In his speech before AIPAC last March, 2012, President Obama had this to say about America’s willingness to tolerate a nuclear Iran:
“We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States – just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.
I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.
Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Strong words, to be sure. After all, the core of Obama’s rationale for Israel staying her hand against an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is his own oft-stated willingness to take military action himself should diplomacy fail to prevent Iran from obtaining a weapon. But the question is: Does he mean it? Would he ever use force? Do his past experiences involving the use of force in Afghanistan and Libya make it more, or less likely that he would do so? How does his recent handling of the conflict in Syria impact this likelihood to use force against Iran, should it be necessary? Such questions I attempt to answer here.
1) THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
Throughout the campaign of 2008, Obama and his fellow Democrats all campaigned on their support for the war in Afghanistan as the neglected “war of necessity” that had been supposedly held to ransom by Bush’s pursuit of the “war of choice,” i.e.,Iraq. This Obama vowed to fix, and he promised to support the war in Afghanistan with a vigor that he charged Bush with lacking. Upon entering office, the President commenced a sixty-day comprehensive review in consultation with NATO allies to formulate his Af-Pak policy, and he signed off on a deployment of 17,000 troops along with 4,000 trainers of troops to beef up security.
On March 27, 2009, the President, looking and sounding every bit the combative and aggressive Commander-in-Chief, and flanked by Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates, announced the new policy in a press conference at the Pentagon, and asserted that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan required “urgent attention and swift action” and that,
“This [troop] increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border. So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.”
Note the President’s use of activist, starkly unequivocal language here: Urgent attention and swift action. Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda. The goal that must be achieved. The cause that could not be more just. Threatens America. We will defeat you.
The President could thus not have been clearer about the absolute importance of the Afghanistan war to America’s security, and about his resolute commitment to give the prosecution of the war the resources and the priority that had heretofore been lacking.
After this press conference, however, the war dropped completely from the President’s radar screen, and went virtually unmentioned for the next several months while he concentrated the bulk of his energies on promoting his health care initiative. But, much to the President’s shock and dismay, the war rudely reared its ugly head again in the late summer of 2009.
Throughout July and August, the Taliban had been making dangerously significant gains, and it was becoming clear that a regional catastrophe would soon be in the making if more troops and resources were not dispatched to stem the tide of the Taliban’s momentum, and secure and hold areas of strategic importance until Afghan army and police were ready to be deployed in significant numbers.
Following a review of the security situation throughout the summer, General Stan McChrystal, the new Afghanistan theater commander, sent to the President in mid-September 2009 a comprehensive assessment explaining the dire urgency of the situation, what was needed to rectify it, the further dangers of inaction, and the need for quick action. He recommended a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces as the only viable strategy to retrieve the situation, and put in a request for a further 60 to 80,000 troops, with 40,000 as a bare minimum to implement it.
Grumblings about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the inadequate troop levels had been making themselves heard ever since August, and the Administration had quietly counter-leaked against any suggestion that more troops and resources were needed or would be forthcoming, hoping McChrystal would get the message, shut-up with his grumblings, and somehow make do with what he had. So anxious was Obama to avoid the reality of the situation that McChrystal had admitted in a September “60 Minutes” interview that Obama had not even spoken to him for 70 days—an unprecedented period of unbroken silence between a President and his commanding general in time of war. With McChrystal’s request now being formally forwarded to the President, the quiet feud of leaks and whispers between the military and the White House now broke the surface.
Obama’s response to McChrystal’s request was to scream and cry foul as though the general had dropped a dead fish in his lap. Obama seems to have believed that his earlier deployment of troops would constitute the sum of his contribution to the “war of necessity” and that his future involvement would consist largely of briefings on the progress of the war from Defense Secretary Gates, and occasional conversations and meetings with General McChrystal. Now it was clear that he had a real war on his hands, one that would require real sacrifice and support, and he responded to this unwelcome development by shooting the messenger.
