Friday, January 10, 2014

Secretary of offense: Why Robert Gates is the latest Obama doubter

The former American secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has just published a memoir in which he voices criticism of President Barack Obama. Perhaps this is not surprising. Other onetime administration officials, albeit in lesser positions than Gates, have already shared their misgivings about Obama’s foreign policy.

In his memoir, Gates writes that in Afghanistan Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” In describing Obama’s reaction to his own 2009 surge of troops in the country, Gates observes, “[t]he president was ‘skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.’” This is a serious charge, suggesting that Obama sent soldiers into battle without believing that their mission would succeed.

In an effort to temper the severity of the accusation, Gates adds, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” This is a perfectly ludicrous statement in that having no faith in a mission to which one has deployed tens of thousands of members of the armed forces almost inevitably leads to vacillation when giving them all necessary support.

Harsh words have also been directed at the Obama administration by two other individuals who served in the first term. Vali Nasr, currently dean of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and formerly an advisor to Richard Holbrooke when he was the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrote a devastating account of his time in office in a book titled Dispensable Nation.

Nasr lamented the lack of a cohesive strategy by the administration, and its tendency to allow important foreign policy decisions to be taken by Obama’s coterie of domestic political advisors.

Anne-Marie Slaughter also served in Obama’s first term, as the director of Policy Planning. While she has not published a book on her government service, in columns she has been less than gentle with Obama. Like Gates and Nasr, she seems to see indecisiveness in the man and an inability to commit to a given strategy.

Last May, recalling that President Theodore Roosevelt had once said “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” she wrote that Obama was pursuing a policy in Syria of “speak loudly and throw away your stick.” In this way “the US has cast aside one of its most important foreign policy tools,” creating “an incentive for the Syrian government and its supporters to keep fighting until they are in the most advantageous position possible to negotiate a settlement – that is, if they have any incentive to negotiate at all.”

It is often said that the United States enters into foreign commitments, then abandons them in the middle of the road. That is true sometimes, but in general the US has been steadfast. It contained the Soviet Union for half a century, and stationed forces in Europe for all that time. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, American troops fought for many years, often against difficult odds. America continues to defend South Korea, almost six decades after the end of the war in the Korean peninsula.

America has a strong isolationist streak, but it is difficult to imagine many countries with its geographical separation from the rest of the world being as central in global affairs. The problem appears to be a different one: the Obama administration has no broad, integrated conceptual framework in which to place its foreign policy decisions and no overriding strategy for its actions in the world. What it does is usually ad hoc, driven by short-term considerations, which is why Obama wavers so often.

Take, for instance, the administration’s haphazard responses to the uprisings in the Arab world since 2011. President Hosni Mubarak was only abandoned by the US when he could no longer remain in power. America relied on the Egyptian army to remove him. Yet when the same army removed Mohammed Morsi in 2013, similarly backed by a popular uprising, the US was unfavorable, alienating the same army it had earlier trusted.

In Libya, the US collaborated with France and the United Kingdom in a new military intervention, though Obama had said he would avoid military interventions. This he did to avert an imminent massacre in Benghazi. Yet in Syria, where there were Benghazis almost every day, Obama did nothing, even holding off on retaliating for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus, despite saying this would represent a “red line” for Washington.

As events changed in the Middle East, a bewildered America reacted without a sense of where this would lead. By the same token, in Syria there was no foresight that the violence in 2011 would become sectarian, and that unless it was ended quickly, the war would attract extreme jihadis, who have emerged as a regional and global threat. For Obama, Syria was merely “somebody else’s civil war.”

Even John Kerry’s aim to broker a Palestinian-Israeli settlement seems out of whack with current priorities in the Middle East. Had the Obama administration had a strategy, Kerry would not be wasting time and credibility in an effort that, while laudable, seems marginal among the region’s cataclysmic preoccupations.

More and more people accept that Obama has been a major disappointment. That’s why Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group considers the greatest risk factor in 2014 to be America’s foreign policy behavior. “[T]he commitment of the US to allies abroad is absolutely in decline, he told the Daily Ticker. “US foreign policy as a force that drives relationships and orientations of other countries around the world is absolutely in structural decline.”

Robert Gates may have shaken the administration, but his was only the latest voice in a growing chorus of skepticism about the American president from those who once wished him well.

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