Shadow Government

Celebrate a Tactical Success, Team Obama -- But Don't Think That Means the Strategy Is Working

The president was struggling domestically but especially globally. The daily headlines were delivering a daily rebuke of his signature policy in Iraq, and pressure was growing to accept that perhaps the strategy, long defended by the White House from partisan critics, might actually be failing. Challenges elsewhere in the region, especially in Iran, continued to compete for attention and, indeed, the Secretary of State had proposed a bold new approach to Iran, one that might change the dynamics in long-stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear policy. 

Then, just when it looked like the president's national security team might fundamentally rethink the regional strategy, they received some welcome good news: U.S. special forces had finally got the terrorist leader they had been hunting for years. It was a bold tactical success, just the respite a beleaguered president needed at a crucial time. 

In light of this good news, it would be oh-so-tempting to think that perhaps the original strategy would work after all. Perhaps a fundamental rethink was not needed. But that would prove to be mistaken. At least, it proved to be mistaken in May-June 2006, when the events described in the above two paragraphs occurred.

Obviously, those two paragraphs also have an eerie resemblance to the last couple weeks. President Obama's Iraq strategy has manifestly failed, and the Iran situation is more complicated than ever. Then, just when it seemed that he would never get any good news on the national security front, President Obama was able to announce that U.S. special forces units had captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the leaders of the terrorist attack in Benghazi in September 2012. This is undoubtedly a tactical success and should be celebrated as such. We should also be glad that the raid reminds terrorists that the United States will not allow them to murder Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, with impunity.

However, we can also learn something from the parallels to that earlier time, June 2006, when the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, raised hope within the Bush administration that perhaps the trajectory in Iraq could be reversed by trying harder to implement the existing strategy. In retrospect, the welcome news of getting Zarqawi breathed new life in the Iraq strategy, perhaps even delaying the internal review that eventually led to the successful surge strategy.

The temptation for President Obama's team to be likewise distracted by this tactical success is strong, but, I hope, resistible. For starters, they must realize that capturing Khattala, welcome though it is, does very little to improve the situation in Libya and virtually nothing whatsoever to improve the situation in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the situation in Syria and Iraq is arguably more dire today than even in late spring 2006, when the sectarian violence started to spiral out of the control of U.S. forces and beyond the reach of the then-prevailing U.S. strategy. Surely the administration must understand that the Khattala news, welcome though it is, buys only the briefest of respites, if that.

There are signs that the Obama administration understands that their regional strategy is failing -- some responsible critics would go further and say it has completely failed.  I hope the satisfaction of capturing one terrorist leader does not distract them from reviewing why their larger strategy is failing, and figuring out what they can do to salvage U.S. national security interests before it is too late.


Shadow Government

The Loyal Opposition and the Global Maelstrom

The series of crises buffeting the global order is creating such a maelstrom that each week's emergency quickly becomes last week's forgotten headline. Every few days seem to bring a head-snapping change in geographic direction. The last three months alone have seen tensions over China's atavistic assertions of imperial privilege in East Asia; Russia's forcible rearrangement of borders at Eurasia's hinge point in Ukraine; the emergence of Boko Haram as a first-order terrorist threat in western Africa; American signals of retreat and unprecedented concessions to the Taliban in Afghanistan; and now the real threat that ISIS might succeed in creating a jihadist colony across large swaths of land formerly governed by Syria and Iraq, in the process potentially disintegrating the fragile Iraqi state and launching the broader Middle East into a catastrophic Sunni-Shia war. 

All of this can be chalked up as the predicted consequences of several years of mistaken policies. At this juncture nearly six years into the presidency, President Obama seems to be defying some historical patterns, and not in a flattering way.  While most presidents learn in office and gradually improve in their handling of national security policy, this president appears to be regressing, making even more mistakes in his second term than in his first (it must be noted that "mistakes" can be choices of inaction as well as action). While most presidents spend more time and attention on foreign policy in their second terms, this president appears even less interested in foreign policy now than in his first years in office. While most presidents in time come to a more equanimous assessment of their predecessors, this president and his inner circle still appear to be obsessed with the faults (real and imagined) of the George W. Bush administration.

Outside of some die-hard partisans and academic ideologues, there are hardly any foreign policy experts who think the White House is handling these global crises well -- and those critics include more than a few frustrated policymakers currently working in the administration. The insiders know better than anyone else what it is like to be hamstrung by the poor choices and lack of leadership emanating from the Oval Office.

The Obama administration is conducting a bold but risky experiment: what would happen if the United States chose a policy of "retrenchment" and "restraint" (to use the labels favored by some proponents) from international leadership?  Judging by the results thus far, this experiment is likely to prove disastrous to our national interests.     

In recent conversations with a number of my former Bush administration colleagues, I hear a consistent frustration, anger, even sadness over the damage being done to America's interests and global standing by the Obama administration's foreign policy. And while we may also feel an occasional sense of intellectual vindication that our earlier warnings are being borne out, that is subsumed by the deep grief we feel over our nation's dire straits. In our role as the "loyal opposition," we are Americans first and Republicans second, and want desperately for the United States under this or any president to do well in the world. 

I am reminded of a meeting in the spring of 2007 I participated in at the White House, convened by my then-boss, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley with a group of senior Democratic foreign policy experts. It was shortly after President Bush had announced the "surge" in Iraq, amidst cratered approval ratings and much bipartisan criticism. Mindful that the presidential election season was just getting underway, Hadley began the meeting by reminding everyone present that "all of us, from both parties, have an interest in Iraq being in a more stable and secure place by January 2009 when the next president is sworn in." It was a sobering and clarifying moment. To their credit, the Democratic experts offered some helpful policy suggestions and agreed on the need to support a constructive path forward for Iraq.  (In an unfortunate contrast, then-Senator Hillary Clinton vocally opposed the surge for what she later admitted were purely partisan reasons to appeal to her party's anti-war base). 

Which brings us back to today's troubles. Republicans will continue to offer our critiques and our constructive policy suggestions for the Obama administration. If and when the administration makes wise choices, we will support them.  Because all of us, of both parties, have an interest in strategic regions becoming more stable and secure places.