About the Author
Mark Moyar, a distinguished historian and expert on US national security, has served as a consultant to the senior leadership of US Special Operations Command, US Central Command, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. His previous books include A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq and Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. Visit MarkMoyar.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Strategic Failure 1
A MAN OF CHANGE
Hand in hand, the President and First Lady strode toward the center of Hradçany Square through a cloud of rapturous applause that overwhelmed the Czech symphony wafting from the loudspeakers. Youth predominated among the crowd, and Americans among the youth, to the dismay of a blogger from the Economist who had shown up to ask Czechs their opinions of the new American president. The official cameras had been positioned to capture Prague’s medieval castle in the background, adding Old World gravitas to the excitement generated by the New World couple.
Barack and Michelle Obama circled the podium for sixty seconds, their faces beaming with the joy of people who had been in the White House for only a few months. As the First Lady took her seat, the President’s mouth opened into a wide grin that revealed two rows of large, gleaming, and perfectly white teeth. With the rectangular gray boards of his trademark teleprompters on his flanks like oversized rearview mirrors, Obama thanked the crowd and launched into the usual pleasantries.
Obama had come to Prague to deliver his first speech on nuclear weapons, a subject that had long been dear to him. During the presidential race against Senator John McCain, Obama had convinced quite a few people of high reputation that he was a foreign policy realist, cognizant that interests and force ruled international affairs. Yet he aimed the opening salvos of his Prague speech at the views of realists, including the view that nuclear weapons had become a permanent fixture on the global landscape, and the view that nuclear deterrence preserved peace. “If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable,” Obama said, “then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
Peace, Obama continued, could be achieved not through military strength, but through international cooperation on disarmament. “When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp,” Obama intoned. “We know the path when we choose fear over hope. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy but also a cowardly thing to do. That’s how wars begin. That’s where human progress ends.”
Peace-minded people needed to come together to drown out the siren songs of those counseling war. “I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together.”
· · ·
Among journalists, bloggers, talk show hosts, and other political junkies, Obama’s Prague speech rekindled interest in an article he had written in college, twenty-six years earlier, on student opposition to nuclear weapons and the military. Near the end of his senior year at Columbia, Obama had decided to write about student activism for the campus publication Sundial. At the time, left-wing political activists were struggling to stay above water at America’s universities, including Ivy League schools like Columbia where they had flourished in years past. The United States was in a conservative mood, having recoiled at the radical excesses of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had been centered on university campuses. With the end of the draft and the Vietnam War, student organizers had been deprived of issues that could easily rouse the passions of their classmates, whether they be passions of idealism or self-preservation.
In comparison with their predecessors of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Ivy League students of 1983 were more focused on traditional college activities. They were far more likely to go to class, drink beer, or frolic with members of the opposite sex than to attend political rallies or drive to Washington to picket members of Congress. Among the politically minded, of whom there still existed a considerable number, some had figured out that more could be gained by advancing within the once-despised “system,” by getting good grades and good jobs, than by shouting slogans on the sidewalk.
Disconcerting quietude could be found even at Columbia, which had been rattled by some of the fiercest of the protests against the Vietnam War. Fifteen years earlier, student radicals had occupied five university buildings in opposition to a university administration that they considered to be too supportive of the U.S. government and its war in Vietnam. They held on to the buildings for a week, sustaining themselves on fried chicken that their supporters tossed into the windows. It took an army of New York City policemen wielding clubs and tear gas to evict them.
In March 1983, the student body was “tame if not apathetic,” in the words of Obama biographer David Maraniss.1 Obama went to interview campus organizers at Earl Hall, once the bustling nerve center of the 1968 student protests, which was now a sorry shell of its former self, like a California mining town fifteen years after the Gold Rush. The two campus organizations that young Obama was covering in his article, Arms Race Alternatives and Students Against Militarism, were both struggling to attract members beyond the single digits. Rob Kahn, a member of Students Against Militarism whom Obama would quote in his article, remembered thinking at the time, “This is a group of fifteen people that meets once a week and doesn’t do much.” In his view, the earnest student journalist with the unusual name took the group more seriously than it deserved.2
“By organizing and educating the Columbia community,” Obama wrote in his Sundial article, the campus activists were laying “the foundation for future mobilization against the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country.” He observed that “by adding their energy and effort in order to enhance the possibility of a decent world, they may help deprive us of a spectacular experience—that of war. But then, there are some things we shouldn’t have to live through in order to want to avoid the experience.”
Obama’s only reservation about the two campus groups was that they did not go far enough. By concentrating on freezing nuclear weapons, the members of Arms Race Alternatives were not tackling the larger problem of the military itself. “The narrow focus of the Freeze movement, as well as academic discussion of first versus second strike capabilities, suit the military-industrial interests, as they continue adding to their billion-dollar erector sets,” Obama lamented. One of the leaders of Arms Race Alternatives, Mark Bigelow, told Obama that the “narrow focus” on nuclear arms control reflected a recognition that abolishing the military entirely was excessively ambitious for the time being. “We do focus primarily on catastrophic weapons,” Bigelow explained. “Look, we say, here’s the worst part, let’s work on that. You’re not going to get rid of the military in the near future, so let’s at least work on this.”
