Obama Must Match Rhetoric, Reality

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will roll out the Obama administration's National Security Strategy on Thursday.

President Barack Obama's own curtain raiser at West Point on Saturday previewed the document, and everyone and their maiden aunt has parsed it silly. Some like it--partly because it isn't about "pre-emption," partly because it doesn't justify the war in Iraq and partly because it emphasizes multilateralism.

But mostly, I suspect, they like it because Obama delivered it.

Without access to the full NSS, it isn't fair to pass judgment. The speech was a fine one, as speeches go. Most of President George W. Bush's speeches were fine, too. But it's the policy that matters.

My beef with Bush was that his speeches and his policies bore little relationship to one another. Turns out, Obama's not so different.

Obama defines success in Iraq as "an Iraq that provides no haven to terrorists, a democratic Iraq that is sovereign and stable and self-reliant."

The president said, "We will adapt, we will persist and I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan"--but not if adapting, persisting and succeeding require substantial troops on the ground beyond July 2011.

He has made clear in other statements, however, that he is not so interested in a "sovereign and stable" Iraq that he is prepared to breach his summer deadline for ending U.S. combat operations. Nor is the president so keen to amortize the sacrifices of our troops that he would contemplate a long-term partnership with Baghdad.

But even such limited, if worthy, goals are more than Obama's Afghanistan strategy offers up. The president said, "We will adapt, we will persist and I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan"-- but not if adapting, persisting and succeeding require substantial troops on the ground beyond July 2011.

For those of us afraid of U.S. retreat--particularly retreat rationalized by the failure of other countries to rally behind us (swimming with what Obama calls the "currents of cooperation")--the president counters himself with a rousing hurrah for strength at home and abroad.

Obama is right that a nation that is weak domestically cannot loom large on the world stage. But he is also the president who has slashed defense programs, opposed military pay increases and set in motion a national borrowing spree so overwhelming that debt service will top defense outlays in two years.

"At no time in human history," Obama said, "has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy." Bingo.

The soothing music of international harmony will clearly be a broad theme behind the new NSS. But the president confuses allies with international organizations and leadership with cooperation. Neither is a substitute for the other--and our allies are increasingly at odds with this administration.

Relations are strained with traditional friends in London, Paris and Berlin; and things aren't too hot with New Delhi, Tokyo or Seoul. Meanwhile, the pillars of the "international order" Obama seeks to build--the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the International Atomic Energy Commission, among others--have failed in epic fashion to address nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, genocide in Darfur, economic collapse in Europe and so on.

At West Point, the president said, "We've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone"--as if choosiness kept us from fighting the wars of the 20th century without allies.

But good taste doesn't forge alliances; leadership does. Sometimes leadership requires Washington to lead alone. One need not go as far as Bush to understand that we need a gear other than reverse when it comes to military engagement.

So too, Obama seems oblivious to the greasy sheen of hypocrisy in his anti-Bush morality shtick. Finally we have a commander in chief who will not order an attack on Iran and who is determined to close Guantanamo.

But, rest assured, he will continue to authorize special-ops forces to conduct covert operations and regularly knock off a variety of Muslims across the globe based on the hearsay of local informants and gauzy satellite images.

Waterboarding is out, assassination by predator drone is in--and we can take pride in America's renewed moral standing in the world.

Most unexpectedly, we are told that human rights and democracy will form a pillar of America's new NSS. This is Human Rights 2.0.

But don't be confused; it's not the discredited Bush Freedom Agenda. It's the Obama Phantom Agenda--rarely mentioned and never implemented during his first 18 months in office.

From cookies for Khartoum to backtracking on Burma and apologies to Central Asian autocrats, the Obama administration has walked away from these issues faster than it could slip the Dalai Lama out the White House backdoor.

Apologists have said that the key distinction between Obama and Bush is that this president aims to build human rights and political freedoms through example, rather than by confronting the status quo in the Arab world and elsewhere.

This is garbage, pure and simple.

What the world's despots and democracy activists alike see in Obama is indifference to liberty--whether in Iran, Georgia, China, Sudan, North Korea or on the moon. Obama's not the first president to lack an interest in human freedom. (His predecessor said he cared and brought in a Cabinet that didn't.) But really? After the Iranian elections?

Much ink will be spilled today praising, damning and otherwise analyzing Obama's national security vision. But there are inescapable truths that this president must grasp: A world without U.S. leadership is a world dangerous to Americans. U.S. leadership requires conviction in the nation's greatness and commitment to American values.

It requires a clear-eyed understanding--more clear-eyed than so far displayed--that international organizations cannot defend us from the predations of terrorists, Iran or, for that matter, Greece. It requires an America that will reverse the retreat of the past 18 months.

It doesn't matter what the president and his staff say they're going to do. What matters is what they do. And don't do.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

Photo credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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