Is Barack Obama a warrior president? Not in the British tradition, of course, which gave us Winston Churchill, with his crazy cavalry charge against Sudanese spears, or the more cerebral Harold Macmillan, shot to pieces in World War I, lying in the blood and the mud reading Aeschylus. Obama is a post-Vietnam president: He walks in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who took different paths away from the jungles of Southeast Asia but later sent Americans into harm’s way in foreign wars. He is—if we are to believe his campaign ads, his vice presi-dent, and a recent breathless encomium in the New York Times—a commander in chief more in line with “Teddy Roosevelt than Jimmy Carter.” He is a “gutsy” guy, who has “embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink.”
Politically, it’s common and fair for an American presi-dent seeking reelection to accentuate his manly qualities. Most Democrats to the right of the editors at Mother Jones—and that is still most Democrats—don’t want to elect a wimp. Modern democracies understandably don’t demand that their leaders come from military backgrounds, let alone have shown valor in battle. So we use a different standard to assess their martial toughness. President Obama, his minions, and his admirers have loudly told us he stakes his claim on two accomplishments: the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the aggressive use of drones against jihadists. So let’s look.
The last two presidents, in fact, have used Predators to kill our enemies. For going after Muslim holy warriors in geographically challenging regions of the Greater Middle East, remote-controlled aircraft are militarily and politically safer and more economical than sending in special-operations teams. Early on, the Bush administration accelerated the development of drones because they were an immediately useful part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s technology-driven transformation of the armed forces. Still, for the Bush administration to trumpet Predators as a sign of the president’s warrior ethos would have seemed surreal, given his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It also would have appeared unseemly, when Rumsfeld’s high-tech doctrine fared poorly against insurgencies that demanded more troops than the secretary had deemed necessary.
In theory, killer drones are almost a liberal’s fighting dream-machine: no dead Americans (unless they are the targets), no captured U.S. soldiers, no wounded to transport home, no crashing helicopters, a minimum of soul-tormenting reflection, no blood or gore on TV or in print, and limited collateral damage. Perhaps best of all, because of drones’ stealth, cooperating Muslim governments can deny their complicity with the infidel superpower. True, some leftists have risen to question the ethics of drone use (if terrorism should be treated as a crime, which is sometimes the view of the Obama administration, then killing folks without trial or judicial review, remotely and clandestinely, is wrong). But most American liberals have approved or kept their reservations quiet. Killing jihadists overseas is apparently more moral than putting them alive into Guantánamo Bay.
If we look down the road, Predators will likely be an essential part of the foreign policy of any liberal president ambivalent about the use of American power. Given President Obama’s near-total silence about the impending sequestration of nearly $600 billion in military spending because of a budget impasse (half the cuts will come from defense, which accounts for less than one-quarter of the budget) on top of the $800 billion already axed, the president obviously sees spending on defense as less necessary to the nation’s health than maintaining the entitlement status quo and implementing Obamacare. Drones sustain the illusion that you can do more with less, that jihadists and their organizations can be sufficiently neutralized without contemplating more troops or aerial bombardments.
As Max Boot has pointed out, the president’s eager use of drones and the raid on Abbottabad have actually allowed Obama’s inner dove to come out. A strong preference for massive welfare-state spending aside, slashing defense spending is one sure and lasting way to militarily neuter the United States. Like many liberals under the age of 60, President Obama has a problem with American hegemony—the idea that American military power is essential and decisive in keeping malevolent ideologies and states at bay. Where downing an aggressive fascist dictator with a proven hunger for weapons of mass destruction and long-standing relationships with terrorists seemed sensible to senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden in 2003, a certain Illinois state senator knew better. President Obama’s profound foreign-policy “caution” is rooted in a common, if not sacrosanct, historical understanding of post-Vietnam liberalism: that America is more likely to do harm than good when it intervenes in the Third World.
