Now that he has been safely re-elected, Barack Obama’s personal foreign and defence views no longer pose any risk to him in domestic political terms. Unfortunately, however, the international risks caused by his radical ideology, naivety and simple ineptness, added to the damage already done in the first term, are increasingly apparent. The Obama Administration’s failures to date cover the full spectrum of national security affairs. At the strategic level, there is utter incoherence in dealing long term with powers like Russia and China, or the swirling morass of conflicts in the Middle East. In the immediate future, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes are speeding ahead as regional and global threats, without even effective tactical opposition by the United States and its allies.
These and many other dangers, new and emerging, were all present in Obama’s first term. But only near the end of the long election campaign, in the September 11 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, did many of the Administration’s failures stand fully exposed to public view. Although Republican political leaders failed to communicate Benghazi’s import to the voters (indeed, they essentially fled from the issue), its significance, domestically and globally, should not be underestimated. To be sure, identifying historical turning points is a tricky business. Events that, in their own time, seem sure to qualify can fade away, while obscure happenings later become, in history’s judgment, major departures. Take Zhou En-lai’s 1972 remark that “it is too soon to tell” about the consequences of the French Revolution. Or perhaps he was referring to the 1968 Paris riots; either way, Zhou’s prudence makes the point.
But with events unfolding at a truly dizzying pace, we must still ask, even if hazardous, whether a turning point occurred on September 11 in Benghazi, with the murder of the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three others. Certainly, the attack and its consequences continue to roil the US political debate. Some commentators compare Benghazi to Watergate, noting sarcastically that no one died at Watergate. Neither the bungled burglary nor the terrorist attack materially disrupted the incumbent president’s path to electoral victory, this time despite Obama’s utterly lame explanation that the attack resulted from local outrage over an internet video ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. Nonetheless, the damage to Obama’s second term, as to Nixon’s, could be considerable. Obviously, occurring on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Libya killings have added resonance, even though the 2012 butcher’s bill was mercifully far lower.
There are, however, clear differences. Both Watergate and the first September 11 produced press extravaganzas, whereas Benghazi and the White House “explanation” initially seemed likely to disappear from the media radar screen. Among the major players, only Fox News kept investigating and reporting new information in the weeks that followed. In Watergate, there was unquestionably a White House-led cover-up to prevent the facts from emerging, which may or may not characterise Obama and Benghazi. The even more worrying truth could be that Obama’s ideological conviction that al-Qaeda has been defeated and that “the tide of war was receding” might simply have blinded his Administration to reality.
Just days after the election, the potential makings of a turning point materialised with the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, apparently forced by an extramarital affair; and the controversy over Ambassador Susan Rice’s public commentary about Benghazi, which imperilled her potential nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. With a sex scandal and a potentially bruising Senate confirmation fight in prospect, the mainstream US media finally came alive, as usual focusing on the sensational rather than the significant.
Whether or not Benghazi has dramatic historical importance, and reflects the point at which a true American global decline became evident, there is no doubt the tragedy embodies all the continuing defects of Obama’s worldview and his blindness toward significant international realities. For purposes of assessing the course of a second Obama term, Benghazi may well hold the keys, both as to the policies and personnel of the coming four years.
On the blindness issue, Russia and China remain potential great power threats to America and the West, but these large historical challenges receive almost no attention from Obama himself. Unfortunately, the policy vacuum at the centre of Obama’s relations with these states can be easily and quickly described: he simply ignores or misunderstands them, or both. No better example exists than the notorious March 2012 “open microphone” conversation with Russia’s President Medvedev, where Obama asked for “space” for his own political safety before the November election, seemingly clueless about the actual signal he was sending. Similarly, Obama’s massive budget cuts (nearly a trillion dollars) to US defence capabilities in his first term, coupled with his utter indifference to decreases of another half-trillion inherent in the December 31 “fiscal cliff”, all reflect his comfort with American decline; he believes he can ignore external affairs at no risk.
On the Middle East, however, with its combustible mixture of religion and politics, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, Obama does have both genuine interest and clear ideological biases, which are uniformly wrong. His only successes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden (after ten years of effort commencing in 2001) and the unexpected continuation of many Bush Administration operational approaches to terrorism (such as retaining the Guantánamo Bay detention facility), have been due largely to the brute force of reality rather than Obama’s personal inclinations.
