How Obama Is Changing the Way the United States Wages War

Military analysis.
Oct. 19 2011 1:26 PM

The New Interventionism

How Obama is changing the way the United States wages war.

What is the path for American intervention in places such as Libya war going forward?
What is the path for American intervention in places such as Libya war going forward?

Photograph by Ahmad al-Rubaye.

The future face of American warfare is very likely on display now in Africa. Libya, the coast off Somalia, and now the borderlands of Uganda—it’s a fair bet that these theaters of conflict, far more than Iraq or Afghanistan, foretell the shape of our military adventures. What this suggests is a return to the “advise and assist” missions of the Cold War, with international terrorists (or, on occasion, particularly hideous thugs) replacing international Communism as the predominant threat.

There are risks, of course, that such missions can escalate to full-scale fighting, especially if the “advisers” are “combat-equipped” and authorized to shoot in self-defense—as is the case with the 100 advisers that President Obama recently sent to help the Ugandan government beat back the rapacious insurgents of the preposterously titled Lord’s Resistance Army. These risks, though, are minimized as long as our aims are well-defined, our presence is necessary (and, better still, requested), the scope of operations is sharply limited, and the costs aren’t too onerous.

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Obama is reportedly sensitive to the dangers of escalation, so it’s no surprise that his interventions, at least the ones he’s initiated, share precisely these traits. It’s too glib to speak of an “Obama doctrine,” as many of these traits will probably mark our interventions in the foreseeable future, almost regardless of who sits in the White House. (I italicize almost in a nod toward the current crop of Republican candidates, most of whom not only know little about the world but boast of their indifference.) This constraint stems less from any president’s personality than from two defining aspects of our era: sharply limited resources and a global political system in which “power blocs” have grown in number and shrunk in size. These two facts impede daydreams of glorious expansionism.

The interventions we’ve seen in the past year don’t neatly fit the familiar categories of “realist,” “moralist,” or “neoconservative.” Most of them were meant to help an ally (or at least a nonhostile government in a region of strategic interest) stave off a quite hostile, dangerous insurgency. A few (most notably Libya) were meant to help people resist their own government’s violent oppression.

Especially in the case of Libya, many Republicans gloated, and some Democrats despaired, that Obama took his cues from George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” But this wasn’t the case at all. Obama intervened to protect the Libyan people (and, implicitly, to assist their efforts to oust Qaddafi from power) only after a) the Arab League unanimously requested the protection—an unprecedented event—and b) the United Nations Security Council authorized military action.

Many on the right criticized Obama for not doing more, sooner. Some on the left criticized him for doing anything at all. But now that the fighting is all but over, the balance he struck—what he did and did not do—seems just about right. If he had done nothing, Qaddafi would still be in power and tens of thousands of Libyan civilians would almost certainly be dead. If he had done everything, we’d now be blamed for all the problems and stuck with the massive reconstruction bill—whereas in fact we’ll help pay for some of it, but, hey, the Europeans took the lead in war, and so they’ll have to take the lead in peace, too.

Where we go from here—not so much in Libya but in thinking about threats in the world and how to deal with them—is a question that has the military chiefs in a sweat, because whatever the answer, it almost certainly involves massive cuts in their budgets and their programs.

The Army and Marines in particular are facing an existential question they haven’t had to deal with since the end of the Cold War: What is their reason for being? Where can they claim, with straight faces, that they might need a few hundred thousand troops to fight a large-scale conventional war anytime soon? We’re leaving Iraq (by Iraqi law), we’re easing out of Afghanistan, we are not going to invade Iran (a country three times the size of Iraq and at least as hostile, even in the pro-Western cities, to the idea of foreign occupation), Russia is in no shape to re-create the Red Army (nor is Germany, Poland, or the Czech Republic eager to host its troops), and if we do someday get into a war with China, it’s going to be fought at sea and in the air; it certainly won’t be a ground war.

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