Think Again: Barack Obama and the War on Terror

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Barack Obama to end the war on terror.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Obama Will End the War on Terror

Obama Will End the War on Terror

Don’t bet on it. A misconceived war on terror has stoked Americans’ nightmares since Sept. 11, 2001, and that will in all likelihood continue. Despite having anointed himself the candidate of change, Barack Obama remained wedded to crucial elements of the war on terror throughout his campaign. Not only did he embrace the term, but, like the Bush administration, he portrayed the 9/11 attacks as a turning point in global politics, suggested that transnational terrorism threatened the United States’ survival, depicted the tactic of terrorism as the enemy, and laid out an apocalyptic vision of the next attack. The danger of terrorism was, he declared, no less grave than that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

This portrayal was more than campaign rhetoric. The war on terror has been the country’s defining national security narrative since 9/11, and politicians across the political spectrum have paid obeisance to it. Indeed, shortly after the election, Obama portrayed the attacks in Mumbai as evidence of the grave and urgent threat of terrorism that the United States faces, as if the perpetrators of that tragedy were necessarily members of a global terrorist brotherhood. Introducing his national security team a few days later, he highlighted the threat posed by a poorly specified terror that cannot be contained by borders, rather than by specific U.S. adversaries who would use terrorist tactics.

As president, Obama will be hard-pressed to jettison the war on terror. His administration’s foreign policy will look different from that of its predecessor in many respects, but not this one. With Obama in the Oval Office, the United States seems likely to remain in the war on terror’s thrall — to the detriment of the country’s priorities, its foreign policy, the tenor of its discourse, and perhaps its people’s liberties. Obama promised to lead America on a new path, but deviating from the course set in the past seven years will not be easy.

Obama Will Wage the Battle of Ideas’ Better Than George W. Bush

Doubtful. Yes, Obama, by his presence and personality, has changed the atmospherics of U.S. foreign relations. America’s reputation around the world has for some time been at a nadir, so there is nowhere to go but up. But the United States’ poor image abroad has not been the result of a marketing failure, and, thus, better public diplomacy will not lead to victory in the Battle of Ideas. Anti-Americanism thrives, not because others misunderstand the United States, but because they perceive its aims and tactics all too well. The Bush administration’s greatest perceived foreign-policy failures — Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantnamo, unimpeded global warming — could not have been overcome with better public diplomacy, and recent improvements in trans-Atlantic relations cannot be credited to an improved sales pitch. The world is rightly waiting to see if Obama will match his words with actions. Public diplomacy can matter only at the margins.

As much as he might wish it, Obama does not enter the Oval Office with a clean slate. The sizable U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the aggressive hunt for al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas, will continue to rankle in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Elsewhere, criticism of U.S. foreign policy predated Bush — the French expressed alarm at American hyperpower during the good old days of Clintonian multilateralism — and will persist after he leaves office. Notwithstanding the financial meltdown and U.S. travails in Iraq, the United States remains the world’s largest economic and military power by far. Its penchant for pursuing its global interests unilaterally lies at the root of many others’ suspicions, and there will be times that even an Obama administration will chafe at and throw off any self-imposed shackles. When that happens, those high-flying expectations will come crashing back to earth.

Withdrawing from Iraq Will Bring Victory Closer in Afghanistan

Wishful thinking. Sure, getting out of Iraq will in principle make available U.S. soldiers and materiel, but don’t expect these additional resources to pay large dividends in Afghanistan.

First, insurgent fighters enjoy a safe haven in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and it is not for lack of U.S. firepower or troops in Afghanistan that they operate freely. The Pakistani government’s reluctance and inability to bring the region to heel is the chief problem, and a reduced U.S. commitment to Iraq will not make that political nut easier to crack. Second, even if the security situation were to improve thanks to more U.S. troops and money, the challenge of governing Afghanistan’s ethnically diverse and geographically challenging landscape will remain. Third, all this presumes that the United States has the political will to undertake and sustain a much more substantial long-term military presence in Afghanistan, and such political will — if it ever existed — is now at best a wasting asset.

Americans were ready to bring the troops home from Iraq even before the recession intensified the usual guns-versus-butter debates. The budget crunch has prompted calls for slashing military spending, and many will see in the troop drawdown in Iraq an opportunity to free funds to aid Americans at home — not an opportunity to redouble U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Ending the War in Iraq Will Help the Fight Against Terrorism

Not really. A U.S. pullout from Iraq would, on its face, redress a grievance held not only by al Qaeda, but by many Muslims. Al Qaeda, however, found reason to target the United States and its interests before Iraq, and many of those reasons remain — from U.S. support for Arab regimes perceived as illegitimate, to the U.S. role in the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the grand religiopolitical vision of reestablishing the caliphate. Iraq was an unusual recruiting boon, but al Qaeda and its affiliates have no shortage of justifications for continued violence, and some of these reasons remain highly resonant in the Muslim world.

Liberals sometimes argue that because the war in Iraq became a rallying cry for Islamist terrorist groups, drawing thousands into the fold, its end will dry up the pool of recruits. But the ardor of those converted by Iraq will not quickly cool, and the war’s memory will continue to inspire would-be terrorists for the foreseeable future. Conservatives sometimes argue that the country’s terrorist enemies will take heart at even a gradual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and undertake a new wave of mass-casualty attacks. But it is hard to imagine that America’s adversaries will be any more emboldened by the withdrawal from Iraq than they were by the United States’ flailing and failures there.

Most fundamentally, the United States has found itself the victim of terrorism because it is so strong and its adversaries are so weak. That will not change soon, and terrorist tactics will continue to appeal to America’s enemies — less because they are especially bloodthirsty or immoral (though they may be), than because, given the imbalance of power, more conventional tactics don’t promise the same payoff.

Capturing Osama bin Laden Should Be a Top Priority

Not now. As a candidate, Obama pledged that he would capture or kill Osama bin Laden if he were elected president. This pledge was good politics, but it does not make for an effective counterterrorism strategy. Although the capture or death of bin Laden would be welcome, the U.S. military and intelligence community have better ways to spend their time and money.

Eliminating bin Laden would undoubtedly please Americans, boost Obama’s ratings, and undermine morale within al Qaeda. But al Qaeda has recovered, perhaps substantially, from the beating it took immediately after 9/11, and the death of its leader is unlikely to be devastating. It is a resilient organization: Dozens of high-ranking al Qaeda officials have been killed or captured since 2001, but they were eventually, and often swiftly, replaced. And beware what one wishes for: A younger, more energetic, equally charismatic, and more organizationally skilled leader might take bin Laden’s place.

The benefits of capturing or killing bin Laden are likely to be short-lived, and the intelligence and military assets diverted to the task could be better used elsewhere. Rather than devote resources to hunting bin Laden, the Obama administration should instead target both the instability off which violent Islamism feeds and the local organizations, usually affiliated only loosely with al Qaeda, that have more often been responsible than al Qaeda itself for the terrorist attacks carried out since 9/11.

Americans’ ramped-up expectations about the war on terror are exceeded only by the challenges the Obama administration will face. The politics of the war on terror have the potential to upset the Obama administration’s priorities, but the economic crisis offers an opportunity to right America’s foreign policy and consign the war on terror to its proper place. In this sense, the economic crisis, as Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has suggested, would be a terrible thing to waste.

David M. Edelstein is assistant professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the department of government at Georgetown University, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Ronald R. Krebs is associate professor in the political science department at the University of Minnesota.

Ronald R. Krebs is the Beverly and Richard Fink professor in the liberal arts and a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

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