Politics & Policy

How America Lost Its Groove

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)
President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton all had a hand in it.

Deterrence is lost through lax foreign policy, an erosion of military readiness, and failed supreme command — often insidiously, over time, rather than dramatically, at once. The following random events over the seven years that Barack Obama has been in office have led to the idea abroad that the U.S. is no longer the world’s leader and that regional hegemonies have a golden opportunity to redraw regional maps and spheres of influence — to the disadvantage of the West — in the ten months remaining before the next president is inaugurated.

The otherwise disparate Boston Marathon, Fort Hood, and San Bernardino Islamist bombers had three things in common: First, the killers had all communicated on social media with radical jihadists, or had come to the attention of both U.S. and foreign intelligence, or had expressed jihadist beliefs. Second, their attacks were followed by administration warnings about not embracing Islamophobia, as Obama doubled down on his administration’s taboo against the use of terms such as “jihadist,” “radical Islamist,” and “Islamic terrorist.” Third, after each of these incidents, there was no stepped-up administration vigilance; instead, there was a flurry of sermons about not blaming Islam for inciting such killers. The greatest check on ISIS terrorism may lie in the hands of ISIS itself: If its operatives continue to cull the Western herd by a few dozen murders every few months, the U.S. will likely continue to do little. If they get greedy and seek a repeat of something on the scale of 9/11, then the American public will force this administration to act. Unfortunately, ISIS may not be so much energized by anger over supposed Islamophobia as buoyed by the administration’s inability to say “radical Islam.”

The Bowe Bergdahl swap for five Taliban terrorists — and National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s praise of the deserter Bergdahl’s service — reinforced the global message that the Obama administration did not necessarily see Taliban killers as killers or American deserters as deserters, apparently because such definitions are anachronistically absolute concepts. After all, who would willingly swap five killers for one deserter? Apparently everything is negotiable and political, given that the U.S. does not feel deeply about either terrorist killers or those who have renounced their duty to thwart them.

On the diplomatic front, Hillary Clinton’s praise of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — a member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood — reversed postwar U.S. policy in Egypt and put America on the side of “one election, one time” radical Islamicization. We are now in a truly 1984 scenario in which the current Egyptian head of state, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, warns the West of radical Islam, while Obama objects that Westerners, the target of such Islamists, have exaggerated the threat: so much so that the White House recently, in an official video, edited out French President François Hollande’s reference to “Islamic terrorism” — though the passage was restored after the gap was widely remarked.

The bombing of Libya not only violated U.N. resolutions (no-fly zones and humanitarian aid only), but also destroyed the government of the monster-in-rehabilitation Moammar Qaddafi, leaving nothing in its place but a terrorist badland. The logical follow-up was the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Almost everything the administration then said about Libya was crude or simply a lie. Secretary Clinton was especially immoral in her chortles about “We came, we saw, he [Qaddafi] died,” “What difference does it make?” and, more recently, “No Americans died in Libya” — bookended by her face-to-face lies to the families of the men who died, whom she told that a videomaker, not al-Qaeda, had prompted the attacks. Note that Susan Rice (wrong about Egypt, wrong about Libya, wrong about Bergdahl) spoke misleadingly quite often on the Sunday talk shows, attempting to protect the Obama reelection narrative that al-Qaeda was “on the run” and incapable of such attacks. Long live “Bin Laden is dead, GM is alive.”

Just as the failure to get in on the ground floor when Mubarak was deposed in Egypt had sparked Obama’s interest in preempting in Libya, so too it is probably Libya’s implosion that paralyzed Obama into doing nothing when violence overwhelmed Syria. The administration somehow then managed to achieve almost every negative result imaginable during the Syrian mess: Obama issued red lines about WMD use, did not enforce them, and then denied that he had ever issued them at all — eroding not just U.S. credibility but the very idea that a U.S. president should tell the truth. He failed to arm Syrian “moderates”; eventually they disappeared and Syria became a war between Bashar Assad and ISIS. In pre-reelection panic, Obama then invited Vladimir Putin into the Middle East and outsourced to him Assad’s WMD program. Refugees swamping Europe, a quarter-million dead in Syria, Putin’s bombing, and the end to the Christian community in Syria sum up the result.

Iraq’s fate was in some ways worse, because the present destruction of that country was likely preventable. Obama and Vice President Biden had until 2011 praised the quiet in Iraq — which they had inherited from the Bush administration — as their own, only to squander it by needlessly pulling out all U.S. peacekeepers for the price of another cheap reelection talking point. Now, when it is too late, we are quietly sending back in U.S. troops, who might as well have stayed where they were when it was not too late.

