Obama, the Un-War President

It’s been a tough week for anyone seeking to defend President Obama’s record, particularly in foreign policy, against rising accusations of fecklessness. Seven days ago, the White House unveiled its overdue National Security Strategy, five years after its last edition, to understated fanfare, with National Security Adviser Susan Rice mostly complaining that nobody understands how great things are going globally — minor incidents like the rise of the Islamic State and the aggressive war waged by Russia against Ukraine notwithstanding — and that national security is, you know, a tough job.

The mantra attached to the new NSS is Strategic Patience, which was met with guffaws, since it seems to be more a rationalization of Obama’s (in)actions over the last six years than any bona fide strategy. Mostly, it appears to be “don’t do stupid shit,” the administration previous foreign policy mantra, dressed up in grad school IR cliches.

To be fair, the caliber of NSS’s has been in steady decline for more than twenty years, across administrations, and the shortcomings of Strategic Patience pale, media-wise, compared to the needless debacle made this week by Obama when he stated in an extended interview with the obsequious Ezra Klein of Vox, that the four Jews recently murdered in a Parisian kosher deli by a homegrown jihadist fanatic were “some folks” killed “randomly.” Given that even those only passingly acquainted with Salafi jihadism know that it targets Jews 24/7, this was a puzzling statement, one that was made considerably worse by silly follow-ups by administration spokespeople which indicated that, six years in, this White House has yet to master basic message discipline.

The less I say about Obama’s absurd video clip on healthcare for BuzzFeed, with the president mugging for the cameras — all that was missing was Pyjama’s Boy’s onesie — while the world burns, perhaps the better. I am confident that clip has been much watched in world capitals, above all Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran.

Amidst all this silliness, the substance of the new NSS has gotten a bit lost. Usually, this is no hazard, since every NSS contains an enormous amount of fluff, posturing and puffery, bound together with happytalk, and not much actual strategy. Yet the tone of this NSS, with its positive rejection of military force for much of anything, ought to trouble anyone who deals with the world as it actually is, rather than how it appears from the faculty lounge.

I come to my concern from a slightly strange position. As someone who welcomed this administration’s promises, followed by intermittent efforts, to dial back the needless aggression of Obama’s predecessor, it’s troubling to see that this White House has made a cardinal vice out of one of its key virtues. I have written about the limits of military force as an all-purpose-tool in 21st century foreign policy, emphasizing that post-modern rules of war place serious restiction on the use of force by any civilized country. And I have repeatedly lambasted neocons who, usually from the safety of comfy DC think-tanks or the FoxNews studio, counsel endless war, seemingly for its own sake — when this is actually a road to America’s fiscal, political, and moral ruin.

Nevertheless, as Obama’s smirky fecklessness in dealing with mounting crises has only gained steam, the worse these crises get, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that Senator John McCain, for all his bombast, has many valid points to make in foreign and defense policy. At this juncture, McCain’s fire-breathing counsel on issues such as the Islamic State and Russia is much closer to a reality-based view than anything emanating from this White House.

The new NSS makes clear that war is off the table for Obama in almost any situation. This has been noted in a perceptive column in The Washington Post by James Jeffery, who describes the president’s “troubling worldview,” and his critique merits an extended quotation:

The Obama administration sent to Congress last week its second report on national security strategy. These updates are mainly a dry inventory of our aspirations, what’s happening in the world and what the United States can do in response, rather than a true strategy. That was the case for this one as well, but bits of it reveal much about how President Obama views the world. Combined with his recent interview by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, his State of the Union address last month and his speech last May at West Point, we can glean a good summary of the president’s basic principles for security policy. Unfortunately, that summary is troubling.

Although Obama’s goals are consistent with mainstream U.S. foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War, his dismissive approach to military force represents a clear departure from that consensus. But that’s nothing new. What’s new is that Obama is strongly reaffirming this approach despite 12 months dominated by military threats to global security order — from Russia, the Islamic State, Iran and China. Yet the two-page summary of major global developments in the introduction of the national security strategy (NSS) included only a brief mention of Russia’s threat and nothing on the others.

It’s hard to miss that, in the very long Vox interview that got Obama into hot water over “random” terrorism in Paris, the president mentioned Vladimir Putin exactly once, more or less in passing. Jeffery observes that Obama’s worldview includes four important themes:

First, those who use military force are destined for the ash heap of history because force is inherently counterproductive … Second, if the United States acts militarily, it inevitably runs a serious risk of overcommitment and disaster … Third, there is “no military solution” to anything. No statement is reiterated by this administration more frequently whenever a crisis emerges, presented as an immutable law that applies not just to us but also to the tyrants and terrorists … Fourth, when required, and absent the most compelling security need, military action should be employed through coalitions and after applying diplomatic, economic and other tools, with legality and legitimacy as the guiding principles.

Jeffery notes that Obama’s core principles possess a certain internal logic — But do they accurately reflect how the world works in 2015? Jeffery, like many others, observes that this White House seems unable to assess global trends, particularly involving things like major military threats such as the Islamic State and a resurgent and rampaging Russia, with anything resembling balance. Instead, there seems to be much wishful thinking and running out the clock until January 2017, when this global mess will become someone else’s problem. As Jeffery cogently concludes:

The president might respond, as he said at West Point, that not every problem is a nail susceptible to solution with a military hammer, and that a strong economy and diplomacy are also important to security.

He’s right, but some problems are indeed nails. Almost certainly the next administration, whoever leads it, won’t miss this point. But it is a long time until 2017.

If a week is long time in politics, per the old wag, one year and eleven months is an eternity in foreign policy. I am pessimistic that this White House, besotted with myths about power, can rise out of its self-indulgent torpor to meet the challenges we now face on multiple fronts. James Jeffery has made some excellent points that merit serious discussion inside the Beltway, and by all Americans who care about their country and the world.

And who is James Jeffery? A militant neocon and high-priced defense consultant? A general or admiral put out to pasture who wants more war, perhaps? Actually, he’s a retired diplomat with a distinguished record of service. He also served the Obama administration as ambassador to Iraq, a severely challenging assignment. So, folks, we’ve reached the point where esteemed diplomats are firing off warning flares in the mainstream media that the Obama White House is dangerously deluded, valuing hopeful diplomacy over the hard facts of power in the world. This hardly ever happens. Jeffery’s column is roughly equivalent to John McCain appearing in tie-die publicly while praising Code Pink.

The real point is that the world today is a dangerous place again, filled with mounting geopolitical hazards, and Obama’s worldview, which downgrades military power to a level unprecedented in recent American history, actually makes the world an even more dangerous place still. There is no doubt that undervaluing of military power by Europeans is a key reason why leaders like Merkel and Hollande are so impotent before Putin, despite the fact that the Kremlin is actually the weakling in the confrontation over Ukraine. If such naive views become normative in Washington, DC, we ought to expect American foreign policy to become just as pathetically feckless as Western Europe’s. Those who do not like us or wish freedom well — and, despite what this White House tells you, those dragons do lurk beyond the gate, hungrily — will inherit the power that the West abandons. More war and worse will result, with haste.