Having just returned from Ukraine, I found it hard to recognize the world President Obama described in his West Point foreign policy speech last week. The facts on the ground – in Russia, Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan – contradict the key points he was making. That disconnect makes friends and enemies worldwide question his ability to lead.
Obama rightly says the odds of a direct attack from any foreign nation are minimal. But in a rapidly changing world, with China rising, Russia invading its neighbors, and terrorists multiplying, he failed to clarify how he would counter new threats.
He did say that he opposes both isolationism and those who claim every problem has a military solution. He also emphasized the building of international norms, rules, laws, institutions and coalitions.
But it’s frustrating to hear the president constantly hammer the no-war argument, which is a straw man. No one, not even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggests sending U.S. troops to Ukraine or Syria, or keeping U.S. troops forever in Afghanistan.
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Rather, the question is what to do about new terrorist havens in the Mideast or the return of old ones in Afghanistan. Or how to ward off aggression by Moscow or Beijing that will unsettle Europe or Asia. Here’s where the president’s rhetoric fails.
Let’s start with terrorism, which Obama identified at West Point as the prime threat to Americans. His main proposal is a new fund to train partner countries from South Asia to the Sahel to fight their own terrorist battles. However, we already do that. Much more is needed. By more, I don’t mean war.
Take Afghanistan, which the president mentioned briefly, noting that the United States has trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces. What he did not say was that he had just undercut their prospects for success.
Last week Obama agreed to leave just less than 10,000 U.S. troops to continue training Afghans after U.S. combat forces leave in 2014. But he also announced that all 10,000 would be withdrawn by the end of 2016. Afghan forces depend on Western financing, so this sudden announcement raises questions about their survival after 2016, undercutting morale.
Obama is repeating the same mistake he made with the 2009 surge – prematurely announcing a date for withdrawal, thus encouraging the Taliban to keep fighting.
The speech showed the same incoherence when it came to Syria. Obama is still dithering about helping moderate rebels who are now battling the jihadis. In his speech, he said he’ll work with Congress “to ramp up support” for the moderate Syrian opposition, but a senior adviser said those discussions won’t be held before the “coming weeks and months.”
This disconnect between words and action is what undercuts Obama’s leadership image abroad.
Which brings us to Ukraine. In his speech, the president said that American leadership helped isolate Russia. But Obama appears oblivious to the fact that Vladimir Putin has shredded the most basic rules of the post-World War II international order – by invading the territory of a neighboring country and annexing Crimea.
If Putin can flout global rules with impunity, China will take full notice, and Iran will also.
If Obama wants foreign leaders to take him seriously, he must clarify how he will handle those who ignore international rules and coalitions. The world is watching what he does, not what he says.