The Obama doctrine’s tough Sahel test

By J Brooks Spector 1 February 2013

Despite the Obama administration’s acknowledgement that the rise of China will be the real geo-political game changer – economically, politically and even militarily – for the 21st century, it is increasingly being forced to turn its attention to Africa, where trade and investment are becoming the US keys to stability. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines the dynamics already shaping President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy.

Only a little over two years ago, the Obama administration was on the cusp of reaching a strategic consensus about the way forward in foreign affairs for the United States. As it was winding up US military participation in Iraq, planning for a similar transition in Afghanistan, cheering the demise of Osama bin Laden, and the decimation of al-Qaeda; the administration was simultaneously moving to shift the strategic centrepoint of American foreign policy away from that Bush era “global war on terror” – and its consequent entanglements in the Middle East and South Asia – towards a vigorous, creative response to the rise and rise of a resurgent China. The Obama administration calculated that this would be the real geo-political game changer – economically, politically and even militarily – for the 21st century.

Consistent with this shift in focus towards East Asia as the prime strategic core was an evolving approach that argued that trade, investment and the opening up of the smaller economies in Africa to greater economic flexibility and national resilience would be the keys to stabilise the region. Moreover, the economic growth in the region that would be liberated by this new approach would be crucial to help Africa successfully absorb the energies of the continent’s growing, youthful population. Concurrent with this emphasis, the Obama administration dialled back on the Bush era’s effort for a broad-based, multi-faceted military engagement with the countries of the region, lessening its interest in Africom (the Pentagon’s regional command focusing on Africa) as a key tool for US involvement with the region.

But the continuing economic crisis in the EU and with the euro zone, the dreary, dispiriting, toxic stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, and the imponderables of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear intentions all remained major distractions from this intended eastward shift, of course. And even more important – and infinitely closer to home ­– was the persistently weak, struggling domestic economic recovery that might easily have made Obama a one-term president. But at least the geo-political, grand strategy way forward seemed reasonably clear.

And then, that unexpected suicide by a desperate vegetable vendor in Tunisia upset all the grand strategy calculations in Washington (and, of course, in other places as well). The decades-long political stability that kept Egyptian and Tunisian society under tight control melted away, the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi broke down under domestic insurrection (as well as French and British air assaults aided by the US). The political circumstances of other Middle Eastern states wobbled but held – so far at least. And then the insurrection in Syria began and then turned into an increasingly brutal – and so far unresolved – civil war.

In responding to this unanticipated series of events, the Obama administration was initially caught between supporting America’s traditionally close relationships with the long time rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and its cautious, fraught relations with the more difficult with Gaddafi and Assad – and the full-throated backing of the disparate rebellions against all of these regimes. The choice seemed phrased as one between backing regional stability (at the expense of democratic principles) versus the potential opportunities (and risks) from encouraging another Obama administration interest – nurturing democratic development.

Meanwhile, while the Obama administration could point to the decimation of al-Qaeda in South Asia, the so-called “al-Qaeda franchises” in the “arc of instability”, drawing on both various religious fundamentalist impulses married to a whole range of more local issues, began to take hold – especially across the Sahel. Insurgents in Mali seized the northern half of the country, another group carried out a violent seizure and hostage drama at a natural gas site in southern Algeria, and Boko Haram activists have carried out a series of bombing attacks across northern Nigeria. And, of course, there was the attack on the US Consulate buildings in Benghazi that led to the deaths of four American diplomatic personnel as well as the violent demonstrations against the US Embassy in Cairo, ostensibly over an anti-Islamic video.

All of this unanticipated violence has inevitably distracted the Obama administration from its larger grand strategy ambitions. Despite the vast reach of the American government, there is only so much intellectual energy and focus that can be brought to bear on foreign policy at any one time.

As part of its reorientation of the past several years, as the Obama administration has been increasingly interested in shifting away from a military “boots on the ground” strategy. In its place, it has placed much greater emphasis technological solutions and the so-called exercise of smart power. In military terms for the nations of that arc of instability that has increasingly meant things like drone surveillance and remotely piloted attack craft. These craft have provided enhanced capabilities to monitor movement and communications as well as allowed for carefully targeted attacks – but there has been an initially unanticipated cost. As the focus of taking the fight against militants from the air in the northern reaches of frontier Pakistan increased, the chances and occurrences of mistakes – fatal ones – also has increased. This has obviously generated a growing, deep tension between the US and Pakistan and the possibility that that state, too, comes unhinged.

