The Rising Tide

Column: Washington fiddles as global dangers mount

Palestinian Hamas supporters burning the Israeli flag / AP
November 16, 2012

"The tide of war is receding," President Barack Obama is fond of saying. Who’s he kidding?

It has not been two weeks since the president’s reelection and already foreign policy crises are metastasizing. Israel’s justified retaliation at Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip may escalate into the second Gaza war in four years.

But the Middle East of 2012 is not the Middle East of 2008. Gaza neighbors an Egypt governed not by the secular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak but by the religious-inspired democracy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt has its own problems with the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip who smuggle arms and contraband across the border. But how will Morsi respond when his countrymen demand retaliation for Israeli attacks on Muslims? Does he have the legitimacy or cunning to maintain peace with Israel while avoiding revolution in Tahrir Square?

The so-called Arab Spring has tipped the balance of power against Israel. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is in disarray. Israel’s allies who rule the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are beset by deadly protests over the cost of fuel.

The bloodletting in Syria has intensified. The death toll is reaching 40,000. Jihadists are flooding into the country where they hope to raise the black flag of al Qaeda. The Syrian-Turkish border simmers as the fighting spreads to Lebanon, where Hezbollah watches and waits on orders from Iran.

The mullahs in Tehran are stronger than they were in 2008. They quashed the Green Revolution in 2009 and are four years closer to obtaining nuclear weapons. They have free rein in Iraq where America no longer has troops. The Iranian nuclear program has survived cyber attacks, sabotage, the assassination of scientists, and economic sanctions.

Has the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei paid a price for his government’s support for international terrorism, attacks on U.S. troops, and manifold human rights abuses? Is the moon made of cheese?

A military showdown over the Iranian nuclear program has been repeatedly delayed. The moment of decision once again has been pushed back, this time into next year. Will the threat of force be any more credible six months from now?

Iran’s enemies are preoccupied. Israel must deal not only with Hamas but also with the possibility that the bloodletting in Syria could spill over the border, which already has seen the first cross-border violence since 1973.

And the United States is clueless. Its political class is reeling after its most celebrated general in decades resigned from his post as CIA director when the FBI exposed his affair with a journalist.

The credibility of the military and intelligence establishment has suffered a grave blow at a critical juncture. A second Obama term will see new, and most likely more dovish, faces at Defense, State, and CIA. Obama seems inclined to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with loyalist hacks. These replacements will have to negotiate the complicated internal politics of bureaucracies as they attempt to implement Obama’s questionable policies.

Wish them luck. Congress is in the opening phases of its investigation into what happened at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11. The unanswered questions: Why were requests for security from Benghazi denied? What was the military response to the 9/11/12 attack, and was it adequate? And why did U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appear on five Sunday talk shows spouting CIA talking points that other parts of the government knew to be false?

The White House has struggled to answer these basic inquiries. But larger ones remain. Has the president’s drone campaign actually deterred a resurgent jihadist network? What of the 66,000 U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan? What will be their mission over the next two years, and will some of them remain there after 2014? Does the administration have a strategy to deal with Pakistan, a nuclear state beset by internal strife, fundamentalist movements, and an antagonistic intelligence service? How will Obama deal with the emerging Islamist democracies of the Maghreb?

A responsible press would be relentless in its exploration of these important issues. The press we have is still giggling over post-election comments made by Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and basking in the Republican Party’s quadrennial bout of self-examination. One reporter went out of her way during Wednesday’s press conference to congratulate the president on his reelection—just another member of the team!

The media have bought Obama’s line that Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) are somehow picking on Rice by criticizing the White House on Benghazi. They’ve turned an important national security story into political psychodrama. This was the president’s first press conference in eight months and the correspondent for the world’s most important newspaper asked him about global warming.

Obama has succeeded in shifting the ground of debate toward increasing taxes on the rich. The advocate of a "balanced approach" to debt reduction seems far more interested in the tax-hiking end of the scale than the budget-cutting one. With a single exception: defense. The president is remarkably cavalier about the $600 billion in automatic defense cuts that will result if there is no fiscal deal on Jan. 1, 2013.

But that should not be surprising. Obama has not hid his preference to shift the emphasis of federal expenditure even further toward cash transfers. He has cut defense at every opportunity and is unlikely to change his mind now.

"It is time to focus on nation-building here at home," the president says. Does he understand that the indebted and risk-averse nation he is building "here at home" is not equipped to deal with the rising tide of conflict abroad?