Looking at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal to trim the American military to its smallest size since World War II one question pushed itself to the front of the line: why? At the address where he put forward the new budget Secretary Hagel spoke of a need to adapt to a “more volatile, more unpredictable” world while cutting overall costs. Tactical and budgetary concerns offer a plausible answer, but not a complete one. What becomes evident when considering Secretary Hagel’s plan in context of the last five years is that it is a reflection of the administration he serves. From the first days President Obama has shown greater interest in domestic policy, and the signature achievements (stimulus, health care, Dodd/Frank) of his first two years are a reflection of it. On the world stage the president put forward two goals: to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to reshape American foreign policy by placing leaning on multilateral diplomacy. After years of careful planning the peace dividend is within reach, and the president’s 2015 budget proposal shows he has every intention of spending it.
President Obama has made speeches and offered up initiatives on climate change and strategic arms reduction, but his interest in gradually leaving the world stage is revealed by how he handled the wars his administration took charge of when President Bush left office. The Status of Forces agreement President Bush signed in 2008 was left to expire in December 2011 because the last American troops left Baghdad two weeks earlier. Afghanistan is still in play, though plans have already been drawn up for American troops to leave by the end of this year. An agreement to leave up to 10,000 troops there is in the works but President Obama is holding out the possibility of a complete withdrawal. Going public with the issue may be a negotiating tactic, but it is at best a thoughtless one. These two pieces are part of a bigger puzzle, Syria is another; not the civil war, but the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb. When faced with the possibility that his “red line” remarks would require acting the president wavered, explaining that “the world set a red line.” This gave way to a plan for a cruise missile strike, a wait for Senate authorization, and eventually to a deal whereby Syria would surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles to the UN. How well that deal works remains to be seen since the Syrians have missed its first two deadlines.
The picture that emerges is of a president willing to speak and act on the world stage when it pays off in political capital that can be invested here. The “red line” statement on Syria is one example. That speech was made in the midst of the 2012 elections and could be seen as a warning to President Assad and an attempt by President Obama to enhance his foreign policy credentials with voters, giving him a better shot at reelection. The change in how he spoke of the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden follows the same pattern. In a very low-key speech in 2011 announcing bin Laden’s death Obama congratulated the military and said that “justice has been done.” To explain why photos of bin Laden’s body were not released he said simply “we don’t need to spike the football.” In the thick of the campaign that calculus changed. The president followed a simple narrative throughout the 2012 campaign, repeating some variation of “al Qaeda is on the run” and “bin Laden is no more.” The need to maintain that narrative may have influenced the way his administration handled the aftermath of Benghazi, specifically its repeated assertion that the attack was sparked by a protest over a youtube video.
The cycle is repeating in ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The administration’s early enthusiasm has waned with the president now giving 50/50 odds to a comprehensive deal to build on the six month agreement struck in November. He’s just not that into it; which isn’t much of a surprise since the interim deal is done, the headlines and editorials have been written, credit has been given, and the Oval Office photos of President Obama on the phone with President Rohani have made the rounds. Assuming the developing situation in Ukraine doesn’t require anything more than an expression of concern, a warning to Russia, a boycott of the G-8 summit, and a handoff to the UN there is plenty to be done on the home front. Executive orders will need to be written, Obamacare still needs to be defended, or modified, or delayed; then there’s still a disobedient Congress to whip into line and midterm elections to win. The table is set, a “year of action” is on the way.