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Found Wanting

by John Hillen

Strategic Failure: How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts, and Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America, by Mark Moyar (Threshold, 400 pp., $28)

In a country in which fewer and fewer people serve in an ever-shrinking all-volunteer military, it can be difficult to make a comprehensive case to the civilian public about the weakness of our military posture and ambitions — especially if it is the author’s word against that of the commander-in-chief and his inevitably (largely) cooperative military hierarchy. “Is the military doing okay? I dunno, the president says so. And can that guy give a speech . . .”

Sigh. At least American citizens learn enough about foreign affairs in college to judge for themselves, yes? Well . . . no. In the academy, the teaching of strategy today more likely revolves around transgender approaches to income inequality in emerging economies (seriously, just go to any academic international-relations conference) than around such topics as the importance of sea power in the global balance. All told, it has become less and less obvious to the voting public whether America is doing well in the international arena.

In 1999, after five years of draconian budget cuts to the military and a Clintonian strategy of chasing things on the strategic periphery of America’s interests, I wrote a cover story for National Review about military (un)readiness. The story gained some traction with political leaders. Others were sounding the alarm bell, too, but it was hard to get attention in the era of dot-coms and Seinfeld. In 2000, though, the Republican convention featured an entire night on national security that included Desert Storm commander General Norman Schwarzkopf speaking from a battleship, surrounded by veterans and warning of military and strategic weakness. The Republicans were by now clearly conscious of the need to stress defense issues after an era of neglect.

Nonetheless, it’s not clear that national-security issues made a decisive difference in the 2000 election. Voters liked the idea of the peace dividend that Clinton promised. That peace dividends have never delivered peace, but rather have a 100 percent track record of delivering readiness crises, doesn’t get much attention until the readiness crisis arrives. Until then (and it is always until), it is your facts against the president’s, your opinion against your neighbor’s — all holding up a liquid measuring stick to America’s global standing.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan usefully reminded us that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Thankfully for the current Republican presidential candidates (all of whom are short on national-security decision-making experience, even if their instincts are sound), Mark Moyar’s new book provides a compendium of the national-security facts and a rational, if pointed, analysis of how those facts add up to a picture of American strategic decline.

You can argue about a future that has not yet happened — for instance, about whether Iran will stop trying to destabilize the Middle East after Obama’s nuclear deal (it won’t, natch) — but you cannot, after reviewing the facts in Moyar’s book, deny that this president’s strategy has left the United States and its friends comprehensively weaker across the globe on a dozen major national-security fronts.

President Obama dined out internationally for much of 2009 on the line that George W. Bush had “lowered America’s standing in the world” with his overly aggressive and unilateral foreign policy. That was a common perception, to be sure, but it was common mostly among our smarmier European friends. Obama was measuring America’s “standing” by focusing on the opinions of those who exulted in the idea that a leftist U.S. president would knock the U.S. down a peg or two.

Moyar’s book does us the service of showing us how real U.S. standing in the world has fallen — not in the perception of a biased sector of elite leftism, but in concrete strategic terms. With startling speed over the past six years, allies have been abandoned, strategic gains have been reversed, aggression has been invited, provocations have been ignored, U.S. military capabilities have been denuded, and intelligence assets have been abandoned. And these are only some of the strategic sins that the Obama team has committed  since 2009.

The world we are left with now, after this chronic strategic mismanagement, is decidedly less stable, less peaceful, and less friendly to American interests than it was in 2009. The Sunni–Shiite conflict in Iraq, tamed by America’s troop surge in 2007–08, is far deadlier now by any measure. The situation has not only worsened in an Iraq hastily abandoned to fulfill Obama’s campaign pledge; it has also metastasized into Syria and Yemen. ISIS is one result of this strategic neglect: We and our allies now have to worry not just about terrorist cells in the region but also about a savage terrorist state at the heart of Mesopotamia. An emboldened Iran (now super-emboldened with a nuclear deal that rewards its bad behavior) further destabilizes the region by exporting its version of Islamic revolution via proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and Iraq.

Russia controls a third of Ukraine by means of direct and indirect aggression, China fortifies the Spratly Islands to control the South China Sea (through which passes almost half the world’s merchant tonnage), and Afghanistan (where we fought the “good war” — remember?) backslides into chaos as America temporizes. Europe has become a military museum incapable of serious action outside its continent (and in it, too, one suspects — or certainly Russia suspects).

“Leading from behind” turns out not to inspire allies to pick up the slack (or even be allies, for that matter). Funny how U.S. strength and determination during the period of our “lowered standing” prompted 40 other countries to contribute troops in support of military operations in Iraq a decade ago (an additional 30-plus joined the global war on terrorism). The kinder, gentler America of 2015 has fewer countries helping in the good war in Afghanistan than Bush had during the bad war in Iraq. Lowered standing, vocal disavowal of American exceptionalism and abandonment of American leadership, and dramatically reduced means have a way of not attracting followers.

That’s all dated Kissingerian geopolitical thinking, a defender of Obama might reply. This administration killed bin Laden and has kept America safe from terrorism. Moyar takes on this short-sighted attitude and exposes the falsity of the administration’s claim that its light-footprint approach to foreign policy and counterterrorism is a realistic way of keeping America safe. The Obama team hoped to beat militant Islamists on the cheap — frantically disengaging from Mideast war zones and trying to manage strategy via drone strikes. This resulted in the rise of ISIS, among other bad outcomes. Our human-intelligence capabilities (once staffed on the front lines in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan by huge multi-agency intelligence operations) are shut down, much reduced, or seriously handicapped. The administration is so frozen by its embarrassment about Guantanamo that it declines to capture and question terrorists and has no effective policy or accepted body of law for treating detainees. Therefore, we kill terrorists with drones when we can (although, Moyar points out, 90 percent of those drone-kill “successes” have been low-level Taliban fighters) and crow about it. We gain no intelligence, and make new enemies in the process.

The president has a coherent grand strategy: He believes in the inevitability of American decline, he welcomes it as a moral necessity for the world, and he therefore tries to accelerate this decline. Moyar points out the geopolitical cost of this attitude, and also details how it has manifested itself in the material decline of American military capability. Conventional forces have been slashed and nuclear stockpiles willfully neglected, technology has been forgone (the U.S. now cannot launch a heavy satellite into space without a Russian rocket engine), and morale has decreased. The most depressing and damning chapters give blow-by-blow accounts of the rank amateurism and political maneuvering of Obama’s White House — facts brought forth to us in memoirs by two of Obama’s secretaries of defense, among others, but painful to see again.

Like many conservatives, I am thrilling to the breadth and depth of the field of GOP presidential candidates (no, not you, Mr. Trump). Almost any of them would be better — by miles — than Obama, as a strategist and a commander-in-chief. Even so, while they all make sounds about restoring American strength on the world stage, none has really embraced a comprehensive and coherent strategy of re-engagement abroad — a strategy that would include inflicting a catastrophic military defeat on ISIS, confronting Iranian, Russian, and Chinese aggression, and rebuilding U.S. military capabilities. Among the candidates, there are more than a few intelligent hawks who believe in American power and exceptionalism — no doubt. But they seem to feel a bit trapped by the 2008 electoral backlash against Bush’s over-investment in the Middle East, and, while they are willing to commit to admirable sentiments about American power, they have not internalized the truth that they may have to sell hard and potentially costly policies. It remains to be seen whether they have the policy and strategy ideas, passion, and argumentative skill to commit America to a “surge” of sorts on the geopolitical landscape.  

Moyar has a blueprint for them, if they want it.

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