which disprove that hypothesis. The professor says his theory is still correct.

"But professor," says the student, "what about reality?"

Without hesitating, the professor responds, "Reality is an exceptional case."

That seems to be how Obama thinks. If reality seems to clash with his preconception, so much the worse for reality. And if someone disagrees that only shows he needs to explain it again, more slowly, in smaller words.

--The impact of a crisis. None yet on foreign policy that might have such an effect. And one shudders to think when some major international issue springs a leak how will this administration responds. Domestic crises--like the health bill's bloody battle or electoral defeats--also seemed to have no effect on the speed and direction of the administration.

So I think by this point the learning curve solution is by this point a long shot. That leaves the country with only the electoral solution.

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