Obama is a paradox. This has never been as clear to me as while reading David
Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's
Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. The book is a timely,
gripping read that offers insights into some of the most surprising, most
closely guarded dimensions of the Obama presidency. Early excerpts
from his book that have already appeared in the New York Times have sent competitors scrambling and governments
from Washington to Tel Aviv to Tehran to Islamabad into closed-door sessions to
determine how to deal with his uncomfortable revelations. When it comes to ongoing
conflicts between America and her perceived enemies (and friends) around the
world, Sanger is a one-man WikiLeaks and Confront
and Conceal is a glimpse into a world until now shrouded in secrecy.
cynical observer might wonder why, at this particular moment, there have been a
spate of books and articles like Sanger's, revealing Barack Obama to be the
Great and Powerful Oz of 21st-century white-collar warfare, a president with
his hands on the joystick of American power, directing drones, computer worms,
special-operations units, and covert actors in the kinds of shadow wars that
offer a cheaper, lower-risk alternative to those unlamented days of shock and
awe and trillion-dollar wars to nowhere. You might conclude that some in the
administration were orchestrating the serial violation of its own secrecy laws to
achieve a politically desirable image for its candidate-commander-in-chief. But
whether that's really the case is one of the few aspects of this White House
onto which Sanger does not shed a direct light. As for the rest of what is
going on in the Obama national security apparatus, Confront and Conceal is jam-packed with news, gripping anecdotes,
stories of triumph, and stories of hubris.
measure of the book's success is that by the time I was done with it, I was
more confused than when I had begun -- about how to feel about Obama's approach
to war and about the president himself. Sanger, the New York Times's chief Washington correspondent, sets out to
dissect the Obama doctrine and ends up instead revealing the Obama paradox. There is
a bold, thoughtful, serious man in the Oval Office. And an arrogant, cautious,
calculating one, too. There is one seeking to undo the wrongs of America's
recent past. And there is one committing a whole new set of wrongs, sometimes
on a whole new scale. And of course, as with every really good paradoxical
figure, every paradox contains paradoxes. When I was done with the book, I
concluded this might be a uniquely complex and enigmatic president -- or
perhaps one that was precisely as he appeared: an ambitious, intelligent,
well-intentioned, self-invested lawyer who has great confidence in his own
ability to manage America's (and the world's) problems, is a
learning-on-the-job manager who is in many respects more distant from his cabinet
than any president since Richard Nixon, and who is trying to do the best he
can, succeeding sometimes and failing at others. But the jury about Obama is
very much out.
following conversation with Sanger took place a couple of days before the June
5 publication date of Confront and
Conceal. Interview by David Rothkopf:
Foreign Policy: Why
is this book different from all the other books?
Sanger: When Barack Obama came into office, there were
many liberals and other supporters of the new president who were so ready for
the end of the Bush era that they gave little thought to what "hard power" techniques
were likely to be necessary -- and so they were surprised about the hard edge
to much of the Obama approach to foreign policy. At the same time, there were
many conservatives who thought that he was naïve in his approach to "engagement."
And they were surprised, too, about the new president's decision to double down
on some of the Bush-era initiatives.
When I set out on the reporting of Confront and Conceal, what struck me the
most was how surprising the Obama approach to foreign policy has been compared
to what we expected coming out of the 2008 campaign. So this is a book about
the surprises. And it's a book that tries to take seriously the thought that
there may be an Obama doctrine -- even if the president has deliberately avoided
that phrase. And I wanted to examine whether it works, where it works, and
where it doesn't work.
If I had to summarize the doctrine, it's got
two parts. When there is a direct threat to the United States, Obama has shown
himself to be very willing to use unilateral force, even if it violates a
country's sovereignty, and even if it angers the allies. Think of the [Osama] bin Laden
raid. Think of the drone strikes over Pakistan. Think of Olympic Games [the
code name for the cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear program], which is one
of the largest covert programs the United States has run in recent years and is
a clear violation of the sovereignty of Iran.
