HUMAN EVENTS SPECIAL REPORT: Now it’s Obama’s war to win or lose.
President Barack Obama faces more military challenges with less personal expertise than any president in our history. State-sponsored terrorism emanating from Iran, Syria and often funded by the Saudis, the emerging Chinese superpower, Russian aggression and the Pakistani safe havens for terrorists are all threats he will have to defeat, deter and resolve if the American way of life is to survive the next decade.
Obama will be tested, just as running mate Joe Biden prophesied, and the test will come again and again. His national security team — holdover Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton at the State Department and retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones as National Security Advisor — haven’t worked as a team before far less as one supporting a neophyte president. And the world isn’t going to give them time to settle in: Barack Obama probably won’t have a foreign policy honeymoon period before some major crisis erupts.
Crises erupt whenever aggressors choose or when — as precipitated by Israel’s 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak — when an ally feels cornered. It is altogether likely that several will erupt independently at the same time, or in quick succession.
The new president will be closely watched by every enemy. Russia’s Putin and China’s Hu Jintao may raise the temperature of the Cold Wars they wage depending on how Obama and his team respond — decisively and effectively or not — to others.
Now that President Obama has taken the reins, he faces wars that are hot, wars that are cold and wars that are getting hotter on the back burner.
Obama Hasn’t Shown Grit or Determination
In early August, Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia, a former Soviet satellite that had grown into democracy, a loose alliance with the United States and was being considered for NATO membership. Still three months from being elected, the best Barack Obama could do was to condemn the “outbreak of violence” — not the Russian aggression — and say that it was a time for both sides to show restraint — the aggressor and the victim undistinguished in his mind. Later, he wanted UN negotiators to resolve the conflict. (Vladimir Putin subsequently promised to hang Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili by his genitals. Whether that point is negotiable to Mr. Putin, it seems a bar to productive Russian-Georgian negotiations.)
It was Obama’s first “3 am phone call” and he didn’t answer.
In the immediate aftermath of the Islamic terrorist attack on hotels, train stations and the Jewish center in Mumbai in late November, Obama stated a ritual condemnation of the attack and condolences to the victims’ families.
Obama didn’t hesitate to speak out about Georgia, but reverted to the more appropriate “there’s only one president at a time” refrain on the Mumbai attacks. From these responses, we cannot learn much except that in both cases Obama took the politically-expedient line.
Obama’s thoughts on the war — and our enemies — were vaguely outlined throughout the campaign. But now that he and his team are in charge — and he is receiving the top-level briefings — his views should change. But will they?
In his life, President Obama has only had to make decisions that affected him and his friends politically. Now, the price of his decision will be paid in blood and treasure.
In our minds’ eyes, we can project the crises that Obama will almost certainly face and examine, briefly, the tools at his disposal to deal with them. The obvious — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan — may be eclipsed by the unobvious: the crisis that has been with us for almost three decades which has a high probability of breaking into open war before the Ides of March. The fuse that is burning so short is the growing Iranian nuclear threat to Israel. And the terrorist threat against America still looms.
America has not suffered a terrorist attack in seven years, for which the Bush administration gets too little credit. But that’s not to say we are immune, or even safe.
Our borders remain too open, and our intelligence community too incapable of detecting a new mass-casualty attack. And our cities are too unprepared to deal with one. Washington, DC panics when the first half-inch of snow hits the ground. A terrorist attack would immediately put the lie to any disaster plan that now exists.
If another major terrorist attack causes mass casualties in America, what will Obama do? If al-Queda, which limits itself to big attacks, manages another, Obama will find himself in the same quandary that Bush has. We have put enormous resources into interrupting terrorist financing and in trying to capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahri, his second in command. Obama will not be able to do more.
Obama, like John Kerry before him, does not understand how presidents have to act on the basis of information that’s reliable and not wait for conclusive evidence. Obama wants to focus on domestic issues and let his advisors keep the world at bay.
If the source of the attack is disputed, Obama will have to rely on his own judgment and his Clinton-era advisors as well as Defense Secretary Bob Gates and National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones. But Obama’s judgment — lacking any context of experience — is a lawyer’s judgment, just like Bill Clinton’s. It’s unimaginable that he would decide to act on evidence that wouldn’t hold up in court.
If we suffer another major terrorist attack and the source of the attack is unclear, Barack Obama will likely give impassioned speeches, and rely on the UN and other nations to deal with the perpetrators.
The media and Obama himself are trying to paint him as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln chose to do everything and anything to preserve the Union. That commitment and decisiveness are not part of the character of our 44th president.
Osirak Redux: The Likely Israeli-Iranian War
Israel is politically chaotic. Ehud Olmert’s government was supposed to dissolve with his resignation in September but his party’s next ranking member, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, hasn’t been able to form a new government. New elections will be held in February.
