Shadow Government

Obama’s Defeats of Choice

Barack Obama became president by campaigning against wars of choice. Unless he is able to turn an increasingly desperate situation around, his legacy as president may well be defeats of choice. The “wars of necessity vs. wars of choice” framework never could handle the burdens placed on it by partisan politicians. It purports to distinguish ...

473973618_960

Barack Obama became president by campaigning against wars of choice. Unless he is able to turn an increasingly desperate situation around, his legacy as president may well be defeats of choice.

The “wars of necessity vs. wars of choice” framework never could handle the burdens placed on it by partisan politicians. It purports to distinguish between good and bad military interventions — between ones that are wise and ones that are foolish.

But as I have explained before (see also here, here, and here), the frame is too simplistic to fit the real world choices facing leaders. It is rather damning that the framework does not even work in illuminating the motivating cases, the two wars in Iraq. What was supposed to be a war of necessity — Iraq 1990/91 — was actually widely criticized as unnecessary at the time (until the costs proved lower than expected) whereas the war of choice — Iraq 2002/03 — enjoyed a stronger bipartisan consensus (until the costs proved higher than expected).

Part of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy may be in unequivocally demonstrating the disutility of that frame — and perhaps also of introducing another related frame: defeats of choice vs. defeats of necessity.

This is not how the president would describe it, but the dramatic setbacks for America’s geopolitical interests around the world — from eastern Europe, to southeast Asia, to north Africa, to the Middle East, to Central Asia — collectively raise the specter that something like a defeat of choice is a possible endpoint of our current trajectory.

Some defeats, or at least retreats, are unavoidable. After bearing the costs of World War I and World War II, there was no viable option for the British Empire other than a retreat that amounted to a defeat on numerous long-held imperial ambitions. The United Kingdom of the 1960s simply could not command the global role played by the United Kingdom in the 1860s. It had to endure a defeat/retreat of necessity. (By contrast, if the United Kingdom retreats further in the next five years — say because of independence for Scotland or a precipitous departure from the European Union — that would be a defeat/retreat of choice from its current position.)

The defeats the United States has suffered in the past six years have been, in my judgment, mostly avoidable. Indeed, as Fred and Kim Kagan explained in the Washington Post, the most recent setback in Ramadi was a direct result of choices President Obama made, beginning with the choice not to check the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq last year.

To be sure, the Obama administration inherited a range of problems from the Bush administration, some, but not all, directly due to choices the Bush team had made. But a fair reading of the last six years suggests that the real story is not so much how the administration has struggled to play a weak hand cleverly, but rather how the administration has managed to play a strong hand poorly.

Other observers are making the same point — the Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson recently argued, “The alternative to invasion and occupation is not retreat; it is the determined exercise of power at a distance.”

President Obama keeps trying to avoid what he considers to be the Iraq mistakes of his predecessor. In so doing, he keeps making another kind of mistake, entirely of his own choosing, and it is a mistake that will leave a very daunting set of challenges for his successor.

It is not too late for the Obama administration to reverse course and take the steps to hand over a more promising geopolitical landscape. But to reach that point, they may have to spend more time avoiding defeats of choice and less time campaigning against wars of choice.

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola