New York Times Correspondent On President Obama's Playbook For Foreign Confrontation
President Obama touts diplomacy as a characterizing trait of his administration, but his actions reveal a mix of diplomatic persuasion and the coercive use of force.
New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger says President Obama prioritizes minimizing global conflict, but the president’s increased-yet-subtle application of force contrasts the previous administration’s foreign policy decisions.
“There were 48 drone attacks in Pakistan under the Bush administration,” Sanger says. “There have probably been about 400 since Obama came in.”
Sanger’s recent book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, describes the Obama administration’s strong-arm, low-cost, and low-casualty efforts – drones, cyber warfare, and Special Forces - labeling them President Obama’s “light footprint strategy” to minimize global conflict.
“[Obama] came into office talking about diplomacy and reaching out to countries like Iran that the United States has not dealt with in decades,” Sanger says, “But I think he recognized that diplomacy alone without both the threat of force and coercion was not likely to be successful.”
As a result, the Obama administration has mixed diplomatic approaches with indirect, strong-armed strategies like cyber warfare to resolve key issues like nuclear weapons proliferation in Iran and throughout the Middle East.
“We’ve spent a lot of time putting out fires, and most of those fires have been in the Middle East,” Sanger says.
But that focus on “fighting the fires” in the Middle East prevents the United States from strengthening a more valuable economic, and military presence in Asia.
“If peace descended on the Middle East tomorrow morning, and we all wish it will, it's still not going to be a great area of growth for the United States," Sanger says. "Whereas the ability to go into the Chinese market, the booming economies of Southeast Asia - that's a different issue."
But growing domestic pressure complicates foreign policy decision-making. The administration’s international focus could hamstring solutions to national, stateside issues.
“There is a political mood in the country that actually unifies Democrats and Republicans - and there aren't many issues these days that do - that basically says after 13 years of war we need to focus completely on home,” Sanger says. “Frankly, if we don't get our deficits in control, if we don't have a growing economy, then we can't build a strong country that is able to operate around the world.”
Looking ahead, Sanger says Obama’s principal challenge is striking a balance between encouraging American ideals throughout the world without forcing them upon people.
“Democracy is a fabulous import for people who want it. It's a crummy export,” Sanger says. “And that's really been the big lesson going into places like Iraq or Afghanistan, where we didn't fully understand the dynamics of what we were entering.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: David Sanger, welcome back to World Views.
SANGER: Great to be back again.
GRILLOT: Well you were our very first guest on World Views four years ago, so it's a pleasure to have you back. I'm really looking forward to you to talk about the work that you've been doing. Now, you've written two important books about the Obama administration and the foreign policy challenges that he faces. Your first, The Inheritance, really kind of focuses on the challenges he was inheriting as he became President. And now, with Confront and Conceal, some of the surprising ways in which Obama has used American power. So, given all that focus on Obama and his foreign policy and his administration, can you tell us what is an Obama doctrine? Is there such a thing? And, if so, what does it look like?
SANGER: Well you know, Suzette, correspondents, historians, journalists are always looking for doctrines. And, of course, presidents are always trying to evade being nailed down and having one, because then they'll do something and somebody will come along and say "How does this fit into the doctrine?" and frequently it doesn't. But yeah, I think there is an overall Obama doctrine and I think it's this: The era in which we send a hundred thousand troops for six or seven years, try to rewire the country, is over. He knows that he was elected to get the United States out of Iraq and now he is leaving Afghanistan, even though in both places I think it's reasonable to ask the question, when you go back in twenty years and say what was the lasting impact of our presence you may have a hard time finding that. But that said, he can't give up on protecting the United States. So he has sought what in Confront and Conceal I call the light footprint strategy, which is to try to find technologies and military strategies that are extremely low casualty and very low cost that enable you to go in and out very fast. So, for Obama in the first term, that was the use of drones - which increased dramatically in his time. There were 48 drone attacks in Pakistan under the Bush administration. There have probably been about 400 since Obama came in. There is the use of cyber, which I describe a lot in the book, and particularly a program called Olympic Games, which is the American-led covert cyber attacks against Iran's nuclear program. And this use of Special Forces. Those Special Forces are best known for the bin Laden raid, but remember that the night of the bin Laden raid there were 14 other Special Forces operations going on in Afghanistan while those guys were in Pakistan. So that's become a very standard kind of thing. What do these have in common? You don't have to stay on the ground very long for all of them. What's their limitation? That there are some places you can't use them, and Syria has been a great example of that. It's not a place conducive to doing drone strikes. Most of the battling is going on in very tight cities. It's not the kind of place that lends itself to cyber attacks. It's not an extraordinarily computerized operation. You wouldn't save any lives there. And, I think what you've seen in the second term is that Obama has begun to discover that some of the techniques he used in the first term have run out of gas.
