We're in a heap of trouble.
I write this while sitting in Colorado, on break from a superb seminar on defense and foreign policy sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the El Pomar Foundation. The seminar is remarkably free of political finger-pointing and direct criticism -- or even mention -- of the Obama administration. Most of the material is descriptive and neutrally analytical, rather than politically prescriptive and hypercritical. But the picture being painted of a growingly dangerous world makes any sentient person question the administration's performance in getting us into such a fix.
Our defense forces are being precipitously and unwisely hollowed out. Our capabilities in intelligence and diplomacy are inadequate. Our policies in several regions of the world are conducive not to American strength and peace, but to weakness and instability.
Take Syria. Patrick Clawson, director of research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is "a mess and it's going to get worse." It's awful already, and if Assad the dictator falls, "it will get even worse than it is. And it is unlikely that trouble in Syria will stay in Syria. It's going to be hard to stop this process from escalating."
The problem is that our intelligence agencies still don't know who's who among Assad's opposition, or really what their capabilities are either. And the administration did not do enough, early enough, to figure out which opposition leaders were potentially constructive, and which were the dangerous Islamists. Amazingly, said Clawson, his institute has a better idea of who's who than the CIA does. One reason: The CIA frowns on using social media such as YouTube. But just by watching YouTube, analysts can see hundreds upon hundreds of videos of actual action on the ground -- what the weapons are, who the people are, that sort of thing.
Tom Donnelly, director of the Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was no more encouraging. "The entire Levant region is in a period of greater instability than it has been for a long, long time," he said. "It's almost as if the administration's approach is to 'let it burn.' What we see is a multiplying of the number of potential conflicts, and there is a huge opportunity for instability and violence."
The problems aren't just in the Middle East. Steven Bucci, Heritage's Senior Research Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security, a longtime Army Special Forces officer, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, put it plainly: "The world is not safer today than it was a few years ago." Russia is "resurgent." China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorists all cause major problems. And organized crime's worldwide reach is "nearing capabilities of some nation states." Meanwhile, cyber-threats are growing and growing, and "most of our leaders just don't get it."
In another eye-opening presentation, José Cardenas of VisiónAméricas, former chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of State, outlined a list of challenges in the Western Hemisphere, led by the toxic designs of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The radically leftist anti-U.S. stances of Chavez are not news, of course, but the degree and nature of his alliance with Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists are surely not enough known and appreciated -- or feared.
"Chavez is the fulcrum for Iran in the Western Hemisphere," Cardenas said. Venezuela already has laundered $30 billion for Iran; 70 Iranian companies operate "suspicious" facilities in Venezuela; Venezuela sends weapons to Hezbollah and refined fuel to Iran and Syria; and Venezuela had provided thousands of false passports to Iranians and other Middle Easterners, while Margarita Island serves as the principal safe haven for Hezbollah in the Americas. The U.S. Treasury Department has identified Venezuela as a haven for and sponsor of drug kingpins as well. But, said Cardenas, the United States has "no comprehensive policy" for dealing with Venezuela or Latin America as a whole.
Ecuador also is a problem. Its president, Rafael Correa, is "auditioning for the role" of Chavez for when the latter dies. Correa suppresses the independent media, runs roughshod over his nation's constitution, has expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and has completely lifted all visa requirements, resulting in a proliferation of transnational criminal organizations operating there. In short, drug trafficking is up in Ecuador, counter-terrorism down.
And I haven't even touched on what is being done to hollow out the U.S. military, even if "sequestration" does not take an even worse bite from the Pentagon budget. Plus, I'm only halfway through the seminar.
This is not to say that all is doom and gloom: I also haven't touched on some of the opportunities (there are only a few) also highlighted by various panelists at this conference. But those opportunities are dwarfed by the dangers.
None of this is to say that all the difficulties can be blamed on Barack Obama. Clearly, the world would be a perilous place no matter what policies he had pursued. Nonetheless, while none of the panelists have said as much, almost no evidence suggests that Obama is doing anything other than worsening the situation. We're in for a rocky four years.
Thank goodness we are the United States of America: We've survived bad presidents before, and we will again. In the interim, though, Obama seems to be putting to severe test the purported Otto von Bismarck remark that "God watches over children, fools, and the United States of America." When it is the fool who is leading the USA, God is required to do double duty.
Photo by: Sammy.aw (Creative Commons 2.0).