September 14, 2012

Eliot A. Cohen was counselor to the State Department from 2007 to 2009 and is a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Has President Obama been a competent steward of U.S. national security?

Set aside the opening follies of this administration, such as the cringe-inducing “reset” button given to Russia’s foreign minister that yielded no cooperation but managed to produce anti-American venom from Vladimir Putin and the harassment of our ambassador to Moscow by thugs in Putin’s youth movement.

Set aside the hypocrisy of the Obama team’s scorn at former governor Mitt Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience, given that its own candidate, during his two years in the Senate prior to his presidential campaign, managed to produce one large goof: contemptuous certainty that the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 would fail.

Set aside even the unseemliness of the president blaming America’s failures abroad on the George W. Bush administration while claiming credit for operations whose foundations were laid during the Bush presidency.

Disregard all this, and the answer remains no.

Yes, Obama ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. So would any president who had him in American gun sights — imagine the furor if any commander in chief were to refrain from giving that order. But has Obama ended our war with Islamist extremists?

In Yemen, the Levant and North Africa, violent Islamist movements are doing quite well. In northern Mali, al-Qaeda affiliates cut off the hands and feet of young men accused of robbery; in Syria, jihadists feed off chaos; in Egypt and Libya, they assault our diplomatic missions. Were the administration to release more than the carefully culled documents taken from the bin Laden archive, more Americans would have quite a different picture of how our enemies are doing.

The Obama administration claims to have ended the war in Iraq. But victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq and diverse Shiite terrorist groups there was effectively achieved by the end of 2008. What Obama did was convince the Iraqi government that he wanted nothing to do with that country, which is why he could not conclude a security agreement with it. Iraq’s government is less tractable, and the country more violent, than it was on Jan. 19, 2009.

Obama claims that he will end the Afghan war. Even if every American were to leave that country tomorrow, a war would burn through it for years. And under the administration’s plans, U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan for years.

Obama sent additional forces to Afghanistan after an internal debate revealed his administration’s profound ambivalence about it. He promised to withdraw U.S. forces in a speech that culminated in a discussion of nation-building at home. Friends, enemies and neutrals acted accordingly, with NATO allies getting out, the Taliban and their more nefarious allies in Pakistan getting a boost of confidence, and Afghans cutting the deals that survival in that hard land requires.

Why has the president barely spoken to the American people about this “war of necessity,” as he described it before he decided it was optional? Why does he not explain what it is all about, where we have been and where we are going? And why should we be surprised when support for the war dwindles?

Do we have more robust sanctions in place on Iran than we did when Obama became president? Yes, thanks largely to congressional pressure. But here are the hard facts: In January 2009, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report last month, the Iranians had approximately 1,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 5 percent; today, they have more than 7,000 kilograms. In January 2009 they had none enriched to 20 percent, a critical threshold for a nuclear weapon. Today, they have almost 200 kilograms. And they have thousands more centrifuges spinning, with new facilities nearly complete and evidence of nuclear weapons design work.

Do the Iranians fear Obama? Why should they when, apparently, they can attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in our nation’s capital and suffer no penalty? Why should anyone — other than terrorists targeted easily by drones or commandos — fear us?

The administration’s passivity on Iran is echoed in Syria. After reinstating our ambassador to Damascus in return for precisely nothing, we watched as peaceful protests turned to violently suppressed demonstrations, then to revolt and now to civil war. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands have fled; war licks at Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and it may metastasize in many ways and directions. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have fantasy plans for a post-Assad regime over which we will have no influence because we played only a negligible role in helping it succeed.

Why is this the Obama administration’s record? Perhaps the president and his aides are declinists, who think of the United States as too weak to act; perhaps they are indifferent; perhaps they are merely incompetent. In any event, this president will leave his successor a country that is considerably less secure than it was when he took the oath of office.