The Obama Paradox

A conversation with David Sanger, author of a new book on Obama's secret wars. 

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama is a paradox. This has never been as clear to me as while reading David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. The book is a timely, gripping read that offers insights into some of the most surprising, most closely guarded dimensions of the Obama presidency. Early excerpts from his book that have already appeared in the New York Times have sent competitors scrambling and governments from Washington to Tel Aviv to Tehran to Islamabad into closed-door sessions to determine how to deal with his uncomfortable revelations. When it comes to ongoing conflicts between America and her perceived enemies (and friends) around the world, Sanger is a one-man WikiLeaks and Confront and Conceal is a glimpse into a world until now shrouded in secrecy.

A cynical observer might wonder why, at this particular moment, there have been a spate of books and articles like Sanger’s, revealing Barack Obama to be the Great and Powerful Oz of 21st-century white-collar warfare, a president with his hands on the joystick of American power, directing drones, computer worms, special-operations units, and covert actors in the kinds of shadow wars that offer a cheaper, lower-risk alternative to those unlamented days of shock and awe and trillion-dollar wars to nowhere. You might conclude that some in the administration were orchestrating the serial violation of its own secrecy laws to achieve a politically desirable image for its candidate-commander-in-chief. But whether that’s really the case is one of the few aspects of this White House onto which Sanger does not shed a direct light. As for the rest of what is going on in the Obama national security apparatus, Confront and Conceal is jam-packed with news, gripping anecdotes, stories of triumph, and stories of hubris.

A measure of the book’s success is that by the time I was done with it, I was more confused than when I had begun — about how to feel about Obama’s approach to war and about the president himself. Sanger, the New York Times‘s chief Washington correspondent, sets out to dissect the Obama doctrine and ends up instead revealing the Obama paradox. There is a bold, thoughtful, serious man in the Oval Office. And an arrogant, cautious, calculating one, too. There is one seeking to undo the wrongs of America’s recent past. And there is one committing a whole new set of wrongs, sometimes on a whole new scale. And of course, as with every really good paradoxical figure, every paradox contains paradoxes. When I was done with the book, I concluded this might be a uniquely complex and enigmatic president — or perhaps one that was precisely as he appeared: an ambitious, intelligent, well-intentioned, self-invested lawyer who has great confidence in his own ability to manage America’s (and the world’s) problems, is a learning-on-the-job manager who is in many respects more distant from his cabinet than any president since Richard Nixon, and who is trying to do the best he can, succeeding sometimes and failing at others. But the jury about Obama is very much out.

The following conversation with Sanger took place a couple of days before the June 5 publication date of Confront and Conceal. Interview by David Rothkopf:

Foreign Policy: Why is this book different from all the other books?

David Sanger: When Barack Obama came into office, there were many liberals and other supporters of the new president who were so ready for the end of the Bush era that they gave little thought to what "hard power" techniques were likely to be necessary — and so they were surprised about the hard edge to much of the Obama approach to foreign policy. At the same time, there were many conservatives who thought that he was naïve in his approach to "engagement." And they were surprised, too, about the new president’s decision to double down on some of the Bush-era initiatives.

When I set out on the reporting of Confront and Conceal, what struck me the most was how surprising the Obama approach to foreign policy has been compared to what we expected coming out of the 2008 campaign. So this is a book about the surprises. And it’s a book that tries to take seriously the thought that there may be an Obama doctrine — even if the president has deliberately avoided that phrase. And I wanted to examine whether it works, where it works, and where it doesn’t work.

If I had to summarize the doctrine, it’s got two parts. When there is a direct threat to the United States, Obama has shown himself to be very willing to use unilateral force, even if it violates a country’s sovereignty, and even if it angers the allies. Think of the [Osama] bin Laden raid. Think of the drone strikes over Pakistan. Think of Olympic Games [the code name for the cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear program], which is one of the largest covert programs the United States has run in recent years and is a clear violation of the sovereignty of Iran.

