What is the Obama Doctrine? Confront, Kill, and Conceal

What is the Obama Doctrine? Is there even such a thing? David Sanger’s book explores precisely this question by examining the often covert use of presidential power during Obama’s first term as U.S. Commander-in-Chief. From Pakistan to Libya to Iran, the White House has responded to geopolitical flashpoints with a remarkable, if unnerving consistency: confront and conceal.

The biggest shift from the rosy years of 2009 when ‘change’ was still in the air to today, is the transformation of military strategy from ‘counter-insurgency’ (or COIN) to ‘counter-terrorism’—essentially a shift from managing life to managing death. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the changing fortunes of Afghanistan. Upon election, Obama promised both a military and civilian ‘surge’. But this soon changed to ‘Afghanistan Good Enough’—a bare minimal counter-terrorist strategy whose remit was to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. ‘Winning hearts and minds’ would follow the same fate as the General that popularized it.

Afghanistan: Good Enough?

The book opens with the enduring inheritance of the Bush years: Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the first days of Obama’s presidency he commissions Bruce Riedel, an ex-CIA analyst to chair an inter-agency review of US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush had underfunded the Afghan mission because he was so focused on the Iraq occupation. Obama entered the fray wanting counter-insurgency; the opposite of Rumsfeld strategy. Obama soon deployed an extra 17,000 troops to win ‘hearts and minds’ (p.19) and rebuild a nation under the stewardship of COIN hero David Patreaus. Obama also called for a ‘civilian surge’ of educators and farmers. Riedel insisted, however, that the problem was more about Pakistan than Afghanistan: indeed, nearly all of Obama’s top advisors conceded that ‘Pak-Af’ was the real threat (not even ‘Af-Pak’). Obama hired Stanley McChrystal for the job of overseeing Afghanistan’s COIN—the former head of JSOC (the infamous team responsible for night raids and killing HVTs).

After a ‘shambolic’ Afghan election in 2009 Obama ordered a rethink. Parallels with Vietnam were beginning to emerge—was Afghanistan becoming an unwinnable war? Was it really a ‘war of necessity’ as Obama once labelled it? Obama gradually came around to the idea of scaling things back, even if the military did not. McChrystal, for example, leaked a report to the Washington Post calling for a troop-intensive multiyear COIN. The cabinet was split on COIN versus counter-terrorism.

Photo: Stanley McChrystal, former head of ISAF

In the end, Obama wanted to ‘escalate and exit’ – pulling surge troops out by the summer of 2011 whether they were successful or not. At West Point in the December of 2009 Obama announced the surge, with a mission in Marja, Helmand, providing the first ‘laboratory’ for testing its success. The mission was a ‘success’ on its own terms but took far longer than expected. It would lead Obama to conclude that troops should only try and secure areas they were already deployed in. And it would also gradually shift the strategic stride.

By the close of 2010 there was a new group formed in Obama’s cabinet, headed by Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, which was called (quite shamelessly) ‘Afghan Good Enough’. It represented the shrinking goalposts of activity in Afghanistan. McChrystal, who had previously won the COIN argument in late 2009, was now ousted following a critical Rolling Stone publication. Patreaus was moved from CENTCOM commander to the head of NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. While Patreaus wanted to stay in Afghanistan for as long as possible, Obama was adamant: this was now a ‘war of choice’, and the choice was to leave.

There was one last shot at a diplomatic solution. In November 2010 Richard Holbrooke put the final touches towards a Dayton-style accord in Afghanistan. The hope was that the U.S. and Afghan government together with the Taliban could come together to forge a peace deal.  Mullah Mohammed Omar was extremely important in any talks—even Siraj Haqqani backs the Taliban leader. It seemed the Talban’s commitment to peace was unlikely, despite some evidence that its leadership was split on the value of negotiations. Marc Grossman, Holbrooke’s successor as Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was then tasked with negotiating with Taliban.

