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Obama Failing as Commander in Chief

Author: Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
March 28, 2011
Politico

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The Obama administration deserves credit for its foreign policy achievements.

There has been no successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil. President Barack Obama and his colleagues have, thus far, skillfully handled the popular eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt — though those crises are far from over. They strengthened sanctions against Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program; reset U.S.-Russia relations and completed the New START Treaty. They have begun to deal effectively with the rise of Chinese power; continued, after a slow start, the transformation of U.S.-India relations, and signed a bilateral trade accord with South Korea. They also modernized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with summit agreements on a new strategic concept and ballistic missile defense.

But the administration's record of failure is equally as long. It has not seriously tackled our deficit and debt problem, the single greatest threat to long-term U.S. power and influence. It is now mishandling relations with the Gulf Arab monarchs and made a mess of the Middle East peace process. It has allowed the U.S.-Turkey relationship to reach historic lows, just as Turkey is becoming a formidable actor in the Greater Middle East.

By concentrating on health care for its first two years, the administration, and the large majorities in Congress, missed a crucial opportunity to pass climate change legislation. With the Democratic party's internal constituencies, there also has been almost no movement on international trade.

Right now, nobody has a successful formula for helping Pakistan — with its 100-plus nuclear weapons — arrest its systemic decline; or for coercing North Korea to slow its growing nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. So the administration gets the benefit of the doubt on those two perplexing problems.

Obama has, however, failed in the most important presidential power: to act as a wise commander in chief. He is seriously mismanaging all three wars the U.S. is now engaged in.

In Iraq, over the past decade, the United States has lost 4,500 American lives, has had 33,000 wounded and has spent a trillion dollars to promote vital U.S. national interests. But we are in danger of losing that enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure to meet the president's deadline of withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of this year.

That is a huge strategic mistake. It could, over time, plunge that pivotal nation back into civil war. We should keep roughly 40,000 combat troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, to make an indispensable contribution to Iraq's stability and prevent Iranian dominance. We should now be lobbying the Iraqi government hard to accept this.

In Afghanistan, Obama has dramatically escalated U.S. troop commitment — now more than 100,000 — in a war that Bob Woodward says in his book, "Obama's Wars," that the president does not believe in. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan involves spending $100 billion and suffering several hundred allied deaths annually — 500 Americans dead last year, thousands more injured. All this to deal with 100 or so Al Qaeda fighters now in Afghanistan; and prevent the Afghan Taliban from controlling the Pashtun Afghan homeland — which was not the reason we went there after Sept. 11. Our mission was to eradicate Al Qaeda — now largely accomplished — not fight the Taliban.

In policy terms, this has been enormous mission creep far beyond our national interests. The current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy appears likely to fail. Washington and its allies will not defeat the Taliban militarily. President Hamid Karzai's corrupt government is unlikely to improve significantly. The Afghan National Army cannot take over combat missions from the U.S. in southern and eastern Afghanistan in any realistic time frame. And the Pakistan army will not move against Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

De facto Afghan partition offers the Obama administration the best alternative to strategic defeat. The administration should stop setting withdrawal deadlines and instead commit the United States to a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, with roughly 35,000 to 50,000 troops, for the next seven to 10 years.

Washington should also accept that the Taliban are likely to control most of the Pashtun south and east. The price of forestalling that is far too high for Americans to continue paying. Washington and its partners should let the local correlation of forces take its course in the Pashtun homeland — while deploying U.S. air power and Special Forces to ensure that the north and west of Afghanistan do not succumb to the Taliban.

In Libya, the president has gotten us militarily into the middle of a civil war in a country of little importance to the United States. And he offers no clear strategy to reach his ambitious objectives. The administration's inconsistent, even incoherent, statements on the Libya war wrestle each other for dominance in the daily news cycle, while NATO predictably founders without robust U.S. leadership.

The U.S. should quickly end its military role in the Libyan civil war. We should leave that to the European allies — if they want to take it up — and return to issues of far greater importance to our country, like our fiscal problems.

We can only speculate why Obama has such difficulty in effectively using the U.S. military as an instrument of national purpose.

Winston Churchill said, "In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to first principle and simple action."

What is Obama's first principle regarding the application of the use of force in the international arena? He seems to possess no abiding strategic framework about that preeminent presidential responsibility. He makes no clear connection between the use of force and vital U.S. national interests.

Thus, he recklessly withdraws from Iraq, imprudently escalates in Afghanistan and unwisely intervenes in Libya. One can only wonder and worry what he will do if and when he confronts the next crisis which could involve committing American men and women to combat.

Robert D. Blackwill is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy national security adviser for strategic planning, ambassador to India and presidential envoy to Iraq in the George W. Bush administration.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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