“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
— Hillary Clinton, The Atlantic, Aug. 10
Leave it to Barack Obama’s own former secretary of state to acknowledge the fatal flaw of his foreign policy: a total absence of strategic thinking.
Yes, of course everything Hillary Clinton says is positioning. The last time she sought the nomination (2008), as she admitted before Defense Secretary Bob Gates, she opposed the Iraq surge for political reasons because she was facing antiwar Sen. Barack Obama in Iowa. Now, as she prepares for her next run (2016), she’s positioning herself to the right because, with no prospect of being denied the Democratic nomination, she has the luxury of running toward the center two years before Election Day.
All true, but sincere or not — with the Clintons how can you ever tell? — it doesn’t matter. She’s right.
Mind you, Obama does deploy grand words proclaiming grand ideas: the “new beginning” with Islam declared in Cairo, the reset with Russia announced in Geneva, global nuclear disarmament proclaimed in Prague (and playacted in a Washington summit). But, untethered from reality, they all disappeared without a trace.
When carrying out policies in the real world, however, it’s nothing but tactics and reactive improvisation. The only consistency is the president’s inability (unwillingness?) to see the big picture. Consider:
Vladimir Putin has 45,000 troops on the Ukraine border. A convoy of 262 unwanted, unrequested, uninspected Russian trucks allegedly with humanitarian aid is headed to Ukraine to relieve the pro-Russian separatists now reduced to the encircled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine threatens to stop it.
Obama’s concern? He blithely tells the New York Times that Putin “could invade” Ukraine at any time. And if he does, says Obama, “trying to find our way back to a cooperative functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term will be much more difficult.”
Is this what Obama worries about? A Russian invasion would be a singular violation of the post-Cold War order, a humiliating demonstration of American helplessness and a shock to the Baltic republics, Poland and other vulnerable U.S. allies. And Obama is concerned about his post-invasion relations with Putin?
To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.
He seems equally unaware of the message sent by his refusal to arm the secular opposition (over the objections of Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA Director David Petraeus) when it was still doable. He ridicules the idea as “fantasy” because we’d be arming amateurs up against a well-armed government “backed by Russia, backed by Iran [and] a battle-hardened Hezbollah.”
He thus admits that Russian and other outside support was crucial to tilting the outcome of this civil war to Bashar al-Assad. Yet he dismisses countervailing U.S. support as useless. He thus tells the world of his disdain for the traditional U.S. role of protecting friends by deterring and counterbalancing adversarial outside powers.
Every moderate U.S. ally in the Middle East welcomed the original (week 1) Egyptian cease-fire offer. They were stunned when Obama’s secretary of state then met with Qatar and Turkey — Hamas’ lawyers — promoting its demands. Did Obama not understand he was stymieing a tacit and remarkable pan-Arab-Israeli alliance to bring down Hamas (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) — itself an important U.S. strategic objective?
The definitive evidence of Obama’s lack of vision is his own current policy reversals — a clear admission of failure. He backed the next Egyptian cease-fire. He’s finally arming the Syrian rebels. And he’s returning American military power to Iraq. (On Russia, however, he appears unmovably unmoved.)
Tragically, his proposed $500 million package for secular Syrian rebels is too late. Assad has Aleppo, their last major redoubt, nearly surrounded. If and when it falls, the revolution may be over.
The result? The worst possible outcome: A land divided between the Islamic State (IS) and Assad, now wholly owned by Iran and Russia.
Iraq is also very little, very late. Why did Obama wait seven months after the IS takeover of Fallujah and nine weeks after the capture of Mosul before beginning supplying the Kurds with desperately needed weapons?
And why just small arms supplied supposedly clandestinely through the CIA? The Kurds are totally outgunned. Their bullets are bouncing off the captured armored Humvees the IS has deployed against them. The Pentagon should be conducting a massive airlift to provide the pesh merga with armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles and other heavier weaponry.
And why the pinprick airstrikes? The IS-Kurdish front is 600 miles long, more than the distance between Boston and Washington. The Pentagon admits that the current tactics — hitting an artillery piece here, a truck there — will not affect the momentum of the IS or the course of the war.
But then again, altering the course of a war would be a strategic objective. That seems not to be in Obama’s portfolio.
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