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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.


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