For Obama’s Global Vision, Daunting Problems
By Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti, NY Times, May 24, 2013
WASHINGTON—President Obama, in one of his most significant speeches since taking office, did not simply declare an end to the post-9/11 era on Thursday. 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 American relationship with Pakistan and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan with no clear sense of what comes afterward, there are a multitude of hurdles to Mr. 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 American foreign policy, even in an era of budget cuts for the Pentagon.
Nor can Mr. Obama escape his own role in putting the United States 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 Mr. 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."
Administration officials spoke of a “preference” to use the military to conduct lethal operations, but said that Mr. Obama’s hands would not be tied and that he reserved the right to use the C.I.A. for covert drone strikes in far-off countries.
In a White House “fact sheet” issued Thursday about new standards for lethal operations, 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.”
At the same time, Mr. 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.
"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 Mr. 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?"
To the extent Mr. Obama’s vision is realized, it would radically reorder the power centers in Washington: emboldening the State Department, gradually refocusing the C.I.A. 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 Mr. Obama still had not publicly addressed the problems the United States 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 the details nailed down," he wrote, "not wait to point of failure as we did in Iraq."
Other critics said Mr. 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 C.I.A. will continue to run the drone war as a covert operation in Pakistan for months to come, possibly even until the end of 2014.
Left unsaid in Mr. Obama’s speech was one of the biggest motivations for his new focus: a desire to extricate the United States 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 Mr. 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.”