Obama Isn’t Disengaged From the World—He Just Understands How Power Works Today

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Feb. 7 2014 12:27 PM

Obama Isn’t Disengaged From the World

He just has a better understanding of how power works in the modern world.

improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan.
Afghanistan awaits an uncertain fate as the troops head toward the exits there.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

There’s a strange notion out there that the dreary outcomes of the two wars this country fought all through the past decade—and the savage sectarian violence erupting across much of the Middle East and surrounding regions today—are due to President Obama’s “disengagement” from the world.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

It’s a strange notion because the United States is more engaged with the world than at any time in recent memory. There are nuclear talks in Iran (after 34 years of no talking whatsoever), an internationally supervised dismantling of chemical weapons in Syria, half-serious nudges toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace (an improvement over unbridled neglect), and a delicate approach to the Asia-Pacific that embraces China as a partner while containing its expansionist impulses (though this combination could bear more attention). Who knows how these efforts will pan out, but they’re hardly the signs of aloof disengagement.

What many of these critics don’t like about Obama—what they mistakenly, or misleadingly, call “disinterest”—is his disinclination to go to war. And who can blame him? Two years after the last American soldier left Iraq, the place is ablaze in sectarian conflict, hundreds of civilians dying every week. Afghanistan awaits an uncertain fate as the troops head toward the exits there.

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Some blame Obama for these failures, too. If only he’d kept a few thousand troops in Iraq and made an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan, they claim, the insurgents would be cowed, the central governments would be stable, and the people would be prosperous and secure.

To believe these claims requires a twisted view of the two wars and a deep misunderstanding of power in the modern world.

First, the wars. It’s maddening to have to repeat this fact over and over, but George W. Bush—not Barack Obama—negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which required the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. One clause allowed the deadline to be extended by the vote of both countries’ parliaments, but the Iraqi parliament wasn’t about to do any such thing. Obama dispatched emissaries, including one who’d also worked in the Bush White House, to see if some deal could be arranged. It couldn’t.

The re-eruption of sectarian violence has little to do with America’s withdrawal and everything to do with the oppressive rule of Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The whole point of the surge in U.S. troops and the switch to a counterinsurgency strategy, as led by Gen. David Petraeus, was to slash the violence, buy some time, and create a “zone of security,” so that Iraq’s political factions could form a durable, inclusive government. The problem was, and is, that Maliki had no interest in inclusiveness. He had no interest in sharing power with Sunni politicians, or bringing Sunni militias into the national army, or dividing oil revenues and settling land disputes with the Kurds. He was interested only in solidifying power for himself and his Shiite allies (at home and across the border). It was inevitable that the Sunnis would revolt—and that foreign jihadists would rush in to help, and exploit, their cause. This is an armed struggle for power—with an all-too-familiar script. If we couldn’t influence Maliki’s actions on this score when we had 100,000 troops in his country, we couldn’t have done so with 3,000 or 10,000.

A similar tale plagues Afghanistan. In the 12 years we’ve been fighting there (today’s new junior officers were in kindergarten when al-Qaida hijackers toppled the World Trade Center), the Afghan army has grown and improved; its special-ops forces are particularly good. But here too, the problem isn’t military; it’s political. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government lacks legitimacy and isn’t interested in reform. The Taliban have seeped into districts and provinces where his governors are either corrupt or ineffectual. Back in 2009, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to Congress that he could throw in a million more troops, and they wouldn’t have much effect if the central government remained corrupt. That equation hasn’t changed.

Which leads to the question of military intervention, broadly. Embedded in the portrait of Obama as a feckless world leader is an assumption that the United States—or any one nation—can solve a big problem by throwing troops at it. Bush threw 140,000 troops into Iraq, Obama threw an extra 64,000 into Afghanistan—and while each escalation yielded some tactical successes, neither of them settled the war’s cause or gave us lasting leverage to sway the local leader, whose very life was saved only by the terrible sacrifices American troops and taxpayers suffered.

No one country can shape the world the way it once did, because the world has grown less malleable. The turning point, in this regard, wasn’t 9/11 but 11/9—Nov. 9, 1989, the date the Berlin Wall fell, followed soon after by the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the Cold War. The Cold War was a time of dread, but it was also the dominant feature of global politics since the end of World War II. It set the alliances, rules, and measures of power that fostered and fed America’s rise.

With the system’s implosion came a global diffusion of power. Take Egypt. In the mid-1970s, when President Anwar Sadat broke away from the Soviet orbit, he turned to the United States—and, as a consequence, had to change his country’s policies on a number of issues, especially relations with Israel—because he had no choice; he needed protection from one superpower or the other. In today’s multipolar (or, in some ways, nonpolar) world, Egypt’s ruling generals can pursue their own interests as they see them, consorting with and dangling a number of countries. If our interests collide with theirs, no American president can do much to rein them in.

And so it goes with Iraq and Afghanistan. Maliki has his own agenda. It doesn’t align much with ours; it never did, a fact that some smart colonels and generals realized at the time. He sees our past alliance as one of convenience and has now moved on to other allies, including Iran—except, of course, when he needs arms and consulting advisers to stave off his old enemies, in which case he turns to us again, and we supply him with what we can. This is fine, when it’s also in our interests to resupply him, but there should be no illusions; there’s no point going back in deeper, even if the treaty allowed it, because, like the last time, we won’t be able to settle the war on our terms.

Obama seems to realize this. He too has an unsentimental outlook on the world. His views have been tempered by Iraq and scorched by Afghanistan. He’s not shy about using military force, but insists, when possible, to grip it tightly. “Escalation” is a suspect term; “uncontrolled escalation,” is an unacceptable one. As evidence, see Libya, Syria, drone strikes, and Stuxnet. One can admire or criticize the actions he’s taken, or not taken, in those crises or with those precision instruments. But they’re all preferable to sending in 100,000 troops in pursuit of a mission that we have no power to accomplish, even with all those men and women in arms. And if going into such conflicts lightly, or not at all, is the emblem of disengagement, let him wear it proudly.

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