Opinion

Obama’s lost moment

Photo of James Carafano
James Carafano
Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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      James Carafano

      James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security, defense affairs, and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. He has testified before the U.S. Congress many times and has provided commentary for ABC, BBC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, SkyNews, PBS, National Public Radio, the History Channel, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, and Australian, Austrian, Canadian, French, Greek, Hong Kong, Irish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish television.

      His editorials have appeared in newspapers nationwide including The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The New York Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and The Washington Times. He is a weekly columnist at the DC Examiner. Carafano is a member of the National Academy's Board on Army Science and Technology, the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee, and is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. He was the creative director for the feature-length documentary 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age. An accomplished historian and teacher, Carafano was an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and served as director of military studies at the Army's Center of Military History. He also taught at Mount Saint Mary College in New York and served as a fleet professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

      He is a visiting professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University. He is the author of many books and studies. Carafano coauthored Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom. The first to coin the term, the "long war," the authors argue that a successful strategy requires a balance of prudent military and security measures, continued economic growth, the zealous protection of civil liberties and winning the "war of ideas" against terrorist ideologies. Carafano joined Heritage in 2003. Before becoming a policy expert, he served 25 years in the Army.

      A graduate of West Point, Carafano also has a master's degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University and a master's degree in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.

It was a golden opportunity for President Obama. He could make peace with conservatives in Congress, set the foundation for a bipartisan agenda in Washington and burnish his image as a man who led from the middle. He blew it.

The moment came after the tumultuous midterm elections. To be sure, the new class in Congress was doing a lot of griping about Obamacare, the deficit, taxes and more. But on the other hand, President Obama had an opportunity to deliver on a lot of what Congress wanted — a strong national defense. And why not? After all, his counterterrorism strategy was being called (and actually was) “Bush-lite,” incorporating many of the same operational concepts — only without the Cheney-Rumsfeld rhetoric. U.S. troops were making progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense budget had not yet been thrown under the bus.

If Obama had just held that course on national security, he would have been largely indistinguishable from the mainstream leadership on the other side. True, they would still have chaffed over dalliances like the hapless reset with Russia and the failed engagement with Iran, but they would have had a lot less to complain about.

Obama might have made a plausible case that politics really did stop at the water’s edge. He might have grabbed the national security mantle and, at the same time, created an environment in which more of Congress might have been willing to sit down and discuss where they might reach common ground on other issues.

But the White House chose another course: cut-and-run strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan; deep cuts in defense capabilities; threats of more cuts if Congress didn’t green-light hefty tax hikes; and a “new” counterterrorism strategy that looks a lot like the failed Clinton strategy of the 1990s — the strategy that kept al Qaida on the path to 9/11.

This course is, essentially, a faux national defense posture. It’s epitomized by the “I got bin Laden” bumper sticker, which is neither true (getting bin Laden was the product of 10 years of post-9/11 effort) nor relevant (by the time they got bin Laden he was little more than a day dream believer commanding little more than a handful of wives).

We see the president declare victory in both Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the violence increases in both nations.  He continues to trumpet the Russian “reset,” which has delivered nothing. He hails a victory in Libya which is largely irrelevant to vital U.S. interests and appears to fall far short of being a blessing for the Libyans. He finally comes around on Iranian sanctions — too little, too late. And he caps all this with a strategic guidance that calls for deep cuts in conventional and nuclear forces — predicated on the assumption that he has somehow made the world safer.

President Obama’s supporters will believe him when he says that national security is a signature strength of his administration. But those not already on board the Obama bandwagon will find that assertion hard to swallow, as the president’s record gets hotly debated in the months ahead. Many congressional voices are already complaining about the mandatory cuts to the defense budget required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.