You can criticize Barack Obama—and fear not, I’m about to—but he has been a consequential president. Obamacare, his signature domestic accomplishment, is a substantial step toward the government-run health care program that Democrats have long desired. It may be hard to get rid of, even with a Republican president and congressional majorities. Undoing the effects of Obama foreign and defense policy won’t be any easier. Beginning with the Libya intervention, the president has been charting a new direction for American strategy and acting with great energy to create a fait accompli that will make it difficult for a successor to reverse course. The leading-from-behind Obama Doctrine consists of three main tenets: a smaller, secret, and “silent” approach to the Long War in the greater Middle East; a “Pacific pivot” that would deter China from the temptations of aggression but ask allies to carry much of the burden; and a restructuring of the U.S. military to forestall any future return to a more ambitious—and more traditional—form of American leadership.

The silent war

Embarking on the campaign that would make him president, Barack Obama began with a stinging criticism of George W. Bush’s Iraq war, which he charged was a “dangerous distraction” from the war on al Qaeda and in Afghanistan. It “should have been apparent to President Bush and Sen. [John] McCain, the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was.” Thus, Obama wrote in a July 2008 New York Times op-ed, “Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al Qaeda has a safe haven.”

Obama has been resolute in viewing the post-9/11 wars narrowly as antiterror campaigns rather than in the larger context of traditional U.S. strategy across the greater Middle East. A more comprehensive view would consider the 2003 Iraq war as an extension of a trend that can be traced to 1979—the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, of the Iranian hostage crisis, of the seizure of the Grand Mosque by a band of Sunni extremists, and of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in Baghdad. From that time on, the downward spiral of events across the region has made it increasingly difficult for the United States to preserve its previous posture as an “offshore balancer,” working through local regimes and using military force only to tip the scales to preserve “stability” and the flow of oil. After the Cold War, when the prime directive was no longer to limit Soviet influence, the local regimes themselves were the biggest threat to stability; our “partners” became the problem.

With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led response in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the offshore balancer came ashore. We had “no opinion” on Arab-on-Arab disputes, “such as your dispute with Kuwait,” as Ambassador April Glaspie unfortunately told Saddam Hussein before he sent his army across the border. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney promised the Saudi king that once Saddam’s army was expelled from Iraq’s “19th province,” U.S. troops would return home. But having leapt over the fence, the United States could not go back, even as it was reluctant to go forward. The contradictions of this half-in, half-out posture played out for a dozen years. Even before 9/11, the Clinton-era effort to “keep Saddam in his box” appeared to be in tatters. After 9/11, George W. Bush decided that “pursuing stability at the expense of liberty does not lead to peace,” and that the United States had no better choice than to try to provoke a deeper transformation of the political order in the Middle East.

If Bush saw the global war on terror as a way to expand American involvement in the Middle East, Barack Obama’s focus on terror is an attempt to limit it. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sees this “radical shift from President Bush’s war on terror” and dubs Obama’s way of war the “doctrine of silence.” Cohen rightly argues that “there has seldom been so big a change in approach to U.S. strategic policy with so little explanation.”

The signature instruments of the silent war are remotely piloted aircraft—“drones,” as the headline writers love to call them—covert action and special operations forces, and computer or “cyber” attacks. With the withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, U.S. conventional forces will no longer be in the “regime change” or counterinsurgency business but will man an increasingly “offshore” framework with limited strike capability and, if needed, the ability to patrol contested waterways like the Strait of Hormuz.

The administration’s love affair with drones has gotten the lion’s share of attention. In late December, the Washington Post’s Greg Miller sketched Obama’s “emerging global apparatus for drone killing”:

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

The setup artfully combines military and CIA assets to maximize operational effectiveness and mask the size and scope of the effort. Strikes are “increasingly assembled à la carte,” reports Miller, “piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”

The article’s account of the September 30 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki reveals the intricacy of this “toggling” campaign. As the CIA went hunting the American-born cleric whose Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula organization in Yemen had sponsored a number of attempted terrorist attacks, including that by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009, it assembled a fleet of its own Predator and Reaper drones reinforced by those of the Joint Special Operations Command. So seamless was the Awlaki strike that it remains unclear whether a CIA or JSOC aircraft actually delivered the lethal missile, though the administration justified the killing under CIA legal authority. When Awlaki’s son was similarly killed two weeks later, however, it was done under authority granted to the Defense Department by post-9/11 legislation.

While the administration’s toggling legal posture has provoked criticism from both the liberal left and the libertarian right, Obama’s use of drones is generally praised. “What this does is it takes a lot of Americans out of harm’s way .  .  . without having to send in a special ops team or drop a 500-pound bomb,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Select Committee on Intelligence. The Bush administration had increasingly employed drones, conducting about 44 strikes in Pakistan and killing as many as 300 Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, according to the New America Foundation. But the Obama administration has become positively addicted to the drone war, having conducted nearly 250 strikes and widening operations to Yemen, Somalia, and surveillance of Iran, as the recent crash there of the larger and more sophisticated RQ-170 Sentinel indicates.

