Then presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., applauds as he is introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., during a campaign stop in New York, in July 2008.
Then presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., applauds as he is introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., during a campaign stop in New York, in July 2008. // U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card

The Fierce Minimalism of Barack Obama

President Obama’s critics often claim he doesn’t have a strategy in the greater Middle East. That’s wrong. Like it or loathe it, he does, and he’s beginning to implement it against ISIS. To understand what it is, it’s worth going back seven summers.

In July 2007, at a debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube, Obama said that if elected president, he’d talk directly to the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. Hillary Clinton derided his answer as “irresponsible and frankly naïve.” The altercation fit the larger narrative the media had developed about the two Democratic frontrunners: Obama—who had opposed the Iraq War—was the dove. Hillary—who had supported it—was the hawk.

But less than a week later, a different foreign-policy tussle broke out. Obama said he’d send the U.S. military into Pakistan, against its government’s wishes, to kill members of al-Qaeda. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act,” he vowed, “we will.” Suddenly, Obama was the hawk and Clinton was the dove. “He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan,” she declared in early 2008, “which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take.”

So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he’s dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they’re unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high.

When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States. Hillary Clinton and John McCain may not use the “War on Terror” framework anymore, but they’re still more willing to sell arms, dispatch troops, and drop bombs to achieve goals that aren’t directly connected to preventing another 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians. 

Understanding Obama’s fierce minimalism helps explain the evolution of his policy toward Syria and Iraq. For years, hawks pushed him to bomb Assad and arm Syria’s rebels. They also urged him to keep more U.S. troops in Iraq to stabilize the country and maintain American leverage there. Obama refused because these efforts—which would have cost money and incurred risks—weren’t directly aimed at fighting terrorism. But now that ISIS has developed a safe haven in Iraq and Syria, amassed lots of weapons and money, killed an American journalist, recruited Westerners, and threatened terrorism against the United States, Obama’s gone from dove to hawk. He’s launched air strikes in Iraq and may expand them to Syria. As the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis has noted, the Obama administration is also trying to strengthen regional actors who may be able to weaken ISIS. But the administration is doing all this to prevent ISIS from killing Americans, not to put Syria back together again. Yes, there’s a humanitarian overlay to Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign: He’s authorized air strikes to save Yazidis at risk of slaughter. But the core of his military effort in Iraq and Syria, and throughout the greater Middle East, is narrow but aggressive anti-terrorism.

There are smart critiques of Obama’s tunnel vision, and they come not only from Republicans but from former Obama administration officials like Vali Nasr. Critics claim that by neglecting Iraq because it no longer harbored a terrorist threat, the Obama administration enabled Nouri al-Maliki’s crackdown against Sunnis, which helped create ISIS. Obama’s failure to do more to strengthen moderate rebels in Syria, they argue, had the same effect. By focusing too narrowly on jihadist terrorism, in other words, the Obama administration ignored the sectarianism and state collapse that ultimately fueled jihadist terrorism. It forgot the proverbial lesson—often preached by liberals—that when it comes to foreign threats, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Obama would probably respond that when it comes to stopping jihadist terrorism from taking root by ensuring representative government, territorial integrity, and national unity in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, an ounce of prevention isn’t nearly enough. The effort costs billions of dollars and a whole lot of American troops. Even then, it might fail because given America’s track record, analogies that portray Washington as a doctor with a sophisticated and empathetic understanding of its Middle Eastern patients are way too benign. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan could certainly have used preventative care in the Obama years. But America’s prophylactic efforts might have involved leeches, not aspirin. As Richard Holbrooke learned the hard way during his time as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s national-security bureaucracy isn’t geared toward diplomacy and economic development. It’s mostly designed to blow things up.

And it’s not just bureaucratic politics that have pushed Obama to focus on counterterrorism over a root-causes approach. Electoral politics has driven him in the same direction. There’s a reason Obama spent his reelection campaign declaring that it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home.” Those declarations won him votes. From the beginning, the president’s political team has understood that on foreign policy, Obama faced two political dangers. If he got too many American troops killed in the Middle East, he risked alienating his liberal base. If he permitted a major terrorist attack against American civilians, he risked empowering the Republicans eager to paint him as weak. The way to protect against both dangers was to keep American troops out of harm’s way while pulverizing alleged jihadists from the air.

Regardless of what you think of the merits of that approach in terms of statecraft, it’s worked politically. Even now, while Republican elites fall over one another to denounce Obama’s foreign policy, you rarely hear Republican candidates do so on the stump. That’s because despite Obama’s declining popularity, his fierce minimalism fits the national mood.

President Obama’s Mideast strategy is not grand. It’s not inspiring. It’s not idealistic. But it’s what the American people want and what their government knows how to do. And Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.

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