Although President Obama spent much of his first year in office trying to revolutionize the U.S. health care system, the external world often inconveniently intruded. As the attempted Christmas mass murder of passengers flying from Amsterdam to Detroit demonstrates, our adversaries have not been idle. Nor will they be idle in 2010.
A critical question, therefore, is whether the president has learned anything during his first year, or whether he will continue pursuing national security policies that leave us at greater risk. The outlook is not promising. Too often, Mr. Obama seems either uninterested in the global threats we face, unpersuaded that they constitute dangers to the country, or content simply to blame his predecessors.
When he does see international threats, his instinct is to negotiate with them rather than defeat them. Facing totalitarian menaces in 1939, British politician Harold Nicolson said of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his closest aide that they “stepped into diplomacy with the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time; they did not observe the differences between a social gathering and a rough-house; nor did they realize that the tough guys assembled did not speak or understand their language.”
Nicolson could be writing today about Mr. Obama. Consider some of the issues lying ahead:
(1) The global war on terror: Despite the administration’s verbal about-face on the effectiveness of our antiterrorism efforts within days of the unsuccessful Christmas attack, its fundamental approach remains flawed. Mr. Obama himself has led the charge in shifting from a “Global War on Terror” toward a law-enforcement paradigm, continuing, for example, to press for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Even today, the administration is treating would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant, thus losing the chance to gain enormously valuable information on al Qaeda activities and plans.
Al Qaeda-style terrorism has never been susceptible to law-enforcement methods. It is not simply a crime like bank robbery, which is why military and intelligence agencies have undertaken much of our antiterrorist activity since Sept. 11, 2001. And it is why sidelining them now can have potentially catastrophic consequences for the United States and our allies.
Mr. Obama should articulate some grand strategy for countering terrorism. Withdrawing from Iraq, mixed signals in Afghanistan (surge troops in 2010, but begin withdrawing in 2011), and public defenders for airplane bombers is a prescription for failure. Indeed, the Christmas near miss demonstrates that more, not less, attention must be devoted to al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere, such as Somalia.
(2) Nuclear proliferation: Iran and North Korea, the two gravest nuclear proliferation threats, have so far spurned Mr. Obama’s “open hand.” This is truly remarkable, since both rogue states have skillfully used prior negotiations to their advantage, buying time to advance their nuclear and ballistic missile efforts, and extracting tangible economic and political benefits from America and others. Accordingly, their current unwillingness to talk shows they think they can extract an even higher price from Mr. Obama before even sitting down, a truly discouraging sign.
In fact, neither Iran nor North Korea will be negotiated out of the nuclear weapons programs (or their chemical or biological weapons, which are not even on the horizon for discussion). Moreover, we cannot be content merely trying to “contain” nuclear rogue states, since so doing simply leaves the initiative entirely with them, given their asymmetric advantage of threatening or actually using their weapons. These countries, each for its own peculiar reasons, are not subject to the Cold War deterrence principals. Still worse, the risks of further proliferation are both palpable and threatening if Pyongyang and Tehran keep their nuclear capabilities. There is simply no sign Mr. Obama understands these ever-growing risks.
Instead, Mr. Obama is negotiating drastic nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, even as he eviscerates our missile defense capabilities, apparently believing unilateral strategic arms cutbacks will entrance Moscow and persuade rogue proliferators to dismantle their programs. This is naive and dangerous.
(3) Global governance. Although the Copenhagen Conference on climate change failed to achieve anything like its sponsors’ objectives, their under lying push for greater international control over the economies of the world’s nations, and their tax and regulatory systems, continues unabated. In fact, as the president’s speeches - especially those given at the United Nations in September - demonstrate, he entirely buys into the notion of “global governance,” with the United States in time subordinating elements of its sovereignty to international authority.
This worrisome predilection has only been whetted by the failure at Copenhagen, and we can anticipate far more activity in 2010 and beyond, not only on climate change but in a host of areas traditionally considered “domestic” policy (such as abortion, firearms control and the death penalty).
Frustrated by their failures in the United States, the American left has increasingly resorted to international treaties and conferences to advance its agenda. Mr. Obama’s administration is filled with people who share that worldview, including the president himself.
In short, if you were concerned in 2009 about America’s increasing international vulnerability and its decreasing global influence, you will find little to celebrate in the coming year. Our adversaries sense weakness across the board in Washington, and they will not hesitate to take advantage of it.
Importantly, whatever national security decisions Mr. Obama makes in 2010 will undeniably be his, as the passage of time diminishes his ability to blame President Bush and the situation he inherited. Happy New Year, Mr. President.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).