Obama's 'light footprint' foreign policy is backfiring
Barack Obama spent his first term undoing what he saw as the excesses of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy, from land wars in the Middle East to insufficient attention to Asia. By his own account, he largely succeeded. But chances are he will spend his second term grappling with the flaws in his cure.
Contrary to the usual Republican narrative, Obama did not lead a U.S. retreat from the world. Instead he sought to pursue the same interests without the same means. He has tried to preserve America's place as the “indispensable nation” while withdrawing ground troops from war zones, cutting the defense budget, scaling back “nation-building” projects and forswearing U.S.-led interventions.
Is “leading from behind” an unfair moniker for this? Then call it the light footprint doctrine. It's a strategy that supposes that patient multilateral diplomacy can solve problems like Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; that drone strikes can do as well at preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland as do ground forces in Afghanistan; that crises like that of Syria can be left to the U.N. Security Council.
For the last couple of years, the light footprint worked well enough to allow Obama to turn foreign policy into a talking point for his re-election. But the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 should have been a red flag to all who believe this president has invented a successful new model for U.S. leadership. Far from being an aberration, Benghazi was a toxic byproduct of the light footprint approach — and very likely the first in a series of boomerangs.
Why were Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans murdered by Libyan jihadists? The preliminary round of official investigations might focus on decisions by midlevel officials at the State Department that deprived the Benghazi mission of adequate security and a failure by the large CIA team in the city to detect the imminent threat from extremist groups.
But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama's doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya's revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya's fragile transition government for NATO's security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.
A new report by the Rand Corp. concludes that “this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.” But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias. Its newly elected government has little authority over most of the country's armed men — much less the capacity to take on the jihadist forces gathering in and around Benghazi.
The Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can't happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e., the United States, Britain and France.
Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It's hard to see how.
Obama's team might be betting that it can control the jihadist threat in North Africa the way it has countered al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula — with drone strikes and training for local special forces. But the drone leg of Obama's strategy is looking shaky, as well. Opposition to drone strikes is growing steadily domestically and among U.S. allies, not to mention in the countries where the attacks take place.
A paper by Robert Chesney of the University of Texas points out that if strikes begin to target countries in North Africa and groups not directly connected to the original al-Qaida leadership, problems with their legal justification under U.S. and international law “will become increasingly apparent and problematic.” And that doesn't account for the political fallout: Libyan leaders say U.S. drone strikes would destroy the goodwill America earned by helping the revolution.
At best, Libya will be a steady, low-grade headache for Obama in his second term. But the worst blowback from his policies will come in Syria. What began as a peaceful mass rebellion against another Arab dictator has turned, in the absence of U.S. leadership, into a brutal maelstrom of sectarian war in which al-Qaida and allied jihadists are playing a growing role.
Obama's light footprint strategy did much to produce this mess; without a change of U.S. policy, it will become, like Bosnia for Bill Clinton or Iraq for George W. Bush, the second term's “problem from hell.”
Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post.