President Obama gave a recorded interview to website Vox earlier this week. During it, he made long remarks on a wide array of topics, including referring to the killings at the kosher deli in Paris as random attacks. During the same interview, he also made comments about foreign aid that seem to have gone overlooked.
First, he says that if you combine all the things we spend together, you can conclude we should spend more on police in Honduras:

“I think the more interesting question is if you look at our foreign assistance as a tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity, and you combine our defense budget with our diplomatic budget and our foreign assistance budget, then in that mix there’s a lot more that we should be doing when it comes to helping Honduras and Guatemala build an effective criminal-justice system, effective police, and economic development that creates jobs.”

Foreign assistance can be a tool in our national security portfolio, if you look at it as bribing the people to like you. The Romans tried to bribe the barbarians too, and it did not get them very far. We could learn a lesson from them. But basically what he’s saying is combine the 3 budgets together and spend more overall on foreign assistance, which is basically saying spend more on foreign assistance. Because of course we should spend more money on something. He continued.

“Well, and part of the challenge here is just public awareness. Time and time again, when they do surveys, and they ask people what proportion of the foreign budget is spent on foreign aid, they’ll say, “25 percent.” They’re pretty sure all their hard-earned money that they pay in taxes is somehow going to other folks. And if we can say, it varies between 1-2 percent depending on how you define it. And if we were to make some strategic investments in countries that really could use our help, we would then not have to deploy our military as often and we would be in a better position to work with other countries to stand down violent extremism. Then I think people could be persuaded by that argument, but we haven’t traditionally talked about it in those terms. It’s one of the things I’d like to do over the next couple of years: to try to erase this very sharp line between our military efforts in national security and our diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts. Because in this environment today, we’ve got to think of it all in one piece.”

Here’s the video of the live conversation between President Obama and Vox’s Matt Yglesias:

Just because people think we spend 25% of our foreign budget on foreign aid doesn’t mean we should. Instead of convincing them why it should be that high, another option would be to educate them on how much we actually spend and then be thankful how much we get done with that money. It’s interesting that the majority of the Vox interview was spent trying to convince us that Obama is such a realist on foreign policy. If he was a realist, he would realize that his worldview and policies don’t work.

What these leaders don’t seem to acknowledge is that our allies are our allies because we share common goals and especially because we trust each other. President Obama has spent his term in office losing the trust of our allies, each in turn. His actions are unpredictable, except to the extent that they are almost invariably the worst possible thing to do. Especially in Israel’s case, he has routinely failed to meet our commitments (including those he himself made, like the famous red line on Syria’s chemical weapons use).

Elsewhere in the same interview, Obama told us that he would argue that the invasion of Iraq was counterproductive. For that to be true, Obama has to believe that our invasion there spawned terrorism – that we are ultimately responsible for the rise of ISIS. That line of reasoning is false, but we hear it all the time. In the same interview he acknowledges the reality of the situation:

“I mean, the Shia-Sunni split in the Middle East right now is one that has been playing itself out over centuries. We have the opportunity, I think, to lessen those tensions and to lift up voices that are less prone to exploit those sectarian divides, but, you know, we’re not going to eliminate that stuff overnight.
The trend towards extremism among a small segment of Muslim youth in the region, that’s a trend that’s been building up over a period time in part because of broader demographic problems and economic problems in the region, partly because of a perverted ideology that’s been hypercharged through the internet. It’s winning the hearts and minds of that cohort back.”

So the American invasion of Iraq did not cause ISIS, but the early withdrawal of our troops did create the vacuum that allowed it to grow. In Obama’s world, he sees the vision and acts on the vision as though it’s reality. For example, the world predicted that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who he left in place when he withdrew the troops too soon, would start to act more lke a thug than a world leader, and take rights away from the Kurds and Sunnis to the north and west. Which is exactly what happened. In Obama’s world, the Prime Minister was supposed to become benevolent and broker peace throughout the land. I bet Obama is still puzzled how al-Maliki squandered such a good opportunity. Obama can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t share his worldview and you can bet that Obama showed the same petulant attitude to al’Maliki behind closed doors that he shows Republicans in Congress when they don’t do what he wants them to.

This is unfortunate for us, because in Obama’s world Iraq learns to support itself and fends off ISIS without our army. This means that against all advice he will under-commit troops (and probably resources) and lead our brave men and women into a death trap. In the days since this interview, he’s gone before Congress and asked for an Authorization for Use of Military Force, anywhere in the world. Think about that – in this interview, he made the following points:

  • Invading Iraq was counter-productive;
  • We overestimated the threat there anyway;
  • We should be spending less on the military and more on foreign aid;
  • The media overplays the threat of terrorism to gain viewership; and
  • Terrorism in the Middle East isn’t an existential threat to the US or to the “world order”.

With that attitude, can we believe that President Obama is going into the next phase of our conflict with ISIS with his eyes wide open? This is a fight against the zealous army of a culture that represents 1/8th of the worlds population. Our military deserves a commander-in-chief who will realistically assess the situation and deploy troops and resources with rules of engagement that can win this decisively and in a realistic time frame.