It’s not a won­der­ful world with Obama’s re­trench

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Like many other Amer­i­can fam­i­lies this hol­i­day sea­son, the Hay­den clan will set aside time to, once again, watch Frank Capra’s 1946 clas­sic, “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.”

You know the story: a dis­traught Ge­orge Bai­ley (Jimmy Ste­wart) is vis­ited by his guardian an­gel, Clarence, and shown what the world would look like if there were no Ge­orge Bai­ley. Clarence demon­strates what would have been the death of Ge­orge’s younger brother, the sink­ing of an Amer­i­can troop ship, an­other death due to a phar­ma­cist’s er­ror, the gen­eral de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Ge­orge’s beloved Bed­ford Falls, a va­ri­ety of stunted per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

Of course, Bai­ley/Ste­wart gets the mes­sage, sees the folly of his funk, faces his cur­rent cri­sis, is sup­ported by those around him, and ev­ery­one lives hap­pily ever af­ter (or at least through the fi­nal reel). Great moviemak­ing. So great that to­day, in the na­tional se­cu­rity realm, we get to see life im­i­tat­ing art. We’re get­ting to see what the world would look like if there were no Amer­ica — or at least the Amer­ica to which we and the world have be­come ac­cus­tomed.

Pres­i­dent Obama came to of­fice with a strong be­lief that Amer­ica had over­reached, that we had be­come too in­volved. It matched the na­tional mood and, in­deed, there was some ev­i­dence that it was true. For­mer Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert Gates, the one the pres­i­dent in­her­ited from his pre­de­ces­sor, fa­mously ob­served that any fu­ture SECDEF who rec­om­mended com­mit­ting a big Amer­i­can army to Asia or the Mid­dle East should “have his head ex­am­ined.”

And the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has cer­tainly re­trenched. David Sanger, chief Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times, once de­scribed this as try­ing to bet­ter align the def­i­ni­tion of Amer­i­can in­ter­ests with the re­al­i­ties of Amer­i­can power.

Be­yond over­reach, I sus­pect that many on the ad­min­is­tra­tion team also be­lieved that Amer­i­can power was of­ten more cause than cure of in­ter­na­tional strife. Hence, what many called the “apol­ogy tour” early in the ad­min­is­tra­tion: “Amer­ica has shown ar­ro­gance”; “We went off course”; “At times we sought to dic­tate our terms.”

We are now com­plet­ing year seven of re­trench­ment and hu­mil­ity. And it looks like we may have over­achieved. Cer­tainly, it seems that th­ese con­cepts are im­mune from be­ing in­flu­enced by any of the re­al­i­ties they cre­ate.

Who (be­sides the pres­i­dent) now thinks that the right num­ber of resid­ual Amer­i­can forces in Iraq is zero? Pre­dictably, per­haps in­evitably, our pulling the cork out of the ethno-sec­tar­ian bot­tle there un­leashed pri­mal forces that have di­rectly led to the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the coun­try, the (re)birth of the Is­lamic State and the spread of Ira­nian hege­mony. And this was a de­ci­sion un­abashedly cel­e­brated by the ad­min­is­tra­tion as con­sis­tent with its vi­sion and as a prom­ise kept.

Then there was Ukraine, where a weak but re­van­chist Rus­sia changed Euro­pean bor­ders and ac­tu­ally eroded the West­phalian def­i­ni­tion of cit­i­zen­ship (based on where you resided) to one de­fined by the lan­guage your Mom and Dad spoke in the kitchen while you were grow­ing up.

De­spite con­sis­tent calls for de­fen­sive arms, the U.S. re­sponse was largely eco­nomic sanc­tions and hec­tor­ing Vladimir Putin about be­ing on the wrong side of history. The re­sult: gen­uinely fright­ened Baltic states, the dis­mem­ber­ment of Ukraine and an over­con­fi­dent Rus­sian au­to­crat.

In Syria, it was (is) worse. De­spite a pol­icy based on the premise that “Bashar As­sad must go,” the pres­i­dent re­jected pro­pos­als from his sec­re­taries of state and de­fense and the di­rec­tor of the CIA to arm the op­po­si­tion when it still would have made a dif­fer­ence. He walked back from his own red line when Mr. As­sad bla­tantly crossed it with his use of chem­i­cal weapons. U.S. forces, when they fi­nally re­turned to the re­gion in the face of a geno­cide against the Yazidis, were lim­ited in num­bers and au­thor­i­ties. The re­sult: a ter­ror­ist state the size of Eng­land in the mid­dle of the Mid­dle East, the re­turn of Rus­sian mil­i­tary forces and in­flu­ence there for the first time in 40 years, some 300,000 dead, the most se­ri­ous refugee cri­sis in Europe since World War II and a spread­ing ring of terror that has reached Paris (so far).

To be sure, more ro­bust Amer­i­can be­hav­ior could not it­self have de­ter­mined the out­come in Iraq, Ukraine or Syria. The point is that we ab­di­cated op­por­tu­ni­ties that could have helped shape out­comes more be­nign than to­day’s. If it was al­ways go­ing to be bad, it didn’t have to be this bad.

Last week in An­talya, Tur­key, the pres­i­dent faced an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hos­tile press that chal­lenged the ad­e­quacy of his poli­cies in Syria. Not giv­ing an inch, Mr. Obama de­fended his ap­proach and, be­yond a cer­tain un­de­fined in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, said there would be no changes. The pres­i­dent showed some pique when, in ef­fect, the jour­nal­ists re­peated the same ques­tion over and over again in only slightly dif­fer­ent form.

If I had been there, I would have sug­gested a some­what dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Rather than giv­ing the pres­i­dent mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to sim­ply aver (some­what ex cathe­dra) to the cor­rect­ness of his course, I would have asked, “What event — in Syria, in Iraq, in Europe, in the United States — what event would cause you to say, ‘Ya know, we may have got­ten this wrong. We’re go­ing to have to re­group on this’?”

Put an­other way, what does the an­gel Clarence have to show the pres­i­dent to make him change his mind?

I don’t think that’s ever go­ing to hap­pen, so we’re go­ing to have to wait for a new Ge­orge Bai­ley (or per­haps it will be Mary Bai­ley, Donna Reed’s char­ac­ter in the movie) be­fore much of any­thing changes.

And that’s still go­ing to be hard. Clarence gave Ge­orge a big fa­vor: Ge­orge got to pick up where he left off — with­out hav­ing to deal with all the bad things that would have been cre­ated by his ab­sence.

That will not be the case with the Amer­ica that the next pres­i­dent will in­herit.

Gen. Michael Hay­den is a for­mer di­rec­tor of the CIA and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency. He can be reached at mhay­den@wash­ing­ton­

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