With drone attacks and bin Laden’s death for backdrop, the president seems to think—and he may be right—that he can disengage the United States from the Greater Middle East without political risk. Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun minorities know that an American withdrawal on the president’s schedule will unleash civil war that will likely bring the Taliban and their many jihadist allies back to the gates of Kabul. Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara are already envisioning the new Afghan Army’s crackup into its component parts. In 1990 it was impossible to argue in Washington that America should remain engaged in Afghanistan (in the CIA, you could have counted on one hand the folks who didn’t snore when Afghan-related intelligence crossed their desks). Americans were tired of the Cold War. It’s a delicious irony that many on the left who after 9/11 underscored George H.W. Bush’s failure to pay attention to Afghanistan when the Soviet Union retreated now 23 years later worry little about U.S. withdrawal.
On the left and right, Muslim-fatigue has set in. The conflict is too costly in dollars and manpower, the viability of non-Taliban Afghan power requires too much American support, and the American people, our elected representatives plead in private, just want out, consequences be damned. The Republican-controlled Congress has so far approved the enormous reduction in military spending that will likely create a downward spiral difficult to stop. Many Republican members would rather not talk about the Muslim Middle East, just as our fore-fathers once avoided talking about leprosy. Eleven years after 9/11, George F. Will, once a peerless supporter of a strong military and both Iraq wars, sees massive defense cuts as a good thing if they limit “America’s ability to engage in troop-intensive nation-building.” Muscular Wilsonian liberals and neoconservatism have become as injurious to the nation’s health as socialized medicine.
In great part, the president, his Predators, and the raid on Abbottabad loom large because Republicans have become so small. The world that George W. Bush gave them they cannot handle. The second Iraq war is probably the single greatest catalyst behind the Great Arab Revolt. In much the way that former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, twin beacons of American “realism,” predicted, the war shocked the region. What had been seen as immovable autocracies became fragile regimes fearful and contemptuous of all the talk of democracy that poured forth from Westernized Arab expatriates, disenchanted youth, and Islamists. The Iraq war provocatively and irrepressibly introduced the discussion of popular government into the region: “democracy through the barrel of a gun,” as antiwar Westerners and Arabs put it. For those Westerners who had eyes to see, knew Arabic, and kept an open mind, the conversation was deafening. All that was needed was a spark. The self-immolating Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi provided it.
The antiwar Democratic intelligentsia, which includes the president, has been wrong on just about everything in the Greater Middle East since 2001. It’s impossible to read The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, now senior administration officials and two of the best minds the Democrats have on counterterrorism, and not sigh. The 2005 book saw the Iraq war as our undoing. In a rush to judgment, Benjamin and Simon completely missed the developing conversation about representative government. They misapprehended the radical Islamic threat.
The Iraq war didn’t unleash a tidal wave of Arab holy warriors against the United States or Europe. Mesopotamia is one of the foundational lands of Islam—for Shiites it’s ground zero—yet the number of jihadists who went to fight the Americans in Iraq after 2003 was probably far less than the number who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a land on the periphery of the Arab imagination. The Soviet-Afghan war produced bin Laden, the CEO of modern Islamic terrorism. More important, it created the legend that proud, death-defying holy warriors could take down a superpower. Contrary to the fears of the American left, the Iraq war produced no great jihadist thinker. No myth of indomitable zeal. The best it produced was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a ferocious beast who gave even bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, heartburn because his methods did the impossible, creating widespread Sunni sympathy for Iraq’s bombed and butchered Shiites. The Americans killed al Zarqawi, and no fundamentalist of note has immortalized him.
Republicans ought to be embracing the struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all that came in their wake, not dreading them. President Obama has consistently been behind the curve on the Arab Spring. He has handled the rebellion in Syria abominably—though it should have been the easiest strategic decision of his presidency. Syria’s long-suffering Sunni population finally revolted against a ruthless, terrorist-loving, Iran-supporting, heretical Shiite dictatorship—an amazing feat. Without the Alawite Arabs ruling in Damascus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has no reliable access to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the only faithful Arab offspring of Iran’s revolution. Since even the Obama administration perhaps now realizes that the only sure solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is regime change in Tehran, each step toward that goal is important. Iran’s losing Hezbollah to the Great Arab Revolt would be a significant blow to the mullahs, let alone a blessing to Lebanon’s internal politics. The president has declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, but he has offered no real support to the opposition. The CIA exists for a reason.
