After listing many (but not all) of President Obama’s foreign policy flubs and failures, my colleague Dana Milbank asks whether things could get any worse. I’m afraid they could, and probably will.
Let’s start with the trial of the lone Libya suspect “arrested” so far by the Obama administration. Ahmed Abu Khattala’s indictment has already raised the discomfort level at the White House since the prosecutor’s case is premised on the notion that the attack was preplanned and motivated by Islamic ideology. Forgetting for a moment about whether the administration lied after the fact, this only reinforces the conclusion that the Obama administration had no idea how dangerous al-Qaeda was. It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t back on its heels. It was sweeping across North Africa and into Iraq and Syria.
Even worse, what if the criminal case falls apart? This is the risk with Article III trials. Witnesses are unavailable, documents lack a chain of custody and certain evidence can’t be used because of national security concerns. And juries make mistakes. If Khattala gets off and goes free, imagine the hue and cry. The Obama/Eric Holder criminal justice model for fighting terrorism will be destroyed.
Current problems also could metastasize. Russia could try to grab more of eastern Ukraine, as it is threatening to do. China could take the opportunity to make good on its territorial ambitions. North Korea could act up. Chemical weapons in Syria could wind up in the hands of Hezbollah or, via Iran, be smuggled to Hamas in Gaza. Jordan could buckle under the economic and political destabilization resulting from the Syrian civil war — where tens of thousands more could die. (And the polio epidemic begun in Syria could spread to other countries.) None of these scenarios are far-fetched; indeed, we would be very fortunate if the president doesn’t preside over one or more of these catastrophes before he leaves office.
Iran could also come out ahead in the Vienna talks, allowed to keep a “frozen” nuclear weapons program with the promise of sanctions relief and eventually no monitoring whatsoever. Once sanctions are further eroded, any hope of a peaceful resolution will vanish, leaving only the options of war or a nuclear-armed Iran. Knowing the deal is a phony one, soon other countries in the Middle East will be putting in their orders for nukes from Pakistan or elsewhere. The nuclear weapons proliferation horror story then plays out.
We know Obama intends to go to the zero option in Afghanistan. Does that become another staging ground for new 9/11-type plots? Perhaps jihadists seriously threaten its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan.
Those are some of the things easily imagined. But 9/11, you may recall, was to a degree a failure of imagination by our intelligence community, which never dreamed that 19 guys with box cutters could kill nearly 3,000 people. What if one of the jihadist groups or a person influenced by jihadist organizations gets materials that could kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people? (Given the state of the border, they probably could walk into the United States. Refusing to consider immigration reform because of the fear that illegal immigrants might get green cards 15 years from now will look mighty irresponsible.) Especially with a terrorist state as a safe haven and top terrorists let go from Guantanamo Bay, it is certainly not far-fetched given the confluence of events.
It is because of these and other similar scenarios that the next 2 1/2 years will be fraught with danger. If God forbid any of these scenarios occurs, the inquiry into what national security errors (e.g. crippling the National Security Agency, restricting drone use, bugging out of Iraq and Afghanistan with no troop residue, devastating defense cuts) precipitated the disasters will make the 9/11 commission look like a day at the beach.
The parade of horribles may unfold three months or three days into the next president’s term. With a shrunken military, shackled intelligence devices and a loss of U.S. credibility, where will that leave a U.S. president — whether Democrat or Republican? Not in a good place, to be sure.
The cascade of awful events and the potential to leave the country and his successor a sitting duck don’t seem to worry this president much, at least not enough to prompt a change in policies or advisers. But it should worry every member of Congress and every presidential candidate. Those who circled the wagons around the White House (e.g. resisting defense spending increases, blocking Iran sanctions, letting the Islamic State take hold) or simply don’t try all that hard to explain the stakes and set out a responsible alternative set of policies will have a whole lot to answer for. It’s one thing to be caught unaware on 9/11/01 and then again on 9/11/12, but what excuse could there possibly be for missing the telltale signs of another disaster, maybe worse than the first 9/11?
Responsible officials of both parties and candidates for office in 2014 and 2016 better think through these issues and be on the side of restoring U.S. credibility in the world. The country has a lot to lose if they don’t, and each of them risks being an enabler of a president who failed in varied and substantial ways to attend to our safety and security. It’s not a legacy anyone wants on his or her record.