To understand Barack Obama's Afghanistan decision, it's instructive to go back to one history-shifting sentence, uttered by his predecessor more than eight years ago. It was Sept. 20, 2001. The nation was in agony, and George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress, telling Americans where to direct their rage. "Americans are asking, 'Who attacked our country?'" Bush declared early in his remarks. "The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaeda."
Had Bush stopped there, everything would be different today. But a few minutes later, he made this fateful pivot: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there." After that, Bush mentioned terror, terrorists or terrorism 18 times more. But he didn't mention alQaeda again. When he returned to Congress a few months later for his January 2002 State of the Union address, he cited Hamas, Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, North Korea, Iran and Iraq and employed variations of the word terror 34 times. But he mentioned al-Qaeda only once.
For Obama, this is the original sin whose consequences must now be repaired. His foreign policy in the greater Middle East amounts to an elaborate effort to peel back eight years of onion in hopes of finding the war on terrorism's lost inner core: the struggle against al-Qaeda and alQaeda alone. That's the subtext underlying his new Afghan strategy. He's raising troop levels, but less to vanquish the Taliban than to gain the leverage to effectively negotiate with them — in hopes of isolating alQaeda from its Afghan allies. He's boosting America's means but narrowing its ends. The same logic underlies his outreach to Iran and Syria and his rhetoric about groups like Hizballah and Hamas. Obama's not trying to end the war on terrorism, but he is trying to downsize it — so that it doesn't overwhelm the U.S.'s capacities and crowd out his other priorities.
Obama's foreign policy, in fact, looks a lot like Richard Nixon's in the latter years of Vietnam, which sought to scale down another foreign policy doctrine — containment — that had gotten out of hand. And Nixon's experience offers both a warning and an example: pulling back from your predecessor's overblown commitments can be vital. The risk is that it can make you look weak or immoral, or both.
The End of Omnipotence
Obama's effort to downsize the war on terrorism is partly a function of personality and mostly a function of circumstance. George W. Bush loathed what he called "small ball." He saw both his father's presidency and Bill Clinton's as inconsequential and yearned to invest his own with world-historical significance. After 9/11, he immediately began comparing the war on terrorism to World War II and the Cold War — a global, generation-defining struggle against an enemy of vast military and ideological power that would transform whole chunks of the world.
Obama, by contrast, doesn't need to go hunting for grand challenges. From preventing a depression to providing universal health care to stopping global warming, he has them in spades. Bush could afford to define the war on terrorism broadly because he didn't think anything going on at home was nearly as important. Obama, on the other hand, must find space (and money) for what he sees as equally grave domestic threats. Bush loved the ominous, elastic noun terrorism. Obama, according to an analysis by Politico, has publicly uttered the words health and economy twice as often as terrorism, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan combined. Even his decision to temporarily send more troops to Afghanistan was framed as a way to allow the U.S. to eventually disengage from the war.
Obama is also shrinking the war on terrorism because, although he won't say so out loud, he's scaled back Bush's assessment of American power. When Bush invaded Iraq, the U.S. was coming off a decade of low-cost military triumphs — from Panama in 1989 to the Gulf War in 1991 to Bosnia in 1995 to Kosovo in 1999. And back then, Afghanistan looked like a triumph too. It was easy to believe that the U.S. Military — through a combination of force and threats of force — could prevail over a slew of hostile regimes and movements at the same time. And it was easy to believe that the U.S. could afford these military adventures, particularly for conservatives like Dick Cheney, who famously declared that "deficits don't matter." Finally, in the wake of communism's collapse and the spread of democracy throughout the developing world, hawks tended to see dictatorships as brittle, devoid of popular support. This epic faith in the U.S.'s military, economic and ideological power fueled Bush's decision to define the war on terrorism as the U.S. against the field. It was like the way Americans once talked about Olympic basketball: we were so much better than all the others that they might as well combine into one opposing team so we could take them all on at the same time.
These days the U.S. doesn't look quite so omnipotent. Insurgents in Iraq and now Afghanistan have learned how to throw sand in our war-fighting machine. Economically, our gaping deficits are making it harder to run the war on terrorism on a blank check. And ideologically, violent, illiberal movements like Hamas, Hizballah and the Taliban have proved that they have deeper roots in native soil than the Bushies assumed. At West Point, Obama said he would not "set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests." Bush never spoke in that language of limits.
