- - Thursday, September 11, 2014


American presidents are often remembered by quotes that encapsulate their national security views. Think John F. Kennedy’s invocation of the “long twilight struggle” against communism, or Ronald Reagan urging Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” or declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

President Obama’s definitive line was not delivered at the Brandenburg Gate or in Cairo or even at West Point, but instead at an August 28 White House press conference. In attempting to explain how the U.S. would halt the rise of Islamic radicals in Iraq and Syria he admitted: “We don’t have a strategy yet.” I didn’t think it was possible to articulate a less compelling leadership vision than “leading from behind” or “don’t do stupid [stuff],” but I was wrong.

It’s remarkable that 13 years after the most devastating terrorist attacks in U.S. history, and months after a specific threat gathered in Iraq, the nation’s top leadership remains adrift when it comes to articulating a clear national security strategy. Call it Iraq war fatigue, or an Obama doctrine, but having no strategy is not acceptable in today’s dangerous world.

The “no strategy” admission confirms what we already knew: this president’s approach to foreign policy is marked by incoherence, indecision and the perception of weakness—and the public is taking notice. A recent Rasmussen Report revealed that 73% of Americans worry about Obama’s lack of strategy for ISIS. The same holds for his overall foreign policy.

The gathering chaos around the globe—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, the list goes on—illustrates what you get when you have a strategy of no strategy. Six years adrift have left the United States, our allies, in a precarious state. Meanwhile, as ISIS grows in Iraq and Syria, the next 9/11 cesspool is gathering before our eyes.

Two recent Pew Research Center polls reveal that 65 percent of Americans say the world is more dangerous since Obama took office; while 54 percent believe Obama is not “tough enough.” Given where public sentiment was when Obama ran for President, those are stark numbers. Leadership is not about simply being “tough;” but it does include being decisive with coherent direction, and leaning forward to head off emerging problems. By that standard, the Obama administration failed. Peace is achieved through strength, and Obama has proved that maxim’s flipside—weakness is dangerous.

The question is, what next? Specifically, the President is finally acting in Iraq to destroy ISIS, approving airstrikes, arming moderate allies, and building an international coalition—all good signs. But, he is also telling the enemy what we won’t do (“no boots on the ground!”) and continues to speak with duplicity about the mission’s scope. America must succeed in Iraq (and Syria), and lead around the world, but the likelihood of the President rising to the occasion in the final two years of his presidency is low—which will only make looming threats much greater.

More broadly, that means that now is the critical time for developing a corrective vision of U.S. national security in the 21st century; a vision that internalizes the lessons of the past 13 years and includes all levers of American influence, but also understands the centrality of military might in confronting the world’s most dangerous threats. U.S. national security strategy must be grounded in realistic assessment of what it takes to defend America by deterring, and if necessary, defeating our enemies.

Obama, and his Ivory Tower allies, prattle on about the need for “comprehensive” strategies to confront every global crisis. “Comprehensive” entails a range of strategies and tactics, including political pressure, economic incentives and sanctions, and diplomatic outreach. Comprehensive is good, but it’s also difficult, complicated, and often an excuse for inaction.

The president repeatedly downplays the central role military strength plays in supporting “comprehensive” strategies. Obama seems to believe military power is just one tool among many—but in fact it is the critical tool that supports, and accelerates, the others. Politics, economics, and diplomacy may be more important long-term tools—but military progress is the essential foundation for all of them. The deployment of armed forces in conflict must always be a last resort, but it should always be an option in any true “comprehensive” strategy.

That’s a key leadership lesson that Obama seems never to have learned—not just overseas, but also here at home. He has rushed headlong toward slashing military capabilities in order to fund his domestic priorities, and further undermined our nation’s security by driving the federal debt to an all-time high of $17.7 trillion—and climbing. Our economy underwrites our strength and security, and he has imperiled both.

It will be the job of the nation’s next President to undo that damage—abroad and at home—by practicing restraint to balance spending with careful investment in a strong, flexible military fighting force. Likewise, overseas, America’s enemies must fear us again, and the trust of our allies must be renewed. On the battlefield, America’s military must also be empowered to unleash the fury of hell on those who kill, and seek to kill, our fellow countrymen and/or threaten our critical interests.

One thing is certain: the era of “we don’t have a strategy” must end—and the sooner the better. In the meantime, our job is to make the case for what American strength, security, and leadership really means in a dangerous and complex 21st century.

Pete Hegseth, an infantry officer in the Army National Guard who has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA).

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