The Perils of President Obama’s National Security Policy

The Perils of President Obama’s National Security Policy

Robert Kaufman

Late January of 2010 will mark the first anniversary of the Obama Presidency.     What should one make of the Obama Administration’s record on foreign affairs and national security?  What follows is a full-throated critique of what President Obama has done and is likely to do. 

To begin with the perspective that informs this critique, I call myself a moral democratic realist, a paradigm I lay out more elaborately in my most recent book, In Defense of the Bush Doctrine.  I identify moral democratic realism favorably with the foreign policy of the administrations of presidents Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

Six precepts of moral democratic realism emerged from my reading of the lessons of diplomatic history.  First, the danger of war and strife will always loom large because of irredeemable human imperfection itself.  The anarchical system of international politics, where there is no monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, compounds the danger.  Power is thus the pivotal, inescapable dimension of international relations.  The vindication of American self-interest depends mainly on the clarity, credibility, and capability of American power.  Coalitions of the willing can supplement, but never substitute, for American power.  Multilateral institutions in general, and the United Nations in particular, can inhibit the necessary exercise of American power, if we are unwise enough to let them.   

Second, the greatest dangers to the United States typically arise not from vigilance or the arrogance of American power, but from unpreparedness or an excessive reluctance to fight.  So American statesmen ought to strive for what Churchill calls “overwhelming power.”    

Third, unlike what I call “unrealistic realism,” which I associate with Colin Powell, James Baker III, and Brent Scowcroft, moral democratic realism treats regime type as a variable for identifying opportunities and dangers in American foreign policy.  All regimes do not behave alike.  Some are more aggressive; others are more peaceful.  There is a vital moral and practical distinction between totalitarian regimes animated by messianic ideologies on the one hand, and stable liberal democracies, on the other hand.  The difference between Nazi Germany and a stable, liberal, democratic West Germany puts this vital distinction in high relief.

Fourth, moral democratic realism dictates that American foreign policy must adhere closely to the imperatives of geopolitics.  There is no objective reason why the United States should not remain the world’s dominant power for a long time to come. As Charles Krauthammer incisively puts it, “decline is a choice” for the United States, not an inevitability.  For all nations, however, resources are finite; thus, the United States must give priority to defending and extending the democratic zone of peace in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  These are the major power centers in the world, where the absence of liberty could prove most perilous.  

Fifth, the cardinal virtue of Prudence should inform when, how, and for what purpose the United States employs military force.  St. Thomas Aquinas defines Prudence as choosing ends and means that are morally and practically correct.  Clear, firm, credible commitments can deter the risk of war and the cost of war when even the best deterrent sometimes fails.  Sometimes as well, using force sooner—even preemptively—can save much blood, toil, tears, and sweat later. 

Sixth, moral democratic realism rejects utopianism and moral nihilism.  Judeo-Christian morality refracted through the lens of Prudence ought to serve as the guide for evaluating relative degrees of moral and geopolitical evil.  The greatest of American leaders have always recognized that the United States must wage war and peace in a way consistent with the values of American society and the principles of well-ordered liberty.  As Ronald Reagan’s Administration put it in National Security Directive 75, which laid out President Reagan’s monumentally successful strategy for winning the Cold War, “US policy must have an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of the US and western values of individual dignity and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy…”  The United States is not a perfect nation, but it is an exceptional nation; indeed, the United States is the indispensible one. 

These six principles serve as my point of departure to explain the peril of President Obama’s foreign and national security policy.  Start with President Obama’s vision of the world and his role in it, which make him the antithesis of President Reagan.  President Obama believes he is an extraordinary leader of an ordinary, badly flawed nation.  Reagan believed he was an ordinary man privileged to lead an extraordinary nation.  Obama is totally wrong; Ronald Reagan is half right.  For Ronald Reagan was also an extraordinary leader.  Today’s Republican party should champion Ronald Reagan’s legacy unabashedly, adapting it to the changing circumstances of the 21st century. 

