It is not possible—at least not yet—to program a computer to predict all the consequences of adopting one foreign policy over another. Policymakers therefore tend to act with one eye cocked on the rearview mirror, making decisions based on what has worked and, especially, what has not worked in the past. A major foreign policy blunder can thus produce a lurch in the opposite direction—which often has equally dangerous, if different, consequences.
The classic case of American policymakers overcompensating for past mistakes is the Vietnam war. President Lyndon Johnson and his aides had been seared by the experience of appeasement in the 1930s, when they were in their formative years. Determined not to allow “another Munich,” they instead became embroiled in a long, frustrating, costly, and ultimately losing war.
Today we are seeing another demonstration of the dangers of policymaking on the rebound. For Obama’s older appointees—including Chuck Hagel and John Kerry—Vietnam was the cauldron in which their dovish views of foreign policy were forged. The lessons they thought they learned in Vietnam were reinforced with the war in Iraq.
For those who don’t remember Vietnam, the Iraq war has allegedly shown the folly of military intervention, making them once bitten, twice shy about using force in the Middle East. As a result, the “light footprint” is becoming as much of an intellectual straitjacket for President Obama as the “domino theory” was for LBJ.
This is not to suggest that Obama is a pacifist. He has shown his willingness to use force—but generally only in antiseptic ways, such as the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, which all but eliminate risks on our side. (The Osama bin Laden raid was a more risky decision, but it was only a quick in-and-out raid, not a prolonged intervention.) The problem with this approach is that there are sharp limits to what drones, and even commandos, can accomplish. They can kill a few terrorist leaders, but they cannot prevent their replacement with equally malign successors. That would require a more prolonged intervention that Obama will not countenance—perhaps rightly.
The one brief spasm of somewhat more extensive military activity initiated by Obama occurred in Libya. But, like the drone strikes, it was designed in such a way as to limit American responsibility—no boots on the ground, and even in the air the allies were put in the lead as soon as possible in keeping with the administration’s “lead from behind” doctrine. Once Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown, the administration eschewed an active role in shaping a new, democratic Libya.
The pleas of Libyan leaders for more aid to build up their armed forces and thereby end their reliance on militias were, for the most part, ignored. This fostered the chaotic conditions that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September. Moreover, in abandoning Libya, the administration effectively handed the keys to Qaddafi’s stockpile of NATO-grade small arms over to smugglers who have been channeling these weapons into Gaza. And it is a combination of Qaddafi’s weapons and former mercenaries that have turned much of Mali into a zone controlled by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It is not only in post-Qaddafi Libya that the dangers of a hands-off policy are becoming apparent. Syria is even worse. It has been ravaged for nearly two years by a civil war that has already claimed at least 60,000 lives. As the fighting continues, the prospects of reestablishing stability in the wake of the violence diminish by the day. The most likely outcome now is a collapse of the country into different tribal and ethnic fiefdoms, with al Qaeda-linked extremists likely to exert significant sway. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring states, sparking sectarian fighting in Lebanon between Shia and Sunnis, enticing Al Qaeda in Iraq to expand its operations across the border, and flooding Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan with refugees.
At least some of these parlous consequences might have been avoided if the Obama administration had taken a more active role from the start—by, for example, declaring a no-fly zone and providing arms to the more moderate rebel factions. Such a proactive policy might have hastened Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s downfall, shortened the term of the conflict, and increased the chances of assembling a new government that could control its own territory. But Obama has limited U.S. involvement to a small amount of humanitarian aid—and a large number of statements denouncing Assad. The president is not doing much to back up his words because the last thing he wants is to get sucked into another complicated Middle Eastern conflict. No doubt memories of Iraq shape the White House’s reticence on Syria.
The specter of George W. Bush’s warmaking strongly influenced Obama’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. The ostensible cause was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to grant U.S. forces the legal immunity demanded by the Pentagon. But, in reality, Obama did not really try all that hard to break the negotiating logjam.
Because the United States has pulled out of Iraq, we have lost leverage to shape its future—which is looking ever bleaker. Maliki is pursuing a vendetta against Sunni politicians that is leading to a revival of Al Qaeda in Iraq and a renewal of its campaign of terror. Tensions with the Kurds are also high, leading to fears of another Arab-Kurd war. Meanwhile, Iranian influence has grown in Iraq, so much so that Maliki has allowed Iran to use Iraqi airspace as a weapons supply line for the Syrian regime. American entreaties to stop the flights have been ignored.
This is a stark warning of the dangers of pulling U.S. troops out before their job is done. And yet by all indications the president is fully prepared to make the same mistake with Afghanistan. Recent reports suggest that administration plans for a post-2014 troop contingent are falling fast. From 20,000 troops (the number deemed prudent by military commanders), the debate is now about 10,000, 6,000, 3,000, and of late even the “zero option.” It is hard to see what could possibly make policymakers think that the Afghan National Security Forces—which cannot prevent the emergence of Haqqani sanctuaries an hour’s drive from Kabul even with the aid of 66,000 U.S. troops—will be able to keep the peace with few, if any, outside helpers. It seems that policymakers are more focused on the costs of a continuing commitment—even if they are likely to be much lower than they were in the past—than they are on the costs of a premature departure.
And then there is Iran. The president and his new cabinet have made clear their extreme aversion to war with the mullahs. They have even been reluctant to impose overly strong sanctions. Chuck Hagel voted against unilateral sanctions, and Obama only signed them into law when forced to do so by overwhelming majorities in Congress. Obama’s preference was, and still is, to talk, but attempts to negotiate with the mullahs have, predictably, gone nowhere.
Why, after all, should Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, negotiate away his valued nuclear program when there is no realistic expectation that this administration would launch another preemptive war in the Middle East? Sanctions, which sting mainly the ordinary people, are unlikely to change the ayatollahs’ minds. Only the credible threat of military force, including the threat of regime change, might be able to bring this crisis to a peaceful and satisfactory conclusion, but this administration has never been able to threaten Iran in a credible way because everyone, even in Tehran, knows how much Obama wants to avoid “another Iraq.”
The broader problem is that the administration has a blinkered view of the historical record. It is true that we paid a heavy price for the last decade of interventionism, in lost and mangled lives and spent dollars, but we also could have derived considerable benefits from the emergence of moderate, pro-Western regimes in Baghdad and Kabul that, with a little support and encouragement, would cooperate fruitfully in the future with American interests. That possibility has already been squandered in Iraq and may be lost in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Syria and Iran grow ever more dangerous, the former as it gets weaker, the latter as it grows stronger.
By ignoring the potential upside, and focusing only on the considerable downside, of American activism, President Obama has inaugurated a new era of retreat and retrenchment that may yet come back to haunt us in ways we can hardly imagine.