Following from in Front

Top Stories of 2012: #4

Story #4 is about America’s current foreign policy, but in this article, my goal is not to recap my previous coverage from this year but to complete it by providing an overview of the big picture.

The big picture of our foreign policy is that America is following from in front.

You may recall that an official in the Obama administration used the phrase “leading from behind” to describe Obama’s policy on Libya. But this phrase doesn’t really make sense, not least because it is a contradiction—to lead is to go out in front, not lurk in the back. Perhaps more important is the fact that America can’t really do anything “from behind” because we are always in front simply by virtue being the world’s greatest power.

We are the third most populous nation on Earth, after China and India, a fact we don’t often think about. We are by far the largest economy; China “catching up” to the US means that now their economy is almost half the size of ours. And we have by far the largest military budget, accounting for more than 40% of the entire world’s military spending. Our closest rival, China, spends one-fifth as much. Our second closest, Russia, spends one-tenth. These material factors are magnified by the fact that we are the unique representative of and spokesman for a radical new political system and way of life that is transforming the world.

So on any issue that affects us, we are way out there in front whether we recognize it or not.

The unprecedented global reach of our power, our influence, and our interests means that we don’t have the option of sitting back and only doing things quietly behind the scenes. So when we do refuse to take the initiative, we are not “leading from behind.” A Lebanese columnist, bitter at our passivity on the uprising in Syria, provides a better term: we are “following from the front.” We are the world’s leader and giant, sitting around waiting for somebody else to take the initiative and do something.

This is the story behind most of the big foreign policy developments this year, particularly in the chaotic and rapidly changing Middle East.

Following from in front is a direct cause of the September 11 attacks on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans. Most of the controversy has centered around the administration’s handling of the attack after the fact, when top officials spread a false and implausible story that it was a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamic video. Or it has focused on why we didn’t have better diplomatic security in Libya, despite the obvious dangers there. But the real story is about why we had no military assets in the country or near it that were ready to respond to an attack. Jack Wakeland referred me to the best article on this story. In the Washington Times, Rowan Scarborough explains:

How the best military in the world came to having only one real choice in a terrorist attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other US citizens is the story of an ill-equipped commander.

US Africa Command, which oversees military options in North Africa, had no access to AC-130 gunships or to armed drones, such as the Predator, that could have killed the attackers from the air. The command also lacked ground forces….

AfriCom, as it is known in Pentagon shorthand, was activated in 2008 in anticipation of the very events in Benghazi. Islamic extremists tied to the al Qaeda terrorist network were looking to make inroads in North Africa…. But on Sept. 11, [2012,] AfriCom was still a command “in paper only,” as one former Bush administration official put it.

But wait, hadn’t the Obama administration just backed a big military operation in Libya just a year before? How is it, then, that the US military command in charge of North Africa had no resources? Jack explains: “The Obama Administration’s failure to fill out the Africa Command occurred as a part of Obama’s declared intention to ‘lead from behind’ and let NATO provide all of the military firepower required to support Libya’s rebels with airstrikes against Gaddafi’s armed forces. It was part of President Obama’s deliberate policy to reduce American military intervention in the Muslim world.”

So following from in front in Libya led directly to our having no plan to provide for embassy security and no resources devoted to a rescue if things went bad—in a country that was obviously, predictably chaotic and dangerous.

In Syria, following from in front has led us to hang back from intervention, even though we have a far more direct interest in the fall of the Assad regime than we did in the fall of Gaddafi. Syria has been the Iranian theocracy’s chief satellite in the region, supporting terrorist organizations in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, not to mention Syria’s extensive support for insurgents who attacked American troops in Iraq. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, the Obama administration has hung back.

The consequence of this passivity is predictable; I know, because I was one of the people who predicted it. The consequence has been to hand over leadership of the Syrian rebellion to Islamic fanatics, who are now the best-armed, best-organized rebel faction. We have given the good guys—the secular liberals—only non-lethal support, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to provide actual weapons. In accordance with their values, they choose to arm the Islamists.

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl profiles the chief Syrian Islamist militia, Jabhat al-Nusra, and explains how they assumed a leading role in the rebellion.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel force that emerged from the original protest movement, don’t support the jihadists or their tactics. But as the war in cities like Aleppo becomes more desperate, Jabhat al-Nusra has provided precious reinforcements. Thanks to generous support from sources in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, its units are often better-armed than secular forces, which have been starved by Obama’s ban on US weapon supplies.

