Presidential Commencement

05.28.14

Old Flaws in Obama’s New Foreign Policy

At West Point, Obama takes the U.S. out of the Afghan frying pan only to leap back into the Mideast fire, where a crucial shift in Syria policy may be in store.

The surface reason for President Barack Obama’s West Point speech on Wednesday was to reiterate his commitment to pull out all the remaining 33,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2016. But, according to senior administration officials, he had two critical underlying purposes:

One was to begin sketching out his new national security strategy for the post Afghan/Iraq war era as the United States faces the need to combat terrorists in the Middle East and Africa while checking Russia and China.

The other was to counter-attack against domestic critics while reassuring uneasy foreign leaders.

So, the speech was a mouthful. Officials said Obama stayed up late Tuesday night, adding point after point and re-polishing others. It seems he knows well that his potency as commander-in-chief and chief foreign policy maker hangs by a thread at home and abroad—and that he must fix his standing now or, inevitably, slide downhill.

With this speech, Obama simply and finally jumped out of the Afghan frying pan only to leap back into the Mideast fire, and beyond that, to the ever-smoldering terrorist and tribal horrors of Africa. (Whatever happened to the “Asia pivot” policy?)

He was bidding a final farewell to the 9/11 nightmare and the odyssey to kill Osama bin Laden. The new danger from terrorists, he was saying, derived far less from the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan and far more from the Middle Eastern birthplaces of terrorism and, now, also from new terrorist haunts in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and other spots barely known to most Americans.

Obama also stressed to the West Point cadets that he was saying goodbye to large-scale land wars as the means to fight these “new” terrorists.

Alas, Obama’s “new” strategy sounded much like the old one. Look at his Wednesday words: “In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and—if just, necessary, and effective —multilateral military action. We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

Alas, Obama’s “new” strategy sounded much like the old one.

In case anyone missed the point, Obama added: “I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy—drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan—to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”

Didn’t the U.S. do all that in Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent in Iraq)? Didn’t we have tens of thousands of our allies fighting alongside U.S. troops?

Obama’s instinct is right when it comes to phasing out of Afghanistan quickly, and finally leaving the battle where it belongs—with the Afghans themselves. But he’s doing so without a strategy, without a plan to organize Afghanistan’s neighbors to start acting in their vital interests and picking up the fight against the Islamic extremists.

Obama’s instincts are wrong if he’s letting himself be pushed into a renewed effort to unseat Syrian President Assad without a plausible plan to do so.

Perhaps Obama thought that a new anti-terrorist emergency fund he was asking Congress to fund would distinguish his approach. It’s to be a $5 billion barrel to support friends and allies with arms, training and the like. But Obama and President George W. Bush provided Afghans and Iraqis with hundreds of billions in arms and economic aid to a very modest effect indeed.

Obama will have to explain much more to demonstrate that his strategy is truly new and that it can be effective—and also that his small-steps approach won’t lead to bigger ones later on in the face of likely failures—much as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama said, properly, “We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one…The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”

This is good common sense. But it’s not enough. He needs to lay out a strategy for how other nations can and should help Afghans to reduce the risks of a Taliban resurgence. And there is a very real basis for doing so. Almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbors surely have a greater stake in that country’s future than does the United States. It is they who will have to worry greatly about Afghan terrorist extremists, drugs, and refugees. Washington has to remind them of their vital interests and help organize them into common action.  Doing so will also show Obama’s domestic critics that in leaving Afghanistan, he is not simply and silently accepting eventual defeat.

The same goes for venturing anew into the Syrian swamp. Obama is now moving to provide moderate rebels in Syria with overt training from U.S. special operation forces in addition to the covert aid presently fed by the CIA. That move will make sense only if the White House formulates a viable strategy for Syria. Right now, its strategy of upending President Bashar Assad makes no sense. If he’s not winning, he’s certainly not losing. And no amount of projected aid to the moderate rebels will change that unfortunate but unarguable fact.

Thus, Obama either will have to change his means and provide massive aid to these rebels, which he will not do, or he will have to change his goal of eliminating Assad. This may well surprise experts, but senior administration officials tell me that Obama has been modifying his objective and is now prepared to work with Assad, to some degree, along with the moderate rebels, against what the White House finally has come to see as the real and major threat—the jihadists. These senior officials further say that they expect support in this new policy from previous opponents, i.e. from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Let us hope that this is true.

Obama concluded on an assertive and positive note: “In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.” Indeed, the U.S. has the biggest and still the best military and economy. And America is still the only place the “world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation.”

All true…and still incomplete. Obama’s America is also increasingly on shaky grounds with friends and foes alike, with those who expect too much and are willing to do too little, with those like Chinese and Russian leaders who are feeling their oats and threatening their neighbors.

President Obama is moving in the right direction by telling all what he won’t do in the future, i.e. fight major land wars in the Mideast and South Asia. And he’s right in telling friends they must do more and not just expect the U.S. to fix things and then blame America when it doesn’t. Now, he’s got to take the next steps in the several speeches he has planned for his imminent European trip. He’s got to set out achievable goals and explain in common sense terms how the U.S. has the power and the policy to achieve them.