Yes, President Obama's Afghan surge resulted in a Taliban weaker than it otherwise would've been. But at what price? American blood and treasure spent on a objectives that weren't achieved.
There is a common thread running through these policies: the benefit is immediate, whereas many of the costs are apparent only over a longer time horizon. The blowback, the diminution of our soft power, the normalization of cyber-warfare, the precedent of ordering drones into countries with which we aren't officially at war (sure to be cited one day by the Chinese) -- all of these things and more ought to be factored into the strategic calculus, but Obama's incentives are misaligned. To once again invoke my colleague, "The president can launch strikes to impede terrorism in the short run
and let the blowback show up on the next president's watch. I'm not
saying the calculation is always this consciously cynical, but the
result can be the same even when it's not."
Shortsightedness is the defining feature of post-9/11 national security policy. It's partly a result of the same psychology that causes people to foolishly insist on certain medical procedures, the effects of which are more likely to kill you than the scary diseases that they're meant to detect. Doing nothing seems more risky. So we invade Iraq, roughly 5,000 of our young people are killed, many times more suffer terrible injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, countless American families suffer, the cost of the care that we provide veterans skyrockets, the deficit grows, Iran is empowered with the death of their longtime enemy, American credibility is dealt a huge blow when we're unable to find WMDs, and countless Iraqis whose loved ones we killed hate us.
A lot of people who once supported the Iraq War now think it was a mistake. Folks who once thought it was imprudent to "do nothing" now appreciate, in that case, that doing "something" was worse.
I fear we'll look back on President Obama's policies with the same chagrin. Or perhaps we ought to do so, but we won't, because so many on the left who used to be incisive critics of short-term foreign policy thinking -- a faction once led by candidate Barack Obama -- have followed him down the rabbit hole. The GOP, whose foreign policy critique of Obama is largely shallow nonsense, isn't fulfilling the loyal opposition's role of drawing attention to the costs of Obama's policies.
So who will?
Election time is the opportunity to maximize the impact of these critiques. It is the one time when even incumbent presidents must stand before the press and the public to regularly answer detailed questions. Even Bush, who won reelection, moderated his foreign policy during his second term, partly as a result of the forceful critiques to which his actions where subject. Whereas this election is being squandered. Romney has nothing valuable to say about foreign policy. The Libertarians are ignored. The left, so vocal in its opposition to Bush, has accepted policies they once claimed to abhor because they're advanced by a man they like more, or else because few want to say anything that will jeopardize his reelection bid. Until we reckon with the costs of our current foreign policy we'll continue to pay them in full, sooner or later. But I no longer see a mechanism through which we will reckon with the costs.