On December 6 President Barack Obama defended his strategy for combating terrorism, a strategy—if one can call it that—based on restraint and withdrawal. Without mentioning Donald Trump’s name, the president went on to contrast his ideas with those enunciated by the president elect. He clearly attempted to make the case for why his successor should adhere to his approach.
That approach includes scaling back U.S. military presence abroad, a ban on torture and the closing of the detention facility in Guantanamo. President Obama referred to his approach as “smart policy” and noted with pride that “no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland, and it’s not because they didn’t try.” He argued, as well, for using diplomacy before military power, pointing to the Iran deal as the way to restrain a nuclear program.
While President Obama is keen on securing his legacy, the claims about “smart policy” are questionable. Alas, the scaling back of U.S. military presence has occurred with the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, a symbol of misguided policy directives. The rise of ISIS is due in no small part to the departure of the U.S. military from the region. Similarly, the announcement that there will be a dramatic force reduction in Afghanistan on an announced date, led directly to enhanced field operations by the Taliban.
The emptying of Guantanamo, with detainees sent to various locations abroad, has resulted in at least a third of them returning to the battlefield to foment terror. But the inaccurate claim about Guantanamo is small potatoes compared to the assertion “no terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland…” While a 9/11 size attack has not occurred, “the tree of terrorism” has used splinter groups in the form of ISIS inspired terrorists to promote death from San Bernardino to Orlando. A change in tactics by terror organizations does not represent a change in purpose.
Clearly as Churchill noted, “jaw jaw is better than war war.” Diplomacy should precede military action as Obama noted. But soft power without the requisite hard power behind it is a negotiated void. The ceasefire talks over Syria is a case in point. U.S. presence is subordinate to Russian and Iranian troops. As a consequence, Turkish officials have described the U.S. position as “irrelevant.”
Last, the president, by his own admission, said Iran will be in a break-out phase – sufficient fissile material for the development of nuclear weapons – in ten years. Hence the much heralded Iran deal does not restrain Iran from a nuclear program, it merely forestalls it. The real question is not whether Iran will possess weapons of mass destruction, but when it will have them. Moreover, President Obama has conspicuously overlooked violations of the deal and certainly the spirit of the negotiations. Voiced disapproval in the UN, sotto voce, by UN Ambassador Samantha Powers, has certainly not moved the Iranian leadership. Hence, the vow made by the president to avoid nuclear proliferation in the region, has been renounced by regional nations eager for a deterrent to counter the potential Iranian nuclear weapon.
As I see it, the president is not in any position to offer advice on “smart policy.” It turns out his policies have not been very smart. If anything, President Elect Trump should regard foreign policy as a tabula rasa in which he can imprint his own judgments. In far too many cases, the best judgment would be the opposite of what President Obama has prescribed.