Team Obama's Foreign Policy: Tactical Successes, Strategic Failures, and Raw Politics
By U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham
The 2012 presidential election is upon us, and the nation is rightfully focused on the incredibly difficult economic challenges we face. There is no doubt our Republican candidates can and should hold President Obama accountable for the sorry state of the economy, which is the direct result of flawed policies Obama jammed through a Democratic-controlled Congress.
But Republican presidential candidates would be making a devastating mistake if they did not also challenge the Obama administration for its many strategic errors in the War on Terror, even if they should give him credit for some tactical successes as well. The president’s desire to boost his chances of reelection is affecting his national-security decisions — and this trend will only worsen as his political prospects dim.
That President Obama will sacrifice strategic thinking on national security in favor of raw political calculation should come as little surprise to those who have followed his rise up the political ladder.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Candidate Obama became the darling of the hard Left by his opposition to the Iraq War as he pummeled Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton for their votes in favor of military intervention. Candidate Obama opposed the surge, saying, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” He never took his foot off the gas when it came to championing the view that Iraq was a lost cause.
Not once did he acknowledge the success of the surge. Not once did he speak of the strategic consequences that would flow from a United States defeat in Iraq. Not once did he note how Iran gains from our loss.
In fact, Candidate Obama continued to champion the view that Iraq was a lost cause even when the facts on the ground proved otherwise. His approach was poll-driven base politics, and it worked. He rode the wave of anti-war sentiment all the way to the Democratic nomination for president. During the general election, he had to be shamed into visiting Iraq, and after returning, he refused to acknowledge the turnaround.
Like most Americans, I hoped that after his election, the president would think in more strategic terms regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, and the influence of electoral politics would be diminished. In the early days of his administration, there seemed to be a willingness to embrace strategic thought and continue policies that were showing success. They would serve the nation well over time, even though they may have not been universally applauded on the left.
There have been some tactical successes by the Obama administration, and the president deserves credit. The decision to send troops into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, and the targeted killing of American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who had taken up arms with al-Qaeda, were the right calls. But by no means do these tactical successes trump the series of major strategic mistakes, the depth and breadth of which I fear will come back to haunt our nation for decades to come. Raw politics have dominated, and will continue to dominate, strategic decisions in the War on Terror — whether the issue is troop withdrawal from Iraq, accelerated withdrawal of surge forces from Afghanistan, or allowing the ACLU to hold hostage our detention and interrogation policies.
President Obama’s policies have alienated old allies and discarded golden opportunities to guide entire regions into a closer alignment with American interests. He has squandered the respect, admiration, and — in some cases — fear that other nations and their leaders had of America. As a result, our allies are uncertain of our national commitment to support those who would fight the enemy in their own backyard, and enemies such as Iran seem more emboldened than ever. While not surprising, Obama’s actions are disappointing.
For those seeking to be our next president, permitting these strategic mistakes to go unchallenged would be devastating. I am unnerved by the lack of scrutiny many conservatives are giving President Obama’s fundamentally unsound national-security policies.
Iran: They’re Going Nuclear
Expressing a willingness to meet face-to-face with Iran’s leaders, President Obama came into office pledging a new engagement with the country. Nearly three years later, his Iran policy is failing.
Iran continues its drive to become a nuclear state, with the most recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluding that Iran appears to have made substantial progress toward that goal.
For the president to believe he can negotiate with Iranian leaders who deny the Holocaust, murder their own people, and openly support terrorism throughout the globe was naïve to begin with. Given the Iranian leadership’s history, a nuclear-armed Iran will march humanity back into darkness. Of all the things that could change the world for the worse, a nuclear-armed Iran has to be at the top of the list.
Those who believe we can contain a nuclear-armed Iran will likely be on the wrong side of history. To me, it seems inevitable that if primarily Shiite Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Sunni-Arab states will be driven to acquire their own. Over time, the entire Middle East will become nuclear-armed.
