Republicans Should Beware Obama’s Advantage on National Defense

With the unemployment rate above 8% for the last 33 consecutive months, it is little surprise that the President’s job approval is only at 43%. An early October Gallup poll found 46% of respondents would vote for a generic GOP candidate vs. 38% who would re-elect President Obama. Currently, Americans are laser-focused on the economy, and their commander-in-chief is not living up to their expectations. In fact, registered voters in 12 swing states favor a GOP candidate by 16 percentage points over Obama on handling the federal budget deficit and debt. They also prefer a Republican candidate by seven percentage points on reversing high unemployment.

The only area where President Obama showed a modest advantage was an unlikely one for a Democratic candidate – defense. The same Gallup poll showed respondents favored the President by a percentage point in an area that has traditionally been a Republican strength.

As a Republican, it is painful to admit that Obama’s record on defense has been strong, but one must concede that the President has had an unbroken string of operational military victories. Absent a weak economy, these successes would make it difficult for any Republican candidate to dislodge the President from the White House.

The President’s first major national security test came when Somali pirates hijacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship. The President’s initial response seemed tepid, tentative, and weak, as the stand-off stretched on for five days. However, the President ultimately provided the military with the wherewithal to deal with the pirates appropriately. Navy snipers resolved the crisis by killing three Somali pirates and successfully freeing the ship’s captain. Not only was the action a tactical success, but also it sent a message to future pirates that seizing American ships is not likely to be a profitable enterprise.

Since President Obama took office, the United States has dramatically expanded the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, killing more than 1,500 suspected militants in Pakistan. In 2010, the President expanded the CIA’s UAV program over the tribal areas of Pakistan to 14 drone orbits, each of which usually includes three drones. Furthermore, the President delegated to the CIA the decision authority to target militants. The President now receives notification after strikes, not beforehand. In an action no Republican President could ever take without provoking an ACLU lawsuit, President Obama also used these drones to assassinate an American citizen accused of inciting violence against other Americans – a particularly gutsy move.

Many of Obama’s opponents criticized his Libya intervention as not being in America’s strategic interest, and his execution of the mission as “leading from behind.” Yet the mission was a textbook “economy of force” operation, where the United States used a minimum of force to achieve maximum effort. America’s role in destroying Libya’s air defense system, “provid[ing] more than 70 percent of the surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities,” and executing “70 percent of refueling missions” was critical to the mission’s success. The mission also provided a post-Iraq template for future American military operations that are essential for key allies, but not in vital American strategic interests.

President Obama’s crowning operational achievement was his daring decision to send a covert team into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Then-Defense Secretary Gates described it as “one of the most courageous calls – decisions – that I think I’ve ever seen a president make.” The President could have taken a more risk-averse approach and bombed bin Laden’s dwelling with 32 2,000-pound bombs. An operational failure of the covert raid could have turned horribly wrong — but it didn’t.

Even President Obama’s phased withdrawal of American forces from Iraq has been relatively orderly. According to a senior Baghdad adviser, Iraq now averages between “zero and seven security incidents a day nationwide — compared with 180 per day four years ago.”

President Obama also deserves credit for foiling an alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador on American soil at a time when the Iranians have been unusually aggressive. For example, Iran is also believed to have sponsored the “murder of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in May.” The President’s timing in releasing the details of this plot also appears to have been very strategic, as the IAEA is about to publish a report this week detailing what many believe are Iran’s efforts to weaponize its nuclear program.

Many of the President’s national security victories will likely go unacknowledged. For instance, many speculate that the U.S. government may have been involved in unleashing the mysterious Stuxnet worm that potentially damaged or disabled a fifth to one half of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and delayed Iran’s nuclear weapons program for several years. If true, President Obama would have either had to initiate the program or acquiesced in its continuation from the Bush Administration.

