Many Americans believe our entire government is dysfunctional and can’t — or won’t — correct itself. While this may be true, the thesis here is that “we are where we are” mainly because of specific national security leadership failures going back more than 20 years — through both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Bill Clinton inherited two terms of post-Cold War prosperity (thank you Ronald Reagan). However, Mr. Clinton mostly ignored the rather obvious indications of the growing terror threat, both from the many attacks abroad and the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. But did the Clinton administration have indications and warnings of more large-scale terrorist attacks such as occurred on 9/11?
This question probably explains why the late Sandy Berger, Clinton’s last National Security adviser (and also Mr. Clinton’s designated representative to the 9/11 Commission) stole several highly classified documents during a series of visits to the National Archives.
Why would he do such a thing? Did he know, believe, or was he afraid that there was a “smoking gun” that he and Mr. Clinton would be accountable for, insofar as there were specific warnings of an attack that were ignored? Seems a very plausible explanation as to why he risked a criminal conviction and forfeiture of his license to practice law — which in fact happened. Finally, would it surprise any of us to learn that this was just another “Clinton cover-up”?
George W. Bush’s primary response to 9/11 was to invade Iraq, replace Saddam’s Sunni/Baathist regime with a Shiite one and disband the Iraq army — all based on the assumption that Saddam was presiding over a vast weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. The WMD justification turned out to be false, albeit described as a “slam dunk” by Bush’s CIA Director, a political appointee and holdover from the Clinton administration.
Instead of leaving Iraq mostly intact, especially the Army (sans the leadership loyal to Saddam) Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and their minions came up with a new policy justification to stay in Iraq for a decade and spend billions of dollars, building a “new” army and a “democratic” Iraq. This was a disaster.
The Bush Iraq policy solidified the growing influence of the Shiite militias (loyal to Iran) and drove moderate Sunnis out of government, many becoming supporters of the more radical Sunni groups. In effect, the Bush policy turned Iraq into a Shiite prefecture of Iran, and served as a proximate cause for the increased influence of ISIS in the region.
The only worse decisions that affected Iraq, the region and our security at home were yet to come.
Barack Obama began his term by naming a date certain for our departure from Iraq, rather than address the mistakes that were made in Iraq — for example, Vice President Biden had earlier suggested three semi-autonomous Iraq regions. Mr. Obama simply pulled out and essentially gave it away to ISIS — especially after the U.S. trained, very expensive and so-called “new” Iraq army abandoned their weapons, turned and ran. Iraq is still in turmoil and will not recover without some kind of external intervention — which will be opposed, of course, by the Iran backed government we installed there.
Another failed Obama policy in the Middle East was the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya without any idea what to do thereafter. Libya remains in chaos and a hotbed for terror groups of all kinds.
In Syria, Mr. Obama surrendered the initiative and the future of the Assad regime to Russia, which will use the opportunity to dramatically increase their influence and military presence in the region. However, the Obama administration had squandered any opportunity to replace the Assad regime — also backed by Iran — long before the Russians stepped in to defend Mr. Assad, and has now had to agree with the Russians that Mr. Assad can stay.
The agreement with Iran regarding their nuclear weapons program was nothing but a very expensive political nod from Iran — not rub our nose in it until after the Obama administration left town. The agreement is not verifiable because it puts Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program and facilities off limits. In fact, Iran could have already built nuclear weapons and certainly has made enough “special nuclear material” to continue their covert weapons program. In short, the Obama administration essentially put its head in the sand on Iran nukes.
The Obama administration responded to the Charlie Hebdo attack that it was an issue of Islamic “assimilation” in Europe. The recent massive Paris attacks totally destroyed this thesis, as have the more recent mass killings in San Bernardino. Mr. Obama’s initial response to San Bernardino — was that it was primarily a U.S. gun control issue.
Our borders are woefully insecure, yet the Obama administration is reluctant to aggressively control them, and to meaningfully restrict or regulate immigration categories or definitions. Some have even suggested that a long-term political motivation is behind this, as immigrants vote predominately Democratic.
It’s totally understandable why many American voters, Republican and Democrat, are looking for dramatic change in the way our government “works” — especially with regard to our most basic national security exposures. For these voters, Donald Trump represents an “escape from the ordinary” in how we might do it. One thing for sure, the collective record for the last three administrations is not good — and because of it, our world is more dangerous today than it was at the height of the Cold war.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence