- - Monday, January 27, 2014

On the eve of his annual State of the Union address, Barack Obama’s five years as president have brought innumerable national security failures.

However, beyond the long, growing list of ideologically driven errors, missed opportunities and generally inattentive stewardship of foreign and defense issues is a larger problem.

National security is simply not a top Obama administration priority.

It is no excuse to say that recovering from the 2008 economic crisis has been the main goal, because that is manifestly not true.

Instead, Mr. Obama’s priority is his campaign pledge to “fundamentally transform” America, expressed first in Obamacare and currently in his obsession with economic inequality. Moreover, all presidents consider America’s economic well-being as a top objective, whether the economy is rising or falling at any given moment.

Mr. Obama has been very different. Unlike every other president since Franklin Roosevelt immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, national security is not Mr. Obama’s highest priority.

His first thought on waking up every morning is not “What threats does America face today?”

This lack of attention and interest in national security matters alone makes his tenure remarkable. He seems interested only when external events force him to confront international issues, or something happens for which he can take credit (fairly or not) such as the death of Osama bin Laden.

More than indifference is at work, though. Mr. Obama has a “little America” view of the world, one entirely comfortable with declining U.S. power.

His policies, words and actions all imply that he sees America historically as too powerful, too assertive, and too advantaged by its military capabilities and economic might.

In Mr. Obama’s view, no “grand strategy” is needed for dealing with a rising China, an assertive Russia or a Middle East in turmoil.

Instead, “leading from behind” and detachment from key international issues all demonstrate Mr. Obama’s discomfort with U.S. power and his feeling that the real problem is American strength.

Accordingly, in his view, a receding, unassertive America is actually better for world peace and security.

Mr. Obama is too cynical a politician ever to say this publicly while in office. For now, it is likely shared only by his closest political advisers — not surprisingly, since most observers agree that national security decisions under Mr. Obama have been centered in the White House to an unprecedented degree.

Whatever the psychology involved, whatever the ideology, whatever role Mr. Obama’s personal history may play in fashioning his national security views, these questions are all ultimately irrelevant. In fact, the search for the key to Mr. Obama’s motivation is ultimately nothing but a distraction. What really matters for the United States as a whole is not what motivates the president, but what he actually does. The facts on that score are devastating.

Mr. Obama looks at the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Contrary to his view, it is not U.S. strength that is provocative, but U.S. weakness. Whatever minimal stability and security now exists internationally is a result of the strength of America and its alliances.

Obviously, other nations benefit from our role, but do not bear their fair share of the costs. Many close allies, including in NATO, fall into this category, having for decades cut defense expenditures to increase social-welfare programs.

While the burden-sharing is not equitable, we do not act internationally out of altruism, but to protect our liberties and way of life at home, not least our standard of living in an intricate international web of trade, investment and communication.

Those who say global affairs do not touch the daily lives of average American citizens are living a delusion. Just think about the reality the next time you fill up your car’s gas tank.

America’s declining military, political and economic power under Mr. Obama, and its continuing turn inward are gravely endangering even today’s existing minimal conditions of security and stability. If we continue down Mr. Obama’s path, America’s role will either fall empty, or other powers will try to assume it.

In either case, global conditions will be far less benign for the United States and its friends (none of which are capable of filling the void) than the current environment. Mr. Obama is following Europe by increasing government budgets for social welfare and decreasing defense budgets, but, unlike our role in NATO, no one will cover our back.

What our country needs but does not have, and which Mr. Obama is unwilling or incapable of supplying, is a great national debate on America’s place in the world. Properly informed, we will shoulder the responsibilities necessary to maintain our exceptional way of life.

Even if Mr. Obama’s “little America” view prevails, though, we will at least have had a debate. From the perspective of responsible national security policy, the consequences of having no debate are exactly the same as losing the debate.

Despite five years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, there is every reason to be optimistic that the American people will rise to the challenge, as they have so often before.

John R. Bolton is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

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