The Obama administration is playing an impossible game of catch-up. Having degraded America’s defenses and alliances, deemphasized America’s democratic principles and priorities, and delayed taking responsibility, it finds itself in a world so dangerous and hostile that it has no choice but to respond. With the world, in former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s own words, “exploding all over,” the administration has been reassessing its policies of retrenchment. But the return to deterrence is flawed, for the ends are muddled; the means are inadequate; and the will is hardly there.
It’s one thing to reemphasize national security while resolving to do what it takes. It’s another to do so in incremental and equivocal fashion. It’s one thing to increase military aid to NATO and other defense organizations with the clear goal of defending the free world. It’s another to support NATO countries while “partnering” with the very powers that threaten them, and obstructing NATO membership for countries that are threatened the most. It’s one thing to send more troops and artillery to Syria and Iraq. It’s another to do so while enabling the Syrian, Russian and Iranian regimes, imposing prohibitive rules of engagement on the war with ISIS, and defining that war in ways that alienate Muslim moderates and Christians. It’s one thing to rebalance toward Asia in order to offset Chinese aggression. It’s another to do so while downplaying the horrors of communist-totalitarian North Korea, and insufficiently “rebuilding” with Asian allies. It’s one thing to stress intolerance of WMD proliferation. It’s another to do so while pushing an indulgent interpretation of a generous nuclear deal with Iran, and ignoring the recommendations of generals for additional missile defenses against North Korea.
Serious deterrence doesn’t cohere with the Obama foreign policy team’s worldview. In that view, the United States historically placed too much emphasis on its own democratic principles and way of life, failed to accommodate other cultures and political systems, and was “arrogant” in the use of power. Indeed, the United States over-emphasized power itself, pouring too much money into military defense, military alliances, and nuclear weapons; a country as powerful as ours had the luxury of taking the unilateral lead in disarmament. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a “reset” in relations with potential enemies, for downplaying differences between democracies and non-democratic states, and for embracing diplomacy, engagement and compromise as the best tools for dealing with extreme regimes such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran. They envisioned a “smarter” foreign policy that would see the United States as one power among many, and that would rely more on international institutions for direction. They found “common interests” with adversaries, and showed willingness to overlook their abysmal human rights records in order to do so.
In thereby advocating a retraction and softening of American power and democratic leadership, Obama officials drew upon the American public’s own war-weary preconceptions. Since the Iraq War, many, if not most, Americans have succumbed to the either-or assumption that either we refrain from an active foreign policy or we’ll end up with “boots on the ground.” They recoil from attempts to influence events and ideas in dangerous parts of the world, fearing that influence will translate into military involvement. Yet, World War II taught that war is even more likely when democratic nations bury their heads in the sand and retreat from the world stage. Scaling down defenses and doing nothing to defend democratic principles allows the escalation of atrocities, weapons programs, and hostilities, and only increases the chance that we’ll be forced into war by events spiraling out of control. The United States incorporated this lesson into successful Cold War policies, vowing “never again” to be morally and strategically complacent.
With wars, violence, atrocities and global instability approaching a new tipping point, we seem unwilling, however, to learn the lesson again. Yes, the Obama administration is reassessing some of its patterns of retrenchment, but it is doing so with inadequate means and skewed priorities. Acts of strength are offset by displays of weakness. Attempts to reassure America’s allies are offset by prevarication. The operative word is “some.” The Obama administration is making some adjustments to its foreign policy approach, but not enough to deal with the challenges we face.
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Let’s start with Iraq, the primary reference point for President Obama’s opposition to “boots on the ground.” The Iraq of 2010 was in what General James Mattis has called a “post-combat, pre-reconciliation phase” brought on by the surge and increasingly successful attempts to appeal to hearts and minds and ease sectarian tensions. (Even those who disagree concede that great progress had been made.) Yet Obama made minimal effort to maintain American influence after the precipitous decision to withdraw forces from Iraq and the related failure to forge a “status of forces” agreement. In announcing the end of combat operations on August 31, 2010, he stressed the finality and totality of the withdrawal, saying: “So tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country. … This completes a transition to Iraq of responsibility for their own security.” (italics mine) Is it surprising that the Iraqi government has, since then, so often succumbed to Iranian demands? Is it any wonder that al-Qaeda, and now Islamic State, have made such gains?
