At a press conference this morning in India (Yesterday morning? Tonight? I still can’t keep that international dateline straight!), President Obama performed a major public service in presenting concisely the fundamental rationale for his anti-terrorism strategy. In the process, he unwittingly performed another major public service in making clear why this strategy – whose essence is supported across the spectrum of mainstream American politics – is loony.
Here’s Mr. Obama’s statement in full:
“…Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability. What I’ve said is, is that our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without a occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take. And that continues to be the case. The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country, to deploy U.S. troops. And that’s not a sustainable strategy.
“So we’ll continue to try to refine and fine-tune this model, but it is the model that we’re going to have to work with, because the alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve.
“And we’re going to have to recognize that there are going to be a number of the countries where terrorists have located that are not strong countries. That’s the nature of the problem that we confront. Terrorists typically are not going to be locating and maintaining bases and having broad networks inside of countries that have strong central governments, strong militaries and strong law enforcement. By definition, we’re going to be operating in places where oftentimes there’s a vacuum or capabilities are somewhat low. And we’ve got to just continually apply patience, training, resources, and we then have to help in some cases broker political agreements as well.”
The problem here is not per se that President Obama is counseling patience. Easy, quick, effective fixes for difficult public policy challenges are rare. Instead, the problem is two-fold. First, despite the need for realistic expectations, time is not America’s friend in the Middle East if you assign importance, as you should, to the aim of protecting the U.S. homeland from a terrorist attack originating in the region. For the longer it takes for the Obama strategy to achieve any significant degree of success, the likelier that some terrorist group will either establish and consolidate a haven for planning and training for such strikes by militarily conquering territory (a la ISIS in Iraq and Syria) or gain one by prevailing in civil conflict in any of the many failed states in the Middle East as well as in North Africa (as could be happening in Yemen now).
Second, the president remains pathetically unaware (like the rest of the nation’s foreign policy establishment and the Mainstream Media that worships it) that the United States has much better options. As I’ve written numerous times (e.g., this post), because of simple geography, the United States is much better advised to protect against terror attacks not by trying to manipulate events in the highly dysfunctional and deeply anti-American and anti-western Middle East, but by securing its own borders and ensuring (or at least dramatically cutting the odds) that terrorists can get from those foreign sanctuaries to here. As difficult as that might be, it’s surely much easier than trying to create even minimal stability – and therefore minimally reliable partners – in a region that clearly lacks the wherewithal to produce either. And by the way, this homeland-focused strategy is much likelier to avoid blowback than the current approach.
Until Washington can put adequate border security arrangements in place, the nation will need to act militarily to prevent the creation or at least consolidation of terrorist havens. No question, the lighter the touch the better, but contrary to Mr. Obama’s apparent belief, the bottom line is not ruling out a set of tactics (like the “boots on the ground” to which the president again alluded). The bottom line is keeping the foe off balance long enough for the United States to establish effective domestic defenses.
Unless this strategic sea change takes place, Mr. Obama himself will keep playing whack-a-mole in the Middle East – with diminishing returns fostering mounting dangers. So could many of his successors.