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.
President Obama may think he can slide by because conservatives and moderates are not all clearly of one mind on national security affairs. Some backed intervention in Libya. Some didn’t. Some want to restore the cuts in the defense budget. Some want deeper cuts. However, they all believe that providing for the common defense is a constitutional responsibility, and if they sense the president is not delivering, they won’t just sit on their hands and watch.
In short, what the president sees as a great political strength ain’t necessarily so. Both the president’s future and legacy are in jeopardy. When historians look back at the Obama presidency, they could well peg his dramatic shift in defense policy as a lost opportunity, particularly if the administration suffers a significant foreign policy reversal due to plans this president put in place.
James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.