Obama Stops Going Though the Motions

Last week, President Obama was widely criticized for the emptiness of his big speech on foreign policy and national security at West Point. This weekend, with the trade of five high-level Taliban leaders for ransomed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, we saw the consequences of that emptiness.

There is one thing that wasn’t quite captured in the analysis of Obama’s speech last week. It’s not that the speech was empty. It’s that it was too full. There was something there for “realists” who are skeptical of intervention. (“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, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”) But there was also quite a lot for for the neoconservatives to applaud. (“I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.”) The only people who really got left out in the cold were the liberal interventionists, who were basically told that the Obama administration will sit back and applaud quietly while somebody else stops atrocities.

What made the speech seem empty wasn’t that Obama said nothing. It’s that he didn’t mean any of it. He borrows a lot of goals and rhetoric from established schools of foreign policy—including slightly modified versions of the Bush administration strategy (which was never actually as radical and outside the mainstream as Bush’s opponents claimed). The difference is that Obama does not intend to take action to achieve any of those goals.

The signature passage of the speech was when he cited, as a success of American leadership, the crisis in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions, Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions, NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies, the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy, OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine.

And this mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.

This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but 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.

What Obama is describing is what everybody else did to deal with the crisis after it became clear that the US wasn’t going to do anything. And despite his sanguine description, the outcome is still very much uncertain, as Kiev begins a long counter-insurgency campaign to regain control of its Eastern provinces, which are under occupation by irregular Russian forces.

In the past, particularly when President Obama sounded the uncertain trumpet of his “surge” in Afghanistan, I described his foreign policy as “Bush without conviction,” meaning that he was borrowing elements of the previous administration’s diplomatic and military strategy, but without really believing that it would succeed or that he should try very hard at it.

This is how Obama squares the circle between his Bush-lite official strategy and the promise he articulated early on in his 2009 speech in Cairo, which was about ending America’s foreign policy dominance, moving us to the sidelines and making us irrelevant and non-exceptional. The solution Obama has come up with is to pay lip service to America as exceptional and indispensible, as he does rather loudly in the West Point speech—while implementing his broad goals for American leadership in a way so cautious and inadequate that it makes us irrelevant and unexceptional in practice. It’s a plan to make America more like Canada: a country with nice aspirations in foreign policy but no power to do much of anything about them.

But this still required President Obama to go through the motions of having those big aspirations. That’s the significance of the Bowe Bergdahl terrorists-for-hostage trade: Obama has stopped going through the motions.

First, consider the terrorists we traded for Sergeant Bergdahl. If you run down the list it’s quickly obvious that these were not lower-level Taliban hangers-on—drivers or couriers or the like—but top-level organizers. Nominally, they are being released to the custody of the Emir of Qatar, and “The US has ‘appropriate assurances’ that Qatar will be able to secure the detainees there, a U.S. official said. The detainees are under a travel ban for a year.” Oh, well, a travel ban for a whole year. That gives you an idea how secure the detainees will be. So yes, we’re basically just letting these guys out on the street.

The obvious concern is that this is how President Obama plans to make good on his promise to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This prisoner release is a trial balloon for whether the administration can get away with just sending the detainees back out into the world.

Then there is the question of whether Bergdahl was worth the trade. The men he served with in Afghanistan are loudly complaining that Bergdahl deserted his post after turning against the war, e-mailing his parents that “The horror that is America is disgusting.” I don’t think being a disgruntled soldier or an obnoxious anti-American leftist means he deserves mistreatment as a captive of the Taliban. But I do think it ought to enter into our calculations about how much we are willing to trade to get him back.

In this case, not only are we releasing some very dangerous people, but we did so without consulting the Afghan government in Kabul—which is, after all, going to have to deal with the consequences. Maybe that’s the point of the one-year travel ban: by that time, most of our troops will be gone and it will be a problem for the Afghans to deal with.

Predictable, the Taliban are hailing this as a victory, with Mullah Omar gloating that “The sacrifice of our Mujahedin have resulted in the release of our senior leaders from the hand of the enemy.” It certainly creates an incentive for the Taliban to grab more Americans to trade, and it gives them hope of getting more of their top people returned to them. It’s another indication that they can hang on and wait us out, because in a couple of years we’re going to be gone.

There are those who will assure us that this no big deal because this “is how most wars end.”

Well, it’s how a war ends if all you want to do is end it, to get America out with little concern for the long-term consequences.

That’s the pattern we’re now seeing. Obama has stopped going through the motions of caring what happens in Afghanistan. Before his term is over, he wants us out of Afghanistan, he wants terrorist detainees out of our custody, he wants to wash his hands of the last vestiges of American intervention overseas.

This is his declaration that he’s just not interested in the War on Terrorism any more. Unfortunately, I suspect we’re going to find in the years to come that the war is still interested in us.


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