President Obama’s actions and rhetoric before and since becoming President put him at the leftward end of the Democratic party’s New Politics wing that has dominated the party’s foreign policy thinking since the riotous Chicago Democratic convention of 1968.  Repudiating the Cold War liberalism of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the New Politics wing of the party typically has considered our enemies abroad less dangerous that what Senator J. William Fulbright famously and fatuously calls “the arrogance of American power.”  This liberal guilt about the so-called arrogance of American power impelled President Obama to return to Great Britain the bust of Winston Churchill that British Prime Minister Tony Blair loaned to George W. Bush—an overt repudiation of Churchill’s legacy of vigilance that President Bush sought to emulate.  This liberal guilt about the so-called arrogance of American power pervades President Obama’s landmark foreign policy speeches.  Speaking in Cairo and later to the UN General Assembly, President Obama apologized profusely for a catalogue of American sins—a few real, many more exaggerated and most imagined.  When asked about American exceptionalism at a G-20 meeting in Strasbourg, President Obama dismissed the notion.  No American President other than Jimmy Carter would have believed or said anything like that.  In his Cairo speech, Obama placed greater blame for our troubles in the Middle East on a decent and democratic Israeli ally than on the region’s culture of despotism, the fanatical eliminationist Iranian regime, or a Palestinian entity bent on eradicating the Jewish States.  President Obama’s Cairo and UN speeches are not the exception—they are emblematic:  President Obama’s default position is to blame America first; conciliate America’s enemies; and pressure or ignore America’s friends in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and Latin America.  

The President’s defenders, and even some of his critics, have celebrated his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where the President acknowledged that evil does exist in the world and that sometimes the use of force is necessary, morally and practically; yet the preponderance of his words and deeds belie the President’s atypically hardheaded and pro-American rhetoric.  President Obama’s decision not to attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall underscored his organic discomfort with the idea of American greatness and goodness.  Appallingly, President Obama made it a priority to fly to Cairo to conciliate Middle Eastern dictators.  Appallingly, President Obama made it a priority to fly to Europe for the trivial and parochial purpose of pleading Chicago’s case to host the Olympics.  Yet, appallingly, President Obama spurned an event that symbolized the triumph of freedom over a malevolent evil empire that posed an existential threat to freedom.

The Obama Administration has embraced the three worst features of liberal multilateralism while abandoning its admirable commitment to promoting stable liberal democracy when possible and prudent.  First, the Obama Administration has great confidence in the efficacy of multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, as arbiters of international legitimacy; this is a triumph of hope over experience.  Second, the Obama Administration has deep aversion to wielding the hard elements of power, such as military power, in pursuit of traditional concrete geopolitical conceptions of the national interest.  Third, the Obama Administration radiates a zealous faith in the aptitude of soft power, such as the appeal of American culture, to tame the animosity of America’s enemies.

Appropriating the worst features of unrealistic realism, Obama depreciates the importance of regime type and ideology in discerning America’s friends and foes.  He made no mention of democracy or freedom in his meetings with an increasingly authoritarian Putin of Russia or with a brutally authoritarian Chinese leadership bent on hegemony rather than equilibrium in East Asia.  The Obama Administration treated the rioting of the Iranian opposition as an inconvenience to be overcome in the quest to negotiate with the militant mullahs of Tehran, rather than as a courageous challenge to a malevolent Iranian regime—a challenge that the United States should have vigorously encouraged within the bounds of Prudence.  Like the virulently anti-American tyrants of Venezuela and Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Raúl Castro, the Obama Administration sided with a rogue Honduran President attempting to subvert that nation’s Constitution, rather than with the democratically elected legislature struggling to uphold the rule of law.  Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has paid scant attention to our democratic, ardently pro-American allies in Eastern Europe, Columbia, India, Japan, and Israel, preferring to court our enemies by conceding the merits of many of their indictments against us.  This is folly on stilts.

