Column: Obama’s Long Game

  • President Barack Obama, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with retiring Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey during his Armed Forces Full Honors Retirement Ceremony for Dempsey, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • FILE - Smoke rises from Islamic State group positions after an airstrike by U.S.-led coalition warplanes in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in this Dec. 25, 2015 file photo taken during the Iraqi government offensive that drove the militants out of the city. During months of fighting, the U.S.-led coalition dropped more than 600 bombs on the city, artillery pounded districts and retreating militants unleashed a scorched earth policy destroying buildings _ all contributing to vast destruction. (AP Photo, File)

For The Washington Post
Saturday, June 11, 2016

Although he never saw battle or served in uniform, Barack Obama entered the White House with bold ambitions for what he wanted to achieve as commander in chief.

Instead of thinking about the U.S. role in the world in terms of military might alone — what in the post-9/11 years became known as fighting the “long war” — Obama has sought to forge a grand strategy that reflects the totality of American interests and to project global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources. This is playing the “long game.”

Obama sees war for what it is: often necessary, but always tragic. In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, which remains Obama’s most important statement on the use of force, he made clear that the “instruments of war” are indispensable to the preservation of peace. He is willing to pull the trigger — think the Afghanistan surge in 2009, the bin Laden raid, hundreds of counterterrorism operations with drones or special operations forces, or the nearly 10,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2014. But at the same time, Obama often said privately that he did not want “killing people” to be his only lasting legacy.

At the core of moving from the long war to the long game is how one defines strength. Obama is frustrated that in the minds of many, military might is seen as the only meaningful metric of strength and leadership. He believes that too often the Washington debate defines strength simply as bold action with military might, and acting in the name of being “tough.” As Obama explained in a news conference late last year: “American strength and American exceptionalism is not just a matter of us bombing somebody.”

Obama’s effort to recalibrate the instruments of American power has led to tensions with military leaders; the intense debates over the surge in Afghanistan and the pace of the withdrawal in Iraq (and later, what to do about Libya and Syria) stressed these relationships even further. But while they could be volatile, they were hardly broken. In fact, as I saw first-hand, Obama’s relationships with his military leaders were for the most part strong and, with many of them, personally warm. He and his closest advisers took great care to tend to civil-military relations. And during the course of his presidency, Obama forged close bonds with his top military commanders, especially those such as Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 through 2015, who was perceived by the White House as an astute straight shooter.

Yet there is a natural tension between what the military demands in resources and what political leaders are ready to provide. There is also a fine line between civilians asking questions for greater specificity about military planning or fine-tuning options (to ensure they do not extend beyond the stated goals), and meddling in military decision-making. Obama appreciated the fundamental difference of perspectives, often saying that he understood why military commanders asked for the resources they did, but that his job was to consider such requests in the overall context of other interests, competing priorities and the trade-offs between them.

Sometimes the heat of debate would cause these differences to boil over. The second Afghanistan policy review in 2009 is an example. Numerous press leaks about the troop numbers Pentagon leaders were requesting caused frustrations in the White House that the military was “jamming” the president by raising the costs for him of “rejecting” their advice and, in effect, reducing his options (Obama certainly believed this to be the case). Intentional or not, such leaks accentuated these inherent tensions, leading to the impression that civil-military relations were more troubled than they actually were. Yet this was hardly the same kind of bitter struggle that plagued the George W. Bush administration, when the epic “generals’ revolt” over the direction of the Iraq war exploded in public in 2006, a factor that ultimately led to the dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The key premise behind Obama’s shift from the long war to the long game was simple common sense: Even when America is most powerful, there are constraints on what it can do. And that’s why it cannot overextend itself, especially militarily.

This sense of restraint is difficult to communicate without being criticized for being defeatist or for denying America’s inherent greatness. Obama often rejected the criticism that acknowledging limits was somehow new.

One of Obama’s fundamental challenges as commander in chief was being forced to conduct a long-game strategy in a political and policy ecosystem that increasingly has come to resemble a reality television show with all the characteristics of professional wrestling: This new dynamic rewards over-the-top rhetoric and concocted drama instead of results that can be truly appreciated only with time.

When describing America’s role in the world, Obama has often pledged that the “tide of war is receding.” He has also frequently declared the war in Iraq as over and committed to bring the U.S. military role in Afghanistan to an end. So as American military forces returned to Iraq in 2014 and intensive U.S. airstrikes continued, many argued that Obama had been mugged finally by reality.

Considering the scope and scale of America’s current military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, it is true the tide of war is still with us. In retrospect, some of Obama’s declarative rhetoric suggested starker conclusions than actually existed. Each day, thousands of U.S. military personnel take the fight to the Islamic State, whether by conducting direct military action or by supporting partners and allies on the ground, often at great risk. Given that Obama’s strategy is premised on sustainability and patience, this battle will be conducted far into the future. He has always been clear about that fact.

This is where Obama as commander in chief is misunderstood  — and, by some, purposely misportrayed. He has never believed in complete U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East or renounced the importance of military power. In words and actions, Obama has made clear his commitment to America’s interests and partners in the region, and to defeating the Islamic State. But he is equally determined not to ruin the country in the process or let the problems of the Middle East become the singular obsession of American foreign policy.

When explaining his decisions to use force, Obama explicitly stresses the attributes of balance, precision and sustainability, explaining his choices in the context of addressing other priorities at home and abroad. Obama is fond of quoting Eisenhower’s adage about national security decisions, saying that “each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

This weighing of ends and means, calibrating an approach within the context of the totality of American interests, is the essence of grand strategy. The military aspects could not be open-ended or considered in isolation. For Obama, the key is not to allow the long war to return as the organizing principle for America in the world, causing everything else  — our other interests, our values, our resource decisions — to be swallowed up. This fight must always be waged in the context of the long game.

Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, is counselor and senior adviser for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. His book The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World will be published this month.