Obama's Real Failure: Not Talking to the Taliban Enough

A new critique of the president's "don't do stupid shit" doctrine is emerging—and it's coming from within his own party.
Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

There are three kinds of critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The first comes from the left, from commentators like Glenn Greenwald who claim Obama has embraced the architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror: unlawful spying, unlawful detention, unlawful drone attacks, cozy relations with dictators. The second comes from the right, from hawks who believe Obama has appeased anti-American tyrants in Syria, Russia, and Iran, while retreating from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thus weakening American credibility. The third, and least discussed, comes from foreign-policy professionals, including those within Obama’s administration. Ideologically, it’s harder to classify. These professionals argue that in his zeal to focus on domestic policy, and to avoid risky foreign-policy fights, the president simply hasn’t invested the time and political will to effectively wield American power.

One purveyor of this third critique is Obama’s former envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. When Republicans attack the administration’s Syria policy, they mostly focus on Obama’s decision to declare Syrian chemical weapons a “red line,” and then fail to act militarily when Bashar al-Assad crossed it, allegedly making America look weak. Ford’s critique is different. This week—in a public break with his former boss—he argued that by not aiding Syria’s rebels when they initially took up arms, before jihadists became a dominant force in the armed opposition, Obama squandered an opportunity to pressure Assad into a diplomatic deal. Unlike Republican politicians, who want to paint Obama as a wimp for not launching missile strikes in the country, Ford’s critique is that the president—in his desire to avoid getting sucked into a messy and risky civil war—proved too passive not only militarily, but diplomatically as well.

Ford’s criticism echoes one leveled by another former Obama State Department official, Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation. In recent days, Republicans have flayed the White House for “negotiating with terrorists” in order to secure the Taliban’s release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. But Nasr, who worked under special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, maintains that Obama’s failure was to not negotiate with the Taliban enough. Like Ford, he thinks Obama’s main problem was not his refusal to stand up to America’s enemies, but his refusal to engage them the right way.

Nasr’s argument is that since the only way to keep Afghanistan from descending into civil war once America left was to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Taliban, the Obama administration should have pursued one from the moment it took office. This effort, he says, was stymied by military leaders who thought negotiations would undermine the counterinsurgency “surge” they were about to launch in 2009. The White House—“ever afraid that the young Democratic president would be seen as ‘soft’”—took the military’s side. It feared talking seriously to Tehran about Afghanistan for the same reason, even though Nasr argues that Iran, along with Pakistan, was crucial to a negotiated deal.

According to Nasr, the White House only gave its blessing to negotiations with the Taliban in late 2011, once Obama had already announced that the surge would soon end, and the additional American troops would return home. In so doing, Nasr argues, Obama was “snatching away the leverage that would be needed if diplomacy was to have a chance of success.” By the time America was ready to talk, the Taliban no longer had an incentive to. 

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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