To understand Barack Obama's Afghanistan decision, it's instructive to go back to one history-shifting sentence, uttered by his predecessor more than eight years ago. It was Sept. 20, 2001. The nation was in agony, and George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress, telling Americans where to direct their rage. "Americans are asking, 'Who attacked our country?'" Bush declared early in his remarks. "The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaeda."
Had Bush stopped there, everything would be different today. But a few minutes later, he made this fateful pivot: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there." After that, Bush mentioned terror, terrorists or terrorism 18 times more. But he didn't mention al-Qaeda again. When he returned to Congress a few months later for his January 2002 State of the Union address, he cited Hamas, Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, North Korea, Iran and Iraq and employed variations of the word terror 34 times. But he mentioned al-Qaeda only once.
For Obama, this is the original sin whose consequences must now be repaired. His foreign policy in the greater Middle East amounts to an elaborate effort to peel back eight years of onion in hopes of finding the war on terrorism's lost inner core: the struggle against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda alone. That's the subtext underlying his new Afghan strategy. He's raising troop levels, but less to vanquish the Taliban than to gain the leverage to effectively negotiate with them in hopes of isolating alQaeda from its Afghan allies. He's boosting America's means but narrowing its ends. The same logic underlies his outreach to Iran and Syria and his rhetoric about groups like Hizballah and Hamas. Obama's not trying to end the war on terrorism, but he is trying to downsize it so that it doesn't overwhelm the U.S.'s capacities and crowd out his other priorities.
Obama's foreign policy, in fact, looks a lot like Richard Nixon's in the latter years of Vietnam, which sought to scale down another foreign policy doctrine containment that had gotten out of hand. And Nixon's experience offers both a warning and an example: pulling back from your predecessor's overblown commitments can be vital. The risk is that it can make you look weak or immoral, or both.
The End of Omnipotence
Obama's effort to downsize the war on terrorism is partly a function of personality and mostly a function of circumstance. George W. Bush loathed what he called "small ball." He saw both his father's presidency and Bill Clinton's as inconsequential and yearned to invest his own with world-historical significance. After 9/11, he immediately began comparing the war on terrorism to World War II and the Cold War a global, generation-defining struggle against an enemy of vast military and ideological power that would transform whole chunks of the world.
Obama, by contrast, doesn't need to go hunting for grand challenges. From preventing a depression to providing universal health care to stopping global warming, he has them in spades. Bush could afford to define the war on terrorism broadly because he didn't think anything going on at home was nearly as important. Obama, on the other hand, must find space (and money) for what he sees as equally grave domestic threats. Bush loved the ominous, elastic noun terrorism. Obama, according to an analysis by Politico, has publicly uttered the words health and economy twice as often as terrorism, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan combined. Even his decision to temporarily send more troops to Afghanistan was framed as a way to allow the U.S. to eventually disengage from the war.
Obama is also shrinking the war on terrorism because, although he won't say so out loud, he's scaled back Bush's assessment of American power. When Bush invaded Iraq, the U.S. was coming off a decade of low-cost military triumphs from Panama in 1989 to the Gulf War in 1991 to Bosnia in 1995 to Kosovo in 1999. And back then, Afghanistan looked like a triumph too. It was easy to believe that the U.S. military through a combination of force and threats of force could prevail over a slew of hostile regimes and movements at the same time. And it was easy to believe that the U.S. could afford these military adventures, particularly for conservatives like Dick Cheney, who famously declared that "deficits don't matter." Finally, in the wake of communism's collapse and the spread of democracy throughout the developing world, hawks tended to see dictatorships as brittle, devoid of popular support. This epic faith in the U.S.'s military, economic and ideological power fueled Bush's decision to define the war on terrorism as the U.S. against the field. It was like the way Americans once talked about Olympic basketball: we were so much better than all the others that they might as well combine into one opposing team so we could take them all on at the same time.