"Building peace through strength in times of transition and turbulence."
That was the official theme at last weekend's Reagan National Defense Forum, the Reagan Library's third annual bipartisan gathering of top military, policy, and industry figures — and it was basically a subtweet directed at President Obama. Indeed, the consensus on the cause of that "transition and turbulence" was quite clear: Obama's foreign policy has not set the U.S. on a course for greater clarity and greater stability in the years to come. For that, we'll have to wait until a new administration sweeps in to pick up the pieces.
The prevailing attitude among the military-industrial complex's elite was a grim resolve to make it through the rest of Obama's presidency without losing more ground. Perhaps predictably, high-ranking GOP leaders like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) cast blame on the president for the chaotic and unfavorable situation in the Mideast. Demanding a robust plan for victory against ISIS, for instance, McCain called for "a president who can tell the American people this has to happen."
But current and former administration officials themselves expressed similar frustrations. Effectually addressing the White House, Michèle Flournoy, Obama's former undersecretary of defense for policy, argued that policymakers and the broader public would only regain confidence in the president's approach only "if you present them with a strategy." Despite the prevailing skepticism, she insisted, "if you make a case to them, you can win support." But she warned that instead of making that case the White House had fallen into a deeply reactive mode toward ISIS. "We're not anticipating where they're going next," she said.
And though Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke up for the administration's negotiations with Russia on Syria, he admitted that the war against ISIS hasn't measured up. "I don't think it's enough," he said. "We're looking to do more."
In keynote remarks, Carter went further, praising Ronald Reagan for epitomizing the "bipartisan persistence" that has served the U.S. since the end of World War II — not just against foes like the Islamic State, but against resurgent major powers like Russia and China, which have become much more assertive, not less, under Obama's watch.
Conference attendees found a silver lining in Congress' recent restoration of military spending previously slashed by the sequester. But added funds alone, as Carter's comments suggested, can't make up for the way our adversaries have ramped up on Obama's watch. "We're in the middle of a transition," Carter cautioned — away from the use of traditional offensive capabilities toward a focus on deterrence and defense in the face of "high end" opponents.
Nowhere is that turbulent transition more pronounced than in the relatively new realm of digital warfare and information security. Speaking of the weaponization of social media, Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, drew a distinction that applies not only to terrorism, but to cyberattacks sponsored by nation-states. "The economies of scale of mounting an offense are very cheap," he said. "The costs of mounting a defense are extraordinary."
Doubtless, any administration would be hard pressed to respond to such a pronounced asymmetry of power. Defense officials recognize that America's sputtering response is a matter of big technological challenges, not just big political failures. "We are leveraging innovative strategies and operational concepts in our response to Russia's provocations and the impact of China's rise," Carter said. "But we also know we have much work still to do to ensure our strategies and plans are as innovative as possible, leveraging new technology used by the best talent in America."
Nevertheless, President Obama bears responsibility for failing to find levers of power that could offset the new advantages of our adversaries. Even where extenuating circumstances have tilted the global balance against the U.S., his foreign policy has left the defense community scrambling to compensate. Whether it's cybersecurity, terrorism, major-power rivalry, or (most alarmingly) the combination of all three, the administration's habit of trying to absorb setbacks and minimize exposure to greater risk has left its foreign policy too inert.
Average Americans may take heart that at least the president has not jumped headfirst into a catastrophic war. But for those whose job it is to keep them secure, the White House has bought that kind of relief at a far greater price than many would care to imagine.