The White House countered the McChrystal proposal with a few of their own less resourced alternatives: one, favored by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, was to tie any sending of resources or reinforcements to Afghan progress in clearing up corruption; another, favored by the President’s political advisors, was to send in 10,000 trainers of troops to accelerate Afghan police and army deployment. The other, one favored by Vice President Biden, was a “hybrid” option that rejected McChrystal’s comprehensive counterinsurgency option for a limited counter-terrorist option to put some 20,000 troops in to go hunting about Helmand and Kandahar provinces for Taliban insurgents and training Afghan police and army to take over—all options that had been extensively considered and rejected as unworkable in the course of McChrystal’s strategic review.
Though McChrystal had done nothing more than tell the truth and simply inform the President of what would be required to implement the strategy of the policy outlined to him by the President himself, the White House now singled out McChrystal as the bad guy for being the bearer of bad news. The military and the President’s advisers were now feuding openly, and the atmosphere was so poisonous that when the quiet-spoken and self-effacing McChrystal answered a question at a speaking engagement in London about why the situation in Afghanistan required a counter-insurgent rather than a counter-terrorist response, the White House accused him of “insubordination,” and attempting to “box” the President in to accepting his proposal.
It was almost as if though the war in Afghanistan had become sort of pet project of the military, and the President, by bestowing concessions upon them, was conferring some sort of favor on them instead of fulfilling his duties as Commander-in-Chief tending a vital national security interest in time of war.
Upon receiving McChrystal’s request in September, the White House commenced a “strategic review” of their own to assess McChrystal’s recommendations, but which was, as we now know from Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” (2010), a mere façade behind which Obama and his spinners dithered, delayed, and searched for a way to weasel out of McChrystal’s troop request, all of which occurred against a backdrop of further infighting between the White house and the military, and a seriously deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Six weeks into Obama’s “review” in early November, NATO and Afghan allies began to complain that Obama’s extended decision-making on the troop request was having serious consequences on the ground, and things finally came to head in late November at a meeting in the White House between Obama and his top military advisers.
The President demanded more “options” to General McChrystal’s troop request. He did not get them, and, incredibly, angrily accused his top military advisers of holding out on him. Joint Chief’s Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates, and General Petraeus all bluntly told the President there were no other “options”; either there was an infusion of the required troops with a COIN strategy that was needed to clear, secure, and hold areas of importance, or there would be failure. The meeting ended without result; the President would get back to them.
Obama finally decided to accede to McChrystal’s 40,000 troop request, but to shave it off by 10,000; the military had “won.” He saw no other choice. According to Bob Woodward, Obama said to James Jones, his National Security Adviser,
“I’ve decided on 30,000,” he said. Obama described how he wanted to explain his strategy to the American people in a speech scheduled for Dec. 1 at West Point. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint.”
No mention of victory or the importance of completing the mission, but “how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan.” To Senator Lindsey Graham, the President ruminated aloud about his domestic difficulties with the war, and confided that, “I can’t lose the Democratic party.” To Thomas Donilon, his Deputy National Security Adviser, Obama seethed and unburdened himself, and made perfectly clear the generous favor he was conferring upon the military. According to Woodward:
“I’m done doing this!” Obama said, clearly annoyed.
“The easy thing for me to do – politically – would actually be to say no” to the 30,000 troops. The president gestured out the Oval Office windows, across the Potomac River, in the direction of the Pentagon. He said, “They think it’s the opposite. I’d be perfectly happy . . .” He stopped mid-sentence. “Nothing would make Rahm [Emmanuel] happier than if I said no to the 30,000.” There was some subdued laughter.
The military did not understand, he said. “It’d be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, ‘You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.’ ”
It was apparent that a part of Obama wanted to give precisely that speech. He seemed to be road-testing it.
Obama, in fact, was blowing smoke here. He knew that a refusal to grant McChrystal some sort of workable deployment of troops would have been his political death: Republicans would have crucified him for doing so while declaring the war a vital national interest earlier in the year, and even his acolytes in the media would have had a hard time selling his sending 21,000 troops into harms way only to pull the plug on the war several months later. The Taliban had facilitated Al-Qaeda’s attack on us on 9/11, and no American could ever forget that. Obama had earlier sold the war, and he now owned the war, and it was his resentful awareness of this grim, unchangeable fact that was reflected in his bursts of fury and frustration recorded by Woodward.
