There are smart critiques of Obama’s tunnel vision, and they come not only from Republicans but from former Obama administration officials like Vali Nasr. Critics claim that by neglecting Iraq because it no longer harbored a terrorist threat, the Obama administration enabled Nouri al-Maliki’s crackdown against Sunnis, which helped create ISIS. Obama’s failure to do more to strengthen moderate rebels in Syria, they argue, had the same effect. By focusing too narrowly on jihadist terrorism, in other words, the Obama administration ignored the sectarianism and state collapse that ultimately fueled jihadist terrorism. It forgot the proverbial lesson—often preached by liberals—that when it comes to foreign threats, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Obama would probably respond that when it comes to stopping jihadist terrorism from taking root by ensuring representative government, territorial integrity, and national unity in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, an ounce of prevention isn’t nearly enough. The effort costs billions of dollars and a whole lot of American troops. Even then, it might fail because given America’s track record, analogies that portray Washington as a doctor with a sophisticated and empathetic understanding of its Middle Eastern patients are way too benign. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan could certainly have used preventative care in the Obama years. But America’s prophylactic efforts might have involved leeches, not aspirin. As Richard Holbrooke learned the hard way during his time as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s national-security bureaucracy isn’t geared toward diplomacy and economic development. It’s mostly designed to blow things up.
And it’s not just bureaucratic politics that have pushed Obama to focus on counterterrorism over a root-causes approach. Electoral politics has driven him in the same direction. There’s a reason Obama spent his reelection campaign declaring that it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home.” Those declarations won him votes. From the beginning, the president’s political team has understood that on foreign policy, Obama faced two political dangers. If he got too many American troops killed in the Middle East, he risked alienating his liberal base. If he permitted a major terrorist attack against American civilians, he risked empowering the Republicans eager to paint him as weak. The way to protect against both dangers was to keep American troops out of harm’s way while pulverizing alleged jihadists from the air.
Regardless of what you think of the merits of that approach in terms of statecraft, it’s worked politically. Even now, while Republican elites fall over one another to denounce Obama’s foreign policy, you rarely hear Republican candidates do so on the stump. That’s because despite Obama’s declining popularity, his fierce minimalism fits the national mood.
President Obama’s Mideast strategy is not grand. It’s not inspiring. It’s not idealistic. But it’s what the American people want and what their government knows how to do. And Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.