When there are cases where the United States does not have direct interests at stake, when there was just sort of a global good out there, which may well include something like the responsibility to protect populations from brutal dictators — think Libya, Syria, so forth — President Obama has been very willing to say we’re not going to take the lead here; we’re going to force others to both pay for it and to man up to it according to their own interests. And this has left many allies pretty disturbed, because they have wondered whether or not the traditional United States leadership role is being abandoned. It’s also created some political vulnerability for the president. At moments, it has worked, as in Libya. At other moments, it has not. The paralysis over Syria happened because when the United States hasn’t taken the lead, and no one else has either. So the Obama doctrine gives us sort of a new lens on how the U.S. exercises power, and this book is an examination of what’s worked and what hasn’t. Not surprisingly, it’s a mixed record.

FP: According to your book, many of the big, moving parts of the Obama doctrine were inherited from Bush, including both drones and the cyber war against Iran. How much credit do you think George Bush and his team deserve for what is now being characterized as the Obama doctrine?

DS: They deserve a good deal of credit, but I think that the second half of President Bush’s term has more similarities to what President Obama has done than the second half of the Bush term has to the first part of the Bush term. And that was in part a reaction to the huge overreach of those first four years for George Bush, the mistakes of Iraq, the underestimation of what it would take to accomplish the goals in Afghanistan.

What I think President Obama deserves credit for is going back and rethinking what our realistic objectives were, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even in the second Bush term, there was a considerable amount of chaos about what we could reasonably accomplish in Afghanistan, and there were a lot of blinders on about what we could accomplish in places like Pakistan. Because Obama did not have the burden of having declared unreachable goals, he had the luxury to see the problems more clearly. And in the first two years, he dramatically narrowed the goals in Afghanistan, and I describe the change that President Obama went through to get there.

What the administration doesn’t like to talk about is that narrowing those goals meant walking away from many things that the United States had promised the Afghans over the years: assuring that girls would go to school and the schools would be protected from the Taliban; rebuilding justice systems, and securing the whole country, not just downtown Kabul. No American president wants to admit that they have so narrowed their goals that when the United States leaves, it’s very possible that you could see a reversion to the day where the Taliban controls a good deal of the country. But in fact that is a likelihood in the next few years, and in my interviews some members of the Obama administration conceded we have to be prepared for that possibility.

FP: Sometimes the contradictions within Obama’s own approach are quite striking. The president and his team concluded early we couldn’t achieve our goals in Afghanistan, then decided to double down — and also to exit all in one single announcement. But we are left with the question as to whether the tortured process of arriving at the decision to leave in 2014 or implementing that policy will produce any better outcome than if we had simply exited to begin with.

DS: This book isn’t really history — you can’t write history this close to events. But in the end, it may be that the surge in Afghanistan did not give us much; it may not have been better than beginning an orderly exit in 2009. There is reason to ask: When the surge is over, and when we see what Afghanistan looks like in 2014, will the surge have accomplished anything lasting? It certainly allowed for some temporary gains. There are certainly areas of the country that the Taliban is not in right now that they would be had the surge not happened. The question is: Does that remain, or does Afghanistan revert to the mean? Will the country in 2016 look a lot like the country in 1999? And that’s all a function of whether or not the fundamental theory of the case — which is that you can train the Afghan army and police to take over the role that the United States and NATO have been playing — whether that is possible in the short time that is available. And that’s a very open question right now.

FP: Another set of contradictions are associated with Pakistan. Part of the Obama doctrine is to say: If we go in with this light footprint, we can go and achieve our goals in counterterrorism and thus help reduce the threats to the U.S. in a more effective way than we had been previously. But over the course of the past few years, our relations with Pakistan have never been worse. Pakistan has never been less stable. This raises the question: Does the Obama doctrine actually work?