So Obama is trying to make a virtue of necessity. Since the U.S. can't defeat all terrorism-supporting movements and regimes, he's arguing that it doesn't have to, since most of them are not committing terrorism against us. As Bruce Riedel, who ran Obama's initial Afghanistan and Pakistan review, puts it, "He's going after the organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and before and since rather than pursuing a vague and murky war on terrorism everywhere." Team Obama has junked the phrase war on terror, not to mention Islamofascism. And the World War II and Cold War analogies have mostly ceased. Even in Afghanistan, Obama has sharply narrowed the U.S.'s goals. While still aiming to "defeat al-Qaeda," we're now trying only to "reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government." In other words, we'll tolerate Taliban control over large chunks of the Afghan countryside.
Narrowing the Struggle
Practically, this exercise in subtraction starts with Iran. By defining the U.S.'s enemy as "terror," Bush implied that Iran was as big a problem as al-Qaeda. After all, Tehran's mullahs began sponsoring terrorism before al-Qaeda was even born. In so doing, Bush made normal relations with the Islamic Republic virtually impossible. While he didn't actually declare war on Tehran, he initiated the coldest of cold wars: threats of force, no diplomacy and an ideological campaign aimed at making the regime crack.
In Obama's narrower struggle against al-Qaeda, however, a cold war with Tehran makes little sense. For all its nastiness, the Iranian regime doesn't direct its terrorism against the U.S. And Iran's Shi'ite theocrats have a mostly hostile relationship with the anti-Shi'ite theocrats of al-Qaeda. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has caused trouble for the U.S. largely out of fear that if the U.S. prevails in those countries, Iran will be next. But the Obama Administration seems to believe that if the U.S. can convince Iran's regime that it's not next, Washington and Tehran can cooperate to achieve their common goal in Afghanistan and Iraq: smashing al-Qaeda.
The U.S.-Iranian cold war has shown some signs of a thaw, Tehran's continued defiance of world opinion on its nuclear program notwithstanding. Obama has begun the highest-level diplomatic engagement with Tehran in 30 years and refrained from calling for the overthrow of the regime, even amid mass Iranian protests last summer aimed at accomplishing exactly that. Media coverage of the diplomatic dance between Washington and Tehran focuses on Iran's nuclear program, but by pursuing a fundamentally different relationship with the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration is also quietly conceding that Iran's militancy is different from the terrorism of al-Qaeda, an organization that no U.S. diplomat would ever sit across a table from.
And even as it works to remove Iran from the U.S.'s post-9/11 enemies list, the Obama Administration is trying something similar with another traditional Middle Eastern irritant, Syria. Under George W. Bush, Syria got the cold war treatment as well: rhetorical belligerence, veiled military threats, a withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador. Under Obama, by contrast, Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been to Damascus, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister has been to Washington, and the rhetoric has become noticeably less hostile.
The best precedent for all this is what Nixon did in the late Vietnam years. For roughly two decades, the U.S. had been trying to contain "communism" — another ominous, elastic noun that encompassed a multitude of movements and regimes. But Vietnam proved that this was impossible: the U.S. didn't have the money or might to keep communist movements from taking power anywhere across the globe. So Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn't stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that's what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he's making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It's too soon to know whether Obama's game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he's gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.'s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.
Lurking behind Obama's different view of Iran and Syria is a different view of the terrorist movements they support: Hizballah and Hamas. For Bush, the only distinction among Hizballah, Hamas and al-Qaeda was that the first two terrorized Israelis, not Americans, and since Israel was the U.S.'s close ally, that was no difference at all. But the Obama Administration has hinted at a different perspective: a recognition that unlike al-Qaeda, Hizballah and Hamas are nationalist movements with deep roots in their particular societies. That means that unlike al-Qaeda, they can't simply be destroyed. Rather, the goal must be to transform them from military organizations into purely political and social ones, as happened with the Irish Republican Army. The U.S. might still dislike their Islamist, anti-Western, anti-Israeli agenda, but as Obama said in an interview with the Arab-owned news channel al-Arabiya during his first week in office, he would be "very clear in distinguishing between organizations ... that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who ... have a [different] viewpoint [from the U.S.'s] in terms of how their countries should develop." Hizballah and Hamas would have to transform themselves to gain U.S. recognition, but while Bush's goal was to smash the two movements, Obama's seems to be to nudge that transformation along.