When there are cases where the United States
does not have direct interests at stake, when there was just sort of a global
good out there, which may well include something like the responsibility to
protect populations from brutal dictators -- think Libya, Syria, so forth -- President
Obama has been very willing to say we're not going to take the lead here; we're
going to force others to both pay for it and to man up to it according to their
own interests. And this has left many allies pretty disturbed, because they
have wondered whether or not the traditional United States leadership role is
being abandoned. It's also created some political vulnerability for the president.
At moments, it has worked, as in Libya. At other moments, it has not. The
paralysis over Syria happened because when the United States hasn't taken the
lead, and no one else has either. So the Obama doctrine gives us sort of a new
lens on how the U.S. exercises power, and this book is an examination of what's
worked and what hasn't. Not surprisingly, it's a mixed record.
According to your book, many of the big, moving parts of the Obama doctrine
were inherited from Bush, including both drones and the cyber war against Iran.
How much credit do you think George Bush and his team deserve for what is now
being characterized as the Obama doctrine?
They deserve a good deal of credit, but I think that the second half
of President Bush's term has more similarities to what President Obama has done
than the second half of the Bush term has to the first part of the Bush term. And
that was in part a reaction to the huge overreach of those first four years for
George Bush, the mistakes of Iraq, the underestimation of what it would take to
accomplish the goals in Afghanistan.
What I think President Obama deserves credit
for is going back and rethinking what our realistic objectives were,
particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even in the second Bush term, there
was a considerable amount of chaos about what we could reasonably accomplish in
Afghanistan, and there were a lot of blinders on about what we could accomplish
in places like Pakistan. Because Obama did not have the burden of having
declared unreachable goals, he had the luxury to see the problems more clearly.
And in the first two years, he dramatically narrowed the goals in Afghanistan,
and I describe the change that President Obama went through to get there.
What the administration doesn't like to talk
about is that narrowing those goals meant walking away from many things that
the United States had promised the Afghans over the years: assuring that girls
would go to school and the schools would be protected from the Taliban; rebuilding
justice systems, and securing the whole country, not just downtown Kabul. No
American president wants to admit that they have so narrowed their goals that
when the United States leaves, it's very possible that you could see a
reversion to the day where the Taliban controls a good deal of the country. But
in fact that is a likelihood in the next few years, and in my interviews some members of the Obama administration conceded we have to be prepared for
the contradictions within Obama's own approach are quite striking. The president
and his team concluded early we couldn't achieve our goals in Afghanistan, then
decided to double down -- and also to exit all in one single announcement. But
we are left with the question as to whether the tortured process of arriving at
the decision to leave in 2014 or implementing that policy will produce any
better outcome than if we had simply exited to begin with.
This book isn't really history -- you can't write history this close
to events. But in the end, it may be that the surge in Afghanistan did not give
us much; it may not have been better than beginning an orderly exit in 2009. There
is reason to ask: When the surge is over, and when we see what Afghanistan
looks like in 2014, will the surge have accomplished anything lasting? It
certainly allowed for some temporary gains. There are certainly areas of the
country that the Taliban is not in right now that they would be had the surge
not happened. The question is: Does that remain, or does Afghanistan revert to
the mean? Will the country in 2016 look a lot like the country in 1999? And
that's all a function of whether or not the fundamental theory of the case -- which
is that you can train the Afghan army and police to take over the role that the
United States and NATO have been playing -- whether that is possible in the
short time that is available. And that's a very open question right now.
Another set of contradictions are associated with Pakistan. Part of
the Obama doctrine is to say: If we go in with this light footprint, we can go
and achieve our goals in counterterrorism and thus help reduce the threats to
the U.S. in a more effective way than we had been previously. But over the
course of the past few years, our relations with Pakistan have never been
worse. Pakistan has never been less stable. This raises the question: Does the
Obama doctrine actually work?
