The Innocents Abroad
Barack Obama’s flawed worldview and the incoherent foreign policy flowing from it have now disintegrated. Within the past few months, his media acolytes notwithstanding, the evidence has become conclusive: Obama’s presidency is gravely wounding America and its friends. His response to virtually every significant threat or crisis has either complicated or worsened the problem, or, at best, left it essentially no closer to resolution.
Obama has repeatedly highlighted his propensity to apologize for America’s past transgressions (as he defines them), and his disinclination to be assertive on our behalf. Indeed, so radically different is Obama from any prior American president that many observers have concluded that he has a comprehensive plan, and that somewhere in all that mess there must be a doctrine. Others look not for a plan, but for a plot; pop psychology and conspiracy theories abound as to why Obama is so comfortable, even enthusiastic, about American decline.
But it is folly to look for rhyme and reason when there is neither. For better or worse, there is no single dispositive flaw in Obama’s doctrine, since there is little that resembles a doctrine. His saunter through world affairs is unstructured. Instead, the explanation for his policy’s failure, and its well-deserved collapse now unfolding before us, lies in a jumbled mix of philosophy, political priorities, and personal inadequacy. Like Obama’s presidency generally, his national security flaws combine ideology, naÃ¯veté, weakness, lack of leadership, intellectual laziness, and a near-religious faith in negotiation for its own sake.
Perhaps most significantly, Obama is simply not interested in foreign and defense policy. To state such a proposition about a U.S. president seems counterintuitive or even shocking, but Obama is different from all of his predecessors, Republican or Democrat, since Franklin Roosevelt. His first thought on awakening each morning is not about threats to America, its global interests, and its friends and allies, but about his efforts to radically restructure our economy and society. That is where his intellect and his heart are focused, and his lack of attention to the rest of the world is palpable. When Obama has no other choice but to concentrate on international affairs —such as during the Afghanistan surge or the killing of Osama bin Laden — he will do so, but only for as long as is necessary to address the immediate problem before him.
In those few national security areas where Obama does his homework, a second characteristic predominates: He simply does not see much occurring internationally that threatens American interests. Such a benign view of a chaotic world may be even more shocking than his general lack of interest, but it is yet another reflection of his underlying intellectual laziness. He is most politely described as credulous and inexperienced, especially for someone who lived overseas as a child. During both the 2008 campaign and his presidency, for example, Obama has downplayed the very concept of a “global war on terror,” treated nuclear proliferation as a side issue, and ignored the enormous strategic threats posed by a rising China and a belligerent Russia. American decline, most recently reflected in S&P’s downgrade of America’s sovereign debt to France’s level, is untroubling and even natural to him.
In days gone by, Americans with such attitudes were classified as isolationists. But the president is no advocate of insularity, instead choosing multilateralism and expressing it in rhetoric that could have come straight from its source, Woodrow Wilson. It was Wilson, after all, and not our first community-organizer president, who insisted that “there must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power, not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” Here is the ideology of negotiation and global governance in its fullest flower.
Radical as Obama is, his worldview is not dissimilar from those of a long line of liberal presidential candidates, stretching back decades. In 1988, for example, Vice President George H. W. Bush said of his November opponent, Michael Dukakis: “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.”Precisely the same could be said about Obama. The only significant difference is that Obama made it to the White House, and Dukakis didn’t. This is why, two years ago in Standpoint magazine, I called Obama our first “post-American President,” one unburdened by American exceptionalism.
So what emerges from a president who is basically uninterested in foreign affairs, who doesn’t see our manifold threats and challenges as worthy of presidential time and energy, who repeatedly stresses devotion to negotiations that are divorced from their substantive outcome, and who believes that multilateral fora rather than American resolve and power can address foreign problems? The now-indisputable answer is a failing, collapsing U.S. foreign policy.
Since his inauguration, for example, Obama has insisted that the nuclear-proliferation threat represented by Iran and North Korea could be defused through negotiation. Although he has never articulated the slightest reason to believe that either rogue state would voluntarily eliminate its weapons program, he has extended his “open hand,” waiting for Tehran and Pyongyang to unclench their fists. In both cases, gullibility and the fascination with negotiation as a process, or perhaps just Obama’s narcissism, have given the proliferators the precious assets of time and the cover of legitimacy, both of which they have unfortunately used all too productively.
In fact, Tehran accelerated and expanded its uranium-enrichment programs. Efforts at international sanctions were half-hearted and ineffective, as huge, recent construction contracts and potential oil-bartering agreements with China show. Much-touted computer viruses have failed to impede Iran’s enrichment capacity, as demonstrated by the accumulating evidence in public reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency and assessments by independent groups such as the Wisconsin Project and the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
In July, even Obama’s Treasury Department was forced to admit (albeit with minimal publicity from the Oval Office) that Shia Iran has been funding and sheltering a critical al-Qaeda supply chain for at least six years, as al-Qaeda works to kill Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This is hardly surprising, since Iran has long been an equal-opportunity funder of and arms supplier for terrorism, including both Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon and Sunni Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. U.S. military officials have contended for years that Iran was providing Shiite extremists in Iraq with RPGs and other weapons to use against American and Coalition forces, and simultaneously supplying similar equipment to the Taliban, its former sworn enemy in Afghanistan, for use against U.S. and NATO troops there. While Iran’s support for al-Qaeda may therefore seem disturbingly new, it is actually nothing of the sort.
