International Policy Digest

U.S. Department of Energy
Politics /08 Sep 2016

9/11: What Obama Could have Learned from Bush

In his farewell presidential address, President George W. Bush gave a prescient warning that retreating behind the borders will only invite danger. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, worst in the history of America, happened within a few months of the start of Bush’s first term and left an indelible mark on the rest of his presidency. The threat of another major terror attack on America led Bush to declare a ‘global war on terror.’ It first led to the invasion of Afghanistan under the premise the United States had the right to secure itself against countries that harbor or give aid to terrorist groups. The same threat of a terror attack again pushed Bush to an ill-conceived war on Iraq, this time against rogue regimes that threaten peace with weapons of mass murder.

On the other hand, Barack Obama’s opposition to war played its part in his meteoric rise in American politics. Even before Obama came to prominence, he had a history of ideological opposition to wars. In 1983, Obama, then a senior at Columbia University, penned a fawning article titled “Against the War Mentality” that detailed the anti-war movements on the campus. In 2002, a year before the commencement of the Iraq war, Obama at that time a US senator, gave a speech at an anti-war rally. As someone known for his optimal use of social media in politics, Obama’s first tweet in 2007 was about ending the Iraq war. Obama’s first presidential campaign was the closest a candidate ever ran on the anti-war platform.

Obama’s message of hope and change not only catapulted him to become the first black president of America, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize within the first year of his presidency. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is fundamental to understanding his approach towards war. In the speech, Obama talked about Just War, a theory on ethics of war. He explained “war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” Obama conceded the role of war in maintaining peace but added in the same breath “war in itself is never glorious and we must never trumpet it as such.” He further stated in his remarks that the challenge is to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable truths that “war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

Although Obama himself has never claimed to be anti-war at any stage in his life, yet it would be hard to miss his antipathy towards war, from his formative days to the presidency. As a commander in chief of a nation that sees itself in the role of global policeman, Obama didn’t have a real choice to abjure war in totality. However, Obama could decide how to wage his Just War. Given his inherent aversion towards war, it was obvious that Obama would be a reluctant commander in chief. And this reluctance became the hallmark of Obama’s wars.

Obama’s reluctance to wage wars was conspicuous in the conflicts that started under his presidency. Obama acquiesced for the air bombing campaign in Libya that was derisively called as ‘leading from behind.’ In the Syrian civil war, even after the use of chemical weapons against his own red lines, Obama refused to take any unilateral military action against the Syrian regime. Obama has declined to provide any offensive military aid to Ukrainian forces fighting Russia backed rebels.

One hallmark of Obama’s reluctant wars is his steadfast aversion to the use of ground troops in military action. In all the conflicts that began under his presidency, Obama has remained steadfast with a policy known as ‘no boots on the ground.’ Whether it is Libya, Syria or Iraq, there is no place for American troops in the combat roles.

Even after the rise of Islamic State, Obama, against the advice of his generals, has repeatedly refused to deploy troops on the ground. While declaring an end to the global war on terror in a major foreign policy speech in 2013, Obama asserted that boots on the ground are counter productive. Obama reiterated this message in his 2014 speech to US troops at MacDill Air Force base, “As your Commander-in-Chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.” Obama has fought his wars with enhanced drone warfare and air bombing campaigns with no place for troops in combat role.

Geopolitical exigencies in the view of a looming disaster in Iraq and Syria did force Obama to send troops, yet the semantics of ‘no boots on the ground’ made sure the troops are mostly out of harm’s way. The role of troops currently deployed in these two countries is limited to providing training, intelligence and logistical support from behind the battlefront. Obama’s anti-war policies have made sure that America has suffered minimum causalities in the fight against the Islamic State.

At the same time, Obama’s half-hearted and hesitant war efforts have led to the accusations of him being called a weak president. But the consequences of Obama’s war policies are worse than just presenting a weak America.

The real blowback of Obama’s reluctant wars is that it has resurrected the ghosts from the Bush era used as a rationale for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Against Bush’s “with us or against us” a vast expanse of land is today under the control of Islamic extremists that can be used to plan and execute terror attacks. Other than its core in Iraq and Syria, IS tentacles have spread in more than 23 countries. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have also seen a revival in recent years. In contrast to Bush’s ‘war of preemption’ against regimes that threaten with weapons of mass destruction, there has been an unchallenged use of chemical weapons. In the fog of war, the Syrian regime, rebels and Isis have been accused of using chemical weapons.

Obama’ reluctant wars were in opposition to what he saw as his predecessor George W. Bush’s reckless wars. Obama came to office with a promise to extricate America from its long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here again, Obama’s reluctance has exacerbated the situation in both countries. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq left a political vacuum in the country that in part led to the rise of Islamic State. In Afghanistan, Obama didn’t repeat the Iraq mistake but his constant desire to bring home the troops has resulted in a resurgent Taliban.

Today the world is far less secure against terrorism since 9/11. Obama’s reluctant wars have taken America and the world back to square one on terror. Islamic extremists have successfully inspired and directed attacks around the world from their safe havens. It is highly likely that they are now in possession of chemical weapons. To avoid another 9/11, America can rely primarily on defensive capabilities. If America suffers another 9/11 or a terror attack on a large scale, America has fewer options to go after the perpetrators since the Islamist ideology has permeated the globe. Moreover, success of the Islamic caliphate has inspired an ideology that resulted in hard to detect lone wolf attacks. The reluctant Commander in Chief, Obama, leaves behind a legacy of endless wars and an unending fear of terror attacks.