Obama’s Light Touch and a Heavy Hand

The president's proposed counterterrorism plan might appear underwhelming, but doing more -- or doing less -- is not an option.


This column will not be about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy address at West Point. This columnist does not want to contribute to the perverse dynamic in which critics scorn the president as irresolute and his policy as incoherent; wherein an increasingly thin-skinned Obama insists that he is, in fact, very resolute and coherent; and the critics, certain in advance of the president’s response that he will merely reformulate the old formulations, line up their spitballs in a row. Maybe it’s true that Obama has nothing new to say; in that case, me neither.

I do, however, think it is worth asking what recent experience tells us about Obama’s announced plan, which strikes me as the heart of his speech, to build a "network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel" in order to stem the rising tide of Islamic terrorism in the region. If it is true, as a number of Obama’s detractors have written, that the foreign troops the United States hopes to train are bound to be feckless or corrupt or both, and that whatever counterterror operations the United States conducts are bound to make more terrorists than they wipe out, then the United States should save its money for "nation-building at home," to use Obama’s own phrase. 

The United States has learned a great deal over the past decade about the limits of what it can do in places beset by terrorism. Iraq did not have a terrorism problem when the United States invaded in 2003; now it does. The much more limited form of military intervention in Pakistan and Yemen — that is, drones — has made many people in both countries furious at, rather than grateful to, America. Billions of dollars of development assistance in Pakistan has had zero effect on public opinion in that country, and done little observable good. Some of the soldiers the United States trained in Mali helped overthrow the elected government; others deserted their post under attack by insurgents. 

So what’s the point? Why spend $5 billion on a counterterrorism partnership fund if the partners in question are so hapless, and so despised by their own people, that they simply pull their benefactor down into the mire? The New York Times editorial board thinks that Obama should be fostering good governance rather than killing people in these vulnerable places. But wasn’t that the plan in Afghanistan? 

I think there are answers to these questions. Obama even supplied a few examples of successful partnerships — supporting U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia and French forces in Mali. Despite serious setbacks, training and equipping armies in fragile states is not, in fact, a fool’s errand. The very mixed experience of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command, in training West African armies and coast guards to interdict criminal and terrorist networks provides evidence that the venture is hard but not hopeless (Sierra Leone okay, Guinea not). The cost of training the Afghan military now runs into the tens of billions, which is insane as well as insupportable; but the Afghan army is now at least a match for the Taliban, which it certainly wasn’t a few years ago. The job could have been done faster and cheaper.

The question the administration needs to pose, especially now that it’s asking Congress for $5 billion, is what kinds of partnerships actually strengthen the host country without doing the United States serious collateral harm. It’s easy enough to rule out the fully kinetic end of the spectrum (military intervention, land wars) and to pick the benevolent end of the spectrum (humanitarian assistance, emergency relief). The hard questions are the ones in between.

For example, the United States has already forged a comprehensive partnership with Yemen, which includes military training, support for political dialogue, economic assistance — and drones. Last year, a group of American experts on the region wrote an open letter to Obama praising aspects of the administration’s effort but arguing for more development and fewer drone strikes, which were undermining the political goals of the effort. That sounds right — for Yemen. But you can’t have the same mix in Somalia, where the government is fighting even to hang on to the capital city of Mogadishu. Last year, a Navy SEAL team raided a house on the Somali coast hoping to kill or capture a jihadist leader. (They failed and retreated.) Perhaps in Somalia the political costs of direct, if small-scale, U.S. military intervention are worth incurring.

Another way of thinking about this question is: What is the counterinsurgency effort of the future? The Afghanistan model, with over 100,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars of assistance, is already a relic of another era. But the United States is fighting insurgencies with micro-scale versions of Afghanistan in places like the Philippines, and you don’t hear much complaint about either American arrogance or naiveté. Sarah Sewall, the COIN theorist who now serves as an undersecretary of state, has called these missions "counterinsurgency-lite," and they may well serve as a model for Obama’s proposed network of partnerships.

It’s probably true that in some places the United States and other Western actors can do very little besides watch with bated breath. In Libya, American military trainers can take soldiers to some neighboring country for training, but American diplomats — or for that matter, U.N. diplomats — can do very little to persuade warring militias to accept the authority of the government in Tripoli, or to actually get that government to take some action to win the loyalty of citizens. Outsiders can help fortify governance in places that already have some, and can move along the process of reconciliation among factions prepared to talk to one another. Right now, that puts Yemen on the plus side, and Libya on the minus. Niger, good; Mali, bad.

Even in Libya, the situation might be less dire today if the administration had delivered a package of assistance in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. But Obama hesitated because the Libyans themselves were ambivalent about further American assistance in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign that deposed Qaddafi, and perhaps because he was himself ambivalent about plunging America deeper into a Middle East morass. Of course, Congress treated Libya as a toxic site after U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered there in September 2012. This combination of presidential diffidence and congressional intransigence has undermined American involvement across the region, very much including in Syria.

So, yes, the proposed counterterror partnership may wind up embarrassing Obama either because the partners misbehave or because Congress refuses to comply. It’s a risk. But it’s a small one compared to the risk of pulling back to "the homeland," or despairing of the whole enterprise of building capacity in fragile states. Jihadists with al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, in Yemen, have already tried on several occasions to target the United States. Eventually those in Iraq or Libya, or Afghanistan or Pakistan, will try to do the same. The American people will punish a president who has failed to do whatever he can to suppress those extremists, even though it is Americans’ apathy and their surly suspicion of the world beyond our border
s that makes the president want to do all his nation-building at home.

OK, I, too, wish President Obama had found the language, and the passion, to demonstrate that the world offers the United States opportunities to be seized as well as calamities to be mitigated. He does seem to have lost that knack, or perhaps even that faith. I am, however, prepared to judge him by his actions. 

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola