In an April 10 Fox News interview, President Obama identified what he believes is the worst mistake of his presidency. He said, “Probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”
It’s mighty tempting to deride that statement by going through the long litany of Mr. Obama’s mistakes in national security and foreign policy. But surrendering to that temptation would cause us to miss the important elements in what Mr. Obama said and why he said it. More difficult, and far more important, is an analysis to determine why Mr. Obama is incapable of learning from such mistakes.
Begin with the advice he received from his top defense advisers before going into Libya. According to “Duty,” the memoir of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Mr. Gates had determined that we had no vital national security interest in Libya and so advised the president. Again, according to Mr. Gates’ memoir, the final decision on intervention was made in a meeting between Mr. Gates and his team, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and the State Department and White House teams led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and two of her staffers, Samantha Power (now U.N. ambassador) and Ben Rhodes.
Mr. Obama, saying it was a “close call,” came down on the side of intervention to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Appearing with Mrs. Clinton on the Sunday talk shows to defend the intervention, Mr. Gates said repeatedly that we didn’t have a vital national interest in Libya, indicating that Mr. Obama’s action was unjustified.
Mr. Gates’ point is so fundamental to American defense and foreign policy that it beggars the imagination that we need to be reminded of it. Like several presidents before him Mr. Obama has misunderstood it, but the principle is precise and clear: the United States should never go to war unless a vital national security interest is at stake.
Though he often denies it, Mr. Obama is intensely ideological. He distrusts America’s definition of its interests and the rationale for defending them just as one of his principal mentors, Edward Said, did.
Mr. Said was a Palestinian activist who became an American academic. His was a radical anti-colonialist ideology that infused his writing and teaching. Mr. Obama studied under Mr. Said at Columbia University and maintained a relationship with him for about two decades.
Mr. Said mocked American greatness, tying it directly to imperialism and what he believed was a false sense of American uniqueness. He said America was dedicated to hierarchies of race and to wariness of other nations’ revolutions. He believed American insistence on these concepts obscured, “the realities of empire, while apologists for overseas American interests have insisted on American innocence, doing good, fighting for freedom.”
Mr. Obama’s distrust of America’s motives throughout history was learned from Mr. Said. Couple that with the anti-American vitriol of Mr. Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and you produce inevitably Mr. Obama’s personal ideology.
It is only by this analysis can we account for Mr. Obama’s actions since he became president. From 2009, when Mr. Obama agreed with Fidel Castro to condemn the action of free Hondurans to remove would-be dictator Manuel Zelaya to today’s refusal to deal decisively with ISIS, his actions have been consistent with Mr. Said’s world view. Mr. Obama’s insistence to Fox News that the Libya intervention was correct is redundant proof of his imperviousness to facts inconsistent with his ideology.
In Argentina last month, Mr. Obama was asked whether he would change his strategy against ISIS, the defeat of which he said was still his top priority. From August 2014, when he authorized military strikes against ISIS, to his recent action authorizing airstrikes against it in Syria, his strategy has consistently failed. But to this day, Mr. Obama refuses, as he said in Argentina, to change it.
What Mr. Obama cannot understand is that there are vital American national security interests and that humanitarian concerns must be secondary to them. America faces threats in all five realms: land, sea, air, space and the cyberworld. Those are vital national security interests and It is the duty of our government to deter or defeat those threats in the manner that best protects us, our allies and our interests in all of those realms.
Because his ideology doesn’t allow him to see the world in those terms Mr. Obama is miscast in the role of a president of our unique nation. He neither believes in American exceptionalism nor does he see the need for a strategy to defend it.
Mr. Obama’s intervention in Libya, over the objections of his Pentagon leaders, was a mistake he doesn’t admit. The mistake wasn’t in planning for a post-Gadhafi nation-building exercise. It was in going to war when we didn’t need to and therefore should not have.
In an interview about four years ago, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers posed the questions which every president should be prepared to answer. “What is our national strategy?” he asked. “What is our U.S. military strategy? What are our vital national interests, what role does the military play in ensuring that our vital national interests are supported and achieved?”
Mr. Obama has never chosen to ask or answer any of those questions. As a result, he has made many dangerous mistakes and learned nothing from them. Unfortunately, among the four candidates now most likely to achieve the presidency, there is no one who evidences having learned from them either.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”