Obama’s address on the State Of The Union showed the lack of seriousness about international affairs by which his Administration has been making the world ever more dangerous for Americans. The passages on war and peace, like the rest of the speech, consisted of patent untruths loosely related to Administration programs – the former meant to justify the latter.
Whatever one might think of Obama’s domestic agenda, these couplets reflected a serious intent to advance it. Thus, because ”climate change” is the cause of Western drought and Eastern floods, Obama will impose new restrictions on the use of fossil fuels; and because “reform” of unemployment insurance will get people back to work, Congress must extend the term of current insurance for 1.6 million people. People with an interest in such things know to disregard the nonsense and to take the agenda as seriously as it is meant.
But Obama’s discussion of war and peace verged on abstraction from reality, was not heartfelt, and is certain to call forth disdain. For Obama, the world’s major events might as well be happening on the planet Pluto. Russia is re establishing itself in its “near abroad,” and working with Iran to project a neo-Soviet agenda from Southwest Asia to the Mediterranean. China is inexorably asserting sovereignty over the Western Pacific. As Islam’s Sunni and Shia factions tear at each other’s vitals, they seem to agree only on contempt for America. Obama mentioned none of this.
Rather, as with regard to domestic matters he claimed credit in advance for events that he hopes will take place, and asked for the people’s support on the basis of that claim. He ended the war in Iraq, and is ending the war in Afghanistan. In Syria, he is supporting the good guys. He has put al Qaeda “on the path to defeat, and is doing the same to all similar folk. He is ridding Syria of Chemical weapons, while American diplomacy is at work settling the Arab-Israeli war – the key to a larger peace. He asked Americans to believe that Obama is moving the country “off a permanent war footing.” How, he gave no hint. It is difficult to imagine foreign nations, friend and foe alike, taking any of this seriously. Or Americans for that matter.
In fact, foreigners ceased taking Obama seriously long ago. That is one reason why so much of the world is moving in directions that do not augur well for America.
Foreigners’ respect for America has declined because, in fact, Obama has neither taken seriously the need to maintain that respect nor understood what it would take to do it. On the one hand, he may have imagined that the world would have embraced him because it is a writ-large version of the US New Left. On the other, seriousness about taking power within America precluded seriousness about howto deal with China or Russia, never mind the Muslim world.
That set of priorities explains, for example, his 2009 decision to commit 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan while simultaneously announcing their withdrawal, or the decisions in 2013 loudly to contest China’s assertion of a security zone over international waters while quietly respecting it, to demand that Syria’s dictator be removed while taking actions that ensured his survival, to react to general revulsion at the government’s capting of ordinary Americans’ electronic communications by loudly announcing reforms that amount to nothing. There seems to be no theme to the pudding, because none is intended.
A foreign policy seriously intended to restore the respect and geopolitical balance on which peace depends would have to return to fundamentals. Here are a few examples of what seriousness might look like.
America should thwart Russia’s attempt to force the Ukrainian people back into Moscow’s sphere of influence. That is because, now as in previous centuries, dominion of Ukraine would be the core of a Russian empire capable of exerting hegemonic force over Europe – something inherently very dangerous to America. Russia’s ruling class is playing a weak hand and is susceptible to prohibitions on the travel and financial transactions of its members. The US government could impose such sanctions and lead Europe – or force it – to join in them.
Maintaining the Pax Americana in the Pacific, for which so many American gave their lives, is the key to ensuring that China’s rise will produce neither another Sino-Japanese war, nor turn the Western Pacific into a zone that Americans must seek Chinese permission to enter. Doing that, quite simply, will take building a Navy at least half again as large as we have now, and fortifying US bases in the region. That in turn would require a commitment to missile defense considerably more serious than the token measures that the Obama and Bush Administrations have taken.
Ending “permanent war footing,” ever so essential for any nation’s sustainability, requires being honest about who threatens us, and putting them out of action while not bothering others. The Bush and Obama Administrations, each for its own reasons, preferred to pretend that our problem consisted of bands of rogues extraneous to any authorities. Both Administrations tried and failed to identify and police such rogues in alien lands while so wrapping America in “security measures” as to make it almost unrecognizable. That way lies permanent war with foreigners and strife amongst ourselves.
In fact however terrorists have targeted America from, and on behalf of, causes espoused by any number of foreign regimes. In Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, for example, while the governments are on good terms with America, many members of the larger regime finance and incite anti American terrorists. The Palestinian Authority inculcates hate for Americans into generation after generation of children – and does so with US government money. Holding governments responsible for what comes from within their borders – by wars as sharp as they are short – is the essence of common sense. It is also essential to earning respect.
That, and focusing “security measures” on likely suspects rather than on the general population – is the precondition for ending America’s permanent war footing.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of To Make And Keep Peace Aming Ourselves And With All Nations to be published by the Hoover Institution Press.