Whether in Afghanistan (from where I write this post), Iraq, or Libya, there is a single, corrosive assumption underlying President Obama’s foreign policy: By threatening to abdicate leadership, the United States can force allies and regional partners to act responsibly.
Hence, the White House believes it can pressure Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to crackdown on corruption and focus on good governance if only it signals to Karzai that American support is finite, hence the 2014 deadline. Likewise, the White House believes that withdrawing from Iraq not only militarily but also in terms of post-withdrawal partnerships will force Iraqi politicians to cease squabbling and unite to build a brighter future. With regard to Libya, deferring American leadership will force the Arab League to step up to the plate.
Obama may see himself as an international president, but this core assumption rests upon myopic and ironic arrogance which assumes that American relations are essentially bilateral so that when America threatens to withdraw support, our partners will have no other countries to turn to. Obama’s strategy team represents Washington navel-gazing at its worst. There are other players in the sandbox. After Obama announced America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Karzai simply shifted his embrace to Pakistan, and redoubled his efforts to court Iran and China.
When I was in Najaf, Iraq this past December, I met with three Grand Ayatollahs. They all had very different styles and personalities, but each made reference to the elder President Bush’s “abandonment” of the Shi‘ites during the 1991 uprising. That event drove Iraqi Shi‘ites into the embrace of Iran despite Iraqi resentment of Iran’s paternalism and their distrust of Khomeini’s clerical theories. Traditionally, the grand ayatollahs’ eldest sons act as their de facto political agents. Each of the ones I saw re-emphasized this point: Rather than empower Iraq, Obama’s policy was empowering Iran.
With regard to Libya, Obama’s refusal to lead has raised the price of victory: His refusal to recognize that war is as much psychological as military has convinced Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that he can simply wait out international action. Creating space for NATO to squabble (a certainty with European countries that refuse to tie influence to military investment) simply empowers Russia, China, and the Arab League.
Our commander in chief will fail repeatedly until he recognizes that leadership and multilateral equality are mutually exclusive. When America vacates its leadership, responsible pro-Western forces do not fill the vacuum; without exception, our adversaries will.