National survival is a more evocative term than national security. This being “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel, America’s current troubles are best illustrated by an appropriate metaphor. In the 2003 film “Open Water,” there is a moment of exquisite terror when a couple of fun-loving scuba tourists realize that their incompetent charter boat captain has left them adrift while menacing fins grow larger, closer and ever more aggressive. In precisely that way, American foreign policy under President Obama’s inept leadership is rapidly collapsing — from eastern Ukraine to northern Iraq.
We already know that Russia’s Vladimir Putin regards the U.S. president as a weak sister, seldom even bothering to disguise his contempt for what used to be called American power. Like those circling sharks, Mr. Putin long ago realized that sanctions are little more than the plaintive cries of a hapless victim just before being eaten. Neither Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, nor their theories of soft power and 21st-century diplomacy, can likely deter a cunning KGB operative who knows he can invade eastern Ukraine before any countervailing force can stop him. Just for the record: It turns out that Mr. Putin has his own ideas about what a “Russian reset” might be.
So how convincing was Mr. Obama’s “shock and awe” campaign last weekend against those Islamic State marauders rapidly overrunning Iraq? Well, not quite as dramatic as the signature bombardments of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by either Bush 41 or Bush 43. In fact, it didn’t even impress Hillary Clinton, who criticized Mr. Obama’s lack of foresight in not arming the Syrian opposition and in creating a power vacuum now being filled by the jihadists. “Great nations need organizing principles,” she sniffed in that Sunday schoolmarm tone her fans adore.
Certainly, strategic principles really do make a difference, an obvious truth that Democratic administrations often seem unable to grasp. The one headed by Mrs. Clinton’s husband, for example, had an annoying pattern of minimizing actual threats while dispatching American forces on fool’s errands whenever Bill Clinton needed to appear presidential. Remember that cruise-missile attack on Khartoum, Sudan? His only discernible “strategy”: chasing Monica Lewinsky off the front pages. Still, why dwell on ancient unpleasantness when more recent dramas compel our attention?
The Obama presidency has been notable for its strategic failures, most of which occurred on Hillary Clinton’s watch when she was his secretary of state. Mr. Obama began with his famous Cairo speech, “A New Beginning” — read throughout the region as the Yanks aren’t coming and a portent of American strategic retreat. Ironically, the only place where Mr. Obama chose to stand and fight was in Afghanistan. Yet even that spectacularly unwise decision was more about managing internal White House rivalries than about defending any conceivable American interests.
In Libya, Mr. Obama led from behind, his use of military force justified neither by critical interests nor long-term vision, but rather by a humanitarian “responsibility to protect” against civilian casualties. When Egypt rose against its lethal Muslim Brotherhood government, the Obama White House overturned a generation of American diplomacy and alienated both the Egyptian people and their new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Only months later, that same White House was forced to accept Egyptian mediation as one of the few realistic possibilities for ending the brutal conflict between Hamas and Israel. When Mr. Kerry showed up in Cairo, Mr. el-Sissi’s security detail reportedly frisked the American secretary of state. That’s how you say “contempt” in Arabic.
The Islamic State knows this, too. In January, Mr. Obama famously likened them to a “junior varsity” team in a New Yorker interview that will deservedly appear in every Republican campaign ad between now and 2016. Because Mr. Obama failed to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, American forces — and any remaining U.S. influence — were withdrawn in December 2011. The direct result: Today, we have U.S. warplanes bombing American military equipment captured by the Islamic State as its forces overran western and northern Iraq. Want to follow their campaign strategy? Just open the map section of your Bible and trace the route traveled by the patriarch Abraham from southern Iraq to Canaan. The Islamic State reversed Abraham’s route, bursting out of Syria through the river valleys and ending up in control of Iraq’s vital waterways. Who’s the junior varsity now?
Lately substituting food drops and pinprick attacks for a military campaign plan, Mr. Obama is a woefully miscast checkers player competing with chess grandmasters. One can only imagine the White House staff hamstringing our pilots with rules of engagement more complex than the Book of Leviticus. So what can we do?
May I suggest the president consider a nice shark-watching tour off Martha’s Vineyard?
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.