New START, New Threats, Same Uncertainty

December 7, 2010
By CMAC

James Carafano, PhD

A fat lip apparently did not slow the president down.  He spent last week scrambling to get back on top of his foreign policy and national security agenda. Topping the agenda was pressing for Senate ratification of the New Start nuclear deal with Russia. He wants the Senate stamp during the Lame-Duck session, despite the fact that the pact raises a lot of serious concerns.
Rumors swirled that the White House is working a compromise with Republicans to trade tax relief for support for the treaty. This strategy has won the president few friends on the right or left who all decry the idea of back-room bargaining on national security.
The White House also struggled to get on top of the WikiLeaks fiasco, struggling to figure out how to fight back against the site that released hundreds-of-thousands of classified government documents. So far they have failed to hit on the right strategy.
Obama finds himself tongue-tied as well trying to figure out how to respond to a Deficit Commission recommendation that would single-handily gut the Pentagon’s defense plans. Kim Holmes at the Heritage Foundation concludes, “President Barack Obama’s Debt Commission includes $100 billion in defense cuts a year by 2015. That represents over one-seventh of the defense budget. Since the military is already straining to meet all its missions now, these cuts would simply force the military to stop doing certain things. This is not just Heritage saying this. The force structure outlined by the Pentagon in its recent Quadrennial Defense Review as the minimum capabilities necessary could not be sustained this these cuts. Since the White House has already shown that it plans to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2014, that means spending on operations would cut directly into training and readiness. The U.S. would be incapable of responding to another major contingency without very grave risk of failure.
Furthermore, procurement that is already under-funded would have to make serious tradeoffs—something wouldn’t get bought. Programs like a replacement air tanker would be on the chopping block. We could wind up with so few F-35s that the U.S. would never again start any major mission with assured air supremacy.” If Obama accepts these proposals he will have a tough time explaining how he is a serious national security president.
To make matters worse, the White House had to deal with news of a new nuclear threat notes Heritage Middle East expert Jim Phillips. “On December 1, the Institute for Science and International Security released satellite photos of suspected Syrian nuclear sites linked to the covert Al-Kibar nuclear reactor (pdf) that Israeli warplanes bombed in 2007, shortly before it could begin operations.  The CIA later confirmed that the site contained a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor that would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Elsewhere the President seemed more on top of things. He made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he clearly jettisoned talk of cutting and running. According to news reports, “In a rousing holiday-season visit, President Barack Obama on Friday told cheering U.S. troops in Afghanistan they’re succeeding in their vital mission fighting terrorism.”  That is sure to disappoint the progressive base, but it is good news to those who never want to see the country become ground zero for global terrorism again.
The President also looks to be sealing up a trade deal with South Korea. Great news and a stick in the eye to North Korea which hates any sign that the two democracies are strengthening their bonds. According to Reuters, “The two allies signed a trade agreement on June 30, 2007, but ratification has been delayed due to sticking points involving U.S. autos and the opening of South Korean beef market. Negotiators had edged closer on Friday to a deal to revive the stalled agreement before sending it to be reviewed by Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. After leaders of the two nations review and approve what negotiators have done, the deal goes to their respective legislatures for a vote, setting the stage for final approval in 2011.”
It was a mixed bag for Obama this week. The White House gets an “A” for effort for at least trying to get back on top of some of the nation’s security challenges. Still, it is far from clear whether these efforts represent a new grand strategy for the Obama administration, trying to get the now discredited Obama Doctrine. After all, “[h]is top priority is still—ratification of New START. Meanwhile, the White House continues to live in La-La Land. Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said Obama remains strong internationally. ‘There is not another leader who approaches his respect and authority,” That assessment could not be more off base. If the White House still thinks it’s on the top of it game, it’s dead wrong.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a leading expert in defense affairs, intelligence, military operations and strategy, and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

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