The fighting with Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip is now at least theoretically ended. But Hamas will not stop shooting and Gaza is really only a side-show. Like America is doing in Iraq, in Gaza Israel is only fighting the proxy of its principal enemies.
President Bush never understood one fundamental fact: you cannot defeat the principal enemy by only fighting his proxies.
There is a substantial agreement among Israelis — both hotheads and cooler minds — that the Iranian nuclear program has proceeded too far to ignore any longer. Soon, possibly in the early days after the February election, Israel may choose to mount air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities aimed not at overturning the mullahs, but at delaying their nuclear program for many years to come. Israel is likely to do this because all of the international efforts to negotiate Iran out of its nuclear ambitions have failed comprehensively.
Like President Bush before him, President Obama has said that a nuclear-armed Iran would be intolerable. And so has Israel, which is the only one who is likely to act on that judgment.
If Obama is dedicated to stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal, time is very short. Our enemy — and Israel’s — is pursuing its nuclear ambitions as a religious obligation. There will be no negotiating Iran out of it.
In fact, there will be no successful negotiation at all with Iran, which our liberal president will probably have to learn for himself. In three decades of ruling Iran, the ayatollahs’ kakistocracy has never changed its behavior or ambitions as a result of any negotiation with a Western nation.
Obama is not going to succeed where everyone else has failed. But how long will it take for him to learn that? Iran’s most precious asset is time. The longer the ayatollahs can string Obama along, the harder it will be for Obama to block their nuclear ambitions. If he, like George Bush, waits too long it may be impossible for him to do so.
Bush talked a lot about how America would never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, but never took action to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even the IAEA, the UN’s purblind nuclear watchdog, recognizes this. Mohamed el-Baradei, IAEA chief, has admitted that the international efforts to isolate and dissuade Iran have failed. Last June, he said that Iran could have nuclear weapons in six months.
That time is up. Obama has promised to provide Israel with a “nuclear umbrella” that could deter a nuclear attack on Israel. But his intention to negotiate directly with Iran is very likely to be overtaken by events. What happens if the Israelis decide the threat is too great and attack?
It will not be a clean in-and-out, surgical strike like the Osirak raid for a host of reasons. Israeli aircraft will have to traverse Iraq, a hostile act against an Arab nation. Though Israeli air-refueling capabilities are adequate, their strike aircraft will face a very tough operational environment all the way to the targets and all the way back. In Iran, they will have to face the several highly sophisticated air defense systems Russia has sold to Iran, including the TOR-M1 phased array anti-aircraft missile system and — probably — “double-digit SAMs”, the long-range anti-aircraft missiles that reportedly are effective even against stealth aircraft.
Israeli F-15s and F-16s will suffer losses in any strike, and — given the dispersion and hardening of several Iranian nuclear sites — more than one strike will be necessary. Iran is sure to counter-attack, aiming SCUD-derived ballistic missiles against Israeli civilian centers. It’s highly unlikely that Iran has a nuclear weapon now that is deployable on its ballistic missiles, but it can deliver chemical or even biological weapons by those means.
If Israel survives the first and second missile counterattacks without major damage, it’s entirely possible that the Arab nations — who also regard Iran as a threat — would sit out the war. If Israel suffers major casualties, or if its air forces are depleted significantly by the Iranians, it’s likely that its Arab neighbors would choose to attack, making the war a regional one that will certainly draw the United States in to help defend Israel and other interests in the Middle East.
Iran will also strike back against us, activating its terror networks worldwide. If a major terrorist attack against us succeeds, will it deter Obama from striking back?
In what will likely be his first major crisis, what will Obama do? Or even be able to do? In the first days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israeli forces suffered such significant losses that US Air Force aircraft in Europe were literally on the flight line, being fueled and armed to fly into the battle when Israel turned the tide. Today, most of our air power is deployed in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Obama would have to strip Iraq and possibly Afghanistan of combat aircraft to come to Israel’s aid.
Would Obama do so, or would he default to the UN in the critically-short time available to help defend Israel? If the war spreads to the Arab nations, will Obama follow the counsel of his Arab-sympathetic advisors?
“No drama Obama” was the slogan for his personality-driven campaign. But there will be no fake Greek temple scene in the White House briefing room when he comes to announce America’s decisions. The fireworks won’t be bursting behind him, celebrating his speech. They will be in the skies of the Middle East.
Iraq: An Uncomfortable SOFA
President Obama reportedly met with our military leaders last weekend (including CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus) to review his campaign plan to withdraw from Iraq within sixteen months. According to a military source who requested anonymity and is close to someone who was in the meeting, Obama only asked for recommendations and didn’t lay down the law on the sixteen-month time frame.