In recent months, with the circumstances in North Africa and the Sahel now on the course they appear to be on, the US military has increased the use of drone surveillance craft there and it is now apparently gearing up for a base of operations in West Africa for broader, more comprehensive surveillance in the region. This is a signal of the increasing priority of dealing with Africa in the context of America’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Such an African base of operations would be a central part of a larger assembly of small airstrips already used for drone flights. While setting up this larger base is not yet finally and formally approved, according to media reports, the most likely location is in Niger – a sparsely settled nation that neighbours Mali, Nigeria, and Algeria, although some sources say there are other basing options such as Burkina Faso. Not surprisingly, the most current driver for such a base has been the French-led intervention in Mali in which the demand has been for better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of those disparate al-Qaeda franchise groups. As the New York Times reported recently, “A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a desperate need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. American military commanders and intelligence analysts complain that such information has been sorely lacking.”

To people whose historical memories reach back to the 1960s, news like this probably gives them an involuntary shudder as they contemplate this apparent toe-in-the-water approach redux – a move that inevitably recalls America’s intensely unhappy experience of Vietnam – and most especially how it began and then escalated. Of course the circumstances are not the same, but the immediate fall back onto a military solution also recalls the adage about how the man who holds a hammer (or a military establishment) sees every problem as a nail to be hammered down. Even in Democratic administrations the impetus is there. Recall for example secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s famous remark to General Colin Powell during the Clinton administration regarding Powell’s presumed reluctance to push forward on military initiatives and solutions when she snapped at him, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”

In reality, however, the chances of a major ramping up investment by the US in African security issues at this point remain quite low even as the risks are increasingly high. There are several reasons for this conclusion.

First is the budgetary issue. The US defence budget is already under great pressure to be cut back now that the country’s Iraq and Afghanistan adventures are finished and there are growing pressures within Congress to cut spending further – even without the Sword of Damocles of the fiscal cliff looming in immediate future – and even though the current overall size of the American defence budget still has powerful allies among Republican (and some Democratic) Congressmen.

Second, there is a visible sense of war weariness on the part of most Americans that will almost certainly preclude the build-up of a significant military presence in Africa much beyond today’s levels. There is a recognition that those open-ended commitments – such as promises “to pay any price, bear any burden”, or to carry forward a “global war on terror” – have almost inevitably led to vastly larger commitments than the ones originally contemplated by the people who gave the orders to go forward. Then, too, there is a sense that pressing national domestic issues are simply more important than sorting out who controls distant places like Mali – if such a sorting out is even possible.

There is also a sense that some of this burden belongs elsewhere – the British, the French, the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas), the African Union, or the United Nations, somewhere, anywhere else. The US can provide technical assistance, logistic support, material, but not very many of those boots on the ground in the deserts of the Sahel. This is the newest version of the post-global-war-on-terror-Vietnam-style allergy, following the longest continuous military involvement in American history, and one that resulted in an anomalous outcome.

For these circumstances, the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence and confirmation of John Kerry as secretary of state are crucial. Uniquely for people in these two positions, both have had the up-close, worm’s eye view of modern warfare in the losing effort in Vietnam – and both are thoroughly suspicious of new open-ended military commitments. In fact, a key reason Barack Obama selected them is precisely because of their jaundiced view of the automatic slide towards direct military action and the sense of limits they will bring to their jobs. In fact, their appointments should strengthen vice president Joe Biden’s position against new military efforts, as was the case during the debate three years ago over where to go in Afghanistan. Despite the new circumstances of the Middle East and Sahel, the second Obama administration will almost certainly try to remain one that relentlessly tries to prioritise its foreign policy relationships and the tools it uses on these relationships – starting with China and the Far East, then moving on to the EU, and so on. However, the big caveat in all this the unpredictable moment from groups like the one that recently happened in Algeria.

