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The Obama Way of War

To the rear, march!

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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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.

Photo of Obama inspecting troops

Planting the pivot down under


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”:

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