THE OVAL OFFICE CHILDREN OF LIGHT: Strategic Failure – How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts, And Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America

Strategic FailureThe latest edition of Reinhild Niebuhr’s 1954 The Irony of American History features a cover page blurb from Mr. Obama giving prevalence (or platitude) to Niebuhr’s influence. Post-World War II, Niebuhr’s concern was to caution against overstating America’s role in the world. Care must be given, however, when beginning an assessment of Mr. Obama’s legacy as if it owned a synonymity with Niebuhr’s Christian Realism.

In his 2009 Nobel Price acceptance speech, for example, Mr. Obama referenced himself as “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.” He raised this point alongside the argument that force “may sometimes be necessary” but a more practical and attainable peace could best be had with a “gradual evolution in human institutions.”

I mention this at some introductory length because it undergirds Mr. Obama’s national security policy, his foreign policy, which Mark Moyar argues in his Strategic Failure has imperiled America. The centerpiece of his foreign policy, Mr. Obama notes in that same speech is not only disarmament but an insistence that nations like “Iran and North Korea do not game the system.”

We are six years from that speech and Mr. Obama’s argument that the world must stand as one and that the United States must cease its “endless campaign to impose our values around the world.” His argument? America does not stand as the world’s redeemer nation; selfishness can operate in a nation capable not only of virtue but depravity.

There is surely great benevolence of heart in such a Nobel Prize speech as is usually to be found in the children of light. Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, however, takes its point of departure from the Gospel of Luke wherein the master “commends” us to know that the children of darkness are more shrewd than the children of light.

The reference is to Niebuhr’s earlier 1944 The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, a superb, paleoconservative indictment of the Social Gospel movement and its latter-day offspring, Liberation Theology. His Christian Realism, on the other hand, called attention to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception, and self-righteousness, synonyms for sin.

To read Niebuhr, therefore, as one suspects Mr. Obama and even Mrs. Clinton seem to have, as an advocate of social justice as a pacifying effect on international relations is to discount the genuine presence of evil in the world acknowledged by Mr. Obama in that same Nobel Prize speech.

The broader lines of Niebuhr’s thinking presuppose a realistic view of Christian ethics informing the secularism that has come to pervade much of international relations theory. To argue that Islamic terrorism is a consequence of poverty or feelings of humiliation or alienation is a secular act of evasion.

Given this bit of background, Mark Moyar’s Strategic Failure is a chronological history tracing the Obama administration’s fundamentally flawed approach to foreign policy and international relations, much of which has led in the opposite direction intended by those oval office children of light. The book is written in a clear and vigorous style, supported by meticulous and extensive primary research. It’s thus a strategic book with insight gleaned from the facts, one that needs to be placed in the vanguard of forthcoming Obama”legacy” studies before historical revisionists declare the “legacy” as a “monumental paradigm shift.”

One of Mr. Moyar’s central points is that only snippets of the Obama administration’s foreign policy actions and events have been disseminated, decrying transparency. Since the flaws are “broader and deeper than most Americans know, and that they reflect misguided assumptions that are not peculiar to Obama but are [also] shared by the leading pretenders to the next Democratic presidential nomination” (xi), the true nature of the problems Mr. Obama has created need to be brought into public view, poor choices having been concealed in the fog of language and perception management. Mr. Moyar’s thesis reveals that since Mr. Obama took office, national security has been subordinated to his own political interests. Thus as we make our way into the presidential debate season, national security strategy needs to be highlighted.

Mr. Moyar early in his book cites Mr. Obama’s 2009 Prague speech. Prior to his election he had “convinced quite a few people that he was a foreign policy realist, cognizant that interests and force ruled international affairs” (1). The speech becomes disconcerting in as much as none of those 2009 proposals for renegotiations to reduce warheads and stockpiles, test ban treaties, and other bullet points for broad foreign policy initiatives, none have materialized. To kick start the global economy Mr. Obama, for example, references his administration’s set-aside of $1.1 trillion in aid to the International Monetary Fund. And yet the speech argues that words must mean something and rules must not be broken.