What is disturbing is that President Obama apparently hasn’t the slightest desire to explain these troubling conclusions to the American public, although his unaccustomed reticence is hardly surprising. This latest inconvenient development contravenes Obama’s preferred narrative that al-Qaeda faces near-terminal decline, especially after Osama bin Laden’s death, and that wide-ranging diplomatic engagement with Tehran’s mullahs on nuclear weapons and other matters is still possible. It is as if the White House has forgotten the Bedouin proverb: “I against my brother; I and my brother against our cousin; my brother and our cousin against the neighbors; all of us against the strangers.”
Moreover, Iran’s free-flowing financial and weapons support for groups with widely divergent religious and ideological orientations has broad implications for the analysis of radical threats elsewhere in the Middle East. For example, Iran’s support for Hamas, which is effectively a subsidiary of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, shows how Iran can fish in troubled waters far more extensively in Sunni Arab regions than Obama expected from a Persian Shia regime. Accordingly, therefore, the prospects for the Arab Spring to bring about democratic change, which have already fallen woefully short of expectations, can only become more problematic.
Regarding North Korea, the other main locus of nuclear-proliferation concern, Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” has simply allowed Pyongyang to expand its uranium-enrichment activities in plain view, as well as continue to progress with ballistic-missile and other weapons programs. Both Japan and South Korea believe that the North has been making important progress on downsizing its nuclear devices in order to fit them onto its short- or medium-range ballistic missiles, or onto the long-range Taepodong-2. This intricate mating procedure requires either developing greater rocket thrust to launch heavier, bulkier payloads, or squeezing down the warheads to fit the existing missile capabilities. Increasing rocket power, decreasing warhead size, or both, will ultimately give the North the range of delivery systems it seeks. And the extensive evidence of cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the nuclear and ballistic-missile fields only continues to grow.
Moreover, while Obama has dithered, South Korea has become increasingly concerned about yet another developing North Korean asymmetric capability: cyber-warfare. Pyongyang’s interest and growing skills in the cyber field point directly to China as a source of assistance, given the prominent role Beijing has given information warfare, and our increasing awareness of sustained — and successful — Chinese probing of U.S. government and corporate information-technology assets. To date, North Korea’s cyber attacks have apparently focused on the South, with at least three major incidents claimed since 2009. But they could readily be conducted worldwide.
In bilateral talks in New York in late July, Obama’s diplomats treated North Korea’s leading purveyors of disinformation as serious negotiating partners (a mistake unfortunately inherited from the Bush administration). Incredibly, rumors abound that these latest talks were really about the regime change in Pyongyang that will follow Kim Jong Il’s death, as if these regime consiglieri could somehow be persuaded of a different succession plan, one more favorable to the United States. Certainly we should be stirring up dissension in North Korea, but New York is not the place to do it.
Inexperience, incompetence, and blind faith in negotiation have led to gridlock in the Middle East. Obama has acted as though the gravest threat there to American interests and international peace and security is Israeli housing construction in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Two-and-a-half years of such focus have produced essentially no progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks, just ongoing humiliation for the United States. And Obama’s various reactions to the Arab Spring can be described only as contradictory and incoherent. In consequence, Islamist forces are rising in Egypt; the Syrian dictatorship, aided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is massacring civilians in Syria; Hezbollah’s grasp on Lebanon is tightening; and our closest friends on the Arabian Peninsula are rapidly distancing themselves from a United States they regard as weakening, irresolute, and unreliable. In Turkey, July’s mass resignation of top generals may be conclusive evidence of the demise of Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a secular state.
Obama’s unwillingness even to discuss a “global war on terror,” both to avoid “offending” Muslims (which he thinks this Bush-era phrase did), and because he just does not see the threat, continues undisturbed. After Osama bin Laden’s well-deserved death, the White House quickly contended that al-Qaeda itself was in jeopardy, thereby inflating its own accomplishments and laying the groundwork for reduced military budgets and less-forward international positions generally. Equally promptly, however, Michael Leiter, outgoing head of the National Counterterrorism Center, and others emphatically refuted any such suggestion.
Then media reports appeared that al-Qaeda in Yemen was trying to produce ricin, a potent biological weapon. Of course, al-Qaeda’s earliest manuals, many of which were captured in the aftermath of our 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government in Kabul, stressed al-Qaeda’s desire to obtain nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Today we see evidence of their quest’s continuing, not that Obama has seemingly ever paid much attention to it, or given it any prominence whatever in his public pronouncements.
In Libya, Gaddafi’s removal has not mitigated the enduring toxic effects on the United States of Obama’s ideology and weakness. He intervened for the wrong reasons, justifying military action under the abstract ideological doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” civilians; launched impressive initial military strikes, then backed off; called for Gaddafi’s overthrow, but refused to say we would use military force to do so; then targeted Gaddafi — unsuccessfully for many months — without being willing to say so; then agreed with Britain and France that Gaddafi could actually stay in country if he gave up power; and then capped all these mistakes by inviting Russia in to mediate between our most important alliance and its military adversary. And who knows what will follow Gaddafi?