Those gains are forcing the Obama administration to rethink its withdrawal …somewhat. The United States has been deploying limited, but increasing, numbers of troops with the aim of crippling Islamic State’s ability to export terror and drag Iraq and Syria further into the abyss. Obama claims he has not resorted to “boots on the ground” and that U.S. troops are not in “combat roles,” but, as others have pointed out, it’s hard to describe the increased U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq any other way. There are up to 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with more heading there. The battle to wrest Fallujah from ISIS has begun, with U.S. troops and advisors seen near the front lines. (Unfortunately for civilians trapped in or fleeing Fallujah, dreaded Iranian-led Shiite militias are on the front lines as well.) In preparation for the delayed offensive to retake Mosul, the U.S. is sending more trainers, and apache helicopters and rocket systems. The number of military “personnel,” including special forces, is being increased (by 250) in Syria as well; their main mission is training Arab fighters. Predominantly Kurdish U.S.-backed militias are reported to have captured villages near the strategically important Turkish border.
President Obama now says defeating ISIS is his number one priority. But, repeated congressional testimony of generals indicates that these troop increases will be inadequate for the monumental task. Retired General Jack Keane, has advocated “large scale” special ops raids into safe havens and has said “the numbers are inadequate” to retake Mosul. General Raymond R. Odierno, who had argued for leaving 20,000 troops in Iraq, says that it will take a coalition of about 50,000 troops to defeat Islamic State. Although most agree that U.S. troops should play a supportive role, with Arab troops taking the lead, the task of building a coalition is hindered by the Obama administration’s persistent enabling of Russia and Iran, and thereby of the detested Syrian regime.
Still, you won’t find military leaders saying ISIS can be defeated through force alone. To the contrary, General Keane said in a House Foreign Relations hearing I attended, “First defeat the idea….Second destroy the safe havens….Third partner with allies.” Of the successful Iraqi surge he orchestrated, General David Petraeus says, “I have often noted that the surge that mattered most was not the surge of forces. It was the surge of ideas, which guided the strategy that ultimately reduced violence in the country so substantially.” Deterrence cannot be all about defensive weapons and alliances, but as Cold War Presidents from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan understood, also about the projection of democratic ideals and support for democratic institutions. With the propaganda machines of ISIS, Putin’s Russia, Khameini’s Iran and Assad’s Syria in full throttle, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce’s proposals for reinvigoration of Voice of America-type programs deserve full support.
Secretary of State John Kerry now touts the administration’s “social media initiatives that counter Daesh’s narrative.” But countering ISIS propaganda while cooperating with and enabling Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers is an exercise in futility. Working with Iran and Russia to address Middle Eastern problems and fight ISIS has already proven a sure way to alienate Middle Eastern moderates and traditional partners. It also provides noxious ammunition to terrorists; Islamic State wins recruits by positioning itself as the only viable alternative to the brutal Syrian regime. How can we expect to increase stability and security in the Levant when we, in effect, ask the Syrian people to coexist with a regime that tortures, bombs, gasses and starves them? If efforts to defeat Islamic State and al Qaeda in Iraq do not address the way the al Malaki government colludes with ruthless Iranian-backed Shiite militias, that effort, too, is deeply flawed.
Although the President occasionally highlights the brutality and aggression of Islamic State, he still whitewashes the brutality and aggression of established states Syria, Russia and Iran, and still ignores the need for grand strategy to deal with them. When nation-states escalate weapons programs, enact egregious human rights violations, foment regional chaos and war, and plot against the United States and its allies, history tells us to take it seriously. Iran’s sponsorship of terror groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere; its uncompromising pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; its regional adventurism and worsening human rights violations, should make containing Iran and stopping its nuclear program an American foreign policy priority. Assad’s reign of terror on the Syrian people; the opportunities for “bad actors” the Syrian cataclysm provides; the Syrian regime’s use of WMD and unrepentant enactment of some the worst atrocities the world has ever seen, should make finding an end to the Assad regime an American foreign policy priority. Russia’s staunch support of Syria and Iran; its ruthless aggression in Ukraine and Syria; and its expansionist designs in Eurasia and elsewhere, should make containing Russia an American foreign policy priority.