DS: Bruce Riedel had it right after his first review of the policy for President Obama in 2009: The problem should be called Pak-Af, not Af-Pak. It is an accident of history, because of 9/11, that we have more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan, and we have none in Pakistan, yet we consider all of the bigger threats to be in Pakistan. Pakistan is 180 million people, an active insurgency, an expanding nuclear arsenal — and expanding in the worst possible way, which is to say that they are developing light, transportable nuclear weapons that they can easily bring to the Indian border. Those are also the nuclear weapons that are more easily stolen. So when the Obama administration looks at the threat, they say to themselves: What are the chances that a big threat to the United States is going to redevelop in Afghanistan? Pretty small, because thanks to the Predator and better intelligence we now have a chance to go in and wipe out an emerging threat fairly quickly. What are the chances such a threat to the U.S. homeland would develop in Pakistan? Enormous.

There is a short chapter in Confront and Conceal entitled "Bomb Scare," which has to do with four days in 2009 when the new Obama administration briefly thought the Taliban might have a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, it turned out they were wrong, but boy, those four days really focused the mind and changed the way this administration thought about the problem. Pakistan poses the far more complex, urgent threat.

FP: And not too long after that they started moving toward a policy of getting out of Afghanistan that depends on cutting a deal with the Taliban. And in fact, it’s not too long after we come face to face with the worst possible case, the Taliban ending up with a bomb, that we started talking about "good Taliban" and began to work harder at trying to cut a deal with some of them. So when I read that section, I thought: This certainly casts a whole different light on the search for the good Taliban.

DS: You can spin a lot of wheels separating out the good Taliban from the bad Taliban. The administration’s strategy depended on a peel-away approach in which they would undercut the Taliban by peeling off elements that were really tired of trying to survive under the onslaught of the surge. But what they’ve discovered is that when you announce that you’re leaving by a date certain, the incentive for the Taliban to go negotiate seriously rather than simply wait you out is pretty limited. And there were many people inside the administration, including Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, who were making the case that it was a mistake to set a public deadline for the American and NATO withdrawal.

The answer the White House gives is simple: We’re not leaving entirely. There will be an enduring presence. They don’t like to talk publicly about the size of that presence, but in the book I say they are thinking that 10,000 to 15,000 troops would be behind the high walls of bases around the country. And while they would be based in Afghanistan to keep Kabul from falling, in fact, the majority of their task is to keep a lid on Pakistan and to have a way to move in quickly, including with nuclear search teams if they think one of those hundred-plus nuclear weapons has gone loose.

FP: But with a force of that size, it’s impossible to keep a lid on a large city, much less an entire country or even an entire nuclear arsenal. Ten thousand troops can hunt for one loose nuclear weapon or three loose nuclear weapons, but not 200 loose nuclear weapons.

DS: That’s absolutely right.

FP: The light footprint or ‘surgical’ component of the Obama doctrine seems to be ideally suited for dealing with nonstate actors, except to the degree to which it inflames state actors by violating their sovereignty. But then in both Afghanistan and Pakistan we’ve got a messy hybrid situation where you have nonstate and state actors working together.

DS: The long-term risks are not alleviated much by the ‘enduring presence.’ One of President Obama’s former military advisers said to me: Who wouldn’t want a light-footprint strategy? Of course, it’s everyone’s first choice: It’s inexpensive, you take many fewer casualties, you don’t sit around and occupy countries so you don’t build up resentments among the local population. But the problem with light-footprint strategies is there are situations for which they are ill-suited. One of those is transforming the nature of societies. They’re great for going in and wiping out a terrorist in a specific place. They may work well for finding a loose nuclear weapon. They don’t accomplish what a long-running, expensive counterinsurgency approach is intended to accomplish. And of course, a few years ago the military thought that counterinsurgency was the future, that to avoid conflicts we would drain the swamp by providing education, providing security, being there as an alternative to a group like the Taliban. Light footprint doesn’t help you with that.

FP: Light footprint could also spark precisely the kind of fire it can’t control. You go in, you get bin Laden, you alienate the Pakistani military, you force a rift between the Pakistani military and the political class within Pakistan. You could easily see something like that tipping things into a point of instability.

DS: It very well could. A lot has been written recently about the aftermath of the bin Laden raid.

