ASCF Report | 12.1.12
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow

As President Barack Obama prepares for his second term, he faces a number of lingering problems overseas—problems that, notwithstanding his campaign speeches, 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. Nineteen months later, it seems the president has drawn the wrong lessons from the bin Laden takedown. If the 2012 campaign narrative was any indication, the president believes the killing of bin Laden marked the beginning of the end of the fight against al Qaeda. After all, the president has repeatedly said, “the tide of war is receding” and “al Qaeda is on the run.”

In truth, just as the death of Stalin didn’t end the Cold War, the death of bin Laden didn’t clear the breeding grounds of terror. That should be abundantly clear from what’s happening in Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq. In these places, al Qaeda and its partners are flexing their muscles—carving out a state within a state in Mali, launching hundreds of bloody attacks in Nigeria, carrying out sophisticated assassinations in Libya, recruiting dozens of Americans to fight in Somalia, claiming vast swaths of Yemen and making a dramatic comeback in Iraq.

“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. That would make us all less safe over the long-term.”

Yes, “bin Laden is dead and GM is alive,” as the vice president reminded America during the campaign. But “bin Ladenism”—the movement inspired by the author of 9/11—is anything but dead. As the 9/11 Commission warned in 2004, jihadist terrorism “will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured.” This reality cannot be changed by campaign slogans. The struggle against jihadism will be measured in decades, not election cycles. 

Tactics vs. Strategy
he president’s celebrated drone war is another first-term initiative that promises to cause second-term headaches. To be sure, the drone war has scored important successes, including taking out al Qaeda’s Abu Yahya al-Libi and Anwar al-Awlaki; striking Haqqani and Taliban forces in the field; and eliminating as many as 2,769 militants in Pakistan alone. However, the drone war has major down sides.

First, it’s a tactic masquerading as a strategy, and at some point the Obama White House will have to recognize this.

Moreover, 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.” The drone war exposes the U.S. to significant international human rights challenges. A U.N. human rights official recently announced plans to create an investigation unit within the Human Rights Council to look at civilian casualties from drone strikes, and the council has noted that “targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter.’”

Critics of the drone war would argue it has not always met that standard. The use of drones to cripple al-Awlaki’s Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, for instance, killed dozens of other people, many of them apparently not affiliated with al-Qaeda. The Brookings Institution estimates that some 450 nonmilitants may have been killed in drone attacks targeting Pakistani militants. 

This is not an argument for international watchdogs tying America down. The UN secretariat may refuse to recognize America’s special role, but by turning to Washington whenever sea lanes are blocked, natural disasters wreak havoc, genocide is let loose or vital resources are threatened, it is tacitly conceding that the United States is, well, special. 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.

Leading from Behind
The Obama administration was mindful of this means-and-ends balancing act during the NATO operation in Libya—perhaps too mindful. It even came up with a way of describing America’s new approach to intervening in international hot spots. But “leading from behind” sounded better on paper than it worked out in practice. In Libya, “leading from behind” translated into a war with an expiration date: When NATO asked Washington to extend air operations at one critical point in the mission, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power, incredibly, “expires on Monday.”

As a result of this lead-from-behind approach, NATO was frayed and almost failed. NATO’s after-action reports indicate that with America at the rear, the alliance was woefully lacking in munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones, 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 in Benghazi, the power of militias and the weakness of the transitional government. 

Speaking of messes, Syria is on fire. And the world is waiting on Washington to lead in some direction. Without American leadership, Syria may become this president’s Rwanda. Because of the president’s inaction, it is already his Bosnia.

NATO governments and other members of the nation-building coalition in Afghanistan are following Washington’s lead and heading for the exits. If the administration sticks to its campaign pledge of “focusing on nation-building here at home” and withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, it is difficult to imagine Kabul holding back a resurgent Taliban—and impossible to imagine the U.S. military keeping up the pressure on Pakistan, the wellspring of Taliban terror.

Iraq offers a grim preview of what lies ahead for Afghanistan. A year after pulling out of Iraq, the situation is worse than it was when U.S. troops were there. “Iraqi efforts to combat terrorist groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout,” a spokesman for Iraq’s counterterror services reports. For instance, before the departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated. But today, AQI numbers 2,500 fighters, has training camps in western Iraq, and is carrying out 140 attacks per week.

This was avoidable. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explains, Pentagon and State Department officials wanted to keep more than 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But the White House proposed a residual force of just 3,000 troops. 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 payoff: Washington has no leverage with Baghdad; Iraq is scarred by renewed sectarian war; parts of Iraq are safe havens for AQI; and Iran is moving arms and fighters into Syria via Iraq.

Autocrats and Atoms
To his credit, the president built an international-sanctions coalition to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. However, the Congressional Research Service recently concluded, “The principal objective of international sanctions—to compel Iran to verifiably confine its nuclear program to purely peaceful uses—has not been achieved to date.”

To be successful, international sanctions against Iran must be more than an end in and of themselves.

Likewise, the president has to recognize that a successful Russia policy has to deliver more than slogans and summits. Again, summits are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. The president’s “Russian Reset” improved neither America’s global position nor America’s relations with Russia. Recall that in order to ink a questionable arms control treaty with Russia, the president upended NATO’s missile-defense plans in Europe and pulled the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic. Worried about Iran’s nukes, Europe had agreed to a NATO-wide missile defense system during the Bush administration. Obama’s reversal pleased the Russians, but it infuriated the Poles and Czechs. A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.” The Czech Republic rejected Washington’s revised plans as “a consolation prize.” 

The payoff of the Russian Reset: Vladimir Putin plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs (all in the next 10 years); launched Russia’s largest nuclear war games since the collapse of the Soviet Union; withdrew from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program; sent Russian bombers buzzing Baltic and North American airspace; blocked international action in Syria; and unilaterally claimed vast stretches of the Arctic.

Early in his first term, Obama envisioned “spheres of cooperation” between China and America. Beijing does not share the president’s vision. China unilaterally claims a vast swath of the South China Sea, including Japanese and Philippine territory—and routinely violates their waters and airspace. As if to underscore its seriousness, China boosted military spending by 11 percent this year, 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 ballistic missiles, counter-space weapons, bomber upgrades and submarines—assets focused on countering American power.

This helps explain another administration slogan. In 2009, Obama declared that “the United States does not seek to contain China.” But by 2011, he was unveiling his “Pacific Pivot” aimed at, well, containing China. Although a renewed focus on security in the Pacific is needed—Panetta says of Northeast Asia, “We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world”—one wonders how effective the “Pacific Pivot” will be given the administration’s defense cuts. Recall that the Pentagon was the first place the president turned when the debt crisis emerged. That led to $487 billion in cuts, including cuts to the Air Force of 286 planes, cuts in the number of surface combatants, cuts to the active-duty Army from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000, cuts to the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000, cuts in F-35s, F/A-18s, UH-60 helicopters, KC-46 refuelers, carriers and submarines. All of these cuts come before the looming sequestration cuts. The result of this shrinking military is an America with slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller role in the world.

The “receding tide of war,” “leading from behind,” “nation-building at home,” the “Russian Reset,” the “Pacific Pivot”—these words may make for effective rhetoric. But words don’t defend the national interest.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.