Riedel had it right after his first review of the policy for President Obama in
2009: The problem should be called Pak-Af, not Af-Pak. It is an accident of
history, because of 9/11, that we have more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan,
and we have none in Pakistan, yet we consider all of the bigger threats to be
in Pakistan. Pakistan is 180 million people, an active insurgency, an expanding
nuclear arsenal -- and expanding in the worst possible way, which is to say
that they are developing light, transportable nuclear weapons that they can
easily bring to the Indian border. Those are also the nuclear weapons that are
more easily stolen. So when the Obama administration looks at the threat, they
say to themselves: What are the chances that a big threat to the United States
is going to redevelop in Afghanistan? Pretty small, because thanks to the
Predator and better intelligence we now have a chance to go in and wipe out an
emerging threat fairly quickly. What are the chances such a threat to the U.S.
homeland would develop in Pakistan? Enormous.
There is a short chapter in Confront and Conceal entitled "Bomb
Scare," which has to do with four days in 2009 when the new Obama
administration briefly thought the Taliban might have a nuclear weapon. Fortunately,
it turned out they were wrong, but boy, those four days really focused the mind
and changed the way this administration thought about the problem. Pakistan
poses the far more complex, urgent threat.
And not too long after that they started moving toward a policy of
getting out of Afghanistan that depends on cutting a deal with the Taliban. And
in fact, it's not too long after we come face to face with the worst possible
case, the Taliban ending up with a bomb, that we started talking about "good
Taliban" and began to work harder at trying to cut a deal with some of them. So
when I read that section, I thought: This certainly casts a whole different
light on the search for the good Taliban.
You can spin a lot of wheels separating out the good Taliban from the
bad Taliban. The administration's strategy depended on a peel-away approach in
which they would undercut the Taliban by peeling off elements that were really
tired of trying to survive under the onslaught of the surge. But what they've
discovered is that when you announce that you're leaving by a date certain, the
incentive for the Taliban to go negotiate seriously rather than simply wait you
out is pretty limited. And there were many people inside the administration,
including Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, who were making the case that
it was a mistake to set a public deadline for the American and NATO withdrawal.
The answer the White House gives is simple:
We're not leaving entirely. There will be an enduring presence. They don't like
to talk publicly about the size of that presence, but in the book I say they
are thinking that 10,000 to 15,000 troops would be behind the high walls of
bases around the country. And while they would be based in Afghanistan to keep
Kabul from falling, in fact, the majority of their task is to keep a lid on
Pakistan and to have a way to move in quickly, including with nuclear search
teams if they think one of those hundred-plus nuclear weapons has gone loose.
with a force of that size, it's impossible to keep a lid on a large city, much
less an entire country or even an entire nuclear arsenal. Ten thousand troops
can hunt for one loose nuclear weapon or three loose nuclear weapons, but not
200 loose nuclear weapons.
The light footprint or 'surgical' component of the Obama doctrine
seems to be ideally suited for dealing with nonstate actors, except to the
degree to which it inflames state actors by violating their sovereignty. But
then in both Afghanistan and Pakistan we've got a messy hybrid situation where
you have nonstate and state actors working together.
The long-term risks are not alleviated much by the 'enduring presence.'
One of President Obama's former military advisers said to me: Who wouldn't want
a light-footprint strategy? Of course, it's everyone's first choice: It's
inexpensive, you take many fewer casualties, you don't sit around and occupy
countries so you don't build up resentments among the local population. But the
problem with light-footprint strategies is there are situations for which they
are ill-suited. One of those is transforming the nature of societies. They're
great for going in and wiping out a terrorist in a specific place. They may
work well for finding a loose nuclear weapon. They don't accomplish what a
long-running, expensive counterinsurgency approach is intended to accomplish.
And of course, a few years ago the military thought that counterinsurgency was
the future, that to avoid conflicts we would drain the swamp by providing
education, providing security, being there as an alternative to a group like
the Taliban. Light footprint doesn't help you with that.
footprint could also spark precisely the kind of fire it can't control. You go
in, you get bin Laden, you alienate the Pakistani military, you force a rift
between the Pakistani military and the political class within Pakistan. You
could easily see something like that tipping things into a point of
It very well could. A lot has been written recently about the
aftermath of the bin Laden raid.