That said, the long-term effects of President Obama’s policies remain to be seen. Many defense commentators, myself included, have warned that Obama’s actions against Qaddafi may have scuttled any future hope of convincing dictators to end their WMD programs voluntarily, and could eventually result in a Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation spiral. However, these long-term effects are nothing more than hypothetical today, and will likely remain so between now and election day. Until then, the President’s security record will remain an impressive one.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Defense, International Security, Leadership, Middle East, Nuclear proliferation, Policy, Politics, Technology, Terrorism, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Republicans Should Beware Obama’s Advantage on National Defense

  1. Scott Erb says:

    I still cannot fathom how this hurts efforts at non-proliferation. Moreover, I would not want a foreign policy that tells ruthless dictators that if you stop a nuclear weapons program then you’re safe from us doing anything to de-stabilize their regime. That creates an incentives for countries to start such programs only to stop them later. Gaddafi gave up trying to get nuclear weapons because it was not in the regimes’s economic self-interest, and those incentives will exist for any future regimes. Others, like Iran, have a completely different calculus – Libya doesn’t matter to them one or the other (except to reinforce their fear of the public rising up!) Gaddafi gone is a very good thing, a necessary thing, and our assistance will bring benefits as change continues to sweep the region. We have to be on the right side of history this time; Gaddafi was clearly on the wrong side.

    • Chris Van Trump says:

      There’s a certain brutal pragmatism in taking the approach of: “So long as you don’t destabilize the region by engaging in foreign adventures, or attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, we’ll mostly leave you alone to do what you like within your own borders.” It may not appeal to the humanitarian in you, but it’s probably the most cost-effective way of maintaining a degree of regional stability.

      And right now we really can’t afford another war. Libya was a gamble that paid off; if the rebels had not managed to maintain their momentum, however, and if it had settled into a situation were we would have faced the prospect of sending in ground troops for a lengthy civil war… I doubt Obama would be reaping much political gain from that outcome.

      I’m not entirely sure that the situation in Libya will substantially affect that particular bit of political calculus though. Adding foreign support to a popular uprising falls into somewhat of a gray area, but Sean’s right that it certainly won’t help with dictators voluntarily shutting down their nuclear weapons programs.

      • Scott Erb says:

        But the wild card in the analysis is whether or not dictators can remain in complete control in the 21st century like they did in the 20th. Not only has globalization and communication dramatically changed the situation (with more media scrutiny), but demographic change has created a massive surge in the numbers of youth, who are extremely dissatisfied with the old order. My support for Libya is predicated on the belief that political change in the region is inevitable, that the era of stable dictatorships in especially the Arab world is ending (ultimately I think that will include the Saudi royal family). If that’s the case, standing with dictators now only increases the appeal of the argument that the US enables corrupt dictatorial thugs and makes it less likely that we can have stable or even positive relationships with emerging governments.

        I think even Islamic parties are not necessarily opposed to good relations with the West; it depends on what we do and if we can find areas of mutual interest (I think we can). Even al qaeda is morphing into something different than Bin Laden’s weird war on the US and the West. The region is in transition and flux, and supporting an anachronism like Gaddafi (or letting him do what he wants and ignore appeals from those who promises ‘no mercy’) is, in my opinion, harmful to our long term interests in the region. Of course the level of uncertainty is high – it would be nice to have a crystal ball!

        • Chris Van Trump says:

          I never advocated supporting dictators, and frankly I think we did too much of that in the preceding decades. But a hands-off approach, as I said, is pragmatic in light of our current economic situation, and it is one more calculated to offer less inducement towards WMD programs.

          As for the fate of dictatorships everywhere… It’s difficult to say. The Saudi’s at least have twigged to the fact that as long as people are reasonably happy, they’re not likely to start rioting in the streets.

        • Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think that as long as there is Islam and oil, there will be dictators. I also think that new communication technologies make these revolutions much easier to defeat, because they provide more intelligence about the strong and weak ties of a movements networks that can make it very easy for authorities to crush them. The British, for instance, quickly arrested many perpetrators for inciting riots on Facebook.

    • Scott,

      Here’s another way to frame the question. If, as a purely rational actor, you were running North Korea or Iran, would you ever consider shutting down your nuclear program in exchange for a grand bargain with the United States, especially in light of the Libyan precedent? And if the answer to that question is “yes”, do you think you would maintain power in your own country after making such an agreement?

