Blame Obama First

Column: The president’s national security team isn’t the problem. Obama is.

A series of bombs hit the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq / AP
June 13, 2014

On June 12, as al Qaeda forces marched toward Baghdad, John McCain spoke on the Senate floor. Noting that the al Qaeda affiliate ISIS has conquered a third of Iraqi territory, has overrun the city of Mosul, has captured abandoned American equipment, and has stolen more than $400 million in cash reserves, McCain said that the enemies of the United States are on the verge of a strategic victory. Only a major course correction, McCain went on, might prevent the emergence of an al Qaeda state that stretches from eastern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad. "It’s time that the president got a new national security team," he said.

Criticism of that team—of Obama’s National Security Adviser, his Secretaries of Defense and State, and his top foreign policy speechwriter—has been mounting. "This is what happens when hacks take over foreign policy," Kim Strassel wrote last week in a devastating Wall Street Journal column. The criticism is bipartisan. Col. Jack Jacobs, a NBC military analyst, said the other day that the Obama team "most decidedly" is weak, "and isolated, and a lot of decisions it makes are either ill considered or do not consider everything that needs to be considered." David Ignatius is blunt: "The administration," he said on Morning Joe, "is going to have to step up."

The cliché "personnel is policy" strikes me as true. But its truth is a function of whether the personnel we are talking about actually have the capacity to make decisions. "The first thing I think we need to do," McCain said on the Senate floor, "is call together the people that succeeded in Iraq, those that have been retired, and get together that group and place them in positions of responsibility so that they can develop a policy to reverse this tide of radical Islamic extremism, which directly threatens the security of the United States of America."

McCain is dreaming. Does anyone think President Obama is about to replace Susan Rice with Fred Kagan, and switch out General Austin for General Petraeus? To assign responsibility for American incompetence to President Obama’s National Security Council is to miss the target. The NSC is a symptom of the dysfunction, not its cause. Behind our endless series of foreign-policy screw-ups—Benghazi, Snowden, Syria, Crimea, Bergdahl, Iraq—is not Obama’s team. It’s Obama.

The Obama foreign policy is best represented not by the famous national security "Team of Rivals" of Obama’s first term, but by the team of yes men and incompetents of his second. Gates, Panetta, Clinton, and Petraeus are celebrities who had the wit and stature to disagree with Obama. Kerry, Rice, Hagel—this collection of loyalists and losers (quite literally in Kerry’s case) is incapable of disagreement with the president because he handpicked them for their subservience.

In 2013, when Kerry tried to "lean forward" by advocating intervention in Syria, Obama cut him off at the knees. Rice is a friend of the president’s who owes him for saving her career after she withdrew from contention for secretary of State. Hagel? I wonder if he’s even found the keys to the executive washroom.

It ought to be obvious by now, five-and-a-half years into his presidency, that Obama does not take disagreement lightly. Consider the look of contempt and resentment on his face when McCain spoke at the 2010 health care summit, the disdain and condescension that characterized his debates with Mitt Romney, the annoyance and even anger he expresses when he feels compelled to grant Fox News Channel an interview. Obama "really doesn’t like people." It’s evident whenever he encounters dissent.

In his mind, the president has already considered all of the opposing arguments, and has found them wanting. He gives every impression of believing that he knows the thinking of his opponents—and the interests of his opponents—better than his opponents do. As Obama told his political director Patrick "It’s Constitutional Bitches" Gaspard: "I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director." No doubt he also thinks he is a better secretary of State, a better secretary of Defense, and a better National Security Adviser, too.

We are experiencing the foreign policy President Obama wants us to experience. On Thursday afternoon, when a reporter asked him  if America would use force to help restore order to Iraq, the president said, "I gave a very long speech about this" at West Point. That "very long speech" was almost universally panned. Ranging from Boko Haram to the Law of the Sea Treaty, its argument was one Obama has made since the beginning of his presidency: that America should not act unilaterally unless our "vital" interests, as defined by Obama, are threatened. On all other "issues of global concern," we "should not go it alone," but rather "broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary, and effective, multilateral military action."

Broadened tools, soft power, carrots and sticks in the form of sanctions, and international law are the means by which liberal internationalists such as Obama limit the range of forceful U.S. action on the world stage. They are the ingredients in the foreign-policy recipe that has brought chaos to the Middle East—including more than 150,000 Syrians dead and an empowered Iran—and has given us the Russian annexation of Crimea, guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine, a bullying China, a degraded U.S. military, and a disapproving American public.

But Obama does not disapprove. He sees his foreign policy as a success. "Standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future—without us firing a shot," Obama said at West Point. Yesterday Ukraine said that Russian tanks had crossed its border. "It is possible we are victims of our own leadership," a senior administration official said of Iraq in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. That official is right: global security is the victim of our own leadership. Our elected leadership.

"We are winding down our war in Afghanistan," Obama said in his "long speech about this." Can he really look at the images coming from Iraq and not recognize that they are a preview of what is to come when America leaves Afghanistan? Obama has not only proposed the wrong solutions to the problem of a degrading international order. He fails to see the problem altogether. He is more concerned with the limits of American power than with its responsibilities.

He seems not to understand that only force can stop force. Receiving an award from USC’s Shoah Foundation in May, the president mentioned the crises in Syria and Nigeria, and said wearily that, "having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop by drop,’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story." Drop by drop, erode and wear down—this is foreign policy by erosion. Tell a different story? Stories don’t bring back girls. The Delta Force does.

A look at world news has got to be depressing not only for supporters of the war on terror, not only for advocates of a foreign policy that upholds American primacy, but also for men and women of any party who have served the U.S. government with competence, professionalism, and obligation. Unfortunately, no change of personnel will restore these basic attributes to the conduct of American diplomacy. Only a change of president can do that.