A military attack on Iran to stop their weapons program would open Pandora’s Box, but the Iranian regime’s acquiring a nuclear weapon will empty Pandora’s Box. I’m afraid this is the world in which we live — we face difficult choices that require strategic thinking and firm leadership.
The Obama administration’s sanctions have not changed Iranian behavior, and unless they are substantially altered, they never will. The sanctions have to be painful and biting. That requires cooperation from China and Russia, something this administration has not been able to obtain.
For instance, the Chinese are providing over one-third of Iran’s refined-petroleum products. The recent IAEA report describes in graphic detail the role a Russian nuclear scientist has played in aiding the Iranian nuclear program. While the report does not link this individual to Moscow, it is clear to me that Russia has been an Iranian enabler. The so-called “Reset” with Russia has failed and is producing more of the same.
A nuclear-armed Iran affects world security, but this administration has not inspired the world to boycott Iranian oil purchases and hit the regime hard on the economic front. I know meaningful sanctions would in the short term hurt the Iranian people, but I’m confident that without them, the regime will retrench itself. A stronger, more ruthless Iran led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is clearly not in the Iranian people’s or the United States’ long-term interests.
In hindsight, one of Obama’s greatest failures was allowing the United States to sit on the sidelines during the spring of 2009, when the Iranian regime was under fire from its own citizens. This — the Persian Spring — was a time of crisis for the mullahs, but one of opportunity for America. Instead of seizing the moment, President Obama was indecisive.
At the time, President Obama justified his weak response by saying he did not want to jeopardize his ability to negotiate with the regime. Whether strong presidential involvement would have won the day, history will never know. But one thing is certain: When world leaders speak boldly and loudly in support of those seeking their freedom from oppressive regimes, it inspires the oppressed. It is a timeless message from leaders who spoke truth to power, such as Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher.
Today, the Iranian regime has murdered its way back into power and clearly does not fear the United States or the free world as a whole. It speaks volumes about the lack of influence we hold over Iran that, allegedly, elements of their government would sanction the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Dealing with rogue regimes such as Iran requires strong presidential leadership. The Iranians are emboldened and do not fear the United States. They must believe that for America, all options are on the table when it comes to stopping them from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Given their recent actions, I do not think the mullahs in Tehran are particularly worried about another four years of an Obama administration. I hope a new Republican president will quickly change the Iranian regime’s calculations.
Iraq: Fumbled in the Red Zone
When Obama came into office, Iraq was on a glide path to a successful outcome. The surge had worked, and sectarian violence was on the wane.
At his confirmation hearing, Gen. Lloyd Austin, who had replaced Gen. Raymond Odierno, said we were inside the ten-yard line. President Obama simply needed to secure our long-term interests and finish the job of slowly but surely removing American troops from what was becoming a more stable and secure Iraq.
Unexpectedly, and against the unanimous advice of his military commanders, President Obama chose a rush to the exits — the most treacherous path available. His decision to pull all American troops out by the end of the year puts political calculations above our national security.
The Obama administration claims that the Iraqi government refused to provide legal immunity to an American follow-on force — but their refusal reflects a lack of effort on Obama’s part. That lack of effort comes from the president’s desire to appease his political base even when doing so endangers our national security and jeopardizes all we have fought and sacrificed for over the past eight years.
Last spring, I traveled to Iraq to urge the Iraqis to support a residual American force at the end of 2011. Every Iraqi leader I met with, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was open to the idea. But if recent press reports are accurate, President Obama basically stopped engaging with Maliki from February of this year. Stunningly, Press Secretary Jay Carney recently said that President Obama was engaged in Iraq, and that his engagement resulted in his fulfilling his campaign promise to withdraw all troops by the end of 2011.