The Obama administration has not learned one of the big lessons of the Afghan war in the 1980s. For those who want to learn more about our campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, I highly recommend Charlie Wilson’s War—the book, not the Aaron-Sorkin-ized movie. Journalist George Crile explained how Cold War rules—the fear of nuclear war which prevented us from confronting the Soviets directly—forced us to funnel most of our support through Pakistan. But Pakistan’s dictator was rapidly Islamizing the country, and his security forces routed much of our money, weapons, intelligence, and training to their preferred groups, the Islamic fanatics who would later become the Taliban. (To our credit, we did subvert these rules and send support separately to the Northern Alliance and Ahmed Shah Massoud, which gave us the contacts we needed to show up in Afghanistan in late 2001 and recruit local allies to take down the Taliban.)

In Syria, we’re re-enacting this same policy, but without the compelling Cold War rationale. We have let our Islamist “allies” arm the jihadists because we are following from in front.

In Iraq, the Obama administration has been single-mindedly intent, not just on a withdrawal of American troops, but on a total disengagement from the country. The success of the “surge” in 2007 and 2008 left America with little to do there militarily, but it did require an intensive follow-up effort to keep the country’s politics on track—a follow-up Obama refused to provide. The results was that we failed to protect the Sunni allies we recruited in the surge. In 2009, when Shiite “moderate” Islamist Nouri al-Maliki lost an election, we sat back as he undermined the opposition parliamentary coalition and refused to cede power. He then agreed to a “power-sharing” arrangement with the victorious opposition—which he immediate violated. By allowing Maliki to disenfranchise and take revenge on Iraq’s Sunnis, we have increased the risk of a renewed insurgency. Earlier this year, the Washington Post described the situation.

Since US troops withdrew in December, Maliki has extended his reach to take on his political rivals, drawing accusations from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities that he is intent on establishing a dictatorship. An arrest warrant issued just days after the US pullout for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi—the top Sunni official in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government—has been followed more recently by challenges to the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish region in the north, provoking threats by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to sever ties with Baghdad.

Sunnis and Kurds, angered by what they see as Maliki’s efforts to exclude them from power, accuse the United States of doing little or nothing to restrain his excesses or to press him to implement agreements under which he pledged to share power….

The US Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world despite recent cutbacks, still wields enormous influence, said Omar Mashhadani, a former spokesman for the Iraqi parliament. “But they’re not using it,” he said. “They seem to be content with Maliki, and Maliki is careful not to do anything to affect their interests.”

Being content with “moderate” Islamist leaders in the Middle East is the main theme of the Obama administration’s policies. If we’re following from in front, that’s who we’re following.

In Egypt—the most rapidly moving story of this year—the administration completed its transition from backing a secular dictator to keep out the Islamists, to backing the Islamists. Among our natural allies in Egypt, the secular liberals, the consensus is that the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi rule with full American support. Richard Engel reports from the recent protests in Tahrir Square.

President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them. “President Obama is supporting a terrorist,” a man told me amid chants of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and “Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.” Before, it was “Down, down with Mubarak.”

As to Iran, there is nothing to report on that story this year, nothing to react to, nothing to comment on. If we can ignore an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a DC restaurant full of American citizens, then we will ignore anything. So we can fully expect that Iran will obtain at least one nuclear weapon in the next four years.

And in Afghanistan, there is evidence that everyone is preparing for the new civil war that will break out after America withdraws, as Obama is intent on doing in the next year to two years.

The worst part is that this is a period of enormous opportunity in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has led to the fall, not just of our quasi-allies, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but of dangerous anti-American regimes in Libya and Syria. It is quite a feat to turn something that ought to be a cause for rejoicing, such as the fall of the Assad regime, into a cause for apprehension.

There will still be a few bright spots that are likely to turn out well on their own, such as Tunisia. (See a recent observation on the contrast between Egypt and Tunisia from Michael Totten, one of my favorite source on the region.) But there will be enormous wasted opportunities.

This is a very big story, but there is a reason why it only ranks at #4: it is less a story about what is happening than a story about what is not happening—and what is not going to happen. Barack Obama is committed, on principle, to being a spectator rather than an actor on the world stage. And perhaps more to the point, there’s not much we can do about it. The president has very wide authority over foreign policy. Congress can prevent him from doing certain things, but the one thing it can’t prevent him from doing is nothing. If he doesn’t choose to act, Congress has no real means to force him.

That makes commentary on foreign policy far less urgent, for now. The purpose of talking about foreign policy is the hope of influencing the powers that be to do the right thing. Since it is pretty much foreordained that President Obama will do nothing, this is a story that will remain on the back burner—until, inevitably, it leads to a crisis. Waiting for such a crisis is the primary foreign policy task of the coming year.


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