Elephants in the Room

Trump’s War on Terror Rejects Obama’s Off-Shore Balancing for Obama’s Operational Raiding

Donald Trump's approach to combating terrorism looks a lot like Obama's.

TOPSHOT - US President Barack Obama(R)welcomes President-elect Donald Trump to the White House in Washington, DC January 20, 2017.  / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US President Barack Obama(R)welcomes President-elect Donald Trump to the White House in Washington, DC January 20, 2017. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a thoughtful assessment of what President Donald Trump’s approach to combating terrorism looks like. The bottom line: It looks a lot like President Barack Obama’s. It is heavy on the use of special operations raids and American airpower, but it relies primarily on indigenous forces to provide the bulk of the ground forces.

To be sure, it is not a carbon copy. It is more open to risk — authorizing more missions than Obama might have, and delegating more decision-making to his subordinate military commanders. But compared to the major alternatives — a large conventional invasion, unrestricted airstrikes, a hands-off approach, or something else — it is more like Obama’s 2016 policy than not.

Let’s be clear, Obama’s 2016 policy was itself a repudiation of Obama’s own earlier approach. From late 2011 until late 2014, Obama tried very hard to implement a different kind of global war on terror (GWOT), one much more in keeping with his preferred strategy of off-shore balancing. During this period, Obama emphasized withdrawing U.S. ground forces altogether and relying to an extraordinary extent on local forces to do all the heavy lifting. He also relied quite extensively on drone strikes for any kinetic action.

This phase of Obama’s GWOT was optimized to avoid mistakes of commission at the price of accepting more mistakes of omission. Obama judged the risks to be acceptable during this phase because he argued that core al Qaeda was on the run, that the most lethal affiliates (like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) could be handled primarily by local forces, and that other emerging terrorist groups like the Islamic State could be discounted because they were only “junior varsity” threats.

This was Obama’s “off-shore balancing” phase, and he was not the first American leader to find off-shore balancing a tempting policy. But, as Hal Brands (a new Shadow Government denizen and my erstwhile Duke colleague) and I have shown elsewhere, the off-shore balancing approach failed him as it failed earlier leaders.

It failed so badly that at least some advocates of the policy have tried in vain to argue that Obama’s approach should not be called off-shore balancing. I found that line of defense curious and so at a recent professional conference I asked the leading proponent of off-shore balancing, Christopher Layne, to adjudicate. He confirmed that Obama’s approach to the Syria-Iraq-Islamic State problem during the 2011-2014 phase was, indeed, off-shore balancing. If it walks and quacks like an off-shore duck, it is an off-shore duck, even if it is something of a duck that has trouble staying afloat.

Once the rise of the Islamic State constituted threat powerful enough to destabilize the local balance of power — a destabilization too calamitous to ignore — Obama authorized the gradual shift to an on-shore approach. Initially, Obama tried to keep the shift as light-footprint as possible — to the point of straining credulity, as when the Obama administration pretended the deployment of troops did not constitute “boots on the ground.” But over time, Obama gradually lifted arbitrary caps on numbers of deployed U.S. troops and gradually allowed for more permissive rules of engagement.

This new approach, call it a “medium footprint” approach, began to show results. By the end of his tenure, the president could boast with some accuracy that the United States was finally on a path to eventual success against the Islamic State. Obama and his partisan backers were considerably less candid about how their earlier approaches had failed in ways that might have contributed to the problem, but they were right to claim that they had finally found the best-of-the-alternatives approach to hand off to their successor.

Despite his scathing anti-Obama critique during the campaign, Trump seems to have agreed, since he has only modified that approach somewhat. He has stepped up efforts — in keeping with his own campaign rhetoric about being bolder in the fight against the Islamic State — but not in a way that would fundamentally alter the medium-footprint approach.

This leaves the question of what Trump will do if and when the Islamic State, in its current form, is finally defeated. Hal Brands and I tackle exactly that question in a new piece over at Foreign Affairs. (The director’s cut version, lovingly rescued from the editor’s chopping block, is here. Hal writes his own Shadow summary here.)

We argue that the defeat of the so-called caliphate will be an important milestone in the GWOT, but it will not, in fact, end the terrorist threat once and for all. Some form of the threat will remain and U.S. policymakers will have to decide how to confront it.

We assess that Trump’s options will look a lot like the range of options Obama and Bush considered before him: a) military disengagement, i.e. a shift back to the off-shore balancing approach Obama tried for in late 2011-late 2014; b) light-footprint counterterrorism, i.e. what Obama opted for in late 2014; c) medium-footprint counterterrorism, i.e. the direction in which Obama’s approach was evolving in late 2016 and which Trump has so far extended; or d) a GWOT surge, the maximum approach the Bush administration opted for in 2007.

Each of these policies is tailored to a different understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat, and each has a different set of risks and rewards. In our judgment, none is ideal, but the least-worst is the medium-footprint approach. Assuming the Trump team does the same kind of analysis we do, we therefore expect the future of U.S. counterterrorism policy to look more like the recent past than either Obama or Trump might have promised during the presidential campaign.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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