Politics & Policy

The Captain Adrift

President Obama and defense secretary Hagel commemorate 9-11 at the Pentagon. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Obama remains in reactive mode as we face threats from the Islamic State and across the globe.

President Obama’s widely panned speech on Wednesday probably will do little to raise his poll numbers. Popularity, however, is only a Washington–New York obsession and diversion, especially for those in the media. What really matters is the policy and the strategy behind it. From that perspective, the plan the president laid out has many unobjectionable parts that others, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have called for. And so the promise to attack the Islamic State in Syria will reassure those worried that the White House would be too restrictive in its military targeting.

The same goes for the implicit promise to increase the number of air strikes. We may be heading to the smallest Air Force in U.S. history, but along with U.S. Navy fighter jets, the skies of Iraq and Syria should be darkened with U.S. warplanes flinging flaming skulls of death down onto any Islamic State member who peeks out of whatever hole he’s hiding in. Ditto the belated plan to train regional militaries to fight the jihadists, although, as has been widely noted, there is no government to work with in Syria, so that crucial part of the equation is uncertain, at best. What every observer will be waiting for is to see whether the president follows through vigorously on all these promises.

None of that solves a much bigger problem. The Obama administration remains entirely in reactive mode around the globe. The threats that we, our allies, partners, and innocent nations face are not from the Islamic State alone. Boko Haram continues to march through Nigeria, the world’s seventh-most populous country, and the number of jihadists around the globe has doubled in the past decade. Global terror requires a globally oriented response, not one micro-focused on one group that has grabbed the headlines. Why should the U.S. go searching for monsters to destroy? Because the lesson of the Islamic State is that you ignore such groups at your peril, you incur greater risk when confronting them after they have grown stronger, and you cannot control the spillover from their expansion. Without a coordinated strategy, President Obama may well be addressing the nation in another year about his crisis-driven plan to “degrade” another murderous jihadist group.

Meanwhile, large, aggressive nation-states continue to destabilize global order. Iran will undoubtedly take the opportunity of a distracted Obama administration’s renewed war on terror (can we call it that again, now?) to push forward quickly on its nuclear program while dragging out negotiations North Korean–style. And, as many skeptical commentators have noted, U.S. air strikes, while undoubtedly needed to destroy the Islamic State, may well wind up benefitting Tehran in the end, as its agents inside Iraq consolidate power, thanks to the Obama administration’s failure to develop strong relations with the government.

At the same time, the president laughably claimed in his speech that the United States “rallied the world” against Russian aggression in Ukraine. In the past several weeks, the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian forces and their proxies in eastern Ukraine crumbled. Kiev accepted a cease-fire that was tantamount to surrender. Eastern Ukraine, like Crimea, is all but lost, and you can bet that in a few months no one will be mentioning it any more, just as now no one in Washington or on the cable-news shows mentions the word “Crimea.” And, ignored by just about everyone, China began the process of quashing Hong Kong’s democracy by refusing to adhere to its 1984 Joint Declaration with Great Britain to allow free elections for the island’s chief executive. This comes at the same time that it has increased its activities to claim disputed islands in the South China Sea and to continue pressuring Japan over the contested Senkakus in the East China Sea.

The point is that the Obama administration’s policy is simply to lurch from crisis to crisis, ignoring growing threats until they boil over and then adopting minimalist approaches to keeping them “manageable.” It is a failed, and failing, policy. It ensures that Washington will continue to be rocked backward by problems for which it has not thought out the solution. It means a slow accommodation to the negative trends sweeping the globe, instead of a clear, coherent, and forceful policy to defend the global order that has allowed such economic growth and political stability for decades.

Status quo powers, like the United States, are often reactive in policy, desiring to preserve the system from which they benefit. Yet when that system is nearing the cracking point, when our richest allies in Europe do almost nothing to provide for their own defense, and when the spectrum of threats becomes impossible to ignore, then a reactive policy is a policy of retreat. There is only so much psychic energy available to deal with cascading threats, and many, such as in Asia and even Eastern Europe, are simply ignored. This ostrich-like approach to global security, however, does not make the threats disappear.

The most immediate result is a dramatic increase in day-to-day uncertainty and the feeling of insecurity. As America commemorates the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the dread knowledge that we will be a nation at war for years to come is just sinking in. What is perhaps even worse than that is the continuous sense of being off balance and being caught by surprise. That is the failing of Barack Obama. No matter what he does in his last two-plus years in office, he will almost certainly be unable to erase the impression that he is adrift in the stormy seas that are battering the ship he is supposed to be piloting safely through the waves. The real-world consequences of his inability to handle the demands of his office will be far worse than that.

— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.

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