What was fascinating about the bin Laden raid
was matching up the Obama administration's expectations about the Pakistani
reaction and the reality of the Pakistani reaction. The expectation was that
the Pakistanis would be embarrassed that bin Laden was in their midst and angry
about that embarrassment. In fact, they weren't at all embarrassed about the
fact that bin Laden had lived an hour's drive from Islamabad for five years,
ostensibly without anyone in the leadership knowing about it. They were just
humiliated by the sovereignty invasion.
And now sovereignty is a bigger problem than
ever. Think about drone strikes. The U.S. has justified the drone strikes in
Pakistan on the basis that it had the permission of the Pakistani government to
execute the strikes. In fact, when I did interviews about the legal basis for
drone strikes, administration officials said to me: We're only in countries
that let us in or don't have an operative government so you have to go in, like
Somalia. Well, what's happened? The democratically elected parliament of
Pakistan, which we prefer to have running the country instead of the military,
has voted overwhelmingly to ban all drone strikes by the United States inside
their territory. And since the passage of that declaration, we have conducted
more drone strikes inside their territory. So in order to continue the
counterterrorism mission, we have completely undercut the authority of the
democratically elected side of the Pakistani government, and we are simply
working with the old military side.
In terms of ironies, the Obama administration embraced its new
approach in reaction to the Bush approach. And the Bush approach really came to
be questioned when the Bush administration wrongly predicted the nature of the Iraqi
response to the American invasion to Iraq. Now you have the pivot point of the
Obama administration strategy grossly misreading the Pakistani response to the
bin Laden attack. The one thing we have seen to be common to both
administrations is guessing wrong about how governments on the ground are going
And about how people on the ground are going to react. One of the
things that the U.S. said it was ready for after the bin Laden raid was an
attack on the American embassy -- a sort of public uprising. That never
happened, but the relationship between the two governments has gotten far worse.
It's possible that Pakistan falls into that
category of foreign-policy problems for which there is no tenable solution. They
want an apology for the American attack -- the mistaken American attack that
killed 25 Pakistani soldiers. I can fully understand that. [But] in an election
year, no American president is going to apologize for what is viewed here as
defending American troops. Pakistan also wants huge payment for reopening the
supply routes into Afghanistan. The American view is Pakistan is a major
non-NATO ally, as declared by George Bush. So why are we paying a major
non-NATO ally to help fight a war that's in Pakistan's interest to keep a
stable Afghanistan? So you have two countries that have really never been more
far apart. And it's the one country where Barack Obama's charms abroad have
The biggest revelations of your book seem to be not just the degree of
U.S. covert operations with regard to Iran, but the degree to which those
operations were closely managed by the president of the United States sitting
in a room at the White House with his top advisors, making tactical decisions
about fighting a new kind of cyberwar.
What's impressive is that the United States is approaching cyberwar
with the rules it applies to other types of military and covert action. It's
got some fairly well-defined rules about how you design these weapons, to avoid
collateral damage. But the rest of the world isn't going to care about that, I
suspect. I'm not sure the Chinese, the Russians, or a group of young hackers
who think they're acting on behalf of their country will apply the same kind of
rules to their own actions.
And so the question is: When you start using a
cyberweapon, have you created a justification for someone else to say we're not
doing anything the United States hasn't done against Iran? That's a question
President Obama asked in the Situation Room during the decisions about Olympic
Games. And there was no good answer.
point out in the book that if the cyberweapon gets into the hands of our
enemies and they can use elements of it, then you've also empowered them in
ways that they weren't before.
what happened with Stuxnet. Stuxnet was designed to be a bullet aimed at the
Natanz nuclear plant. There were many iterations to it, and one of them went
astray. There was literally a programming error not uncommon to anybody who has
loaded an earlier version of a Microsoft program onto their computer and then
gotten a fix downloaded a few weeks later. In this case, what happened was that
the program -- which was computer controllers that command the centrifuges -- thought
that it was living just within the confined world of Natanz. And an engineer
came along, plugged his laptop in to do some maintenance work on the Natanz
plan, and unwittingly ended up being the host for this program. He leaves the
plant, he plugs into the Internet -- I don't know if he was playing video
games, shopping on Amazon, watching his favorite American TV show, whatever
he was doing -- the program literally began to propagate around the world. And
suddenly people here at the National Security Agency, and at Israel's Unit 8200,
are discovering that this program the United States spent millions or billions
of dollars to produce is suddenly available to anybody. Any skilled computer
hacker can go decompile it and learn lessons about how to build a weapon of
their own. It's the cyber equivalent of leaving loose ordnance sitting around
the battlefield for somebody to pick up. That's not supposed to happen. Stuxnet
was proof of the law of unintended consequences.
