As President Barack Obama prepares for his second term, he is facing a number of lingering problems overseas—problems that, despite his campaign claims, were not solved in his first term.
Let’s begin where the president achieved his greatest foreign-policy triumph: the strike on Osama bin Laden. If the 2012 campaign narrative was any indication, the president believes the killing of bin Laden marked the beginning of the end, if not the end, of the fight against al Qaeda and its kindred movements. After all, the president has repeatedly said, “the tide of war is receding” and “al Qaeda is on the run.”
Neither assertion is true. Just as the death of Stalin didn’t end the Cold War, the death of bin Laden didn’t end what used to be called the war on terror. That should be abundantly clear from what’s happening in Mali, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq. Yes, “bin Laden is dead and GM is alive,” as the vice president repeatedly reminded America during the campaign. But “bin Ladenism”—the movement inspired by the author of 9/11—is anything but dead. Don’t take my word for it. “The cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body,” as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explains. “If we turn away from these critical regions of the world, we risk undoing the significant gains [we] have made.”
The struggle against jihadism is a generational struggle that will be measured in decades, not election cycles. And clever bumper stickers will not win this war.
One of the go-to tools the president is using to wage this war is America’s fleet of combat drones. To be sure, the president’s celebrated drone war has scored important successes, including taking out al Qaeda’s Abu Yahya al-Libi and Anwar al-Awlaki as well as striking Haqqani and Taliban militants in the field. However, the drone war promises to cause second-term headaches.
First, it’s a tactic masquerading as a strategy, and at some point the Obama White House will have to recognize this. As Mitt Romney observed, in an implicit critiqued of the Obama administration’s overreliance on drone strikes, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Romney was right about this, but this is not the only drawback to the drone war: it is ethically problematic to rely on robots to wage war; there are constitutional and legal ramifications to an unmanned air force; and the proliferation of combat drones is opening the door to an era of accidental wars.
On top of all that, it exposes the U.S. to significant challenges from overseas. What looks like an essential national-security tool to Americans appears very different to international observers. “In 17 of 20 countries,” a recent Pew survey found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups.” According to Pew, the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.” Thus, the drone war has reinforced the very image Obama promised to erase.
Moreover, a UN official recently announced plans to create an investigation unit within the Human Rights Council to look at drone-related civilian casualties. The council has warned that “targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter.’” Critics of the drone war would argue that it has not always met that standard. The use of drones to cripple al-Awlaki’s branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen, for instance, killed dozens of people apparently not affiliated with al Qaeda. The Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the militants killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, some 450 nonmilitants may have been killed.
Now, consider the above paragraph in the context of the administration’s drone-related leaks. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration embraced a highly controversial method for determining civilian casualties that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants …unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” The president is described as being “at the helm” of a “nominations process” for a drone “kill list,” on which he insists on “approving every new name.” In addition, he “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,” and often decides “personally whether to go ahead” with a drone strike.
Again, for many Americans, that sounds like a commander-in-chief fulfilling his primary responsibility, albeit a bit more hands-on than we might expect. But international observers could see something far more menacing in these reports. For instance, the Rome Statute, which spawned the International Criminal Court (ICC), considers launching an attack “in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians” to be a war crime and defines “systematic attack directed against any civilian population” as a crime against humanity. The U.S. never signed on to the ICC treaty, which is supposed to mean the U.S. is not subject to the court’s jurisdiction. However, that isn’t stopping the ICC from conducting what The Wall Street Journal calls a “preliminary examination into whether NATO troops, including American soldiers, fighting the Taliban may have to be put in the dock.” It’s not a stretch to think some ICC lawyer will make a similar lunge at those who are waging the drone war.
This is not an argument for international watchdogs tying America down. Washington has every right to target those who are trying to kill Americans. But the brewing international backlash against the drone war reminds us that means and methods matter as much as ends.
The Obama administration was overly mindful of this means-and-ends balancing act during the NATO operation in Libya. It even came up with a clever way of describing America’s new approach to intervening in international hot spots. But as it worked out in practice, “leading from behind” left much to be desired. For instance, when NATO asked Washington to extend air operations at one critical point in the mission, the response emphasized that the extension of U.S. air power, incredibly, “expires on Monday.” As a result of Washington’s lead-from-behind approach, NATO frayed and almost failed, with Britain and France straining to do what the United States once did effortlessly. NATO’s after-action reports indicate that the alliance was lacking in munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, and command-and-control assets—just about everything needed to conduct a 21st-century air war.
To be sure, Qaddafi is gone, but Libya is a mess, as evidenced by the deadly attacks on the U.S. ambassador, the transitional government’s inability to rein in militias and plans in Benghazi to create an autonomous region with a separate parliament, police force and court system.
Speaking of messes, Syria is on fire. The world is waiting on Washington to lead in some direction. Without American leadership, Syria may become this president’s Rwanda. After 21 months of inaction, it’s already his Bosnia. And as Assad un-sheaths his chemical arsenal, it could become the world’s nightmare.
Following Washington’s lead, members of the nation-building coalition in Afghanistan are heading for the exits. If the administration sticks to its campaign pledge to withdraw in 2014 and focus on “nation-building here at home,” Kabul will not be able to hold back a resurgent Taliban.
Iraq offers a grim preview of what awaits Afghanistan. Before the abrupt departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated. Today, AQI numbers 2,500 fighters, operates training camps in western Iraq and is carrying out 140 attacks per week in Iraq. As an Iraqi counterterror official puts it, “The Iraqi efforts to combat terrorist groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout.” This was avoidable and predictable. Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explains that Obama’s own Pentagon and State Department officials wanted to keep 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, as backstop against the very threats that are now emerging. But the White House proposed a force of just 3,000. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, the White House “decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq…despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”
The result: Parts of Iraq are safe havens for al Qaeda fighters; Iraq is scarred by renewed sectarian war; Washington has little leverage with Baghdad; and Iran is using Iraq to move assets into Syria.
To his credit, the president built an impressive sanctions coalition to force Iran to give up its nuclear-weapons program. However, that’s only part of the story. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concludes that “The principal objective of international sanctions—to compel Iran to verifiably confine its nuclear program to purely peaceful uses—has not been achieved.”
To be successful, sanctions against Iran must be a means to an end—not an end in and of themselves.
Similarly, the president must recognize in the second term that summits are not an end in and of themselves—and that a successful Russia policy has to deliver more than slogans. The payoff of the administration’s “Russia Reset,” after all, has been an emboldened Vladimir Putin, who has withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program; unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs; launched the largest nuclear war games since the collapse of the Soviet Union; and blocked international action in Syria.
Finally, in 2009, Obama insisted that “the United States does not seek to contain China.” By 2011, he was unveiling his “Pacific Pivot” aimed at containing China. Although a renewed focus on security in the Asia-Pacific region is needed, one wonders how effective the “Pacific Pivot” will be given the administration’s defense cuts. Recall that the president has trimmed $487 billion from the Pentagon, including cuts in the number of planes, warships and troops, as well as cuts in resources earmarked for F-35s, refueling planes, missile defenses, carriers and submarines. All of these cuts come before sequestration. China, on the other hand, is not cutting anything from its armed forces. Beijing boosted military spending by 11 percent in 2012, capping double-digit increases in nine of the past 10 years. According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing is pouring increasing sums into cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, counter-space weapons, bombers and submarines—assets focused on countering American power.
The “receding tide of war,” “leading from behind,” “nation-building at home,” the “Russia Reset,” the “Pacific Pivot”—these words may make for compelling rhetoric, but they haven’t secured U.S. interests or promoted international stability.
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