Photo: Ashfaq Parvez Kayani

In October 2011, Grossman, Tom Donilon (national security adviser) and Douglas Lute (retired general and special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan), flew to Abu Dhabi to discuss the Afghan end-game. They met with the commander of Pakistan’s military forces – General Ashraf Kayani, the most powerful man in Pakistan, and former head of the ISI. Pakistan was, and still is, central to the Obama administration. Indeed, the future of Afghanistan rests in decisions made in Islamabad, such as how Pakistan deals with the Haqqani Network. Kayani would not budge on Donilon’s demands to eradicate the notorious group (even after threats of U.S. unilateralism). The Haqqani network is widely seen as a proxy force for ensuring that when the U.S. pulls out of Kabul in 2014, Pakistan still has a vital stakeholder in the region.

After Afghan peacemaker Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed by the Taliban in September 2011, hopes of peace talks actually working (at least in the short term) began to look like a faraway target. Counter-terrorism, increasingly, won the battle for Afghanistan’s future—and this ‘small footprint’ suited Obama politically. Obama’s new plan was to keep a small force of perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 Special Operations Forces and drone operators as an ‘enduring presence’ in the embattled country.

Pakistan and the Fourth Betrayal

Despite the Haqqani Network being a ‘veritable arm of the ISI’ in the words of outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, Sanger reveals that one of the biggest worries in the Obama administration is Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. After the moderate governor of Pubjab was assassinated by his own bodyguard at the start of 2011, Obama worried about the vetting process for those Pakistanis charged with protecting the nation’s nuclear weapons. As Bush did, Obama increased Pakistan’s nuclear protection capabilities.

The hunt for bin Laden would eventually bring the counter-terrorist officials to a compound in Abbottabad after their first solid lead since Tora Bora in 2001—the al-Qaeda leader’s courier. The CIA launched a Sentinel drone to the mysterious compound where they believed him to be holed up, but the intelligence was patchy. The odds of him being there for Obama were ‘50/50’. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General James Cartwright, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, preferred the option of using B-2 bombers, but ultimately a helicopter raid was the favoured option – spearheaded by a team of Navy SEALs. The raid was overseen by the CIA; the agency can conduct its deadly work under a ‘finding’ from the president to conduct covert actions, including against friendly nations like Pakistan. Indeed, McRaven – once head of Special Forces – would regularly visit the agency’s headquarters. For Sanger,

“The very fact that the Langley meeting happened, many commented later, was a sign of how much had changed in the years since 9/11. The CIA’s commando squads were increasingly indistinguishable from Special Operations Forces; as one intelligence officer put it to me, ‘What we’re doing now is more like the operations run by the OSS’, the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services” (p.79)

The CIA was, by all accounts, now the U.S.’s premier paramilitary organization, combining intelligence, secrecy, and bureaucracy to deadly effect. Violence was now coordinated in shadow. Predictably the covert raid did not go down well in Pakistan. The raid underscores a changing U.S. strategy towards Pakistan – a ‘good enough’ policy centred around shoring up U.S. security interests: (1) Keep nukes safe; (2) Keep Pakistani civilian government from falling; (3) Keep pressure on insurgents and AQ operatives. For Pakistanis however, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in 2014 represents the fourth U.S. ‘betrayal’ or abandonment in the history of U.S.-Pakistani relations: (1) When India invaded in 1965; (2) When India invaded in 1971; (3) When the U.S. abandoned the region in 1989 after the Soviets pulled out; (4). The withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Photo: Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad

In April 2012 Pakistan’s Parliament conducted a broad assessment of its relationship with the U.S. and voted overwhelmingly to bar all American drone strikes on Pakistani territory. From now on, unilateral drone strikes conducted in defiance of the Pakistani government would be perceived as acts of war. It was a sour, if predictable tone for the long-time ally. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship reached new lows throughout 2011: the unilateral bin Laden raid, the ‘Raymond Davis incident’ and the November killing of Pakistani troops in U.S. air attacks.

The Iranian Worm 

Just as Pakistan’s nuclear program worried the Obama administration, so too did Iran’s fledgling nuclear experiments become a constant point of discussion for the President’s inner-circle. At the top of the to-do list was slowing down Iran’s program of uranium enrichment, and ultimately, acquisition of nuclear weapons. The narrative that Sanger traces, in my opinion, leads only to an inevitable end-point: a nuclear Iran (one that will be capable of producing weapons, but will probably not produce them). The U.S. is following a policy of pro-active containment—much to the chagrin of a hawkish Israel.