The Bush administration did negotiate an agreement with the Iraqis to bring an to end our combat presence at the end of 2011. Logic would dictate that a new agreement would emerge to deal with the reality that Iraq’s security forces are not yet capable of standing on their own. No American commander recommended complete withdrawal from Iraq. The commanders understood that a follow-on force in 2012 is important to our national-security interests. They requested 14,000–18,000 troops to stay behind to create and develop an Iraqi air force and provide assistance in key areas such as intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations. Simply stated, there are certain military missions in Iraq that only the United States is currently equipped to handle, and they matter to our own national-security interests.
Already, disturbing reports are emerging that the Maliki government is reneging on its deals to integrate Sunnis into the government, and that the Iraqi security forces are beginning to split into sectarian camps. Unfortunately, whenever a security vacuum exists, you can expect people and institutions to retreat to their old corners.
Finally, an American military presence is vital to safeguard against a Kurdish–Arab dispute over boundary lines and oil reserves. Having a U.S. presence between the Kurdish militia and the Arab-dominated Iraqi security forces has created stability in a very volatile region of Iraq. Our commanders have recommended that 3,000–5,000 troops remain deployed to help alleviate tensions between the Kurds and Arabs as they work to reach a political settlement. Any conflict in the Kurdish area could spill over into Turkey, creating further regional instability.
Now, under Obama’s withdrawal plan, we will leave up to approximately 17,000 civilians and contractors in Iraq. This will likely prove to be even more costly than maintaining the troops requested by our commanders. This civilian force will be a de facto State Department army, something never embraced in the history of our nation. Most diplomats I have spoken with feel that a United States military presence, rather than private contractors, best ensures protection for our civilians who are doing important work in Iraq.
Our civilian leadership within the Department of Defense shares the view that the future of Iraq is critical to our national-security interests. I asked Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta how important it was to our own national security that Iraq ends well. On a scale of 1–10, he said it was an 8 or above. Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter went even farther, stating that given all the sacrifices we have made in Iraq, it was a 10.
Making sure Iraq can remain stable and develop a more mature security apparatus is the best insurance policy our nation has in the long struggle against terrorism. A stable, secure Iraq that can fend off the influences of Iran and Syria — dictatorships threatened by a democracy next door — is a strategic necessity that enhances our long-term national-security interests. The Iraqi withdrawal will benefit Iran more than it benefits any other regional player. It will provide continuing momentum for Iranian ambitions throughout the region.
In the face of these facts, President Obama chose to withdraw — placing all we have fought for in jeopardy, rejecting sound strategic thinking, and potentially allowing the Iraqi mission to end in failure.
Israel: Naïve Policies Strain Relationships
I appreciate President Obama’s decision to veto Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, but on a host of other issues, he has repeatedly thrown Israel, our best ally in the region, under the bus. The president placed Israel in a precarious position by unduly focusing on Israeli settlement policies and advocating that Israel retreat to its indefensible 1967 borders.
By publicly opposing the expansion of infrastructure settlements within five miles of the Knesset, when every Israeli government has supported expanding the settlements, President Obama singled out Israel in a manner never seen before. To continue being a fair broker regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the United States role is not to highlight a few issues at the expense of Israel in what has been a complicated mosaic of issues.
It should be of no surprise that when the Obama administration focused on Jerusalem settlements, the Palestinians responded by seizing upon this issue and making unprecedented demands as a condition for further negotiations. If the Obama administration did not anticipate this, thinking instead that criticizing Israel would gain the U.S. influence among the Palestinians, it is naïve at best. The peace process is broken.
The Palestinian effort to avoid direct negotiations with Israel and achieve statehood at the U.N. is another direct departure from past practices — and proves that the U.S.’s influence has become weaker, not stronger, among the Palestinians. President Obama’s opposition to the Palestinian decision to seek statehood at the United Nations was rebuffed. The Palestinians’ actions will inevitably strain U.S.-U.N. relations. The U.N. has become a forum in which the Palestinians can bring politically motivated complaints against Israel, and now, this problem will only get worse.