Obama also made clear his refashioning of the lexicon of war. Much as his head of Homeland Security renamed terrorism as “man caused disasters,” Obama sought to take the “war” out of the war on terror by renaming it “contingency operations” and, in this instance, he demanded that the term “counterinsurgency” be replaced with “target, train, and transfer,” lest anyone think we were actually at war.
So General McChrystal got his troops, some troops, at least, but Obama did much to undermine the effort by announcing in his December 1, 2009 speech that the surge troops would be withdrawn by 2011 so that America could begin “nation building at home,” thus assuring his fellow Democrats of his abandonment of the war, and, incidentally, informing the enemy how long they had to wait us out.
The President, it should be remembered, had never presented himself as one who would end the war so America could “nation build at home,” but as one who would give the war the”urgent attention and swift action” and the “strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” as well as to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda.” It was the “goal that must be achieved,” and the “cause that could not be more just,” and for which the President vowed to our enemies, with unblushing swagger that, “We will defeat you.”
Article II, Section II, of the Constitution, states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.” The Founders could thus not have been clearer that the principal responsibility of the President is his duty as Commander in Chief. “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 3, “is that of providing for their safety seems to be first.”
Obama, on the other hand, seems to see his principal responsibility as a kind of First Steward of the welfare state with matters of national security and foreign policy relegated to the periphery, where he evidently thinks they belong. In reality, it is perfectly clear in retrospect how the war had really defined itself for Obama; it was a “necessary” war vital to our national security when it was convenient for him as a candidate to look tough on a national security issue, but when it became a real war and demanded real sacrifice, support, and attention from him as President, he would splutter and protest, and demand an exit strategy to wriggle out of his responsibility in order to please his base and promote his domestic agenda.
Called upon to explain to the nation why sending 30,000 soldiers into harms way was either right or wrong for the national interest, the President escaped the dilemma of his decision by splitting the difference. The President enjoys the unique distinction of having both escalated and undermined a war at the same time, and sent 30,000 soldiers into harms way where over a thousand have found their death all for a cause he evidently, and by all accounts, does not even believe in, all in pursuit of the purest, most naked political advantage. The man’s cynicism, his brazen politicization of a vital national security interest, and his wholesale subordination of the nation’s foreign policy to his partisan political priorities is simply breathtaking.
From the very beginning, the most crucial task we had in Afghanistan was not to engage in precipitous troop withdrawals until certain districts could be safely handed over to Afghan Army and Police units. More than anything else, it has been Obama’s politically-motivated drawdown, and not the Taliban, that has been putting this in peril. The future of Afghanistan is now, at best, uncertain.
2) THE WAR IN LIBYA
In the war in Libya Obama’s handling of our core strategic interests there has been even less reassuring, and betrays the same inertia and confusion of strategic priorities as the war in Afghanistan.
At a critical stage of the conflict raging in Libya in early 2011, with the rebels counterattacking and Gaddafi in peril, the President had at his disposal overwhelming regional diplomatic support from both Arab regimes and European allies—an unassailable mandate for action, and he could have accomplished the task of Gaddafi’s demise without putting a single soldier in harms way. All that was needed was a decision and a will to carry it out. There was neither.
As with his tardy and tepid response to the Iranian election crackdown of June 2009, and his fitful, kicking-and-screaming response to McChrystal’s Afghanistan troop request, the President on this occasion was only spurred to action on this matter by his fear that the situation could become a domestic political embarrassment to him. After weeks of dithering and evasion, the President, warned and pressured by the womenfolk of his foreign policy team that he would be blamed for a humanitarian disaster like Rwanda or Srebrenica if Gaddafi conquered Tripoli, then reluctantly proceeded toward intervention.
The President’s tardy, half-hearted involvement in the conflict, and his tepid, scattershot application of force, coupled with his neglect of arming the rebels (and forming a strong relationship that could be helpful in a future state), guaranteed that military action could never be concentrated overwhelmingly at the decisive points at the time of maximum enemy vulnerability.
