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And to the Republic

Howard Manly

Considered a foreign policy neophyte, Barack Obama has emerged as one of the nation’s most competent commanders-in-chief

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the main criticism against Barack Obama was that he was too green to lead America’s foreign policy and military.  

A liberal democrat with an Islamic name, Barack Hussein Obama had as state senator delivered a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago and blasted what he considered the Bush Administration’s “dumb war” in Iraq. If that were not enough to haunt Obama and convince conservative voters that Obama could not be trusted to protect U.S. interests, his conciliatory statements on Islam were tantamount to burning the post- 9/11 American flag.

The Republican National Committee took it a step further. In a particularly nasty television ad, the RNC painted Obama as no more than a media darling and spliced his pictures with those of pop cultural figures Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The voice-over asked: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?”

Unfazed, Obama took the offensive throughout the presidential campaign. He threatened preemptive strikes against Pakistan for harboring terrorists. He vowed to wage war in Afghanistan against al-Qaida. In a somewhat jarring contrast to his campaign stump speeches that promised “hope” and “change,” Obama frequently mentioned hunting down terrorists where ever they were —  and killing them.

Obama was not just campaigning. He has proven true to his word on the fight against terrorism. Since his historic election, Obama as commander-in-chief has been willing to pull the trigger to protect U.S. interests. Ironically, Obama said as much during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

Conceding that the “moral force of non-violence” has a place in modern-day diplomacy and that there was “nothing naïve” in the beliefs of Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama was also quick to point out that he was sworn to “protect and defend” the United States.

“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” Obama said. “For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

In a move that foreshadowed his military decision making, Obama authorized within the first four months of his administration the military rescue of Richard Phillips, the American sea captain taken hostage by pirates in the waters off Somalia. The mission resulted in the deaths of three pirates and the capture of the fourth — and freed Capt. Phillips.  

That mission underscored the frenetic pace of the Obama Administration during its first 100 days. Within a short amount of time, Obama approved the massive expansion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; increased drone attacks against the Taliban in Pakistan and launched efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Most important, he stepped up efforts to hunt and kill America’s number one enemy — Osama Bin Laden.

That day finally occurred on May 2, 2011, when Navy Seal Team Six raided Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The successful raid also destroyed another bogey-man — that Obama was incapable of leading an effective war against terrorism.  

Under the Obama Administration, virtually every major al-Qaida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qaida’s top leadership has been eliminated. President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, explained in June 2011.

Unfortunately, President Obama, plagued by enormous domestic problems and staunch conservative opposition during a presidential election year, has been unable to implement his own stamp on U.S. foreign policy. In fact, Obama has maintained many of the very things that he campaigned against. From Guantanomo Bay and the treatment of suspected terrorists to his steadfast opposition to Palestinian efforts to gain recognition in the United Nations, Obama has taken a long-established approach in U.S. foreign policy that has served short-term political interests at the expense of the oft-stated, long-term goals of establishing democracy throughout the world.

No where is that incongruity more evident than in the Obama Administration’s handling of Palestine. In 2010, Obama stood before the General Assembly and asked for Palestinian statehood by 2011. “We should reach for what’s best within ourselves,” Obama said at the time, “If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living at peace with Israel.”

A year later, Obama went before the same board and threatened to veto any such measure. “One year ago,” Obama acknowledged, “I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believe then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said at the time is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”

It was an embarrassing moment for Obama. Like no other president before him, Obama is aware that he is viewed as the shiny example of the rewards of democracy. But as U.S. president, Obama had to put U.S. interests ahead of his own message of “hope” and “change.”

Surprisingly, even with the blurring of U.S. policy with Obama’s vision for a new world order, the one area where Obama is given the most amount of credit is the very thing that his political opponents blasted him during his presidential campaign — national security. Part of the reason for solid poll numbers are attributable to Obama’s unwavering stance in favor of democratic governance.

But the chief reason for the spike in poll numbers was the death of Bin Laden. At the time, public confidence in government’s ability to tackle tough budgetary and economic issues remained low. But several national polls told a different story when it came to Obama’s handling of national security. According to Rasmussen Reports in its July 15 poll, 51 percent gave the president good or excellent marks on his handling of national security issues while 28 percent rated him poor on those issues.

Two months earlier, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, “Slightly more than half said they liked the way he was handling foreign policy generally, up from 39 percent in April. About six in 10 approved of his handling of Afghanistan, up from 44 percent in January. And more than seven in 10 supported his handling of the terrorism threat, up from about half in August 2010. Perhaps least surprising, more than eight in 10 said they supported his handling of the pursuit of  bin Laden.”

What is more troublesome now to the Obama Administration may very well have little do with actual foreign threats but much to do about the outrage over the national economy, the size of the government budget and cost of foreign interventions. The numbers are staggering. Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that direct government spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had amounted to roughly $2 trillion by July 2011 — $17,000 for every U.S. household.  A Congressional Research Service report offered even more disturbing data: the costs of the two wars alone accounted for 23 percent of the combined budget deficits between fiscal years 2003 and 2010. The ultimate cost, at least according to the Eisenhower Research Project, could end up as high as $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans.  

And those figures are just for the two wars. Between FY1998 and FY2012, the baseline defense budget (in constant dollars and exclusive of war funding) has grown to $553 billion from $374 billion – an increase of close to 50 percent. Setting the agenda now is the debt-limit deal that calls for cutting more than $2 trillion from federal spending over the next decade.

Potential cuts and cost-saving measures are well-known.

A target is the multibillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the next-generation aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Obama Administration has all but admitted that the F-35 has been a costly mistake. Ten years in, the program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The cost of each aircraft has gone from $69 million to $133 million; the total cost of buying more than 2,400 F-35s has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion.

Obama has publicly stated the obvious but is reluctant to cut the military budget for legitimate security reasons and more pressing domestic political realities. “Over the last decade,” Obama said, “we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means.”

It remains unclear just how Obama will balance those needs with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower forewarned about the military industrial complex.

Arguably the most important challenge Obama faces as he confronts looming budgetary restraints coupled with remaining perceptions that he is soft-on-defense is his ability to avoid committing the U.S. to another costly war.

His decision to lead a limited, NATO- sponsored attack against Libya — which ultimately led o the brutal death of Moammar Qaddafi — reveals just how far Obama has come from the early days of his political career.

Given the perilous situations in other Middle eastern and African nations, Obama’s definition of self-defense clearly expanded when it came to Libya but not Somalia, Syria or even Mexico, where thousands of violent deaths have occurred at the hands of drug cartels right on the American border.

“As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene,” Obama explained, “We cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force — no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

But in Libya, Obama explained, “we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, we had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.  The message would have been clear: Keep power by killing as many people as it takes.”