“The tide of war is receding,” Barack Obama tirelessly insisted four years ago as he campaigned for re-election.
Even then, the slogan seemed untethered from reality. Not only was fighting in Afghanistan intensifying, with no end in sight, but Syria, Iraq and Libya were all sliding toward civil war. That Obama stuck with the phrase reflected not just his electoral strategy but also an enduring feature of his foreign policy: Having arrived in office with a handful of ideologically driven goals, he has stubbornly stuck to them regardless of contradictory facts on the ground.
“Ending the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan was foremost among those objectives. Obama forced the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq in order to finish in time for his 2012 campaign. And until a few months ago, he appeared implacably committed to completing an Afghanistan withdrawal before leaving office.
One of the most important questions of Obama’s remaining months is whether — and to what extent — he can let go of his wished-for legacy.
Can he accept that it is a vital American interest not just to preserve a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East but also to step it up to confront growing threats from the Islamic State, the Taliban and al-Qaida? Can he acknowledge, like it or not, that the “tide of war” is not receding but swelling?
Three big decisions are on his plate:
» In October, the president scrapped his plan to reduce the 9,800-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan to an embassy-based contingent of about 1,000 by next January, and last month he gave U.S. commanders permission to attack Islamic State targets as well as al-Qaida.
However, he has not yet altered his target of reducing U.S. forces to 5,500 by year’s end. Nor has he responded to proposals to provide regular combat air support to Afghan forces, to stop what have been steady gains by the Taliban.
As both the incoming and outgoing U.S. commanders have publicly hinted, Obama will soon be asked to at least stop the troop drawdown, to prevent an Afghan military collapse.
» In Iraq, Obama has allowed the U.S. troop level to creep back up to 3,700 since 2013, counting special forces deployed in Syria. But as the New York Times recently reported, Pentagon officials believe many hundreds more will need to be deployed in coming months if Iraqi and Kurdish forces are to have a chance to retake Mosul, the largest terrorist-controlled city.
There, too, Obama has not yet made a decision.
» Last but perhaps not least, Obama faces a choice in Libya, where his national security team believes action is urgently needed to head off an Islamic State entity’s taking root there.
“It’s fair to say we’re looking to take decisive military action,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said last month, reflecting the Pentagon’s view.
But not Obama’s: “That’s not in his horizon at the moment,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week.
How will Obama manage these three decisions? Seven years of evidence suggests he will water down his commanders’ proposals and approve only incremental steps.
The problem — especially for Obama’s successor — is that decisive action cannot easily be postponed for another year.
That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, as was underlined in a conversation I had last week with Saad Mohseni, the operator of the country’s most popular private television channel, Tolo TV. Tolo suffered a devastating blow last month when a Taliban suicide bomber slammed into a company bus in Kabul, killing seven people and injuring 25.
This assault on one of the country’s greatest achievements since 2001 — a free media — was just part of a grim landscape sketched by Mohseni: a government paralyzed by infighting, a stalled economy, and a poorly led and demoralized army that is barely preventing a Taliban takeover of several major provinces.
“We are in a pretty bad situation,” Mohseni said. “It is one that could be easily salvaged, but that would require quick action — and it’s your president’s last year.”
Mohseni’s recommendations echo those of the generals: Deploy U.S. airpower against the Taliban and call off the troop drawdown. But he’d also like to see Obama appoint a special envoy to help break the political deadlock in Kabul.
“The United States has huge leverage,” he said. “You can still turn the situation around.”
The question is whether a president who dreamed of ending the wars can be persuaded to do it.