Obama's timidity risks the world's security

Barack Obama's Stakhanovite efforts to transform America's economy and society into something akin to European-style social democracy are undergoing considerable analysis and debate, especially as the 2012 campaign steams towards November. Most presidential re-election contests are referenda on the incumbent, and this year will be no exception, despite Obama's obvious strategy to focus on almost anything but his actual record. His "spread the wealth around" slogan, industrial policy that showers favorites with subsidies and loan guarantees, turning major car manufacturers over to union ownership, and taxing the rich as if they were miscreants, all resemble the paradigm of most current or aspiring European Union members.

But Obama's driving ideology, whether he wins or loses on November 6, has already had enormous implications for the US role in the world and the very structure of the international order. By reducing not only the visibility of America's global presence, but also its military capabilities, and by shifting the federal budget even further from national security to social welfare programs, Obama has also sought to transform the United States into Europe. Of course, the obvious question is what happens once Washington's protective shield is diminished to the point of feebleness. It was one thing for European and other industrial democracies to be free riders under the sheltering US nuclear umbrella, its strong naval forces, and its essentially global force projection capabilities. But when the only superpower doffs its cape and Lycra uniform, packs them up in the telephone booth, and becomes just another mild-mannered suit, who will then shield those free riders, not to mention a much weakened United States itself?

Obama sees American strength as provocative. He believes its nuclear arsenal is excessive, and hence worthy of reduction, without fearing in any way that shredding the nuclear deterrent might actually have profoundly deleterious consequences not only on US national security, but on security and stability in the world as a whole. He sees his presidency causing "the tide of war" to recede in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, just as his tenure will mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow". Dramatic reductions in military budgets, and the consequent devastating reductions in force levels, capabilities and weapons systems, apparently do not trouble him even slightly.  

Indeed, in purely political terms, Obama's most amazing successes have come in his evisceration of the US defence budget, something no one predicted at his 2009 inauguration. His massive stimulus package, which funded spending wish lists that ambitious bureaucrats, special interests and members of Congress had long kept hidden in their desk drawers, contained essentially no net increase in defence funding. At a time when Obama was thundering about jobs and "shovel-ready projects", precious little of either of which the stimulus actually delivered, national defence had ample prospects for both. Instead, the military was starved.  

Then, even more remarkably, as increased federal spending on virtually all non-defence programmes remained the hallmark of Obama fiscal policy, defence budgets began suffering further enormous hits. If in the 2008 campaign Obama had openly proposed military spending reductions of the magnitude now being contemplated, Republican opposition would have been full-throated. Instead, after the Tea Party successes in the 2010 congressional elections, Obama used the cover of reducing expenditures, deficits and taxes generally to outwit and out-negotiate Republicans into military spending cuts that even his own Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, finds unacceptable. 

Obama's policies and debilitating budget cuts reflect the views of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the nature of the threats that America and its allies will face in the near future. Proving yet again that generals tend to fight the last war, Gates and his aides concluded from Afghanistan and Iraq that future wars would most likely be counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist scenarios. No more Cold War-era spectres of Soviet-armoured thrusts through the Fulda Gap and over the northern European plains, or World War II-style armadas clashing at sea.  

That future means de-emphasising "heavy" fighting requirements like armour, artillery and large infantry formations, as well as high-firepower air and naval platforms. Instead, stand-off weapons and assets like cruise missiles and drones, and light, quick special operations forces will be the new norm. Of course, this restructuring of the force also conveniently conforms to the smaller, less visible, less "aggressive" US military posture that suits the Obama Weltanschauung, so Gates was seamlessly kept on to serve in his Administration.

Unfortunately, virtually all of this, from the broad vision to the tactical details, is profoundly mistaken. Like the erroneous idea that the Cold War's end would bring a "peace dividend" that could be "spent" on domestic programmes without adverse security consequences, the idea that a second radical downsizing of US capabilities will avoid political and military effects is pernicious. Although Obama and his acolytes may want to escape unpleasant reality, force remains critical to national security. Using it, threatening to use it, being prepared to use it, or simply having it remain the sine qua non for a superpower with global interests, friends and allies. Obama might have been excused in his days in faculty lounges and the Illinois legislature for not grasping this correlation, but it is truly remarkable he has spent nearly three and a half years as President and still doesn't understand it.

