Mark Moyar: Lurching without direction

Mark Moyar is Visiting Scholar at The Foreign Policy Initiative and the author, most recently, of the important new book Strategic Failure: How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts, and Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America. We invited Mark to write something for us bearing the subject of his book. He has responded with this column:

Last year, shortly before Barack Obama fired him, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel chided America’s President for “lurching from crisis to crisis without direction.” The treatment of foreign policy as an exercise in ad hoc crisis management has characterized Obama’s entire Presidency, as indeed it has every Democratic Presidency of the last half century. Fixated on domestic affairs and reluctant to assert American power overseas, Democrats from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama have viewed foreign policy challenges as nuisances to be kept off the front page of the New York Times, rather than problems to be solved through a coherent grand strategy.

Whereas a good strategy drives an active foreign policy, crisis management is inherently reactive. International problems reach the President’s attention mainly when they generate inordinate press coverage or cause a spike in unfavorable polling. Active adversaries, like North Vietnam in 1964 and Russia and ISIS in 2015, have consistently beaten a reactive United States to the punch and dodged the counterpunches.

Because crisis management focuses on reducing symptoms rather than eliminating causes, its practitioners typically resort to half measures and token gestures. By demonstrating that the White House is “doing something,” symbolic actions often suffice to alleviate press scrutiny and public pressure for action, at least temporarily. They seldom remedy the problem that they were ostensibly addressing.

In the case of Syria, Obama rejected recommendations from his cabinet to arm moderate Syrian rebels until 2013, by which time most of the moderate rebels had been killed or co-opted by extremists. He then decided to train and equip rebel forces in such small numbers and with such restrictions on their activities as to render them insignificant. When ISIS advances compelled Obama to restart American training of Iraqi forces, Obama put a ceiling on the number of U.S. trainers that limited throughput to 3,000 trainees per year, too few to make a difference in the war against ISIS or to lessen the influence of the 100,000 Iraqi Shiite militiamen whom the Iranians were training.

In Afghanistan, Obama authorized a troop surge, but began withdrawing troops much earlier than his generals advised, preventing completion of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign and discouraging Afghans from siding with the pro-American government. In Libya, Obama joined a NATO campaign against Muammar Gadhafi after international outrage about Gadhafi’s atrocities reached fever pitch, but his refusal to send American military forces to help secure the peace or protect American interests led to the collapse of central governance and the killing of the U.S. ambassador at Benghazi.

Of the recent additions to the administration’s list of token gestures and half measures, the most flagrant offender is Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Less well known is his response to the crisis of Russian expansionism. For more than a year, Eastern European allies and American critics—some of them within the Obama administration—have been calling for tougher American actions to discourage further Russian advances. Obama finally made his token gesture at the end of June, announcing that the United States would send American troops and heavy weaponry to several eastern European countries.

The joy that the initial announcement may have brought the eastern Europeans quickly faded when they saw the fine print, which was issued by U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute. The United States, Lute explained, was not going to deploy forces to eastern Europe on a permanent basis. “The tanks are empty, the … vehicles are empty, and will be parked, stored and maintained in training areas across the six Eastern most allies for training purposes,” Lute said. “Then the soldiers, on exercise after exercise, will be flown in.” One doubts that the Latvians will feel secure, or the Russians will feel deterred, by empty American vehicles and occasional visits from jet-setting American soldiers.

Many of Obama’s token gestures and half measures are clearly intended to keep simmering crises from boiling over until Obama leaves office. Administration spokesmen have repeatedly said that defeating ISIS will be a “multiyear” effort. The diluted U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is scheduled to last until the end of Obama’s term. Most of the fallout from Obama’s bad Iran deal will not hit ground until someone else occupies the White House. Obama and his proxies will no doubt craft stories explaining how his successor’s errors undid all of his foreign policy masterstrokes.

The President’s tokenism also serves one of the few national security objectives that Obama has pursued with any consistency, the diminution of American military power. The White House ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen as a means of diverting the American people’s attention and showing that the United States could still do damage to terrorists without large military forces. While boasting about the number of people killed by drones, Obama quietly forced through drastic reductions in the armed services and withdrew American forces from critical regions. The drone strikes, in actuality, succeeded mainly in killing low-level fighters and antagonizing the Pakistani and Yemeni governments to the point that the United States eventually had to discontinue most strikes.

If one believes that Obama’s foreign policy should be driven by mitigation of immediate crises, particularly those that might detract from perceived domestic achievements such as Obamacare and environmental regulation, then there may be cause for optimism about the next year and a half. If, on the other hand, one believes that Obama’s foreign policy should be driven by protection of America’s enduring national security interests, then there is cause only for worry. Obama’s remaining months in office will give America’s enemies time and space to accumulate strength. The continuance of passivity and tokenism may even invite audacious provocations from enemies seeking to steal more sheep before a more vigilant shepherd comes along.