Fisking Sullivan on Obama

  • January 17, 2012
  • Abu Muqawama

Considering the origins of the practice of fisking, I figured Andrew Sullivan wouldn't mind (and might even appreciate) if I offered some points of contention with his Newsweek apologia for the president. I'll ignore the sections on health care and the economy -- since no one would confuse me with a specialist on either subject -- and stick to the sections on national security.

On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement.

Well, here Sullivan and I are in agreement. I would like to chalk all of the craziness up to election year politics, but some of the rhetoric in these Republican primary debates has been downright scary.

Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest — but most ambitious — plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further.

The president deserves real and enduring credit for his bold decision to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but let's not overstate the case here. Sullivan makes it sound as if the president was the de facto J3 for JSOC. (That was actually Rich Clarke, if anyone at home is looking to assign credit.) The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a great victory for the United States, but if victory truly has a thousand fathers, plenty of others deserve credit -- including George W. Bush, who was the president as JSOC and its allies in the intelligence community built up many of the capabiltiies that allowed them to track and kill bin Laden. Bush most certainly did not "ignore" bin Laden. Ultimately, the raid was enabled because the United States caught a break on intelligence. And does anyone think that George W. Bush, if given a similar break, would not have made similar decisions? 

If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.

There are several factors that have been driving al-Qaeda's decline in popularity -- a decline, like the economic collapse, that preceded the Obama Administration. Al-Qaeda's own missteps have been one factor, as have been the rise of moderate Islamist groups who have come to power through elections, not bombs. Will McCants discusses the threat moderate Islamists pose to al-Qaeda in this Foreign Affairs piece, and I discuss al-Qaeda's various own goals in my chapter in this book.* Finally, the drone campaign initiated by President Bush and intensified by President Obama has unquestionably degraded al-Qaeda's leadership. But we have no way of measuring second and third-order effects and have not begun to even ask questions about what they might be.

Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.

Over the past 60 years or so, the nations of Europe have been "free-riders" off U.S. military strength. There is no evidence, though, to suggest that as the United States takes a backseat in regional security, European defense spending will increase or European nations will take on more responsibility. The nations of Europe, in the words of one defense intellectual, showed up to a gunfight in Libya with knives.** The United States brought the guns. And the ammunition. And all the taregting. And all the in-flight refueling. And the ISR. This is not a rebuttal of Sullivan's point but rather a word of warning to those who believe that Europe will opt to "defend itself" if the United States reduces its leadership role. 

The Iraq War—the issue that made Obama the nominee—has been ended on time and, vitally, with no troops left behind. Defense is being cut steadily, even as Obama has moved his own party away from a Pelosi-style reflexive defense of all federal entitlements.

The defense cuts on the table at the moment make sense. If we go into sequestration, they become really stupid, really fast. This is the fault of the U.S. Congress and not the president. (It's not the president's fault that Republicans in the Congress opted for lower taxes over defense spending.) With regard to the Iraq War, let me make two points: (1) The war is not over. It has not ended. U.S. involvement, rather, has ended. (2) The Bush Administration negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement that ended the U.S. involvement. It deserves credit for having done so.

I railed against him for the better part of two years for dragging his feet on gay issues. But what he was doing was getting his Republican defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move before he did. The man who made the case for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was, in the end, Adm. Mike Mullen.

I am no specialist in gay rights or Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but I thought DADT was a silly policy and do not mourn its passing. I guess the president deserves credit for ending it, but I think all the new policy does is reflect the norms of this generation of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen -- as opposed to the more conservative norms of earlier generations.

Yes, Obama has waged a war based on a reading of executive power that many civil libertarians, including myself, oppose. And he has signed into law the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial (even as he pledged never to invoke this tyrannical power himself). But he has done the most important thing of all: excising the cancer of torture from military detention and military justice. If he is not reelected, that cancer may well return. Indeed, many on the right appear eager for it to return.

I too opposed the way in which the administration went to war in Libya -- though, I must admit, things turned out a lot better than I thought they would. And I really have no issue with the rest of what Sullivan says. Though I think the loser in the 2008 presidential election, John McCain, deserves some credit of his own for partnering with human rights lawyers to set new standards for interrogation and detention.

*I was paid a flat fee for that chapter, so if you buy the book, I will not receive any royalties. I just wanted to be clear about that since I am linking to a product of my own.

**I was trying to remember where I heard this construct used. Oh, yeah -- in a discussion with Tom Ricks.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan responds to my criticism. 

Andrew [Exum] ignores the fact that Obama actually had a major fight with McCain in the debates in 2008 over whether he would unilaterally launch a mission into Pakistan to get the guy, without Pakistan's approval. McCain and the rest of the right cited this as evidence of Obama's naivete and incompetence in foreign policy. Obama set a new course in early 2009 - and did exactly what he said he'd do. Here's what we know of Bush and Bin Laden. He let him escape in Tora Bora; in 2002, he said this on Bin Laden.

Allow me to add a little bit to the historical record. I have a very small amount of personal experience with special operations in Afghanistan during the Bush Administration years. Cross-border operations into Pakistan were never explicitly ruled out. Rather, they were treated with all the gravity they deserved. Yes, you can go into Pakistan if it means killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. But if you go into Pakistan, crash a helicopter or get into a gunfight with Pakistani police and don't get bin Laden ... well, you can imagine what the costs would be to U.S. policy in the region. That was the logic in 2004, and as far as I can tell based on subsequent research, that remained the logic in 2011 and even today. I firmly believe, based on both personal experience and subsequent analysis, that George W. Bush was committed to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. Were resources that could have been used toward that end diverted to deal with a worsening situation in Iraq? Absolutely. Did the administration's decision to invade in Iraq in 2003 take our focus off of al-Qaeda? Absolutely. But to argue that President Bush "ignored" Osama bin Laden is to overstate the case.

And if President Bush made public statements that he didn't really care about Osama bin Laden, I support those. Those were smart statements to make in public -- lest Osama bin Laden be turned into even more of a folk hero in the Muslim world than he already was. The longer the narrative was about "the United States versus Osama bin Laden," the longer bin Laden was a heroic figure who -- alone among Muslim leaders -- stood up to the great hegemonic power. Once that narrative went away, the Muslim world had to confront the ugliness and horrors of al-Qaeda's actions. And it didn't like what it saw.

As far as what Sen. McCain argued, well, I cannot defend that. But my point was about George W. Bush.