FP: There haven't been thoughtful discussions
about the consequences or the ethics or the international legal ramifications
of this approach. Let's imagine for a moment that you're [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and you are confronted with this. Isn't your first reaction, "How is them
blowing up Natanz with a code any different from them blowing up Natanz with a
bomb? And doesn't that justify military retaliation?"
it up with computer code, rather than bombs, is different in one big respect:
It very hard for the Iranians in real time to know who the attacker was, and thus
to make a public case for retaliating. It takes a long time to figure out where
a cyber attack comes from.
That was a big reason for the U.S. and Israel
to attack Natanz in this way. But it wasn't the only reason, at least from the
American perspective. One of the main driving forces for Olympic Games was to
so wrap the Israelis into a project that could cripple Natanz in a subtle way
that Israel would see less of a motivation to go about a traditional bombing,
one that could plunge the Middle East into a another war.
Stuxnet, of course, began to open the lid on
American and Israeli use of offensive cyber weapons. And the U.S., of course,
spend years trying to keep that capability secret. But it couldn't stay secret
forever. And maybe it shouldn't. There are some in the U.S. government, in the
intelligence and military community, who thought that it would actually be a
good thing if the American cyber capability was much more broadly known because
it would have a deterrent effect. It could be a way of saying to the Iranians,
we've gotten at your centrifuges, you know about it, and we can come back and
get you anytime we want. There's another faction, to which President Obama
belongs, that said no, we want to keep this quiet as long as we can so that
it's not attributable to the United States and it's harder for them to react.
What blew their cover? It wasn't my book. It
was Stuxnet. That gave people who were paying attention the thread to pull on. And
when I pulled, the thread led them back to the White House Situation Room.
FP: But now Iran knows the origin. Aren't the
Iranians justified under international law to retaliate?
DS: I don't know the answer to that. It would
require an international lawyer -- in the book, I quote Harold Koh,
the State Department counsel, saying as -- translating the laws of armed
conflict, and in this case the laws of covert action, into a cyber world that
was never designed for that.
Broader implications aside, I think what they
were trying to do was something fairly short-term and prosaic: They were trying
to buy time. Think about the Iranian nuclear program. It has taken Iran longer
to get from no place to a nuclear weapons capability than any other nation that
has attempted it on Earth. The United States did it in the Manhattan Project in
three or four years. It took the Soviets until 1949. The Indians got there. The
Pakistanis got there. The North Koreans got there. What must you think if
you're sitting in Iran, you don't yet have a nuclear capability, and the finest
minds of Kim Jong Il High School had beaten you to the punch and now have
several nuclear weapons? So all the Obama administration was trying to do was
further delay a program that was already delayed.
FP: What you're talking about is the difference
between talking about Olympic Games or Stuxnet as a single effort and talking
about it as an element of the doctrine. When you talk about it as a doctrine,
you talk about drones, covert ops, and Special Forces as the light footprint,
and you're using it everywhere because of the idea that it's lower risk and
lower casualty. There's a slippery slope on the other side that your book
addresses. Arguably, Barack Obama has violated national sovereignty around the
world more frequently than any of his predecessors since the Second World War. Some
senior officials have suggested to me that he has more covert actions going on
in different places around the world than any of his predecessors since the
height of the Cold War. Having these tools enables and encourages you to use
DS: Especially if you think the alternative is an
old-style invasion and occupation, for which the population of the United
States no longer has any tolerance.
