Commentators have devoted lots of print comparing President Barack Obama to other presidents. Those with charitable views compare him to Eisenhower, Reagan, and FDR; those with critical assessments compare him to Carter and Hoover. But on foreign policy, let’s judge the president by placing his record against his own measuring stick. In 2008, Obama delivered speeches in Berlin, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina that laid out his foreign-policy vision. Almost eight years later, the chasm between the record and the rhetoric is too great to ignore.
In 2008, Obama said he was committed to “ending the war in Iraq responsibly”; criticized policymaking in Washington before the Iraq War, when “ideology overrode pragmatism”; called for the creation of “a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy”; and declared, “True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government…that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat, which has been beaten back by our troops, does not reemerge.”
By every metric, the Iraq of 2008-09 was in better shape than the Iraq of 2006-07. That’s because the U.S. military’s “surge” had eviscerated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), persuaded insurgents to become part of the solution, stabilized Iraq’s politics, protected Iraq’s population centers, and rescued Iraq from civil war. But the consensus was that Iraq needed U.S. military support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge. As Frederick Kagan, an architect of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” It was a given that a new status of forces of agreement (SOFA) authorizing a follow-on U.S. force would be hammered out. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [then Iraq’s prime minister] will extend the SOFA,” Vice President Joe Biden predicted.
Maliki was willing to sign a new SOFA. But Obama demanded that the post-2011 SOFA be blessed by parliament rather than simply approved by Maliki, proposed a follow-on force of just 3,000, and threatened to withdraw all troops by the end of 2011—a timetable set by President George W. Bush, albeit with an important caveat: The Bush administration viewed those out-year plans as “aspirational goals” dependent on Iraq’s future security needs.
When Maliki balked, as Kagan reported, Obama went forward with the zero option “despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey confirmed this during Senate testimony: “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq.” In fact, Dempsey’s predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, urged the White House in mid-2011 to keep 16,000 troops in Iraq as an insurance policy to protect the hard-earned gains of the surge. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. James Mattis (CENTCOM commander), and Gen. Austin (commander of U.S. Forces Iraq) agreed.
But Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. Hence, there was nothing surprising about his decision to withdraw from Iraq. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the results: In October 2011, Iraqi officials warned, “Our forces are good but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone.” In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan cautioned, “Without all the enablers we provide, there’s no doubt there will be less capability than there is right now,” adding that jihadist groups “could regenerate.” That same year, the remnants of AQI “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported. In 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared independence from al Qaeda, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk predicted that ISIS aimed to “carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.” And here we are.
As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” That’s the very definition of ideology overriding pragmatism.
In 2008, noting that “the Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan” and “al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan,” Obama said he was committed to “finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.” He declared, “The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring.”
Yet when U.S. ground commanders requested 40,000-50,000 troops for the Afghanistan surge, he tortuously explained, “It is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before adding, in the same breath, “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the enemy know when the U.S. military would end its offensive made victory impossible to achieve. But according to Gates, victory wasn’t Obama’s goal. “For him,” as Gates explained, “it’s all about getting out.”
The 2011 takedown of Osama bin Laden cleared a pathway to the exit. Obama began talking about “the tide of war…receding,” declared “core al Qaeda…on the path to defeat” and ordered a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. But he misread the bin Laden strike as a strategic rather than a tactical victory. Consider: There are 41 jihadist groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.” ISIS controls 30,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Nigeria. On the very week the president declared ISIS “contained,” it launched large-scale attacks in Paris and Beirut. The Taliban controls more of Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001, and U.S. forces recently conducted an operation against al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. So much for “finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
In 2008, Obama declared, “We cannot tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of nations that support terror…the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior…We will present a clear choice: If you abandon your nuclear program, support for terror and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives. If you refuse, then we will ratchet up the pressure.” Given that standard, 2015 marked a wholesale capitulation.
First, the president’s nuclear deal allows Iran to remain a threshold nuclear power. As former Obama advisor Dennis Ross explains, “The Iranians are not required to dismantle their enrichment infrastructure…and will be permitted to build as large an industrial nuclear program as they want after year 15.” Adds Sen. Bob Menendez: “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.”
Second, Tehran continues to export terror; support Assad, Hezbollah, and Hamas; bankroll insurgencies in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia; and wage proxy war against the U.S.
Third, far from ceasing threats to Israel, Tehran has been emboldened by the nuclear deal. During the negotiations, Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei proposed a nine-step plan to “eliminate” Israel. After the deal, he predicted that Israel will cease to exist within 25 years.
In 2008, Obama committed to “rebuilding our alliances,” adding: “America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners.” That was a rhetorical reach. After all, America’s alliances with key partners in Britain, Europe, and Asia were strong when Bush left office. Moreover, the coalition in Afghanistan included 39 nations during the Bush administration; 37 nations contributed 150,000 troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In fact, Obama is leaving a fractured alliance system in his wake.
When NATO intervened in Libya, the allies expected leadership from Washington. What they got was Washington’s insistence that America would play only a “supporting role” and a stunning declaration at one point that access to U.S. airpower “expires on Monday.”
When France requested air support in Mali, Washington sent Paris an invoice. When the Obama administration offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British territory of Bermuda, Washington failed to consult Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared. When Obama pulled the plug on NATO’s missile-defense plans in Europe, he did so “without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner,” historian George Weigel recalls. A Polish official called the decision “catastrophic.”
“Our allies feel abandoned,” reports Gen. Michael Flynn, former DIA director. “There is a significant loss of trust in the U.S. government.”
In 2008, Obama vowed “to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines.”
Yet Marine Corps endstrength will soon fall to 182,000 (from 202,000). Army active-duty endstrength has been slashed from a post-9/11 high of 570,000, to 490,000, headed for 450,000. And there’s more (or less) to come: Sequestration, initiated by the Obama administration, has guillotined defense spending from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009, to 3.2 percent today, headed for just 2.8 percent.
The consequence of a military with fewer resources is an America with a shorter reach and smaller role. That was not Candidate Obama’s stated goal. “America cannot turn inward,” he intoned in 2008. Yet that’s what has happened under President Obama.
When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 election, Obama responded to the “Twitter Revolution” by averting his gaze. Protestors chanted, “Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?” The irony is that President Obama’s ambivalence answered Candidate Obama’s question: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?”
When Assad used WMDs, Obama deferred to Congress. When Iraq began to hemorrhage, he dismissed ISIS as a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.” When Ukraine asked for weapons to defend itself, he sent MREs. Throughout, the president and his staff defended his lead-from-behind foreign policy by repeating the mantra “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
This shift away from engagement was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy swung back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. But with China poaching international waters, ISIS striking Europe and marauding the Middle East, Russia annexing sovereign neighbors, and America’s partners begging for help, even the president’s allies concede the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Secretary of State John Kerry warns, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adds, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” That much is obvious as Obama’s presidency limps to a close. More at ASCF.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence journal’s daily blog.
Photo Credit: Speaking about U.S. operations in Iraq, President Barack Obama tapes the Weekly Address in the State Dining Room of the White House, Aug. 8, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)