In a recent article, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius examined the difficulties that dealing such groups may yet have on the Obama administration’s foreign policy hopes. As Ignatius wrote, “The Obama administration is working with its allies to frame a strategy to combat what might be called “al-Qaeda 2.0” — an evolving, morphing terrorist threat that lacks a coherent centre, but is causing growing trouble in chaotic, poorly governed areas such as Libya, Yemen, Syria and Mali.

Ignatius goes on to argue, “US officials liken this new problem to the spread of cancer cells: Al-Qaeda nodes emerge in diffuse places, feeding off local issues and grievances. These cells have only a loose, ideological connection with what remains of the core leadership in Pakistan, but they are stubborn and toxic. Striking at these local nodes — as the French are doing now in Mali — can disrupt the new terrorist cells. But analysts stress that there will be consequences: The cells may metastasise further, drawing new jihadists into the fight and potentially threatening targets in Europe and the United States… But the 2.0 version of the counterterrorism coalition is more complicated than the earlier effort launched by then-CIA director George Tenet.”

Key elements in complicating things for the US according to Ignatius include the fact that the intelligence functions of governments in countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen are no longer as helpful as they once were, before the Arab Spring. “That’s a gain for democracy and human rights but a setback for counterterrorism efforts,” Ignatius says. Moreover, until these revolutionary changes, the previous plan was to build a regional coalition to block the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While the French movement in Mali has apparently halted AQIM’s movement, it may also lead to the provoking of “retaliatory attacks in the region and also, perhaps, against France and its Western allies. Mali may also become a magnet for jihadists, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.” And of course there is the continuing violence in Syria with all of its equally unpredictable outcomes.

Ignatius concludes, “The Obama administration also wants to avoid the rhetoric and entanglements of a global ‘war on terror’ this time around. ‘Our CT approach is to do things where possible through our partners, and not necessarily by ourselves,’ says one senior administration official. So long as the cancerous nodes of al-Qaeda don’t threaten the American homeland, US officials want to avoid using drone strikes or other such attacks. But as the local cells adapt and spread, al-Qaeda 2.0 will almost certainly move through the global bloodstream toward targets in the United States.”

In sum, looking forward, the Obama administration will try to keep its foreign policy course firmly focused on the big issues as it has defined them as being the ones crucial for the future of the country. Unknowable, unpredictable – and potentially tragic – local events in fragile states in the Sahel, Maghreb and the Middle East may well force a change in emphasis. And it will be an extraordinary show of will to hew to its chosen course for the longer term if a desperate hostage drama – or something much worse ­ hits American society as a result of instability in those areas.

Should that happen, would the Obama administration be able to resist the national anger to return to an eschatological crusade against the kinds of people and nations of whom it would inevitably be charged are precisely the kind of people who can carry out such outrages? Or, in fact, would a US military response to some such event actually provoke yet further responses that pull the US that much further away from the international relationships the Obama administration says it wishes to nurture in the future? One day we may have to find out. DM

Read more: 

  • U.S. policy toward countering al-Qaeda 2.0 (David Ignatius’ column) in the Washington Post
  • U.S. Weighs Base for Spy Drones in North Africa in the New York Times
  • Mali’s War: After Surging Into the Islamist-Held North, Will France Retreat? In Time
  • U.S.-Africa Partnership: The Last Four Years and Beyond, a speech by Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson
  • Clinton: Benghazi was my greatest regret as secretary of state, remarks by Hillary Clinton
  • The Al Qaeda Menace in Africa by Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution
  • Marvin Kalb’s comments at Brookings, “It’s Called the Vietnam Syndrome, and It’s Back”
  • Kerry gets overwhelming Senate backing to lead State Department in the Washington Post
  • Sahel in a handbasket Analysis: As Obama struggles to wind down inherited wars, a new Middle Eastern crisis area beckons in Global Post
  • A ‘doctrine,’ I presume? Analysts define Obama’s approach at Politico
  • Egypt army chief warns state could collapse at the AP
  • A Critic at Large – The Force – How much military is enough? At the New Yorker

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama announces the nomination of Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State to succeed Hillary Clinton. at the White House in Washington December 21, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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