c.2013 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, in one of the most significant speeches of his presidency on Thursday, did not simply declare an end to the post-9/11 era. He also offered a vision of America’s role in the world that he hopes could be one of his lasting legacies.
It is an ambitious vision — one that eschews a muscle-bound foreign policy, dominated by the military and intelligence services, in favor of energetic diplomacy, foreign aid and a more measured response to terrorism. But it is fraught with risks, and hostage to forces that are often out of the president’s control.
From the grinding civil war in Syria and the extremist threat in Yemen to the toxic U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan with no clear sense of what comes afterward, there are a multitude of hurdles to Obama’s goal of taking America off “perpetual war footing.”
One of the most daunting is a sprawling wartime bureaucracy that, after nearly a dozen years, has amassed great influence and has powerful supporters on Capitol Hill. It will be difficult to roll back what has been a gradual militarization of U.S. foreign policy, even in an era of budget cuts for the Pentagon.
Nor can Obama escape his own role putting the U.S. on a war footing. He came into office pledging to wind down America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but within a year had ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and oversaw a significant expansion of the Bush administration’s use of clandestine drone strikes.
“We have no illusions that there are not challenges,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who wrote Obama’s address. “But we should not be defined by our role in terrorism, by the airstrikes we order or the people we put in prison.”
Of all these threats, Rhodes said the White House was most worried about a surge of extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring. And yet the bloodiest of those conflicts, in Syria, reveals the limits of Obama’s policy. He has steered clear of U.S. involvement, despite signs that extremist groups with ties to al-Qaida are making gains.
Amid this uncertainty, it was telling that neither the president in his speech nor his aides afterward made firm declarations about where the U.S. could carry out targeted killings, or about whether drone strikes would be carried out by the Pentagon or the CIA.
Administration officials spoke of a “preference” to use the military to carry out lethal operations, but said that Obama’s hands would not be tied and that he reserved the right to use the CIA to carry out covert drone strikes in far-off countries.
In a White House “fact sheet” on new standards for lethal operations issued on Thursday, the administration cautioned that “these new standards and procedures do not limit the president’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.”
Even if al-Qaida’s core network is routed, Rhodes said, “you’ll want to preserve certain capabilities we’ve developed.” That is a discreet way of saying that the U.S., having discovered the grim efficiency of drones, is unlikely to stop using them.
At the same time, Obama put renewed emphasis on diplomacy and foreign aid, saying these were important ways to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism,” even if the progress made by diplomats can be painfully slow.
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As if to underline his point, John Kerry has proved to be a surprisingly activist secretary of state, plunging into shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians and becoming the administration’s point man for dealing with the strife in Syria.
It is also true, though, that the administration is pushing a diplomatic solution in Syria because there is so little public support for military engagement and all the available options carry risks.
“The real question over time may be whether we can mobilize others to join with us to deal with these threats,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior adviser to Obama on the Middle East. “Look at Syria: Would others be prepared to do more that could be effective if they saw that we were prepared to do more?”
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Another problem with this new focus is that the administration cut the budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by 6 percent, to $47.78 billion, from $51 billion in the current year, reflecting the broader budget squeeze.
The impact of those cuts is even greater since there are increases of $1.5 billion for additional security personnel and upgrades to embassies and other diplomatic buildings.
Still, to the extent Obama’s vision is realized, it would radically reorder the power centers in Washington: emboldening the State Department, gradually refocusing the CIA on traditional intelligence gathering, and handing primary responsibility for lethal operations to the Pentagon.
The military’s elite commandos would carry out raids or drone strikes only in exceptional cases; more likely, scores of Special Forces troops would train and advise indigenous forces to combat militants on their soil so large American armies would not have to.
“What we’re trying to do with our strategy is turn it back over to the host country and local forces,” Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon’s top counterterrorism official, said at a Senate hearing last month. “That is the future.”
For all that, some defense experts said the president glossed over some of the thorniest problems.
Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, criticized the speech as an “academic exercise,” and said Obama still had not publicly addressed the problems the U.S. faces as it tries to unwind its role in the Afghan war.
“We needed clear goals for a meaningful strategic agreement with Afghanistan and to start getting details nailed down,” he wrote, “not wait to point of failure as we did in Iraq.”
Other critics said Obama failed to bring clarity to the targeted killing campaign. Questions remain about just how much of the drone wars would come out from behind the veil of secrecy. For instance: When, if ever, will the Obama administration begin to acknowledge each drone strike after it happens?
While administration officials said the military would assume control of the bulk of drone operations, the CIA will continue to run the drone war as a covert operation in Pakistan for months to come, possibly even until the end of 2014.
Drone strikes in Pakistan have been on the decline, however, and some experts said Pakistani politicians and generals would be likely to allow the CIA’s drone war in that country’s rugged, western mountains to continue as long as it remained limited.
“A smaller and more curtailed program would cause less friction both between Pakistani policymakers and the security establishment and between the United States and Pakistan more broadly,” said Simbal Khan, Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Left unsaid in Obama’s speech was one of the biggest motivations for his new focus: a desire to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East so that it can focus on the faster-growing region of Asia. It is a dream that has tempted presidents for a generation.
As Rhodes put it, “We’d like to leave office with a foreign policy that is not unnecessarily consumed with a militia controlling a piece of desert in Mali.”