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Sep 08 2014

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On Foreign Policy, What Was Obama Thinking?

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Hope Isn't a Strategy...

Hope Isn’t a Strategy…

 Back in 2009, one of President Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives was to “reset” relations with Russia, ostensibly to reverse the “dangerous drift” inherited from the Bush administration. 

Utterly ignoring the underlying policy for the Bush freeze in Russian relations – the brazen Russian invasion and continued partial occupation of the nation of Georgia – the Obama administration went about offering a series of incentives and concessions designed to bring a “misunderstood” Russia back into the fold.

POTUS immediately bowed to Russian demands and canceled NATO plans to place anti-missile defenses in Poland and Hungary; missile defenses designed to intercept Iranian missiles, mind you, not Russian, not that this factored into the decision. For good measure, the Administration also fast-tracked Russian entry into the WTO.

The American “ask” in return was just as propitious for the Russians – Obama wanted a new strategic arms treaty between the US and Russians, which Putin was only too happy to oblige. The US also requested Russian cooperation in containing the Iranian nuclear program.

Today, Russia is a member of the WTO and there are no missile defenses in Poland or Hungary. US and Soviet strategic nuclear forces are at their lowest levels since the beginning of the Cold War, levels so low that for the first time, a combination of foreign powers will have numerical superiority over the US in delivery vehicles and warheads.

Worse, as the US has taken its treaty obligations seriously the Russians have been exposed for systematically cheating on the 1987 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev; an alarming development with potentially broad repercussions.

As for the Iranians, the Russians have used their questionable cooperation on Iranian nukes as leverage to influence US decision in other world hotspots. At the same time, Putin has picked up with Obama where he left off with Bush, as Russia systematically dismembers the Ukraine, seizing the Crimea, supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine and finally committing Russian combat forces to sustain rebel gains.  The Administration has responded with sanctions and rhetoric, none of which have had any sustained impact on the deteriorating situation at hand.

All that time attention and concessions, for what?

What was Obama thinking?

In 2009, Obama sought to create a new chapter in US-Iranian relations through negotiations and improvement in bilateral ties. POTUS announced the intention in his Cairo Speech in June of that year, inconveniently just days before democratic protestors filled the streets in Tehran over voter fraud allegations in the Iranian presidential election.

With a critical fissure opening in Iranian society, the US did nothing, ultimately preferring to deal with the “devil it knew” Islamic government than an unknown.

Now, five years into the Iranian “experiment,” we are no closer to a deal to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program – the ostensible US goal – while the Iranians are five years closer to a functioning nuclear weapons program.  Fruitless multilateral negotiations continue in Geneva, while Iran has answered Obama’s good will with terrorist attacks, support for the brutal Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – all avowed enemies of America’s strongest Middle East ally, Israel.

What was Obama thinking?

Since the Cairo Speech in 2009, the Obama administration has sought to be more “balanced” in its relationships between Israel and the Palestinians. The practical implication has been a concerted “blind eye” to Palestinian mischief and trouble-making, and a more critical voice of Israeli actions, often as Israel is forced to defend itself against concerted terrorist attacks. 

This was taken to an entirely new level by Secretary of State John Kerry, who myopically pursued an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, even though, for all intents and purposes, there was no single Palestinian entity that has the power to negotiate let alone agree to a settlement with the Israelis.  The failure and folly of the initiative was marked before it began, even as Kerry blamed the Israelis for the breakdown in talks.

But it is worse.

In recent Gaza war – instigated by Hamas – the requirement for “balance” has kept the US from aggressively outing Hamas for its cowardly use of innocent civilians – its own people – as “human shields,” designed to maximize casualties for the cameras to create a sympathetic international audience, as Israel targeted weapons stores, launch sites and fighters with an unprecedented degree of precision.

What was Obama thinking?

In 2011, the President elected to participate in military action against Libya – without Congressional authorization – in pursuit of de facto regime change against Muammar Qaddafi, ostensibly as a humanitarian gesture on behalf of the Libyan people. Today, Qaddafi is gone and radical Muslim militias battle for control of Tripoli and other major cities. Libya is on the verge of becoming a failed state.

What was Obama thinking?

As peaceful civilian protests – associated with the Arab Spring – evolved into a brutal civil war in Syria, the President has been determined to keep the US out and reluctant to arm groups opposing Syrian President, Bashir Assad, though Assad’s exit was official US policy.  Even when Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, the President vacillated, crippling US credibility. Incredulously, POTUS was rescued by the Russians, who proposed a savvy, face saving deal that served Putin’s ultimate goal of keeping Assad in power and in the fight.

The President’s determined dithering on Syria closed a window when US military support to moderate rebels could have been decisive, not only in deposing Assad, but in creating the foundation for a peaceful, inclusive Syrian government.  Instead, Syria has become a Sunni jihadist playground, where moderate, secular rebels have been marginalized and are losing ground to the Assad regime, while radical militias spawn and fight.