Evidently, the Obama Administration embraces some version of Declinism, which posits that the rise of India, China, and the European Union will eventually end American preeminence.  I find the rehashing of Paul Kennedy’s thesis—which predicted the inevitability of US decline—as unconvincing now as it turned out to be when Kennedy wrongly propounded it in the 1980s.  Nevertheless, President Obama’s sweeping and ill-fated domestic agenda will have the hugely negative effect of creating massive debt, discouraging innovation, and impeding wealth creation. 

The President’s Cap and Trade bill will impose huge costs and yield few benefits.  His massive stimulus bill will stimulate nothing but debt and inflation.  The Obama Administration’s health care plan will cost trillions more and deliver substantially less.  Eventually, the Administration will raise taxes on the most productive segments of the American economy, which traditionally drive economic growth, innovation, and recovery.  The Obama Administration’s efforts to make us resemble the European Union may erode the economic power on which the robustness of American military might depends.  The Obama Administration’s domestic agenda is a recipe for the stagflation that plagued the American economy in the 1970s: low growth and high inflation.  Like the hapless Carter Administration President Obama admires, his own Administration is reluctant to spend significantly more on the one area that demands it: American military power. 

Turn now from the general to the specific: the Obama Administration’s record addressing the major challenges that the United States faces in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, the world’s three most important geopolitical regions.  During the 20th century, the United States rightly fought three world Wars—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—to prevent any single power or hostile power from dominating Eurasia.  Today, it remains a vital interest to ensure that no power or hostile combination of powers dominates Eurasia, lest such an entity possess the resources to threaten the vital interests of the United States. 

Russia poses the greatest threat to American interest in keeping Europe stable, democratic, open, prosperous, and cooperative.  Celebrate some good news first.  Even at its worst, Putin’s Russia lacks the geopolitical heft or inclination to pose the type of existential threat to the United States that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.  Russia is at best a middle-ranking power.  Its prodigious growth rate over the past decade has concealed its more fundamental weaknesses—demographic decline; wealth based on the fickle commodity of oil rather than the solid foundation of manufacture, innovation, and initiative.  Nevertheless, one of the themes of the Bush Doctrine, which the lessons of history have vindicated, is the intimate linkage between regime type and the degree of external threat.  Historically, stable liberal democracies do not fight with each other; they also have less serious disagreements with one another and are more likely to cooperate with one another. 

Conversely, the more tyrannical a powerful regime becomes, the more aggressive and expansionist it tends to be.  This holds true with Russia.  When Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the evil empire of the Soviet Union a great tragedy, this statement encapsulated the problem bound to intensify as Putin consolidated his power.  The increasingly authoritarian Russia that Putin represents seems bent on asserting Russian hegemony, directly or indirectly, across much of the old Soviet Union and perhaps over East Central Europe.  It is a vital interest to America—well within our capabilities—to prevent Russia from doing so.  To raise barriers to Russian aggression and intimidation, the Bush Administration rightly deemed it crucial to follow through on America’s pledge to deploy missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, two of our most reliable NATO Allies.  The NATO Alliance remains the cornerstone of American grand strategy in Europe.  NATO has served us well: to consolidate the democratic peace, to keep the European community open to the United States rather than exclusionary as the French envisage it, and to provide a hedge against the resurgence of Russian expansionism.

Yet by unilaterally abrogating our commitment to deploy missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, we have badly undermined the very constituency in the NATO Alliance that is most pro-American and most likely to view things the way we do on a broad range of issues, including the Russian threat and keeping the EU pro- rather than anti-American.  What did we get from Russia for it?  Nothing.  Since the Obama Administration has capitulated on missile defense, the Russian regime has indicated that it will not support strong sanctions against Iran, as the mullahs accelerate their diabolical program to develop and build nuclear weapons.  America will sorely regret President Obama’s decision to renege on our promise to deploy missile defense in Eastern Europe; likewise, we will sorely regret his feckless decision to spurn the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Turn now to consider the Obama Administration’s policy toward East Asia.  From the standpoint of traditional geopolitical criteria—geography, aggregate Gross Domestic Product, population, military potential—this region has replaced Europe as the world’s paramount center for power.  The need for a strong American presence is even more compelling in East Asia than in Europe.  Liberal democracy is less widespread and much more fragile in East Asia than in Europe.  East Asia also lacks regional organizations, such as the European Union, capable of promoting economic cooperation or ameliorating serious conflicts of interest.  East Asia is the world’s fastest growing region not just economically but militarily.  Consequently, constructively managing the rise of Chinese power poses the most daunting long-term challenge we face.  A dynamic but still authoritarian China may develop the capability, and perhaps already harbors the ambition, to dominate East Asia.  Japan and India, the two most important counterweights to Chinese power in East Asia, lack the resources and political will to balance China alone—unless the United States takes the lead.  