At least Putin had assumed in 2008 that a divided United States and an unpopular George W. Bush would address Russia’s annexation of South Ossetia and its bullying of Georgia. When the Bush administration leveled some mild punishments, the deterioration in the region became an Obama campaign talking point of blaming the Bush administration  and promising to reset the reset. Obama kept the reset promise, but the new reset failed, and meanwhile Obama had sent the message that he blamed the U.S. more than Russia for rocky relations — and a delighted Putin green-lighted further aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. Now the administration is reduced to insulting Putin rather than deterring him.

Dismantling joint strategic-missile-defense initiatives with Poland and the Czech Republic did not win over Putin, but it did confirm that Obama was ambivalent about our allies, and did not care much for any nation naïve enough to believe that the United States’ foreign policy of deterrence going back seven decades was still in force. The mullahs in Tehran noticed that the administration had embarrassed America’s friends, did not believe in expanded missile defense, and had kept quiet when a million dissidents hit the streets in protest against their dictatorship, and concluded that it was time to formalize a pathway to an eventual nuclear weapon. They guessed rightly that a legacy-hungry Obama would circumvent the Senate by saying the proposed treaty was not really a treaty, and blasting Republican skeptics while speaking far more respectfully of anti-American Iranian theocrats.

Central to Obama’s foreign policy was a redefinition of allies, enemies, and neutrals, as if such distinctions were fossilized Cold War relics.

Central to Obama’s foreign policy was a redefinition of allies, enemies, and neutrals, as if such distinctions were fossilized Cold War relics. Obama reached out to regimes, like the ones in Iran and Cuba, that had long despised the United States. Yet even if they were to become friendly toward us, neither could offer America any strategic benefits — and both have lots of downsides given their rank oppression of their own people and their propensity to undermine their neighbors. After such outreach, both Fidel Castro and the Iranian theocrats gratuitously defamed the United States and Obama in particular. Allies like Britain, France, and Israel have been snubbed, as Obama and his aides leaked disdain for their leaders via interviews and open-mike slurs.

All of these lapses could be seen as haphazard, but, in fact, in aggregate, they reflect a coherent worldview, as articulated, for example, in Obama’s Al Arabiya interview, his Cairo speech, and his recent lengthy Atlantic Monthly exegesis. What most Americans have assumed was a successful bipartisan 70-year foreign policy — which led to unchecked affluence and security for Western and Westernized nations in Europe, the former British Commonwealth, North America, and the Far East (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) — Obama instead believes was a carry-over of Western imperialism and colonialism that had shorted Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and that was propped up by inordinate U.S. defense spending that diverted investments at home from underfunded social programs. 

In Obama’s sophomoric view of the world, there is no connection between the 21st-century appurtenances that he takes for granted as president — trips on state-of-the-art Western planes, predicated on a global air-traffic-control system, run on sophisticated Western gadgets and all underwritten by Western free-market capitalism — and an established postwar Western order led by the United States. He will see no contradiction between his rhetoric and his own looming lucrative, hyper-capitalist post-presidency and the sources of capital that will fuel it. Instead, capitalism, national security, and globalization are seen as occurrences that just arose out of nowhere (cf. his recent advice to Argentina to adopt tenets of either Communism or capitalism, as if they were simply morally neutral choices), as if Nairobi designs new smartphones, Lima offers the world new ideas in municipal sewage treatment, China’s pharmaceuticals are superior to Western counterparts — or Islam taught us about medicine, navigation, and religious tolerance.

Add to the above the radical cuts in the U.S. military, the use of the Pentagon to implement by fiat gay and feminist agendas, the restrictive new rules of engagement in Afghanistan, the slapdowns of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, and iconic episodes such as the Iranian capture of a U.S. boat in the Persian Gulf and an Iranian missile striking near a U.S. carrier, and we come to a growing sense not that Obama can afford to dispense with traditional U.S. foreign policy because his isolationism rests on an overwhelming military force. Rather, his foreign policy reflects the increasingly more obvious fact that the American military is eroding and is simply unable to meet even its shrinking responsibilities abroad. Just as Ronald Reagan believed that tax cuts might starve the federal entitlement beast, so Obama trusts that cuts and redefining the military will choke off traditional foreign policy — thus giving others, who have been too long silenced, overdue roles in the ensuing vacuum.

All of the above was put in some context recently by a few emblematic gestures: Obama, in that Atlantic interview, blamed the “sh–storm” in Libya on uninspired and pompous French and British leadership, and he bragged about issuing and then not meeting his red line in Syria — and then later he flashed a hippie peace sign, 1960s-style, at a formal photo-op of world leaders convening to discuss nuclear-security issues. He alone of Western leaders can act so adolescently, because he is no longer invested in the traditional postwar role of a U.S. president — and has become a cooler version of Jimmy Carter, without the latter’s 1980s second thoughts over the consequences of his appeasement. It is only April, and the bills from the last seven years are going to come due thick and fast in the next ten months. What most see as chaos and danger, Obama welcomes as a brave new world.

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