Walking Away

Spencer Ackerman considers a few cases of Obama foreign policy initiatives gone awry:

The Obama team came in operating from a sensible-enough presumption: the U.S. has built up enough goodwill and sacrificed enough resources, financial and human, into allied or proxy countries that those allies will be willing to make concessions when the U.S. requires. In each of these cases, Obama figured he asking for things these allies consider fundamental. He needed Iraqi Kurds to make a little institutional room for Iraqi Sunnis; for Israelis to hold off on settlement construction so a two-state solution wouldn’t be stillborn; for, say, Hamid Karzai not to steal an election.

From my perspective, a robust case can be made for each of these courses of action. But what Obama (and favorably-inclined people like myself) didn’t sufficiently appreciate is that each of these allies thinks the U.S. is always on the verge of selling it out. For a new president to start off with the medicine and not the sugar — by figuring he could pocket the gains of his predecessors — is clear in retrospect to have been the wrong move. From there, reluctance by the client gets met with insistence by the patron, and then all of a sudden a dynamic sets in that casts a pall over the whole relationship. We asked for sex before dinner.

I think this is an uncharacteristically wrongheaded argument from a good friend of mine. The whole framing seems wrong. If the Obama take was “we’ve done so much for you, now can’t you please help me out” and it didn’t work, Ackerman seems to think we should have done even more and then they’d really owe us. From where I sit, though, the problem in all three cases is that Obama’s interlocutors correctly calculated that the tail wags the dog. Obama had no intention of at any point saying “Netanyahu’s an asshole—,” “COIN only works if you have a viable partner—,” “Kurdistan needs America more than America needs Kurdistan—” and following it up with “—so I’m going to walk away from that situation and put more money into mosquito nets or American preschools or whatever.”

The American national security establishment is hooked on Afghanistan. They won’t walk away. Not in response to Karzai stealing an election, not in response to their own 2011 deadline, and most likely not in 2014 either. You can tell from the Obama administration’s messaging around this point that the team contains people who are uncomfortable with this strategy, much as it clearly contains people who are not pleased with Israeli settlement activity. But at the end of the day the President seems overwhelmingly inclined to basically go along with the status quo once everyone’s called his bluff. I’m not really sure I understand why the American military is determined to stay in Afghanistan forever, but the combination of their determination and Obama’s acquiescence means we have very little practical leverage over anyone.