In retrospect, most of what Barack Obama has been doing—and not doing—in response to the Arab Spring was foreshadowed by a debate between Gen. David Petraeus and Joe Biden back in 2009. Petraeus, you’ll remember, wanted to dramatically expand America’s counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. He didn’t just want 40,000 more troops. In conjunction with Hillary Clinton, he also wanted a vast “civilian surge,” swarms of American agricultural experts, engineers, and diplomats who would fan out into the Afghan countryside and do the hard work of nation building on which the Bush administration had skimped.
Biden pushed back hard. Nation building in a country as destitute and decentralized as Afghanistan, he argued, was hopeless. Besides, the Taliban didn’t threaten America; al Qaeda did. And America could handle al Qaeda with a small number of Special Operations troops on the ground supporting an aggressive, drone-dominated campaign from the air. Biden called it “counterterrorism plus.”
Initially, Obama split the difference, sending more troops to Afghanistan than Biden wanted but fewer than Petraeus had urged and setting a deadline to begin removing them within a year. But by the summer of 2011, when the first troops began returning home, it was clear Biden had won. By then, barely anyone in Washington was still talking enthusiastically about rebuilding Afghanistan. The White House had lost faith in Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. The Taliban showed little sign of collapse. The GOP, rejuvenated by its success in the 2010 midterms, was demanding massive budget cuts that rendered an ambitious new commitment to Afghanistan utopian. Richard Holbrooke, the super-diplomat Clinton had deputized to mastermind the civilian effort, was dead.
But Biden’s triumph wasn’t limited to Afghanistan. In the two years since, it’s become clear that his formula—avoid costly meddling on the ground; kill terrorists from the air—has become the template for Obama’s approach to the entire Arab world. Since the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Obama has tried to keep America’s public profile and financial expenditures low. He resisted a push from Britain, France, and some in Congress for a no-fly zone in Libya before finally supporting an air assault that he insisted last “days, not weeks.” And even upon announcing military action, he stressed: “The change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the United States or any foreign power. Ultimately, it will be driven by the people of the Arab world.”
On Syria, Obama last year resisted a push by Petraeus and Clinton—and later the leaders of Britain and France—to begin arming the rebels. And although that effort has now begun, he’s still refusing John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s calls for a no-fly zone. On Egypt, the White House has limited aid without publicly saying so.
It’s not fair to call Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring passive. The U.S. did eventually intervene militarily in Libya. It tried valiantly to broker a compromise between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. John Kerry has invested his time and prestige heavily in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although it’s not clear the president is nearly as eager to invest his.
Still, the White House sees its legacy less as driving political change in the Arab world—something it considers beyond America’s capacity—than in ensuring that political change doesn’t bog down the United States. Obama’s repeated references to Dwight Eisenhower, the man who kept the Cold War cold for nearly a decade in the 1950s, offer a glimpse into what he’d like his foreign-policy epitaph to be: “Ended two wars. Rebuilt the domestic foundation of American power.”
The White House sees its legacy less as driving political change in the Arab world than in ensuring that political change doesn’t bog down the United States.
But the irony is that even as Obama has scaled back American ambitions to reshape Middle Eastern politics on the ground, he’s amped up America’s anti-terror campaign from the air. In his first term, Obama dramatically expanded drone strikes in Pakistan (although the numbers now seem to be coming down) and established a sprawling network of bases from which to launch attacks in the Sahara, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian peninsula. As a Washington Post investigation put it, “Beneath its commitment to soft-spoken diplomacy and beyond the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has significantly expanded a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups.”
It’s easy to understand the logic. Drones and special forces offer a way to keep jihadists on the defensive at lower cost, in both American money and American lives, than the Petraeus counterinsurgency model. Politically, they’re perfect for an era in which Americans have tired of the “war on terror.” And while some liberals and libertarians have begun squawking about the legality and morality of the Obama-Biden strategy of “counterterrorism plus,” the critics remain far less politically potent than the hawks who would eviscerate Obama if he eased up on al Qaeda and then oversaw another terrorist attack. For an unsentimental guy like Obama, it’s a relatively easy call. Most other politicians would do the same.
Still, it’s worth noting the vast gulf between Obama’s current strategy and the hopes he nurtured when he took office. His supporters imagined he’d rebuild the civilian instruments of American power. Today they are weaker than ever. They thought he’d recommit America to international institutions and international law. His counterterrorism strategy largely disregards both. They believed he’d rebuild trust between America and the Muslim world. In a speech in 2007, Obama imagined a poor Muslim child looking up at an American helicopter and promised: “I will speak directly to that child who looks up at that helicopter, and my message will be clear: ‘You matter to us. Your future is our future.’” Today that child, if she sees American aircraft in the skies overhead, is likely to fear for her life.
Given the harsh realities of America’s declining power overseas and its treacherous national security politics at home, perhaps all this was inevitable. Perhaps Obama had no choice but to embrace Bidenism. Which is only to say that if he bears some of the responsibility for the “global Afghanistan” strategy he is pursuing across the Muslim world, the rest of us do too.