If the Bush presidency reminded the American people of the costs of engagement, the Obama presidency has reminded them of the costs of disengagement—costs that are just as significant and perhaps more lasting in the damage done.
Whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a front in the war on terror (as President George W. Bush and Congress,President Bill Clinton and his defense secretary, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded) or to be avoided as a “dumb…rash war” (as President Barack Obama concluded), Iraq undeniably is a central front in the war on terror today. The reason: Obama’s shortsighted decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. “Bush got in too deep,” as David Rothkopf observes in his book National Insecurity. “Obama got out too quickly.”
The Pentagon consensus was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge, to keep Maliki honest, to keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” Before leaving his post as Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen urged the White House to keep at least 16,000 troops in Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Mattis (CENTCOM commander) concurred. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Adm. Mullen’s successor, noted.
But Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been eviscerated by the surge. But after the U.S. pullout, the remnants of AQI “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported. ISIS thrived on the symbiotic chaos of Iraq and Syria, using the unchecked Syrian civil war and the lawless lands of Iraq as feedstock for its rise. By early 2014, ISIS was rampaging through western Iraq. By summer 2014, ISIS had captured Mosul and Tikrit. Obama ordered U.S warplanes to return to Iraq that summer. But it was too late to contain the cancer. By 2015, ISIS and its affiliates would hit Paris, then San Bernardino.
Early on, Syria’s civil war represented one of those unique cases where conscience and national interest overlap: Protecting the people of Syria by using airstrikes to constrain Assad might have saved 470,000 Syrian lives; blocked Iran’s advance; preempted Russia’s reckless return to the region; prevented Assad from reopening the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare; shielded Europe from a tidal wave of refugees; and even prevented the birth of ISIS.
But what might have been is irrelevant now. The brutal reality of Syria’s civil war is that it has become “a geopolitical Chernobyl spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world,” in the words of Gen. David Petraeus. With nearly half-a-million dead, with Assad ensconced in Damascus, with Russia planting new bases in Syria, with Iran and Hezbollah gaining battlefield skills, with the taboo against chemical weapons demolished, Syria is a geostrategic and humanitarian catastrophe for the West. “By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France says of Syria.
In 2009, when U.S. ground commanders requested 40,000-50,000 troops for the Afghanistan surge, Obama tortuously declared, “It is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before adding, in the same breath, “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the enemy know when the U.S. military would end its offensive made victory impossible to achieve. But according to Gates, victory wasn’t Obama’s goal. “For him,” as Gates explained, “it’s all about getting out.”
The 2011 takedown of Osama bin Laden cleared a pathway to the exit. Obama began talking about “the tide of war…receding,” declared “core al Qaeda…on the path to defeat,” decreased U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to just 9,800, and pledged to withdraw all U.S. forces “by the end of 2016.”
But the rhetoric was blindsided by reality. Today, a resurgent Taliban and a reconstituted al Qaeda are taking aim at Afghanistan’s Western-oriented government. The Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. In late 2015, U.S. forces launched an operation against two massive al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. Gen. Wilson Shoffner called it “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” Airstrikes in Afghanistan spiked this summer. The number of sorties with at least one weapons release skyrocketed from 2,003 in 2014 to 9,914 in 2015, and is on track to surpass 11,900. Obama has quietly shelved his plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
If Bush’s “global war on terror” was too broad, we now know Obama’s war on “core al Qaeda” was far too limited.
There are more terrorist safe havens today than at any time in history. The number of terrorist attacks worldwide exploded from around 4,000 in 2008 to nearly 14,000 in 2014. Likewise, the annual number of deaths from terrorist attacks jumped from less than 10,000 in 2008 to more than 30,000 by 2014.
Thirty-four militant groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Ten countries are ISIS “provinces.” ISIS controls 20,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria. In what Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, calls “an unprecedented wave of terror,” ISIS has carried out 100 terrorist plots or attacks outside Iraq and Syria in two years. These include the Brussels bombings (31 killed), Paris siege (130 killed), Ankara bombing (102 killed), Russian airliner bombing (224 killed), Beirut market bombing (43 killed), Tunis bus bombing (12 killed), San Bernardino massacre (14 killed), Istanbul suicide bombing (10 killed), Istanbul Airport attack (44 killed), the rampage in Nice (84 killed), the Orlando shooting (49 killed), and the Gaziantep wedding massacre (54 killed).
DNI James Clapper reports ISIS is using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, and is “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow.” Already, the FBI has 900 active investigations into ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states.
It’s difficult not to conclude that Obama misread the takedown of bin Laden. It pays to recall that after SEAL Team 6killed bin Laden, the president assured the American people al Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and compared the group now known as ISIS to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. “The moment they cease to be fought against,” as Blair said of our jihadist enemies, “they grow.”
Obama swept into office promising to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations. He promptly signed an arms deal with Moscow, cut Army troop strength in Europe to just 26,000 personnel and withdrew all of the U.S. military’s battle tanks from Europe. That shortsighted decision sent precisely the wrong message and was corrected a year later, but the damage was done.
