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Obama's silent wars

January 30, 2013, at 12:54 AM

Part of a continuing series of observations about the Obama Project, which takes a long-term view of the president and what he wants to look like.

President Obama's foreign policy is a work-in-progress. Even though world events do not conform to the terms of United States presidents, Obama will be judged by what happens during the next four years. Left out will invariably be the dogs that don't bark: what didn't happen, and also, what happens after four years that wouldn't have happened without Obama's imprint.  

In Libya, the president demanded that NATO step up and enforce a United Nations resolution, and NATO did. 

In Syria, the president has placed the onus on solving the problem on Syria's largest patron, Russia, and on it neighbor, Turkey, which craves a larger role in the Middle East.

Obama has attempted to persuade China to take a stronger (meaning, more public) hand with North Korea.

And now, in Mali and Algeria, the president is content to leave the hard work to the French, who have significant cultural and economic ties to the country.

Where President Bush and his advisers used the pretext of September 11 to try and shake up the Middle East and force it towards democracy, Obama is using events very differently. There is finally some substance to his vague notion of using U.S. hard and soft power to encourage other countries to accept responsibility for problems better handled by them. It is an orthogonal approach to interventionism.  

In Libya, Syria and Mali, the U.S. has provided technical intelligence assets and helped with the supply chain: arms and fuel and transportation. We have not, as a country, "stayed out." That phrase no longer means what it used to. It is possible now to intervene in a conflict without putting U.S. soldiers in danger and without expanding the United States geopolitical footprint in a way that crowds out local values. 

Where Obama wants the United States to lead is against transnational problems like drugs, trafficking, proliferation of weapons and WMD and crime syndicates, as well as in anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism. It is not possible to fight these wars without U.S. troops. But these wars are worldwide, overlapping, and observe no borders. The troops to be used in these wars are not the troops that stand ready to fight land wars in Europe and Korea.

So: One way to look at the Obama Project is to observe the battles he chooses to associate with and the battles he chooses to leave to others. Obama, I believe, does not want the United States to be expected to take a leading role in every conflict. That has meant a series of difficult decisions: In the short term, it might even mean more death as the world adjusts to the expectations of its new superpower. Obama hopes that by refusing to overreact, or to bring to bear U.S. military might, which often changes the problem (rather than solves it), other major powers in the world will begin to step up.

Will this work?  Is it rational?  Is it a counter-reaction gone too far? I don't know. But I am beginning to see how different an approach it really is.

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