By Alan Dowd – ASCF Senior Fellow
November 2015 – Commentators have devoted lots of print and pixels to comparing President Barack Obama to other presidents. Those with charitable views have compared him to Eisenhower, Reagan and FDR; those with critical assessments compare him to Carter and Hoover. But on foreign policy, let’s judge the president not by comparing him to his predecessors, but by placing his record against his own measuring rod. In 2008, as he cruised toward winning the presidency, Obama delivered a trio of speeches—one in Berlin, one in Washington, D.C., one in North Carolina—that laid out his foreign-policy vision. Eight years later, the chasm between the record and the rhetoric is too great to ignore.
Let’s start with the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign-policy platform—indeed the very fuel for his White House run: Iraq.
In 2008, Candidate Obama said he was committed to “ending the war in Iraq responsibly.” He criticized policymaking in Washington before the Iraq War, when “ideology overrode pragmatism” and politicians “spent too little time reading the intelligence reports, and too much time reading public opinion.” He called for the creation of “a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.” And he declared, “true success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future—a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge.”
If only he had heeded his own counsel. By every metric, post-surge Iraq was in better shape than pre-surge Iraq, and the consensus among military commanders and intelligence officials was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge. Most observers thought Washington and Baghdad would hammer out a new status of forces of agreement (SOFA) to authorize a modest-sized residual U.S. presence in Iraq. 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.” But Obama showed little interest in securing a new SOFA and offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reported at the time, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq…despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”
Talk about ignoring intelligence reports and “reading public opinion.” There would be no “counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda,” no JSOC presence, no airbases, no intelligence fusion centers. Iraq would be on its own. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments in his memoir Worthy Fights, 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.”
The consequences of withdrawal were predictable: Without the steadying hand of the American military, the Maliki government abused its power; sectarian tensions exploded; the window of opportunity for Iranian mischief widened; al Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself as ISIS; Yazidis, Shiites and Christians were massacred; and ISIS declared a jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. It didn’t have to be this way.
In 2008, Candidate Obama noted that “the Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan.” He described Afghanistan as “a war that we have to win…The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring.” Candidate Obama was committed to “finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Yet when U.S. ground commanders requested 40,000-50,000 troops for the Afghanistan surge, the president tortuously declared, “It is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before vowing—in the very same breath—“after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Of course, vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military would end its offensive made victory impossible to achieve. But according to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, victory was not Obama’s goal. “For him,” as Gates wrote in his memoir, “it’s all about getting out.”
The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 cleared a pathway to the exit. Obama began talking about “the tide of war…receding,” reported that “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat,” concluded that it was time “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” and ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. stabilization forces from Afghanistan. He even compared a little-known al Qaeda offshoot operating in Iraq to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.” That group is well-known today: ISIS.
It was revealed last month that U.S. air and ground forces launched an operation against two massive al Qaeda bases in the Afghan province of Kandahar. One of the bases covered 30 square miles. More than 200 commandos were involved in the operation, backed by 63 airstrikes. Gen. Wilson Shoffner called it “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” As for the Taliban, it controls more of Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001, which explains Obama’s recent decision to reverse course and maintain a sizeable U.S. military presence in the war-torn country through the end of his administration. So much for “finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Simply put, Obama misread the takedown of bin Laden as a strategic victory rather a tactical success. Consider:
· There are 41 jihadist groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 in 18 countries in 2004.
· Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”
· ISIS has affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Nigeria, controls some 30,000 square miles of Iraq and Syria, fields an army of 40,000 fighters, has a steady stream of oil revenue and reigns over a population of some 2 million people. In short, ISIS is something al Qaeda never was: a bona fide terror state in the very heart of the Middle East.
In 2008, Candidate Obama declared, “We cannot tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of nations that support terror…Ultimately the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior…We will present a clear choice. If you abandon your nuclear program, support for terror and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives. If you refuse, then we will ratchet up the pressure.”
Given that measuring rod, the summer of 2015 marked a wholesale capitulation by Obama on the Iranian nuclear issue.
First, the president’s nuclear deal essentially allows Iran to remain a threshold nuclear power forever. As former Obama advisor Dennis Ross explains, “The Iranians are not required to dismantle their enrichment infrastructure, are allowed to continue at least limited research and development on their five advanced models of centrifuges, and will be permitted to build as large an industrial nuclear program as they want after year 15.”
Adds Sen. Bob Menendez: “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.” This is a dramatic departure for U.S. foreign policy. As Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have pointed out, “For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”
Second, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains today what it was before the deal—and what it has been since 1979: a revolutionary terrorist organization masquerading as a government. Tehran continues to support Hezbollah and Hamas, prop up a fellow terror regime in Syria, bankroll insurgencies in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, deploy and test missiles, and wage proxy war against the United States. There has been no “change in Iranian behavior.”
