Shadow Government

Taking the easier path to a worse place

President Obama said last night that "the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place." That is risibly inaccurate on national security issues — this administration has done the exact opposite: It has taken the easy path that leads to a worse place. In particular, President Obama: wrote off Iraq ...

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

President Obama said last night that "the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place." That is risibly inaccurate on national security issues — this administration has done the exact opposite: It has taken the easy path that leads to a worse place. In particular, President Obama:

  • wrote off Iraq rather than continue a glide path that was leading to the consolidation of our gains and the strengthening of representative government in Iraq. His insistence on an early end to combat operations and a timeline unconnected to political and military milestones (like the election and government formation) destabilized a fragile Iraq and led both it and us to a worse place: a Maliki power grab discrediting institutions, reinforcing sectarian lines that were giving way to cross-confessional cooperation, and encouraging Iraqi-Iranian collaboration.
  • under-resourced the war in Afghanistan, both in warfighters and in time to achieve our objectives, instead establishing an end date unconnected to conditions that caused Pakistan, the Karzai government, and other actors crucial to the success of our strategy to begin hedging against our abandonment of them.
  • abdicated his responsibility to produce budgets from a Senate his own party controls. He couldn’t get a deal last summer to prevent the Budget Control Act from coming into effect, and now impotently calls for Congress to "come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong," taking no responsibility at all for the role his choices have made in poisoning the legislative waters. He says "there’s no reason those cuts should happen." No reason other than his threat to veto any changes to the Budget Control Act and unwillingness to work with the Congress to find a solution.
  • uses drones to kill bad guys by the hundred yet they continue to be minted in copious numbers because we have policies that alienate the very populace whose support we need to reduce the supply of violent extremists. It’s amazing that John Kerry would think it appropriate in warming up the crowd to say "ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago!" Perhaps the administration’s supporters should ask themselves whether their addiction to drone strikes is creating the conditions for more bin Ladens to emerge.

The most important national security problem facing our nation — the crushing load of debt that will crowd out discretionary spending by our government — was addressed in the context of cutting military spending. The president who has doubled our national debt in three years now claims "I will use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways, because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation building right here at home." That is, defense is the bill payer for his domestic programs. He claimed "I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission," but he has taken no action at all to bring the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations into effect — they weren’t in his budget, they weren’t in his proposals during the debt limit negotiations last summer.

In the one area of foreign policy the president highlighted, trade policy, he shamelessly mischaracterized his record. The three agreements he has signed were negotiated by the Bush administration and stalled for three years before Obama signed them. And he still persists in characterizing trade as a zero sum activity — we need to "export more products and outsource fewer jobs." Surely someone in the administration has read David Ricardo and can explain comparative advantage to the leader of the free world?

Governor Romney made both an ethical and a tactical error in omitting reference to the 90,000 Americans, 352,000 Afghans and 30,000 Allies fighting in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. President Obama rightly capitalized on the mistake to speak touchingly about the compact we should have with the men and women who fight our wars. It burnished his image as an effective commander in chief. What the president and his supporters seem not to understand, though, and it plays to Romney’s advantage, is that there is an actual difference between ending wars and winning them. The president keeps emphasizing he brought the troops home from Iraq and is bringing them home from Afghanistan, but he is silent on whether we achieved the objectives for which we fought.

The president threw in lots of cats and dogs, box checking stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, supporting Israel, reasserting our power across the Pacific. If only his policies supported those platitudes. The biggest howler in the speech, the place where the president’s claims seemed at greatest variance with his record, was "from Burma to Libya to South Sudan, we have advanced the rights and dignity of all human beings, men and women; Christians and Muslims and Jews." Yet he continues to issue tepid platitudes while twenty thousand Syrians have been murdered by their government.

This is an administration that seems not to appreciate the difference between saying something and achieving it. They are hoping that killing Osama bin Laden will deflect attention from their policies that have made America more resented in crucial sections of the world than we were in the Bush administration, that view defense spending not in the context of threats and opportunities we face in the world but as a funding source for their domestic priorities, that consider trade in more mercantilist terms than do the Chinese, that end wars instead of winning them, and that shun responsibility to advance our values in the world.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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