It was to be expected that this would be a bad speech. Attacked from all sides President Barack Obama was going to have to push back and that was always going to make the speech defensive. As usual, the President ploughed bravely into a battalion of straw men: positing extremes then selecting a cool middle way. But it was so much worse than that. The tone was not the problem; the content was.
In Obama’s telling, the last six years of failed foreign policy that has now culminated in Syria drowning in blood and Ukraine being dismembered have not in fact been mistaken, and the impulses that drove the international order to the position where those situations could develop were correct and will now be expanded.
Obama articulates many of the things heretofore considered bipartisan American commitments. For example:
America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism; it is a matter of national security.
Let’s make that a test statement. It would mean support for democracy and human rights would have to be really serious wouldn’t it? So Obama goes on:
The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger. … International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.
Except that he adds in the next sentence: “On the other hand…” And by that he means that when issues are of “global concern” but “do not pose a direct threat to the United States“—when events “stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction“—then America should not “go it alone” but “mobilize allies and partners to take collective action,” which will be “diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.” The adamancy for drift on display here is shocking. What exactly can this possibly mean?
If it is a “global concern” how then is it not a “direct threat” to America? The jihadists on the loose in Syria are surely a concern to everybody and a permanent threat; Obama seems to be saying that until they become an imminent threat he couldn’t care less about them unless the rest of the world strikes up in concern. What on earth are “appeals to international law” supposed to accomplish? Suppose you believe in this fiction of “international law,” at present this seems to mean that ultimate authority and legitimacy is constituted in the U.N. Security Council. But this is nonsense on stilts: the Council “was never intended by the [U.N.] Charter framers … to act as an international judicial body,” and has “neither the mandate nor the qualifications” to do so. The realm of law is the realm where there is a sovereign, and the “U.N. Security Council was never intended to be a Hobbesist sovereign“. Worse than that, in the U.N. model there is not only no impartial sovereign to uphold the law, there are multiple sovereigns with competing interests that are allowed to shield these interests behind a fiction called the “international community”. Using the U.N. in reality means giving Russia and China, two ruthless autocracies, a veto over American policy.
“Sceptics,” says the President, “downplay the effectiveness” of multinational institutions when in reality they have “increase[d] restraint among other nations“. Just ponder that for ten seconds. You don’t have to go back to the North Korean invasion of the South, or the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and its conquest of Afghanistan, or even Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. Just look at Vladimir Putin’s present campaign in eastern Ukraine. The thing that has stayed his hand from outright invasion is not the United Nations; it is the conviction that he can have what he wants without traditional war. And try it the other way. Has the United Nations reduced the killing in Syria or Bosnia or Rwanda? No it didn’t. In that great figure of sublime anti-talent Kofi Annan it bought time for the murderers and used up all the time needed to formulate good options.
But Obama is having none of it. “Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away,” he says. This moral outrage was a “counterweight” to Moscow’s hard-power—and it has worked. Look at the Election on Sunday in Ukraine. And all this “without us firing a shot.” You don’t have to be a cynic to see the flaw in this narrative.
The President identifies “terrorism” as the greatest threat facing America. It’s not as well-defined as if he had said Islamic militancy but nonetheless one tends to agree. The President wants one and all to know that he has no intention of “invading every country that harbours terrorist networks”; such is “naive and unsustainable“. (I did tell you the straw men came out of this badly.)
But the President still has himself absolutely bamboozled by the nature of the enemy. At one moment he is taking credit for having crippled the “core leadership” of al-Qaeda—”those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks“—and the next he is warning that the “principal threat … comes from decentralised al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists,” with “agendas focused in the countries where they operate,” which “lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland“.
There is serious debate about the nature of the Qaeda network but there is good reason to believe that al-Qaeda “Central” in Pakistan does actually exercise considerable leverage over these affiliates; it is not just a matter of their swearing baya to Ayman az-Zawahiri. There is also the fact that al-Qaeda is fighting quite a lot more like an army at the present time. This might suggest that the President is correct, that this is locally-focused. But, while this focus and the outbreak of Qaeda-ISIS fighting will, in the short-term, give the West a break, there is no guarantee this is a lasting fact and even now the intra-jihadi fighting raises the reward for a terrorist strike against the West; whichever side could bring it off would experience a propaganda boon that would flood them with money, recruits, and legitimacy.