Third, far from ceasing threats to Israel, Tehran has been emboldened by the nuclear deal. After the deal was unveiled, Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei declared that Israel will cease to exist within 25 years. During the negotiations, he proposed a nine-step plan to “eliminate” Israel. Nothing in the deal required him to renounce such statements.
In 2008, Candidate Obama committed to “rebuilding our alliances to meet the common challenges of the 21st century,” adding that “America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners.” Some of us took issue with his premise. After all, America’s alliances with Britain, France, Poland, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and other key partners were strong when President George W. Bush left office. So the term “rebuilding” may have been a rhetorical reach. Moreover, media mantras notwithstanding, the Bush administration did act alongside partners: The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan was created in 2001; by 2007, 39 nations were contributing troops to ISAF. Thirty-seven nations contributed 150,000 troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom. They made real contributions to the mission: The allies represented 21 percent of the ground forces in the Iraqi theater, sustained 1,952 wounded and lost 322 troops.
Even so, strengthening bonds with nations that share our interests and/or ideals is always a good thing, so there was nothing wrong with Obama’s desire to pursue that goal. Regrettably, Obama has left in his wake a badly fractured system of alliances, and his successor will need to rebuild the confidence and trust of old friends.
“Leading from behind” is the term coined by one of Obama’s aides to describe his approach to America’s allies. What the White House has learned since floating this unfortunate phrase is that no one likes a backseat driver.
For example, when NATO intervened in Libya, the allies expected help from the United States. What they got was Obama’s insistence that America would play only a “supporting role” and a stunning declaration at one point during the operation that access to U.S. air power “expires on Monday.”
When France asked for air support for counterterrorism operations in Mali, Washington sent Paris an invoice.
When the Obama administration offloaded a handful of Guantanamo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda, Washington failed to consult Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
When the Obama administration pulled the plug on missile-defense plans for Europe—plans unanimously approved by NATO—it did so “without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner,” as historian George Weigel recalls. A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.”
Obama’s erased red lines in Syria, nuclear deal with Iran and zigzagging reaction to the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt left the Saudis deeply estranged from Washington. Israeli officials say relations with Washington are the worst they have been in three decades.
“Our allies feel abandoned,” reports Gen. Michael Flynn, who recently retired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “There is a significant loss of trust in the U.S. government.”
“America cannot turn inward,” Candidate Obama intoned in 2008. Yet that’s exactly what has happened under President Obama.
When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 election, President Obama responded to the “Twitter Revolution” by averting his gaze. The reaction was so bad that the protestors actually chanted, “Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?” The sad irony is that the president’s ambivalence answered his own rhetorical question of a year earlier: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked in 2008.
When the Arab Spring slammed into Egypt, the president initially supported Hosni Mubarak (America’s longtime autocratic ally), then supported Mohamed Morsi (Egypt’s first democratic president), then supported a military coup that ousted Morsi. When Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, the president ignored his own red lines and left military partners in France and Saudi Arabia out on a limb. When Iraq began to throb with violence, the president said it was time to “focus on nation-building here at home.” When Ukraine asked for weapons to defend itself, the president sent MREs. When pressed to do more—whether in the South China Sea or Syria or cyberspace—the president and his staff defended his stand-off foreign policy by repeating the phrase “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
This shift away from engagement was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy swung back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? With China claiming control over international airspace and seaspace, bin Laden’s heirs setting the Middle East on fire, Russia annexing sovereign nations and filling a vacuum in the Middle East, America’s European allies begging for help, and rogue states acting with impunity (North Korea, Iran, Syria), even members of the president’s team know the answer is yes.
Seemingly using the media to signal his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry warns, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Noting that “inaction” carries “profound risks and costs for our national security,” former CIA Director David Petraeus calls Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl.”
Concerned about the toll of sequestration, which was initiated by the Obama administration, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns, “America must continue to ensure its ability to project power…If this capability is eroded or lost, we will see a world far more dangerous and unstable.”
Resources and Reach
In 2008, Candidate Obama declared, “It is time to reduce the strain on our troops by completing the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines.”
Yet under President Obama, Marine Corps endstrength will fall to 182,000 (down from 202,000). The Army’s active-duty endstrength has been slashed from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 soldiers, to 490,000 today, to 450,000 by 2018. And in what AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen calls “a historic shift,” there are now more DOD civilians and contractors (1.474 million) than active-duty personnel (1.36 million).
Equally worrisome, America’s Armed Forces are facing a morale crisis unlike any since the post-Vietnam era. A sobering survey of active-duty troops conducted by Military Times reveals “a force adrift,” with America’s defenders reeling from deep cuts and feeling “underpaid, under-equipped and under-appreciated”: 44 percent say pay is good/excellent, down from 87 percent 2009; 45 percent say health care is good/excellent, down from 78 percent in 2009; 27 percent say the senior military leadership has their best interests at heart, down from 53 percent in 2009.
With the defense budget cratering from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009, to 3.2 percent today, to 2.8 percent by 2018, the military will have fewer resources—and the United States a shorter reach—long after the Obama administration.