Obama’s successes—most spectacularly, the killing of Osama bin Laden—have given him great leeway to continue and expand the silent war, even among liberals looking for an alternative to out-and-out weakness. “Why do I approve of all this?” Roger Cohen asked himself.

Because the alternative—the immense cost in blood and treasure and reputation of the Bush administration’s war on terror—was so appalling. In just the same way, the results of a conventional bombing war against Iran would be appalling whether undertaken by Israel, the United States or a combination of the two.

Andrew Cummings of the Guardian seconds Cohen’s loud cheers for silent war when it comes to Iran. While allowing that a “covert campaign” would be “rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, [it] is the lesser of many evils.” Because he acknowledges that sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons, but finds a real war equally unappetizing, Cummings hopes that silent war will encourage Iran to reopen the “dialogue” on its nuke program. “Covert action creates the time and space for pressure to build, while”—presto!—“reducing the need for military action.”

Even the occasionally sensible David Ignatius of the Washington Post can go ga-ga for drones. After the Awlaki killing, he saw a “hint of deterrence” in the Obama way of war. Especially praiseworthy is that the drone war “recognizes the need for limits”:

We don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone. And there’s something important in the hint of a deterrence strategy: This is how wars end in the part of the world where al Qaeda arose—through a balance of mutual restraint that makes a de facto truce possible, even between the most bitter enemies.

The Asia pivot

The corollary to walking softly and carrying a silent stick in the greater Middle East is the equally bally-hooed strategic “pivot” to Asia—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term—that’s been a centerpiece of Obama administration rhetoric for the past six months. Prefacing his new “defense guidance,” the “first Pacific president” declared that “as we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.”

The Obama administration came to office convinced that a failure to pay sufficient attention to the Asia-Pacific region was the other giant strategic blunder of its Bush predecessors. Harvard’s Joseph Nye recently captured the fundamentals of administration thinking: “Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century,” he wrote. “But, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the United States wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Nye also agreed with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s fawning praise of the president: “[B]y elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises.”

Never mind that the Democratic critique of the Bush administration after 9/11 was that it had been too concerned about great-power balances and had not paid enough attention to warnings about al Qaeda. Never mind, either, that until this year the White House had placed its hopes on a renewed effort to “engage” China, emphasizing issues such as trade and climate change that were supposed to be sources of cooperation rather than conflict. Never mind that it is in the nature of “prevailing crises” to, well, prevail—particularly those that involve a horrendous attack on American soil like 9/11. And, most of all, never mind that the Asia-Pacific region didn’t have to be “elevated” to “one of our top strategic priorities” for any previous president, at least from William McKinley onward; America’s actions through the 20th century transformed Asia as surely and as profoundly as Europe.

To the degree that the Obama pivot represents a new seriousness in responding to the security challenges of China’s rise as a global great power and its provocative military modernization, it’s a long overdue development. From the Clinton years onward, the United States has been hamstrung between the Scylla of “engagement” and the Charybdis of “containment,” at one point leading Zalmay Khalilzad, whose long career as a diplomat and strategist was capped by a tour as ambassador to Afghanistan, to coin the term “congagement.” In its defense guidance pledge to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the Obama administration deserves credit for taking a more muscular rhetorical line than either Clinton or Bush. But its promise to “continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely” in places like the South China Sea where Beijing has become more bossy and intimidating is not borne out in the resources it would provide.

The peak of the pivot campaign came with Obama’s trip to Australia, where he announced that about 2,500 Marines would be based at Darwin, in northern Australia. “The United States is a Pacific power,” he told the Australian parliament, “and we are here to stay.” Indeed, for the 21st century, “the United States of America is ‘all in.’ ”

But Peter Beinart, contributor to the Daily Beast and often a channel for administration thinking, sees the Obama Asia pivot as more in line with the offshore balancing approach to the Middle East. “A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding,” he wrote, “the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.” Likewise, Kenneth Lieberthal, a former National Security Council official and longstanding China adviser to Democratic politicians, warns that an all-in approach runs “the longer-term risk that Asia will increasingly become a cost center for the United States (providing security is expensive), while the region will continue to serve as a growing profit center for China (due to its vast economic engagement).”

Cheap-suit superpower

The belief in American decline has become so deeply entrenched among the strategic smart set—which would probably construe the history of the 20th century as one giant “cost center”—that it has become a driving force. It represents much more than an analysis of events: It’s an opportunity to force the United States to shake off the sorrows of empire and snap back from imperial overstretch. The Obama administration doesn’t just seek a “rebalancing” of U.S. strategy, it intends to make a permanent retreat, by removing the military means of mischief. With a smaller force, we’ll resist the temptation to fight wars just because we can.

