In President Obama’s sometimes maddeningly cautious foreign policy, you can see him struggling to answer what may be the hardest question of his presidency: How should the United States project power in a disorderly world without making the same mistakes it did in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Obama, whose deliberative approach often resembles that of a Supreme Court justice rather than a politician, has developed a conceptual framework for combating terrorism and instability. It looks good on paper. But the problem is that he hasn’t yet applied this framework successfully in dealing with the challenges that arose on his watch: civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria, and the emergence in Iraq of the Islamic State.
Obama is emphatic about what he doesn’t want to do. He wants to avoid “boots on the ground” with U.S. troops; he wants to avoid unilateral actions that isolate the United States; he prefers quiet partnerships that shield America and its allies from domestic political criticism. He is willing to use what amounts to targeted killing.
Instead of significant U.S. military intervention, Obama seeks a network of partnerships stretching from Morocco to South Asia. The United States would provide training and other support for the security services and militaries of nations across this belt. Where governance has vanished and terrorism reigns — as is the case now in parts of Syria and Iraq — the United States would fill the gaps, using surveillance drones, armed drones and Special Operations forces.
It’s a strategy in which Obama, despite his legalistic temperament, plays a role I’ve described as “covert commander in chief.” He relies on the two instruments of national power he most trusts: the CIA and its armed drones and “special activities,” overseen by Director John Brennan, one of his closest aides; and Special Operations Command’s “Global SOF Network,” developed by Adm. William McRaven, the architect of the Osama bin Laden raid and perhaps Obama’s favorite military adviser.
This framework has some obvious conceptual holes: It assumes that countries such as Libya and Yemen can be put back together and turned into functioning allies after near-death experiences. It extends partner status to countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which are perilously close to being autocratic dictatorships despite their long history of friendship with the United States. And it ignores altogether the role, positive or negative, of Iran.
Obama has posited the counterterrorism strategy in two major speeches, in May 2013 at the National Defense University and May 2014 at West Point. Further explanation was offered by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, deputy national security adviser and the closest thing he has to a chief strategist.
This “CT architecture,” as Rhodes calls it, sounds good in principle but is hard to accomplish. Just look at Syria: The United States has been debating covert support for the Syrian rebels since mid-2012; it has had an actual CIA-led training program since 2013, with little effect. It has sought to coordinate regional partners, in earnest, since last September, again with little effect. Meanwhile, a one-time al-Qaeda affiliate has morphed into a deadly adversary that controls one-third of Iraq and part of Syria.
The United States’ prospective partners seem wary of the role Obama envisions. Jordan fears blowback from the CIA covert program for Syria, and it likes even less a proposed overt version employing SOF trainers. Among the other countries that ring Iraq and Syria, you see similar skittishness or outright paralysis. It’s like trying to build a fortress out of putty. The enterprise would be difficult even for a president who was strong politically at home and abroad. For Obama, it may be impossible.
The best example of a mobilization similar to what Obama is imagining in his counterterrorism partnership was the global covert action launched by President Ronald Reagan against the Soviet Union. Under the generalship of CIA Director William Casey, the United States ran operations in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Poland, not to mention Afghanistan. But even Reagan and Casey stumbled (and eventually, retreated) when they confronted a few hundred disciplined terrorists in Lebanon. This isn’t as easy as it may sound, in other words.
Obama has the right concept in creating a global network of Special Operations forces and intelligence services that can combat the frightening evolution of al-Qaeda into new and potentially more toxic offshoots. But someone at the White House needs to drive this policy every day and make sure it’s happening on the ground, in Syria and Iraq and all the other potential ungoverned places on Obama’s new map.