Thanksgiving is four days behind us, which means the leftovers have either been eaten or are ready for the trash. Fifty-three days from now, when Barack Obama finally relinquishes the presidency, he will leave a whole table full of leftovers that our next president will find a lot harder to consume or dispose of.
The sun never sets on President Obama’s leftovers. He entered office promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He leaves it with those wars still taking the lives of American servicemen. Wars that didn’t exist in 2009 — Syria, Libya, and Ukraine — continue at the pace prescribed by our enemies. The first American was killed in Syria on Thanksgiving Day.
America has been at war for fifteen years in Afghanistan and thirteen in Iraq. Obama ran as a “peace now” candidate, but — as Gen. James Mattis is quoted as saying — the enemy gets a vote in when a war ends. Worse, as in the Afghanistan conflict, Obama specifically disavowed victory. He continued those wars seeking only to avoid the blame for losing.
Obama has engaged us in new unnecessary wars, such as in Libya, and refused to take timely action to topple Bashar Assad in Syria. His refusal to act created the opportunity for Russia and Iran to seize control of Syria and propel their influence across the Middle East.
Obama never wanted to recognize the most important fact of the Middle Eastern conflicts: that they are religious wars that aren’t going to end. Iraq’s government last week acted to supposedly bring the more than 140,000 Shiite militiamen under its command. Iraq won’t command the Shiite militias, but its alliance with them is more than a formality. Iraq has been an Iranian satrapy for years, as this alliance makes all too clear to Iraq’s Sunni minority.
This past week, the Obama administration advised the incoming Trump team that their number one national security priority should be North Korea. Obama has engaged in a so-called “strategy” of “strategic patience,” which has enabled the Norks to develop and test nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. Obama let China off the hook, refusing to pressure them to rein in their client state.
Obama leaves Trump to deal with the Norks and their nukes without any helpful advice except to negotiate with them. Which amounts to no advice that can possibly help deter or even reduce the Norks’ nuke threat to America and its Asian allies.
Those allies, of course, have given up on the idea of American leadership in their region. On Wednesday, South Korea and Japan signed an agreement to share intelligence on North Korean missile and nuclear matters. This agreement is the first real cooperation between the two nations since 1945. They have set aside their historical enmity and decided to eliminate America as a go-between on military matters.
While this was going on, Putin’s Russia has deployed nuclear-capable ICBMs in Kaliningrad, the tiny Russian statelet on Poland’s northern border. President Bush had promised to station a large antimissile system in Poland (with a radar system in the Czech Republic) but that plan was scrapped by Obama in 2009. Russia had objected to the antimissile system so close to their nation, but there wasn’t a murmur of objection from Obama when the Russian missiles were brought into Kaliningrad this month.
A few days ago, Putin told a little boy that Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere. It was a just a joke, he added. Right.
Iran, to no one’s surprise, is refusing to live up to its obligations under the deal Obama made. Moreover, the Iranians are threatening to abandon the agreement entirely if any sanctions are re-imposed. And there’s more, a lot more, around the world.
President-elect Trump will find each of these problems exceptionally hard to solve. What can he do?
First, Trump is reportedly skipping many of the daily intelligence briefings he should be receiving. It’s understandable that Trump wants to choose his team wisely, and he’s apparently meeting with and studying prospective team members at length to the exclusion of other matters. That’s good, but he has to make time for the intel briefings if he’s going to have any understanding of the threats and potential crises he faces after January 20.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence is reportedly getting the briefings regularly. Trump can rely on Pence for anything he wishes to delegate to him, but Trump needs to have a first-hand understanding of the intel reports. Both he and Pence need to learn to be smart intel consumers, getting into the habit of not just listening to the intel briefers, but challenging them with tough questions.
Trump, throughout the campaign, expressed his disdain for NATO because of its members’ failure to invest in their own defense. He’s said again and again that they ought to be paying us to defend them. But NATO is best suited for Trump to begin to rebuild American leadership because it has depended on us for so long and Obama so recently abandoned it. He’ll have to make several efforts at once — in the Middle East regarding ISIS, with Japan and South Korea regarding the Norks and more — but he has to begin with NATO.
It’s all about regaining the trust of our allies and restoring American leadership. On his first out-of-country trip, Trump should convene a meeting of heads of state of the NATO members. As this column has argued repeatedly, he should convert the demand that they pay us tribute into a demand that they meet their obligations to themselves by investing in their own defenses.
That will be very hard for the NATO members to do. Trump began the process of rebuilding NATO in a phone call with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s General Secretary. Ten years ago, NATO agreed that all of its members should spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense with at least twenty percent of that expended on equipment. Trump needs to make clear that the agreement has to be enforced with some form of sanction imposed on those that don’t.
The members of NATO have placed themselves in an almost impossible condition. Those that are European Union members are trying to set up an EU “army” that will be independent of NATO. That will necessarily create a competition for budgetary resources — already too slim — between the requirement to spend on NATO-relevant forces and command structures and their new NATO-independent forces.
Trump needs to strongly state that such a competition is contrary to what the NATO members need to do. One way to relieve the need for that competition will be for Trump to agree to help stem the flow of refugees from the Middle East, northern Africa, and Afghanistan into the EU nations.
That cannot be done without offering intelligence and perhaps operational help to stem the threatened increase of refugees from Turkey. Last week’s threats by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to reopen the flow of refugees if the EU doesn’t agree to further Turkey’s application to join the EU are an existential threat to the EU — and thus the NATO — member nations.
Erdogan’s threats are intended to blackmail the NATO/EU nations not only to enable Turkey to join the EU but also to pay Turkey to keep the refugees within its borders. Trump has to tread a fine line. He can’t — and I’ll bet won’t — agree to pay Erdogan his blackmail money. Instead, he should stand with the NATO nations, offering intelligence information and, perhaps, military forces to guard against another flood of refugees coming into Europe.
Our Navy and Coast Guard are too small to dedicate significant forces against the Turkish threat of flooding Europe with refugees. But Trump can, if he will, both pressure Turkey to live up to its own obligations to NATO and at the same time help the NATO nations deploy and sustain their own small forces sufficiently to rebut Erdogan’s threats.
As president, Trump will find that nothing is easy to do, and that some problems are beyond our resources to solve. Obama’s leftover problems are all coming to fruition. Trump’s going to have to do a lot of things at the same time. If he hasn’t already, Trump will learn quickly that’s the kind of leadership required of anyone who is president of the United States.