Obama's Blind Spot

Giving Away The Store
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

My first war was the Korean War which never quite rated war status in the history books because Congress never formally declared war on anyone. President Harry S Truman described it as a "police action" which went down hard with the soldiers on the ground, of whom I was one. To us it was a real war. More than 33,000 Americans paid the ultimate price in it, and another 7,500 are still unaccounted for. More than 60 years later we still have troops there.

The Korean War was a blunder. In a 1950 speech before the National Press Club in Washington, Secretary of State Dean Acheson described a vital "defense perimeter" for the U.S. in Asia that did not include South Korea. In the view of many, this assertion signaled the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung that South Korea was his for the taking.

President Obama fancies himself a student of history but I believe he missed class the day that came up. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Obama repeated that mistake saying that eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Crimea are essentially fair game for Russia. "Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it," Obama said.

Obama made the same basic mistake when he warned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons on his people, insisting he was drawing a "red line" against that form of behavior. Assad ignored Obama's red line and used chemical weapons. Obama did nothing. Presumably he figured no one in this town wanted to go to war over Syria either.

Anytime foreign crises pose the prospect of possible U.S. military action Obama hides behind the fig leaf of "multilateralism," not as a pretext for raising a posse, but as a deterrent to American arrogance. "One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris," Obama said.

Well, I believe we can all agree that hubris is dangerous, but so is inaction in the face of brutal aggression. Obama apparently believes the fate of Syria does not fall within the parameters of "our direct interests," but if the deaths of 250,000 people and the inundation of Europe with Syrian refugees does not impact our direct interests, I am left to wonder what does.

It would appear to me that the chaos Assad has let loose, in particular the Islamic State, impacts the direct interests of every civilized nation. And there is a long-held presumption among the people of the civilized world that we are the primary guardians of that civilization.

This is what can happen when we put a neophyte in the White House who has no grasp of international power politics. It is sheer folly to telegraph aggressive dictators like Putin that certain nations are beyond our "defense perimeter," especially when no one has asked us to define that perimeter, and it is similarly inept to impose a red line when you have no intention of making it stick. The next President will inherit a daunting mess.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.