American alliances are not in good shape these days, with many countries worrying that President Obama does not value the alliances, their own role in those alliances, or the commitments our alliances imply to the safety of states that are to some degree dependent on the United States.
It is therefore mysterious why the president decided to inflict further damage in interviews with The Atlantic. One can think easily of two famous moments when such comments, and those not even by a president, had dire effects. In January 1950, Secretary of State Acheson spoke about the American defense perimeter in Asia, saying our “defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus….The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands.” Excluded here was Korea, and many analysts have said this speech contributed to the decision by the North to invade South Korea several months later. On July 25, 1990, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq met with Saddam Hussein and said “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960′s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” Eight days later Saddam invaded Kuwait.
Words have consequences. In these recent interviews, the president undermined trans-Atlantic relations and relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.
Take his comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine:
The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do. This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.
Well, it is actually an example of saying something off the cuff that can only encourage further Russian aggression and demoralize Ukrainians fighting for their country. Why say it, even if you think it?
Take this description of Mr. Obama’s words from The New York Times:
The Saudis, Mr. Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, the [Atlantic] magazine’s national correspondent, “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” Reflexively backing them against Iran, the president said, “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia has been an American ally since 1945, and now faces an aggressive Iran with troops and proxies all over the Arab world (Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen) and with a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Other American allies border it and share its fears: Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain (where the Fifth Fleet is located), and the United Arab Emirates. What does the president have to say to calm their fears? Nothing. Instead he builds them, and suggests that he looks upon growing Iranian power with indifference–or even with approval.
To those comments he added criticisms of the United Kingdom and France, as if he were concerned lest any key allies be left out.
It’s worth mentioning as well this line from The Times:
The portrait that emerges from the interviews is of a president openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, which he said was obsessed with preserving presidential credibility, even at the cost of blundering into ill-advised military adventures.
As to credibility, those advisers who told him he was sacrificing his when–for example–he failed to enforce his red line on Syria were right. Presidential credibility can never be the goal of American foreign policy, but it is an important asset. Foreign leaders, whether hostile or friendly, must be able to trust that when the president says something, he means it and will stick to it. Allies rely on the United States, but “the United States” is an abstraction. In fact they rely on the words of the top officials with whom they interact; for them, in this sense the president IS the United States. Mr. Obama’s deprecation of presidential credibility is alarming for Americans, and dangerous for our friends.
Mr. Obama seems “openly contemptuous” of anyone who disagrees with him, and has for seven years. The problem in his eyes is not that there are tough policy questions, and difficult decisions, and several sides to hard questions; nope, there is his view and there are the ignorant, unintelligent views of those who differ, of whom he is indeed “openly contemptuous.”
Those who think the tone of American politics is ugly because participants disrespect each other might consider how much of that tone originates with or is worsened by the president.
In any event, his comments in this interview will not help the national security interests of the United States. They will undermine the confidence of allies. It is anyone’s guess why felt that these thoughts should have been spoken now.
_________________________________________________________Note: Elliott Abrams is a member of the foreign policy advisory group for Sen.