Obama's foreign policy has shifted from timidity to farce
Watching Katherine Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, a thought immediately comes to mind. Here is a film ultimately about the daring and omnipotence of America. Yet it comes at a moment when the country has never seemed less daring or omnipotent. Indeed, President Barack Obama, who ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden, has made it a point time and again to affirm the limitations of the United States, against those demanding more effort.
Zero Dark Thirty is, of course, about the relentless way the Americans tracked down bin Laden to Abbottabad, in Pakistan, and had him killed inside his home by Navy commandos. As the film describes it, the persistence of a single female CIA agent brought about this outcome, even if others have since insisted that it was the combined work of many agents that led to bin Laden's door. But America's myths usually involve acts of individualism, and Ms Bigelow told the story she knew would resonate with her audience.
What she didn't realise was that her film would also tell us much about how the Obama administration thinks. These days foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East, is made with a very low tolerance for risk, and a wide latitude for avoidance. Before examining why a specific policy course must be adopted, the administration will argue why it should not be adopted.
As Mr Obama showed once again in his State of the Union address this week, he continues to strive for minimalism overseas. The tenor of his speech was mostly directed at a domestic audience. The president continued to assure Americans that he sought a drawdown in Afghanistan, and he mentioned the conflict in Syria only twice.
To be fair to Mr Obama, the US economy does not allow the costly overseas interventions that George W Bush engaged in, even if Mr Obama did endorse the war in Afghanistan. During his first term, the priority was reviving the economy and getting re-elected, which stymied many foreign policy initiatives that might have undermined the image that Mr Obama sought to create at election time. For him, bin Laden's assassination represented precisely the kind of operation America could afford when he took over.
Bin Laden's elimination showed Mr Obama employing the audacity from which he seems so naturally to stray away. But it also revealed the methods lying at the heart of American strategic thinking today: swift operations with narrowly defined military goals, that cost little money in relative terms, that have limited political risk, and that bring immediate political gratification.
This takes us back a few years to the discussion within the administration over how to proceed in Afghanistan. At the time, the question was whether the US should increase the number of troops there, in the context of a counterinsurgency strategy that included elements of a nation-building project. Arguing against this was Vice President Joe Biden, who urged the president to focus on a less elaborate antiterrorism effort targeting Al Qaeda members.
Although Mr Biden lost the argument at the time, he has won it since. The administration has pulled back from a nation-building approach. Instead, it has focused on using drones to assassinate Al Qaeda's leadership and their Taliban allies. The cynicism involved, the values it evoked, and the implication of assassinating without due process has led to fresh doubts in the US Congress, most recently as senators have questioned John Brennan, Mr Obama's choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
As Zero Dark Thirty shows, finding bin Laden involved activities with which many Americans don't feel comfortable. There has been much criticism of the film's depiction of waterboarding. While one might question whether this actually led to bin Laden's hideout, it is undeniable that a wide array of abuses was permitted by the so-called "war on terrorism", from waterboarding to extraordinary rendition, where terrorism suspects were sent by the US to other countries in which torture was often used in interrogations.
Still, most Americans approved of bin Laden's killing, as they support Mr Obama's disengagement from Middle Eastern affairs. Yet they seem less sure when facing the moral ambiguities created by an exclusive focus on antiterrorism. This focus implies that the US no longer needs to concern itself with the details of politics, which can be complicated and frustrating. That has been Mr Obama's default setting in the Middle East, as he has shown great reluctance to involve himself in the region's crises, let alone use his office to advance his aims.
However, relying on drones and assassinations in a dominant antiterrorism strategy is hardly policy. It is substitution for policy. It is what you do when you have no interest in developing an integrated course of action towards a part of the world in which you can think only of reducing your presence. As we watch the character Maya hunting down bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, all we can think of is that she and her comrades are working in a bubble, unrestrained by the political constraints and hard choices faced by politicians.
Maybe that's because Mr Obama has so little taste for politics outside the United States. He seems rarely to travel, to devise new foreign policy initiatives, to display the same passion for the give and take of diplomacy that, let's say, Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. It's not surprising, then, that the president relies so heavily on drones and targeted killings today, for they fill the vacuum left by his standoffishness.
Mr Biden must have sensed this in the president when he saw that he would not have the stamina to stick with nation-building in Afghanistan. He realised that less is more in the Obama White House.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling
Updated: February 14, 2013 04:00 AM