Shadow Government

Obama’s Failed Command

How will history remember the president's mark on America's wars?


However hard President Barack Obama tries on Tuesday night to convince the American people that his seven years of wartime leadership have left the country safer and stronger, I’d venture to guess that history is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure as America’s commander-in-chief.

Yes, he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—a gutsy, important move. There was also the strike in Yemen that took out the radical al Qaeda preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki — a U.S. citizen, no less. Not an easy call by any means, and one that was almost certain to trigger controversy, not least among Obama’s progressive base. You get points for that. More broadly, especially during his first term (when re-election concerns figured prominently, a cynic might add) the president proved relentless in using drones to target jihadist leaders across the Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, when it comes to warfare by remote control, he’s authorized 10 times more strikes than George W. Bush, leaving his predecessor looking positively timid by comparison.

But what did he accomplish beyond this important, but still highly tactical game of counter-terrorist “Whac-A-Mole”? How has Obama fared wielding the more conventional levers of American hard power to advance U.S. national security? It’s hard to be charitable.

In Afghanistan, the president announced in 2009 a surge of 30,000 troops — but in the very next sentence told the enemy that he’d withdraw them in 18 months, without reference to the situation on the ground. What successful military leader in the history of the world has ever done that? While Obama has now reversed his politically-driven commitment to remove all U.S. forces before he leaves office, he still plans to draw down to the ridiculously inadequate number of 5,500 troops — despite ample evidence, month after month, that conditions are dangerously deteriorating. The Taliban insurgency threatens more areas of the country than at any time since 2001. New al Qaeda training camps are sprouting up around the country, including one of the largest ever — repeat, ever — covering 30 square miles, which U.S. forces only belatedly discovered and destroyed in October. What else is out there that we don’t know about? And if all that wasn’t ominous enough, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan is increasingly entrenched and rapidly expanding its capabilities.

Libya was supposed to be the poster child for Obama’s light footprint approach to the smart deployment of American hard power. Uh, right. Deferring to French and British leadership, U.S. air power played a key role in bringing down the Gaddafi regime. Mission accomplished, or so he thought, the president abandoned the playing field as quickly as he could, declaring victory while turning his back on even the pretense of a post-conflict stabilization effort. Chaos ensued. A failed state dominated by marauding jihadists. Four U.S. government employees murdered, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. And yet again, the icing on the cake, the emergence of an ever-more powerful Islamic State affiliate, controlling territory, attacking vital oil installations, and no doubt planning as we speak to launch terror attacks into Europe — a mere hop, skip, and a jump across the Mediterranean.

And then we come to Iraq and Syria. Where to begin? Do we have to? The series of sorry, sordid, ideologically-motivated missteps have been endlessly rehashed. Painful. Tragic. Unnecessary. The precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, with Obama’s absurd declaration that “we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.” Tell it to the troops that had to march right back in 2014 to help prevent Baghdad’s collapse and re-conquer territory previously won with American blood. Then there’s the bizarre, almost surreal retreat from enforcement of the Syria red line. After Obama publicly pledged that Assad’s punishment for gassing his own people would amount to nothing more than “a shot across the bow,” and John Kerry assured the world that any strike would be “unbelievably small,” it didn’t seem like the mangling of American credibility could get any worse. But oh, it did. Paging Vladimir Putin!

Then there’s the war against the Islamic State, itself. We will defeat them. No, wait. We will destroy them. But rest assured that we will never put troops on the ground. Ah, yes, the Obama way of war: don’t proceed without first spelling out to the enemy — as well as prospective allies that you hope to enlist in the fight — all the capabilities that you will never bring to bear to achieve victory. Eighteen months later, the war drags on. The enemy metastasizes across multiple countries and continents. A global jihadist insurgency gathers on the horizon. For the first time in four decades, Russian power has returned to the Middle East with a vengeance. Europe strains to the breaking point under the weight of its worst refugee crisis since World War II. And the threat of mass terror attacks against the U.S. homeland — Paris and San Bernardino auguring the new normal — is higher than at any time since 9/11.

Of course, casting a long, dark shadow over the failures in each of these individual theaters of conflict is the president’s stewardship, or — more accurately — lack of stewardship, over America’s underlying military strength. There’s no nice way to say this: The Obama administration has overseen the systematic gutting of the force to dangerously low levels, dramatically heightening the risks that it will face in carrying out its future missions.

The Army’s readiness has been degraded to historically low levels, with only a third of its brigades deemed ready for combat. The Air Force is now not only smaller but older than it’s ever been. With the world coming apart at the seams, with U.S. leadership and credibility in a slow death spiral, with adversaries across the threat spectrum increasingly coming to the conclusion that it is open season on Pax Americana, it’s hard to think of a worse time to be hollowing out the instrument of American power that has underwritten global stability and prosperity for 70 years.

Yes, it’s certainly true: in this dangerous folly, the president has had a mighty assist from Congress, including from far too many Republicans. But for the one official elected with the primary charge of protecting our national security, the sole commander-in-chief of our armed forces, to be a primary participant — let alone the mastermind — in the absurdity that is sequestration, year after year, well, that is an entirely different order of irresponsibility — indeed, even a fundamental dereliction of duty.

Perhaps no one should be surprised. Obama has never worn the garb of commander-in-chief comfortably. He’s led a nation at war, often in multiple theaters, for his entire presidency. One of those — the war against the Islamic State — he launched himself. Yet can anyone recall a single speech, even a single memorable line, delivered with the purpose of galvanizing the troops, much less the nation, to sustain the level of sacrifice, commitment, and leadership necessary for victory? That’s no accident. Just think of the catch phrases and concepts that are most associated with Obama’s national security doctrine: Time to focus on nation building at home. Leading from behind. Don’t do stupid shit. Hitting singles and doubles. Ending wars by withdrawing from them. The list goes on.

But no assessment of Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief is more damning than the one offered by his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his 2014 memoir, Duty. Discussing the president’s leadership of the war in Afghanistan, Gates writes that by early 2010 he had concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Despite having just months earlier ordered an additional 30,000 troops into combat, Gates is astonished to find that the president harbored fundamental doubts about his strategy, claiming that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.”

Gates is particularly confounded by what he sees as the President’s lack of passion as a wartime leader who was responsible for maintaining the morale of his troops and their faith in the mission. He writes:

Where this lack of passion mattered most for me was Afghanistan. When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander-in-chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission. They need him to talk often to them and to the country, not just to express gratitude for their service and sacrifice but also to explain and affirm why that sacrifice is necessary, why their fight is noble, why their cause is just, and why they must prevail. President Obama never did that. He rarely spoke about the war in Afghanistan except when he was making an announcement about troop increases or troop drawdowns or announcing a change in strategy. White House references to “exit paths,” “drawdowns,” and “responsibly ending wars” vastly outnumbered references to “success” or even “accomplishing the mission.” Given his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan, I think I myself, our commanders, and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him. … I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.

Absolutely devastating. Case closed.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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