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President Obama hailed as great successes the just-concluded NATO summit in Lisbon and his later meetings with European Union leaders. The outcomes of both, he argues, vindicate key aspects of his foreign policy, especially regarding Afghanistan. EU heads of government, faced with their own ongoing financial crisis, were also eager to declare victory. But the reality is far different.
The meetings not only left the central questions of Afghan strategy unresolved, they highlighted the continuing error of Obama’s misguided effort to hit the “reset button” with Russia, his inadequate support for missile defense of the American homeland and his economic policy failures at home and abroad.
And just as Air Force One landed back in Washington, disturbing new revelations broke about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. Obama’s lackluster Asia visit earlier in the month had exposed several foreign-policy failures; the European trip and the North Korea news only reinforce the perception that his administration is in growing disarray.
Consider Afghanistan. The United States will conduct a long-scheduled review of its Afghan policy next month–a review far more significant for future US (and NATO) strategy there than the long-range Lisbon agreement to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan government in 2014.
The NATO agreement represented neither any real breakthrough nor a new direction for the alliance. As The Washington Post reported: “In many ways, it was policy catching up with facts on the ground. NATO has been officially involved in the Afghan war for seven years, and some of the alliance’s leading militaries, particularly the United States, have been fighting there for nine years.”
The December review of US policy will focus largely on the extent of the withdrawal of US and other NATO forces that’s to begin next summer. When Obama increased NATO forces in Afghanistan, he promised simultaneously that withdrawal would begin in 2011, thus demonstrating to the Taliban and al Qaeda that simply being patient could ultimately give them the upper hand.
Although the president has since tried out a number of different rhetorical formulations about the right conditions for withdrawing US forces, his basic approach hasn’t varied: He’s determined to begin reducing American forces without real regard to conditions on the ground. He said as much in Europe, underlining that Gen. David Petraeus has begun “planning and mapping” ways for the 2011 drawdown to proceed.
Obama also stressed that “we are in a better place now than we were a year ago,” thus laying the foundation for declaring victory and withdrawing from Afghanistan, whatever the actual facts. Many believe his underlying concern is domestic US politics, and appeasing his party’s vocal anti-war faction.
Small wonder that the Taliban and al Qaeda like to say about NATO: “You have the watches, we have the time.”
And Obama’s public rebuke of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Lisbon only increased our opponents’ ample cause for optimism. There is certainly much to criticize about Karzai’s leadership, but saying publicly, as Obama did, “he’s got to listen to us as well,” is hardly a mark of statesmanship.
The NATO summit’s agreement on missile defense is equally insubstantial. Providing for alliance-wide protection has been a US goal since President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 bilateral treaty with Russia barring national missile defenses. The Lisbon accord simply formalizes the policy evolving since then, thus hardly representing a groundbreaking achievement. Moreover, the idea that Russia will now cooperate with NATO on missile defense is derisory.
Obama’s real problem is his disdain for homeland missile defense, which will be vigorously debated in the new Congress, and heated up by the news about North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program.
Nor is there much solace for the Europeans. Ireland’s financial crisis again demonstrates that the euro’s fundamental problem is not fiscal or budgetary, but overwhelmingly political, and it may yet be fatal to the entire euro project.
The only satisfaction for EU leaders was their near-unanimous criticism of Obama’s dangerous spending and deficit policies, as he desperately tries to stimulate the US economy. While it is doubtful Obama paid much attention, the newly elected Congress will challenge his policies in nearly every respect, doubtless gladdening European hearts.
So Obama returns to Washington with at best a fleeting mirage of success, and must immediately plunge into deep political and economic difficulties and a threatening world environment he still doesn’t seem to understand. His opponents at home, however, can take no satisfaction from his difficulties. Quite the contrary, having an unskilled and ineffective president only increases the risks and dangers America will face over the next two years.
John R. Bolton is a resident fellow at AEI.
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