Obama’s State of the Union Speech and the Seductiveness of Limited Intervention

In a typical President Barack Obama speech – beautifully crafted and inspirational, full of lofty aspirations and ideals but admittedly facing difficult implementation challenges – the president’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech revealed what has been emerging as Obama’s foreign policy doctrine: highly limited and constrained U.S. military engagement abroad while focusing on nation-building at home.

Like the Casper Weinberger-Colin Powell doctrine of the 1980s and early 1990s, yesterday’s SOTU called for deploying the U.S. military only when the U.S.’s most vital national interests are at stake. But unlike the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, which emphasized the deployment of an overwhelming U.S. force with no half-way measures, the president’s address yesterday underscored that U.S. military engagements would be surgical and constrained. The president rejected open-ended commitments and disavowed large-scale military interventions. Rather, he embraced quick in-and-out military engagement, such as by drones, combined with building up partner capacity. Indeed, the examples he picked – Somalia, Yemen and Mali – have featured such limited operations.

The desire to focus on the social, institutional and economic challenges that the United States faces internally is certainly appropriate. U.S. foreign policy will be far more effective if it emanates from a strong internal U.S. core. It is equally appropriate to rebalance U.S. foreign policy away from the excessive trigger-happy military interventionism that has characterized U.S. foreign policy for too many years, hemorrhaged U.S. resources and undermined U.S. credibility and leadership.

However, the belief that national security policy on a shoe-string, premised on quick in-and-out interventions with limited commitment will accomplish U.S. foreign policy goals will in many cases be a dangerous, seductive illusion. U.S. drone attacks in Somalia hurt Shabaab’s operational capacity, but they hardly debilitate the terrorist group. Nor do they in any way address the structural causes and institutional deficiencies that have given rise to the crisis of governance in Somalia and the emergence of Shabaab. Excessively, a tactical reliance on drones is being relied on to fill the void of an integrated strategy for defending U.S. interests in many parts of the world.

In Mali, the limited intervention mode also embraced by France did succeed in pushing out the jihadists who had taken over the country. But in no way did the drive-by intervention change the underlying dynamics of exclusionary governance and ethnic tensions that enabled the jihadists to score their success. In fact, the much touted presidential election in Mali in 2013 brought back to power the very same leaders whose problematic governance created the enabling environment for the jihadists in the first place. And even on the battlefield, the success of the French intervention has been steadily eroding: the jihadists are increasing their operations outside of Kidal, insecurity and criminality are growing, and the fragile deal between the Tuaregs and the government in Bamako is already fractured.

The assumption that building partner capacity will robustly secure U.S. interests is equally problematic. More often than not, there will not be a strong alignment of U.S. and so-called “partner” interests, and the presumed partners will not carry the water for the United States, particularly on highly sensitive matters such as fighting terrorists and insurgents or reforming exclusionary and corrupt political processes and institutions that underlie government weakness and conflict.

Occasionally, in unstable and fragile states there might be points of intersection of interests of regimes or political movements with those of the United States, but such intersection does not imply robust and lasting alignment. Where there are existing multifaceted and cross-cutting alignments of interests, building local capacity may indeed enhance the achievement of shared goals. However, just the transfer of capacities to a “partner”, no matter how extensive the training, resources or engagement of U.S. Special Operations Forces, will not generate a fundamental convergence of interests.

Just like the warlords on whom the United States relied in the early phases of the Afghanistan intervention, the presumed partners, whether in government or out, will often pocket the money (and weapons) and run … servicing their own interests, not ours. They will undertake only the absolute minimum action necessary to keep U.S. resources flowing while striking their own deals and accommodations, hedging their bets or targeting their own enemies, not those of the United States. “Partner” action might thus often come with side-effects the United States will find highly undesirable, such as blatantly eliminating one’s political enemies with U.S. weapons, and at times directly subverting U.S. objectives.

The seduction of such limited military engagement and of the belief that others will do for us what we are not willing to do ourselves is based on two illusions: first, that such limited engagements and reliance on others will actually adequately secure U.S. interests; and second, that it will not get the United States mired in open-ended ventures (an assumption contradicted, for example, by the open-ended U.S. reliance and dependence on drone hits against al Qaeda and salafi targets in Pakistan).

In the State of the Union Speech, President Obama repeatedly stressed that he was bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end. More accurately, he is bringing the U.S. direct military involvement in the war to an end. It is ironic, however, that it is the George W. Bush-Donald Rumsfeld approach to the war in Afghanistan – limited, quick in-and-out intervention on a shoestring that relies on distant military platforms and bought-up local proxies furnished with transferred U.S. resources – that President Obama has come to embrace as his own doctrine for many other complex and challenging parts of the world. All the more ironic because it was this early Bush administration approach that squandered the opportunity to transform Afghanistan into a more stable and thriving place, embracing the aspirations of its people while securing U.S. counterterrorism and geostrategic objectives.

Indeed, the United States should only deploy its military might and risk the lives of its citizens when the vital U.S. interests are at stake. But when it does so, the political resolve and resource commitments need to be robust. Such commitments involve not only a comprehensive military strategy matched by adequate resources, but also an equivalent political, diplomatic and economic strategy prepared for involvement in the difficult and complex (and dirty) politics and state-building of the target country. If we are not willing to do so, we shouldn’t go in … not with our soldiers, and often not even with our drones.