Israel is rightly concerned about the threats it faces from a nuclear-armed Iran. It is impractical to believe the Israeli leadership will sit on the sidelines as Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons. With this looming threat against Israel, and our own national-security interests jeopardized by an Iranian nuclear program, it is indeed unfortunate that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is at its most tenuous state in history.
Israel is more isolated than ever. Now is not the time for the president of the United States to show sympathy for a personal attack against the Prime Minister of Israel. The Obama administration’s policies toward Israel have led to a distrust never before seen between our two nations.
Israel is and hopefully always will be America’s most staunch and stable ally in a region where dangers grow by the day. Working with our Israeli allies should never been be seen as a burden for an American president.
Afghanistan: Undercutting Commanders
Afghanistan is now the center of gravity in the worldwide struggle against radical Islam. The Taliban filled the power vacuum created by Russian withdrawal and U.S. disengagement. They invited bin Laden in as an honored guest, and the rest is history.
President Obama made the right decision by introducing surge forces into Afghanistan. Numerous times during the 2008 campaign, Candidate Obama boldly stated that Afghanistan was the central front in the War on Terror. Frankly, I agreed with his assessment. For too long, we never had the right mix of forces in the country, and Obama was correct in noting that by the end of the Bush administration, Afghanistan had become the red-headed stepchild of the War on Terror.
When the military asked for 40,000 additional surge forces, President Obama went with 30,000. This decision created a dilemma for our military commanders, who had to divide their strategy into two parts. They decided to first go into the south against the Taliban in 2010 and 2011 with the full weight of the surge forces. We have had great success, particularly around Kandahar — the spiritual home of the Taliban. During these operations, the Taliban have been hit hard. The next step was to pivot to the east in 2012 and apply the full weight of surge forces to the Haqqani network.
In what I believe will be seen as a historically unsound decision, the president recently announced all surge forces would be recovered by September 2012, dramatically shortening the second fighting season in the east. This decision has to be welcomed by the Haqqani network.
When the president met with his military commanders in the summer of 2011, they did not present as an option withdrawing all surge forces by September 2012. While having the surge forces come home two months before his election may make sense in Chicago, it does not make sense in the Pentagon or Kabul.
President Obama’s withdrawal decision places Gen. John R. Allen in an untenable position, since he will lack the necessary forces to finish the two-part strategic plan. It’s clear from recent attacks in Afghanistan that the Haqqani network has gained influence and has become more brazen than the Taliban.
If recent press reports are accurate, President Obama is contemplating additional accelerated troop withdrawal beyond the surge forces. If this decision is carried out, it will put our enemies on steroids and be a disheartening blow to our friends and allies. Our troop withdrawals have caused those in the region to question whether we are committed to supporting forces of moderation.
Regional players and those within Afghanistan who have been betting on America are now hedging those bets. President Obama’s decisions risk all we have fought for, create doubt among our allies, and embolden our enemies. This is a classic example of political considerations’ overshadowing sound military recommendations.
Bet-hedging is most obvious in Pakistan. Their military and government are unsure about the U.S.’s commitment to Afghanistan. There is widespread belief that we will pull out of Afghanistan, and this belief remains one of the drivers of Pakistan’s double-dealing. Pakistan has worked with the U.S. to go after al-Qaeda — but also given sanctuary to the Taliban in Quetta and maintained relations with the Haqqani Network.
We should be sending the message to Pakistan that not only will we see Afghanistan through to 2014, but we will have a sufficient follow-on force to ensure that the Taliban and Haqqani will always be defeated by Afghan forces.
No one seems willing to follow the uncertain trumpet of the Obama administration. I fear we may now be on the path of losing our last best chance in Afghanistan after finally coming up with a winning strategy.
Libya: Leading from Behind
“Leading from behind” is not a sound long-term national-security strategy for the United States. Gaddafi was on the very edge of being toppled in Tripoli, and the imposition of a no-fly zone early on would have ended the war much sooner with less loss of life.
