How Obama screwed up the Middle East

War on the Rocks:
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But what if these premises are wrong? What if Obama, Rhodes and their supporters wove a misleading narrative about what ailed U.S. foreign policy? Obama’s foreign policy worldview came from his self-conscious effort to learn the lessons of history — specifically, the lessons of the George W. Bush administration — which no one will fault. As anyone who has ever taken a class in history or political science knows, Obama knew George Santayana’s famous aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But learning the lessons of history can be difficult, even deceptive. Obama does not seem to have known Robert Jervis’ important riposte to Santayana that “those who remember the past are condemned to make the opposite mistake.”

Obama made the opposite mistake. In his eagerness to avoid making Bush’s mistakes, he made a whole new set of mistakes. He over-interpreted the recent past, fabricating the myth about a hyper-interventionist establishment. As a result, he overreacted to the situation he inherited in 2009 and, crucially, never adjusted during his eight years in office. In this sense and others, he contrasts starkly with Bush, who made major changes in his second term. The result is that Obama retrenched when he should have engaged. He oversaw the collapse of order across the Middle East and the resurgence of great power rivalry in Europe while mismanaging two wars and reducing America’s military posture abroad to its smallest footprint since World War II. Despite the paeans of Obama’s admirers, this is not a foreign policy legacy future presidents will want to emulate.

The myth of a foreign policy establishment addicted to strategically questionable interventions took shape in reaction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the myth is that Obama recognized a systemic flaw in the principle of interventionism and came into office intent on ending America’s military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Goldberg wrongly claims, “Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” And he quotes Rhodes to the same effect:

[Obama] was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.

In fact, Obama did almost exactly that: he campaigned on a pledge to escalate and win the war in Afghanistan — still considered the “good war” — not get out of it. He wrote in 2007, “We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan—the central front in our war against al Qaeda—so that we are confronting terrorists where their roots run deepest.” He said on the campaign trail in 2008, “As President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” He promised three additional brigades of combat troops and an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year. Obama explicitly argued that the war in Afghanistan was strategically vital and that, as president, he would win it. His administration deepened its engagement in Afghanistan and escalated the war there — not because Washington think tanks or the military-industrial complex manipulated Obama, but because then-Sen. Obama explicitly campaigned on a promise to do so.

From its inception, the war in Afghanistan was never the result of foreign policy analysts’ habit of invading countries. It was, rather, a direct response to al-Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the United States. There were zero foreign policy analysts advocating for an invasion of Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks of 2001. Afterward, there were virtually none counseling restraint. Essentially every scholar, policymaker or voter supported the war at its outset. If that constitutes an “establishment,” Obama was part of it and no one questioned the strategic importance of military intervention there.
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There is more.

Obama's instinct for restraint was a key factor in his failure as a President when it came to the use of force.  It was further harmed by his attempts to micromanage the use of force in a way that made US war policy ineffective.  Instead of pursuing a policy that persuaded the enemy that its cause was hopeless, Obama was constantly giving the enemy hope, that he would leave and let them achieve their objectives.

He overlooked the most important thing about ending a war.  You have to make the enemy believe their cause is hopeless.  Instead, he thought you could win by just leaving.  Retreating to victory does not work.

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