His response, of course, is to take credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, and rescuing Western hostages from Somali pirates. To be sure, these are notable accomplishments, deserving due respect, but they hardly represent a coherent Obama policy. As with Guantánamo Bay's still flourishing terrorist prisoner camp, renditions, and assassinations even of US-citizen terrorists (such as Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen), blunt reality has forced remarkably out-of-character accommodations on the Obama Administration. Simply acknowledging the real world, however, does not constitute an adequate national security strategy, however politically helpful it may be for domestic American politics.

As with any politician, however, the reverse is also true: Obama can take credit for the successes on his watch, but he must also accept blame for the failures. And enormous failures there have been.  Prematurely declaring victory over al-Qaeda in particular and global terrorism in general will unquestionably haunt Obama, perhaps in November, and certainly in a second term. Iraq is verging on renewed sectarian strife, al-Qaeda terrorism and perhaps even dissolution because of Obama's ideological decision to withdraw all American combat forces by the end of last year. Similarly, in Afghanistan, Obama's insistence on ending combat operations in 2013 and removing US troops in 2014 has already had visibly negative consequences, both political and military. In February, for example, riots and killings across Afghanistan, purportedly caused by the burning of Korans, alone demonstrate how tenuous our position is. That the holy books had already been desecrated by captured terrorists using them to write messages to one another in Bagram prison, and that the US soldiers attempting to destroy the books did so mistakenly and not with malicious intent, was not sufficiently rational to prevent the outbursts.  

Moreover, there are larger failures with longer-range global consequences. Nuclear proliferation, exemplified by Iran and North Korea, is, by any metric, broadening and deepening, not diminishing. Other would-be great powers are stirring while America cuts back on its own capabilities. As long as global markets sustain high oil prices, for example, Russia will be modernising and expanding its conventional, nuclear and ballistic missile forces, and aggressively pursuing its political agenda in the former Soviet Union and Europe. Similarly, China's GNP growth allows the People's Liberation Army, itself a major economic actor, to increase and upgrade its conventional forces, enlarge and improve its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, and for the first time in centuries amass significant bluewater naval assets, both on and under the surface. 

These developments and others should have ignited a sweeping national debate on US foreign and defence policies, particularly during a presidential election campaign. But that has not happened.  While all the major Republican candidates (with the notable exception of Ron Paul) advocate a strong America, national security policy has been relegated to an essentially insignificant role. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in an early CNN debate among the Republican contenders, where the first national security question in a two-hour debate came only in the last 30 minutes, and only after the candidates had been asked their pizza preferences.

To be sure, Mitt Romney and others have proposed ambitious programmes to counteract the debilitating Obama agenda (full disclosure, I support Romney), stressing, for example, a re-emphasis on US national missile defence, and rebuilding the US Navy, which now has fewer ships at sea than at any point since 1916.  

Missile defence remains critically important to protect civilian populations from nuclear attacks via ballistic missiles by rogue states like Iran and North Korea. Guarding against attacks by relatively small numbers of incoming missiles was what George W. Bush had in mind in 2001 when he withdrew the US from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Bush was not pursuing Ronald Reagan's comprehensive missile defence shield, but one oriented instead to the strategic threats America and its allies faced after the Cold War. Outlaw states are asymmetric threats, unlike the Soviet Union, with which an exchange of nuclear salvoes could have extinguished civilisation. But recognising that Iran, for example, does not pose an existential threat to the US (although it might to smaller, nearby states like Israel) does not lessen its unacceptable risk. Nuclear weapons held by the rogues are best understood as weapons of terrorism, directed less against military targets than against innocent civilian populations. Rather than see Americans held hostage by religious fanatics or leaders with Hitler-in-the-bunker mentalities, a missile defence shield is entirely sensible.

Russia, at least in 2001, understood our thinking, and acquiesced quietly when Washington withdrew from the ABM treaty.  But many in Moscow never fully accepted Bush's rationale, believing the real plan was to allow America to make a first strike against Russia and have missile defences to blunt a Russian retaliatory "second strike". 

Such thinking was fanciful, but no less fanciful than Obama's. He never shed the Cold War arms-control theology's hostility to missile defence and a faith-based longing for ever-lower levels of deployed nuclear warheads. Obama conceded to Russia on both fronts, cancelling planned national missile-defence assets in Poland and the Czech Republic and agreeing to the New START treaty, which further decreased Russian and American deployed nuclear warheads. This was a revival of Cold War thinking that failed not only to deal with the threats posed by the rogue states, but also failed to account for China's growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, unlimited by any treaty.  