President Obama apparently realizes that what candidate Obama said has to be adjusted to reflect reality. But how quickly will the president adapt, and how far will he go?
By year’s end, Obama will face the choice of pulling out despite the deteriorating situation or renegotiating the new Status of Forces Agreement to permit our forces to resume their operations. Iraq will not agree to the reversal, and Obama will likely have to face defeat on his watch. It will not benefit him or our nation to blame the outcome on George W. Bush.
The “status of forces agreement” completed in December presents an immediate problem. It ends the immunity from Iraqi law which US military contractors have relied on since 2003. None of these contractors will be able to function without it, and most if not all will pull their people out of Iraq. Without the protection of companies such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy, the State Department and CIA are literally unable to work in Baghdad. Our intelligence and diplomatic operations in Iraq will cease.
Under the SOFA, US military will be pulling out of Iraq’s cities and into their garrisons by June. No independent military operations will be permitted. And with the independence, effectiveness also ends. Military commanders will say, correctly, that there is little point in keeping their forces in Iraq if they cannot perform the mission. Obama will almost certainly use that as the rationale for accelerating complete withdrawal.
Al-Queda in Iraq doesn’t accept that it has been defeated, and other terrorist groups will also reactivate. New ones — at least old ones with new labels — will revive the insurgency. Violence will rise exponentially, and the Maliki government will be unable to cope.
Obama’s team will not be able to invent choices to avoid this outcome. Defense Secretary Bob Gates is a devotee of George Bush’s nation-building strategy, which is the biggest, most damaging, error America has made in the war so far. Gates wrote in Foreign Affairs in December that, “The United States’ ability to deal with future threats will depend on its performance in current conflicts.
To be blunt, to fail — or be seen to fail — in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to US credibility, both among our friends and allies and among potential adversaries.”
But the choices — to let Iraq sink or put more US forces back in indefinitely — are both unpalatable.
President Bush never correctly defined victory in Iraq. It cannot be defined in Iraq because the war is a regional one, and unless and until state-sponsored terrorism is ended, Iraq will not be stable, far less a democracy.
We will not have an Iraq that can defend, govern and sustain itself, far less be an ally in the global war against Islamofascism. Neither Obama nor Gates will be able to define victory better than Bush. History will define defeat for them.
Sitting between Iran and Pakistan, the government of Hamid Karzai has struggled against terrorists, tribal forces that support them and to deal with the enormous heroin trade in his nation. His progress — and our military’s successes there — have been hampered by a lack of resources and by NATO’s failure to perform its promised role.
The vast majority of NATO troops are constrained from fighting by their governments. They may as well go home.
Last July, Barack Obama said, “The Afghan government needs to do more. But we have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here in Afghanistan. And I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism.”
In October, Obama called Afghanistan “the right war” and said, “It’s time to heed the call from General [David] McKiernan and others for more troops.” Gen. David Petraeus — promoted out of Iraq to take over CENTCOM, which has responsibility for Afghanistan as well — favors adapting the counterinsurgency strategy he employed in Iraq in the larger, more difficult Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is roughly 50% bigger than Iraq and its terrain is some of the most inaccessible on earth. Its legal economy, dependent on foreign aid and trade with neighbors, is dwarfed by heroin production. According to the CIA World Fact Book, opium production increased in 2007 by 42% totaling about 8,000 metric tons (which converts to nearly 950 tons of heroin. The tribal structure — mostly Pashtun (about 42%) and Tajik (about 27%) is 80% Sunni Muslim. The tribes and a host of political/ethnic groups are represented in the Afghan parliament. But many of the larger tribes are independent of any central government. Which poses an enormous military problem.
In the latter part of 2008, American military strategists decided to help train many of the tribal militias hoping to ally with them to rout terrorist groups out of their territory. But in doing so, we may also be weakening the Karzai government by enabling the tribal leaders to resume their historical role as warlords. Into this step Obama and Petraeus with a counterinsurgency strategy much like the one employed in Iraq.
On “Meet the Press” in December, Obama described his approach to Afghanistan: first, he wants a regional agreement between Pakistan, India and Iran to rout out the terrorist forces in the Pakistani and Afghan tribal areas. The naiveté of that idea is dangerous, especially given the Pakistanis’ refusal to even hand over the prisoners they’ve taken who were involved in the Mumbai attacks in November. And, as he described the lack of development in Afghanistan, Obama sounded as if he were advocating a new US version of British colonialism.
He said, “…we’ve got to really ramp up our development approach to Afghanistan. I mean, part of the problem that we’ve had is the average Afghan farmer hasn’t seen any improvement in his life. You know, we haven’t seen the kinds of infrastructure improvements, we haven’t seen the security improvements, we haven’t seen the reduction in narco trafficking, we haven’t seen a reliance on rule of law in Afghanistan that would make people feel confident that the central government can, in fact, deliver on its promises. And if we combine effective development, more effective military work, as well as more effect diplomacy, then I think that we can stabilize the situation.”