That Gaddafi has finally fallen despite these debilitating errors proves graphically how NATO could have succeeded at the outset rather than requiring five months of “kinetic military action.” The key error was ideology, the ego-gratifying balm and moral superiority of the “responsibility to protect.” But in pursuing the supposedly humanitarian doctrine, rather than”regime change,” we neither swiftly ousted Gaddafi, nor ensured a successor regime congenial to the West, nor fully succeeded in protecting innocent civilians from the continuing misery of civil war. And tellingly, Obama’s ideological knee-jerk propelling us into Libya was followed by inattention, the characteristic best describing his general approach to the rest of the world. No foreign friend or adversary could miss the point that, once launched into the conflict in Libya, Obama subsequently ignored it until the last days. NATO’s intervention will long be remembered as a strategic embarrassment for the West, one directly attributable to Obama. He did not inherit this debacle from the Bush administration; he created it all by himself.
We could pass on to broader matters of grand strategy involving Russia and China, except that the Obama administration has no grand strategy on Russia and China. Instead, zealous faith in negotiations for their own sake produced the ill-advised “reset” policy with Russia, and cravenness in dealing with China. And what has all of that obtained? Putin called America a”parasite economy,” and China’s official news agency lectured Washington on its financial failures. Surely this is some measure of how far America has sunk, when former KGB agents and China’s Communist-party mouthpiece purport to instruct us on our economic policy.
With Russia, naÃ¯veté is Obama’s dominant flaw. He believed, incredibly, that by canceling planned missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, and broadly scaling back plans for national missile defense; agreeing to the ill-advised New START arms-control treaty; and turning a blind eye to Moscow’s ongoing reassertion of hegemony in the former Soviet Union, he could persuade Russia to look kindly on American interests elsewhere. But appeasement, needless to say, has brought nothing but scorn from Moscow. And, incredibly, Obama’s naÃ¯veté has not diminished in the face of it. Administration officials this summer quickly concluded that a bomb, attributed to Russian intelligence, which was detonated near our embassy in Georgia, was actually “an attempt to poke the Georgians in the eye, not the U.S.” Indeed.
In early August, China began initial sea trials for its first aircraft carrier. While years away from posing a direct threat to the U.S. Navy, China’s carrier reflects a wider expansion of both its conventional land and naval forces (including submarines) and its strategic-weapons capabilities. Coupled with increasingly assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea and bolder efforts to control transit rights in other nearby international waters, Beijing’s arms buildup foreshadows a major challenge to America and its Asian friends. In response, Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to Beijing. More seriously, his administration also refused to sell to Taiwan the most advanced models of F-16 fighter-bombers.
China’s focus on area-denial, anti-access weapons systems also underscores its objectives. If China can hold the U.S. Navy at bay and at risk, it can dramatically enhance its drive toward hegemony in East and Southeast Asia. To achieve this goal, Beijing does not need to be a global peer competitor to Washington militarily; it must only be capable of neutralizing the Western Pacific naval dominance we have enjoyed since 1945. Countering such a threat should be a serious priority at the Pentagon, but doing anything consequential would, of course, require additional financial resources for personnel and weapons systems.
Here in particular America is at risk. Obama’s personal and philosophical weakness is revealed most palpably in his view of the national security budget. Deep spending cuts ($400 billion) in Obama’s first three Pentagon fiscal years, when virtually every other agency and entitlement program was enjoying substantial, indeed extravagant, increases, were already painful enough. But truly staggering is the combination of the further defense cuts ($350 billion) Obama ordered at the start of this year, which are now essentially written into the first tranche of cuts in the compromise legislation raising the debt ceiling, not to mention to the $500-600 billion in additional cuts that will be required if the recent debt-ceiling legislation’s”trigger mechanism” kicks in.
Had Obama openly proposed defense cuts of such magnitude, conservatives would surely have risen in furious opposition. But in the blue smoke and mirrors of arcane budget debates, Obama has succeeded beyond his wildest ideological fantasy. The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson wrote that the debt-ceiling deal “reflects liberal preferences” and was “mostly a triumph of the welfare state over the Pentagon.” With conservatives scoring “own goals”(as the Europeans say in soccer) like this, no wonder Obama sees virtue in”leading from behind.”
Obama is too sinuous a politician to admit this growing record of failure, but that very sinuousness also explains much of his problem. He combines an inability to perceive threats — by not understanding that real differences exist between countries, not just poor communication — with inattention and laziness, naÃ¯veté, ideology, and faith in negotiation. His administration’s foreign policy has thus produced a sorry record, with every prospect for an even sorrier future.
Tracing these factors to their logical conclusions, we can see that Obama is simply an invention; there is less to him than meets the eye. Worse than being merely doctrinaire, he is hollow at the center. And that is most assuredly not what we need today, or for another presidential term.
This article originally appeared in National Review magazine.