GRILLOT: One of the good things, it seems to me in reading your work is that all of these things that you mentioned, but also the willingness to act unilaterally in American interest. That seems to be a fundamental aspect to Obama's decision making. He prefers to work with others, but he won't hesitate at all. The examples that you're providing - bin Laden and that sort of thing - you know, he's kind of a lone ranger in some ways.
SANGER: He is a lone ranger. I think you're right, Suzette, when he sees direct American national interests at stake. But if he sees only a general good for the United States, but not something directly related to its security, then he's been the opposite. He has insisted that others with greater interests go in first and stay in longest. So what are some examples here? Libya. He only agreed for the United States to stay in active battle there for two weeks. He insisted that both the Arab League and NATO be taking the lead. Syria. You would think given the Libya precedent he would be willing to go into Syria, but he said 'Look, the Arab states nearby aren't willing to go do it. NATO is exhausted and got exhausted by Libya where they basically ran out of ammunition against an enemy that couldn't shoot much back at them,’ and so he has said ‘I’m not going in alone.’ And that really, in some ways, distinguishes himself from the decisions that the Bush administration made in Iraq where they said ‘We'd like to bring in what they used to call the Coalition of the Willing,' but if the coalition was unwilling the U.S. was going to stay.
GRILLOT: But it seems interesting to me that you talk about all this use of power - the use of drones, cyber attacks, special forces, all of these things - the use of force certainly is prominent in the Obama administration. But you know not too long ago in the State of the Union address he was talking about diplomacy being the characterizing factor of his administration. But tell us about Iran and the agreement that we now have. How likely are we to be successful in terms of the outcome of this agreement with their nuclear weapons?
SANGER: Suzette, let me start with your first observation. I think you're exactly right. He came to office talking about diplomacy and reaching out to countries like Iran that the United States has not dealt with in decades, but I think he recognized that diplomacy alone without both the threat of force and coercion was not likely to be successful. In fact, his first outreach to Iran in 2009 was completely rejected by the Iranians. Two things followed - a real step up in the sanctions that the United States did. And particularly sanctions on their oil exports. And if you had to find one thing that brought them to the table, it's the fact that their oil exports, which were over 2 million barrels a day before these sanctions began, have dropped below a million a day and they frankly can't even get their revenue from that because of sanctions on their banking activity. The second was that the covert program showed that we knew how to reach in and disrupt, even if temporarily, their nuclear production capability. That brought them to the table. The agreement that was reached a few months ago is just to create some time and space for the negotiation of a larger agreement. What it does is, for the first time in ten years, freeze a lot of Iranian nuclear activity, which is good because if they continued on the path they had been on they would be pretty close to a bomb pretty fast. The downside is the freeze in return for the lifting of some of those sanctions then puts you in a position where for the next step the Iranians must actually dismantle equipment. And that's politically going to be very difficult. When you think about the final agreement with Iran, you have to really think about three agreements. There's one between President Obama and President Rouhani. There's one between President Rouhani and the clerics, the mullahs, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which runs the Iranian nuclear program and is the very powerful military force. And then there's got to be one between Barack Obama and the US Congress. And even members of his own party are very reluctant to be voting to lift sanctions. And let's face it, if they get an actual, real agreement the US is going to have to lift sanctions. It's a very easy vote to vote for sanctions and come back to Oklahoma or anyplace else and say "I put new sanctions on the Iranians." Who would argue against that? It's a very hard vote to say, "In an effort to try to avoid military action we've reached an agreement and now our part of the agreement is to lift some of that pressure."
GRILLOT: So, clearly it's going to be a challenge to get to a final agreement on this issue. Interim agreement - we can cheer, but the final agreement is still a long ways away.
SANGER: And the reason that the final agreement is so necessary is what this is all about is creating a space that is known in the nuclear world as dash time - the amount of time it would take the Iranians to dash to actually make a weapon. And you want that to be at least 18 months or 2 years so that you had enough time to detect that they were doing it and then organize an international response.
GRILLOT: Now, just to follow up one last time on this Iranian case, you said to me before that it's not so much about the Iranian nuclear weapon itself but the proliferation concern that would follow if Iran were to establish a nuclear weapon program. The Saudis would then follow. Others in the region.
SANGER: Maybe the Egyptians.
GRILLOT: The Egyptians. That it's the weapons proliferation. So is that right? We're not really so concerned about the Iranians having a bomb so much as that will lead to this cascade of nuclear programs in the region?
