In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.
Here is how Bergen makes his case:
Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The first thing that jumps out at me from this litany is that there is a lot of double-counting involved. There are seven discrete claims in this paragraph. Of these all but two–overthrowing Qaddafi and increasing American troop numbers in Afghanistan–relate to pinpoint CIA and/or Special Operations strikes against al-Qaeda leaders. No question, Obama has stepped up the program of covert drone strikes he inherited from Bush. And, also, no question, he authorized a risky raid to kill bin Laden. He deserves full credit for these steps, but it is also worth noting that they are not terribly difficult steps for an American president to take in the post-9/11 climate. Who, aside from some extreme ACLU types, actually opposes doing whatever we can to kill the leaders of a terrorist network responsible for the worst terrorist attack in history? There have been debates about the wisdom of particular operations–many senior officials opposed sending SEALs after bin Laden, favoring instead dropping a bomb on his head–but on the overall rightness of the campaign there is little dissension in the mainstream of American politics.
Much riskier would be to expand the drone strikes to groups, such as the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network, which have not targeted the American homeland and are openly supported by our supposed ally Pakistan. This Obama has largely not done, which helps to explain why Islamist terrorist organizations such as the Haqqanis (responsible for killing lots of Americans in Afghanistan) continue to get stronger, even as al-Qaeda’s central core shrinks.
What of Bergen’s other claims? Yes, Obama deserves credit for more than tripling the number of American forces in Afghanistan. But he has also sharply time-limited their involvement, and he has begun withdrawing them faster than militarily prudent, which undercuts the effectiveness of his initial policies and suggests a deep-seated ambivalence on the part of this brainy former law professor. However steely in the battle against al-Qaeda, he has not been an unwavering war leader in the battle against the Taliban and Haqqani network; he has hardly even bothered to speak to the public to rally support for this war effort.
Obama also deserves credit for intervening to topple Qaddafi although his desire to “lead from behind” made the campaign more costly (for Libyans) and more protracted than it need have been, and our lack of follow through may yet doom Libya to years of chaos and in-fighting. Bergen contrasts Obama’s quick action in Libya with President Clinton’s two-year delay before acting in Bosnia. But what of Obama’s year-long delay in Syria where the killing goes on–and we are in serious danger of missing a major opportunity to shift the strategic balance in the Levant in our favor? There Obama’s actions are sadly reminiscent of Clinton’s–he, too, is marrying strong words (Bashar Assad must go, he has said) with weak actions that rely on ineffectual UN monitors.
And what of Obama’s pull-out from Iraq after he did not try terribly hard to negotiate an agreement that would allow our troops to stay? That jeopardizes a war effort that made impressive gains, but it goes unmentioned in Bergen’s op-ed.
There is also little or no mention in Bergen’s article of North Korea, where Obama just tried and failed to conclude the latest ill-advised attempt to bribe the regime into stopping its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs; of Iran, where Obama opposed strong sanctions on the Central Bank that were ultimately passed by Congress, and where he has tried to pressure Israel not to strike while all but ruling out the use of American force against this dangerous nuclear program; of Israel, whose leaders Obama has pressured into halts to West Bank settlements while not exerting comparable pressure on the Palestinians to make peace; or of Eastern European nations which have felt abandoned by Obama’s “reset” with Russia and his cancellation of missile interceptors that were to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Finally, Bergen ignores Obama’s support for crippling cuts in our defense budget–nearly $500 billion in cuts was legislated last summer with Obama’s support and another $600 billion or so of cuts could start to hit in January if sequestration, which Obama supports, takes place. Obama’s own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned that those cuts could have “catastrophic” consequences for the armed forces yet Obama has done nothing so far to head them off.
These are hardly the actions of a hawkish commander-in-chief. (At least in my view as a Romney defense adviser.) Yet the reality of Obama’s foreign and defense policy, which especially because the death of bin Laden has turned notably more dovish, has been obscured by the president’s attempt to focus most of the public’s attention on his drone strikes and commando raids on al-Qaeda.