“Leading from behind” allowed the war to drag on, weapons caches to be lost, and greater devastation to be done to the Libyan people and economy. Our lack of involvement throughout the conflict has left a void in Libya. Our lack of influence could haunt us when it comes to the future development of the country.
The world is never a safer place when America “leads from behind,” and all conservatives should strongly denounce this ridiculous policy.
Guantanamo Bay: We Are a Nation Without a Jail
We remain a nation without a viable jail in the War on Terror. It’s a fact that is now readily acknowledged by our nation’s leading military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials.
Pres. George W. Bush, Candidate John McCain, and Candidate Obama all saw the wisdom in replacing Guantanamo Bay with a new confinement facility in the U.S. — on the grounds that doing so would repair damage done to America’s image — and I shared that view. But because the Obama administration failed to act early on to create a national-security legal regime that gave people confidence that we could safely close Guantanamo, the ability to close it no longer politically exists. Now there is strong bipartisan opposition to transferring prisoners to the United States.
To close Guantanamo Bay, we needed to create a legal system that recognizes that we are at war and our detainees should be treated as combatants. They are not common criminals. The American Civil Liberties Union, which holds unusual sway with this administration, did not share that view. The organization continually pushed back against any attempts to create national-security-centric legislation, and the Obama administration refused to stand up to it. So today, we are left with a quandary that continues to confound our military and intelligence operators — if we can’t send a high-value capture to Guantanamo, what can we do with him?
Killing terrorist combatants or releasing them should not be the only choices available. Capturing terrorist combatants, detaining them humanely, and gathering intelligence from them is a key to winning this war, as it allows us to hit the enemy before they hit us. But without a jail and adequate interrogation policies, we are placing our warfighters in an unacceptable position.
The dilemma over what to do with future captures has been left unaddressed by the Obama administration for almost three years. During my recent questioning of Attorney General Eric Holder, he stated the issue is still being studied. This is an unacceptable answer.
With the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, decisions must be made regarding the future of several detainees held in American custody in Iraq. One of the most prominent cases is that of Ali Mussa Daqduq, who has been held in U.S. military custody since 2007 for orchestrating the kidnapping and subsequent deaths of five American service members. It is imperative he face justice.
If Daqduq is turned over to the Iraqi legal system, I fear it will be a revolving door to release. And I warned Attorney General Holder that if Daqduq is brought to the United States to face trial in civilian court, the decision will be met with the same outrage as the administration’s misguided attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in New York City.
But the Obama administration has few other options. It has tried using Navy ships as temporary prisons to avoid sending captures to Guantanamo Bay, but no one believes that U.S. naval vessels are appropriate long-term detention facilities and a viable, sustainable substitute for Guantanamo. Given the current political environment, Guantanamo Bay is — despite its problems — the best prison available in the War on Terror. It’s also one of the best-run prisons in the world and should be used by our nation to detain, interrogate, and prosecute future captures in the War on Terror. Daqduq should be tried by military commission at Guantanamo Bay, as the actions of which he is accused were an act of war.
Attorney General Holder admitted that Guantanamo Bay is a humane detention center, where every detainee has access to our federal courts and state-of-the-art military courtrooms. Any effort by the Obama administration to avoid prosecuting Daqduq before military commission at Guantanamo Bay would be a serious mistake.
Interrogation Policies: Making Us Less Safe
In the Detainee Treatment Act, Congress reformed our interrogation practices while acknowledging the CIA’s need for a classified enhanced-interrogation program. The program’s techniques are consistent with our national values but remain unknown to our enemies.
President Obama, within days of taking office and with a stroke of a pen, signed an executive order taking these techniques off the table. It was a major mistake.
Our well-trained, professional CIA interrogators are now virtually out of the interrogation business. We now rely on the Army Field Manual, which is online for our enemies to review, as the exclusive resource for interrogation. The Field Manual was not designed for this purpose.
President Obama has handicapped our ability to gather vital intelligence against an enemy who is committed to our nation’s destruction. In the War on Terror, the best protection is good intelligence, and that is much harder to come by because of the misguided actions of this president.
