A Further Perspective

America’s Bad Optics Invite Adventurism

Who's afraid of the big, bad U.S.?

By 4.16.14

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The remaining two and a half years of the Obama Administration are a dangerous period for the world. There is a window of opportunity for rogue nations and adversaries to take advantage of an administration that has yielded on the world stage and put our foreign policy, if you can find it, into disrepair. Further, the president seems disengaged from foreign affairs, narcissistically absorbed with himself, and inciting class warfare and social unrest to cover for lack of success elsewhere.

The president’s reset with Russia has failed, with Putin annexing Crimea and perhaps more of Ukraine. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Chinese opposite number have sparred and admonished each other in public: Chinese Defense Minister Wanquan has asserted that his country cannot be contained, while Hagel has criticized China for declaring the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone without consulting with anyone. Iran’s thousands of centrifuges are spinning, enriching naturally occurring uranium 238 to near weapons grade uranium 235. A dangerously paranoid, isolated North Korea continues to blast away with provocative missile tests and live firing exercises, and America’s effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians has failed.

The administration’s diplomacy may be viewed as an art practiced by the confused, seeking the improbable, and achieving nothing. These are bad signals, to use understatement. But it gets worse. Our traditional allies from South America to Europe to Saudi Arabia to Israel are skeptical and in some cases alienated by NSA high tech snooping, the administration’s enthusiasm to cut a deal with Iran, and trading off deployment of missiles in central Europe to reboot relations with Russia. Other critics of the administration say that it fails to see Russia for what it is. And against this hostile world order, America is reducing its armed forces.

Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Force Projection, believes that the U.S. needs a fifteen carrier navy. Last month, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, advised the House Armed Services Committee that the Navy should have a 450-ship fleet to address the missions given to it — compared with the 289-ship Navy of today. With the recent decommissioning of the USS Enterprise, the Navy is down to only ten aircraft carriers until the planned delivery in 2016 of the USS Gerald R. Ford — unless the president’s request to cut another carrier in the 2015 budget prevails.

While immediate focus is on the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the South China Sea, carrier presence may be needed to project power off the Korean peninsula, protect the oil sea lanes of the Indian Ocean near the Persian Gulf, and monitor naval operations of an increasingly aggressive Russia that yearns to show off its sinews. It is generally recognized that a third of a fleet is deployed at sea, while a third is undergoing repairs and retrofitting of equipment in dry dock, and a third are readying to deploy.

In the meantime, the Army is being cut to pre-World War II levels, and the Air Force is planning to retire the entire fleet of 343 A-10 tank buster aircraft and 50 F-15s, among other cuts.

On a more personal front, our president seems to think that with the arrival of the 21st century, there should be no evil upon this Earth. His vision is reminiscent of the R.E.M. hit released in 1991, “Shiny Happy People.” Thinking that his mere words and self-perceived moral authority can roll back Russian Special Forces and T-72 battle tanks from Crimea, the president has displayed a dangerous naïveté and unwillingness to see the world as it is. This attitude invites aggression from countries that respect only raw power and the barrel of an AK-47 — one of which is led by former KGB lieutenant colonel.

Vladimir Putin’s control of much of Ukraine is assured, whether by occupation or intimidation. Further, more pretexts can be created to “protect” Russian-speaking populations elsewhere, and the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — all recent members of NATO with Russian-speaking minorities — could be the next Russian test for the West. Contemporaneously, Chinese seizure of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea or the Senkaku Islands north of Taiwan would double the jeopardy.

Nations read symbols and make inferences. Looking at the optics from foreign capitals, they see an America that is withdrawn and at odds with allies. Its jejune head of state is more skilled at oratory than leading and managing — and he is spending more personal capital on domestic issues. A self-imposed sequester is reducing the reach of its armed forces, while potential areas of conflict proliferate. Economic recovery is advancing, albeit unevenly, and the country is increasingly focused on elections.

Democracies are famously ill-prepared for conflict, unable to mobilize their resources until after a catastrophe. With unemployment on the decline, stock markets near record highs, a recovery of much of the banking system, and a young generation mesmerized by consumer technology, it is easy to think that more normal times are ahead. They are not. This seems evident to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang — but not to Washington.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.