In his first year in office, President Obama has revealed some terrible instincts on national security. It’s clear that, at a gut level, he is not entirely comfortable with American hegemony. Last June in Cairo he declared that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Given that the current world order rests on the military supremacy of the United States — the guarantor of peace everywhere from Europe to Korea — that sentiment is a bit alarming to hear coming out of an American president’s mouth.
In spite of those instincts, though, Obama has also shown an ability to arrive at reasonable national security conclusions, albeit slowly and reluctantly. The most obvious example is the decision to embrace a personnel-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The Bush administration conducted a review in its final months that recommended such a strategy, and the incoming administration declined to accept it, instead demanding its own review. After General Stanley McChrystal recommended a similar strategy in the summer of 2009, the administration took months tweaking the specifics; former Vice President Dick Cheney memorably slammed the administration for “dithering” during this period. In the end, though, Obama more or less got the answer right. He may be reluctant to exercise power, but he is not unwilling to do so.
We saw this pattern play out faster after the attempted terror attack on Christmas Day. Obama’s first instinct was not to treat this as the act of war that it was, but rather to minimize it. For several days he let subordinates handle all White House statements about the incident; he himself went golfing. His Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, airily declared that “the system worked,” as if the job of her department is not to prevent attacks but merely to respond to them efficiently. When Obama finally did speak, he characterized bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist,” despite the evidence of his connections to the Yemeni terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As the days went on and intelligence analysts pieced together the events leading up to the incident, though, Obama’s tune changed. “When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way,” he said, implicitly repudiated Napolitano. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” he added. “It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already have.” Attempts to close this security hole are in the works, and Obama has halted transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen. Joint U.S.-British counterterrorism operations have been stepped up in the wake of the attack. Again, the administration arrived at a prudently assertive policy despite its initial reticence.
ON IRAN, OBAMA HAS been characteristically reluctant to speak assertively about American values. When the protests following the stolen Iranian election started on June 13, the White House took nearly a week to issue a weak statement that “the world is watching.” This reflected a concern among many foreign policy that the Iranian opposition would be ill-served by full-throated American support. This concern was always overstated, and any doubt that the protesters in the streets of Iran would welcome the support of the United States should have been lain to rest in November when they were filmed chanting “Obama, are you with us or against us?”
After the late-December round of protests, Obama’s rhetoric on Iran improved. He called for “the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran,” and more importantly said that he is “confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.”
It is this last point that should be emphasized further. At the end of 2009 the Iranian regime let another artificial deadline pass on arms-control negotiations. While some wonder if opposition leaders would be any better than the current regime on the nuclear issue, they could hardly be any worse. (Besides, an Iran with nuclear weapons that isn’t controlled by fanatics would be less problematic than one that is.) The success of the opposition movement in Iran would be a huge boost to American national security as well as to the security of the region.
Tonight’s State of the Union address would be an ideal opportunity for Obama to give the opposition a salutary rhetorical boost. He should bring up Iran in the speech, and he should build off his December statement and underscore that we are rooting for the opposition and expecting them to succeed. Natan Sharansky has described the “great brilliant moment” when he and other dissidents in the Gulag heard that Ronald Reagan had declared the Soviet Union an evil empire, and erupted into cheers. Iranian dissidents deserve to feel the same kind of support, and Americans deserve to know that Obama is willing, however reluctantly, to assert our national interest.