One of the major sites of Iran’s nuclear program is Shahid Behesthi University. It became a spotlight for international attention in 2010 after Israel’s Mossad agents assassinated its civilian scientists. Because of a political ban on assassinations which dates back to CIA scandals in the 70s, U.S. officials were prohibited from aiding Israel in targeting the scientists in anyway; indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly condemned them. In December 2011 the CIA ‘borrowed’ a Sentinel from the Pentagon’s collection in Afghanistan for a secret mission over Iran. It was part of a three-year long program to survey the hundreds of underground tunnels across the country – a form of Iranian ‘passive defense’ that shields its critical facilities. Much to the delight of Iranian officials, the Sentinel would soon become a prized trophy.

Obama had made a symbolic outreach to Iran in March 2009. In effect, this rhetoric gave the president diplomatic cover (and leeway) for the pre-emptive ‘defense’ strategies that were taking place in the shadows of his cabinet.

Photo: Iran’s presdient, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility

Back in 2008, the Obama administration began covert action against Iran’s Nantaz enrichment plant. Following on from Bush’s earlier cyber attacks, the White House would oversee the implementation of a malicious software code that would disrupt Iran’s centrifuge controllers. Iran had locked its key nuclear machines in an ‘air gap’ – they were not connected to the internet. This meant the code had to leap from a scientist’s thumb drive that would be plugged in to the controller. The electronic ‘worm’ then broadcasts a ‘normal’ signature to fool the puzzled Iranian scientists that were witnessing exploding centrifuges. While the U.S. partnered with Israel to develop the worm, the software was first designed by a small cell of ‘cyber warriors’ at the NSA, with newer versions coming out of Israel’s Unit 8200, the country’s NSA equivalent.

The top-secret program was moved from military command to the intelligence community – which meant Obama reviewed and renewed a set of Presidential findings that would allow the U.S. to attack the nuclear infrastructure of a country with which it is not at war. The finding was previously authorized by Bush. Then in summer 2010 trouble hit—the worm escaped onto the internet and became known as ‘Stuxnet’. While Stuxnet was not a crippling setback for Iran, it did definitely delay the program. 

And perhaps more importantly, Stuxnet set a geopolitical precedent: the worm was the first cyber weapon to effect a physical destruction, adding to an escalating, and remotely-controlled, battlespace. 

Predators and Cyberwar

What is surprising (or not) about the drone war is Obama’s embrace, without quite ever using the same terminology, of Bush’s controversial ‘pre-emptive doctrine’. Obama’s assassinations from the sky represent a new twist on an old logic. Just what exactly are the implications of relying on them so frequently as a permanent expression of American power? For one, drones in the dark continue to hurt the U.S.’ international profile; Obama’s continued silence on the program erodes its credibility in a raft of different ways according to Sanger.

More than 35 years ago, the Church Committee or ‘United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities’ reported on the CIA’s Family Jewels: the agency’s history of excesses and assassination attempts against foreign leaders that directly violated its charter. Ultimately this led to Gerald Ford’s executive order prohibiting assassinations in 1976. That order remains in force today; and Obama’s critics make a compelling case that drone strikes are still a type of assassination. This is despite Harold Koh insistence that leally they are ‘acts of war’. Despite calls from human rights organizations, the U.S. State Department has still not released a 2010 memo authorizing the targeted killing against Americans if they pose an imminent threat outside of the Homeland.

In the case of cyber weapons the Obama administration has said almost nothing. “The world’s concern is that the United States will use its technological advantage to create a new form of unilateralism” p. 270.

Gen. Keith Alexander is the head of NSA and Cyber Command and is one of the most important figures in Washington, overseeing America’s cyber war. Already the Pentagon spends $3.4 billion a year on cyber defense and offense. The new Cyber Command at Fort Mead has a budget of $182 million—and the Pentagon is investing heavily in new weapons that attack computer systems in real-time.

There are fuzzy geographic boundaries with cyberwar—it is an uncertain and amorphous battlespace. How does international law apply? Is a cyber attack an attack of war? How can a state retaliate? What is an imminent attack?  For Harold Koh, “The question”, speaking into out in defense of the country’s drone program, “is if someone sitting in a room in one country types something into a keyboard and something happens elsewhere, is it subject to the laws of armed conflict? To the extent that we have articulated principles, we have made it clear that we think that the laws of armed conflict in fact apply to cyber operations in war”.

