In 2009, then-Senator Joe Biden stormed out of a state dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the latter refused to discuss seriously his government’s corruption or its implications for the billions of dollars it received from the United States in aid. Obama administration officials called it “tough love.” But Karzai, after railing at the Obama administration and threatening to join the Taliban if the international community continues to pressure him to stamp out corruption, was receiving the royal treatment. The White House recognized that it must deal with Karzai to have any chance of changing the situation in his impoverished, unstable, war-torn country, which has become crucial to our own national security.
Karzai realized he could simply choose not to change. The US realized that it had to keep the resources flowing, lest Afghanistan collapse and become a haven for terrorists. Today, the Obama Administration seems to have no better strategy. Instead, it faces a disturbingly large and growing number of similar problems.
Right now, our president is faced with the dilemma of what to do about Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’s troops are massacring their fellow citizens. But in contrast to concerns about states such as Egypt and Libya, experts in the U.S. and elsewhere worry openly that the fall of Assad could lead to region-wide chaos. One expert even called the fall of Assad a “doomsday scenario” for the entire Middle East
The New York Times quoted an Obama Administration official as saying “we don’t want another Iraq.” But does this mean we want to keep Assad’s regime in power?
The hardest foreign policy problems are often marked by choices we wish we didn’t have to make, allies we wish we didn’t need, and goals we wish we hadn’t set. All too often, presidents and their aides face a perceived choice between bad and worse, where the success of a crucial American objective—such as a stable Middle East—depends on the actions of a foreign actor the U.S. can’t control or rely on.
Nearly every modern presidential administration is faced with these types of hold-your-nose-and-choose dilemmas. My research will focus on how presidential administrations make hard choices between unappealing options in foreign and security policy, and also on how these situations arise—and what this tells us about the way they understand the problem.
My hope is that, by analyzing selected historical examples, I can find some common themes that might make help future policymakers step on fewer political landmines as they make and act on these difficult decisions.