9/11: An Act of War, Not a Crime
In many ways, the Obama administration has made the War on Terror a law-enforcement project rather than a military one. But the attacks of 9/11 were an act of war, not a common crime.
There is a reason that in the past, we have never used civilian courts to try enemy forces who presented a military threat to our way of life. Yet as mentioned above, the Obama administration wanted to try the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on America, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, in civilian court in New York City.
The administration withdrew the military-commission charges against KSM in a brazen attempt to handle the war in a federal district court, and it pressed ahead despite being repeatedly warned that trying KSM this way was a mistake: The trial in New York City would have put innocent civilians at risk, required hundreds of millions of dollars in security, and given KSM the loudest possible megaphone with which to spread his hate.
Americans never believed the mastermind of 9/11 deserved the same constitutional rights as an American citizen. And if KSM is not an enemy combatant deserving of a military commission, who would be?
Our civilian courts play an important role in the fight against terrorism. However, military commissions should be the preferred forum for dealing with senior leaders of al-Qaeda and other hardcore enemy combatants.
Ultimately, the KSM decision blew up in the Obama administration’s face. The public outcry clearly underscores that the American people understand the distinction between terrorists trying to destroy our way of life and common criminals.
Taking enemy combatants off the battlefield and throwing them into civilian courts can create tremendous legal complications. Our civilian courts are not set up to deal with people held for years under the law of war, and have different rules than military commissions when it comes to handling classified information.
For example, Ahmed Ghailani, a terrorist captured in Pakistan, was charged with 285 counts in federal district court and acquitted of all but one (for which, to be fair, he was sentenced to life in prison). Again, federal courts may be the right venue for some cases, but for cases involving overseas captures, sensitive intelligence, and individuals held by our military for years under the law of war, military commissions are a far superior venue.
Additionally, when we capture someone suspected of being an al-Qaeda member, the last thing we should do is quickly read them Miranda rights. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a propensity to do just that.
In the War on Terror, we have to hit the enemy before they hit us. That’s why intelligence gathering is such an important aspect of our national security and why trial venues should be selected based on strategic thinking, not the concerns of special-interest groups like the ACLU.
Under President Obama, our nation lacks a comprehensive, strategic vision in fighting and winning the War on Terror. We see this dynamic unfold on one issue after another. President Obama deserves credit for killing and disrupting terrorists and their networks, but this is only one piece of the overall mosaic of policies necessary to keep our nation safe against a vicious enemy who knows no boundaries.
We must embrace the concept of providing capacity to those who have the will to fight the terrorists in their own backyard. This requires patience and leadership.
It is imperative that our Republican candidates explain to the American people the necessity of staying on offense.
Our long-term national-security successes will not be judged by the day on which we leave places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but by what we leave behind. Under President Obama, our detention, interrogation, and prosecution policies are more in line with fighting crime than fighting a war.
The binding tie between these decisions seems to be that they are driven by political considerations, not our national-security interests.
Bringing troops home before the election is undoubtedly popular, and every politician is always concerned with his political base. However, if we make crucial decisions based on short-term political calculations, we will suffer as a nation.
When America is perceived to be weak or indecisive, it deflates our allies and emboldens our enemies. The threats we face from a vicious and evil enemy require far more strategic thought than the Obama administration has delivered.
In the 1964 presidential election, Ronald Reagan talked about “A Time for Choosing.” Today, the Republican party faces a similar time for choosing.
Will we be the party that continues to promote Reagan’s belief in a strong national defense? Will we stand up for freedom, democracy, and American values around the globe? Will we embrace and assist those willing to confront radical Islam in their own countries? And will we hold President Obama accountable for his strategic mistakes, which put our national security in jeopardy?
I believe peace through strength remains a winning formula, and I’m confident the American people are with us. But to be successful, we have to be willing to make the case.
(The oped was originally published by National Review Online on Friday, November 11th.)