The Courage of Obama's Convictions
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over the past two years, I have been generally supportive of the Obama Administration's foreign policy, with the notable exception of Afghanistan policy. But I think Spencer Ackerman has a very smart post that makes one of the most coherent and stinging criticisms of how President Obama approach to foreign policy and national security over the past two years:
In both cases [closing Guantamao and the war in Libya], the Obama team dedicates what it considers a calibrated amount of effort to achieve a goal that it publicly states is vital. Why the calibration? To avert arousing political headwinds that can thwart the goal; and undo other aspects of its agenda . . .
The undercurrent running through both - at least somewhat - is fear. Obamaaccommodates himself to the politics of fear instead of confronting them.
I think this is spot-on, but actually it doesn't go far enough. Spencer has picked up on a pattern of White House behavior, particularly in regard to contentious and politically potent issues. Indeed, if there is one disturbing characteristic of President Obama's foreign policy to date it is, quite simply, that the President is far too easily diverted from his stated goals and foreign policy convictions because of political opposition.
On multiple issues, from Afghanistan and Gitmo to Libya and the Middle East peace process, Obama has laid out a policy, either publicly or privately, and then steadily backed away from it in the face of opposition, either from foreign governments, domestic political constituencies or his own military. He has far too often pursued the policies of least political resistance. While this criticism has been levied at Obama's conduct of domestic policy, I actually think this is a charge that misses the mark - the political constraints are simply far greater on domestic policy. But on foreign policy and national security the President has far greater autonomy, authority and control of the public narrative, via the bully pulpit - and yet repeatedly Obama has backed away from asserting that authority and staking out policy territory with the potential for causing him political pain.
Take Afghanistan for starters. To read Bob Woodward's "Obama's War" is to read about a President that appears to have serious misgivings about escalation in Afghanistan and deep-seated concern that he was being manipulated by the military to approve increased troop levels. Yet he was seemingly incapable of publicly standing up to his own generals and demanding a more restrained policy for the war. Part of this, I imagine, was a fear of getting in a public food fight with the military (having not served in the armed forces and being a Democratic President, and all) - and part of it, no doubt, was a fear that if there was another terrorist attack on US soil Republicans would repugnantly pounce on "retreat" from Afghanistan as the reason why.
Instead of changing the narrative away from the "war on terrorism," as John Brennan had hinted at in a memorable speech at CSIS from the summer of 2009 or explaining to the American people that the threat from al Qaeda has diminished and cannot justify a 100,000 troop presence in Afghanistan . . . Obama embraced this false narrative - playing up the threat of terrorism from al Qaeda to justify an escalation of troop levels about which he appeared to have serious doubts. As a result ten years after 9/1 terrorism remains the dominant foreign policy narrative of American foreign policy.
Since then his performance on Afghanistan has been troubling. He has surrendered policy direction for the war to his generals, offered little in the way of guidance or leadership to the American people and produced a one-year review of the war in December 2010 that was disturbingly misleading. Instead, as was the case at this year's State of the Union, Obama has been far too comfortable fanning the fears of an al Qaeda redux in Afghanistan and raising the specter of 9/11 to maintain public support for what most observers would agree is a failing policy that isn't keeping America much safer.
Then there are the early efforts in his Administration to pressure Israel on its settlement policy, which melted away in the face of opposition from the Netanyahu government. It's not hard to imagine that fears of energizing the pro-Israel caucus in Washington played into this decision as well.
And as the Washington Post makes clear in a blockbuster story yesterday, a campaign promise to close Gitmo was sidetracked by political opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. While there is plenty of blame to go around on this issue, it is more than fair to criticize Obama for failing to put up any kind of fight with Congress about the policy and melt away in retreat at the first sign of political opposition. The result is that the President's policy on detainee rights looks remarkably similar to the one he inherited in 2009. This is not what many liberals would have expected when Obama announced, soon after taking office, that Gitmo would be closed within a year.
And then there is Libya, perhaps the most embarrassing example of Obama Administration fecklessness. Having steadfastly maintained that the war in Libya was not in the US national interest, the White House quickly reversed itself when it became clear that Benghazi was going to fall and Washington was going to be blamed for not stopping the bloodshed. This in itself was defensible as obviously situations can change and it would be silly to expect the President to stick unflinchingly to a failed or failing policy.
But far less defensible is the manner in which the President has prosecuted the war in Libya. Back in March, Obama said these words, "some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
And yet the President has placed clear restrictions on the realization of this goal, refusing to allow the commitment of US ground troops to the fight - and forcing the military and, in turn NATO, to fight this war with one hand tied behind its back. If the President believes that the US has a responsibility to use military force to stop civilian atrocities in Libya how does he justify limiting the US response to these atrocities? There is, as Spencer notes in his post, no justifiable strategic reason for not putting troops on the ground to protect civilians - particularly when our entire reason for intervening militarily in Libya . . . is to protect civilians. Once again, as was the case with Israel, Gitmo and now Libya the President lays out a strong position but then refuses to follow through on its execution, retreating at the first sign of resistance.
Now granted this is an overly harsh assessment; and in fairness the Administration deserves enormous credit for things like START, expanding the G-20 and repairing US relations with a number of key allies. Certainly, they did a nice job in responding to the uprising in Egypt and the Arab Spring and I actually think they deserve some credit for working to isolate Iran. Certainly, whatever foreign policy failures I can point to in this post - they are more derived from meekness then bad intent (I don't think the same would be true of a McCain presidency).
But on the really big issues - the war on terrorism, Afghanistan the use of force, civ-mil relations, detainee policy - the Administration has shown a disturbing fear of the political consequences of taking steps that could be demagogued by Republicans. In short, Obama has let the politics of foreign policy overwhelmingly dictate his foreign policy decision-making.
This has not always been the case in Obama's presidency. On health care, in particular, Obama staked out his territory and fought tooth and nail for a bill that will ensure 30 million Americans and will go a long way toward reducing social and income inequality in this country. It was and remains an enormous and commendable accomplishment - and was done in the face of fierce political opposition that showed its consequences on Election Day last November.
But where is this foreign policy issue on which Obama will stake his political ground and take a stand? After more than two years as President . . . we're still waiting to see.