Meaning, of course, that Gaddafi had ample time to regroup his forces, the rebels would lose their momentum, and stalemate would ensue, which meant more bloodshed and more destruction over a longer period. The protracted bloodletting of the next several months, though resulting in a rebel victory and Gaddafi’s capture and death in August 2011, should never have taken place at all. With swift, decisive action, the matter could have been settled much earlier and more cheaply. It wasn’t, and the chaotic security situation there that culminated in the recent Benghazi bombing was unquestionably the result of the tardy attention and paucity of resources begrudged to Libya by the Administration from the beginning.
3) THE WAR IN SYRIA
Reports that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons against its opponents had been streaming out of Syria since December 2012, when allegations that poison gases had been used by the regime in Homs. Coverage of the victims included reports of side effects such as nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons in December was “not consistent” with information that the White House had concerning Syria’s chemical weapons program.
In his February 12 State of the Union speech, Obama promised that we would “keep up the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support the efforts of opposition leaders that respect the rights of all Syrians.”
On March 19 there were alleged chemical weapons attacks in the Khan al-Assel neighborhood of Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of al-Atebeh. About 25 people reportedly were killed and dozens more injured. In response, Mr. Obama stressed “we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”
On April 13 came news that nerve gas was reported as being used in the majority Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood area of Aleppo. The White House confirmed this in a letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin that the U.S. intelligence community now believed “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” That comported with the intel gathered by the French, British and Israel. President Obama remarked that the United States and the international community would work together to gain “strong evidence” of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, saying, “We are currently pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.”
Here, then, was the dire penalty that awaited Assad’s crossing of Obama’s red line for his monstrous transgression: an investigation.
In June, U.S. intelligence confirmed beyond any doubt that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry testified that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons 14 times, and White House national security aide Ben Rhodes warned that this crossing of the President’s red line would trigger “military support”—meaning lethal aid—from the U.S. to the Syrian opposition. No U.S. aid ever arrived.
The next few months would see much Administration acrobatics on whether there would or would not be some sort of intervention or aid to the rebels, but the message to Assad and his backers was clear: President Obama had no stomach for any involvement in the Syrian conflict, chemical weapons and crossed red lines, or no. Having repeatedly tested and taken the full measure of Obama’s red line, Assad and company, thus emboldened, now clearly felt themselves free to pursue more energetic means to regain the initiative in their fight with the rebels in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
The reckoning was not long in coming. On August 21 finally came news of the massive chemical attack in the suburbs of the Ghouta region, in which an estimated 1400 have been killed.
By now the strategy of the Assad regime was clear: it was using chemical weapons not in a raging panic to stave off defeat, but coldly and methodically as a tactical weapon. For months the Assad forces had been frustrated at their inability to clear out the eastern Damascus suburbs where the rebels had been staging attacks at regime targets and where lay the strategically vital Dumayr airstrip. Rather as the Iraqis had carefully targeted the most populous areas of Halabja in 1988 with multiple agents of VX, Nerve, and Mustard gas some 48 hours after the fall of the town to the Iranian forces and Kurdish guerrillas to reverse the momentum of the Iranian Zafar-7 offensive, the Assad forces were now using Sarin to stir military and civilian havoc and soften up the stubborn rebel strongholds for further assaults.
“This kind of offense is a challenge to the world,” Obama stated following a meeting with Baltic leaders. And while he would prefer for Americas and the world community to to act together to address the matter, “we don’t want the world to be paralyzed.”
The Administration promptly promised a “response” to this latest transgression, though for several days Obama’s only communication on the matter was that he had “not yet made a decision” to engage military action against the Assad regime. What followed in the next several days was the remarkable spectacle of transparent Presidential cabinet deliberations for military action performed as if on reality TV, where talk of strategies, potential enemy targets, and even specific tactical details of of the promised military action were all publicly aired for the benefit of friend and foe alike.
On August 30 Secretary Kerry, stressing the dire urgency of the situation, intoned that “My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.” Making reference to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said: “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.”Kerry’s rhetoric pointed to an imminent strike on Assad’s killing machine to degrade his capacity.
