President Obama will go down in history as the first president in US history to oversee two terms of perpetual war. Mind you, it’s not declared war, but it is war in every other sense.
Additionally, the next president will take office under conditions that are worse by most metrics in the foreign policy space. Even if we confine our focus to the Middle East alone, the list of heightened problems is quite robust:
- Terrorist attacks against Western targets have become more frequent
- Iraq is somehow in a state of greater chaos than it was before, having lost control entirely of large swaths of the country
- Libya, Yemen, and Syria have been added to the portfolio of failed states thanks to US policy
- Two terrorist groups (ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria) hold enough territory to be considered mini-statelets, and
- Afghanistan remains as unstable as ever, with the Taliban holding more land than they’ve had at any other point since the US overthrew them.
It didn’t have to be this way.
President Obama initially took office on a wave of sentiment that was at least opposed to the Iraq War. This proved to be one of the decisive issues of the 2008 election and primary. But while President Obama did follow the withdrawal timeline accidentally established by President George W. Bush (by failing to negotiate a longer status of forces agreement), he was unable to exercise the leadership necessary to prevent the US from returning only a few years later. In the interim, President Obama proved that he had learned nothing from the Iraq War, as the interventions in Libya and Syria (covert in this case) carried the same risks and were implemented anyway. In turn, these interventions helped precipitate the very problems that were used to justify renewed US military involvement in Iraq to bring us up to our present condition.
This brief history helps give us a window into Obama’s most recent policy adjustments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama’s use of military force has never proved helpful, and most of it has proved positively destructive. Yet in spite of this, he continues to rely on it. In Iraq, the US recently announced its adding hundreds more ground troops, still without any debate on the subject. In Afghanistan, President Obama reduced a planned withdrawal by nearly 2,900 American troops, and NATO, in a decision which must have been significantly influenced by the US, recently committed to four more years of support for the Afghan government.
What’s most noteworthy about these decisions is that they stand no chance whatsoever of making a major difference in either war. Doing so would require another round of troop surges, which are politically expensive and cannot create the conditions for long-term stability in any case. The experience under President Obama proves this, as Iraq shortly descended into chaos after the “successful” surge under Bush and Obama’s own surge in Afghanistan provided similarly disappointing results.
It appears that the Obama administration has finally internalized that winning these conflicts, whatever we may mean by that, is not attainable using military force. Instead, the recent decisions are just stopgap measures to ensure a full collapse doesn’t happen during the remainder of the President’s term in office. Like most foreign policy decisions, these actions are not motivated by a coherent strategy for addressing either conflict. They are motivated primarily by domestic political concerns. The priority here is not about protecting Afghans or Iraqis; it’s just about protecting the President’s legacy and his party’s electoral chances in the fall.