What was fascinating about the bin Laden raid was matching up the Obama administration’s expectations about the Pakistani reaction and the reality of the Pakistani reaction. The expectation was that the Pakistanis would be embarrassed that bin Laden was in their midst and angry about that embarrassment. In fact, they weren’t at all embarrassed about the fact that bin Laden had lived an hour’s drive from Islamabad for five years, ostensibly without anyone in the leadership knowing about it. They were just humiliated by the sovereignty invasion.

And now sovereignty is a bigger problem than ever. Think about drone strikes. The U.S. has justified the drone strikes in Pakistan on the basis that it had the permission of the Pakistani government to execute the strikes. In fact, when I did interviews about the legal basis for drone strikes, administration officials said to me: We’re only in countries that let us in or don’t have an operative government so you have to go in, like Somalia. Well, what’s happened? The democratically elected parliament of Pakistan, which we prefer to have running the country instead of the military, has voted overwhelmingly to ban all drone strikes by the United States inside their territory. And since the passage of that declaration, we have conducted more drone strikes inside their territory. So in order to continue the counterterrorism mission, we have completely undercut the authority of the democratically elected side of the Pakistani government, and we are simply working with the old military side.

FP: In terms of ironies, the Obama administration embraced its new approach in reaction to the Bush approach. And the Bush approach really came to be questioned when the Bush administration wrongly predicted the nature of the Iraqi response to the American invasion to Iraq. Now you have the pivot point of the Obama administration strategy grossly misreading the Pakistani response to the bin Laden attack. The one thing we have seen to be common to both administrations is guessing wrong about how governments on the ground are going to react.

DS: And about how people on the ground are going to react. One of the things that the U.S. said it was ready for after the bin Laden raid was an attack on the American embassy — a sort of public uprising. That never happened, but the relationship between the two governments has gotten far worse.

It’s possible that Pakistan falls into that category of foreign-policy problems for which there is no tenable solution. They want an apology for the American attack — the mistaken American attack that killed 25 Pakistani soldiers. I can fully understand that. [But] in an election year, no American president is going to apologize for what is viewed here as defending American troops. Pakistan also wants huge payment for reopening the supply routes into Afghanistan. The American view is Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally, as declared by George Bush. So why are we paying a major non-NATO ally to help fight a war that’s in Pakistan’s interest to keep a stable Afghanistan? So you have two countries that have really never been more far apart. And it’s the one country where Barack Obama’s charms abroad have haven’t worked.

FP: The biggest revelations of your book seem to be not just the degree of U.S. covert operations with regard to Iran, but the degree to which those operations were closely managed by the president of the United States sitting in a room at the White House with his top advisors, making tactical decisions about fighting a new kind of cyberwar.

DS: What’s impressive is that the United States is approaching cyberwar with the rules it applies to other types of military and covert action. It’s got some fairly well-defined rules about how you design these weapons, to avoid collateral damage. But the rest of the world isn’t going to care about that, I suspect. I’m not sure the Chinese, the Russians, or a group of young hackers who think they’re acting on behalf of their country will apply the same kind of rules to their own actions.

And so the question is: When you start using a cyberweapon, have you created a justification for someone else to say we’re not doing anything the United States hasn’t done against Iran? That’s a question President Obama asked in the Situation Room during the decisions about Olympic Games. And there was no good answer.

FP: You point out in the book that if the cyberweapon gets into the hands of our enemies and they can use elements of it, then you’ve also empowered them in ways that they weren’t before.

