Barack Obama inherited a poisonous state of military affairs from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Although Iraq is distinguished as being a war of “choice” and Afghanistan as one of “necessity,” Obama promised a withdrawal from both. The first withdrawal has already taken place, and has surely been much more honorable than Obama could have ever imagined. The withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t save the disaster that was the invasion, validate the subsequent loss of lives, nor leave behind a stable democracy, but it does allow a new page to be turned, reduce budgetary costs in a time of crisis and, above all, allow the Obama administration to focus on its true strategic objective: Asia-Pacific.
The second withdrawal is also in effect: It has a military date (2014) and some political deadlines that, good or bad, seem to be helping it along. Negotiating with the same Taliban members that backed bin Laden doesn’t seem like the best way to close 9/11, but from Washington’s point of view there are no better alternatives. As a result, although it plants many doubts, the consent of Washington to the opening of an office of Taliban interests in Qatar signifies that Obama’s exit will not be a victorious one, but only honorable at best, with neither victory nor defeat (this, however, with a very uncertain legacy, given Karzai’s weakness).
Whether or not he wants it to, the military record of this Nobel Peace Prize president doesn’t stop here. While Obama was distancing himself from Bush’s legacy, he became entangled in three low-intensity military conflicts, as if it were impossible for a president to avoid the magnetic influence of the immense military power the United States put at his disposition.
Obama’s first war has been without a doubt Pakistan, where the president has called for a radical increase in bombing operations in the country’s northeastern territories since coming into office. This bombing campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban leaders based there (which would have meant the death of 1,500 activists) has required, day after day, the twisting of arms of Pakistani politicians and military leaders who are generally reluctant to allow the presence and activities of Americans in their territory. After 26 Pakistani soldiers died as a result of a recent raid by the U.S. (and with the memory of the humiliation suffered as a consequence of the operation to kill bin Laden still fresh), the Pakistani government has suspended permission for the CIA to use the Shamsi base to run drone aircraft operations. That’s why, although this war is linked to Afghanistan and could very well continue once the withdrawal is carried out, its end is largely uncertain.
Obama’s second war formed in the skies of Libya. Obama said that he was sitting “in the backseat,” letting the French and English handle the war, but what’s certain is that, once again, the United States’ participation was absolutely the deciding factor, to the point that the Europeans wouldn’t have been able to sustain the campaign beyond the first few days. The war was no secret, but it was left in the shadows, given Obama’s wish not to visibly involve the United States in another war against a Muslim country.
Obama’s third war is coming together, it seems, in a turn to Iran. The 8,000 displaced American Air Forces in Israel in the past few days offer a very clear response to the news of Iran enriching its uranium above the levels of its required civil usage. What’s more, the string of attacks against Iranian scientists, although supposedly carried out by third party players, likely any who oppose Iranians, the Israeli Intelligence Service or, why not — Saudi Arabia or others that also consider Iran’s nuclear program a great threat — is not something that could happen without the consent — albeit implicit — of the United States. Added to the tension generated by the sanctions of Iran’s oil sector and the threats from Tehran over the Strait of Hormuz, everything indicates that the players involved have decided to raise their bets and, consequently, the possibilities of an open conflict.
Until now, just like Bush, Obama hasn’t hesitated to employ the force necessary to defend what he perceives are the interests of the United States. But in contrast to Bush, he’s always preferred to use the least visible force possible, not compromising ground troops and allowing others to assume the role of the protagonist. To date, Obama’s wars have been of low intensity: But as 2012 progresses, things may change.