The nearly universal revulsion that greeted the latest expression of Donald Trump’s foreign policy offers Democratic leaders a golden opportunity to review and renounce those elements of it that they have historically shared.
Trump’s indecent embrace of Saudi leader and journalist-executioner Mohammad bin Salman, after all, is different in scale but not in substance from previous Democratic administrations’ unseemly realpolitik alliances with Middle Eastern despots.
Indeed, Trump could reasonably find vindication and validation from Barack Obama’s tenure alone for quite a few of his other foreign policy sins, including flouting Congressional war powers, pointless adventurism abroad, illegal air strikes in countries where we are not at war, the de facto subordination of human rights to other interests, and accelerating the nuclear arms race.
I’ve been on the lookout for quite a while now for any signs of regret from former Obama officials for continuing – and in some cases accelerating – post-9/11 assertions of vast, unilateral executive power.
Now that they can not just imagine — but actually see — those powers in the hands of someone so manifestly unstable, don’t they wonder if maybe they abrogated too much power for the presidency after all?
Until recently, there were very few signs of it.
So it was fascinating to read a letter from 30 former senior Obama officials earlier this month not simply calling for Trump to end American military support for the Saudi coalition’s barbaric bombing campaign in Yemen – but acknowledging their responsibility for initiating that support, and recognizing that it was a mistake.
The letter was published on the website of National Security Action, a relatively new online home for the Democratic foreign policy apparatus in exile. Signatories included former deputy national security advisers Tony Blinken, Avril Haines, and Ben Rhodes, and former U.N. ambassadors Samantha Power and Susan Rice. It begins bluntly:
We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened. Given this reality, the United States should end participation in or any form of support for this conflict, beyond humanitarian assistance for the Yemeni people. It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.
So why did they do it in the first place? Unfortunately, their explanation is defensive and not entirely accurate:
The Obama administration provided some intelligence, refueling, and logistical assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, in response to a legitimate threat posed by missiles on the Saudi border and the Houthi overthrow of the Yemeni government, with support from Iran. We also did so in an effort to gain leverage to push the coalition to abide by international humanitarian law and support parallel diplomatic efforts.
In reality, what the U.S. did was take sides in a bloody civil war that quickly turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster zone. And the rationale was considerably less lofty. As Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported in the New York TImes a year into the debacle, “the White House needed to placate the Saudis as the administration completed a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy. That fact alone eclipsed concerns among many of the president’s advisers that the Saudi-led offensive would be long, bloody and indecisive.”
And the notion that the U.S. was somehow preventing the Saudis from targeting civilians was belied by the fact that the Saudis were openly and enthusiastically targeting civilians with U.S help. As Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy has put it, “there is a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen.”
And yet, the 30 Obama officials were certainly on solid ground when they wrote that Trump, rather than learning from their failure, had doubled down.
We unsuccessfully tried conditional support to the coalition. This administration has demonstrated the folly of unconditional support. Now, we must cease support altogether.
So I guess that’s progress. (Incidentally, Trump explicitly justified his embrace of the Saudis by insisting that the Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.)
Perhaps the only other expression of serious regret from Obama officials that I’ve seen (and I’d be happy to stand corrected; email me) dates back to March 2017, when Jon Finer, the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Robert Malley, a senior adviser to Obama on the Middle East, glumly acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed that Obama’s terrorism rhetoric gave us Trump.
They gave Obama credit for rolling back some excesses of the George W. Bush’s administration. “But, cheered on by Republicans who backed him on little else,” Obama also “ramped up military strikes,” and made “the fight against the Islamic State the most visible initiative of his late second term.” Finer and Malley wrote that they “saw firsthand… the degree to which policy arguments couched in the language of counterterrorism carried inordinate weight.” And they warned:
This emphasis on terrorism has important effects beyond the Situation Room. It diverts limited time and resources from issues like China’s rise or Russian aggression. It can lead to overreliance on military action and false measures of success like body counts. It can stifle conversation, since decisions justified by threats to the homeland are insulated from criticism. And as the counterterrorism rationales from internal arguments find their way into speeches and official statements, it ratchets up public anxiety.
Their conclusion: that the “bipartisan approach to national security focused on terrorism” that Obama perpetuated “has distorted America’s understanding of its interests,” such that the public too easily falls prey to Trump’s message that “You are in danger, and I will do what it takes to protect you.” (They reprised this argument over the summer in Foreign Affairs.)
Meanwhile, over the weekend, Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan – two former senior national security officials in the Obama administration widely considered up-and-comers in Democratic foreign policy — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “Democrats should challenge the president on his approach to the ‘forever war.’”
The two former officials – who cofounded the above-mentioned National Security Action group — write disparagingly that: “Despite running on a pledge to withdraw from military conflicts, Mr. Trump has escalated every conflict he inherited — largely behind a cloak of secrecy and without a clear strategy.” But they fail to acknowledge their own boss’s continuation of the “forever war” throughout the region.
They also urge Democrats to make the case “that a war against Iran cannot take place without congressional authorization.” But they fail to acknowledge Obama’s extraordinarily broad use of air strikes and combat forces in conflicts never even remotely foreseen by Congress’s 2001 authorization for military force.
And they argue that “expensive administration plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal and establish a ‘space force’ should be scrutinized.” While the space force is all Trump, they fail to acknowledge that it was Obama who authorized a $1 trillion nuclear arms “modernization” program.
So what else, if anything, do Obama foreign policy advisers regret? How sincere are they? And how wiling are they to change course when and if they return to power?
I’ll be asking those questions and looking for answers, and I’ll report back. So stay tuned.
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