DS: That’s what happened with Stuxnet. Stuxnet was designed to be a bullet aimed at the Natanz nuclear plant. There were many iterations to it, and one of them went astray. There was literally a programming error not uncommon to anybody who has loaded an earlier version of a Microsoft program onto their computer and then gotten a fix downloaded a few weeks later. In this case, what happened was that the program — which was computer controllers that command the centrifuges — thought that it was living just within the confined world of Natanz. And an engineer came along, plugged his laptop in to do some maintenance work on the Natanz plan, and unwittingly ended up being the host for this program. He leaves the plant, he plugs into the Internet — I don’t know if he was playing video games, shopping on Amazon, watching his favorite American TV show, whatever he was doing — the program literally began to propagate around the world. And suddenly people here at the National Security Agency, and at Israel’s Unit 8200, are discovering that this program the United States spent millions or billions of dollars to produce is suddenly available to anybody. Any skilled computer hacker can go decompile it and learn lessons about how to build a weapon of their own. It’s the cyber equivalent of leaving loose ordnance sitting around the battlefield for somebody to pick up. That’s not supposed to happen. Stuxnet was proof of the law of unintended consequences.

FP: There haven’t been thoughtful discussions about the consequences or the ethics or the international legal ramifications of this approach. Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and you are confronted with this. Isn’t your first reaction, "How is them blowing up Natanz with a code any different from them blowing up Natanz with a bomb? And doesn’t that justify military retaliation?"

DS: Blowing it up with computer code, rather than bombs, is different in one big respect: It very hard for the Iranians in real time to know who the attacker was, and thus to make a public case for retaliating. It takes a long time to figure out where a cyber attack comes from.

That was a big reason for the U.S. and Israel to attack Natanz in this way. But it wasn’t the only reason, at least from the American perspective. One of the main driving forces for Olympic Games was to so wrap the Israelis into a project that could cripple Natanz in a subtle way that Israel would see less of a motivation to go about a traditional bombing, one that could plunge the Middle East into a another war.

Stuxnet, of course, began to open the lid on American and Israeli use of offensive cyber weapons. And the U.S., of course, spend years trying to keep that capability secret. But it couldn’t stay secret forever. And maybe it shouldn’t. There are some in the U.S. government, in the intelligence and military community, who thought that it would actually be a good thing if the American cyber capability was much more broadly known because it would have a deterrent effect. It could be a way of saying to the Iranians, we’ve gotten at your centrifuges, you know about it, and we can come back and get you anytime we want. There’s another faction, to which President Obama belongs, that said no, we want to keep this quiet as long as we can so that it’s not attributable to the United States and it’s harder for them to react.

What blew their cover? It wasn’t my book. It was Stuxnet. That gave people who were paying attention the thread to pull on. And when I pulled, the thread led them back to the White House Situation Room.

FP: But now Iran knows the origin. Aren’t the Iranians justified under international law to retaliate?

DS: I don’t know the answer to that. It would require an international lawyer — in the book, I quote Harold Koh, the State Department counsel, saying as — translating the laws of armed conflict, and in this case the laws of covert action, into a cyber world that was never designed for that.

Broader implications aside, I think what they were trying to do was something fairly short-term and prosaic: They were trying to buy time. Think about the Iranian nuclear program. It has taken Iran longer to get from no place to a nuclear weapons capability than any other nation that has attempted it on Earth. The United States did it in the Manhattan Project in three or four years. It took the Soviets until 1949. The Indians got there. The Pakistanis got there. The North Koreans got there. What must you think if you’re sitting in Iran, you don’t yet have a nuclear capability, and the finest minds of Kim Jong Il High School had beaten you to the punch and now have several nuclear weapons? So all the Obama administration was trying to do was further delay a program that was already delayed.

FP: What you’re talking about is the difference between talking about Olympic Games or Stuxnet as a single effort and talking about it as an element of the doctrine. When you talk about it as a doctrine, you talk about drones, covert ops, and Special Forces as the light footprint, and you’re using it everywhere because of the idea that it’s lower risk and lower casualty. There’s a slippery slope on the other side that your book addresses. Arguably, Barack Obama has violated national sovereignty around the world more frequently than any of his predecessors since the Second World War. Some senior officials have suggested to me that he has more covert actions going on in different places around the world than any of his predecessors since the height of the Cold War. Having these tools enables and encourages you to use them.

DS: Especially if you think the alternative is an old-style invasion and occupation, for which the population of the United States no longer has any tolerance.

