A lighter touch
In his lecture in Rutland on Tuesday, reporter David Sanger described a moment when President Obama revealed much about his way of thinking.
Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, told of a meeting of Obama and his advisers in 2009 when they were considering the cost of the war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon told him a war to stabilize Afghanistan would require 40,000 to 80,000 troops and would cost $1 trillion over 10 years. Obama observed that that was the cost of insuring all Americans for the same period.
In Sanger’s view this was a seminal moment for the choices shaping the young Obama administration. In drawing that cost comparison Obama was accepting the reality that, especially in a time of financial crisis, choices must be made.
What emerged were policies to limit the ever-increasing burden of foreign military adventures and also to ease the burden of health care costs on the American people.
The Bush administration undertook foreign wars as if choices were not required — as if America could have it all. It launched the war in Afghanistan in 2001 as a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most people viewed the Afghan war as a war of self-defense: The U.S. was going after al-Qaida, which had attacked us, and the Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaida.
But President Bush insisted on extending the war to Iraq, which had no part in the Sept. 11 attacks, for reasons that have been lost within the fog of Bush administration lies and misinformation. The war was enormously costly to the United States in dollars and prestige. It created new instability in the Middle East and strengthened Iran, whose nuclear weapons program is now seen as a major threat.
Obama made a name for himself as an early opponent of the war in Iraq and as a presidential candidate, he promised to end it. He has made good on that promise. He has also worked to create a semblance of stability in Afghanistan, initiating a temporary surge of troops that took place in the context of a withdrawal now foreseen for 2014. Obama saw that we could not stay there forever.
What Sanger called a new “lighter” foreign policy has shaped his responses to upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Middle Eastern hot spots. Libya was a case in point. As rebels took up arms against Moammar Gadhafi, Obama was determined not to allow the United States to become bogged down in another ground war. Instead he provided leadership “from behind,” as one of his aides described it. A better description was “behind the scenes.” The United States provided logistical support and backed up France and other NATO allies in providing air support. But Obama understood that U.S. troops on the ground were not necessarily a solution. He avoided another quagmire. And Gadhafi fell.
Syria is another even more troubling test for his lighter foreign policy. It is tempting to believe that the U.S. could resolve the Syrian civil war by sending in the Marines. But we have learned that sending in the Marines comes with enormous complications and costs. Early in the Syrian struggle, Syrian rebels were themselves leery of U.S. involvement. Now they need humanitarian and logistical support, plus arms and ammunition, and they are getting them from various sources, such as Saudi Arabia. But Obama, no doubt recalling the blowback that occurred when the U.S. armed jihadist groups in Afghanistan, does not want U.S. arms to fall into the hands of al-Qaida again.
A lighter foreign policy is also a smarter foreign policy in this instance. And it will allow the United States to regain its fiscal balance. Obama famously noted during his campaign that Bush had fought two wars on a credit card. We have enough costs to bear, for health care and everything else, without wasteful and counterproductive wars adding to the tab.