I am one of those conservatives who has been inclined to cut President Barack Obama some slack on foreign policy and national security issues. I believe that he inherited a "worst possible" international situation with the United States universally hated, two wars being lost and a third one waiting in the wings, an "ally" in Israel with an elected government that was both racist and heedless of the national interest of its great benefactor, and anti-American populism on the march everywhere in Latin America. To be sure, Obama has moved quickly to change the "tone" of the conversation, restoring civility with many of America’s neighbors and friends. He has demonstrated that he is serious about a Palestinian state and has established the principle that it is better to negotiate with adversaries than to start preventive wars.
All of that granted however, President Obama has failed to carry out the change that he promised when he was running for office. If one assumes that he won the presidency due to the votes of people who wanted an end to wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and who wanted a rollback of legislation that has enabled the government to spy on its own citizens and lock them up without appeal, then he has been a complete disappointment. Every feature of the Bush Administration security and surveillance state remains in place, including secret prisons, military tribunals, arbitrary arrest, and monitoring of citizens. Iraq continues to simmer with no end in sight and AfPak, as the other expanding war is now called, is exploding even though a growing body of opinion appreciates that it is a conflict that cannot be won. Under Obama, missile strikes from predator drones have actually increased, killing more insurgents but also many more civilians and shaking an already unstable Pakistan.
And then there is Iran. In a major foreign policy speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last Wednesday that Iran has only a short time to come to a negotiated agreement with Washington. She added the United States would not hesitate to use its military against Tehran "to defend itself and its allies" and this week elaborated, explaining that she would support arming allies and creating "defense umbrella" against Iran if it were ever to acquire a nuclear weapon. Hillary’s use of the word "defend" is curious. Does she seriously think that Iran is about to attack or does she really mean that "all options are on the table," an expression that she used frequently when she was running for president? Joe Biden, meanwhile, has advised Israel’s leadership that if they want to attack Iran it is their right to do so because they are a sovereign state, ignoring the fact that the United States has vital interests at stake and would immediately be sucked into such a conflict.
Secretary of State Clinton is also reviving the coalition of the willing, so it seems. On Saturday during a visit to India she asserted that the entire world must join together with the United States to do more against terrorism. Sounds a bit like the Bushies’ "global war on terror," doesn’t it, an expression that President Obama had consigned to the dust bin? Israel, meanwhile, has flatly rejected US objections to a settlement expansion in east Jerusalem and is clearly orchestrating a campaign to make the entire issue of the settlements go away. Obama and his chief negotiator George Mitchell have been unable to do anything about the delaying tactics that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been successfully employing to avoid taking any action on a Palestinian state. Since Washington is unable to exert any real pressure on Israel, the situation has returned to the all-too-familiar stalemate in which everyone loses.
President Obama’s biggest problem is undeniably AfPak because of the escalation underway there driven by the continuing presence of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in the border region. Whatever Obama might privately believe, he would appear to be guarding his back from Congress and the media, knowing that the survival of bin Laden makes it politically risky to withdraw American soldiers before the terrorist group is actually eliminated. There are numerous signs that the administration is nervous about what is occurring in AfPak. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that the situation must turn around within a year, making victory achievable. One should not take Gates too seriously as he will undoubtedly find generals to say whatever he wants in a year’s time, but there is concern that the British might soon pull the plug on their own commitment, and as they, the Canadians, and Dutch are the only components actually doing any fighting alongside US troops, the loss would be serious.
Two weeks ago, President Obama let slip that he has a low threshold for success in the escalating war, wanting only to deny the region as a haven for a terrorist group that might be ready, willing, and able to attack the United States. If that is indeed the objective, then Obama should perhaps cold-bloodedly rethink precisely what he is doing and why. For starters, he should ask himself if there is any actual evidence that al-Qaeda is now capable of carrying out major attacks internationally. There are many signs that al-Qaeda in AfPak has very little international reach and that it has become little more than a franchise. The attack on the hotels in Jakarta last week has been attributed to a terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that once had links to al-Qaeda, but those ties are now more hypothetical than demonstrated. Though the once greatly feared JI is still capable of the occasional spectacular suicide attack, it has been largely dismantled by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments and its surviving leadership is on the run.
If al-Qaeda is in reality little more than an ongoing nuisance then a strategy other than the deployment of 65,000 troops at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars might be considered, something that relies on working with the allies in the region using intelligence and police resources. What is needed is a reexamination of issues that goes back to zero, examining each argument on its merits. Listening to generals about what to do in a war situation that they have created and find career enhancing is no better than listening to the arguments of CIA officers who have tortured explaining why it was necessary to do so. If it is up to the Petraeuses and Odiernos of this world, the United States will still be at war thirty years from now and Osama bin Laden’s grandson will undoubtedly be giving orders from out of a cave somewhere in Pakistan. The recent retrospectives on Robert McNamara should remind everyone that even the brightest bureaucrat armed with the best information possible will often be wrong and will seamlessly lie if it is politically expedient to do so. Why should we expect any less when we promote generals based on their ability to say the right things to their political overseers?
In short, the free lunch is over. It is time to start criticizing President Obama the way most of us criticized George W. Bush. There is hardly any difference between the two on foreign and security policy except that the thoughtful and articulate Obama’s high-minded but empty rhetoric appears to be more reasonable and moderate than the bellicosity of his tongue-tied predecessor. It probably was a mistake to think that he would behave any differently than George Bush after obtaining office as the difference between liberal interventionism and the conservative variety is really just a matter of approach. Do not expect the antiwar democrats to surface any time soon. They have been seduced by the trappings of power. Don’t wait around for any marches for peace. It might well be the task of the libertarian and paleo-right to take the lead once again and revive the discussion about the critical issues relating to war, peace, and national security.