Or not. The next day, Obama, spooked by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s defeated motion in Parliament to intervene militarily alongside America, stepped back from the brink and sought to share and enlarge his responsibility (or blame) for any military action with Congress, and, quite possibly, laid a predicate for inaction altogether by throwing Congress into fearful confusion and giving them a week or so to mingle with their war-weary constituents and decide against military action for him.
Undercutting the urgency exuded by his Secretary of State the day before, the President stated in his Rose Garden address that the timing of the attack was “not time sensitive,” left Congress undisturbed to continue their holiday out of session, and promptly headed for the golf course. On September 1, a glum, deflated Kerry, amending his earlier urgency and keeping to script, now stated blandly that “the President believes that the United States of America is stronger when you have the time to get the support of the US congress and the support of the American people.”
On September 3, Kerry told Congress that the red line set by the President was not his own, but “the world’s red lines, humanity’s red lines.” The next day Obama, never missing an opportunity to pass the buck and lighten the load on his shoulders, expanded on Kerry’s helpful downgrading of his responsibility, and stated in a press briefing at the G-20 summit in Sweden that,
“My credibility is not on the line, the international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line.”
And so it has went. The dizzying trajectory of statements made, withdrawn, and amended, and positions taken, modified, and dropped underscored the lack of a coherent policy and strategy, and the want of a firm, steady hand on the tiller. Having returned from the G-20 summit, the President and his minions blitzed the airwaves with interviews, and prepared for a September 10 address to the nation, where he was to ask Congress for a vote for the authorization of the use of force that he was all but certain to lose.
Then, a miracle. Vladimir Putin, who all the time has been working overtime to discourage any military action against his ally in Damascus, now threw Obama a lifeline. Taking his cue from an off-hand remark made by John Kerry about Assad surrendering his arsenal of chemical weapons to avoid war, Putin now proposed that Assad would do just that, and that Syria’s willingness to surrender its weapons eliminated the rationale for a military strike. Members of Congress seized on the proposal with alacrity–one member of Congress called it “the best thing to come out of Russia since Vodka”– and Obama, obviously sighing with relief, stated,
“I think it’s certainly a positive development when, the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures toward dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we’ve been asking for not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years.”
In his address to the nation, Obama kept faith with the acrobatics of his multiple policy contortions, and gave the nation a speech studded with ambivalence and contradiction. He intoned: “I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
However, sometimes America must act, and Assad’s awful gassing of his people was such an instance. Yet, he acknowledged the nation’s tiring of war and promised: no open commitments like Kosovo or Libya. Yet, for those who think he’s gone soft, well, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” Thus such a use of force would “make Assad — or any other dictator — think twice before using chemical weapons.”
And yet, and yet, diplomacy still had a chance, and was, in fact, more promising than ever, thanks to a wonderful new proposal by the Russians and, not least to “constructive talks that I had with President Putin” in which “the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitting that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.”
It was his credible threat of military force that had given us this heaven-sent opportunity, Obama reminded the nation, and it was for this reason, and not an impending defeat in Congress, mind you, that the President now urged a halt to the vote for authorization in order to now let diplomacy work its will.
“Thanks to Pres. Obama’s strength,” tweeted House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “we have a Russian proposal.”
To wit: the Russians, who had spent 55 years arming Syria to the teeth, who had previously denied any use of chemical weapons by their ally and client, who then blamed the rebels for their use when the evidence was confirmed, would now take custody of Assad’s weapons, leaving unclear what would necessitate such a move since the regime had, in their previous position on the matter, not even used them. Yet with this and Assad’s signature on a piece of paper, the matter might now, finally, be resolved.
Here, then, was the reckoning for the “thug”–compared by Kerry to Hitler–who had violated the “international norm,” indeed, committed the “moral obscenity” of gassing his own people. Here was the dire penalty that would “make Assad — or any other dictator — think twice before using chemical weapons.”
But the real fruits of Obama’s statecraft were not long in making themselves felt. As if to emphasize the new shift in the balance of power in the region, on September 11, the Russians confirmed that they would now be selling Syria the controversial S-300 surface to air missiles previously objected to by Israel, that they would be building an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr nuclear site, and warned that if the U.S. objected that Russia would expand arms sales to Iran and “revise the terms of U.S. military transit to Afghanistan if Washington launches a strike on Syria.”
