Assessing the Obama Strategy toward the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

When he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama argued that the manner in which the Bush administration had prosecuted the “War on Terror” had done America more harm than good. Obama was especially critical of the Bush Administration’s costly intervention in Iraq (which he opposed) for unnecessarily reducing the resources available for the war in Afghanistan (which he then supported). Nor had the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan prevented the spread of radical Islamist activity elsewhere. Further, the Bush approach to the “War on Terror” had harmed America’s relations not only with the Muslim world, but also with the Western allies. Finally, it was not cost effective for the United States to spend so many of its resources to produce such meager results. All this — in both his view and that of many others — was highly counterproductive for the United States and American foreign policy. Upon becoming president in January 2009, then, Obama implemented a strategy toward the “War on Terror” that was the opposite of the Bush administration’s in several respects.

Whereas Bush had pursued a unilateralist foreign policy, Obama was determined to pursue a multilateral one. It was Bush’s unilateralism, especially regarding the use of force, that had alienated America’s allies and the Muslim world. Indeed, there were many who claimed that American foreign policy under Bush was more of a threat to the security of others than was al-Qaeda. The United States clearly did not benefit from such an image. Obama, then, insisted on pursuing a multilateral policy in conjunction with America’s allies and partners. This would at least improve America’s relations with them.

While Bush had intervened in Iraq, Obama was determined to withdraw American forces from there. More than any other action, Bush’s decision to intervene in Iraq without UN Security Council authorization had alienated much of the world, distracted attention from the war in Afghanistan, unleashed communal warfare in Iraq, and failed to contribute much of anything to the defeat of al-Qaeda. Withdrawing from Iraq, it was expected, would improve U.S. relations with its friends and allies and provide additional resources for the war in Afghanistan as well as the struggle against al-Qaeda. The Bush administration’s 2007-08 troop surge, it was grudgingly admitted, did improve the security situation in Iraq. This, however, was seen as a factor that would allow the United States to leave rather than force it to stay. Indeed, an impending U.S. withdrawal, some argued, would require the various Iraqi factions to cooperate with one another.

Whereas Bush had called for and even sought the democratization the greater Middle East, Obama made clear that this was not his goal. Although Obama noted in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo that, “governments that protect…rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure,”, he also said democratization was not something that “can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Bush had earlier stated that the lack of democracy led to instability. Although Obama couched his statement in the language of cultural sensitivity, it implicitly recognized that externally promoted democratization could also lead to instability.

While Bush strongly supported Hamid Karzai as the president of Afghanistan, Obama made clear practically upon taking office that he regarded Karzai’s corrupt and inefficient government as an important source of the growing problems the United States was facing in that country. There was some irony in this: Bush called for democratization but supported an undemocratic (albeit elected) Afghan president, while Obama announced he would not push for democratization but criticized Karzai for not being democratic. Still, with American forces so heavily engaged in Afghanistan, a higher standard for that country was understandable.

Whereas Bush gave complete and uncritical support to Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Obama called upon Israel to modify its behavior toward them. In his Cairo speech, he bluntly stated, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements…. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Although Bush behaved as if the two issues were not strongly related to each other, Obama seems well aware that the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations has a strong impact — for better or for worse — on how successfully the United States conducts the “War on Terror.”

Finally, while Bush placed a higher priority on prosecuting the “War on Terror” than on other issues, Obama places a higher priority on certain other issues. The severe global financial crisis that greeted Obama upon entering office forced this change in U.S. priorities to some extent. Obama, though, has indicated that he sees continued large-scale American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as hindering the pursuit of other international and domestic goals.

How successful has Obama’s changed approach toward the “War on Terror” been? One positive development is the improvement in America’s ties with many governments that had opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq and had been alienated by the Bush administration’s unilateralism. Obama also set in motion the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq that got under way in 2010. Further, he has established a time frame for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011.

Nevertheless, old problems remain, while some new ones have cropped up with regard to the “War on Terror.” As Iraq and especially Afghanistan have shown, these conflicts are far from over. Neither is likely to end just because the United States leaves. Further, the Obama administration’s criticism of Hamid Karzai did not result in his adoption of the reforms that the United States sought, but in his truculently opposing them and even stating that he was prepared to join the Taliban. Nor has Obama succeeded in getting the Israelis to make any serious concessions toward the Palestinians, or vice versa, in order to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Further, Osama bin Laden is still at large, while al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain active. Radical Islamists appear to be gaining the upper hand in their conflicts with government forces in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Also, the brief burst of enthusiastic public support in the Muslim world that Obama enjoyed when he first became president has declined markedly.

The Obama administration came into office convinced that it was the Bush administration’s policies that had damaged America’s image in and relations with the Muslim world. Obama sought to change this through reversing many of his predecessor’s policies as well as through reaching out to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech and on other occasions. Yet the Muslim world’s many problems — and America’s fraught relationship with it — have remained stubbornly resistant to amelioration despite Obama’s efforts. Good intentions, it would appear, are simply not good enough when it comes to dealing with the “War on Terror.”


Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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