Tellingly, the commander in chief frames his new guidance to his troops as the strategy we can afford rather than as a strategy for peace (or, God forbid, victory). “We must put our fiscal house in order here at home,” says the third sentence of the president’s cover letter introducing his “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” and “renew our long-term economic strength.” The touchstone is “the Budget Control Act of 2011, [which] mandates reductions in federal spending, including defense spending.” It is hardly surprising that Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would exempt the military from the draconian further cuts that sequestration would bring to future Pentagon budgets. Not going to let this crisis go to waste.

The administration certainly has profited from the Groundhog Day qualities of the debate about getting the government’s fiscal house in order: Washington wakes up to the horrors of the deficit and the debt and decides it’s time to make sure that “defense is on the table” along with domestic discretionary programs and that taxes shall not be raised nor entitlements restrained. If sequestration occurs this year, something like $1.3 trillion will have been chopped out of planned military spending during the Obama years—about $330 billion through 2010, $489 billion under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and at least another $500 billion under full sequestration. The landscape is littered with the corpses of procurement programs terminated early, like the F-22 Raptor, or killed in the womb, like the Army’s Future Combat Systems family of vehicles. The Obama administration has fulfilled Donald Rumsfeld’s dream of “skipping a generation” of modernization, but this is a second generation almost skipped.

While these are big numbers in the context of defense spending, they’re chicken feed when measured against the debt, the deficit, and the costs of baby boomer entitlements, which are only going to mount from here. The 2011 annual federal deficit was about $1.3 trillion, with total federal spending about $3.5 trillion. The 2011 defense budget, including the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a little over $700 billion. The total federal debt has risen to $15 trillion, roughly the same as U.S. gross domestic product. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s June 2011 long-range budget forecast, a failure to tame -entitlement spending could double the debt again as the boomers retire en masse. Even eliminating the U.S. military entirely would have no serious effect on the government’s balance sheets.

To fully limn the extent of America’s defense decline would be a long and lugubrious task, so consider the strategic bottom line: The Obama administration has admitted that the U.S. military will no longer be large enough to fight two wars at once. This has been the standard of American global power since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, one observed and saluted by every president since. As Colin Powell put it in 1989, we had put a “shingle outside our door saying ‘Superpower Lives Here.’ ” And while it’s true that the active duty forces of the United States have often fallen short of this standard, “two” was the eternal answer to the classic question of defense planning: “How much is enough?”

In leaking this change to the press, an anonymous administration official described Obama’s strategy as “spoiling” any second-war act of aggression while fighting the first. And the defense guidance goes on at length about “reversibility” as a “key part of our decision calculus” when defense cuts have to be made. In other words, the Obama Pentagon knows this is a very bad idea to begin with.


Unfortunately, reversing the effects of the Obama way of war will be extremely difficult. Suppose a new Republican commander in chief were determined to lead a resurgence of American power. Could he easily renegotiate a status-of-forces agreement in Iraq that would allow for the redeployment of U.S. troops to a level that would jump-start domestic reconciliation and diminish Iranian influence? Could he convince Hamid Karzai or his successor that this time we mean business? What would it take to genuinely change the calculus of the Pakistani army? Would the president have the military means to do more than delay or disrupt Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power? To really establish a military posture in the Asia-Pacific that would reassure the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Australians, and Indians while deterring China? What defense investments could he make while expecting to see a tangible return in the course of a four-year term?

The Obama administration has been at pains to practice what it calls “smart power,” and there is undeniably a consistent and logically coherent narrative to the Obama way of war. On the other hand, history favors the constant more often than the clever. This is particularly the case for Americans; our most successful commanders have not been the most brilliant ones.

Obama’s way of war, his “rebalancing” of U.S. strategic priorities, and the damage done to American military power are already being felt in the world. The greater Middle East, never “stable” to begin with, is undergoing an epoch-defining political change—who knows where the Arab revolts will end, or what a nuclear Iran would mean?—while having its American security blanket ripped away. Our Asian allies, who have been begging for attention as China increasingly muscles its way around the region, may be cheered when the 2,500 Marines arrive in Australia, and be even happier if they pop up around the South China Sea on a regular basis, but they won’t see it as an “all in” commitment. And when the up-to-now sole superpower confesses it lacks the means to deter or fight simultaneous crises or conflicts, its assertions of leadership will ring hollow. The president vowed in his defense guidance that the American military will be the “best in the world.” That much is true. But the problem, since 9/11, has not been the quality of the force but its quantity.

Nations, like markets, look at both fundamentals and trends. The world’s developed and developing democracies, (also known as America’s allies) have been and remain eager to invest in the security that the United States provides. It’s not a cost center but a profit center for them. It’s a profit center for us, too—part of the reason the world invests in America, even with our Greek-like debt-to-GDP ratios and unfunded government liabilities. Barack Obama is seeking to reverse a century-long trend in international affairs—the energetic exercise of American power. And he’s well on his way to solidifying this dubious achievement.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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