In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”
He should, especially in national security which I am convinced was as important a factor in this election as it was in the 2006 midterm when, in the midst of Iraq War debacles, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. The president did himself incalculable damage when he set a “red line” for Syria last year but failed to enforce it. That created an image of weakness and indecision which has only gotten worse with the rise of ISIS and Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.
The question now is whether the president will overcome his initial denials and squarely face the message that the voters were trying to send: He needs to change course. I will leave it to others to spell out what such a course change will mean in domestic policy, but when it comes to national-security policy he would do well to take all or some of the following steps:
- Save the defense budget from the mindless cuts of sequestration, which are already hurting readiness and, if left unabated, risk another “hollow” military.
- Impose tougher sanctions on Russia, freezing Russian companies entirely out of dollar-denominated transactions, while sending arms and trainers to Kiev and putting at least a Brigade Combat Team into each of the Baltic republics and Poland to signal that no more aggression from Putin will be tolerated.
- Repeal the 2016 deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and announce that any drawdown will be conditions based.
- Increase the tempo of airstrikes against ISIS, and send a lot more troops to Iraq and Syria to work with indigenous groups–we need at least 15,000 personnel, not the 1,400 sent so far. This isn’t a call for U.S. ground combat troops, but we do need a lot more trainers, Special Operators, and support personnel, and they need to be free to work with forces in the field rather than being limited to working with brigade and division staffs in large bases far from the front lines.
- Make clear that any deal with Iran will require the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities–not just a freeze that will leave it just short of nuclear weapons status.
- End the rapprochement with Iran that has scared our closest allies in the Middle East, and make clear that the U.S. will continue its traditional, post-1979 role of containing Iranian power and siding with the likes of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE over Tehran. A good sign of such a commitment would be launching airstrikes on Iran’s proxy, Bashar al-Assad.
- Get “fast track” authority from Congress and finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.
Sadly, the odds are that Obama won’t do any of this except for TPP. That will leave a Republican Congress seething in frustration but its ability to compel presidential actions in foreign policy will be highly limited–even with the addition of knowledgeable lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and with Senator John McCain, the GOP’s leading foreign-policy voice, taking over the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lawmakers can demand that Obama submit any deal with Iran for Senate approval as a treaty and, if he refuses, they can vote to keep sanctions in place that Obama will try to suspend unilaterally–but in practice achieving this outcome will be very difficult because it will require veto-proof majorities in both houses. Democrats are happy to talk tough about Iran, but will they vote against their own president on an issue where he is sure to lobby hard? Lawmakers can also push for increases in the defense budget but this will undoubtedly require a deal with the White House in which the GOP would have to swallow higher domestic spending and/or tax increases that will be a hard sell on the right.
In the end Obama will retain tremendous discretion as commander-in-chief. We can only hope he will use his authority to stop the dissipation of American power and prestige that has occurred in recent years. He would do well to borrow a page from Jimmy Carter who became a born-again hawk after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But given Obama’s history of stubborn adherence to ideology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.