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Obama Abroad: The Report Card

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John D. McHugh/Reportage by Getty Images
Afghan National Army soldiers at Observation Post Mace, near Gowardesh in northern Kunar Province, Afghanistan, November 2011

Worthy as they may be, Mann’s Obamians have less dramatic personal histories than Bush’s Vulcans and no more obvious influence on decisions than their better-known colleagues. So it’s a category with no particular bearing as an analytic tool (though it maybe says something about this president’s need to operate in a tidy comfort zone). Mann himself all but concedes that the idea of a group portrait of the inner circle suggested by his title doesn’t fit the story he has to tell: “The dominant influence on the Obama administration’s foreign policy,” he writes, “is the president himself. He is the main strategist…the chief Obamian.”

The modus operandi of this president is to question and hear out advisers, even some outside counselors, without giving much of a clue to his own inclinations, then go off to a private White House retreat, from which he emerges a day or two later with his usually nuanced verdict. As the late Richard Holbrooke found out, he has little patience for discursive discussion on extraneous subjects of some relevance not immediately on his agenda, for instance, what might have been learned in Vietnam. Obama really is what Bush claimed to be: “the decider.”

Earlier presidents were presented with tidy sets of options. Reagan was said to have preferred them on one page. The foreign policy process in this administration appears at key junctions to have consisted of the president presenting a set of options to his advisers and coming to conclusions none of them had pressed. Sanger says that Clinton, Gates, and Panetta—that’s to say, State, Defense, and the CIA—were excluded from the early stages of the White House review on Afghanistan toward the end of Obama’s first year. The review endorsed a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops but promised that their withdrawal would start in only a year and a half. The time limit meant that there would be no open-ended commitment to a conflict candidate Obama had called a “war of necessity,” contrasting it to the “war of choice” in Iraq. Instead, the search for a “decent exit” (as it was called in the Vietnam era) began at the end of his first year.

The perceived necessity quickly diminished in the face of hard, inescapable facts: the stolen Afghan election in 2009; the stupendous corruption and narrow base of the regime in Kabul; allied Pakistan’s harboring of the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents; the Pentagon’s estimate that it would take something like one billion dollars a month to train and support a credible Afghan force. What was not explicitly declared at the time was that the drones offered a tempting, relatively low-cost alternative—casualty-free, as far as Americans were concerned—making it possible to disrupt and possibly cripple al-Qaeda without a permanent military build-up to ensure the stability of Afghanistan.3 Obama was prepared to use force aggressively, just not in the old way.

Sounding almost like the George W. Bush who inveighed against the use of the military in nation-building missions when he ran for office in 2000, he stepped back from American commitments—“many of them unwise or unachievable,” in Sanger’s words—and coolly declared last year: “We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place…. It is time to focus on nation building here at home.”

The picture of a tough-minded president making hard choices, taking full responsibility, was painted in livid hues by Jo Becker and Scott Shane in the recent New York Times report on Obama’s self-assigned role in personally reviewing new additions to “kill lists” that govern drone target selection. Many experts who were initially well disposed to Obama find heavy legal and even civil liberties issues in such “extrajudicial killings.” For instance: Are they tantamount to assassinations? Does the struggle against al-Qaeda qualify as an “international armed conflict” under the Geneva conventions or is it essentially lawless?

But there’s one question such critics seldom attempt to answer: Just how is a president supposed to take on terrorists thousands of miles away whom he believes to be targeting the country he’s sworn to protect in a constitutional manner? Should he file an extradition request with the government in Islamabad or, as Bill Clinton did before September 11 but after the attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies in East Africa, lob cruise missiles from the Arabian Sea and hope for the best?

These are not questions the former lecturer in constitutional law can easily evade. Even before one gets to the truly difficult legal issues, there’s a nagging question of political management and leadership: whether sweating over kill lists is really proper work for a president. Taking hands-on charge of the process, White House aides explain, is the only way he can satisfy himself that the pilotless craft carrying out his orders are under tight control. In their telling, Obama’s participation amounts to a clemency review for condemned terrorists—presumed terrorists, anyway—on the other side of the globe; an act, therefore, of moral responsibility.

It’s a disturbing picture, nonetheless—the president reviewing “baseball cards” carrying intelligence rap sheets on specific targeted enemies. It deepens an impression that the solitariness and responsibilities that come with the job are reinforced in his case by an inner self-sufficiency, not always easy to distinguish from remoteness and self-regard.

