- - Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Like many other American families this holiday season, the Hayden clan will set aside time to, once again, watch Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

You know the story: a distraught George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is visited by his guardian angel, Clarence, and shown what the world would look like if there were no George Bailey. Clarence demonstrates what would have been the death of George’s younger brother, the sinking of an American troop ship, another death due to a pharmacist’s error, the general deterioration of George’s beloved Bedford Falls, a variety of stunted personal relationships.

Of course, Bailey/Stewart gets the message, sees the folly of his funk, faces his current crisis, is supported by those around him, and everyone lives happily ever after (or at least through the final reel).

Great moviemaking.

So great that today, in the national security realm, we get to see life imitating art. We’re getting to see what the world would look like if there were no America — or at least the America to which we and the world have become accustomed.

President Obama came to office with a strong belief that America had overreached, that we had become too involved. It matched the national mood and, indeed, there was some evidence that it was true. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the one the president inherited from his predecessor, famously observed that any future SECDEF who recommended committing a big American army to Asia or the Middle East should “have his head examined.”

And the Obama administration has certainly retrenched. David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, once described this as trying to better align the definition of American interests with the realities of American power.

Beyond overreach, I suspect that many on the administration team also believed that American power was often more cause than cure of international strife. Hence, what many called the “apology tour” early in the administration: “America has shown arrogance”; “We went off course”; “At times we sought to dictate our terms.”

We are now completing year seven of retrenchment and humility. And it looks like we may have overachieved. Certainly, it seems that these concepts are immune from being influenced by any of the realities they create.

Who (besides the president) now thinks that the right number of residual American forces in Iraq is zero? Predictably, perhaps inevitably, our pulling the cork out of the ethno-sectarian bottle there unleashed primal forces that have directly led to the disintegration of the country, the (re)birth of the Islamic State and the spread of Iranian hegemony. And this was a decision unabashedly celebrated by the administration as consistent with its vision and as a promise kept.

Then there was Ukraine, where a weak but revanchist Russia changed European borders and actually eroded the Westphalian definition of citizenship (based on where you resided) to one defined by the language your Mom and Dad spoke in the kitchen while you were growing up.

Despite consistent calls for defensive arms, the U.S. response was largely economic sanctions and hectoring Vladimir Putin about being on the wrong side of history. The result: genuinely frightened Baltic states, the dismemberment of Ukraine and an overconfident Russian autocrat.

In Syria, it was (is) worse. Despite a policy based on the premise that “Bashar Assad must go,” the president rejected proposals from his secretaries of state and defense and the director of the CIA to arm the opposition when it still would have made a difference. He walked back from his own red line when Mr. Assad blatantly crossed it with his use of chemical weapons. U.S. forces, when they finally returned to the region in the face of a genocide against the Yazidis, were limited in numbers and authorities. The result: a terrorist state the size of England in the middle of the Middle East, the return of Russian military forces and influence there for the first time in 40 years, some 300,000 dead, the most serious refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and a spreading ring of terror that has reached Paris (so far).

To be sure, more robust American behavior could not itself have determined the outcome in Iraq, Ukraine or Syria. The point is that we abdicated opportunities that could have helped shape outcomes more benign than today’s. If it was always going to be bad, it didn’t have to be this bad.

Last week in Antalya, Turkey, the president faced an uncharacteristically hostile press that challenged the adequacy of his policies in Syria. Not giving an inch, Mr. Obama defended his approach and, beyond a certain undefined intensification, said there would be no changes. The president showed some pique when, in effect, the journalists repeated the same question over and over again in only slightly different form.

If I had been there, I would have suggested a somewhat different approach. Rather than giving the president multiple opportunities to simply aver (somewhat ex cathedra) to the correctness of his course, I would have asked, “What event — in Syria, in Iraq, in Europe, in the United States — what event would cause you to say, ‘Ya know, we may have gotten this wrong. We’re going to have to regroup on this’?”

Put another way, what does the angel Clarence have to show the president to make him change his mind?

I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, so we’re going to have to wait for a new George Bailey (or perhaps it will be Mary Bailey, Donna Reed’s character in the movie) before much of anything changes.

And that’s still going to be hard. Clarence gave George a big favor: George got to pick up where he left off — without having to deal with all the bad things that would have been created by his absence.

That will not be the case with the America that the next president will inherit.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at [email protected]

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