By Walter Shapiro
Most second-term presidents become fixated on global affairs because the world beyond our shores, with all its strife and misery, often seems more malleable than life in Washington, with its fractious Congress and waning electoral mandate. The trick, though, for a foreign policy president, is to be good at it—and these days those skills appear to be eluding Barack Obama.
This week’s biggest rebuke to Obama foreign policy was not Wednesday’s House hearing on Benghazi with its wrenching narrative of the September night that Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Libya. Nor was it Friday morning’s revelation of new Benghazi-related documents. More embarrassing was a front-page article in last Sunday’s New York Times detailing how Obama erred last August when he impetuously declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war would be a “red line.”
It’s a simple rule: Presidents should never make threats until they have worked out how they would enforce them. But Obama violated it with his stern but ill-considered warning to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. The Times article quotes one anonymous top government official claiming, “What Obama said in August was unscripted” and “nuance got completely dropped.” Barry Pavel, a former national security adviser to Obama, said flatly, “I’m not convinced it was thought through.”
Current and former foreign policy advisers usually fall on their swords to protect a president’s reputation for sagacity. Only long afterward, when the “if only he had listened to me” memoirs are published, do we finally get a glimpse of what really happened in the White House. That’s why it’s telling that Obama insiders are already willing to trash the president for his all-bluster “red line” rhetoric.
The reason for the finger-pointing at Obama is that America is now caught in a loose-lips-create-slips dilemma. Without any good policy options available and a growing isolationist mood among voters, Obama must decide what to do in response to highly probable evidence that forces loyal to Assad used banned chemical weapons. Arming the rebels, many of whom are Islamic militants, carries its own risk, yet doing nothing makes America appear feckless and irresolute.
Playing for time, Obama has been reduced to linguistic hair-splitting. Asked at a Tuesday press conference about perceptions that Syria has crossed his supposed red line, Obama said lamely, “I don't make decisions based on ‘perceived.’ And I can't organize international coalitions around ‘perceived.’ We've tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn't work out well.”
That, of course, was a reference to George W. Bush and his fallacious weapons-of-mass-destruction pretext for the Iraq War. As a presidential candidate, Obama presented himself as the antithesis of this kind of shoot-first foreign policy impetuousness. But, as president, it’s startling how much Obama resembles Bush in many aspects of national security policy.
Take Guantanamo, where currently about 100 of the remaining detainees are waging a hunger strike. Asked at a recent press conference about the Bush-era Cuban detention camp that he has repeatedly vowed to close, Obama sounded more like an outside critic than a president: “It hurts us in terms of international standing. … It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
Despite intermittant efforts by Obama since taking office, Congress has refused to allow the president to close Guantanamo. But that does not make Obama a helpless bystander with no control over this symbolic blot on America’s international reputation.
The president has refused to use his existing legal authority (using waivers from the Defense Department) to repatriate 86 low-risk detainees, mostly from Yemen, whose cases have been reviewed by American authorities. Some of these prisoners were rank-and-file al-Qaida soldiers back in 2001, and others were probably picked up by mistake. But today these detainees would be less of a threat sent back to their home countries then they are as enduring symbols of an American gulag on Guantanamo.
Then there are the drones. Bush may have initiated the airborne assassination program in 2004, but Obama has made it a hallmark of his response to terrorism. With his drone policy, Obama has embraced three of the worst aspects of Bush-era national security policy: an obsession with secrecy; a contorted view of legal norms, especially the definition of “imminent threat”; and a refusal to consider that American tactics may create more terrorists than they kill. In Pakistan alone, based on the best independent statistics, Obama has ordered six times as many drone strikes as ever Bush did.
The silence from most Democrats on these troubling aspects of Obama foreign policy has been dispiriting. Had Bush made toothless threats to Syria, force-fed prisoners in Guantanamo or rained death from the air in Pakistan on a weekly basis, liberals in Congress would be sputtering with outrage. Instead, with a few conspicuous exceptions—like Oregon Senator Ron Wyden on drones—the dominant feeling appears to be that if Obama does it, it has to be right.
Ever since George McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972, Democrats have cowered in terror at the thought of being branded as soft on national security. This may partly explain Obama’s timorousness on Guantanamo and the president’s embrace of drone strikes as a way of being tough against terrorists without risking American casualties.
The Republican obsession with Benghazi is rooted in the belief that the Obama administration was reluctant to label the 2012 Libyan attacks as “terrorism” because that would undermine the president’s narrative in an election year. Wednesday’s hearing—built around the testimony of three mid-level State Department officials—failed to prove anything close to causation. On Friday morning, however, ABC News reported that the State Department had insisted references to prior warnings on terrorism should be airbrushed out of the initial CIA talking points on the Banghazi attack.
This was the briefing document that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who drew the short straw as the administration’s TV talker, relied on when she made the rounds of Sunday-morning interviews the week of the attacks. Now, based on the ABC News story, it seems clear that Victoria Nuland, a career foreign service officer who was Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson at State, had insisted to the White House that these talking points be watered down.
Even now, so much about Benghazi remains murky, including how big a scandal it will actually prove to be. Were Nuland’s editing suggestions primarily designed to politically protect Obama and Clinton? Or was this, at its core, a Washington bureaucratic battle over which agency should be blamed for the deaths in Libya—State or the CIA?
Security was obviously lax in Benghazi. But was that because Stevens was a fearless diplomat who hated hunkering down behind concrete walls? Or was this related to the CIA’s still-mysterious role on the ground in Benghazi? And did the administration’s self-congratulatory belief in the Libyan revolution play a role in the relaxation of vigilence? Remember, Libya was Obama’s success story from the "Arab spring"—the nation where a dictator was toppled by America boldly leading from behind.
Despite the documents discovered by ABC News, my guess is that the tragedy in Benghazi and its muddled aftermath had far more to do with human error than major-league conspiracy. In fact, given the way that Obama has handled his “red line” in Syria, the case for human error seems quite compelling.
By Walter Shapiro