- Whether Obama himself was ever really committed to the "surge" in troops in Afghanistan
- Whether the strength of the individuals then conducting American foreign and military strategy overshadowed the accomplishments
- Whether a war-weary president reflected the best national interests of the country, also suffering from battle fatigue
- Whether the current cast of characters, Hegel, (Susan) Rice, Kerry are up to the quality of the previous case of Gates, Donilon and Clinton
- Whether or not American foreign policy is unravelling in the second term of the Obama presidency, especially since domestic policy has fallen ship-wrecked on the shoals of Tea Party conservatism
- Whether political considerations too often have trumped national interests under both sets of heading actors
- Whether or not Obama can recoup both the policy and the public debate over the policy in the remaining months and years of his second term....
And while the national budget, including the national debt, suffers severe pain and nearly succumbed to bankruptcy, there is very little public debate that points to the costs, in both dollars and lives, of those wars. It seems that the Republican party wishes, as if living in a Technicolor dream, that their hands are not covered with blood and responsibility for those decisions, made under George W. Bush. Certainly there were Democrats who voted for both military engagements, and Obama, while opposing the Iraq debacle, has to claim ownership for his support of the Afghan engagement. Hillary Clinton, it now appears, supported the Iraq invasion, "because she was involved in a political campaign against Obama" and less for the purpose of national interest....at least according to the revelations of the Gates tome.
There has been severe and telling criticism of Obama's "leading from behind" as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, while campaigning for Romney in the 2012 presidential race. And the American people, historically, are never comfortable in a "secondary role" in foreign affairs. It is only when, once again, they witness the tremendous costs and the extremely limited "gains" from both the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres that they become dis-enchanted with their war efforts. Nevertheless, they are loath to question seriously their dependence on the military, and the national security apparatus, another quasi-military establishment that now includes the gargantuan Homeland Security department and the National Security Agency in addition to the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI all of them largely spared from substantial budget cuts even through the sequestration. It is not just that there are these monstrous agencies, but that the American psyche considers all them as a gestalt necessary to "protect" the people of their nation.
Building a bunker, and pouring the national bank account into that bunker, is little more than buying the largest insurance policy available, only to have it filled with holes that were not plugged if and when the country is attacked.
Of course, there are serious enemies of the United States around the world, both in rogue states and in guerilla and terrorist camps, yet the "defensive posture" far outweighs the size and the danger of the threat. It is as if the Washington fear of "attack" the most hateful and demonic thing that can happen to a superpower is underpinning the national security mind-set, and so, in spite of all the talk about progress and hope, and making a more perfect union, the country remains steadfastly mired in the swamp of its own fears.
And of course, that collective, unconscious, national fear is projected onto the White House and its current occupant, as the only person in the country with the power to reverse any sign of action or policy consideration that is not demonstrating the "super-power" capability to intervene and "make things right"...as if the U.S. is responsible for the elimination of all forms of enemy threat.
Super-powers must, according to the archetype...
- never fail,
- never lose,
- never appear to be confused,
- never appear to be unknowing,
- never appear to be undecided or in a quandary,
- never lead from behind
- never resist an opportunity to engage in a fight
- never moderate the application of its hard power assets in support of a collaborative initiative
- never resist the call to arms that will always come from the right as the strategic metaphor for all political, ideological, including all foreign conflicts
In fact, however, it is not only the U.S. but also the whole world that does not know what to do about the current civil strife in the Middle East, in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Egypt, and even in Afghanistan, as well as in the Central African Republic, in Somalia, in Mali, in Nigeria, and in who knows what other hot spots that will inevitably emerge over the coming months. In fact, demonstrating moderation, restraint, collaboration and even a level of maturity and balance, while at the same time resisting "jumping into the arms of the military strategists"* is a balancing act worthy of a tight-rope walker, without a net while the world watches and fires at you...and yet that is what Obama has been attempting to do. And if and when he errs on the side of the political, as compared with the strategic, as he most certainly will do, then there will be those, worthy of being considered, who will try to bring his focus back onto the strategic.
Soft power, and moderated, collaborated and restrained hard power, it would seem, are both necessary and at odds with the American national character. Clearly, confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity are words that do not belong in the American lexicon, especially on foreign affairs and potential threats to U.S. national interests around the world. Obama, while schooled in international relations as well as 'the law' and bringing, as he does, a generous heart and spirit to the Oval Office, may now face the greatest challenge of his presidency...attempting to navigate a course through wild and unpredictable (political, economic, religious, ethnic as well as climate) upheavals, hurricanes, storms and threats, while attempting to keep the political dogs suffering from distemper at bay on the home front.
And as he valiantly tries to preserve his own equanimity, he would do well to read, reflect upon and even discuss with the author, the prescription offered in a recent column by the respected Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius:
The reality is that Obama needs to own his foreign policy. He needs to be more strategic and less political. He needs to set a vision and articulate it to allies and adversaries. His national security adviser needs to help him focus and communicate policy decisions.
(David Ignatius, Only Obama can fix his broken foreign policy, in Washington Post, January 10, 2014)
*Remember Kennedy's mistake in trusting the military in the Bay of Pigs. It still hangs like a cloud over the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon.