Op-Ed: Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ security strategy will plague America for decades

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and President Obama hold a joint news conference after meetings about the situation in Ukraine.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Any administration’s national security strategy written for public consumption inevitably involves platitudes, vacuous rhetoric and self-congratulation. But the strategy announced last week for President Obama’s final two years in office sets new records in all these categories. As a sleep aid, it cannot be underestimated. Indeed, diverting attention from America’s rapidly deteriorating global strategic posture was likely a prime objective, as were his answers at Monday’s news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In her defense of the strategy, National Security Advisor Susan Rice criticized “alarmism” by Obama’s critics, arguing in a speech on Friday that we do not face “existential” threats as we did in World War II and the Cold War. That’s true, but no thanks to Obama’s policies, which have weakened the United States and in coming years will encourage aggressors rather than deter them. The president fails to grasp that the function of statecraft is precisely to be alert to small threats and crises, and to prevent them from growing to existential levels.

Obama’s national security strategy is most noteworthy for its detachment from reality. In a personal introduction, the president preens about reducing American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from approximately 180,000 in 2009 to roughly 15,000 today. Then, ironically echoing his predecessor, he asserts that we are “leading over 60 partners in a global campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat” Islamic State. Left unsaid is that Iraq has collapsed as a viable state, and that Islamic State, a threat equal to or worse than Al Qaeda, now controls large portions of Iraq’s territory. What is left over is an Iranian vassal. The prognosis for Afghanistan is little better.


These debacles are presented as achievements. In fact, I believe Islamic State would fall swiftly in the face of strong military measures and political efforts to divorce Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria from its sway. Instead, Iraq is devolving into a new terrorist state, as other countries in the region, from Libya to Yemen, descend into chaos and anarchy.

Obama claims we are “in lockstep with our European allies” in opposing Russian aggression in Ukraine, but Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are actively negotiating with Moscow, while Washington appears to be sidelined. Meanwhile, NATO is badly divided over whether to provide Kiev military aid.

Nonetheless, Obama writes that “the question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.” His truly Orwellian notion that “leading from behind” is actually leadership would warm Big Brother’s heart. Sadly, our global adversaries are not deceived.

The security strategy’s detachment from reality is most egregiously displayed in its discussion of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and specifically Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Obama is proud he is reducing America’s nuclear capabilities, even as he admits that threats posed by “irresponsible states or terrorists” using nuclear weapons are the gravest America faces. Unfortunately, the idea that diminished U.S. capabilities will in some way induce those “irresponsible states or terrorists” to modify their own behavior seems chilling and palpably inaccurate. Surely, a weaker America is an incentive to the irresponsible, including states like Russia and China, not a model.

On Iran, Obama says that the 2013 “interim” deal (agreed to by the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany) “has halted the progress of Iran’s program.” This is flatly untrue and as a basis for policy, it almost certainly obscures a growing “existential” threat for America and our allies. It assumes we know everything about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, which is a dramatically unrealistic characterization for both the extent of, and our confidence in, the information we actually possess.

There is simply no evidence that Iran has done anything other than make temporary, easily reversible concessions regarding uranium already enriched to reactor-grade levels. Nothing in the interim agreement even addresses the likelihood of Iran’s efforts to weaponize highly enriched uranium and to develop a plutonium nuclear-weapon option. Nor does the agreement curtail its missile development program. The missile work of Iran’s partner, North Korea, has already led U.S. and South Korean commanders to warn that targeting America’s West Coast is within Pyongyang’s reach.


Even more fundamentally, Obama’s security strategy fails to acknowledge that recognizing an Iranian “right” to enrichment reverses the most basic premise of more than a decade of negotiation with Iran begun in 2003 by Britain, France and Germany. From 2003 until Obama, the West agreed that Iran had to forgo unconditionally all enrichment-related activity to assure the world its program was entirely peaceful. Obama’s retreat on this critical point is comparable to the “existential” mistakes made by Western appeasers in the 1930s.

Like its bureaucratic predecessors from every administration, the 2015 national security strategy will soon lie forgotten on dusty shelves. Unfortunately, however, Obama’s ongoing, accelerating failures will bedevil America for decades to come.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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