The reality of Obama as wartime president

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One of the cruelest ironies in the age of Obama is that the President (the putative Energizer Bunny of engagement, diplomacy and peace) may well spend much more of his time as a wartime leader.

And the abortive Christmas Day attack against a Northwest flight bound for Detroit painfully reminds us that the most important war of all, whatever you choose to call it, is the war against those who seek to inflict catastrophic harm on the United States.

Some dismiss the severity of the threat; others argue that the war against terror can’t hold American foreign policy hostage. Still, unlike the previous Administration’s policies in Iraq and even this one’s in Afghanistan, this war is neither driven by choice or discretion. It is truly a war of necessity, a strategic imperative that we need to do a lot better job conceptualizing and fighting.

Despite his opponents efforts to portray him as soft on the terror war (for many Republicans Obama is Satan’s finger on Earth, regardless of the issue), the President knows that the organizing premise of any nation’s foreign policy is protection of the homeland. If you can’t protect your homeland, well, you really don’t need a foreign policy.

For most of our history, America has been the most fortunate of nations in this regard. To our north and south, we have non-predatory neighbors; to our east and west we have fish, what one historian called our liquid assets. No more. We’re now more vulnerable to outside attack than at any point in our history. It is remarkable to consider that our hot war with al-Qaida produced more harm to Americans in the continental United States than 60 years of cold war with the Russians. Indeed, 9/11 was the second bloodiest day in American history surpassed only by another catastrophic September day during the battle of Antietam in 1862.

In this war, like the cold war a generational enterprise, there’s a front end and a back end problem.

On the front end, we have tried to take the fight to al-Qaida and its affiliates: in Iraq (wrong war executed poorly); in Afghanistan in 2001 right war executed poorly); and in other garden spots, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan using less conventional means. The goal has been to deny the terrorists sanctuary; disrupt their training, flow of money, to kill their cadre, and to strengthen host governments capacity to do the same with security, intelligence, and economic assistance.

The chances of winning the back end part of this war are probably slim to none. We may be able to do better; but we’re severely limited by corrupt and extractive regimes whose primary interest (no surprise there) is their security and survival, not ours. They preside over failed or failing states with large inaccessible terrain and a tribal political culture that provide all kinds of advantages to terrorist groups.

We clearly can’t concede the front end war to the bad guys, but we do need to consider the relationship between means and ends, given the limits to our resources. The President’s policy in Afghanistan is case in point We may have other reasons for being there; but it’s by no means clear how 30,000 additional forces and billions more will help fix our al-Qaida problem. After all, it wasn’t a bunch of guys running around training with AK-47s in Tora Bora that produced 9/11; it was weaknesses in our own intelligence and training in US flight schools that ultimately did the damage. No training on airplanes; no entry into the US, no 9/11. And as the abortive Christmas attack showed, al-Qaida can operate from other places.

This brings us of course to the back end problem. If we can’t control Yemeni, Pakistani or Afghan governments and intelligence services, we certainly should be able to control our own.

I’m sure that the technology, bells, whistles and other gizmos of the intelligence trade have vastly improved since I was an intelligence analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State; but I also can guarantee you that the systemic back end problems in the intelligence community, particularly in CIA, that existed twenty years ago are still there: turf wars over who owns and can see what intel; young analysts, particularly with the terrorism brief, who are eager but inexperienced; bureaucratic obstacles that don’t encourage them to take risks, look for integrative patterns without hard facts, and the absence of a do or die 24/7 mentality that turns the job of analyst into an obsession that matches that of the people trying to hurt us.

Too tough on the intelligence community? After all, we must be doing something right since we haven’t been attacked successfully (maybe Ft. Hood disapproves that) in nine years. Maybe things aren’t that bad. They are; we’ve been dodging bullets. Whatever else you can say about the Bush 43 Administration’s foreign policy (and there’s plenty to criticize) the last guys left town without a single successful attack against. the continental United States. Unless we’re smarter on the front end and more diligent on the back, President Obama (and the rest of us) may not be as fortunate.

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center.