Shy and Retiring America
A perfect storm of events is eroding the perception of American deterrence—and the world will shortly become an even scarier place. The fiscal crisis has cast doubt on the government’s ability to act forcefully, especially the president’s emasculation during the entire process. These perceptions, of course, pale in consideration to the reality of out of control spending the first three years of the Obama administration that added almost $5 trillion to the U.S. debt and is both humiliating America and questioning whether it can still pay for its enormous military. Almost every day, we are borrowing $4 billion, enough to build a new fleet aircraft carrier (and, of course, are not building aircraft carriers with such daily deficits as we did in World War II).
Instead, defense spending is seen by the administration as the preferred target for cutting, especially in comparison to entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That sometimes 18- and 19-year olds learn more in the military on a flight deck than taking 6-units of -studies courses per semester for 7 years on federal grants is near libel. No matter—defense is going to be cut and the perception that it is going to be cut will be almost as important as from where exactly the ships and planes are withdrawn.
Enemies as Friends, Friends as Enemies
But more importantly, the Obama administration, in four or five key instances, has signaled to the world that there are no advantages to being a nonjudgmental U.S. ally, and no downside to being an outspoken American enemy. Who has been more often on the receiving end of U.S. lectures—Netanyahu or Abbas? Eastern Europeans or Russia? Who has been the recipient of U.S. outreach? Iran or Israel? Syria or Egypt? It would be far better to be a totalitarian police state that practices institutionalized murder than a pro-American kleptocratic autocracy, at least as seen in the differing attitudes accorded a Tunisia in comparison to Syria and Iran. This administration has a bad habit of calibrating a regime’s authenticity and legitimacy by the degree of its expressed anti-Americanism between 2001-8.
In addition, to the extent that we use military force, it will be haphazard and questions of quitting will trump those of winning. International organizations—whether the Arab League or the United Nations—will win deference that neither the U.S. Congress nor American allies enjoy.
We see our fourth ground commander in Afghanistan, a war that was once deemed the “good” one by Obama—who ignored it for his first four months in office, then meditated for months on a surge, then escalated, and now talks of withdrawal. Obama can explain to us what victory won’t look like, but not what it might look like. In Iraq, he left the Bush-Petraeus withdrawal plan in place—ignoring his own demands as a senator that all troops should have been out by March 2008, then by the end of 2008, then by the end of 2009, and so on. But such allegiance to stabilizing Iraq is nullified by his serial denunciations that the removal of Saddam and fostering subsequent democracy—today the only real functioning Arab democracy—was a terrible mistake.
Libya is a mess—no mission, no methodology, no outcome. The rebels are who—Islamists, incompetent reformers, Westernized intellectuals, students, terrorists? Who knows? They seem only united in hating Gaddafi’s black African mercenaries and wanting to kill them all. “Leading from behind” was supposed to be a correction for admittedly costly and thankless “leading from the front” in past wars; but we can see now that when America does not lead, the Euros sputter, bicker, and now are divided and about to quit Libya.
Obama has done the almost impossible: he is losing a war to a country on the Mediterranean with less than 7 million people, and an almost perfect topography, weather, and location for NATO air operations. World War II American Liberators and B-17s on bombing runs from Sicily would have been more effective than Anglo-French jets. All that can be said for the mess is that Obama seems to have wanted to embarrass the usually parasitic, ankle-biting Europeans, and at least accomplished that—at the expense of Western military prestige. (The only thing worse than fighting a needless war against a savage weak regime is losing it to a savage weak regime.)
Is Guantanamo Open or Virtually Closed?
Obama confused the world about American anti-terrorism protocols. As a demagogic senator and candidate, he spent three years damning them as both ineffective and anti-American, and then embraced them all. But no one knows to what degree Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventative detention, wiretaps, intercepts, and Predators are still Bush-Cheney war crimes or valuable American tools that will persist. If you engage in them, are you a patriotic overseas contingency operations fighter, or a future war criminal to be brought up later on charges by Eric Holder? Will those, who once sued on behalf of Guantanamo detainees, and now in government sue to justify Predator targeted assassinations—soon once again out of government sue on behalf of Guantanamo detainees? Was KSM virtually tried in New York in the fashion that Guantanamo was virtually closed (“virtually” defined as media agreement that Obama’s wishing to do the liberal thing is better than actually doing it).
