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President Obama believes that the United States erred by entering what he calls a costly war of choice in Iraq and by fighting largely without allies to share the human and financial costs. His planned budget cuts reflect a desire to shift more money to domestic priorities but also a broader push to put allies in charge of military missions whenever possible and to take part in ad hoc coalitions such as the one in Libya. Obama’s new approach can be seen in the Persian Gulf (where Washington wants the Sunni monarchies to pool their military resources to counter Iran) and in Asia (where the U.S. hopes that regional fears about China’s intentions will persuade its neighbors to strengthen their bonds). The administration wants the U.S. to be the world’s preeminent power—but not always its sole policeman. 


The White House abandoned a campaign pledge to close Guantánamo Bay and instead approved new military trials there. The administration has brought charges against suspected militants whenever possible, but it dropped plans to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City. Obama surprised many observers by escalating the use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; he also dispatched special operations teams to Yemen to help train the country’s counterterrorism forces. The White House wants to sharply increase the size of elite units like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, which executed the bin Laden raid. 

Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, but he now speaks of almost nothing except his plan to wind it down. The administration will withdraw at least 20,000 troops this year, and it promises to halt the combat mission there by the end of 2013 while narrowing the overall U.S. mission from counterinsurgency to training Afghan forces and killing local militants. The White House says it is open to peace talks with the Taliban; it gave the armed group its quiet blessing to open a political office in Qatar and has held back-channel talks about releasing some Taliban prisoners as part of a series of confidence-building measures that could lead to the release of a missing American soldier.



The administration wants to cut $487 billion over the next 10 years from the Defense Department’s budget, which has more than doubled since 2001. The White House believes that future conflicts will largely be fought from the air, so it has called for slicing 100,000 troops from the Army and Marine Corps, for shrinking the troubled effort to field a fleet of V-22 Ospreys, and for reducing the Navy’s fleet by 14 warships. Obama also plans to bolster special operations forces, to expand cyberwarfare capabilities, and to pour money into more-advanced drones, including undersea variants and models that can take off from aircraft carriers. 



The president ordered the strike in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. Drone attacks there, in Yemen, and in Somalia have risen sharply since Obama took office and have largely decimated al-Qaida.


Obama oversaw the with­drawal of all U.S. forces from the country according to a time line negotiated by his predecessor. But he has failed to stem Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian leanings.

Obama managed the repeal of provisions barring openly gay troops from serving in the armed forces. The policy change has proceeded smoothly, partly thanks to support from Adm. Mike Mullen, his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In shifting from a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency campaign, the president tripled the number of U.S. forces in the country. He is now pivoting back to the earlier mission.



Hillary Rodham Clinton: Obama’s onetime rival has become arguably his most powerful national-security adviser, helping to craft the Afghan surge, the decision to use military force in Libya, and the administration’s escalating support for the Syrian rebels.

Leon Panetta: The former White House chief of staff and budget guru was Obama’s only choice for the Pentagon job, and he’s managed to keep its top military commanders from publicly rebelling against the planned Defense Department budget cuts.        

John Brennan: As Obama’s chief counterterrorism aide, Brennan oversees the interagency process that selects subjects for targeted assassination overseas by American drones or commandos. He also serves as a back-channel emissary to top national-security officials in countries such as Yemen.

This article appears in the June 9, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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