Shadow Government

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Celebrate a Tactical Success, Team Obama — But Don’t Think That Means the Strategy Is Working

The president was struggling domestically but especially globally. The daily headlines were delivering a daily rebuke of his signature policy in Iraq, and pressure was growing to accept that perhaps the strategy, long defended by the White House from partisan critics, might actually be failing. Challenges elsewhere in the region, especially in Iran, continued to ...

EPA/FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
EPA/FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
EPA/FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

The president was struggling domestically but especially globally. The daily headlines were delivering a daily rebuke of his signature policy in Iraq, and pressure was growing to accept that perhaps the strategy, long defended by the White House from partisan critics, might actually be failing. Challenges elsewhere in the region, especially in Iran, continued to compete for attention and, indeed, the Secretary of State had proposed a bold new approach to Iran, one that might change the dynamics in long-stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear policy. 

Then, just when it looked like the president's national security team might fundamentally rethink the regional strategy, they received some welcome good news: U.S. special forces had finally got the terrorist leader they had been hunting for years. It was a bold tactical success, just the respite a beleaguered president needed at a crucial time. 

In light of this good news, it would be oh-so-tempting to think that perhaps the original strategy would work after all. Perhaps a fundamental rethink was not needed. But that would prove to be mistaken. At least, it proved to be mistaken in May-June 2006, when the events described in the above two paragraphs occurred.

The president was struggling domestically but especially globally. The daily headlines were delivering a daily rebuke of his signature policy in Iraq, and pressure was growing to accept that perhaps the strategy, long defended by the White House from partisan critics, might actually be failing. Challenges elsewhere in the region, especially in Iran, continued to compete for attention and, indeed, the Secretary of State had proposed a bold new approach to Iran, one that might change the dynamics in long-stalled negotiations over Iran’s nuclear policy. 

Then, just when it looked like the president’s national security team might fundamentally rethink the regional strategy, they received some welcome good news: U.S. special forces had finally got the terrorist leader they had been hunting for years. It was a bold tactical success, just the respite a beleaguered president needed at a crucial time. 

In light of this good news, it would be oh-so-tempting to think that perhaps the original strategy would work after all. Perhaps a fundamental rethink was not needed. But that would prove to be mistaken. At least, it proved to be mistaken in May-June 2006, when the events described in the above two paragraphs occurred.

Obviously, those two paragraphs also have an eerie resemblance to the last couple weeks. President Obama’s Iraq strategy has manifestly failed, and the Iran situation is more complicated than ever. Then, just when it seemed that he would never get any good news on the national security front, President Obama was able to announce that U.S. special forces units had captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the leaders of the terrorist attack in Benghazi in September 2012. This is undoubtedly a tactical success and should be celebrated as such. We should also be glad that the raid reminds terrorists that the United States will not allow them to murder Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, with impunity.

However, we can also learn something from the parallels to that earlier time, June 2006, when the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, raised hope within the Bush administration that perhaps the trajectory in Iraq could be reversed by trying harder to implement the existing strategy. In retrospect, the welcome news of getting Zarqawi breathed new life in the Iraq strategy, perhaps even delaying the internal review that eventually led to the successful surge strategy.

The temptation for President Obama’s team to be likewise distracted by this tactical success is strong, but, I hope, resistible. For starters, they must realize that capturing Khattala, welcome though it is, does very little to improve the situation in Libya and virtually nothing whatsoever to improve the situation in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the situation in Syria and Iraq is arguably more dire today than even in late spring 2006, when the sectarian violence started to spiral out of the control of U.S. forces and beyond the reach of the then-prevailing U.S. strategy. Surely the administration must understand that the Khattala news, welcome though it is, buys only the briefest of respites, if that.

There are signs that the Obama administration understands that their regional strategy is failing — some responsible critics would go further and say it has completely failed.  I hope the satisfaction of capturing one terrorist leader does not distract them from reviewing why their larger strategy is failing, and figuring out what they can do to salvage U.S. national security interests before it is too late.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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