Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Completely Different Path

You asked for change. Here it is.

If anyone was concerned that President Obama's number one priority was not the U.S. economy, one need not look further than his new Afghanistan plan for reassurance. In a foreign policy speech, the President's ultimate justification for his Afghanistan War plan was the effects the war is having on our economy. His appeal, out of place in a major foreign policy address in which America and its allies needed assurances that the Commander in-Chief was committed to the fight against Muslim extremism, was this: "...the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home." When Obama took office, the U.S. was as involved in the world as it has ever been. However, Obama has made foreign policy decision after decision with one central theme: to reduce the role and footprint of the U.S. abroad. This policy is not based solely on his economic concerns; Afghanistan is only one of the policies that has led me to my conclusion, and not all are economic in nature. A few observations to support my conclusion follow.

It is surprising that at a time of such globalization, America is experiencing the likes of a re-dedication to domestic policy not seen in modern times since, I don't even know when. The presidencies of the Bushes were mired by global events, the Clinton years a time of heavy involvement in the Middle East and Balkans, Ronald Reagan's a heavy focus on ending the Cold War, Jimmy Carter's a focus on international "human rights," Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program hurt by the Vietnam war, JFK's brief presidency one of Cold War focus, and so on. While each president has had his own domestic agenda, some more successful and influential than others, the Obama presidency is shaping up to be one of a different breed.

The Central Intelligence Agency, once the envy of the world and the U.S. gatekeeper, has been at the wrong end of a 35 year campaign to reduce its role and influence that has, since Obama's inauguration, seen a ramp-up. Despite promises coming into office that he would not prosecute CIA staff for their conduct under the Bush administration, Obama has asked his Attorney General to initiate an investigation into CIA conduct. These sorts of investigations over the last 35 years have been used by Democrats and power-hungry Department of Defense officials to reduce the efficacy of the CIA (which is ironic because the CIA was created, run, and inititially strengthened by the most liberal of Democrats).

The issue de jour raised against the CIA is whether the conduct of its role in the war on terror has been executed in a moral fashion. Moral dilemmas do not involve having to choose between right and wrong; they arise from having to choose between two questionable options. It is plainly wrong to inflict pain on another human being, but what if doing so could prevent the loss of life on a larger scale? This is the type of question the CIA faces in its day-to-day operations: how to weigh certainty against possibility, and its decision making is now being subjected to scruitany by a group of people who have never been in these sorts of situations. In the wake of 9/11, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and his staff were asked to define the boundries that the CIA would be held to. The memos produced have been referred to as "torture memos" and demonized as government approval and guidance of how to carry out torture. In fact, the opposite is true: they are anti-torture memos in that they drew lines that the CIA was not to cross, no matter how justified. With one single execption, who is now in jail, the CIA stood behind the limits set forth by the DOJ. These anti-torture memos separated out the different ways a prisoner could be coerced in order to elicit information, and decided which techniques counted as torture and which did not, and how far they could be taken under different circumstances. They did not provide approval for torture; DOJ documents (drafted under the Reagan and Clinton administrations) already exist for this purpose. Rather, they clarified in greater detail, so as to prevent torture, what was and was not allowed, and updated the rules with modern techniques.

The Obama investigation is not so much demonizing the judgment of the Bush DOJ so much as it dismisses the concept of CIA conscious moral judgment. Decades of leftist criticism of the CIA have inoculated the notion that CIA operatives automatically commit immoral actions and are thus incapable of deciding right from wrong and must be reigned in. Instead of focusing on upper limits that give chance to success, the focus is on setting lower limits to, as best as possible, assure that nothing goes wrong. The only approach that can be thought up is to impose more rules when, if anything, simply better rules are needed. This is the easy way out. A sign above the desk of the CIA's case officer sums it up:

Big ops, Big problems
Small ops, Small problems
No ops, No problems

This is not the attitude you want your agency responsible for foreign intelligence to have. In light of Obama's inability to distinguish between what the CIA does and true torture is (the kidnapping by Islamic terrorists in 1983 of CIA officer William Francis Buckley who was chained to a radioator and beaten for 15 months until he died of a heart attack compared to the "torture" of a terrorist suspect who was been threatened with a power drill, for example), his actions can only be explained by drawing on his strong concern of how the U.S. is perceived abroad; because terror suspects with information that might be used to save lives were treated like terror suspects with information that might be used to save lives, obviously some immoral action was involved. Despite many Arab government's goals conflicting with our goals, and despite the fact that many Western governments do not have the same concern for our well being as we do, their concerns hold a special place in our president's heart. A more limited CIA is not what our country needs right now, yet that is what we are going to get because a stronger one might upset someone in France or Saudi Arabia.

