War is the answer. Now, what was the question?

As Bob Woodward’s inside account of the Obama administration shows, America’s top brass have no real idea what they are fighting for in Afghanistan and beyond.

Tara McCormack

Topics Books

In the 1990s, many liberals saw then US President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy as a force for good in the world. American power, they argued, was being used for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Under Clinton’s successor, George W Bush, this altruistic approach was apparently reversed. Bush’s policies, liberals claimed, represented a return to a more traditional kind of foreign policy, in which America used its might to intervene in order to pursue its material interests.

For many on the left, America became a neo-imperialist power under Bush. In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, America was behaving in a unilateral way, they said, ignoring its allies and so eroding its legitimacy as a global leader. This argument was adopted in a modified form by the Obama administration. The new president promised that America would once more conduct itself in a more multilateral and legitimate way, using its power for the pursuit of the broader good.

However, profound changes in domestic politics in the past few decades, compounded by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have meant that the old cries of imperialism cannot simply be transposed to contemporary Western-led conflicts. Nor should we view the military interventions conducted by the so-called ‘third-way’ governments of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton during the 1990s as representing a more caring epoch in post-Cold War international relations. Rather, their interventions need to be understood as an attempt to generate some kind of coherent moral and political purpose that was missing at home. And if understood in this way, it becomes clear that there is far more continuity in the foreign policies of Clinton, Bush and Obama than usually admitted. (See Seeking domestic legitimacy through foreign affairs, by Tara McCormack.)

Because foreign interventions have in reality been primarily driven by domestic needs, rather than by the goal of securing others’ interests, they have been half-hearted and confused in both strategy and end goals. It is no secret anymore that the Iraq war suffered from a complete absence of planning or any clear idea of what the invading states wished to achieve. Yet even the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, a war that Obama contrasted with Iraq as one of necessity rather than choice, has been characterised by a morass of justifications and rationales and a complete absence of any sense of what ‘success’ might mean. This vagueness about victory was summed up by the then US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke, when he said that declared ‘we’ll know it when we see it’. If anything, the Afghanistan campaign seems to be marked by even more confusion than Iraq, revealed in internal elite rows and the confusing policy announcement in 2009 of a surge combined with a withdrawal combined with a declaration that the war was unwinnable.

This is all ground covered well in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars – The Inside Story. It reveals an incredibly fractious and dysfunctional administration, riven by internal conflicts, with groups within the National Security Council, the military, the CIA and the Department of Defense trying to freeze out one another. White House staff constantly seem to be shafting each other and going ‘off message’, making public pronouncements about their own little hobby horses. Members of the military are revealed to be incapable of thinking about Afghanistan in any other terms than those that were also applied to Iraq.

This all echoes Graham Allison’s classic analysis of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Written in 1971, The Essence of Decision was a blow against the ‘rational actor’ model that dominated international relations at the time. Rather than a coherent governmental machine acting with one will in pursuit of an external goal, Allison argued that different departments and individuals fought, plotted and had conflicting ideas about how to achieve the desired goals. Moreover, previous patterns of behaviour and ‘solutions’ tended to dominate even in entirely new situations. However, what does seem to be different about the current context is the strikingly public way in which these disagreements are played out, as in General Stanley McChrystal’s bizarre interview in Rolling Stone magazine last year, which led to him being sacked. Key advisors have also been found openly briefing against each other.

Woodward’s book reveals that there is a complete absence within the Obama administration of any idea about why America is in Afghanistan and, as a consequence of that, what it hopes to achieve there. The book reveals that the Afghanistan conflict is clearly a war in search of a strategy. That is, it is not just that the administration is in turmoil about how to achieve its goals, as might have also been the case in the past, but it simply has not got a clue what those goals should be. Reading Woodward’s book, one almost keeps hoping that the next page will reveal that there is some sense of strategic purpose or old-fashioned material interest in Afghanistan after all. Instead, page after page is filled with descriptions of meetings between the president, National Security Council members, members of the Department of State, top military brass and so on, in which the same plaintive questions are asked again and again. What are we there for? What do we want to achieve? What should our strategy be? The trouble is that no one in the upper echelons of US foreign policy seems to know what the problem is that the intervention is supposed to resolve.

Meetings, reports, strategy reviews, announcements and Obama-imposed deadlines all fly by. One week the focus is on how to deal with the Taliban, the next it’s on how to eliminate Al-Qaeda, only to move on to considering Pakistan’s role or how to win ‘hearts and minds’. Yet strategy announcements seem to be forgotten quickly and by the following week the same questions are asked all over again. Meanwhile, the military simply clamour for more and more troops regardless. As the first year of the Obama presidency passes and the second begins, Woodward writes, ‘The sessions so far had exposed a simple fact: They had not found a way to articulate why the United States was in Afghanistan. What were America’s interests?’

Obama seems to enjoy and encourage debate among staff and officials, explaining to Woodward in one of the interviews conducted for the book that life-and-death issues are best served by a vigorous debate. In itself, however, this reveals the total lack of any clear idea about the purpose of the war; goals and objectives are not things to be worked out by committee eight years into the war, they should constitute the reason for going to war in the first place.

Eventually, the administration turns its attention to wrangling over the number of troops to be sent in. Yet still, as various members of the administration such as Vice President Joe Biden point out, this debate happens without having worked out exactly what the purpose of the troops is to be. In this context, it is not surprising that various generals decide to mouth off to magazines and White House staff leak information and brief against other key players. There is no common purpose to bind individuals to each other or to the administration as a whole.

Obama’s Wars is heavy on description and facts, but light on analysis. Nonetheless, the book serves as an incredibly useful record of the way in which the West conducts its wars today.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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