Nobel acceptance speech
Here's a bit of contemporary history for you. After the 2008 election, but before the handover of power, Bush invited Obama over to the White House for a one-on-one sit-down meeting, in which he begged the incoming president to preserve just two programs: "Olympic Games" (the highly classified cyberwar attack on the Iranian nuclear program), and the drone strikes in Pakistan.
Obama did so. And how. He not only continued Olympic Games, but ramped it up, requesting and receiving regular updates on its progress and even providing tactical input. In his first year, he had more meetings on the problem of Iran than on any other topic. And as a result, the U.S. and Israel (the program was a partnership between our Cyberwar Command and Israel's famed Unit 8200, which does their cyber-offense and -defense as well as SIGINT) put back the mullahs' march to nuclear weapons power status by probably three years. (One metric: their facility at Natanz, which was built to hold 1,000 centrifuges, currently has 200 they kept blowing up and spinning down so often, the Iranians frequently shut down the whole program, pointing fingers, firing people, and basically trying to figure out why nothing worked. "The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid," said one participant in the attacks, "which is what happened.")
More famous, because less classified, is the fact that Obama also massively ramped up the drone campaign authorizing, to date, 283 covert strikes, more than eight times as many as Bush did in eight years in office. This has been a key part of an evolving "Obama Doctrine," which focuses on covert use of (our awesomely awesome) Special Operations Forces, precision drone strikes, and cyberwar to make the world safe versus, say, 100,000-man occupation armies, nation-building, and ground wars. Even an unreconstructed hawk like me has to admit that, costs and benefits considered, Obama's way is a lot better, not to mention smarter. And it's hard to argue with the results: UBL is dead as Dillinger, and the remnants of al Qaeda are on the verge of what we're calling "strategic defeat." (We've killed so many aQ Number Threes at this point, you'd prefer being the new Spinal Tap drummer to that job…)
These, and very many other fascinating tidbits, are what's on offer in David Sanger's exciting, thorough, and very intimate new-ish book, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. As chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Sanger had pretty much unbelievable access to White House policy staff and senior national security staffers, and uses it to write the early history of the Obama administration at war. It is eye-opening.
Speaking of which, and speaking of disappearing aQ leadership, I had it worse than wrong when I previously suggested that it was unseemly for Obama to rush to take credit for the raid in Abbattobad, as he'd done nothing. I had assumed, mistakenly, that the hunt by our intelligence services for UBL had been ongoing and fully ramped up, and that they had simply partnered with the shooters in JSOC to make it happen. In point of fact, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Horn of Africa, and everything else on, the CIA had lost any focus or urgency on the hunt for the world's most wanted man. But then Obama called Leon Panetta into his office and said he wanted it ramped back up; and he wanted regular progress updates.
Moreover, when the Agency, and the National Geospace Intelligence Agency, thought they might have found UBL in that compound, Obama's involvement was substantial. First of all, he ruled out bombing much favoured by Biden and SecDef Gates because the conspiracy theorists would spend the rest of eternity saying we hadn't really got him. Instead, he authorized a much more risky SOF raid, into the sovereign territory of Pakistan. With the spectres of both Operation Eagle Claw (the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran in 1980) and Black Hawk Down (crashing helicopters and bloody urban combat in Mogadishu) hanging over it, and as we forget in the wake of it having gone nigh perfectly, all kinds of horrible stuff could have gone wrong. And if it had, Obama would have been "Jimmy Carter without the peanut farm."
But Obama did take the risk, getting invoved even to the point of tweaking the tactical plan: he insisted that the QRF (quick reaction force) be inserted into a desert hide inside Pakistan, not left over the border in Afghanistan, so they could help the SEALs fight their way out if it all went to hell. Anyway, point being, Obama deserves an enormous amount of credit for taking this gamble, and making it pay.
Here are a few other things we didn't know (because Obama was bigger on doing things than explaining them):
- As regards his much-derided-on-the-right "reset"/reconciliation of relations around the world including and in particular his speech to the Arab World at American University in Cairo, and his other speech aimed directly to Iranian people/leaders: he didn't actually expect it to work in bringing around hard cases like the mullahs. But he understood that he had to demonstrate, principally to the Europeans, that he had made a full, good-faith diplomatic effort at things, in order to get them onboard for toothful sanctions. Smart.
- To those, like me, who thought he was far too slow embracing the young, liberal, secular reformers of the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring: perhaps, but to put it in context, one needs to understand the following.
- One of his operating principles is caution, which is usually a pretty good operating principle. As well, he didn't want to be seen as meddling in the internal politics of the Middle East which, let's face it, the U.S. has a hell of a checkered history there.
- He had Secretary of State Clinton, SecDef Gates, and other old cynical people in his administration saying, Yeah, this all looks great, but it's going to be really messy and could easily go the way of the Iranian revolution.
- He had leaders in the region, like the Saudis, and Israeli PM Netanyahu calling him up and telling him, for reasons of their own, "You must support Mubarak!"
- When we went in to militarily support the Libyan people in their revolution:
- Obama decided that because there were no immediate American interests at stake (not to say American ideals), he basically insisted that the Europeans, and the Arab League, take the lead. As a result, the tiny Qatari Air Force flew their fighters on in; and when the Europeans ran out of smart bombs not too much later, we happily sold them $250M worth. As Sanger memorably put it, "The message to Europe and the Arab states was clear: this is your neighborhood, your refugee crisis, and primarily your problem. Call if we can help." Smart.
- But to his advisers (like Gates, and Biden) who told him it was somebody else's civil war, which we ought to stay the heck out of, he replied that we were not going to be hypocrites on human rights; we weren't going to be frozen into inaction by our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, basically, we weren't going to abandon these people fighting for their freedom. "That's just not who we are," he said. Nice.
Incidentally, as some critics have asked: Why are the Libyan people deserving of protection and support, but not the Syrian people (many more of whom have died at the hands of the butcher Assad)? Well, the unsavoury answer is that Syria is harder: harder to sell, harder to get the UN onboard (China and Russia, both of whom have vested interests in the Assad regime, will veto any resolutions) and, in particular, harder to bomb. That is, there's much poorer access from the water, and the fighting is in cities rather than in the desert (i.e. it's an impossible problem to solve from the air). But as I've said in the past, inability to do good everywhere is no justification for not doing good somewhere, when we have the chance.
In summary, all of this seems to me incredibly smart, competent, properly both realistic and idealistic and basically just grown-up.
I wanted to get this in before the election. (I'm off to the Embassy in Grovesnor Square to drop off my ballot tonight. And, no, incidentally, I'm not voting for Obama.) I think Obama's handling of the public finances has been disastrous, with very possibly disastrous consequences yet to come. (As it never seems to stop being necessary to point out, the American president doesn't control the U.S. economy. But he does, along with the Congress, control the public sector and the public purse.) But all of the above strike me as very good, maybe decisive, reasons to vote for Obama over Romney who so far seems callow, impulsive, inflammatory, and borderline demagogic on defense and foreign policy.
In my view, Obama has done very, very well in what is, arguably, his number one job.