In addition to attacking Ukraine and annexing Crimea, Moscow increased military spending 108 percent between 2004 and 2013 (Moscow’s 2015 military outlays were 26 percent larger than in 2014). Putin’s Russia has waged cyberwar against the U.S. and other NATO members, threatened Poland with nuclear attack, remilitarized territories near Alaska and in the Arctic, massed troops on the borders of NATO’s newest members, flouted arms treaties, recklessly intervened in Syria, hacked into the U.S. political system, and revived the dangerous Cold War-era practice of conducting mock bombing runs near NATO territory. To be sure, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But Putin has the advantage of proximity; his asymmetric, anonymous brand of “hybrid warfare” has proven effective; he possesses a massive nuclear arsenal; and his army retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Baltics.
The implication of the “reset” was that Putin wanted a partner, if only Washington would change its tone. That hypothesis has been obliterated in the intervening years. Putin invaded Georgia during the “with us or against us” Bush administration, and Ukraine during the “lead from behind” Obama administration. Putin—not Washington’s tone—is the problem.
Donald Trump drew heavy criticism for suggesting he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” That deserved every bit of criticism it received. Yet it pays to recall that this chill wind in America’s approach to allies began blowing during the Obama administration.
It was the Obama administration that offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda, without consulting Britain. It was the Obama administration that put a time limit on America’s commitment to NATO in Libya. It was the Obama administration that left Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb by reversing NATO’s missile-defense plans. It was the Obama administration that pulled the rug out from under Hosni Mubarak. It was the Obama administration that invoiced Paris after the French military requested help in Mali. It was the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East—the withdrawal from Iraq, the hands-off approach to Syria’s civil war, the erased “red lines”—that alarmed Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. It was the Obama administration that employed phrases like “nation-building here at home” to encourage America’s turn inward.
In 2009, Obama envisioned “spheres of cooperation” between China and the U.S., vowing that “the United States does not seek to contain China.”
In response to Obama’s olive branch, China poured increasing sums into military modernization and expansion. Between 2011 and 2015, Beijing increased military spending 55.7 percent (167 percent between 2005 and 2014).
In addition, China expanded its presence and influence in the Americas. In violation of international norms of behavior, China declared an “air defense identification zone” over a vast swath of international waters. Following Moscow’s playbook in the Crimea, Beijing swarmed waters around Japanese islands with ships and sailors scrubbed of insignia. And China began poaching the South China Sea by turning tiny atolls hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into man-made islands. PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris says the made-in-China islands “are clearly military in nature.”
Thus in 2011, Obama unveiled his “Pacific Pivot” aimed at, well, containing China. The Pivot sounded good in theory, but given the declining defense budget it was woefully under-resourced. It’s simple arithmetic. The U.S. military cannot carry out a growing list of missions with the dwindling amount resources available under the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration.
By definition, sea power is an essential element of America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. Regrettably, Washington is allowing U.S. sea power to atrophy. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. The Navy of the mid-1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 272 ships. While today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than its forerunners, deterrence is about presence. And the sequestration-era Navy lacks the assets to be present in all the places it’s needed. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” reports CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
This is directly related to the declining defense budget, which, in a time of war, has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009, to barely 3 percent of GDP today.
Sequestration has cut through America’s military like a scythe: The Air Force fielded 173 active bombers and 1,622 active fighter/attack aircraft in 2005, but just 141 bombers and 1,273 fighters by 2015. The Army’s active-duty endstrength will fall from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 by 2018, the Marines’ active-duty endstrength from 202,000 to 182,000. Obama halted F-22 production at 187 planes, far short of the planned 381; cut strategic nuclear forces by 30 percent; and slashed missile-defense spending.
Sequestration was not forced upon the White House by Congress. In fact, as Bob Woodward has detailed, “The automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House…Obama personally approved of the plan.” The Pentagon will lose nearly $1 trillion in projected spending between 2012 and 2021.
Obama promised that the nuclear deal with Iran would moderate the mullahs. Yet in the intervening 12 months, Iran has tested missiles in defiance of UN resolutions, taunted U.S. Navy vessels in international waters, seized a U.S. Navy crew, fomented an insurgency in Yemen, propped up Assad, and offered airspace and bases to Russian warplanes. Worse, as Sen. Bob Menendez explains, “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.”
Obama warned Assad that using chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States. Thus, after Assad’s gas attack on Ghouta, the president set the wheels in motion for airstrikes. But then he engaged in a prime-time debate with himself over the ramifications of U.S. intervention and punted the problem to Congress. Obama sought a way out of his conundrum by accepting Putin’s promise to cajole Assad into handing over his WMDs. As many of us predicted, entrusting an untrustworthy regime to vouch for the disarmament of another untrustworthy regime was a recipe for failure. Assad has continued to use chemical weapons.
Whether or not the U.S. should avenge Ghouta is open to debate, but the importance of U.S. credibility is not. Obama failed to grasp this in Syria and elsewhere. The next president will have the difficult task of rebuilding that credibility.