In the fall of 2009, a new book captured the attention of President Obama’s national security staff.
Lessons in Disaster, an account of Lyndon Johnson’s decision-making during the Vietnam War as seen through the experiences of McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, became the "must-read book for Obama’s war team," wrote George Stephanopoulos. Obama’s aides were enmeshed in a debate about how to fulfill their boss’ campaign pledge of winning the "good war" in Afghanistan, and they found Lessons—authored by scholar Gordon Goldstein—particularly instructive.
Goldstein’s key insight was that Johnson’s military advisers had led him astray. Gen. William Westmoreland, U.S. commander in Vietnam, urged Johnson to bolster the U.S. presence to crush North Vietnam, a strategy that resulted in a protracted and costly war of attrition.
Already suspicious of the military, the Obama team seized on a narrative that suited its interests. The president proceeded to overrule his generals and defense advisers by sending a smaller surge force of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and pledging to withdraw them in eighteen months—just before the president’s 2012 reelection campaign. Critics argued that the Taliban and al Qaeda would simply wait out the eventual exit of U.S. forces. Robert Gates, defense secretary at the time and a senior official for eight presidents, wrote in his memoir that "this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and by domestic politics than any other in my entire experience."
Goldstein’s history, giddily consumed by White House staff and applied to contemporary debates, was in fact "highly deficient," writes Mark Moyar, a historian of the Vietnam War and consultant to the U.S. military, in Strategic Failure:
Johnson’s generals had recommended intensified bombing of North Vietnam and insertion of U.S. ground forces into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to avoid protracted bloodletting, but civilian leaders had rejected those options based on doubts about their strategic risks and returns. Postwar disclosures from North Vietnamese sources would prove those doubts to have been unwarranted; North Vietnamese leaders believed that the actions recommended by the U.S. military would indeed have crippled North Vietnam. […]
The lesson the White House should have drawn from this historical episode was that civilian leaders would do well to listen closely to military experts before making decisions.
The significance of the Goldstein book for the ensuing Afghanistan debate encapsulates Moyar’s critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Obama and his team misunderstood U.S. military history, harbored an ideological distrust toward leaders of the armed forces—and, in addition, dramatically reduced the defense budget. The administration also favored the "subordination of policy to politics" in national security decision-making and relied on "light footprint" and "smart power" strategies that harmed U.S. interests overseas, he writes. He principally focuses on decisions in Obama’s first term that helped produce a regional maelstrom in the Middle East.
Moyar gives careful attention to Iraq, where Obama said the Bush administration had waged a "dumb war." After a largely successful surge of American troops that Obama had opposed, U.S. forces had remained in Iraq to provide stability and prevent a fragile democracy from splintering along sectarian lines. U.S. military pressure convinced Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, to refrain from jailing Sunni political opponents and engaging in battles against the Kurds. But the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that permitted the U.S. troop presence was set to expire in 2011. The Obama administration decided to back Maliki in the 2010 parliamentary election—despite his factional tendencies and close ties with neighboring Iran—against a more secular and nationalist candidate, in the hope that he would continue a close partnership. "I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA," Joe Biden said at the time.
The problem, it turned out, was not Maliki, but Obama. Obama first insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve an extension of the SOFA and later requested that it grant immunity from prosecution to U.S. troops. Maliki stressed to the White House that any type of parliamentary assent was unlikely, and other analysts said it was legally unnecessary. But Obama held firm, and the SOFA expired in 2011. Whereas Gen. Lloyd Austin had initially recommended keeping as many as 24,000 troops in Iraq to preserve security and governance gains, the president ensured that none would remain.
A senior administration official later admitted to a New York Times reporter that the White House was "not eager to have 10,000 troops in Iraq" and had determined that "stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces." Obama, for his part, repeatedly touted the realization of his promise to "end the war in Iraq" on the campaign trail in 2012.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group that Obama had downplayed in 2008, capitalized on the chaos of the civil war in neighboring Syria to reconstitute itself as the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL). IS would triumphantly return to Iraq in 2014, seizing the key cities of Fallujah and Mosul while garnering the support of Sunnis alienated by Maliki’s sectarian rule. Obama responded by sending hundreds of U.S. military advisers back to the country—this time, without waiting for a parliamentary guarantee of legal immunity. The consensus among defense analysts is that a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have helped prevent the rise of IS, a sentiment recently expressed by Gen. Ray Odierno, outgoing Army chief of staff and former top U.S. commander in Iraq. "When the Obama administration lifted the U.S. military footprint off the country," Moyar writes, "it removed the political and military clamps that had held Iraq in place while the glue of liberal democratic culture was drying."
