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.

The critique outlined by Ford and Nasr doesn’t get as much air time as those leveled by doves like Greenwald or hawks like John McCain. It’s less sweeping and ideological. But it’s based on the idea that shaping conflicts like Syria and Afghanistan requires a greater tolerance for both military and diplomatic risk than Obama felt comfortable with. Solving Syria’s civil war, argues Ford, would have required the military risk of arming rebels even though American arms might have found their way to jihadists and the political risk of cutting a deal with Assad’s key patron, Iran. Solving Afghanistan’s civil war, argues Nasr, required the military risk of a more open-ended surge and the political risk of sitting down earlier with the Taliban and with Iran. It would have required Obama making the kind of all-in, high-stakes effort that he has made on health care and gun control but tended to avoid when it comes to foreign policy.

The Ford-Nasr critique is hardly self-evident. Nasr assails the White House staff for putting domestic politics too much at the center of foreign policy. But Obama’s refusal to take bigger foreign-policy gambles may reflect an accurate assessment of the domestic mood. (It’s noteworthy that the one time Obama did take a big overseas risk—the raid on Osama bin Laden—it was in pursuit of a goal Americans truly cared about).

In both Syria and Afghanistan, the model of using increased military pressure to broker a diplomatic deal comes from the Balkans, where the Clinton administration waged war against Slobodan Milosevic to force him to accept diplomatic agreements that ended the slaughter in Bosnia and later Kosovo. 2014, however, is not 1995 or 1999. In the wake of two disastrous wars, a crippling financial crisis, and rising competition in Asia, Obama may have been right to try to avoid commitments that could have bogged down the U.S. further in the Middle East.

Either way, the Ford-Nasr critique deserves more attention because it’s the one most likely to influence Hillary Clinton, who was more supportive of arming Syria’s rebels than Obama, more supportive of a larger Afghan surge and, according to Nasr, more supportive of talks with the Taliban earlier on in the conflict. Intellectually, Clinton has been more influenced by the Balkan Wars than Obama has, and less by the trauma in Iraq. And her self-declared doctrine—“smart power”—which envisages the coordinated use of different aspects of American might, is closer to what Ford and Nasr are proposing than to the Obama Doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Beyond the partisan shouting on cable TV, a different foreign-policy argument is emerging within the Democratic foreign-policy elite. And if Hillary runs, it is the one that may matter most.