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Obama Abroad: The Report Card

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Pete Souza/White House
President Obama being briefed in the White House Situation Room in advance of a trip to South Korea, March 23, 2012

Barack Obama can claim two big foreign policy accomplishments: getting American forces out of Iraq and compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding “Global War on Terror” into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network, relying largely on high-tech intelligence gathering and pilotless drones. The most conspicuous achievement of that campaign—the raid by Navy SEALS on the compound where Osama bin Laden had been sojourning for six years, hard by the Pakistani military academy, just an hour’s drive from the capital, Islamabad—shook the foundations of the state and put relations with this exasperating, supposed ally in a deep freeze.

As an outcome, this was not entirely reassuring. David Sanger enables us to eavesdrop on the president when, a half-year after Osama was wrapped in a shroud and sent to his watery grave, he confronts the likelihood that the highly satisfying elimination of the most wanted terrorist had only deepened the dilemma still posed by Pakistan. “His biggest single national security concern,” he’s reported to have told advisers late last year, was that Pakistan would “disintegrate” and lose control of its nukes.

This hearsay, passed along by an unnamed White House official, can’t be read as a considered policy statement. Taken literally, it would mean that Obama’s worries over Pakistan had come to outweigh his concerns over the Iranian nuclear program or al-Qaeda itself. But the case can be made and Sanger comes close to making it. Describing Pakistan as “the world’s most dangerous nation,” this veteran New York Times correspondent1 slips in enough scary particulars to induce insomnia in any reader inclined to parse the president’s logic. Not only does Pakistan have “the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal on earth,” but, we’re told, the latest additions are “smaller, easier-to-hijack weapons.” Under George W. Bush and Obama, the United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars underwriting programs to help Pakistan secure those weapons but still doesn’t know where many of them are kept.

Sanger speaks of an “American paranoia about a Pakistani meltdown.” That can be taken as a figure of speech mirroring the chronic paranoia of Pakistan’s military chieftains, which was greatly inflamed by the bin Laden raid in a host of ways: not least the undeniable violation of their sovereignty that it represented and the apparent duplicity it exposed.2 Even more galling was the professional humiliation of the failure of their forces to react during the three and a half hours the SEALS were in the country. Least obvious but perhaps worst of all was the instantaneous calculation that the Americans might one day use similar tactics to seize or dismantle some of Pakistan’s precious nuclear weapons.

In the aftermath of the assault, Sanger tells us, orders were issued “to move elements of the arsenal around the country.” In other words, while American envoys were imploring the Pakistanis to act against armed fundamentalists within their borders, they were preoccupied with defending themselves against us—that’s to say, against a country that has since September 11, 2011 rained billions on their military establishment. Meeting with Senator John Kerry, agitated top officials even demanded a written statement that a raid on the arsenal would never be attempted. Kerry said he’d write it in blood, Sanger says, but no written pledge was apparently delivered. Some alliance.

The chief merit of Sanger’s attempt to piece together a primer on the tactical shortcuts that he (and other commentators before him) branded the “Obama Doctrine” is that it mines a vein of recent information, yielding glimpses of actual hard choices and the costly trade-offs they entailed. The hottest of his revelations came with his depiction of Obama’s aggressive use of new cyberwar techniques first authorized by George W. Bush and deployed—in close coordination with Israel—to cripple a thousand or so centrifuges at the heart of the Iranian nuclear program. The discovery that the notorious “Stuxnet worm” (as it came to be known when it was unintentionally unleashed on the Internet in 2010) was made in the USA raises obvious questions about consequences that won’t soon be answered.

Sanger’s book breaks new ground in its discussion of the president’s hands-on involvement in stepping up the cyberwarfare campaign against Iran (a discussion spun off on June 1 as a front-page article in the Times). This contributed to accusations that the White House had timed disclosures of classified information with the election in mind, to advertise the president’s toughness. I’ve no inside information but such charges strike me as more than a little plausible and not very shocking. How else, after all, can Obama respond to Mitt Romney’s constant harping on his supposed weakness and passivity? But the most sensitive information in the article—its portrayal of the American–Israeli collaboration in cyberwarfare—had been in the public domain for nearly a year and a half (having first been reported by Sanger, William Broad, and John Markoff in the Times in January 2011).

The serious questions the earlier coverage raised haven’t been much debated and are unlikely to get scrutiny in the relentless volleys of a political campaign. Neither side has an incentive to stress a key point about “Olympic Games,” as the program was known inside the government: that it was intended as a less destructive, less risky alternative to conventional warfare. The idea was to “put additional time on the clock,” as Sanger says in the lingo of ESPN: in other words, to delay Tehran’s progress to a bomb by a year or two (and thereby forestall attacks on Iran’s buried and dispersed nuclear sites that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has more recently been threatening, almost promising, with full awareness that he’ll never have a greater hold on this president’s attention than in an election year).

One obvious question for the long run has to do with the likely Iranian reaction to the cyberattacks, with their effect on the chance of a negotiated settlement if ever there was one. The disclosure of Israeli–US collaboration in the physical destruction by a cyber-attack on the centrifuges installed deep underground at Natanz could easily have been taken by Ayatollah Khamenei and his shadowy inner circle as confirmation of their darkest fears, proof that the Supreme Leader was wise to shun the broad engagement Obama proffered in secret letters in the early days of his administration; that whatever Obama says or has said, American enmity to the theocratic regime will remain a constant. The Great Satan never questions, scarcely even acknowledges, the existence of the Israeli nuclear arsenal.

