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Hanging Out the ‘Kick Me’ Sign?

March 7, 2009

You have to wonder whether President Obama is taking national security threats seriously. From diplomacy to his handling of the wars to his budget plans, Obama’s decisions give the impression that he wished those pesky dangers would just go away so he can concentrate on ‘remaking America’. And it’s almost as if his strategy to dissuade enemies was to gradually turn the US into a weak bystander to world affairs, neither willing nor capable of stopping any bad-guy nation from doing as they please.

Take his efforts in diplomacy. Monsieur Obama is (or at least was) dangerously naïve on the usefulness and the meaningfulness of diplomatic efforts towards leaders who spare no words to express their hatred for America. His campaign promise for tête-à-têtes with the heads of states of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without preconditions (but “preparations”!) proves as much. Those nations and others that are not exactly fans of the US have sized up the new President and found that he is a foreign policy milquetoast. Since his inauguration there has been a variety of snubs, demands and provocations well summarised by Krauthammer here. How many of such or worse ones will be necessary for the White House to come up with a better approach?

But apart from trying to win the hearts and minds of anti-American strongmen, the new administration’s foreign policy seems to be targeted at alienating allies and friendlies. In roughly two months team Obama has snubbed the Brits, almost sparked a trade-war with Europe, was ready to sell off Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine for some arguably useful ‘help’ from Russia against Iran, showed preference for China’s goodwill over solidarity with Tibet and Taiwan and took a sip of the anti-Israel Durban II meeting. If the new administration continues like this they will end up without any friends. Amico di tutti e di nessuno è tutt’uno, as the saying goes.

You may want to argue that the handling of the wars is what’s most important and that the ‘responsible’ withdrawal from Iraq indeed looks like just that. All right, but there is reason to believe that this is only by chance not by design. Had Obama’s no-Surge strategy been followed the situation in Iraq would likely not have improved, countless deaths would have been added and a withdrawal would have meant a humiliating defeat and yet more dead Americans. Are we to assume that in this case M Obama would have changed his mind on the war and adapted a new strategy? Obama wanted the troops to withdraw before the Surge, he wanted them to withdraw after the Surge, and he wants them to withdraw now. The same plan that was first suicidal and then foolish can be called ‘responsible’ today only because it had not been followed earlier, not because of the brilliance of the one who subscribed to it at any given time. Furthermore, there are meaningful voices today which say that Obama’s current plan for the return of the troops is still too risky. Let’s just hope they’re wrong because I doubt that they will be heeded to.

What about Afghanistan? Aside from sending another 17,000 troops into theatre and the continuation of drone attacks in Pakistan the ‘good war’ has so far been treated as a side show at best. There have been promises made that the new administration will step up efforts to win this war (always going out of their way to stress that diplomacy will be very important, as if anyone thought otherwise). But so far the President’s focus has been almost exclusively on his domestic spending plans (which are pretty instructive as well, as we shall see in a minute) and in his numerous speeches seems hardly aware of the fact that he is a wartime president. (See also Kristol’s column on this subject here.)

When you take a look at Obama’s budget plan the impression that he thinks little of the importance of the military is strengthened as it treats defence like domestic policy’s poor cousin. The Pentagon had requested $584 billion for 2010 and a baseline of 4% of GDP. What they got is $533.7 billion and a 3.7% baseline. The reason? “[S]carce resources” – there are just too many volcanoes to be monitored and studies on asparagus to be made. Worse is the reduction in supplemental appropriations from $140 billion in 2009 to $130 billion in 2010 to a mere $50 billion in 2011. By doubling the national debt with your first budget but decreasing the portion for defence, and by increasing overall spending by 6.7% but defence spending by only 4% you made your priorities pretty clear. Obama has announced withdrawal from Iraq and a bolstering of US efforts in Afghanistan, neither can be done without sufficient funds. And even if a low-cost approach to those two regional wars is successful, planning to lower defence spending to less than 3% of GDP (in 2016) is a mistake done by the Clinton administration and should not be repeated.

Surely Obama knows that the national security threats faced by US will not go away only because he is now the president? Surely he knows that the US’s enemies have not been ‘spawned’ by Bush and won’t vanish into thin air by reversing Bush’s policies? Surely he knows that new and unexpected dangers can pop up anytime? Surely he knows that deterrence in itself is one of the most effective weapons against enemies? And surely he knows that his ‘stimulus’ for the economy would work just as well within the defence sector as within the other areas his administration is pouring money into? What is worrisome is that Obama’s actions so far are easier explained when you assume that he doesn’t.

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