It’s one thing to hold Obama up to principles he himself has embraced, another to contrast his management of the conflict with what Mitt Romney offers, something else Obama’s liberal critics consistently fail to do. The presumptive Republican nominee hasn’t explicitly promised to reverse Obama’s timetable for a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan but what he does say amounts to the same thing. He says he’s in favor of withdrawal when the generals tell him it’s time. It’s a refrain used by George W. Bush in his successful 2004 reelection campaign when the war at issue was in Iraq, the one Obama finally wound down. Romney also favors a sharp increase in the humongous Pentagon budget along with cuts in social spending across the board. It’s the old definition of strength. This must be another “American Century,” the former missionary insists.

Obama’s kind of strength—too much for some liberals, too subtle for most hawks—was shown to best advantage in the bin Laden raid. Some advisers wanted to wait on better intelligence. Secretary Gates wanted to drop a bunker-busting bomb rather than run the risk of sending in special forces. Such a bomb would likely leave a large crater, cause untold civilian deaths, and probably obliterate any evidence that Osama had been there. Obama wanted all the evidence that could be gotten, including the body. He made, Gates later said, “one of the most courageous calls…I’ve ever seen a president make.” He didn’t wait for consensus, didn’t leave that decision to the generals. It was all his, consistent, as both Mann and Sanger note, with what he’d said he’d do during the 2008 campaign if the al-Qaeda leader were ever tracked to a hideout.

An Associated Press dispatch on June 15 reported that the White House had formally acknowledged for the first time, in a report to Congress, that the United States has conducted “special operations” commando attacks on suspected al-Qaeda groups in Somalia and Yemen. The number of such “special ops” was not specified. Sanger tells us they amount to ten to fifteen a night, most presumably along the Pakistan–Afghanistan frontier.

“The surprise is his aggressiveness,” a senior American diplomat remarked to Sanger, summing up impressions gained on the inside as the president confronted the terrorism specter. More than anything, the bin Laden raid made that point with millions of people on the outside, possible swing voters, but it may not determine many actual votes in an election in which economic issues are likely to remain overriding.

Counsels of perfection are not lacking in either book. “The United States has a moral responsibility to the Afghan people and Obama needs to talk about that honestly—to adjust expectations to reality,” Sanger lectures. He also “needs to negotiate an agreement with both parties in Congress about what America will provide to Afghanistan over the next five to ten years, and stick to it.” Good luck. In a perfect democracy, an election year might be the ideal time to bring up subjects such as broken promises, retrenchment, and fresh commitments. But this is not a perfect democracy. A president who dared to reopen such a discussion would be drowned out almost instantly by talking heads, bloggers, and Super PACs.

These books allude in passing to other unfinished business on Obama’s original agenda—his unfulfilled promise to close the prison at Guantánamo, most prominently. Mann throws in the president’s commitment to a final push for an accord between the Israelis and Palestinians and his demand that Israel, once and for all, halt its expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands. This was already a nonstarter before the curtain went up on the Arab Spring. Virtually thumbing his nose at Obama, in what amounted to an open embrace of the Republican leadership, Netanyahu then showed he had greater sway with Congress, on this issue at least, than the US president. (Netanyahu got twenty-nine standing ovations when he addressed a joint session of Congress in May 2011 at the invitation of Speaker John Boehner.)

If Obama learned to go silent on such highly charged matters, it wasn’t because he’d changed his mind or backed down. It was because he’d been beaten, in part by fair-weather supporters in his own party. Would these challenges come up again in a second term? Or has this self-confident, aggressive leader carried away a wariness, a lesson about cutting losses?

As for Pakistan, the Pakistani generals and Richard Holbrooke, with their long memories, appear to have known something that Barack Obama didn’t want to hear when he had his first crack at making policy for the region. “The biggest problem we face,” Holbrooke told Sanger, “is that the Pakistanis know that sooner or later we’re leaving. Because that’s what we do. And that drives everything.”

Unless, of course, Mitt Romney were to get the opportunity to prove he’s serious about staying the course. And then, most likely, we’d really be sorry.

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    A recent report on ProPublica, the website for investigative journalism, underscored inconsistencies in the Obama administration’s estimates of civilian deaths in drone attacks. These estimates have totaled between zero and fifty over differing time periods extending for months. Of 307 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, 263 have been carried out in the Obama years, ProPublica said. See Justin Elliott, “Obama Administration’s Drone Death Figures Don’t Add Up,” ProPublica, June 18, 2012. 

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