SANGER: Well, obviously if Iran had a bomb it would be a significant issue because we don't have much confidence in the decision making of the leadership. Whenever another country gets a bomb you have to question what happens if one gets loose. That's our constant question about, say, Pakistan. But you're right. The bigger issue is that there is a Sunni Shi'a conflict and if there is a Shi'a bomb -the Iranians being Shiites- it's not going to take very long for the Saudis to develop a Sunni bomb. Some believe that they already have agreements in place so that they could get that from Pakistan or others. There's no evidence for that right now. And others in the region, who fear Iranian dominance, would have it. And then all of the sudden the world's most volatile region becomes nuclearized and the chance of a mistake is high. We tend to think that since the Cold War is over the nuclear threat is over. Well, when the Cold War ended a big nuclear threat got reduced, but in some ways it was easier to manage because we knew exactly who was in command of those weapons. Once you have them spread throughout the region, then you've got a much more complex problem.
GRILLOT: So I guess that's why we spend so much time focusing on the Middle East, but I have to ask you - You've spent a large portion of your career in Asia. We keep hearing about the importance of Asia to American foreign policy. President Obama regularly refers to it. But this pivot never really seems to happen. Is it going to happen? What keeps getting in the way? These things like Iran, Syria, Libya before that. What's it going to take to pivot to Asia?
SANGER: We spend a lot of time putting out fires, and most of those fires have been in the Middle East and South Asia. But certainly you would think that getting out of Iraq and now getting out of Afghanistan should free up some resources. The concept of the pivot to Asia is simple. It's that over the past thirty years or so we have been over-invested in the Middle East and under-invested in the area of the world where we have the greatest economic opportunity, the greatest rise of a middle class, the greatest markets for American goods. Let's face it. If peace descended on the Middle East tomorrow morning and we all wish it will, it's still not going to be a great area of growth for the United States whereas the ability to go into the Chinese market, the booming economies of Southeast Asia - that's a different issue. Why has this been so difficult to do? One, sustaining the interest of the United States in a long-term project is always difficult. We’re always focused on the fire in front of us. Second, it's expensive. Having a significant presence in Asia not only means a significant diplomatic presence, it means stepping up the naval presence. And that means taking resources from someplace else or building new ships. And frankly as the Chinese spread out through the region the urgency to do that is growing. Because the Chinese right now view their area of the Pacific the way James Monroe in 1823 viewed the Caribbean and everyplace else that was part of the Monroe Doctrine.
GRILLOT: That's the consequence of not pivoting, right? The longer it takes to get there, the less likely we are going to be able to get there.
SANGER: You could, if they were telling the truth, you could almost imagine Xi Jinping, the President of China, saying to President Obama during some summit meeting, "You know, we are so glad you are focusing on Iran and on the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is great work. Somebody needs to go out and do it. Go at it." Because, frankly, they know the more time that we are tied up there the more freedom of action they are going to have.
GRILLOT: Well, clearly there are so many challenges President Obama is facing today. What is it that he really needs to do? What does he need to focus on to manage all of these very difficult issues across the world?
SANGER: I think the broadest one, Suzette, is this. There is a political mood in the country that actually unifies Democrats and Republicans - and there aren't many issues these days that do - that basically says after 13 years of war we need to focus completely on home. I understand that. And frankly, if we don't get our deficits in control, if we don't have a growing economy then you can't build a strong country that is able to operate around the world. But our history is one of a pendulum swing from over-involvement around the world to under-involvement. And if you don't get the balance right you suddenly end up going in some part of the world during a crisis - think World War II, many moments before that. So the trick for the President is to sustain a lasting and sustainable international presence for the United States. The good news about that is that the rest of the world still wants to be here. They want to send their students to the United States. They want to come to university here in Norman. They want to come to universities around the world. They love American popular culture. They love American technology. Where do you go in the world these days that you don't see people popping open their iPhone? So we've got a huge opportunity in the attractiveness of our technology, our universities, and to some in our ideology. But what we've learned over the years is that people need to want to adopt an American system. You can't force it on them. Democracy is a fabulous import for people who want it. It's a crummy export. And that's really been the big lesson going into places like Iraq or Afghanistan, where we didn't fully understand the dynamics of what we were entering. That's the hard balance for him to strike.
GRILLOT: Well David Sanger, thank you so much for sharing your insight. It's very helpful for us to hear your analysis on these things.
SANGER: Thank you and great to be back here.
GRILLOT: Thank you so much. Great to have you back. Thank you.
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