From the perspective of the men in turbans, the question of what offers the regime more security, a diplomatic settlement or the bomb, may be said to answer itself. If, finally, they opt for something that can be called a settlement bringing them close but not all the way to a bomb, will it have been because of economic sanctions, in spite of the attacks? Would they then be promised that the attacks would cease?

Another obvious question left hanging in the aftermath of “Olympic Games” has to do with the future of cyberwarfare itself. Having been the first nation to use it purposefully against the weapons program of another state—to have “crossed the Rubicon,” as General Michael Hayden, the former Bush intelligence chief, put it—will we eventually be judged to have hastened its spread? What role will we be able to claim for ourselves in drafting a code that might inhibit copycat cyberattacks on our own vulnerable systems? Similar questions can be asked about drones. Already these are not a monopoly. Israel has used a drone of its own design in an attack on Islamic militants in Gaza. How long will it be before Indian drones fly over Pakistani outposts near the line of control in Kashmir? Or cyberwarfare starts between the subcontinent’s two nuclear powers? Or, scariest of all, China and the United States start playing cyber-chicken?

“The United States lost a bit of the moral high ground when it comes to warning the world of the danger of cyberattacks,” Sanger writes. “A bit” may one day seem to be a peculiar understatement.

Sanger, who has been in Washington longer than Obama, faults the president for “rookie mistakes.” Here he’s discussing the new administration’s failure to foresee or finesse Hamid Karzai’s blatant theft of the 2009 Afghan election. Pages later “the rookie president,” having extended his hand to the clerical regime in Tehran, is blamed for being slow to express support for the protesters who poured into the streets there to denounce the ballot stuffing that kept the chosen candidates of the mullahs in power. “For Obama’s education as a president,” he writes, “it was an important practice run for the Arab Spring revolutions that followed.”

When it comes to filling in a report card on Obama’s overall conduct of foreign policy, covering most of a first term that may yet turn out to be his last, our author seems disposed to award him something like a B-plus. He credits the president with having thought through the limits on American power in regional and dollar terms, and with recognizing that “we can no longer afford troop-heavy interventions, unless our national survival is at stake.” The corollary is that Washington need not seize the lead on every burning issue; that it can support allies, but leave some costs and decisions to others, as it tried to do in Libya. Obama gets high marks, too, for “patience and ingenuity” in dealing with immediate challenges like Iran. On energy policy, climate issues, and the national debt, he gets “incompletes” after all of three and a half years.

Only in the aftermath of the last administration does Obama’s rethinking, however rigorous and serious, seem truly original. It has been half a century since a president promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe….” More recent presidents have tried to pick their fights, discovering new issues of “national survival” in faraway places. Ronald Reagan landed the Marines in Lebanon, then withdrew them, but got embroiled in covert operations from Central America to Afghanistan, invading tiny Grenada for good measure. The first Bush faced down Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, decided the United States had no national interest in the breakup of Yugoslavia (“no dog in this fight” was the way Secretary of State James Baker put it), but landed troops in Somalia just before leaving office. Bill Clinton got out of Somalia after the body of an American soldier was dragged through the streets, opposed intervention during the Rwanda genocide, waited nearly two and a half years before sending US planes on bombing runs over Serbia, but later bombed Belgrade itself in the cause of self-determination for tiny Kosovo.

Obama is now being criticized for his hesitation, even “paralysis,” about Iraq’s neighbor, Syria. We’ll see how long that lasts. In the meantime, it’s useful to remember that, for all our interventions, hesitation has not infrequently been a presidential trait. When journalists draw up report cards and balance sheets on Obama, it’s hard not to wonder: Which more farsighted and prudent presidents are they remembering?

James Mann’s new book, awkwardly titled, or mistitled, The Obamians, is similarly preoccupied with the question of what’s new about this president’s approach to national security issues. The book has less fresh inside detail than Sanger’s but more time for historical and political table-setting. Mann, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, employs the template of his more searching and effective 2004 book, Rise of the Vulcans, which set out the overlapping histories and built-in conflicts of the veteran policymakers—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz—in what he termed “Bush’s war cabinet.”

The reasons that formula doesn’t work this time around are fairly obvious. The insiders he dubs Obamians—a circle of staffers who rose to their present positions in his campaign or on his Senate staff—are still, in the fourth year of this administration, scarcely known outside Washington and mainly notable, so it seems, for the consistency with which their thinking reliably anticipates, intuits, and mirrors his. They are behind-the-scenes types like Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power (a trenchant writer whose take on the Obama years may one day, two or six years from now, rival Obama’s own). Of these, only Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, has cabinet rank and, on occasion, a public profile.

By Mann’s definition, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta (who replaced Gates at the Pentagon), and Vice President Biden are not Obamians. Neither is Tom Donilon, the usually self-effacing national security adviser who pretty obviously was available to “background” these two authors, Sanger especially. Donilon, who worked in the Clinton administration and initially supported Joe Biden in 2008, appears to have won the president’s confidence by making himself indispensable. John Brennan, who moved over from the CIA to become the White House point man on counterterrorism, also can’t be counted as an Obamian.

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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.

  1. 1

    The reviewer cheerfully acknowledges that in his long ago days as an editor, David Sanger was a valued Times colleague. 

  2. 2

    Washington says it has no proof that Pakistan’s top generals were aware of Osama’s presence in Abbotabad; just as there was never any proof they had advance knowledge of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 by a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba they had sponsored; or proof of their awareness that A.Q. Khan, their top nuclear expert, was the world’s worst proliferator of nuclear technology. 

  3. 3

    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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