As President Obama weighs the pros and cons of military action in Iraq to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalists bent on creating a new caliphate, many current and former administration officials are warning of the difficulties associated with the application of American military power to this situation. So the President decided to send 300 advisors to gather information and survey the situation with the threat airstrikes of undefined scale and scope later, maybe. This is about the same response the White House had to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 300 school girls in Nigeria.
This tepid response to what could well be the defining foreign policy crisis of his second term is in keeping with the President’s view of military power, as clearly laid out in his recent commencement speech at West Point. There, he set up a series of straw man arguments about foreign and security policy, reflecting the extreme positions in the current U.S. debate. Then like a hunter shooting at tethered animals he mowed them down. He took particular aim at those unidentified advocates of using military force to solve all international conflicts. The President argued that military power cannot be the only or even the primary component of American leadership in the world in every instance. He concluded this thought with the line that “just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
This isn’t just a hackneyed expression, it is devoid of any meaning. What if I said that just because you have the fastest car in the world this does not make every problem a race track? Or just because you have the best vacuum cleaner in the world this does not make every problem one of dust bunnies? Given the administration’s recent diplomatic track record (the reset with Russia, Syrian chemical demilitarization, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Iranian nuclear discussions and climate change talks) one might as readily say that just because you have the world’s best diplomatic corps run by the best Secretary of State doesn’t mean that every problem is a negotiation.
But, the hammer-nail metaphor fails on a more fundamental level. The U.S. military is not a single-purpose tool; it is the most comprehensive, versatile and effective box of tools ever created. It is the Swiss Army Knife of military establishments. It can simultaneously and in separate corners of the world hammer a terrorist “nail” into the ground; deliver humanitarian relief supplies to millions of victims of natural disasters; surveil outer space, the world’s airways and the deepest parts of the oceans; distil tens of thousands of gallons of clean drinking water; build airfields, ports, roads, schools and military bases; dominate hostile airspace; and deter nuclear war. The U.S. military also is an instrument of our diplomatic strategy, homeland security, support to civil agencies, infrastructure development and counter-drug operations. Some hammer, some nail.
The real problem however, is not with the tools or targets but with the one who wields them, the craftsman. A bad cook can be given an award winning recipe, have access to the best equipped kitchen and use the finest eggs, flour, sugar and butter and turn out an inedible cake. But anyone who watches shows such as Master Chef knows that a skilled practitioner of the culinary arts came make remarkable dishes from quite mediocre ingredients. It’s not about the tools, it’s all about the craftsman.
After more than five years in office, the kindest thing that can be said about President Obama is that he is a mediocre craftsman when it comes to national security. He doesn’t appear to have any natural aptitude with the instruments of state power. He has a hard time figuring out the true task at hand. He has difficulty distinguishing between a nail and a pastry, a hammer and a dessert spoon. He doesn’t wield his tools skillfully. Remember his clumsy attempt to threaten Syria with the hammer of airstrikes only to discover there were few appropriate targets, e.g., no nails.
President Obama came into office without prior national security or military experience. That is a fact, not a criticism. But after five-plus years as the head of the global guild of commanders in chief one might expect him to have learned something of the craft of national security and the appropriate wielding of the tools of military power.
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