Not only is the need for missile defences against the rogue states more acute than when Bush extricated us from the ABM treaty, but future strategic threats may require a system closer to Reagan's original vision. The more rogue states there are (such as Pakistan falling to Islamic radicals, who would then control its substantial nuclear weapons arsenal), the greater the need for multiple layers of protection against overlapping or simultaneous threats. And it is not Cold War déjà vu to contemplate missile defence against a rearmed Russia, which has taken advantage of New START to modernise and improve its ageing nuclear and missile stockpiles, or China, increasingly emerging as a global strategic competitor and potential adversary.

China's future is opaque even for its own new generation of leaders. Will Beijing pursue a "peaceful rise" as a "responsible stakeholder" in world affairs as its Western admirers endlessly proclaim? Or will the PLA, the dominant voice in the still dominant Communist Party, continue exerting a disproportionate influence on China's policies? As noted above, the PLA has launched a substantial upgrading and expansion of its conventional and nuclear forces, but there is even more under way. The PLA is emphasising "anti-access" and "area denial" weapons systems to deny US naval mobility in the seas around China; it has perhaps the most advanced cyberwarfare capabilities on the planet;  and its war-fighting plans in space look formidable.  

Complementing these military strengths, Beijing's political posture is increasingly aggressive, evidenced by its audacious territorial claims to islands and reefs in the South and East China Seas, and its rhetoric about Taiwan. At the United Nations, its recent double veto (with Russia) of a resolution condemning the Assad regime's repression in Syria shows China stepping out from the shadows to defend its economic and political interests more assertively. These developments pose the question whether China's "peaceful rise" is simply a ruse, to be discarded when its military muscle matches its economic heft. At a minimum, US observers wonder whether our Western Pacific naval forces will have to be substantially greater than at present to dissuade China from even greater territorial and political aspirations. So doing, however, is simply impossible today, given the inadequate state of the fleet and the prospects ahead under Obama's budgets, sadly just when China's neighbours from Japan to ASEAN to India are nervously eyeing Beijing's every move. 

In fact, the debates over missile defence and naval capabilities highlight the critical error in Gates's view that the most likely scenarios ahead are terrorism and guerrilla warfare. No one, of course, disputes the reality of these threats and the need to prepare for them. Indeed, even before 9/11, and before the Afghan and Iraq wars diverted and consumed the Bush Administration's attention, this reality was fundamental for much of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's strategy to change the Pentagon. And learning the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing global war on terror, whose name Obama dare not pronounce, must be a high priority for any new Republican President.

But it is badly mistaken to conclude that terrorism or guerrilla wars are essentially the only risks ahead. Unfortunately, the most likely future is one where we will face threats across the full spectrum of potential enemies and conflicts. We are in not a time of certainty, as implied by Gates's analysis, but a time of radical uncertainty. 

The dangers range from lone-wolf terrorists all the way to the return of strategic confrontation globally with the likes of China, Russia and possibly others. In such a time of uncertainty, we need more capabilities, more options and more flexible responses for the President and his top policymakers, not fewer. That is the global reality, meaning, inevitably, even higher budgetary expenditures than required simply to restore the drastic Obama Administration cuts (removing from the expenditure baseline, for comparative purposes, amounts spent on Iraq and Afghanistan). Romney has vigorously campaigned for such an approach, but any post-Obama President will have difficulty, given the rubble left by Obama's cuts and his extraordinary domestic expenditure increases.  

In these circumstances, therefore, we should remember what we once took for granted but seem to have forgotten, namely the purposes actually served by force and the capability to use force.  George W. Bush's Administration described these purposes in strategy documents and speeches by the President and others, but they have subsequently disappeared in the fog of partisan warfare.  These analyses were well-reasoned and well-argued, but ironically not terribly new, innovative or controversial in days of yore. The eclipse of the Bush Administration outlook shows how far we have fallen, and the extent of the basic intellectual repair work that is needed. Considering how basic the Cold War doctrine of "peace through strength" once was, this constitutes a Recessional of the worst sort.

