Obama’s Leading From Behind: The National Security Consequences
(Richard Miniter, May 18, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Richard Miniter is the CEO of American Media Institute, a New York Times bestselling author, and a national security columnist for Forbes.
His seventh book, Leading From Behind, examines the consequences of Obama’s foreign policies. Miniter sheds new light on key decisions of the past eight years and the damage inflicted by America’s departure from leadership on the world stage. He is also the author of Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
He was editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe and was a member of the famed investigative team of The Sunday Times of London. As vice president of The Washington Times, Miniter turned around an ailing division and managed a team of 17 journalists. He appears regularly on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and hundreds of radio programs. He is the author of several New York Times bestselling books: Losing bin Laden, Shadow War, Mastermind, and Leading From Behind. Miniter has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Forbes, New Republic, National Review and others.
Our speaker tonight is in my opinion one of the finest journalists in the United States, one of the finest investigative journalists in the United States, and one of the finest writers. He is the CEO of American Media Institute. He is a multiple New York Times best-selling author. A national security columnist for Forbes, his most recent book is Eyes on Target: Inside Stories from the Brotherhood of U.S. Navy Seals. A book before that that pertains to our subject tonight is Leading from Behind, which obviously examines the consequences of Obama’s foreign policy.
I will only relate to you very quickly something Pope Francis said in an interview two days ago. You may not think of him as a foreign policy analyst. He did say he had heard related from a Libyan the following remark, “We used to have one Qaddafhi. Now, we have fifty.”
Richard Miniter was an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe and a member of the famed investigative team of the Sunday Times of London. He was Vice President of the Washington Times. I won’t go into his multiple media appearances on multiple channels or the fact that he’s been published absolutely everywhere. Other books include Shadow War and Disinformation.
I hope you know that his outstanding book on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed it out there at special Westminster discount. Rich spoke here when that book first came out. We’re delighted to still have it out there for a special Westminster price for you tonight and I’m sure Rich would be happy to sign it. Please join me in welcoming Richard Miniter.
Thanks, Bob. It’s good to be back here at Westminster. Looking out from the podium tonight, we see in every part of the world in every place once friendly and foreign and every place once fierce, it’s on fire. Every single place is markedly worse. The world is shockingly more dangerous over the past seven years.
And if it’s a time reminiscent, frankly, of the late 1970s, people like to say this is one of the worst and most dangerous times to be living in and I like to remind them of the late 1970s. Remember the economics. Remember the eleven percent unemployment, the twenty-one percent prime interest rates. Remember the gas lines, the hostages in Iran, fifty-two American diplomats blindfolded and beaten and held for 444 days to the humiliation of America before the eyes of the world, Jimmy Carter’s failed rescue effort, his failed ability to force the Iranians to free our diplomats illegally held for that long period of time. The inflation, the lost of American confidence… so it could be worse. It could be 1979 again.
But we don’t deserve to be here. We should have learned the lessons of 1979. Instead we have applied them. Our foreign policy has essentially two problems. One is a product of the Obama years and the thinking behind it. And the crises we’re facing – and I’m going to go through them quickly – are the fruits of the thinking of that clutch of insiders known as the Obama foreign policy establishment.
But the other cause is longterm and far more important to deal with and it is never discussed. It is such a powerful thing. It’s like the gravity from a blackhole. It effects all the stars around but is invisible to the eye. And that second thing is what I’m going to talk about after we talk about the Obama years.
Let’s look at the philosophy of the Obama years because ideas precede action and guide action. There is a philosophy. It is not ad hoc as much as it might appear. It is the same philosophy or a version of it that we saw in the Carter years. But in this particular case it was forged not by an aversion to the Vietnam War and the refugee crisis that followed, that shaped Jimmy Carter. It is shaped by the left-wing of the Democratic Party’s view of the Iraq War.
Now, it may well be a surprise to some of you that I move to say this, but the Iraq War was actually a great success. There were multiple elections in Iraq. Per capita income tripled between 2003 and 2007. The surge essentially worked. Yes, there was an ongoing insurgency fueled by Iran and peopled by recruits from Syria and across the Middle East. We know that many of the attacks against U.S. and allied forces were paid for either by the Iranians or their proxies, but the level of violence was going down and if the U.S. presence had remained and it was not suddenly removed in order for Obama to honor a campaign promise, it may well have turned out very differently and ISIS in its current form would not exist. I think there is really no one who is paying attention to objective reality who would really disagree with any of those statements.
What was the necessity of removing U.S. troops from Iraq, from leaving Iraq to its fate prematurely? Bearing mind that this same president did not withdraw forces from South Korea or from Germany, which is now united and safe, or for that matter he did not close submarine bases in Norway, which has been at peace for almost a century. The necessity was that the foreign policy views – and Senator Obama did not have any significant remarks on foreign policy. If you go back and look at all of his official statements on the campaign trail, on the floor of the United States Senate, and every television appearance he made before running for president, there is nothing of any consequence on foreign policy except for a ritual denunciation of the Iraq War.