The President’s view on this is the one that accepts al-Qaeda as less of a problem. He has even been pushing the intelligence agencies to come up with analysis that backs up that view, which we once called “cherry-picking”. The idea that al-Qaeda has both a central authority and very wide autonomy seems baffling to the administration—so it says for years that there are 100 Qaeda members in Afghanistan because it just cannot agree a counting method that takes this into account. The only extra danger the President accepts as al-Qaeda runs away with the Fertile Crescent and large sections of the Maghreb is that it “heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked.” If he believes that Salafi-jihadists—3,000 of them with European passports—on the border of Turkey, which borders borderless-Europe, which has special access to America, will pose threats only to American Embassies and Consulates, it suggests a lack of seriousness beyond what his toughest critics have yet suggested.
The President has now called for a $5-billion “counterterrorism partnerships fund” to help Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and—in perhaps the biggest buried lede of the speech—Libya, where he says America will be “working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol“. There were many who suggested after the destruction of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime that a stabilisation force of some kind would be necessary but how could a President whose claim was to have “ended” wars do anything that smacked of “boots on the ground”?
The President’s correct focus on Islamic jihadism breaks down, however, when it reaches Syria. The President frets about the “capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups [from Syria] to come after us,” as well he might. But, Bashar al-Assad’s very presence is jet-fuel to the Salafi-jihadists. If Obama cares about Islamic terrorism—let alone the human carnage in Syria—the first stage has to be the ouster of Assad.
This was decisively not the President’s commitment on Syria: he seemed to basically accept the regime’s contention that it was fighting Salafi-jihadism rather than strengthening it. He started with another straw man. “I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war,” Obama says, answering a suggestion made by exactly nobody. Chemical weapons, his abject retreat from his threat of military strikes, and his supposedly brilliant, Kremlin-hatched scheme to get the CWMD out of Syria at the low price of relegitimising the dictator and giving him the space to kill with conventional weapons—a “deal” that has not, and will not, even get rid of the chemical weapons—do not merit a mention. And while Obama makes the right noises about “believ[ing] we have a real stake … in a world where … individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief,” his only actual proposals are some money for Syria’s neighbours and to “ramp up support” for sections of the rebellion, all leading to “a political resolution,” whose only possible of success is serious pressure on Assad.
The President had started the speech by insisting that America should “refocu[s] our investments in … a growing economy that can provide opportunity for everybody,” a handy dove-tail with that zero-sum picture he has propounded since 2007 of money at home or money abroad—a conceptualisation the isolationists win every time. And this is not accidental: it is a statement that betrays a desire to be done with the foreign world, to focus on his domestic agenda. This will be a covered retreat—”by most measures America has rarely been stronger,” says the President; America is the “one indispensable nation” and “must always lead“—but in the bromides at the end of the speech one sees what he really means by leadership. Closing Guantánamo, creating a diplomatic deal with clerical Iran to check its quest nuclear weapons (“long” odds and “all options” available, I’m willing to bet any paper-promise will be taken rather than resorting to force), regulating cyber-attacks (like drones a weapon of the weak), and of course global warming—we must “preserve our planet,” after all, and draconian damage to our energy sector that cedes global power to China should be just the thing.
Here is the central conceit of the speech: “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example“. But it simply isn’t. In the Cold War this was called “mirroring”: a belief that the other side acted as we did. It wasn’t true then and it is even less true with a religious government like that in Iran beholden to prophecies and a belief in End Times. It is a country where the nicer the American President is the more convinced is the Supreme Leader that this is a dastardly scheme to corrupt good Muslims and pull down his holy regime. Obama rather conveniently attacks his domestic opponents who have said he looks weak and calls it cheap partisan politics but what about this perception being shared by Iran, China, and Russia, as his own intelligence services have reported? Are they too merely hirelings of the GOP? And since all are now acting on that perception—and receiving no serious pushback—doesn’t it suggest they might have a point?
Obama does not believe the U.S. Military is to be used “simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed“. If not, it is worth asking what they are for. The absolute pacifist who says no foreign policy is acceptable that costs even one life is to be respected only for their honesty: their prescription is one for the ruin of a nation. But this brings us to the most important sentence in the speech:
Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action.
The truth is exactly the reverse. The two World Wars were themselves examples of conflicts America waited until nearly too late to enter. But whether it is Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled, Iraq in 1991 when we had ignited two rebellions that had the regime tottering, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Libya, and now most obviously in Syria restraint was not the problem. Far more people died and Western interests were damaged more grievously in all these episodes of abdication—almost all of which required intervention later anyway, on much less advantageous terms—than in any episode of “overreaction”. This mind-set that says our hands are only sullied if our military was involved, but if we watch from the side-lines then we are unimplicated in a disaster, is the one that leads to so much trouble; the failure to realise that not choosing is itself a choice. Obama has chosen not to act a great deal in his time in office and now we are reaping the frightful harvest. By this account this time of sorrow for the global order is only just beginning.