Everyone hates the sourpuss who says the party is over. The next president will have to tell the American people that a reckoning is on the horizon—and that it is not going to be pretty.
President Obama has created lots of mythoi about the landscape he inherited in January 2009: the Iraq war was lost and al Qaeda ascendant; the September 2008 meltdown had wrecked the economy; the immigration system “was” in shambles; and Obama would have to restore fiscal sobriety after George W. Bush (all “by his lonesome” with a “credit card from the Bank of China”) in “unpatriotic” fashion had alone piled up U.S. record debt.
In reality, the 2007-8 surge had all but ended al-Qaeda in Iraq; and the American fatality rate in the Iraqi theater of operations had plunged to fewer than the military’s monthly losses to accidents and illness. To be sure, the economy was still shaky, but the recession that had started in December 2007 was all but over, ending in a natural fashion about five months after Obama took office. The so-called bailouts and TARP rescue measures were already in place to stop the panic of four months prior. Bush’s nearly $5 trillion profligate increase in the national debt would be doubled by Obama, despite an increase in income taxes, a fortuitous fracking bonanza, and near-constant zero interest rates. Obama shattered the old Clinton-Gingrich formula of balancing the budget by raising income tax rates and curbing spending. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles committee recommendations to address the debt were ignored. There is no need to compare the status of health care in 2008 to the present mess.
An adult president is going to have to tell the American people that a mandated equality-of-result economy is fossilized, entitlements are insolvent, the debt is unsustainable, interest rates are going up, the medical system is pure chaos, and people have to get over expecting to live off government, not because it is unethical, but because it is untenable.
Then we come to the world abroad.
In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Obama seemed to voice pride in his overseas recessional, even including his Syrian faux red lines that eroded American “credibility”—which to Obama is a mere construct of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Is there any legacy that Obama diplomats now cite as historic—the special friendship with Turkey, the Iran deal, the pullout from Iraq, the dismissal of ISIS as amateurs, the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the red lines in Syria, the reset with Russia, the disaster in Libya, the ostracism of the Gulf states, the distance from Israel?
A great power’s deterrence—acquired with difficulty over years—can be easily lost in months. And it is often only restored through danger commensurate to what was paid during its original acquisition. When Ronald Reagan inherited a wrecked foreign policy in January 1981—invasions of Afghanistan and Vietnam, communist insurrections in Latin America, Iran in chaos, American hostages in Tehran, an ascendant Soviet Union—it took him three years to reestablish U.S. credibility.
Reagan was roundly despised for his supposedly cowboy manner in reinstating deterrence. In November 1983, Hollywood gave us The Day After—a melodramatic account of what life in the heartland would be like after a nuclear strike. The message was for America to brace for a nuclear winter that Reagan would earn in his absurd effort to “win” the Cold War.
Prepare for the same hysteria in 2017. The Pentagon, to remain the world’s most powerful and respected military and to help to keep the world order relatively calm, quietly accepts that it will have to demonstrate soon to America’s enemies that it is quite a dangerous thing for any nation to shoot a missile near a 5,000-person, $5-billion American Nimitz-class carrier; or to hijack an American naval craft, humiliate the crew to the point of tears, and then video the embarrassment; or to attack a U.S. consulate. Yet it will not be so easy for our military to reestablish credibility in 2017. And over the next 10 months we may see some scary things not witnessed since the annus horribilis of 1980.
Trying to persuade Putin that NATO has commitments to the territorial integrity of the Baltic states, and deterring him from further expansionism will be one of the most dangerous gambits of 2017— and one that will be widely caricatured.
The effort will be somewhat akin to what would have happened had Neville Chamberlain said “no” at Munich, instead of waving a worthless scrap of paper to the adoration of huge British crowds. Assembling a British-led coalition in 1938 of the Poles, Czechs, French, Dutch, and Belgians, while ensuring the Soviet Union was neutral, would have checked Hitler’s rather still weak Wehrmacht, but in the short term earned Chamberlain the slur of war-monger rather than for about a year canonization as a League of Nations humanitarian.
There are 4,000 troops now in Iraq. To stop ISIS and prevent a Syrian redux, more may be sent—a task far more costly than it needed to have been, and far more unpopular.
The Obama “special relationship” with Recep Erdogan’s Turkey is in shambles; it green-lighted the Islamicization of Turkey and the destruction of democracy. The next president must deal with a key NATO member, whose behavior and values are becoming entirely antithetical to the premises of NATO, and whose provocative bullying under no circumstances should earn the alliance’s military solidarity.
The Iran deal would be laughable if it were not so tragic. What Obama calls the Iranian violation of the “spirit” of the agreement— from shooting missiles near carriers and hijacking and humiliating Navy seamen, to unleashing cyber war on the U.S. and issuing daily promises of war against the U.S. and Israel—is a precursor of more to come in the next 10 months. If Iran is not to become a nuclear power, the next president will have to re-impose sanctions and reassemble a coalition to prevent its nuclearization. That effort too will be difficult, and it will outrage many and be caricatured as saber-rattling.
China has established the precedent that it can create an artificial island in the midst of key sea lanes and then expand upon that fantasy island concept by claiming additional sovereign air and sea space around it. To prevent a Chinese veto over all commercial traffic to our Asian allies, President 45 is going to have to persuade the Chinese of the foolishness of their overreach and convince them to end the general precedent of island creation. That, too, will be no fun.
History in the short term adores appeasers. They pontificate and pose as sober and judicious humanitarians who will do anything to avoid confrontation on their watch, even as they light the fuse of Armageddon for their successors. The restorers of deterrence are always smeared as war-mongers—and only praised as Churchillian largely when they are dead. So it will be for the next president if he or she chooses to stop the decline and restore the American-led postwar order.