As is customary for articles in college publications, Obama’s Sundial reportage disappeared soon after it was published. It evaded journalists and opposition researchers during the 2008 election, before mysteriously showing up on the Internet in January 2009. As soon as it came to light, Republicans pounced on its contents as evidence of Obama’s misguided views on national security. Obama’s own aides did not dismiss the article as the high-minded musings of an immature college student, as might have been expected, but instead described the opinions expressed therein as “deeply felt and lasting,” according to author James Mann.3
It would be the only early marker of Obama’s views on war and the military. Although numerous books have been written about Barack Obama already, including Obama’s two pre-presidential memoirs, the evidence on his views of the military between 1983 and 2001 is surprisingly thin. Obama chose to keep quiet on the subject, at least outside of conversations with friends and family. For nearly twenty years, Obama wrote nothing about national security and said nothing that was recorded by others.
His resurfacing came in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when he decided to pen an op-ed on the cataclysm in the Hyde Park Herald. A small community newspaper, the Herald served a few affluent neighborhoods in the otherwise poverty-stricken south side of Chicago, where Obama was then living as an Illinois state senator. For the Obama of 2001, the devastation of 9/11 did not provoke anger at the terrorists, as it did for so many other Americans. The attack was most significant to him because of what it said about global poverty and America’s neglect of it. Terrorism, wrote State Senator Obama, “grows from a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.” America needed “to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.”4
Over the course of the next year, Obama’s position on terrorism underwent a dramatic shift. When he appeared at an antiwar rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza on October 2, 2002, Obama began by saying, “After September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.” Speaking against the backdrop of a fifty-three-foot pink flamingo sculpted by Alexander Calder, Obama told the crowd, “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.”5
Obama never said why he shifted from decrying 9/11 as proof of America’s neglect of global poverty to invoking 9/11 as the cause of a personal desire to take up arms against the perpetrators, in accord with the strategy of the George W. Bush administration. One might surmise that his mind was changed by the discovery that the 9/11 hijackers were neither poor nor ignorant, and were instead uncompromising ideologues who could be stopped only by force. Yet other passages in his speech at the Federal Plaza indicate that he had not abandoned his belief that poverty and ignorance accounted for terrorism. “You want a fight, President Bush?” Obama jeered. “Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”
The most plausible reason for Obama’s change in position between 2001 and 2002 was a political calculation that it would boost his chances of winning a higher office. In the spring of 2002, Obama had begun exploring the possibility of a run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and in August 2002 he had brought on a high-powered political consultant by the name of David Axelrod. Raised in Manhattan, Axelrod had studied the political craft while on the staff of the Chicago Tribune and then had started his consultancy, Axelrod and Associates, in 1985. By 2002, Axelrod’s list of successful clients included the mayors of many of America’s major cities. As the Economist observed, one of Axelrod’s specialties was “packaging black candidates for white voters.” Axelrod believed that “the candidate is the message,” and “the important thing is to tell a positive story about the candidate rather than to muddy the narrative with lots of talk about policy details.”6
Axelrod presumably explained to his new client that anyone unwilling to offer some tough talk on terrorism would be incapable of obtaining the votes required for national office. The American voting public had no appetite for left-wing theories that blamed American inattention to poverty for suicide airplane attacks that killed thousands of Americans. Supporting America’s intervention in Afghanistan would violate some of Obama’s long-held principles, but if Obama were unwilling to abandon principles for the sake of gaining votes, he would have to join the countless others whose commitment to principles ensured that they would never win election to high office. As Axelrod must have told Obama, politicians can employ many rhetorical means to justify a major shift on an issue so that they do not appear to be unprincipled and instead come across even more favorably. The candidate could be said to have displayed open-mindedness by “reconsidering the issue in light of new developments.” The candidate would be a “pragmatist who dealt with each situation on its own merits” rather than “employing simplistic, cookie-cutter solutions.”
The new Obama messaging strategy on national security would prove to be a winning one. In the coming years, Obama raked in political points with liberals by pointing out that he had opposed the Iraq War when other leading Democrats had backed it, and at the same time he avoided accusations of weakness on national security by espousing support for the American cause in Afghanistan, which was more popular than Iraq since Afghanistan had sheltered the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. This national security narrative would be critical in Obama’s race for the presidency in 2008.
During his first years in the U.S. Senate, Obama devoted little of his time to national security affairs and had little to say about events overseas, which would give political opponents few opportunities later to fault him for taking the wrong position on specific issues. He became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs in early 2007, but by then he was making a run for the White House, which he used as an excuse to neglect the committee work. During his tenure as chair of the subcommittee, he did not hold a single policy hearing, a fact that rival Hillary Clinton would repeatedly point out in the Democratic primary.
With the start of presidential campaigning, though, Obama had no choice but to start talking about national security. In keeping with Axelrod’s messaging doctrine, he provided few policy details and instead concentrated on the story of his support for the “good war” in Afghanistan and his opposition to the “dumb war” in Iraq, employing the latter to bash George W. Bush and distinguish himself from Democratic contenders who had voted in favor of the Iraq War. He vowed to send additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan. As both Obama’s admirers and detractors agree, Obama’s hawkish position on Afghanistan was driven by a desire to show swing voters that he could be tough on national security, not by a strong conviction about the strategic importance of Afghanistan or dissatisfaction with the current U.S. approach in that country.7
While Obama’s other foreign policy proposals were few in number, they did foretell some of the major changes Obama was to implement. Candidate Obama vowed to take unilateral action against high-level terrorists in Pakistan if the Pakis...
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