If you look at the aides who come together around him, the most important early one was the former Chief of Staff from Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle is defeated just as Obama is elected, and this freshman Senator from Illinois gets an enormous chance to hire a skilled professional with a deep well of contacts from a former Senate Majority Leader, and he does. And that former Daschle Chief of Staff begins to collect other people; Axelrod, Ben Rhodes, and others. We can get into the personalities, but the general trend is what matters here.
Each of them was strongly opposed to the Iraq War, and they were opposed not for the reasons that they state (that they think it was a disaster, because at the moment they opposed it, it was not a disaster) but because they think it teaches America a frightful lesson, which is that military intervention is possible and it can be successful, and it can be a tool of statecraft. And that terrifies them. America has never been a country of recreational wars. We have never been like European princes that suddenly take up against the far castle across the fen. That has never been us. In fact, democracies generally do not like to initiate wars.
But the view of America’s role in the world is something like a tiger that must be caged. They believe it can be caged through multilateral institutions, not just the UN and the World Trade Organization but dozens of other acronyms like that. In fact, they are creating new ones (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the European trade deal also has yet another commission that will make rules and be an unaccountable body) all to hem in this American power.
There is a fear that American power used to shape the world will take the world in illegitimate ways. They simply do not like the idea of an activist United States, and if the Iraq War was seen as a success, public opinion they feared might suddenly shift more in favor of intervention. They had less faith I think in their fellow countrymen. I do not think if the Iraq War was seen as a success, we would see a major shift in American public opinion. I think there is almost no way in which the American people would ever become as pro-interventionist as say, their Russian counterparts.
That said, it is eerie when you talk to them, and I interviewed many of them for the book Leading from Behind, which was published in 2012, and by the way, was denounced from the podium at the White House by the White House Press Secretary by name. It was great. It was good for sales, too. It was denounced because they think that the United States ideally should be like Canada, a polite, housebroken, English speaking country that when it sends its uniformed troops abroad, it is part of a UN mission, and it accomplishes nothing of great note, strives to offend no one, and when it does speak, it is to apologize for its past.
This is actually not the foreign policy view of the vast majority of the country. It is the foreign policy view of this particular set of thinkers inside the Democratic Party. How did these thinkers gain prominence? Not just in reaction to the Iraq War, partly because the Democrats were shut out of executive power for such a long period of time. The people in the foreign policy establishment in the Carter years were discredited and were not brought back in the Clinton years. For twelve long years, almost a generation in the times of policymaking experts, the Democrats were shut out of foreign policy thinking.
And in the Clinton years there was not a great emphasis on recruiting, training a cadre of people to think about foreign policy in the party. There was an attempt at rethinking domestic policy. You saw the Democratic Leadership Council, for example, but the Democratic Leadership Council, which challenged some of the liberal orthodoxies and looked for new ideas, pointedly did not discuss foreign policy, so there was an idea vacuum that did not begin to become filled until the early 2000s in the Bush years, and it was shaped more by opposition than by original thinking, and its prime opposition was to the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy.
It may surprise everyone to remember that George W. Bush, campaigning in 2000, was against nation-building and against foreign wars. Actually, his stated positions in 2000 were identical, essentially, to that of Barack Obama in 2008 because that is where most Americans naturally are absent some strong reason otherwise like Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. So, with this shortage of serious foreign policy thinking, followed by a thinking that is entirely shaped as a negative reaction, there was no essential, positive agenda. So, if you look at the foreign policy priorities of the Obama Administration, all of them are essentially negative; closing Guantanamo Bay facilities that house terrorists, instituting civilian trials for terrorists, limiting drone attacks and putting more legal restrictions on those attacks, limiting the use of military actions to special forces raids and drone attacks.
By the way, drone attacks under this president have more than tripled. This is actually a dangerous thing as has been explained to Obama and his people many times. When you kill terrorists, you cannot talk to them, alright? Satellites can show you the tops of people’s heads, but it is interrogation that shows you what is inside. The drone attacks make it certain that aside from killing the target, no other human rights will be violated. If you capture him and you do not give him the same Marquess of Queensberry Rules as you would a conventional criminal in an American court system, you invite all sorts of political problems from the Left.
So, it is safer politically to kill than capture. That of course makes it more dangerous because we do not understand certain things that only terrorists can tell us such as future plans, but more importantly, what are the social dynamics inside the organization. In World War II, if you catch a Wehrmacht officer, he is wearing a rank, you know his role in the organization, and he most likely has written orders on his person that as soon as you translate them, you will know exactly what his tank battalion or his water supply troop is supposed to do.