Once in that Oval Office, however, and well apart from what was outlined in that Prague speech, Mr. Obama demonstrated that international affairs were secondary to the broader expanse of change at home. Granted, he was obliged to speak about national security; fans and critics, however, have sought to identify “a grand strategy, or an ‘Obama doctrine,’ that [guides] his decisions” (17). For the “man of change,” the doctrine avoids the use of “hard power” in favor of “soft power” and “smart power.”

The differences are hardly moot but suggest Mr. Obama’s intentions to pursue multilateral solutions as the center pieces to his foreign policy are less military and more diplomatic and economic; solutions for poverty, illiteracy, and human rights abuses are the more proper devices to create political transition. The more humanitarian assistance and development multilateral nations provide, terrorism, and Al Queda especially, would meet its demise with a “light footprint,” or “small footprint,” of civilian leadership rather than military leadership. If the United States were to maintain any presence in Iraq or Afghanistan, the “surge”

would be less military and more civilian. The “enemy” would thus be encouraged to lay down arms with the promise of education and employment. Counter-terrorism would no longer be a military issue while defense spending would “plummet well below 3 precent, its lowest level relative to GDP since the isolationist years of the 1930s” (57).

Mr. Moyar analyzes two features that develop from Mr. Obama’s preference for a “light footprint”: “With a light footprint, the United States could continue to eliminate the nation’s most

dangerous opponents through drone strikes and special operations raids” (61). In both cases, this “light footprint” could and would be micro-managed less by military experts and more by those naive children of light in the Oval Office. Mr. Moyar concludes that such military amateurism along with defense cuts has imperiled America; Mr. Obama’s fear of becoming boxed in by the military, however, has thus been circumvented.

Drone strikes may have been surgical but drones are noisy, slow-moving, and depend upon an operating agreement with such countries as Pakistan and Yemen. Likewise special operations raids may eliminate one bee from a hive but do not regain occupied territory. After substantial documentation, Mr. Moyar concludes that the history of the Obama administration has shown repeatedly that a multilateral enterprise is likely to end in failure if it lacks strong American leadership. Leading from behind is reluctant leading, benign leadership, or so argued Richard Miniter in 2012 in his credible and well-researched book.

A case in point occurs in 2011 when Gaddafi’s forces outside Benghazi were decimated by NATO. The “light footprint” in Libya was supposed to be the foreign policy breakthrough that defined Mrs. Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State. In May of 2012, however, the State Department rejected proposals to beef up a military presence in Libya since embassy officials feared security was inadequate. The “light footprint” argument continued in order to project an appearance of normality.

On September 11, then, around 8:00 PM, Mr. Moyar’s narrative details 150 “bearded men setting up roadblocks on the streets leading to the [Benghazi diplomatic] mission.” There were commanders, and vehicles bore the “logo of the Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah” (202). Witnesses testified that “it was definitely planned” (203). Three months prior, the British had closed their Benghazi consulate, and Islamist militiamen had blown a hole in the United States diplomatic compound.

As for Libya today?

It’s a dangerous critical region location that has left the United States without eyes or ears. Contrary to Mr. Obama’s promise to bring perpetrators to justice, “smart power,” “soft power,” and a “light footprint” have had little success.

Chapter-by-chapter this very fine book details case-study- after-case-study Mr. Obama’s idealism and his abandonment of that idealism to gain votes. “Smart power” is not so smart and compared to seven years ago, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Syria, Iran, Iraq and even Latin America are more dangerous than before. The “civilian surge [has fallen] far short of expectations” (224). When Foreign Service officials send either contractors or government employees into the field more often than not they find themselves in regional headquarters rather than in the field. Both Carter Malkasian and and Anne Smedinghoff, dedicated civilians who went outside protected areas, are now dead. There is little if any military security to support the efforts of United States’ civil agencies.

Mr. Moyar’s book is ironclad. It should be read alongside Emma Sky’s recent The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.

Strategic Failure is the work of a distinguished historian and a stunning account of the Obama era. It’s economically and politically conservative at heart in its prudent and measured tone.

And if Niebuhr could somehow resurface, he might very well argue that anyone with an objective mind would quickly come to know that what characterizes Mr. Obama best is wishful thinking, as is usually the case with those foolish children of light who have optimistic but naive views as to how the world can be rid of evil.

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