FP: Right. So the upside of that is perhaps we're
less likely to do an old-style invasion. The downside is that at some point or
another, you inadvertently create the collateral damage or inflame the
situation that draws you in anyway, or you create the precedent for other
people to embrace these tactics.
DS: That's why the light footprint has a real
political imperative and real practical limitations. And you've discovered that
now in Iran. We've certainly seen it in Syria, as I've suggested before. You
see it in almost any society where you think you can move in and out quickly
and hope that you are going to have a better result on the ground. It's a very
good short-term insurance policy. It's not a terribly effective long-term
strategy for creating a more permissive environment for the United States.
FP: So, Pakistan is more dangerous. Afghanistan
is more dangerous. Iran -- the jury is out. We don't even know whether we are
effectively stopping their nuclear program from moving forward effectively. We're
in the midst of diplomatic talks that don't seem to be going anywhere. We don't
know whether ultimately we stopped the Israelis from going in and inflaming the
situation. It didn't stop the North Koreans from doing what the North Koreans
have done. And it doesn't look like the world is dramatically safer as a result
of the light-footprint approach. Recognizing that the jury is out on virtually
everything, do you think it's made the U.S. safer?
DS: There are elements of it that have made the
U.S. safer. Had we asked the question on Jan. 20, 2009, what are the chances
that central al Qaeda would be this close to defeat three years into an Obama
presidency? I don't think either you or I would have predicted that. If we had
asked the question in 2009, what are the chances that the Iranians will have
either a nuclear bomb or virtual bomb capability by the early summer of 2012? I
think we both would have said pretty high chance that they would have gotten
there already. So I think it has bought them time. I think it has bought them
space. But I don't think it's yet bought them any solutions.
terms of the approach, the tactics between Bush and Obama have been different. But
it can also be argued that both of them have made one similar, fatal error, and
that's overestimating the nature of the terrorist threat and its centrality to
the U.S. and its security interests. Bush went after it one way; Obama is going
after it another way. We're three years into the Obama administration, and al Qaeda
may be decimated, and we may be talking about a pivot or a strategic
rebalancing as you do at the end of your book, but in terms of troops, in terms
of dollars being allocated, in terms of bandwidth in the White House, we're
still spending an awful lot of our time worrying about a handful of bad actors
and less time effectively dealing with macro, big trends that may be more
fundamentally associated with our strategic position in the world, whether it's
fixing our domestic situation, dealing with Europe, dealing with China, et
is certainly true that the squeaky terrorist gets the Predator drone. That
said, when I think about the time that I was White House correspondent during
the Bush administration, and I see how much of the bandwidth and mental
bandwidth of the U.S. government was consumed by two wars going bad and a
terrorist hunt that was not going well, and I look at today, I think it is fair
to say that there has been some improvement. We have no more troops in Iraq. At
the time that President Obama came into office, they were well more than 100,000. They are on a pathway of reducing troops in Afghanistan. And
as we said, that may make for a very uncertain future.
What's the most interesting bandwidth decision
that the president has made in his time? There's a scene at the end of the book
where the president gathers all of the combatant commanders into the East Room.
It's at Christmastime. All the Christmas trees are up; the image of Lincoln is
staring out over them. And he basically makes the argument that the era of
unlimited expenses for the Pentagon is over. In fact, the Pentagon had just a
few months before come to him with a proposal to fund a standing force of
100,000 soldiers for stability operations. The White House said: 'No, you guys
didn't get the memo. Stability operations are over. We're not going to keep 100,000 people around to go do a kind of operation we don't think is
in our long-term interests anymore.' And those were gone from the budget.
So, I think we are on the way to creating the
mental bandwidth for thinking about a different set of policies and these
longer-term issues. But I don't think that the administration got there anywhere
near fast enough or even will look back and say that they got very far at all
in a first term. And we don't know if there will be a second term. The pivot to
Asia is a nice rhetorical start. The trick is going to be executing it. The
execution will take years. It has to be credible not only to the Chinese but to
the rest of our Asian neighbors. And we have to do it in a way that we don't
convince the Europeans that we're abandoning them, which is the only thing they
believe when they hear the word pivot.
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