Among the creations of the Syrian civil war and American inaction, is ISIS (IS/ISIL), which is now destabilizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

What was Obama thinking?

In 2008, candidate Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war and removing US troops. By the time Obama became president, the Sunni insurrection was over, Al Qaeda in Iraq had been destroyed, and a democratically elected, coalition government was in charge in Baghdad, with a Status of Forces agreement in place for the timely exit of US troops – with provision for a residual US force to remain in Iraq to ensure continued stability – all made possible by President Bush.

However, Obama refused to press for the residual US military presence in Iraq, and in 2011, POTUS triumphantly announced that all US forces would be coming home, though strategists and military professionals believed that such action would eventually destabilize Iraq, as it did in 2014 Shia government excesses and the invasion of Iraq by ISIS. As a result, US forces are again in action in Iraq, with an increased troop presence and air strikes, trying to make up lost ground and lost time.

What was Obama thinking?

In 2008, candidate Obama called Afghanistan the “good war” and promised to wage the fight and win the battle. In 2009, POTUS authorized a troop increase to Afghanistan well below that requested by the Joint Staff, and all but doomed their mission by announcing a “date-certain” withdrawal timetable.

73% of all American KIAs in Afghanistan have occurred during President Obama’s term – three times the number of KIAs inflicted over President Bush’s eight years, yet the country is no more secure from the Taliban today than in 2009. An election dispute between rival factions threatens to undo the modest political progress that has been made since the beginning of Obama’s term.  The only thing certain about Afghanistan is that the US is leaving.

What was Obama thinking?

Into this world of violence and uncertainty, our most precious deterrent, our military forces, are shrinking as our defense spending is decreasing.

Since 2010, the first full year budget presented by President Obama, defense spending has dropped 12 percent.  Defense spending – including Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO’s) for Afghanistan, et.al. is 3.4 percent of GDP. That compares against an average of 5.5 percent over the last half century. On its current trajectory, without intervention by policy makers, defense spending as a percentage of GDP will fall to 2.5 percent in 2019 – the lowest since 1940.

This has real life implications.

The US Army will fall to 420,000 troops, the smallest size since Pearl Harbor. The Navy is changing the designation of non-combat ships to combat missions to bulk up its numbers. In 2015, the actual US battle fleet will be 274 ships. In 1916, the year before the US entered WWI, the US fleet had 245 ships. The Air Force will be smaller than at any time since 1950, and today, that inventory is older and less capable.

In contrast, China has increased its defense budget at an average rate of 12.9 percent each year, for the past 25 years. With the use of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) used for economic analysis between countries, China’s 2011 defense budget was $500 billion, or three quarters of the US budget for the same year.  But China does not have the US’ “All Volunteer” personnel costs, which make up $150 billion of the total US budget, effectively negating any US advantage.

 As a result of its spending commitments, China has created, almost from scratch, the ability to project very capable air and naval power in its “near abroad” in the western Pacific, potentially threatening American allies such as Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as the capability to interfere in an area where more than 80 percent of seaborne trade must transit, potentially destabilizing to the global economy.

In contrast, to this massive expansion of military power, the US Navy has shrunk from 596 ships in 1989, to 274 ships slated for next year.  Our ability to defend our interests and allies and to influence events is decreasing in direct proportion to our shrinking military forces. That is what makes the Obama pivot to Asia so feeble. Even with strategic focus, we are strained to bring sufficient power to bear to protect our interests.

What is Obama thinking?

It is difficult to conclude anything but that today’s multiple crises are a result of ill-conceived policies and badly managed choices.

Hashtag diplomacy is a ridiculous substitute for the actual, concerted, sovereign action, led by the United States. Climate change can only be our greatest national security crisis after we have tallied and addressed the more relevant and immediate destabilizing events occurring globally.

Worse, our relative weakness is revealed in the increasingly unmeasured comments by our national security establishment, which seeks to substitute vitriol to mask weakness. Consider Vice President Biden stating that the US will follow the ISIS to the “gates of hell,” or the unnerving comments by both Secretaries’ Kerry and Hagel on the various threats posed to the US around the world and our commitment to defeat them.

It rings hollow – the meaningless words of feckless officials.

In the end, all of this falls on President Obama. As the Washington Post pointed out, “Throughout his presidency, he [President Obama] has excelled at explaining what the United States cannot do and cannot afford…but it’s also true that none of the basic challenges to world order can be met without US leadership; not Russian aggression, not the Islamic State’s expansion, not Iran’s nuclear ambition nor China’s territorial bullying. …It’s time Mr. Obama started emphasizing what the United States can do instead of what it cannot.”

We live in a world in crisis, all of President Obama’s making. It is left to be seen whether the President has the good sense to take the age old advice – when in a hole, first stop digging. Thursday’s anniversary of 9-11 is as good as any to take stock and repair the damage done before it is truly too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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