During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama often returned to his “mindset,” a frame of mind that led him to oppose the military undertaking in Iraq. He claimed to be focused on the peaceful resolution of conflict. According to that mindset, war should be considered only as a last resort.
You could say that the president's foreign policy has, on the whole, remained true to that mindset. His recent declaration about the situation in Iran testified to this. Obama asserted that “as president and commander in chief, I have a deeply held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I’ve seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency.”
The Commander in Chief
But Obama’s policy is a constant dialectic. Upon each of his declarations, he inevitably inserts an “on the other hand” or a “however.” So, in exchange for his rejection of the war in Iraq, he took it upon himself from the very outset to carry out a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. The American troops were engaged there immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, a response that was considered to be legitimate by most observers.
It was necessary to eradicate the Taliban regime that had sheltered the al-Qaida network and its leader, bin Laden. As much as he might be a pacifist, Obama knew very well that an American presidential candidate ought to seem like a future commander in chief who is determined to defend his country’s interest with military intervention when necessary. He was to fulfill this role with the war in Afghanistan and the capture of bin Laden.
Obama kept his promise to eliminate the al-Qaida leader and destroy the organization’s network in Afghanistan. Certainly, the cavalier methods used to finish off bin Laden have raised many questions. But these questions are very rarely posed in the United States, even among the liberal media. For the American public, it was one of the president’s greatest foreign policy successes. You could say that bin Laden’s capture was perceived as his presidency’s major test, the one in which he was able to prove his mettle, as his entourage likes to point out. It was a major asset for his re-election campaign.
As far as the interminable war against the Taliban on Afghan soil is concerned, though, Obama must acknowledge his dismal failure. We can hardly recognize that mindset that makes him renounce violence when violence doesn’t even seem necessary. The president must bitterly regret having yielded to pressures from his entourage, especially from Gen. McChrystal, who would later mock him. It was autumn of 2009 when McChrystal suggested a “surge” that required sending additional troops to assure victory. After much reflection, Obama agreed to send 30,000 more soldiers while simultaneously pledging to begin a withdrawal during the summer of 2011. It was, in his own words, the most difficult decision of his presidency.
Winning Hearts and Minds?
According to the official doctrine — and, notably, that of a manual authored by Gen. Petraeus — you must commit yourself resolutely to the conquest of “hearts and minds,” rather than to the systematic repression of the enemy. According to the leaders of the military intervention, it was more about building villages than eliminating the members of the Taliban.
Doubt was already cast over the virtues of this strategy as early as in 2009. Considering the training that the American soldiers received, one might wonder how those professional killers were suddenly going to turn into gentle missionaries. How could those “born to kill” transform themselves into diplomats?
The three recent blunders — whose rapid succession hardly seems coincidental — have definitively spelled out the failure of the new strategy in Afghanistan. Despite all their good will, the American soldiers and their NATO allies have always been seen as invaders, just like in Vietnam and just like in Iraq…. In this, the longest war in the history of the United States, local nationalism causes the foreign soldiers to be seen first and foremost as imperialists. The Taliban, as despicable as they might be, seem like patriots.
Even President Karzai, who has reason to fear the longevity of his corrupt regime, has seen fit to denounce the American soldiers as “demons” right along with the Taliban.
It is undoubtedly a humiliating defeat for Obama, who had wanted to consider the intervention as a just war. Even negotiations with the Taliban no longer seem feasible given the current context. The only possibility left seems to be an accelerated withdrawal in hopes of saving face and avoiding a conflagration.
Free of Military Engagement
The Democratic president’s re-election campaign shouldn’t significantly suffer. The Republicans, who are always more militaristic than the Democrats, will have difficulty attributing this defeat to Obama’s conciliatory style. As opposed to the operation in Libya, which is considered as an overall success, the American leadership in Afghanistan has never been discreet.
If he is returned to power, Obama will at least be able to console himself with the prospect of ending his rule free of any notable military engagements and in accordance with his doctrine that seeks to limit interventions. This is on the condition, of course, that he does not see fit to intervene in Iran. And that is a condition that is far from being assured.