Our Sort-of War on Terror
Obama’s policies are incoherent, but does anyone care?


Victor Davis Hanson

Both Left and Right assumed, apparently rightly, that more bad guys were being eliminated than innocents, and the pilotless missions allowed the public a general sense that we were doing something about terrorists while not risking our soldiers in the process — and most certainly not capturing enemy combatants, interrogating them, and adding to the tally inside the politically incorrect Guantanamo. For the global media, the fact that the president turned to philosophy in his angst over killing record numbers, that former Guantanamo critic and Yale Law dean Harold Koh often signed off on the legality of such assassinations, and that it was not George Bush who authorized them, made the kill missions politically correct.

There is no coherent strategy for reducing Middle Eastern support for radical Islam, for promoting U.S.-friendly regimes, and for fostering human rights and consensual government. Iraq is no longer the bad war and Afghanistan the good one we took our eye off; instead, we exited the former and will the latter regardless of the situation on the ground — on the rough premise that Bush started them, and Obama finished them, and that is all ye need to know.

To this day, no one in the administration can define “lead from behind” in the Libyan context. No one can explain what happened in Benghazi. And no one can summarize what is going on at present in Libya — or whether such an interventionist model is a blueprint for any future action elsewhere. When in 2009 Iranians hit the streets in protest against the mullahs’ theocracy, the administration went mum. Bashar Assad was first a “reformer” who might help to unlock the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, then a psychopath who was on the eve of getting the same just deserts from NATO as did Moammar Qaddafi, then someone who should be left alone to kill 60,000 of his own, then a run-of-the-mill thug not much worse, or better, than the motley groups seeking to dethrone him.

All we can say about the administration’s approach to democratic Israel between 2009 and 2013 is that our present coolness is still far warmer than Obama would have wished — as post-election realities and appointments will probably soon make clear. The administration had no consistent position on the Arab Spring other than that the elected anti-American Islamist totalitarians almost seem to be preferable to the odious pro-American dictatorships they are replacing — but how and why is left unsaid. The cost of nation-building has been replaced by the economy of assassination — as the idealist Bush, with his speeches on freedom, gave way to the cynical Obama, with his private musings about who’s next on the Predator list.

As far as weaning ourselves off oil goes, the administration either ignored or opposed horizontal drilling and fracking, the only sure way to achieve political independence from the Middle East in the foreseeable future. To the degree that we are now more energy independent — so far mostly a private initiative on private lands — it is despite, not because of, Obama’s record on energy. Our $5 trillion in new debt will curtail our military options, but it is a mystery whether the administration laments that its huge serial deficits demand commensurate cuts in defense, or whether the latter all along was a desired result of the former.

Foreign policy often proves ironic. Sometimes chaos and confusion have their place. By posing as a post-national Nobel laureate, by promulgating all sorts of politically correct bromides, and by serially trashing the unpopular George Bush, Barack Obama found that he could do almost anything he wished, from eliminating hundreds of Taliban and other assorted suspected terrorists to killing bin Laden. Blowing up a suspect terrorist and any bystanders is now a moral act, whereas waterboarding three confessed terrorists was deemed immoral. The best that can be said for the Obama record is that if we are confused by it, then so must be our enemies.

As a final footnote, a common denominator to the simultaneous embrace and cheap public criticism of the Bush protocols, to the euphemisms, and to the expansion of the drone program has been the role of John Brennan, nominated last week to head the CIA.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.