Strongman Act

The Daily

May 1, 2012

The one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan (it was still May 1 back in the United States), is certain to be the occasion for a victory lap by the Obama administration. Or two. In fact, the demise of al Qaeda’s leader has already become a centerpiece of the president’s re-election campaign. Vice President Joe Biden recently said that the entire presidency could be summed up as follows: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

Republicans may well say this is not much to boast of, after four years in office, but it’s a lot more than the last Democratic incumbent who was in serious danger of losing a bid for re-election could say. Jimmy Carter might well have won in 1980 if his Special Operations raid — the one designed to free the U.S. hostages in Tehran — had succeeded rather than ending in a fiery crash in the Iranian desert.

No one can deny Obama a rightful measure of pride in a gutsy order to proceed with a high-risk operation. Nor can anyone deny that, along with a series of other strikes, Operation Neptune Spear (as the SEAL raid was formally known) has helped to cripple al Qaeda “central,” if not its far-flung franchises. Other terror groups, from the Taliban and the Haqqani network to Hezbollah and Hamas, continue to go strong. But not al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s successor and former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is simply not the Saudi’s equal as a charismatic figure able to motivate and direct a far-flung terror network.

Yet al Qaeda was already much weakened even before bin Laden’s demise. In some ways, the most significant impact of the raid has been something that no one could have anticipated.

The raid gave Obama, a foreign policy neophyte when he came into office, the confidence to make national security decisions based on his own instincts. In his first two years in office, he acceded much more to centrist officials such as National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But after the death of bin Laden, he felt free to take risky steps such as speeding the withdrawal of 32,000 surge forces from Afghanistan, a move that Gates and Clinton — along with Gen. David Petraeus — had opposed.

Obama has now concluded a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. But the extent of his commitment remains unclear. The fact that the president wants to slash funding for the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014, from $6 billion to $4.1 billion a year, is not a good sign. It will necessitate a large reduction in the Afghan ranks, which could cripple their ability to fight an insurgency that still enjoys safe havens in Pakistan. (A key test will be how many advisers Obama commits to stationing in Afghanistan post-2014.)

In this regard, the Iraq precedent is not encouraging. Following the bin Laden raid, Obama showed little interest in extending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq despite the advice of his generals who wanted to keep at least 20,000 personnel there. Obama offered to keep only 5,000 troops in Iraq and did not push terribly hard to overcome Iraqi resistance.

At the same time, Obama supported drastic cuts in military spending. Nearly $500 billion was cut from the defense budget last summer as part of the deficit deal struck by the president and Congress — and another $600 billion or so could be cut starting in January as part of the sequestration process. Senior generals have warned that those cuts would have catastrophic consequences, but Obama has not taken any action to head them off — no doubt because he now feels secure enough not to be branded “soft on defense.”

More recently, Obama reopened talks with North Korea and even struck a deal to trade food aid in return for a stop to its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang promptly violated that agreement by firing off a long-range missile. Obama has also been trying to restart talks with Iran while pressing Israel not to launch a pre-emptive strike. If he has any success, it will be because of tough sanctions on Iran’s central bank passed by Congress over his initial opposition. And he has resisted calls for airstrikes in Syria, the provision of aid to rebels, or the setting up of “safe zones” to help topple the Bashar Assad regime.

In fairness, there have been flashes of steel in Obama’s post-bin Laden foreign policy. He has continued drone strikes on terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, and he has talked about getting tougher on China. But so far, his vaunted “pivot to Asia” has been more rhetorical than real. The only substantive step has been the stationing of 2,500 Marines in Australia. Truly deterring China would require substantial spending to reverse a decline in the size of our air and naval forces — not likely at a time when the president and Congress are busy cutting the defense budget.

History works in strange and surprising ways. Sometimes a president’s moment of weakness can lead, as in the case of Jimmy Carter, to a policy of renewed strength. In Obama’s case, his biggest display of toughness — Operation Neptune Spear — may well be remembered as the moment when his administration turned more dovish.