There are many worrisome aspects of President Obama’s legacy in international security, including the generally mediocre appointments in the field of national security; the failure to appreciate the humanitarian crisis in Syria; the “pivot” to China that communicated a policy of “containment” to Beijing; the inability to close Guantanamo; the deportation of more immigrants than any other American president; the pursuit of America’s longest war in Afghanistan for another eight years; the expansion of military aid to Israel; the weakening of the role of the Inspector General in the field of national security, the misuse of the Espionage Act of 1917, and now the policy of militarism that he pursued last week in Warsaw at the NATO summit. His contributions to an intensification of the Cold War with Russia is particularly vexing at a time when the United States is facing a serious form of domestic militarism that is worsening the racial divide at home.
President Obama’s endorsement of an expanded NATO presence in Poland and the Baltics is strategically flawed. Furthermore, it is part of a piece that betrays his failure to understand the strategic blunders of expanding NATO; deploying a regional missile defense in Poland and Romania; and pursuing regime change in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. US efforts to meddle in Ukraine and Georgia contributed to Russian anxiety about Washington’s intentions. These steps have angered Russian President Putin; his aggressive moves into Crimea and eastern Ukraine were a predictable response to US militarism. The fact that US and NATO military spending is nearly 20 times Russian spending is an additional irritant.
The president’s policies complicate the need for a restored Russian-American dialogue that is needed in the fields of arms control and disarmament; non-proliferation policy; and international terrorism. It also complicates the US dialogue with European states on international issues. Key European states, particularly France, Germany, and Italy, are opposed to an expanded NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, which is reminiscent of the emphasis on territorial defense in the worst days of the Cold War.
French President Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have emphasized the necessity of engaging Russia. German Foreign Minister Steinmeier correctly referred to NATO military exercises in East Europe as “war-mongering” and “sabre-rattling.” Indeed the father of “containment,” George Kennan, said that the West needed to “anchor” Russia to the Western architecture following the moderation of Russian policy. Presidents Clinton and Bush did just the opposite by expanding NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The White House campaign to demonize President Putin, endorsed by our mainstream media, particularly the Washington Post and the New York Times, is similarly counterproductive. The security issues that confront the nations of southern Europe, including Islamic State terrorism and illegal immigration, are far more threatening to political stability on the continent than the actions of the Kremlin. Demonization of Putin, in any event, is simply not a policy.
The fact that President Obama is taking this stand in Poland, where there is considerable movement toward authoritarian policies, points to the disunity in the expanded European community that finds significant differences between west and east. The current government in Poland is engaged in a broad-based attack on the nation’s democratic institutions, which threatens the rule of law, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary in that country. The European Commission and the European Parliament have condemned these moves.
Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had it totally wrong when he dismissed our West European allies as “old Europe,” and welcomed East European states as “new Europe,” just one among many blunders made by the Bush administration. A decade later, the Obama administration is lining up with the unreasonable security demands of new Europe and thus weakening our relations with our traditional allies in West Europe. A divided NATO will be the result.
Tripwire deterrence made some sense in Western and Central Europe during the Cold War, but it makes no sense in Eastern Europe on Russia’s border. Storing the B-61 nuclear weapon in Europe, which could be carried by NATO aircraft, is also senseless. Sadly, the Obama administration is committed to improving and retaining nuclear weapons. President Obama, moreover, has never appreciated or understood the harm done to US national security and Russian-American relations by President Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the cornerstone of strategic deterrence.
Similarly, the introduction of an Aegis missile defense system in Poland to deal with so-called threats from the Middle East is nonsensical. The system would actually have the ability to intercept ICBMs by 2020. Putin and his defense cadre certainly understand the importance of that deployment and will address it accordingly with counter measures.
US actions are particularly ill-timed because the current presidential campaign is marked by the uncertainty of the national security policies of the two presumptive nominees. Hillary Clinton has deferred too often to the use of the military (Iraq and Libya); has taken gratuitous swipes at Putin; and has drawn too close to figures such as Madeleine Albright and Nicholas Burns, who support Obama’s militarism in Europe. Donald Trump is thoroughly unqualified to manage US international security policy, but at least one of his advisors, Carter Page, understands that the Obama administration has missed opportunities to deal with Putin because of its failure to honor principles of “respect, equality, and mutual benefit.”
Finally, there is a troubling parallelism in the fact that the United States leads the international community in the sale of weapons abroad as well as in the sale of military-style assault weapons at home. The recent mass shooting by a demented veteran from the war in Afghanistan should lead to a greater dialogue about the ease of acquiring military-style weapons in the United States. And the provision of military weaponry to such nations as Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey begs the question of our arms sales overseas.
We shouldn’t forget that the Benghazi crisis of 2012 was about an attack on a CIA mission that was attempting to buy back arms that should never have been sold to Muhammar Qaddafi in the first place. In the wake of our unfortunate military intervention in Libya, these weapons ended up in the hands of insurgents and terrorists. We had to do the same thing in Afghanistan in the 1990s when arms provided to Mujahideen forces were in the hands of anti-government forces that were threatening US interests. In addition to buying back weapons in Libya and Afghanistan, perhaps it’s time to buy back weapons in the United States?
Founding Fathers such as James Madison and presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of permanent war, which has preoccupied the United States for the past fifteen years with no end in sight. We need to stop the fool’s errands of sending American men and women into harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have no strategic interests. The secret killings of too many Drone missions is particularly abhorrent. We need to stop the killing abroad in order to concentrate on ending the killing at home.