Moyar also discusses other failures of the White House’s "small-footprint approaches," a term used in the Obama administration’s Defense Strategic Guidance in 2012. In Libya, the United States played a minimal role in helping NATO to depose strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter and deputy national security adviser for Obama, argued that "the light U.S. footprint" ensured that there would be "less potential for an insurgency because there aren’t foreign forces present." He made those comments to reporters before the Benghazi attack on the night of September 11, 2012, when a mob of about 60 Islamist and al Qaeda-linked militants overran the U.S. diplomatic compound, set it ablaze, and killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Libya has since become a failed state, a breeding ground for extremist groups, a hub for weapons trafficking in the Middle East, and a new haven for the Islamic State.
Conservative critics of Obama’s foreign policy generally offer two explanations for what they view as his manifold failures: that he is simply incompetent, or that he has employed a grand design to fundamentally transform the traditional U.S. role abroad. Moyar’s book, an excellent work overall that is rich in detail and brimming with historical insight, errs somewhat in that it gives too much weight to the former critique. While he rightly notes that Obama has been over-reliant on inexperienced political aides such as Rhodes and Denis McDonough to conduct foreign policy, his assertion that Obama is "a novice at organizational management and decision making" might be selling the president short. What if what appears to conservatives to be chaos actually has order to it? Can Obama’s "foreign policy of ad hoc reaction," as Moyar describes it, be more usefully interpreted as consistent with a comprehensive strategy?
Colin Dueck, an international affairs professor at George Mason University, offers one answer in The Obama Doctrine. According to Dueck, that doctrine is strikingly simple, yet compelling: "overarching American retrenchment and accommodation internationally, in large part to allow the president to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home."
At the heart of Dueck’s appraisal of Obama’s strategy is a paradox. Judged from an international standpoint, Dueck bluntly states that, "the strategy did not work." The Obama administration "allowed numerous threats to germinate internationally" by withdrawing forces abroad and primarily focusing on domestic issues, and its pursuit of increased engagement with adversaries did not appear to benefit U.S. interests.
In response to the U.S. proposal of a "reset" in relations, Russia "offered strictly limited cooperation in ways that suit its own interests in any case" on issues such as cuts to both countries’ nuclear forces. Mostly, the Kremlin answered U.S. entreaties with new provocations—including the alarming invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine. With respect to China, Dueck writes that, "Beijing offered little cooperation to the United States and in some cases outright hostility." Chinese cyber-attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies continued unabated—most recently against more than 22 million Americans with records stored by the Office of Personnel Management. Beijing has also escalated regional tensions with its aggressive construction of military facilities in the South China Sea.
The Obama team appeared to believe that the president’s "unprecedented autobiography and personal qualities might help unlock benign transformations not only in U.S. foreign policy but in international relations more generally," Dueck writes. This view, coupled with the president’s preference for accommodating adversaries, was misguided from the start. "It is simply narcissistic to assume that a conciliatory gesture or a well-intentioned reassurance will necessarily alter the basic intentions and perceptions of international actors pursuing long-term goals."
Yet it must be said that from Obama’s perspective, his doctrine might have succeeded. He helped enact the most sweeping changes to healthcare and financial regulations in decades and won a second term in the White House, without becoming so entangled in foreign conflicts that his domestic political coalition would be at risk. Some liberal foreign affairs commentators have suggested that even if his security policies are disastrous, his domestic victories still might make him a good president.
But if this is true, the notion that Obama is a pragmatist—a portrayal carefully cultivated by his aides and eagerly consumed by the media—must be discarded. He might be "calm, flexible, and pragmatic" in his personal mannerisms and style, as Dueck notes, but he is really a progressive ideologue. "For the forty-fourth U.S. president, the policy specifics are negotiable, but the core priorities, progressive convictions, and soaring ambitions are not."
In an important sense, Dueck’s description of the Obama Doctrine does not go far enough. Obama is not only an ideologue when it comes to domestic policy, but also in foreign affairs. Shaped by his participation in the nuclear-freeze movement while he was a student at Columbia University in the early 1980s, Obama spent his formative intellectual years wedded to an ideology that held most of America’s actions in the Cold War to have been destructive and provocative toward U.S. adversaries. If U.S. enemies could just be reassured about America’s benign intentions, the president seems to believe, peaceful resolutions to international disputes could be possible.
This belief is the basis of the recently completed nuclear deal with Iran, which Rhodes has compared to the Obama administration’s foreign-policy version of Obamacare. Take the U.S. boot off Tehran’s neck and integrate it into the international system and a regional balance of power, and you can moderate its behavior better than economic and military pressure ever could.
There is a problem, however, with this strategy. What if Tehran doesn’t think closer international cooperation is in its interest? In effect, the West has made Iran, the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, a nuclear threshold power and granted it access to more than $100 billion in once-frozen assets with which it can continue its regional designs, few of which appear to tend towards peaceful conflict resolution.
Even without knowing the outcome of Congress’ review of the Iran deal, it must be said that by holding steadfast to his ideology, Obama has secured for himself a legacy. Now America—and its allies overseas—must grapple with the deadly consequences.
Published under: Book reviews