FP: Right. So the upside of that is perhaps we’re less likely to do an old-style invasion. The downside is that at some point or another, you inadvertently create the collateral damage or inflame the situation that draws you in anyway, or you create the precedent for other people to embrace these tactics.

DS: That’s why the light footprint has a real political imperative and real practical limitations. And you’ve discovered that now in Iran. We’ve certainly seen it in Syria, as I’ve suggested before. You see it in almost any society where you think you can move in and out quickly and hope that you are going to have a better result on the ground. It’s a very good short-term insurance policy. It’s not a terribly effective long-term strategy for creating a more permissive environment for the United States.

FP: So, Pakistan is more dangerous. Afghanistan is more dangerous. Iran — the jury is out. We don’t even know whether we are effectively stopping their nuclear program from moving forward effectively. We’re in the midst of diplomatic talks that don’t seem to be going anywhere. We don’t know whether ultimately we stopped the Israelis from going in and inflaming the situation. It didn’t stop the North Koreans from doing what the North Koreans have done. And it doesn’t look like the world is dramatically safer as a result of the light-footprint approach. Recognizing that the jury is out on virtually everything, do you think it’s made the U.S. safer?

DS: There are elements of it that have made the U.S. safer. Had we asked the question on Jan. 20, 2009, what are the chances that central al Qaeda would be this close to defeat three years into an Obama presidency? I don’t think either you or I would have predicted that. If we had asked the question in 2009, what are the chances that the Iranians will have either a nuclear bomb or virtual bomb capability by the early summer of 2012? I think we both would have said pretty high chance that they would have gotten there already. So I think it has bought them time. I think it has bought them space. But I don’t think it’s yet bought them any solutions.

FP: In terms of the approach, the tactics between Bush and Obama have been different. But it can also be argued that both of them have made one similar, fatal error, and that’s overestimating the nature of the terrorist threat and its centrality to the U.S. and its security interests. Bush went after it one way; Obama is going after it another way. We’re three years into the Obama administration, and al Qaeda may be decimated, and we may be talking about a pivot or a strategic rebalancing as you do at the end of your book, but in terms of troops, in terms of dollars being allocated, in terms of bandwidth in the White House, we’re still spending an awful lot of our time worrying about a handful of bad actors and less time effectively dealing with macro, big trends that may be more fundamentally associated with our strategic position in the world, whether it’s fixing our domestic situation, dealing with Europe, dealing with China, et cetera.

DS: It is certainly true that the squeaky terrorist gets the Predator drone. That said, when I think about the time that I was White House correspondent during the Bush administration, and I see how much of the bandwidth and mental bandwidth of the U.S. government was consumed by two wars going bad and a terrorist hunt that was not going well, and I look at today, I think it is fair to say that there has been some improvement. We have no more troops in Iraq. At the time that President Obama came into office, they were well more than 100,000. They are on a pathway of reducing troops in Afghanistan. And as we said, that may make for a very uncertain future.

What’s the most interesting bandwidth decision that the president has made in his time? There’s a scene at the end of the book where the president gathers all of the combatant commanders into the East Room. It’s at Christmastime. All the Christmas trees are up; the image of Lincoln is staring out over them. And he basically makes the argument that the era of unlimited expenses for the Pentagon is over. In fact, the Pentagon had just a few months before come to him with a proposal to fund a standing force of 100,000 soldiers for stability operations. The White House said: ‘No, you guys didn’t get the memo. Stability operations are over. We’re not going to keep 100,000 people around to go do a kind of operation we don’t think is in our long-term interests anymore.’ And those were gone from the budget.

So, I think we are on the way to creating the mental bandwidth for thinking about a different set of policies and these longer-term issues. But I don’t think that the administration got there anywhere near fast enough or even will look back and say that they got very far at all in a first term. And we don’t know if there will be a second term. The pivot to Asia is a nice rhetorical start. The trick is going to be executing it. The execution will take years. It has to be credible not only to the Chinese but to the rest of our Asian neighbors. And we have to do it in a way that we don’t convince the Europeans that we’re abandoning them, which is the only thing they believe when they hear the word pivot.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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