And the purposes of force? The first and most important is "dissuasion," often confused with its cousin, deterrence. Dissuasion implies convincing other states (or non-state actors) not even to think about challenging the US by developing new weapons capabilities, force levels or strategies. We often hear blithe comments that America's defence budget exceeds all other defence budgets in the world combined, implying ours is far too large. Leaving aside the honesty and transparency of other countries' budget presentations, the currency exchange rates/purchasing-power-parity issue, military salaries and other factors that tend to "overstate" US expenditures, why shouldn't the world's arsenal of democracy possess capabilities that shape others' thinking politically as well as militarily? That is clearly the best way to avoid war.

The next purpose is deterrence, which involves convincing those states or coalitions with significant capabilities that actually attempting to employ these assets will result in their destruction and defeat. Unfortunately, Western deterrence concepts are not meaningful or even rational to terrorists and regimes like Iran. Religious extremists who value life in the hereafter more than life on earth are unlikely to be deterred as Moscow's Cold War atheists were, reluctant to toss away their one turn at life. This gaping hole in the deterrence concept requires different strategies against adversaries that are not "rational actors" as we have heretofore understood that term, especially those new threats relying on asymmetric capabilities like terrorism with weapons of mass destruction.

Thus we arrive inevitably at  the issue of pre-emptive or preventative military strikes in self-defence, concepts that are also cousins, not synonyms. In both, however, a nation considering using force before actual military hostilities have commenced against it must be able to justify so doing, morally and politically. The aftermath of the war overthrowing Saddam Hussein has undoubtedly made such self-defence strategies politically less appealing for some, but the underlying logic remains unchanged. Franklin Roosevelt put it well in a fireside chat shortly before Pearl Harbor, justifying his order for US naval vessels to fire first on German ships and U-boats in the North Atlantic: "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him." 

Chillingly, that fireside chat was on September 11, 1941. Roosevelt also observed, "It is no act of war on our part when we decide to protect the seas that are vital to American defence. The aggression is not ours. Ours is solely defence."

 Exactly the same logic applies to regimes or terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction or otherwise poised for aggression. The physical challenges are different, but the risks are obviously even more acute than for Roosevelt because of the far greater destructive power of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. But if clearing the North Atlantic of hostile vessels was central to US defences prior to World War II, keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of rogue states is undeniably vital today.  

The clear case in point is Iran. Tehran's nuclear weapons programme is unquestionably on the verge of achieving its decades-long quest, being only a year away by Obama Defense Secretary Panetta's estimate, and even earlier in many scenarios. For years, Washington has said that an Iranian nuclear weapon is "unacceptable", but we have then repeatedly proceeded to accept it. Diplomacy and sanctions have failed. Obama's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified in January: "The sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behaviour or their policy." While Obama clearly has neither the interest nor the spine to take pre-emptive military action against Iran, there is far less doubt Israel would. Twice before confronted with nuclear weapons programmes in hostile states (Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007), Israel has struck decisively before weaponisation was achieved. 

Whether Israel will do the same to Iran is still unknown, although Prime Minister Netanyahu has certainly made it clear he won't be giving Obama a "heads up" before it happens. What the US should do is assist an Israeli attack with intelligence and logistical support, including immediate transfers of new fighter-bombers, aerial refuelling tankers and additional bunker-busting bombs. Doubtless, however, despite its newly muscular rhetoric, the Obama Administration is doing the exact opposite, still desperately hoping to pressure or cajole Israel into not striking. 

Nonetheless, in an era of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ICBMs in the hands of rogue states and terrorists, pre-emption is an entirely legitimate form of self defence. It should figure prominently in American military planning in the years ahead, whatever Israel does on Iran.

Here is the most important conclusion: America should never again be in a fair fight. The best wars, of course, are those that are never fought. That objective itself argues for an overwhelming preponderance of US and allied forces in the world. And when war is fought, Clausewitz never deviated from the imperative of decisively defeating the enemy's military capability. Nor should we. Finding the Schwerpunkt and determining the "culminating point of victory" are, I concede, not entirely scientific, but they are readily understandable.  

In 2009 Obama said: "I'm always worried about using the word ‘victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur." Of course, it wasn't Hirohito who surrendered on the Missouri's stout deck, but the revelation of Obama's mindset is telling. Conceptually, a world of no victories may warm the hearts of social democrats, but it is insufficient for the defence of America. Nonetheless, November may well tell us, in more ways than one, whether America will remain America, or whether it has become better suited to being a junior member of the European Union.

John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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John R.
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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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