President Barack Obama watches as newly sworn-in Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., right, shakes hands with retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey during his Armed Forces Full Honors Retirement Ceremony for Dempsey, Friday, Sept.

President Barack Obama watches as newly sworn-in Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., right, shakes hands with retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey during his Armed Forces Full Honors Retirement Ceremony for Dempsey, Friday, Sept. Andrew Harnik/AP

Why Does Obama Fight Wars He Deems Unwinnable?

The uncertainty he projects about his policies undermine the half-hearted military efforts he undertakes.

There is much to unpack in Barack Obama’s remark to Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the Middle East with Iran. Note that he makes little distinction between the claims of an American ally and a state sponsor of terrorism, or their respective methods. It is the progressive’s equivalence, akin to Apple’s insistence that it cannot grant “backdoors” to the U.S. government even with a court order because then it would have to permit even the most repressive governments access to the data on people’s phones. President Obama has done a creditable job of engaging with American adversaries, creating opportunities for cooperation. Whether that is enough to balance the erosion of the international order caused by his policies—an erosion Obama would surely say is not his fault, and instead attributable to titanic, uncontrollable global trends—may prove the essential question surrounding his foreign-policy legacy.

Goldberg’s article begins with Obama weighing whether to intervene in Syria’s civil war, the defining choice of his time in office. In my judgment, though, the reviews of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan that Obama undertook in the first year of his presidency provide the template for understanding the failures of his administration. During the presidential campaign, Obama had criticized George W. Bush for under-resourcing the Afghan War, creating an expectation in the State and Defense Departments that the new president would seek to bring objectives and means into better alignment. The reviews were run by some of the foreign-policy establishment’s best hands, yet White House officials bridled at being boxed in; they complained that the military wasn’t giving them good options, then refused options that aligned with the president’s stated policies.

These officials, it seems, never considered the possibility that they were giving vague or contradictory political direction. They acted as if deploying tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan was outlandish, whereas military officials considered that number small in relation to what they were being asked to achieve. Obama made policy decisions with trusted aides outside the traditional policy process.

All this resulted in strategic incoherence—a disconnect between the description of the threat to the United States and the means Obama was willing to commit to counter it, countervailing messages regarding an escalation of effort and an arbitrary timeline to execute the mission. The bureaucracy was excluded and emasculated; power clearly now resided only in the off-line White House staff. It is the process, as much as the policy decisions, that has contributed to the Obama administration’s poor record on national security.

See also Derek Chollet's In Defense of the Obama Doctrine

Related: The Hidden Costs of Obama's Vision of American Power

Read more: The End of the US-Dominated Order in the Middle East

Read more: An Isolationist President, In Love With Drones and Special Forces

I imagine Brent Scowcroft, the former George H.W. Bush national-security adviser whom Obama professes to admire, would be aghast at a national-security process that failed to seriously consider elementary drawbacks to the preferred course of action, as appears to have been the case during the Obama administration’s decisions to intervene militarily in Libya and not enforce its red line against chemical-weapons attacks in Syria. I hope that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asked Obama, on their famous walk to reconsider enforcing the red line and striking the Assad regime, what Scowcroft would think of a last-minute refusal to honor a president’s own policy, or the long-term costs of a president failing to live up to his word. But I strongly suspect he didn’t.

In Goldberg’s article, Stephen Sestanovich describes Obama as a “retrenchment” president akin to Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon—leaders elected to scale back the country’s overseas commitments. That seems to me not quite severe enough a judgment. The better parallel is to Lyndon Johnson fighting wars “he believed to be unwinnable” (as Goldberg describes Obama). Sending soldiers into harm’s way when you consider their fight pointless must weigh heavily on the conscience. And that may be the best explanation of Obama’s inaction: He does not appear to believe that military force can achieve anything lasting. And yet he cannot see that the uncertainty he projects about his policies, and the half-hearted military efforts he undertakes, are what prevent military force from being successful.  

Obama claims to believe that, in Goldberg’s wonderful description, “rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly.” But what is most striking about Obama’s foreign policy is the enormous chasm between the president’s soaring rhetoric and stingy policies. He seems to enjoy describing the mega-forces shaping the international order, but fails to connect their centrifugal effects with his failures in what former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz calls “tending the garden.” He speaks in the cadences of moral gravity, but (his Nobel Prize acceptance speech notwithstanding) acts as though there are no costs to inaction. He parsimoniously weighs what support he gives without appreciating that helping others solve their problems not only leaves the United States with fewer problems abroad, but also gains America goodwill among those who can help solve its own problems. What we are now witnessing is the degree to which American reticence sets all boats rocking.

America may yet ride out the tumult. It is better buffered than most states against a more chaotic and dangerous international order. But I expect historians will blame Barack Obama, rightly, for contributing to the disorder.