The most contentious debate on China revolves around two questions: How much deterrence does China require?  What configuration should such deterrence take?  There are two alternative strategies for addressing these fundamental questions, with hybrids in between.  Proponents of engagement, President Obama among them, believe that China has become a status quo power seeking peace, security, and prosperity rather than hegemony.  They worry that American vigilance could make Chinese hostility a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Thus, they oppose deploying theatre or national missile defense; thus, they oppose forming a strong democratic alliance system to contain China; thus, they oppose Taiwan’s independence.  Thus, as a proponent of engagement President Obama has given priority to courting China, while virtually ignoring democratic India and democratic Japan.

Conversely, proponents of a more muscular policy of containment and deterrence view China as a regime with hegemonic ambitions striving to displace the United States as the preeminent power in East Asia.  Count me among this group, which considers the nature of the Chinese regime the root cause of China’s hegemonic ambitions.  A mixed strategy—continuing to engage China economically but containing Chinese military power vigilantly—accords best with the lessons of American diplomacy and the dictates of Prudence.  This is a variation of the strategy President George W. Bush wisely pursued in cultivating our relations with a decent and democratic India and Japan. 

Engagement alone will magnify rather than ameliorate the threat the Chinese regime may pose, as was the case with appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s and détente with the Soviet Union during the 1970s.  As we witnessed in Europe after World War II, an American-led democratic alliance system offers the best practicable framework for constraining Chinese ambitions and providing a hedge against the tumultuous transition of the Chinese political system bound to occur sooner rather than later. 

Mark my words.  The reckoning for China will come. The Chinese regime has staved off but will inevitably face a crisis of legitimacy arising from the inherent contradiction between sustaining prosperity and maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.  When that happens, the United States must have in place a robust framework of deterrence that induces Chinese leadership to make the same choice that Gorbachev did during the 1980s: Give up gracefully, rather than fight as the Imperial Japanese regime did in 1941.

Japan and India constitute the foundation of such an American-led alliance system in East Asia.  Principally, the US must preserve its unique capacity to project American military power across the Western Pacific.  American grand strategy should aim ultimately at Chinese political liberalization leading to true democracy, because peace with Chinese tyranny will never be secure.  Instead, the Obama Administration seems intent in Asia, as in Europe, on conciliating our adversaries—including North Korea—and abandoning or ignoring our friends.  This is misguided and dangerous.

Turning to the Obama Administration’s record in the Middle East, it goes from bad to worse.  Start with Iraq.  President Bush snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by conceiving and implementing the “surge” strategy, which has put us within hailing distance of winning in Iraq.  We have laid the foundation for a decent, open, and effective government in Iraq that will respect the rights of its people and its neighbors.  A decent and open Iraq may serve as a catalyst for transforming the Middle East’s toxic political culture, which the Bush Administration rightly identified as the root cause of 9/11.  President Obama’s categorical exit strategy for Iraq risks casting all of this away, demoralizing our friends and emboldening our adversaries.  Pray that the surge has put Iraqi democracy on a solid enough foundation to withstand the Obama Administration’s reckless exit strategy.  

Likewise, the Obama Administration has blundered in dealing with Afghanistan, announcing an exit strategy that undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the surge there.  Instead of staying the course, the Obama Administration stumbles toward a strategy that scales back our ambitions.  Questioned by a news reporter about what victory would look like in Afghanistan, President Obama appeared profoundly uncomfortable even contemplating the notion of victory.  This does not bode well for our interests in Afghanistan, nor in Pakistan, nor for the credibility of American Foreign Policy at large.