Where he has put his distinctive mark on US national security policy, there is little to write home about. Take the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010. It has occurred entirely during his presidency, where he alone has set US policy. In his typical decision-making style, he could not at first decide what to do, wavering between supporting incumbent, pro-American rulers like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, then calling for his ousting. Obama’s vacillation ended by supporting the Tahrir Square demonstrators’ demands that Mubarak had to go, but only after convincing nearly all knowledgeable Egyptians that the White House was improvising on an hourly basis. Even worse, stable and friendly regimes on the oil-producing Arabian Peninsula watched closely as Mubarak was hung out to dry. They wondered whether they could count on US support when their time of trial came—perhaps Iran whipping up Shia populations against the hereditary rulers, threatening terrorism and nuclear intimidation.
Now, America and Europe stand idly by, watching as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt daily increases its power, along with even more radical Salafists. Initially, the Brotherhood said it would play only a limited role in electoral politics, but it reneged on its promises and won both the presidency and a parliamentary majority. Confronted with rulings by Mubarak-era judges upholding the military’s decision to dismiss the legislature, and threatening the constitutional assembly, President Mohammed Morsi struck back with his own November decree eviscerating judicial review of his acts and those of the constitution writers. The Brotherhood then rammed through a sharia-friendly constitution, sweeping secular and Coptic Christian concerns aside, and called a snap December 15 referendum. Morsi has meanwhile worked vigorously to pack top military positions with Brotherhood supporters, hoping thereby to neutralise the military’s independence. If successful, he would eliminate both the only political power centre potentially in his way and the last significant US influence in Egypt, bought over three decades by tens of billions of dollars in military aid since the 1979 Camp David accords.
Obama’s—and America’s—cascading loss of influence in Egypt has had broader international implications, exemplified by Morsi’s August trip to Tehran, the first by an Egyptian leader since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood’s solicitude for Hamas, its terrorist subsidiary in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, could not have been clearer, as Mubarak’s restrictions on access to Gaza across Egypt’s border were suspended or ignored. The Sinai Peninsula is now a superhighway for smugglers and terrorists heading for Gaza or the Israeli border, even causing Israel to accept Egyptian military deployments to re-establish security in the Sinai technically in violation of Camp David. Whether those units ever fully draw back is now an open question, given the unconcealed hostility to Camp David itself that Morsi voiced during his election campaign and that the Brotherhood has long proclaimed.
The critical linkage between Egypt’s new domestic and foreign policies was also graphically demonstrated in last November’s Hamas-Israel conflict. Whatever credit Morsi deserves for brokering the November 21 ceasefire, he unquestionably felt sufficiently emboldened by his conversations with Obama and Secretary Clinton to move the very next day, America’s Thanksgiving holiday, against Egypt’s judiciary. We do not know what Obama and Clinton said precisely, but as the Soviets used to say, that timing was no coincidence, comrade.
As Hamas gained political ground internationally, the Palestinian Authority seemed on the verge of irrelevance. In response, Mahmoud Abbas resorted to the time-tested strategy of seeking via the United Nations what Palestinians have consistently failed to win militarily or through direct negotiations. Granting it UN observer state status, as the General Assembly did on November 29, is a fantasy, but unfortunately consistent with trying to create facts on the ground in the United Nations rather than the Middle East. By now using the concept of “lawfare” against Israel, the Palestinians may in fact be able to gain political and financial advantages, whether through the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, UN specialised agencies or weak European foreign ministries.
This entire embarrassment, foreshadowed by “Palestine’s” October 2011 admission as a member state to Unesco could have been avoided had President Obama bestirred himself. In 1989, the PLO tried the same gambit, seeking to join the World Health Organisation, Unesco and, ultimately, the UN itself. George H.W. Bush stopped this cold by releasing America’s most persuasive weapon, its financial leverage in the UN. Secretary of State James Baker said in May 1989, “I will recommend to the President that the United States make no further contributions, voluntary or assessed, to any international organisation which makes any change to the PLO’s status as an observer organisation.” The PLO effort collapsed, and Congress then prohibited US funding for any UN body that admitted “Palestine” as a member state. This guillotine has now fallen on Unesco because the Obama Administration showed weakness, assuring Unesco it would do everything it could to have the statutory prohibition repealed. That will not happen. And Obama showed weakness again in the General Assembly by not utilising the Bush-Baker threat on observer state status. Now Israel has retaliated financially against the Palestinian Authority, weakening it further, and by announcing it would allow 3,000 new settlers’ homes to be built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Congress seems likely to cut off some funding either to the UN, the Palestinians or both. Obama’s weakness thus gives him the worst outcome conceivable.