Yet most Republicans are silent on Syria, or reinforce the president’s position by adding their concern to the administration’s calculated leaks about al Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian opposition. News flash to Republicans: Al Qaeda will always try to plant itself in movements opposing the anciens régimes of the region. If it does not do so, it’s finished among the Arabs. The rebellions against tyranny are enormously popular throughout the Middle East. Al Qaeda Central and its allied jihadist groups did not see the democratic wave coming. Bin Laden and al Zawahiri viewed democracy as a dismal, antireligious idea, but they weren’t blind to its seductive power among the faithful. Al Qaeda is trying to play catch up where it can, improvising as it goes along. The longer and bloodier the Syrian rebellion, the greater the opportunity for al Qaeda and other radical groups to gain ground.
To counter the president’s unfailingly self-indulgent take on the Middle East, Republicans ought to be at the forefront of thoughtfully critiquing Islamic militancy (admittedly a difficult task, given the Islamophobes within the party). They should not allow Obama to define the threat down to the latest victim of a CIA drone.
No one knows what Mitt Romney would have done a year ago if he’d received the information about bin Laden’s possible presence in Abbottabad. In such situations, what-ifs are unanswerable, even for ex-presidents like Bill Clinton, who should know what it feels like to have made wrong decisions repeatedly about al Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama deserves credit for breaking loose from the mindset common in Washington fearful of possibly rupturing U.S.-Pakistani relations.
But give establishmentarian opinion its due: The U.S.-Pakistan relationship still means something. A war is going on in Pakistan over national identity and what it means to be a Muslim in an artificial country. Indian officials sometimes remark that they have yet to see a single Indian Muslim outside of Kashmir join jihadist ranks. Hindu India has something that Pakistan lacks: a rich history and an optimistic future that native Muslims can peacefully claim for themselves. We don’t want the wrong side to win in nuclear Pakistan, with catastrophic consequences for the United States. Pakistan offers a large pool of well-educated Muslim militants who could go global in their hatreds. Al Qaeda itself should be viewed as a Pakistani-Arab hybrid. The raid on Abbottabad has likely helped the internal debate in Pakistan, which is another reason why President Obama was right to strike.
Killing bin Laden was great; capturing and interrogating him would have been bolder and a much better decision given the irreplaceable intelligence-gathering opportunity. Declassifying and releasing all of the captured bin Laden files is a poor second choice, but it’s one Republicans and Democrats in Congress should insist on. The most important counterterrorist questions, however, are much larger than any one man. They are strategic.
The Greater Middle East is in transition. We don’t know where it’s going. We need to pay close attention to the intellectual whirlpools that are developing throughout the region as democratic, Islamic, and other convulsive ideas collide. It’s way too soon to be as cocky as this administration has become about the decline of al Qaeda and lethal Islamic militancy. The president and his followers may try to depict Obama as counterterrorist warrior par excellence. Republicans would be wise to point out that Jimmy Carter is the commander in chief who really did risk all to save American lives and honor (Abbottabad pales in comparison with Desert One, which one of the officers involved likened to the Alamo, except the Americans were trying “to get in, not out”).
After doing so, Republicans, and especially Mitt Romney, might consider whether they, too, want to lead from behind. The defense budget needs to be saved. Everything starts with that. Then they need to realize that the Middle East will not be ignored while we pretend to transfer our concern and military muscle toward China. Across the region, which is in profound flux, the United States increasingly appears as a listless superpower. President Obama may think that shows appropriate and overdue disengagement. We fear it shows troubling and provocative weakness.