It was characteristic of President Obama's approach to the struggle against Islamic radicalism that he proposed this week to simultaneously escalate and limit the war in Afghanistan.
Since taking office, Obama has steadfastly refused to accept the either/or choices that before his arrival seemingly defined the options for waging this conflict. Instead, on both the military and law enforcement fronts, he has consistently tried to recombine those options in ways previously considered incompatible. Nothing demonstrated that impulse more clearly than Obama's West Point speech on Tuesday, when he announced that he will send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but also set a July 2011 deadline for beginning the U.S. withdrawal. In different paragraphs he seemed alternately hawk and dove.
Obama is crafting a national security strategy substantially defined by its rejection of absolutes.
Obama's complex Afghanistan blueprint is best understood as one component of his ongoing effort to recalibrate our broad strategy against radical Islam. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, it has become increasingly apparent that, like the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the attempt to defang Islamic extremism will be the work of a generation or more. In the Cold War, the United States settled quickly on a strategy of containment that relied primarily (though not exclusively) on nonmilitary means to constrain Soviet expansion. Although that strategy divided the nation at times (particularly during the Vietnam War), it largely guided America's foreign policy for four decades. By contrast, nearly a decade into this conflict, America still faces jagged divisions over how to contest it. "We are eight years into a serious confrontation with Islamic radicalism, and we are not quite sure the best way to fight it yet," notes Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
In the crucible of 9/11, George W. Bush sought to forge the first guideposts. The Republican president's basic belief, expressed across many fronts, was that the new threats required new strategies and tactics -- in many instances, approaches that sharply departed from American traditions. That common instinct could be found in ideas as diverse as warrantless wiretapping, to "enhanced interrogation techniques," to the doctrine of pre-emptive war that was baptized (and probably buried) in Iraq. Bush could count some important victories, particularly the absence of another major terrorist attack inside the U.S. and a belated success at stabilizing Iraq. But his approach divided the country and indeed the world too much to provide as lasting a template as containment did during the Cold War.
Those divisions have allowed Obama to attempt a second draft. The new direction he outlined for Afghanistan this week typified his approach by blending repudiation of Bush with more continuity than many Democrats expected. By itself, Obama's decision to emphasize Afghanistan over Iraq represents a rejection of Bush's priorities, as did renunciation of the conservative dream of cultivating a model democracy in Afghanistan's stony ground and his insistence on a timetable for unwinding the U.S. presence. Yet Obama's Afghanistan buildup draws on Bush's Iraq surge not only in its broad strategy (enhancing security to provide the indigenous government time to solidify itself) but also in many particulars, such as training local forces by embedding them with front-line U.S. troops.
At home, Obama is pursuing a similar fusion. He has turned away from Bush's approach by deciding to try the suspected 9/11 masterminds in civilian court, pledging to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and flatly prohibiting the use of torture. Yet Obama is employing Bush's military commission system to try some suspects, and he hasn't renounced indefinite detention of others.
Unlike Bush, Obama appears to prefer whenever possible to combat radical Islam through traditional U.S. institutions, such as civilian courts and conventional prisons. In Afghanistan, a similar reversion to established approaches is evident in his stress on allies and in his insistence Tuesday that Washington balance goals against costs; such a stance is a recommitment to conventional notions of aligning ends with means in national security.
Yet Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, like his continuation of controversial Bush policies, shows the president's distance from liberals who want to systematically uproot Bush's post-9/11 approaches and assumptions. In a political climate dominated by absolutists, Obama is crafting a national security strategy substantially defined by its rejection of absolutes. If that synthesis produces greater stability in Afghanistan and security at home, Obama may be remembered for boldly formulating a sustainable new balance. If it doesn't, history may accuse him of engineering a muddle by timidly hedging his bets.
This article appears in the Dec. 5, 2009, edition of National Journal.