Gen. David Petraeus knows that what worked in Iraq cannot be duplicated — precisely if at all — in Afghanistan: the country is physically too large and we don’t have enough forces to provide security in enough towns and villages to attempt to win over the population. Moreover Afghanis have, throughout history, resisted successfully against anything resembling a foreign occupation. Both Britain and Russia can attest to that.
If Obama follows Petraeus’s advice, Afghanistan may be made more stable. If it is, it can prove to be an effective buffer between Iran and Pakistan. But if those nations do as Iraq’s neighbors have — to fund, man and arm terrorists within its borders — the counterinsurgency strategy will quickly be time-limited.
Will Obama be willing to sustain that effort throughout his term in office? No. In that “Meet the Press” interview he also said that a long-term occupation of Afghanistan would not work.
It is here that Obama’s lack of expertise informs his judgment. He will not have the fortitude to stay that course or any other.
Sunni Muslim Pakistan is as great a danger as Iran. As a senior White House national security staffer told me last summer, there may be as many as one million Islamic terrorist fighters in the misnamed Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan’s northwest. He said it was the biggest “safe havens” problem on the planet. Other terrorist groups, largely supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI, a government-within-a-government) proliferate in Pakistan.
Near Lahore in eastern Pakistan, reportedly in the major city Muridke, the Lashkar e-Tayyiba terrorist organization has its headquarters. The LeT is responsible for nearly a decade of terror attacks against India, including the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and last November’s attack in Mumbai. Pakistani President Zardari has refused to surrender to India the suspects in the Mumbai attack it has arrested.
More than two years ago, a military source told me of the actionable intelligence we gave the Pakistanis (he said about fourteen single-spaced pages of it) on the Taliban leadership that had set up its new operational headquarters in Quetta, Pakistan. The Pakistanis refused to act on it.
Obama took a very aggressive tone on Pakistan during the campaign, threatening to attack into Pakistan without its government’s permission if actionable intelligence were obtained. The Bush administration has done just this, but only in the FATA region. Will Obama attack the Taliban in Quetta?
If he does, it’s likely that the civilian government will fall, and the ISI could openly control Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. If he doesn’t, the Taliban will continue to strengthen and attack US forces in Afghanistan as well as the Zardari government. Other terrorist attacks against India will come.
The Bush policy in Afghanistan was a tenuous balance between Pakistani stability and attacks against terrorist networks there. It failed because the Bush administration separated the one global war against state sponsors of terrorism into single conflicts and prosecuted them inconsistently.
From Obama’s statements to date, he will not improve on the Bush policy. Instead, he will rely more on diplomatic initiatives that depend on other nations’ actions. And Pakistan will become more dangerous by the week.
The Presidential Toolbox
Every American president has a toolbox: in it are economic policy, diplomacy and the military. Given the weakness in our economy, foreign aid — money and military assistance — will be hard to come by. And so will military intervention.
The US military is a victim of its own success. Since President Reagan left office, every successor has failed to spend the money necessary to ensure that we have the newest, most capable weapons. It would take another 3,000 words to explain the deteriorating condition of our military arsenal. One example may suffice here.
The last time an American soldier was killed by enemy aircraft was in April 1953. As Robert Dudney wrote in the December Air Force magazine, “The Air Force brand of air dominance — total, unquestioned and suffocating — has been around quite a while, so long that many now view it as a birthright.” But it isn’t. And American air power — like our naval power and ground forces — is in a steep decline.
In February 2004, the Indian Air Force defeated American F-15s in a war game named “Cope India”. Yes, the rules of engagement disallowed the F-15s from taking the long-distance shots that are its principal advantage. But nevertheless, Indian fighters — newer Russian fighters — waxed our tails. And now many F-15s are no longer airworthy: too old, too stressed and too burdened by the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force said that it needed about 380 new fighters — the F-22 — to ensure the air dominance our military needs in any fight. But the Bush administration cut the number to 183 F-22s. In his editorial, Dudney quotes a piece by Rebecca Grant: “There was no announcement that the future threat had changed — just that the future should stop being a problem for Pentagon planners.”
But the future is always the problem for Pentagon planners and for Presidents who choose to face reality. Air power alone cannot win wars, but you cannot win wars without it.
We are a nation at war for our survival. But we are not in a state of war at home. Will Obama do what Bush did not? Will he rally us to fight, to make the personal sacrifices that are necessary to win? It would be uncharacteristic, beyond his ken for him to even try.
The next four years are going to be the most dangerous for America since 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.