Thursday, June 23, 2011

Amidst good news, the hidden danger of the “Obama Doctrine”

President Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday night to formally announce his plans to withdraw 33,000 service personnel from Afghanistan by next September, reducing America’s presence in that country by about one-third to 68,000 troops.

Before we say anything else about the President’s speech, we want to make several points very clear. We have the utmost respect and gratitude for America’s military. We honor their commitment, their sacrifice and their accomplishment without qualification. And, we welcome these 33,000 soldiers home with open arms. We also give President Obama credit for honoring a commitment he made at West Point months ago to start drawing down America’s forces from Afghanistan this summer. Absent a compelling reason to continue commitment, America’s presence in Afghanistan needs to end and our troops need to come home so Afghanistan can resolve its own future for itself.

Thus, we support the basic announcement made in President Obama's speech.

However, in an attempt to make the case for bringing US troops home earlier than his top military brass wanted, President Obama made comments that relate more to future American military involvement than to the present decision regarding Afghanistan. We think these comments were unnecessary to sell the President's decision to an American public already predisposed to a reduction of force. And, more importantly, we think the President's comments are harmful to broader US foreign policy in the future. Here's why.

President Obama did not justify America’s troop withdrawal upon a claim that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. He said only that we are "meeting our goals." We think this was a deliberate choice based on three factors. First, it is impossible to claim definitive victory because the mission at stake has not been clearly articulated (by Presidents Bush or Obama) in recent years, particularly as the hunt for Al Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden shifted to Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula. Second, claiming satisfaction of the mission would implicitly require the President to claim that America’s involvement in Afghanistan has rendered America safe, which is a risky proposition even after the killing of Usama Bin Laden and the apparent disruption of Al Qaeda’s network worldwide. Third, politically, President Obama did not want risk a Bush-style "Mission Accomplished" speech in the shadow of what he predicted still would be some future "dark days" in Afghanistan.

This left the President in the unenviable position of risking the perception of a military defeat or a retreat in the absence of a claim of victory. To avoid this conclusion, President Obama deftly attempted to pivot the message in his speech. He claimed that the withdrawal of troops is the result of waning public support for the war and a popular desire to refocus national attention on domestic matters (something President Obama called “nation building at home”). In other words, the President’s speech was not about victory or defeat, it was about shifting priorities. (It also was about building his political base and satisfying concerns expressed by his supporters going into 2012. Check out this link and this link of the President's Communications Director being booed by progressive activists at a recent conference.)

However, this argument alone is not enough to avoid the appearance of a retreat. To convincingly sell the case that America can simply leave Afghanistan because it is growing tired of war, President Obama had to downplay the original justification for America’s involvement in Afghanistan. To make a long story short, Obama told us that America can pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan at will because having them in Afghanistan is less important than solving other problems we face as a nation. And, to make this argument, the President was ultimately forced to put America's involvement in Afghanistan into context, which made him extrapolate his view of the Afghanistan conflict to a broader statement of foreign policy.

Thus, for the first time in his presidency, Obama articulated a doctrine for American military involvement overseas.

The Obama Doctrine calls for greater investment to solve domestic problems with a more limited military commitment overseas, employing a responsible investment of resources on a more targeted basis, and acting in concert with other nations.

"Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force -- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don't have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we're doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny."

Transcript of the President's Address to the Nation, June 22, 2011

This, we believe, is the hidden future danger of Obama’s speech.

We can all agree on certain things. America is a peaceful nation. We seek a peaceful world where people live in harmony sharing a commitment to certain shared values; namely, a respect for human rights, freedom, democratic self-governance, and an open economy with free trade between nations. America has no desire to pick fights across the world. However, there must be a constant realization that our basic world view is not shared universally by all people. Scattered between America’s friends are people across the world who seek to inflict harm on Americans and on the American way of life. With regard to those people, our enemies, the message from America must be powerful, clear and consistent: we claim a unilateral right to act to protect ourselves from all threats, and we will employ whatever means are necessary to combat them.

President Obama undermined both parts of this fundamental foreign policy principle in his speech by calling for targeted involvement as a weapon of choice and by implying that America’s foreign policy is subject to buy-in by a coalition of willing allies. America’s strength and perception as a leader are based on its ability to reserve the right to act – as broadly and forcefully as possible, and alone if necessary – to protect its self-interest. America doesn’t need to ask permission to protect itself, and we don’t need to hold back. Despite the admitted problems we confront today, there is no domestic problem important enough for us to sacrifice these important tenets of our foreign policy.

If we want America to be safe and secure, then it's never a good idea to tell the "bad guys" that we're going to go after them in the future by charting a "more centered course." It would have been far better to simply tell the American people what the President has said before -- that the troop surge worked, so we don't need as many troops in Afghanistan, and some can come home. Period.

Ultimately, we think President Obama needs to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, and his inability to do so is embarrassing to America. America’s greatest leaders are known for their ability to promote powerful foreign and domestic policies. There can and should be no trade-off between the two, as the future of our nation depends on the strength of both. By admitting that America needs to limit its foreign policy in order to resolve its domestic problems, President Obama has severely compromised America’s place of leadership across the world. He also overplays the success of the daring but small-scale raid that captured Usama Bin Laden and the NATO air campaign in Libya, overestimating their ability to serve as models for future military policy.

Obama's Doctrine is a dangerous message to send to America’s enemies across the world, one which was unnecessary to state in his speech in order to sell the American public on his plan to withdraw troops, and one which simply cannot be ignored amidst the justifiable relief felt by us all as our soldiers come home from Afghanistan this year.

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