The Arab Spring: Going, going, gone… 

What is variously labelled as the Arab Spring—the popular uprisings that began at the end of 2010 in Tunisia and soon spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria—presented Obama with the chance to make good on his 2010 Cairo speech aimed at resetting Muslim relations throughout the world. 

But it didn’t. The Arab Spring was a missed opportunity for the U.S. to act as a beacon of civil rights and democracy, writes Singer, who argues that the Obama administration hedged itself into a no-man’s land and was far too cautious in supporting the uprising. For example, Obama initially refrained from criticizing long-term U.S. ally and Egyptian president Mubarak directly. As the Muslim Brotherhood gained political recognition after the revolution, the U.S. would become further alienated—irrelevant even. Indeed, the pendulum in Egypt would swing so far as to turn anti-American: Islamist hard-liners would feign American interference, and liberals would see abandonment. “In short, America would talk about democracy promotion. But it would no longer be democracy’s venture capitalist” (p. 315).

The Libyan uprising would also cement what is implicit in the Obama Doctrine: presidential power with minimal diplomatic engagement. Overthrowing Gaddafi was an executive prerogative –Obama had ‘no plans’ to consult with Congress in launching aerial attacks and surveillance—but one whose remit was limited in space and time. Nation building and civilian reconstruction are very much out of fashion. This comes despite Obama’s initial support of the emerging human rights paradigm ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Obama was innately cautious of R2P: he did not want to send ground-troops into a third American conflict. Obama’s solution was to get UN approval for airstrike, but then ‘lead from behind’. And yet when he did announce support, he echoed the very rationales for humanitarian intervention. In his words, 

 “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader—and more profoundly—our responsibility to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are”. Obama continued “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action” p. 351.

Obama’s aides cringed. This acknowledgement set a template, but one that was not used again in Syria, opening Obama to charges of hypocrisy. A cold geopolitical calculation meant that an intervention at Damascus was never really discussed; and the civilians of Syria were left to fend for themselves, trapped between a brutal regime and an ineffective Syrian Free Army. So the Obama Doctrine in the Arab Spring is difficult to define. Intervention certainly took place, and without Congressional approval (The War Powers Act was not authorized); but it was a distinctly military intervention – one that was remote both physically and figuratively, lacking the ‘nation building’ that was the hallmark of the excesses of the Bush administration.

Conclusion: The Asia Pivot and the Obama Doctrine

For Sanger, the approach that President Barack Obama takes with China will be the defining characteristic of his legacy, and represents a new chapter and clean break from the Bush inheritance. As China grows in economic and military strength, its relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world is changing. Many in Europe for example, are worried about an emerging ‘G2’. Under Xi’s presidency and a new generation of Chinese leaders, China is actually more distrustful of the U.S. (p.413).

The South China Sea will remain a geopolitical hot-button issue; as Beijing makes all kinds of territorial claims and flexes its muscles, the U.S. is responding by aligning a confederate of nations against the world’s emerging superpower. So too is the new U.S. base on Australian soil a symbol of Washington’s Pacific turn—one whose consequences are yet to be written.

As the Pentagon unveiled its budget cuts and strategic defense review at the start of 2012, paving the way for 100,000 fewer troops, we find that the Obama Doctrine looks an awful lot like the ‘Rumsfeld doctrine’ that proceeded it by less than a decade: a faith in technology, air power, and nimble Special Forces.

The Obama Doctrine is therefore remote in two ways: a remotely piloted (cyber) war nested inside a diplomatic process that is remote from Congress, the public, and the civilians across the globe that once saw the U.S. as a model of democracy and diplomatic engagement.

The sun is surely setting on the empire as we know it, but as daylight fades and shadow grows, the Obama Doctrine reveals itself most vividly.

David Sanger, 2012, ‘Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power’, New York: Crown Publishers.

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2 Responses to What is the Obama Doctrine? Confront, Kill, and Conceal

  1. Pingback: Pentagon creates medal for drone pilots and cyber warriors | Understanding Empire

  2. Pingback: An Espionage Empire, Part II: The GENIE is Out of the Bottle | Understanding Empire

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