Will the Cops or the Mob Provide Protection?
But it is in the Pacific where we may well see the most dramatic changes of American withdrawal. Insidiously, the Chinese are translating their formidable financial power into a new muscular military profile. North Korea is as crazy as ever. The proverbially terrorized shop-keeper in the region thus does not know where to turn—to the mostly absent cop on the beat dreaming of his union pension, or the young thugs who demand protection money or else.
The result is that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines have one eye on China, and one on Washington—and therefore are increasingly terrified. One of three things will happen: our shaky allies will demand a higher U.S. profile in the region, and new assurances of safety under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (all quite unlikely); or they will go nuclear and, unlike North Korea, their missiles will work like Camrys and Kias; or they will make face-saving accommodations with the Chinese that will result in a new version of the old Co-Prosperity Sphere (China 2011 reminds me a lot of Japan 1935).
Right now, I could not imagine that anyone in Taiwan would believe the Obama administration would say or do anything should Chinese ships tomorrow show up a mile off the Taiwanese coast—but could envision the most eloquent speech why Taiwan must inevitably rejoin communist China. Indeed, Obama would call on both sides for restraint, while chewing out the Taiwanese for provoking the Chinese, while working out a “balanced” deal that ceded Taiwanese waters to China—until the next incident.
In short, we will be back soon to about 1937. The old rules are disappearing. All that we await for is some audacious trouble-maker to make perfectly clear that there are no such rules, demonstrated by some flagrant violation of the international order—in 1979 fashion of taking an embassy, crossing a border, or overthrowing a government. We would then know the protocols to come: a U.S. warning of “grave concern”; a meeting at the UN or some regional council; various “deadlines” (as we saw with the five given Iran); a private tongue lashing of the victim for provoking the aggressors and putting the U.S. in an uncomfortable position; a much heralded “international” solution that concedes to the instigator what he wishes; some sort of post-Nobel Prize award to Obama for his sobriety and statesmanship. What is new this time is that the majority of the population (50% of whom pay no income tax and either receive all or a large part of their income from government) will greet retreat with relief, in the sense of more food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid funds released by mothballing ships and planes. (Does my future federally-subsidized hip and knee replacement have to be sacrificed on the altar of frigates patrolling in the Sea of Japan?)
There will be no new world order, much less an end of history, pan-global democratic capitalism. Instead, regional hegemonies will fill the void and do as they please. For the Black Sea and Eastern Europe, a 19th-century-like Russia will set the rules. China will have sway over Asia up to the Indian border. A new Ottoman Empire will pressure both Greece and Cyprus, and give power and credibility to the Islamic anti-Israeli nexus. A chaotic Arab Islamic world will be united in its hatred for Israel. In the same fashion that the public is turned off by the now near daily teleprompted sermons from their “let me be perfectly clear” and “make no mistake about it” and “let’s be honest here” Obama, so too the world will tire of a Reverend Obama whose sermons increase in direct proportion to his threats of “consequences” and “ramifications.” At first, we Americans will appreciate the cost-savings and end to the hassles; soon, we will learn what we learned last time in 1941.
I understand why Obama, like most all who are products of the university and government, believes reason and dialogue should trump deterrence. I wish that he were correct, and the humane rules of the Harvard Law School lounge were those of the international community. It would certainly be cheaper and safer if logos rather than pride, fear, and perceived self-interest adjudicated relationships between powers. Eloquence should outweigh muscularity; and listening at times is as critical as acting. But the problem is that the world beyond our shores is largely non-democratic, poor, tribal, zealous, and angry, and wants the sort of power, affluence, and influence that we long ago took for granted as our birthright—and it looks for ways of fulfilling its agendas, often at the expense of weaker others.
The world by 2016 will be a very dangerous place, as Americans see every dollar “wasted” on national security as a dollar “stolen” from their own god-given federal entitlements.