In the Philippines this week, President Obama took a cheap shot at critics of his foreign policy.
“Why is it,” the president pondered at a news conference, “that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”
But who is banging the shield, demanding war? Critics of the president’s foreign policy have ranged from human rights activists on the political left to congressional Republicans on the right.
No one is eager for a new war. Indeed, the worry in many circles is that the president’s foreign policy has been so provocatively feeble that we risk war through our own indecision.
Rather than acknowledge this legitimate anxiety, the president has created a dynamic in which he bravely confronts political opponents who don’t exist.
On the world stage, inertia has consequences. And we have felt the consequences across the globe. Storms clouds are forming in some regions, lightning is striking in others. I worry that those storms might eventually reach our shores.
One of those regions is Syria. The Syrian civil war started in Obama’s first term. He had a variety of tools at his disposal, such as arming moderate rebel factions and restoring the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean, that could have prevented Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons or even shortened the conflict.
The president didn’t use these tools, but he did declare that the use of chemical weapons against civilians there would be a “red line.” When Assad ignored this warning, Obama seesawed between punitive military action and more rhetoric. He came to Congress with a request that it authorize military force, backing down when it became clear he didn’t have the votes.
So much for the idea that “everybody is so eager to use military force.” After his policy failures backed him into a corner, it was the president who went looking for a fight — not his critics. The criticism isn’t that the president failed to send the Marines into Syria but rather that he allowed the situation to degrade to the point where military force was needed.
Asia, meanwhile, is the Balkan powder keg of the 21st century. The region is undergoing a multinational arms race spawned by Chinese territorial distension. Beijing has staked claim to territory that isn’t China’s and is building up the military capacity to take and hold it.
The president’s decision to pivot to Asia was correct, but — like our allies — I fear the pivot itself is on paper only. The Navy is losing ships faster than we can build them. The Air Force is set to lose 500 combat aircraft in the next few years. We are cutting tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines from our forces. We still refuse to ship Taiwan modernized military equipment and failed in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to send Japan top-line military equipment such as the F-22 Raptor.
Again, the criticism here isn’t that the president has failed to start a war in Asia but that he is allowing the situation to disintegrate to the point where war may become reality.
In Ukraine, Obama promised assistance to the embattled government. A blue moon later, the administration got around to sending some military rations and sleeping bags.
Yet the president is ignoring bipartisan sentiment from both the House and Senate — and the advice of former NATO commander Wesley Clark — to send more lifesaving equipment to the Ukrainians. These radios, body armor, night-vision goggles and such could well alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus.
Next week, the House Armed Services Committee will draft its annual defense bill. In it, we will provide the range of options the president has overlooked. The steps are firm but reasonable. They recognize the utility of intelligence and cyber-cooperation with Ukraine, enhanced military readiness in Europe and a strategic framework for U.S. security cooperation with partners in both Eurasia and Europe.
None of us wants a war with Russia. But, as with the threats in Syria and China, I am deeply worried that Obama’s inaction is fertilizing the European soil for wider conflict.
Increasing violence in Iraq, provocations by North Korea and an ongoing Iranian nuclear program stem from similar paralysis in the Oval Office. I believe that these growing threats to peace spring from the same source: the perception that the White House is too timid when challenged.
Our adversaries have tested us repeatedly. They have concluded that this administration will avoid any sensible precaution, any defensive deployment, any hike in military preparedness, because it believes any show of strength is akin to starting a war or desiring a war.
That sentiment is precarious, and we have watched it subvert the international order for six years now. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a war for the Obama administration to wake from its slumber.
Editor’s note: McKeon, a Republican, represents California’s 25th District in the House, where he chairs the Armed Services Committee. This commentary first appeared in the May 1 edition of the Washington Post.