“If the U.S. takes the path of exacerbating the situation and forgoing diplomacy for the sake of a military scenario, such measures would seem absolutely justified to me,” said Alexei Pushkov, chief of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament during a debate Wednesday in the Russian parliament of a draft resolution on Syria.
Thus spoke the new Middle East superpower to the old.
An inclination toward diplomatic solutions, an aversion toward war, and a careful, scrupulous skepticism about the use of force are, of course, all signs of sober, responsible statesmanship. But when the use of force is called for, it must be used resolutely, or not at all.
War must never be waged on a string of improvised half measures. It must be waged swiftly, decisively, forcefully, and with a strategy apparent to all from the Commander-in-Chief right down to the buck private.
The Administration’s approach to statecraft has always been heavy with progressive notions of Western guilt, the conviction that conflicts are the result of misunderstandings that can be dispelled by patience and dialogue, and the belief that foreign policy, like all government, ought to be therapeutic. But above all, there has always been the subordination of foreign affairs to domestic considerations such as the President’s political standing and viability; truth be told, the President does not care much for what occurs beyond our borders, and has always been wont to stress the importance of “nation building at home.”
Indeed, as Bret Stephens has pointed out Obama himself has been hard at work massaging the war-weariness of the public about the need for any American military intervention, anywhere, with vote-getting stump phrases like “the tide of war is receding” and what not. He has largely abdicated American world-leadership decisions to the U.N., and has cultivated cynicism and distrust of American power, most notably concerning past interventions.
His 2009 Cairo speech, it will be remembered, besides containing an effusive celebration of his African-American identity and biography, and positing a moral comparison between the Holocaust and the Palestinian refugee problem, contained a harsh, preening excoriation of the policies of the Bush Administration, including a fulsome explication of his righting of their wrongs, and how an outraged Obama finally cleansed the temple of Bush/Cheney/neo-con perfidy and turpitude.
The President’s worldview is thus a perfect snapshot of fashionable, left-leaning Western academic opinion: In sum, that the furies wreaking havoc both in and from the Middle East come not from culturally and politically dysfunctional societies long wedded to a centuries-old pathology of violence, oppression, corruption, and cultural stagnation, but, rather from the bad behavior of the United States, and, of course, Israel, who behaves badly with our blessing.
The diplomacy of the Administration has seen the mishandling of one diplomatic-strategic initiative after another, alternately alienating, confusing and dispiriting our allies, emboldening our enemies and adversaries, and negating our interests. Every occasion in which this President has been called upon to exercise the use of force have all been marked by hesitancy, indecisive muddle, extensive dithering, and, above all, a ruthless subordination of any war-related contingency to his domestic priorities. Whatever the urgency, he will look to his political base, sniff the wind, and tailor his decisions accordingly.
In light of his confused inaction (I know of no other phrase) on Syria, Obama’s assurances toward Israel on Iran now have, more than ever, the faint, troubling echo of the promises made to Israel in 1957 about America’s commitment to keep Nasser from remilitarizing the Sinai, and closing the Straits of Tiran, only to watch Nasser do just that 10 years later with America standing by as an equivocating spectator. President Johnson, at least, had drawn a red line in the form of a direct Arab attack on Israel in June, 1967. Obama’s red lines are far more equivocal, and, as we have seen, whether he would carry through on any commitment to use force is uncertain to the point of improbability. In light of his past record, there cannot be the slightest doubt that he would shirk from any use of force with Iran, whatever the situation or the danger, and that he would turn on a dime from any past promises.
In sum, Obama’s approach to all questions of war and statecraft may be characterized in one word: unserious. For whatever may be said of the men in Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow, they are one thing in the support of their allies and the pursuit of their interests that this most-feckless of Presidents, in attempting to stop them, is not: they are serious. In such instances, we are getting fleeting and disturbing glimpses of the post-American world order, and what it portends.
And its not pretty.