In the Arab Spring’s early days, naive, ill-informed observers, along with propagandists and apologists for radical Islamists, all proclaimed it to be the alternative to al-Qaeda, the revolution that would undercut the threat of global terrorism and bring democracy, sweetness and light to the Middle East. That line of analysis has proven tragically wrong, which many of its original adherents, not including those in the White House, now admit. But in fact, the Arab Spring’s risks were obvious from the outset. The post-colonial tide of secular, socialist, anti-Western Arab nationalism receded long ago, and it is now being replaced by a wave of religious fanaticism, equally or perhaps even more anti-Western than its predecessor.
Egypt, given its size and importance in the Arab world, is the Arab Spring’s biggest failure. For Americans, however, Libya is the most visible and painful embodiment of what went wrong, and the reason why the September 11 Benghazi attack has the prospect of being seen by history as the symbol of US decline under Obama. Libya, after all, was supposed to be an Obama success story. Gaddafi was overthrown under the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, a humanitarian intervention and not one based on crude national interest, and under UN auspices to boot. It was accomplished without American ground forces or casualties, an immaculate conception of the Obama doctrine of “leading from behind”.
But then, as is his wont, Obama turned his attention back to domestic issues, and Libya descended into chaos. Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and offshoots across the country, especially in Benghazi, the very city where feared Gaddafi massacres had moved Obama to action, grew more threatening. And in this city rescued by America, our casualties finally came, despite repeated requests for greater protection from Ambassador Stevens and his country team. There was no enhanced security before September 11, no help coming on September 11, and no visible retaliation after September 11. Retribution may yet be in prospect, but it would be a rare national security secret the Obama Administration has been able to restrain itself from leaking.
And the chaos across the Middle East and North Africa only grows. Yemen and Syria are torn by bloody civil wars, with al-Qaeda gaining significant strength in both countries. Mali is coming apart, as forces once under Gaddafi’s control return home and struggle for supremacy with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, perhaps foreshadowing more extensive conflict both in Muslim states and countries like Nigeria where Muslim-Christian animosities run deep. Somalia remains a broken state, a refuge for pirates and terrorists. With Egypt increasingly under Brotherhood control, the fate of Jordan’s monarchy, the only other Arab government formally at peace with Israel, is at best precarious. And as they feared while watching Mubarak topple, Gulf Co-operation Council states only grow more endangered.
They worry not only about declining stability and increased threats from the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Salafists and al-Qaeda, but from the looming menace of Iran’s steadily advancing nuclear weapons programme. In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest quarterly report again emphasised Tehran’s continued progress across a broad range of nuclear activities, and also stressed Iran’s disdainful stonewalling of IAEA efforts to resolve questions about its programme’s military applications. And no wonder: there has never been the slightest doubt that the regime’s objective was nuclear weapons. Economic sanctions have failed to stop Iran, and will continue to fail, despite imposing undoubted economic costs. Sanctions only work when they are comprehensive, swiftly and uniformly applied, and rigorously enforced, including with military power. That is very nearly the exact opposite of the Iran sanctions over the years. North Korea, the most heavily sanctioned country on earth, is already a nuclear power because China and Russia continue to sustain it, just as they and others continue to prop up the Iranian ayatollahs, who are still sufficiently robust that they in turn aid Assad’s faltering regime in Syria.
Iran as well as Hamas emerged stronger from the November 21 Gaza ceasefire. Hamas defied the threat of an Israeli ground assault and lived to tell about it. Iran proved it could get longer-range missiles to Hamas in Gaza, as it already freely supplies Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus endangering Israeli civilian population centres from both the north and south. Strategically, Israel now faces the palpable threat of retaliation to an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme not from Iran itself, but from its proxies, effectively encircling Israel, something long feared and expected, but now proven publicly. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system performed exceptionally well in November, but in the unending offence-versus-defence struggle, Iran also learned important lessons for future conflicts.
A nuclear Iran represents an existential threat not only to Israel, but to the shrinking band of pro-Western Arab states across the region. And even those states, such as Saudi Arabia, along with the likes of Egypt, Turkey, and others are certain to seek their own nuclear weapons once Iran crosses the nuclear finish line. That proliferation, which could happen very quickly, would create a Middle East with half a dozen nuclear-weapons states, making this already-volatile region a potential inferno just awaiting the first spark.
There is no reason to believe any of these national security challenges, or President Obama’s consistently weak and inadequate responses, will improve in his second four years. The September 11 Benghazi attack will, at a minimum therefore, come to symbolise Obama’s place in international affairs, much more than the killing of bin Laden. Indeed, since America’s adversaries have correctly sized Obama up as both passive and inattentive, there is every reason to believe that the pace and scope of challenges will actually increase. Until Republicans make the case and convince voters that America’s place in the world is critical to the protection of freedom and a strong domestic economy, the vista ahead is treacherous and clouded. Obama’s strange parallel universe will become the new reality.