Iran is the gravest foreign policy challenge the Obama Administration faces in the Middle East.  The militant mullahs of Tehran strive relentlessly to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  Time is not on our side.  The Iranian regime has 3000 centrifuges in operation; 6000 more will become operational soon.  The Iranian regime has an active ballistic missile program.  The launch last year of an Iranian satellite warns ominously that Iran is close to achieving the capability to deploy and weaponize long range ballistic missiles.

With mounting frequency and intensity, this Iranian regime has fomented strife throughout the Middle East though its surrogates: Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas on the Gaza strip.  Almost certainly, Iran had a large hand in the Syrian nuclear facility that Israel, in a huge favor to the rest of the world, bombed preemptively in the fall of 2007.  Add to these ominous Iranian deeds the ominous words of the Iranian President advocating, among other atrocities, another Holocaust.  We ignore these words and deeds at our peril, just as we paid a staggering price for ignoring what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, what Lenin wrote when he proclaimed Soviet aims of inciting worldwide revolution and making the whole world over in the image of the Soviet Gulag, and what Bin Laden wrote in his multiple fatwas declaring war on the United States.  

Granted, there is no good option for dealing with Iran.  Yet President Obama’s preferred strategy of negotiations without preconditions while dismantling missile defense exemplifies Einstein’s definition of “insanity”—doing the same thing again, and again, despite the miserable results.  For more than 30 years, unconditional negotiations with this Iranian regime have yielded nothing but defiance.  Simultaneously, the Obama Administration’s hostility to missile defense will make us more vulnerable to Iranian nuclear blackmail, which the Administration’s appeasement of the militant mullahs only encourages.

Although the Obama Administration does not want to admit it, the President has probably decided that, when push comes to shove, permitting Iran to acquire nuclear weapons is a lesser evil than regime change and the preemptive use of force.  President Obama is wrong.  A nuclear Iran will trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will amplify the potential cost and risk of war.  The Saudis and Egyptians will inevitably choose to go nuclear if Shiite Iran attains that capability.  In desperation and threatened with a second Holocaust, Israel may resort to preemptive attacks on Iran’s program—with much greater risk and much smaller chance of success—than had the United States done it in the first place.  Senator John McCain was right, as he almost always is on questions of national security, when he said this: “There is only one thing worse than the US exercising a military option, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.” 

President Obama’s policy toward the Arab-Israeli dispute is another demonstration of Einstein’s definition of insanity.  His Administration believes that the Arab-Israeli dispute is the source, rather than the symptom, of the strife that besets the Middle East.  Conversely, President Bush recognized that the road to stability in the Middle East lies mainly in promoting democratic regime change that addresses the root cause of the danger: the culture of conspiracy and oppression that spawns radical, implacably aggressive despotisms such as Saddam Hussein’s regime, the militant mullahs in Tehran, and the PLO.

Here, finally, is some good news.  The United States remains so powerful that even President Obama’s administration cannot squander the benefits of American primacy in a mere four years, or even eight.  Nevertheless, the Obama Administration’s misguided economic and national security strategies threaten to erode that primacy dangerously and substantially.  President Obama is a true believer in what former UN Ambassador John Bolton calls the first post-American Presidency.  The President strives to make the United States look more like the EU and the UN rather than to champion American exceptionalism.  It will take an election—perhaps a series of elections—to reverse this perilous course.  

Here is another prediction: When in 2012 the next Republican Presidential nominee poses the Reaganesque question of whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the answer will be a resounding “No”—economically, politically, internationally, and militarily.  That will be because of what the Obama Administration has wrought. 

This Administration is the Carter Administration on steroids.  Things will get worse before they get better.  Meanwhile, Republicans must stand on principle, the way Winston Churchill did during the 1930s and Ronald Reagan did during the 1970s.  Then, the American people will have a clear, consistent, and compelling alternative when the political environment changes for the better.  So do not despair.   We shall overcome.

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