Theodore Roosevelt, one of my favorite presidents (though not beyond criticism), made one of his lodestars, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Obama really needs to take heed, even though his presidency ends in less than a year-and-a-half. For he repeatedly follows exactly the opposite course, and in the process raised big questions about his own credibility in international affairs and his country’s.
You’d think the president would have learned this lesson following his humiliating decision to declare Syria’s use of chemical weapons in suppressing its ongoing, metastasizing rebellion to be a “red line” that would trigger American military retaliation – and his failure to pull the trigger. Yet you’d be wrong, at least judging from his announcement that he’s scrapped his plans to cut the U.S. troop deployment in Afghanistan roughly in half by late 2016, and will keep the deployment at just under 10,000.
Instances of the president “speaking loudly”? In his remarks, Mr. Obama insisted that he would “not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again” as was the case leading up to the September 11 strikes. He added that “Afghanistan is a key piece of the network of counterterrorism partnerships that we need, from South Asia to Africa, to deal more broadly with terrorist threats quickly and prevent attacks against our homeland.” In other words, the stakes of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan couldn’t be higher – they involve directly protecting the security of the American homeland.
And then came the small stick – or at least that’s the impression the president unavoidably conveyed to domestic and foreign audiences, allies and enemies alike – especially elsewhere in the Middle East. For Mr. Obama several times emphasized that American soldiers were engaged only in two “narrow” missions – training Afghan forces and “counterterrorism” efforts against Al Qaeda “remnants.”
Moreover, in a completely befuddling statement, the president reminded assembled reporters, “As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war, and I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests.” But if protecting America itself against large-scale terrorist attacks isn’t a “core security interest,” what is?
And if despite the Mr. Obama’s hint, keeping terrorists in Afghanistan at least incapable of launching such attacks is part of American security’s core, why raise the specter of open-ended conflicts in the first place? If anything, defending a vital interest would logically lead a president to prepare the nation for even more protracted involvement – especially given his acknowledgment that “in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.”
Near the end of his statement, President Obama made clear that he hopes to square this circle by fostering a political settlement to the Afghanistan war that would stem from talks between the current government in Kabul and “the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan’s progress….” But even here, the incentive he dangled most prominently before these extremists was “the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan.”
What Mr. Obama apparently hasn’t asked himself is why they would seek to achieve that goal through a give-and-take process of negotiation when he’s all but told them they can eliminate this obstacle to their victory simply by waiting him out?