Last week brought a reminder of what the United States has lost since Bob Gates and Leon Panetta left the Obama cabinet. Both are straight shooters with a centrist, hardheaded sensibility.
Panetta has been making headlines with his criticism of Obama on 60 Minutes for pulling out of Iraq too soon (“I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq”) and not doing more early on to aid the Syrian opposition (“we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS”).
Meanwhile, Gates has been critical of Obama for prohibiting U.S. “boots on the ground” to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: “The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” he told CBS This Morning. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the United States won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”
In retrospect, it is clear, the first Obama term—when Gates was at Defense (followed by Panetta), Panetta at CIA (followed by General David Petraeus), Hillary Clinton at State, Admiral Mike Mullen at the Joint Chiefs, and retired General Jim Jones at the National Security Council—was a golden age (by Obama standards) when there were grown-ups more or less in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Obama at first tended to accede to the advice of his more seasoned foreign policy hands because as a first-term senator he was acutely aware of his own lack of experience or credibility in the field. Thus, he delayed his Iraq pullout, maintaining 50,000 troops there until nearly the end of 2011; he tripled troop numbers in Afghanistan to pursue a more robust strategy against the Taliban; and he continued most of George W. Bush’s second-term counterterrorist policies while actually increasing the number of drone strikes in Pakistan. Even then, Obama’s caution often intruded in ways that undercut his stated goals: For example, he insisted on an 18-month timeline on the Afghanistan surge, which Gates, Clinton, Petraeus (then at Central Command), and others accepted only reluctantly as the price of having a surge at all. But, however reluctantly, Obama acted more toughly during his first two years in office than his campaign rhetoric would have predicted.
Ah, for those good ol’ days. Today, by contrast, U.S. foreign policy is shaped by Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, Susan Rice, and John Brennan, among others, with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes the most frequently quoted spokesman. It tells you something that the most hawkish of the lot is Kerry, but he has dissipated much energy and credibility in futile efforts to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His major achievement to date is to broker a power-sharing accord in Afghanistan between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah that may or may not hold together.
Still, it’s hard to be too harsh on Kerry or any of the other cabinet members when clearly the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy is the president himself. Obama suffers from the not uncommon defect of the intellectually able: He imagines that he is always the smartest guy in the room and thus has trouble taking advice that does not accord with his own predilections. Driven largely by his own imperatives, the president pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq (after making only a token effort to reach a Status of Forces Agreement), failed for three years effectively to aid the Syrian opposition, declared and then ignored a “red line” in Syria, failed to provide assistance to the Libyan government after Qaddafi’s overthrow, did little to make Putin pay a price for his aggression in Ukraine, presided over a precipitous decline in defense spending that risks another “hollow army,” launched nuclear negotiations with Iran that relax sanctions while allowing centrifuges to keep spinning, and made numerous other unforced errors.
What happened? How did the centrist Obama of his early years in office give way to the dovish Obama of more recent times? My theory is that the turning point occurred on May 2, 2011. That is the day when Osama bin Laden was killed in a daring SEAL raid authorized by the president, who overrode the concerns of Gates and other more cautious advisers. This undoubted success puffed up Obama to think that he could manage foreign policy on his own and convinced him that he no longer needed to worry about attacks from the right: Who, after all, could claim that the president who “got” bin Laden was insufficiently hawkish?