The most urgent and high-profile item on Obama's downsizing agenda is, of course, Afghanistan. For eight years, the Bush Administration lumped al-Qaeda and the Taliban together. It was the most obvious application of Bush's famous declaration that "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." But now the Obama Administration is making exactly that distinction. "There is clearly a difference between" the Taliban and al-Qaeda, press secretary Robert Gibbs said recently. A host of Obama officials have insisted that the Taliban is a tribal and national movement and that while it may want to terrorize Afghan secularists and women, it is not particularly interested in terrorizing the American homeland.
The Taliban's local roots, Obama officials suggest, also make it harder to vanquish than al-Qaeda. The implication is that as with Hizballah and Hamas, the U.S.'s only realistic goal is to bring the Taliban into the political process. Despite his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Obama has abandoned the goal of making the country Taliban-free. For all the attention it has received, the decision about troop levels is essentially tactical: it's an effort to win the military leverage necessary to persuade elements of the Taliban that they're better off in government than on the battlefield. "Ultimately," Defense Secretary Robert Gates has declared, there must be "reconciliation with the Taliban."
The Downside of Downsizing
In general, Obama's bid to shrink the war on terrorism makes sense. Since the U.S. lacks the capacity to eliminate Hizballah, Hamas and the Taliban and since we are probably unable to overthrow the regimes in Syria and Iran, we need to rethink our goals. Many on the American right believe the lesson of the Reagan years is that the U.S. can bludgeon our enemies into submission if only we don't lose our will. But Ronald Reagan didn't bludgeon Mikhail Gorbachev into submission; he seduced him with intensive diplomatic engagement and arms-control agreements that thawed the Cold War. It was only after that thaw that Gorby let Eastern Europe go free. Eventually, it will probably take a similar thawing to get regimes like Iran and Syria out of the terrorism business.
Obama's effort to downsize the war on terrorism can also free up time and resources for the rest of American foreign policy. During the Bush Administration, the post-9/11 agenda often seemed to constitute a good 75% of the U.S.'s international agenda. If Obama could eventually get that down to, say, 50%, it would free him up to devote attention to long-term challenges like climate change and the global economy that Bush gave short shrift.
But downsizing also has its costs. The first is moral. Obama may be right that the U.S. can't vanquish movements like Hizballah and the Taliban or even an embattled regime like Iran's. Legitimizing them, however, will be hard for some Americans to swallow. Already, hawks have slammed Obama for negotiating with Iran's mullahs while the blood of Iranian protesters is still fresh on their hands. And "reconciliation" with the Taliban, while necessary for the U.S.'s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, might be a horror show for Afghan women. It is worth noting that while many historians applaud Nixon's retreat from global containment, his decision to cozy up to dictators in Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere elicited revulsion from Americans on both left and right.
The second problem with Obama's agenda is that although he wants to cut deals with regimes like Iran's and movements like the Taliban, he's not in a particularly strong position to do so. Back in 2002 or 2003, when the U.S. looked almost invincible, the Iranians appeared willing to concede a lot simply to forestall a U.S. attack. Now, with the U.S. mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are less afraid and thus less willing to deal. Similarly, the Taliban have little incentive to break with al-Qaeda so long as they feel they're gaining momentum in the Afghan war. It will be hard for Obama to win at the negotiating table what he can't win on the battlefield. After all, despite Nixon's intricate diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing, neither communist superpower helped him where he wanted it most — in preventing a U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Therein lies the irony of Obama's downsizing effort: he needs to ratchet up conflicts at first — by sending more troops to Afghanistan and perhaps pushing new sanctions against Iran — to gain the diplomatic muscle to cut deals that don't look like abject American defeats. It's a risky strategy, since there's no guarantee that the bigger sticks will work, and if they don't, pulling back will be even harder. But it's a gamble Obama may have to take. The harsh truth is that the U.S. is significantly weaker in the Middle East now than it was in 2002. For close to a decade, our adversaries have not only survived our efforts to destroy them; they've also realized that conflict with the U.S. has its advantages. Now Obama wants to call off the feud. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. He may want to pare down America's enemies list. But the other guys have to take us off their enemies list too.