Instead, much of the White House plan for combating ISIS plays right into Syrian, Iranian and Russian hands, for it revolves around their plans—which include legitimizing Russian-sponsored “peace conferences” that buy Assad time and raise Putin’s stature, and handing Iran the lead in Iraq. Notably, Kerry didn’t stop coordinating with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after Russia initiated air and land assaults that targeted anti-Assad rebels and civilians, instead of ISIS. Kerry’s announcement, in the face of yet another failed “Geneva peace process,” that (aggressor) Russia and the United States had “agreed to coordinate new steps toward resolution of the conflict” speaks for itself. So too do Obama’s earlier statements that the United States needs to respect Iran’s “equities” in Syria, and that it is important for Iran to be “part of the conversation.” The by-default deferral to Iran in Iraq has led to the twisted nature of the battle in Iraq, in which Iraqis escaping ISIS often find themselves at the mercy of brutal IRGC militias.
This continuing collusion with Russia and enabling of Iran serves as a reminder that the Obama administration’s return to deterrence is compromised not only by incrementalism, but by the lack of a moral and strategic compass. Its steps in Syria are not just too little, too late; they are misguided. Obama’s silence on Assad’s atrocities and on ISIS’s genocidal assault on Christians and Yazidis leaves a moral deficit as damaging as the power deficit. Jihadist forces from ISIS to al Nusra to al Qaeda to Iranian Quds have capitalized on the vacuum created by the unwillingness of the United States and the “international community” to adopt promising humanitarian and strategic measures. And they will continue do so. Moreover, deference to Russia on Syrian matters, inevitably, weakens the credibility of new attempts to deter Russian aggression elsewhere.
Putin’s ambitions are expansive; therefore, latent deterrence measures must be adequate. In addition to assaulting Ukraine and Syria, Russia has pressured Bosnia, Moldova, Macedonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Montenegro; inserted intelligence officers in the Czech Republic and elsewhere; repeatedly violated Baltic airspace with Russian warplanes; and exploited divisions and economic vulnerability in Central Europe. Whether with petrodollars and threats of withholding Russian natural gas and oil, or with provocative military exercises and war planning, Putin’s Russia has demonstrated renewed desire for a sphere of influence. Among other countries beset by Russia’s divide and conquer tactics are Azerbaijan and Armenia, where the Russian military presence continues to grow, with an aim to weaponizing transportation corridors. Russia has also enhanced its military relationship with Iran, supplying that country with fighter jets, ballistic rockets and an advanced missile defense system.
President Obama had hoped that if the United States sought friendship and got over its Cold War mentality, Russia would cooperate with the United States and get over its Cold War mentality. Still nostalgic for that theory, the administration’s strengthening response to Russian aggression has been dilatory and piecemeal. In 2014, the United States sent F-22 fighters to the Black Sea to reassure allies unnerved by Russian military maneuvers and provocations. This year, it backed the “European Reassurance Initiative,” a 3.4 billion effort to increase the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, 1 billion of which will go towards an Armored Brigade Combat team. NATO has signaled support for a regular naval presence in the Black Sea, and has announced a plan to deploy 4,000 additional troops to Poland and the Baltic states. Yet, the administration has declined to implement House Armed Service Committee proposals that would sanction Russia for violations of the Treaty on Open Skies, and the Intermediate-Range Forces treaty. Similarly, it has declined to pressure countries such as Spain that supply Russia with military support. Although the United States reportedly “angered” Russia with its recent activation of a Romanian missile defense site, American and NATO officials stipulated that there will be no “Cold War-style build up” and no “heavy divisions” in Europe.
Further allaying the show of resolve, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute preemptively announced that there will be no NATO expansion “for years or even longer.” His explanation for the decision reveals the desire to offset “reassuring” moves toward allies with reassurances to Russia. “Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment and the strategic environment will put a brake on NATO expansion. … If you accept the premises…about Russia’s internal weakness and perhaps steady decline, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline. … There’s no way we’re going to get consensus any time in the near future on adding…Georgia or Ukraine.” More revealing still is Chuck Hagel’s recent warning that, in order to avoid a “Cold War style build-up,” the next United States leader must “swallow their pride,” “sit down” and engage in “dialogue” with Russia regarding “what you need, what we need.” As if that approach hadn’t been tried!
Although Russia does have economic, demographic, political and military vulnerabilities, and the United States does have leverage, America’s abridged version of deterrence make Putin’s goals, and those of other adversaries, more achievable. The United States is not expected to use its authority, granted under UN Security Council resolutions related to the nuclear agreement, to block a new multi-billion dollar weapons deal between Iran and Russia. In spite of Congressional objections to generous interpretations of a deal that already leaves Iran awash in cash with which it can further its campaign for Middle Eastern dominance, increase its sponsorship of terror, crush dissent at home, and reinforce Assad’s and Putin’s game plan in Syria, Kerry’s State Department has indicated that more sanctions relief is on the agenda, and continues to urge European banks to do business with Iran.
