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…


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