In conversations lately, many friends and acquaintances have voiced “disappointment” in President Obama. Most voted for him twice, so these thoughts aren't from some Tea Party fringe. A recurring theme is that Obama doesn't exhibit enough “strong will” and “single-minded purpose.” This crops up in some discussions of domestic policy, but much more often the topic is foreign policy. My friends, and many international ones, point to “red lines” crossed and ignored, disrespect from other heads-of-state and a general dissipation of American power.
I can’t agree with most of this. America and the world should not push Obama to take “macho lessons” from Putin or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For that matter, also not from McCain or other of our own government types that present things in oh so clear “black and white.”
Two points form the basis of my thoughts on this matter.
First, we shouldn't be surprised (nor should Obama) that we have bad actors and awful conflicts being inflicted on our world. In 3,400 years of documented history, most of the time humans have been at war, not peace – its how we have settled things since we started walking upright. It is hard to pin down with any accuracy, but some historians write that of those 3,400 years, perhaps 200 – 300 could be considered globally peaceful – ten percent.
Second, at present the United States military is without equal. We seem to forget that in the spring of 2003 we demonstrated this to the world. In six weeks America, with little real help, defeated the 375,000 troops of Saddam Hussein with a loss of 138 American lives. I am in no way defending this disastrous foreign policy or diminishing the sacrifices made, but merely pointing out how easily the third most highly regarded military machine at that time was crushed by ours. The United States spends over $600 billion on defense, 36% of the world’s total, and more than the next 15 top spenders combined.
I think Obama’s slow, non-confrontational and stoic approach will prove to be less dangerous, less deadly and more effective than if we had a Putin-like pugilist in the White House. The world doesn’t need a yet another trigger happy demagogic bully. But we cannot look like we have no policy or a policy of weakness. We must communicate and telegraph to the world and to the bullies what we plan to do and how we will react. This Obama has done poorly.
His communication must become simple, direct, unambiguous and totally lacking “footnotes.”
President Obama should tell America and the world:
· Humans are a warring bunch, so we shouldn't be surprised and should prepare to have conflicts that destroy life and infrastructure. Innocent people will be hurt the world over, even in America. Saying otherwise is a cruel fiction.
· America remains the most dominant military the world has ever experienced, stronger than any other by a large measure.
· The pure military threat is the least of our concern. We can be late to the game, very late, and still have an assured victory if the political world stage is properly set and nations agree to the course of action.
· America has a responsibility to the rest of the world because of our wealth and strength. This includes when we are directly threatened, but also if others are threatened. We have a big stake in not letting any part of the world sink into chaos because left unchecked it will destabilize and spread. At its heart this is a moral position that Americans can respect and the world can admire. Isolation is a naive mirage in the world we now live in.
· America will support an economic or military response to aggression only in coordination with and the approval of the United Nations, not unilaterally. Two exceptions will apply: first, to an attack on America or Americans; second, in response to a lawful invitation from an allied country for help that is urgent to their survival.
· America will demand little, but will be firm that our approval and participation requires directly affected nation neighbors to the conflict to have “skin in the game” in proportion to the threat against them. We will never again be seen as a solitary mercenary force fighting someone else’s battles.
· If America responds, we will be all in. This means that our decision will not be limited, sequential, stepped or measured; we will specifically announce that our response will be what is appropriate and proportional to the size and capability of our forces, agreed among the UN nations participating. It is self defeating to limit our action to air support or other limited tactics; we must, up front, fully commit to the endeavor – or not commit at all. Mixed messages are always taken as a sign of weakness by a bully
· America will make solving the Israeli and Palestinian crisis within three years a top priority and no longer allow either party’s brinkmanship of the process. Until this is believed by the Arab world, America realizes that our standing and influence in this region of high conflict is diminished.
Even our military says the “military” part is easy if the mission is clearly stated and the commitment is “all in.” Obama, and many presidents before him, have not taken this message fully to heart. It will take some time for the world to know that we have “put money where our mouth is.” This will be tough for awhile; America will be tested and pulled into some conflicts where a bully has over played his hand. But at some point, future bullies will understand consequences and therefore be smart enough not to overplay.
And America will wake up to a new found respect and stature in the world; and American’s will feel better about themselves, their leadership and their military.
Case in point to my argument about going slow is the current campaign in Syria and Iraq against IS. The effort underway is now supported by Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would not have been the case if we acted more unilaterally nine months ago against Assad.
We and the world do not need more bluster; we need a calm and steely strong reserve and clearly communicated, simple foreign policy principles. And if the UN and EU finally realize that they cannot just wait for America to run out of patience; then they too will perhaps face their responsibilities more forthrightly.
The military dimension is not the critical item here; it is the hearts and minds aspects of the world community. Luckily, our military might allows the international organizations to muddle along a bit as they create a consensus for appropriate action.