Further belying increased deterrence efforts, U.S. and EU leaders continue to commend and rely on the Minsk ceasefire accords even though Putin has simply disregarded them. Putin has reason to believe that the costs for failing to comply will continue to be minimal. While Europe and the United States squandered leverage with Europe’s effective disarmament, and America’s withdrawal of assets from Europe and drawdown of Missile Defense, Putin was launching a ten-year military modernization program and increasing pressure along NATO’s periphery. As Andrew Michta asserted in The American Interest, “Putin expects to break the allied ability to mount a unified response in a crisis, to force the lifting of economic sanctions, and ultimately to bring key European states into an accommodation with Russia on his terms.”
NATO’s departing Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, warned that the United States has too few intelligence assets focused on the threat from Russia, and should concentrate its technical abilities on Moscow’s “growing military might.” Upon taking command, the new Supreme Allied Commander, General Curtis Scaparrotti stressed the “aggressive behavior” of “resurgent Russia,” and said NATO’s forces must be “ready to fight should deterrence fail.”
But, you won’t find Obama officials espousing such a robust definition of deterrence. The administration’s late second-term reassessment of six years of cuts in defense spending (amounting to a 25% reduction) has been limited by continuing ambivalence and by the president’s continuing insistence on a sequestration agreement that requires that every dollar spent on defense be matched with domestic spending. In 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a plan to save money by calling for a smaller army, changes in pay, and the elimination of some valuable aircraft, weapons and bases. This in spite of the fact that General Odiorno had warned that the 450,000 troop level would be “too small” and at “high risk to meet one major war.” In light of growing security risks around the world, the administration presented an FY 2016 budget that significantly reversed some of those cuts. Still, General Martin Dempsey warned that the budget request was at the “lower ragged edge of manageable risk.” House lawmakers just passed a defense authorization bill that calls for a bigger army and a military pay raise to address “unmet military needs.” But President Obama has threatened to veto the measure.
America is still inadequately preparing for metastasizing threats. The FY 2017 budget request provides roughly 18 billion less in base funding, and reduces investments in modernization. Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute warns that, on the current trajectory, the U.S. Navy could be down to fewer than 200 ships by 2030, and has delineated “real consequences for America as a great power.” In an April 2016 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on tactical air and land forces, Representative Mike Turner (OH) observed that forces continue to do more with less in spite of grave new security challenges and missions. In another April 2016 hearing, on Missile Defense, Turner questioned why Pentagon official Brian McKeon would say “We don’t need it now” regarding advanced missile defenses in Hawaii when North Korea is miniaturizing nuclear weapons that can reach our homeland, and are hard to detect. The response to Iran’s recent test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile in defiance of UN resolutions was similarly reductive, with the Pentagon Press Secretary saying that “if they have violated or not been consistent with those resolutions, that would clearly be a concern to us.”
With the United States often enabling Russia, Syria and Iran, projecting only lukewarm support for allies, and allocating few resources to military modernization, allies are looking elsewhere for support. Headlines alone signal this dynamic: “America’s Policies are Failing its Regional allies.” “Russia and China rush to fill Mideast void left by Obama.” “Salman Doctrine is Best Option.” “Abe, a U.S. Ally, Seeks Russian Friendship,” “Why Middle East Leaders are Talking to Putin, Not Obama.” “New Momentum for India-Russia Relations?” Attempts to “reassure” allies won’t work until the United States demonstrates resolve and unequivocal commitment to a peaceful, stable world order where respect for individual liberties, territorial sovereignty and the rule of law is the norm, not the exception.
Thus, it isn’t just that the Obama administration’s return to deterrence is inadequate and incremental. It’s that it is not clearly focused on the biggest threats and the right priorities. The absence of grand strategy and moral clarity mean that the United States is a paper tiger, all too easily diminished and deceived.
Anne R. Pierce, Ph.D. is the author of A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry (available for pre-order) and other works. For more information see www.annerpierce.com. Twitter: @AnneRPierce.
Photo Credit: Marine MV-22B Ospreys from Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa departed Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, Romania, with a platoon of Marines from the Black Sea Rotational Force to support a multilateral training exercise during Platinum Eagle 15, May 26, 2015. The Ospreys left Morón Air Base, Spain, earlier in the week, and arrived to work with their allies from the Bulgarian and Romanian armed forces.