Having just returned from Ukraine, I found it hard to recognize the world President Obama described in his West Point foreign-policy speech last week. The facts on the ground — in Russia, Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan — contradict the key points he was making. That disconnect makes friends and enemies worldwide question his ability to lead.
Obama rightly says the odds of a direct attack from any foreign nation are minimal. But in a rapidly changing world, with China rising, Russia invading its neighbors and terrorists multiplying, he failed to clarify how he would counter new threats.
He did say that he opposes both isolationism and those who claim every problem has a military solution. “Some of our most costly mistakes [since World War II],” he rightly argued, “came . . . from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” He also emphasized the building of international norms, rules, laws, institutions and coalitions.
But it’s frustrating to hear the president constantly hammer the no-war argument, which is a straw man. No one, not even Sen. John McCain, suggests sending U.S. troops to Ukraine or Syria, or keeping U.S. troops forever in Afghanistan.
Rather, the question is what to do about new terrorist havens in the Mideast or the return of old ones in Afghanistan. Or how to ward off aggression by Moscow or Beijing that will unsettle Europe or Asia. Here’s where the president’s rhetoric fails.
• Let’s start with terrorism, which Obama identified at West Point as the prime threat to Americans. His main proposal is a new fund to train partner countries from South Asia to the Sahel to fight their own terrorist battles. However, we already do that. Much more is needed. By more, I don’t mean war.
• Take Afghanistan, which the president mentioned briefly, noting that the United States has trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces. What he did not say was that he had just undercut their prospects for success.
Last week, Obama agreed to leave just under 10,000 U.S. troops to continue training Afghans after U.S. combat forces leave in 2014. But he also announced that all 10,000 would be withdrawn by the end of 2016. Afghan forces depend on Western financing, so this sudden announcement raises questions about their survival after 2016, undercutting morale.
Obama is repeating the same mistake he made with the 2009 surge, prematurely announcing a date for withdrawal, thus encouraging the Taliban to keep fighting.
• The speech shows the same incoherence when it comes to Syria, where a new jihadistan has emerged that extends deep into neighboring Iraq. This radical belt has attracted thousands of foreign fighters — including 3,000 Westerners and more than 70 Americans — who could return home with terrorist skills. This new jihadistan could have been prevented had the president agreed to give CIA-vetted rebels heavy weapons two years ago as his top foreign-policy advisers requested. Instead, jihadis — armed and funded by rich Gulf sheiks — were allowed to dominate the field.
Unbelievably, Obama is still dithering about helping moderate rebels who are now battling the jihadis. This disconnect between words and action is what undercuts Obama’s leadership image abroad.
• On Ukraine, Obama needs to show more leadership. There are several options: more unilateral sanctions on Moscow, if the European Union refuses to increase its sanctions; a presidential visit to Kiev; a coherent U.S. energy policy that promotes gas exports as a strategic necessity to undermine Russia’s gas blackmail; or arms and training to Ukrainian forces (Russia is sending missiles, special forces and Chechen fighters to eastern Ukraine).
It’s fine to denounce war and call for strengthening international norms. But if Obama wants foreign leaders to take him seriously, he must clarify how he will handle those who ignore international rules and coalitions. The world is watching what he does, not what he says.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.