Wall Street Journal on July 19, 2015, published a review of historian Mark Moyar’s new book “Strategic Failure” (Threshold, 387 pages, US Dollars 28.00). Excerpts below:
The book is an account of the half-baked concepts and politicized decision-making that created the great foreign-policy unraveling of Mr. Obama’s second term. As Mr. Moyar shows, the administration’s failures abroad had many fathers (and mothers), including Mrs. Clinton and, especially, Vice President Joe Biden. The missteps, says Mr. Moyar, began in the president’s first term, the main focus of the book; it was merely the delay between cause and effect that prevented the worst of the outcomes from surfacing before voters had re-elected Mr. Obama.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the Middle East and North Africa, the main theater of the War on Terror. Starting out his public career as an antiwar progressive, Barack Obama gradually modulated his foreign-policy ideas as he entered national politics. Iraq became the “dumb war,” whereas Afghanistan was a worthy fight. The motivation for this shift to the center was political.
Mr. Obama’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan as president was as un-strategic as his opposition to the Iraq War. When it came time to implement his Afghan “surge” in 2009, he set arbitrary deadlines and troop limits that would soon undermine his stated aims. Brushed off were the warnings of his generals and the more serious administration principals, most notably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who urged more troops and a longer timeline.
Such figures were excluded from the president’s cocoon, to which only campaign loyalists—the likes of David Axelrod, Denis McDonough, Benjamin Rhodes and Valerie Jarrett—were admitted. These were the figures, Mr. Moyar writes, behind the White House’s “subordination of policy to politics.”
The Islamic State would beg to differ: Less than four years later, Mosul and Ramadi are under its control. Meanwhile, the administration sold regional retreat as a triumph and even provided a pseudo-doctrine justifying it. Known as “counterterrorism-plus,” the concept was invented by Mr. Biden as an alternative to the heavy-footprint prescriptions of eminent counterinsurgency practitioners like Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It emphasized drone warfare and the use of special forces to target jihadists with little to no presence on the ground. Counterterrorism-plus was counterterrorism on the cheap. Missing from counterterrorism-plus was a coherent regional strategy and a willingness to use “overwhelming and permanent force” when necessary, as Mr. Moyar puts it.
Obama’s concept failed to check the rise of al Qaeda in Yemen and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet as recently as March 2015, the White House continued to tout the model’s success in Yemen, even as the Yemeni state was collapsing. The lesson of Mr. Obama’s catastrophic foreign policy, Mr. Moyar says, is that there is no cheap-and-easy substitute for a “proactive global strategy and the robust defense spending required to sustain it.”
Mr. Moyar, who has taught at the Marine Corps University and the Joint Special Operations University, is one of the ablest strategic thinkers [in the United States], and he has a gift for letting the facts speak for themselves—or rather, drop like hammer blows.
Few administration principals come off well in Mr. Moyar’s history. The author is most sympathetic to Mr. Gates, who appears as a sort of bureaucratic tragic hero, time and again voicing reservations about Mr. Obama’s drastic defense-budget cuts, arbitrary timelines and sidelining of the military—only to down the poisoned chalice in the end and carry out administration policy as best he could.
Mrs. Clinton at the State Department was a happy executor of such signature flops as the Russian reset. And she embraced the Obamian vision of small footprints, always acting multilaterally and encouraging second-tier states like France and Britain to supplant U.S. leadership.
That vision culminated in the 2012 terrorist attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and Mrs. Clinton found herself digging out of a hole after it was revealed that she was complicit in White House efforts to play down or even hide the failures underlying the security breach. “At this point, what difference does it make?” she asked in congressional testimony on Benghazi. But the bigger question was why we were in that situation in the first place. It all does make a difference.
“Strategic Failure” won’t make for soothing reading in Washington this election season, and perhaps that is its greatest virtue.