      I think at this point, the Obama administration as pretty much eliminated the option of a grand bargain with Iran based on the precedent set in Libya. Now there are only two strategic alternatives left. Deny the Iranians nuclear capability, or learn to live with a nuclear Iran. Given their recklessly aggressive actions in both Iraq (IEDs) and within the United States (planned assassination of the Saudi ambassador), I am actually more comforted by the risk and uncertainty of the former than the reckless adventurism that will almost certainly result from the latter.

      • Scott Erb says:

        Another question: Do you think if the US made a “grand bargain” with Iran and a popular uprising arose in Iran that could lead to regime change, would we really stay out? Would Iran think, regardless of what happened in Libya, that we’d not get involved? I’d say that we would not keep the bargain (nor would Iran believe we would) because of Iranian support of Hezbollah and Iran’s potentially destabilizing role in the regions even without nukes. So I wonder if Libya really mattered in the decision making calculus of other countries.

        As to dictatorships and the Mideast, I agree you may be right. We don’t know what all this is going to bring. I don’t think Islam is causal but rather than heritage from the Ottoman political culture. I think it’s important to watch not only what happens in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, but more importantly whether or not the Islamic parties show pragmatism.

        • “Another question: Do you think if the US made a “grand bargain” with Iran and a popular uprising arose in Iran that could lead to regime change, would we really stay out?”

          We would absolutely stay out. Iran has something like 4 times the population of Iraq and has access to some of the best terrorist organizations in the world. Syria is the test case. In terms of regime change, if it took three weeks for us to overthrow Saddam, it would even take us a shorter period of time to overthrow Assadm (like Iraq, though, the aftermath would be extremely complicated), yet we haven’t done so. I thnk the fact we aren’t getting involved there answers your question about Iran.

          I think the only way we ever really put boots on the ground in Iran is if Iran seriously miscalculates (as it almost did in Washington), by letting Hezbollah or the IRGC loose on American soil.

  2. Scott Erb says:

    Oh I agree we wouldn’t invade. But what if we could render support of some sort, perhaps including some kind of multi-lateral air strikes like Libya? I think if there was a shot to give support for an uprising that was reasonably cheap and broadly supported, we’d participate because regime change in Iran would likely be very good for the region and US interests. I think Iran knows that, and wouldn’t trust any grand bargain even if we’d allowed Gaddafi to crush his opposition.

    • “But what if we could render support of some sort, perhaps including some kind of multi-lateral air strikes like Libya?”

      Fair enough. I just don’t think the people are well-armed enough in Iran to make this happen. They certainly aren’t in Syria.

  3. What did you think of the GOP debate on foreign policy a week ago?

    To me it felt like they were all trying to show what itchy trigger fingers they have, that they will be really long swagger, and they have no hesitation about using renamed torture.

    I think Obama has made many mistakes on domestic policy: to focused on leveling down the rich rather than leveling up the poor; too deferential to congress turning the stimulus into pork feast; and limiting growth in domestic energy production.

    But I mostly agree with your assessment on foreign policy. Personally, I think one reason is that he seems to do a good job of being able to take time to think when appropriate, but capable of quick action as well.

    • Bruce,

      Unfortunately, I didn’t see it because I don’t have cable.

      That said, I’ve read Mitt Romney’s foreign policy platform on his website, because I am convinced he will be the Republican nominee. Based on his statements, I think his initial policy was inane. A policy that focuses on terrorism, a practice that has only killed several thousand Americans is an ill-advised one. That said, I looked at his policy today and it has changed a bit in a better direction. In my opinion, the top three foreign policy focuses should be 1) preventing proliferation of WMD, 2) ensuing energy security, and 3) hedging against an aggressive China. It seems his policy explicitly does #3, but roots around at elements of one and two. In other words, his current policy tries to be all things to all people. I think he needs to tighten it up under the rubric of the three items I mentioned above.

  4. I think it is on for streaming, to anyone who is interested.

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