President Bush spent three years talking the Polish and Czech governments into participating a missile defense program they both wanted and saw as necessary to their national interests (Poland saw it as a step towards greater independence and strength against the Russians, and the Czechs saw it as increasing their importance to, and role in, the world). Less than a year into his presidency, Obama has renegged on these promises and thrown two very important allies under the bus. "Catastrophic to Poland" is how the Polish Ministry of Defense descripted Obama's actions. "This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence" was the Czech response. There is no precedent for the manner in which these agreements were unilaterally erased. The U.S. has historically respected its treaties as they've passed from administration to administration, even those opposed by the in-coming president. The reversal of the treaties with Poland and the Czech Republic came as huge surprises to those countries who had take big risks in agreeing to them, and will likely make it for the U.S. to come to agreements in the out years on sensitive issues.

Why did President Obama make this decision? Few know for sure, but many have a pretty good idea: the Russians did not like it, and the U.S. could really use better Russian relations. In his deliberations on the issue, Obama floated a trade to Russian President Medvedev: we'll give up missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic and you support us on Iranian sanctions. Medvedev responded publically: great, we fully support you giving up Poland and the Czechs, but these issues are not related and a trade is out of the question. Despite this, Obama moved forward and got nothing out of the deal. The Russians were bound to eventually support the sanctions, as they have done recently, because (as should have been apparent to the naive Obama administration), Iran was not going to play ball and head down an even more dangerous path that, at some point, the Russians were going to be threatened by. It's happened, all on its own, and Obama gave up a significant national security effort, weakened relations with two important allies, and challenged other allies to trust us in the future, out of desperation in a situation where none was warranted.

Today, in Mogadishu, a suicide bomber killed three Somali ministers and more than a dozen others. Al Shabaab, a militant youth Islamic group with links to Al Qaeda whose declared purpose in Somalia is to overthrow the government and institute Islamic rule, is the suspected transgressor. Since the 1990s, the Somali government has struggled to establish law and order and a viable state. The lawlessness has given rise to piracy, and now is drawing Al Qaeda fighters from countries like Pakistan and Yemen. In the past several months, attacks by Islamic militants have spiked in what the U.S. believes is a goal to establish an African base from which to plan and stage attacks on America. Of suicide attacks, a Somali ambassador said, "it's new to us; it's not a Somali thing." There is clear-as-day evidence that while we are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (the one war zone that Obama has right), they are setting up shop in Somalia, yet we are doing little other than sending money to the ineffective Somali military to prevent it. This reeks of a Clinton decision not to attack Al Qaeda despite knowing the location of Osama bin Laden. Why did Clinton not go after bin Laden? He did not want a foreign operation with limited international support that posed a threat to our interests. Oops. I'm willing to bet Obama is of a similar mindset with Somalia.

In his 11 months in office, Obama has laid a clear framework of ideology (if I had more time, I'd discuss Asia too) that says America has a bad reputation, so we're going to back down. I doubt he has considered that our reputation has degraded not so much because we're over-extended but because we're not working hard enough to uphold our ideals of freedom and democracy. With Russia, Obama has cowed to a despotic government because it's easier than taking it on, and the trust of our allies is fading. Where's our committment to the young democracies in the region promoting freedom? In Cairo, Obama told the Arab world that Israel was created out of Western guilt for World War II, despite the well document falsity of this concept; our committment to truth and honesty would have cost us too much there. In Somalia, we are going to allow Al Qeada to do its thing because we simply can't be bothered to stand up for human decency, let alone do some preventative work to stave off future Al Qaeda operations. Most blatant of all is Obama's treatment of Honduras. When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted last summer, Obama immediatedly called it an illegal action, insisted he be returned to power, and refused to talk to the interim government. Forget that Zelaya's constitutional term limit was up and that he refused to leave office and tried illegally to hold onto power, Honduras is still a democracy; Zelaya's interim successor is not even allowed to be a contender in the election that has already been planned. What possible motivation could Obama have for this, seeing as he's contradicting the tenets of democracy? For good or bad, it appears Obama is taking America down a path of reduced influence and power in the world. One could make the argument that the focus should be on strengthing America from within, but as we're increasingly tied to the fate of other nations, it seems unwise to reduce our role in their business.

No comments: