Voice

Second-Term Heat

What will be the legacy of Obama's next four years?

Barack Obama has a cautionary temperament, but a large imagination. That is, he defines his goals in grandiose terms, though he is prepared to take many small steps to reach them. Because he took office in the midst of an immense financial crisis (one that he had no reason to expect when he first decided to run), Obama spent far more of his first term staving off calamity than he would have hoped. A combination of sheer urgency, congressional intransigence, and the painful lessons of experience -- especially on foreign policy -- have sapped Obama's presidency of much of the youthful exuberance and ambition it once had. I cannot believe that he is altogether satisfied with where he finds himself today. As he faces his inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21, and his second term, he is sure to be thinking about how he can leave a mark on history commensurate with his sense of destiny.

It's a truism, and possibly even a true one, that U.S. presidents who win a second term look to foreign affairs to burnish their legacy. Foreign policy does not require messy compromises with Congress, and second-term presidents are usually more confident of their standing in the world and thus readier to go for broke. After a first term spent confronting the "Evil Empire," as he called the Soviet Union, in 1986 President Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland, with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, and came within a hairsbreadth of agreeing to eliminate much of the two countries' nuclear arsenals. President Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine; that failed, but Clinton's only slightly less difficult mediation between Britain and Northern Ireland succeeded. The same rule does not quite hold for President George W. Bush, who was all too confident of his judgment of the world before he knew anything about it and spent much of his second term cleaning up the mess he had caused in the first.

Obama came into office caring about foreign policy more than any of his predecessors back to the first President Bush. His advisors would tell you that Obama had not just a managerial agenda but an affirmative one: The chief elements were nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, fixing failed states, and rebuilding the international architecture. He has made real progress in all those areas, and he won a Nobel Peace Prize, which he acknowledged he did not yet deserve. His "engagement" policy has leached some of the poisons that gathered during George W. Bush's presidency. And yes, he killed Osama bin Laden. But Afghanistan has proved to be Obama's Big Muddy; Iran has shown no signs of giving up its nuclear program or caving under sanctions; Obama has found himself unable to act in the face of massive atrocities in Syria; and the president's bid to bring Middle East peace came to naught. Had he lost the election, Obama's most lasting contribution to U.S. national security policy almost certainly would have been the program of targeted killing through drone strikes with which he has carried out the war on terror. That is definitely not what Obama had in mind when he ran for office.

The time has come then for the reset of Obama's reset. Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security advisor, has been holding meetings on how to revive and rethink engagement policy, which sounds like a painfully modest first step on the path to legacy. Surely there's something bigger and bolder out there. There has been, of course, no lack of kibitzing on the subject. The Brookings Institution has just published a briefing memo titled "Big Bets and Black Swans." This is arguably a paradoxical endeavor because Brookings is the very font of cautious mainstream thinking. In some cases, in fact, the big bets look more like nickel antes. The first of the proposals is that the president should "rebalance judiciously the rebalancing strategy" in China. On defense spending, Brookings advises Obama to "pursue relatively modest savings from additional efficiencies" rather than "seek fairly dramatic changes." In other words, the little bet.

Brookings offers some good advice that Obama probably won't take (a diplomatic restart with Iran, arming Syrian rebels) and some that he might (relaxing sanctions on Cuba, brokering disputes in the South China Sea). Tellingly, Middle East peace, the favorite big bet of all recent presidents, does not make the cut -- for the very good reason that the chances of success are so low. My favorite proposal is that Obama lay out and open for debate a doctrine for the use of new weapons, above all drones, as President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower sought to do with the atomic bomb. If drones are going to be part of Obama's legacy, then so too should be the establishment of a domestic and international legal and regulatory framework for their use.

I have, however, a modest proposal of my own: a climate deal with China. Climate change is a more urgent problem than nuclear proliferation. Obama is deeply seized with the subject, as is John Kerry, his all-but-confirmed secretary of state. Hurricane Sandy was a seminal moment, having something of the effect on public opinion that the Sandy Hook school shooting has had on gun control; wait a few months, and more calamities will push the public further still. The United States and China, which together produce almost half of global carbon dioxide emissions, are the key to solving the problem. Congress has refused to take any serious steps so long as the major emerging countries -- above all China -- fail to do so, but U.S. inaction provides an indispensable pretext for Chinese hesitation. No one wants to move without the other.

At the same time, there is tremendous activity on both sides, both at the private-sector level and at the state level. California has a cap-and-trade system, while nine Northeastern states have agreed to reduce emissions from power plants. In China, six provinces have begun pilot cap-and-trade programs. There is more "bottom-up" than "top-down" progress in both countries. A climate agreement could coordinate and accelerate that progress. William Antholis, a former trade and climate negotiator for President Clinton now at Brookings, suggests as a "middle bar" a bilateral framework that would promote cooperation between the two countries at the state and provincial levels as well as joint programs on auto-emissions standards, natural gas technology, alternative-energy research, and the like. Such a pact could include specific targets for emission reductions or improvements in "energy intensity" -- emissions per unit of energy.

Of such useful but modest steps, however, legacies are not made. And we will be living in a very hot world by the time these measures have taken full effect. Because neither country appears prepared to adopt a national cap-and-trade system, the "high bar," says Antholis, would be a joint agreement to impose a carbon tax. This could counteract the effect of growing U.S. oil and gas production by making conservation measures and the use of alternative-energy sources more appealing (another one of the Brookings "big bets," by the way). And of course it would apply to each country, not just to particular states and provinces. There may be no other way of bending the curve of global emissions growth downward quickly enough to avoid catastrophic changes in the environment. This would have the added benefit of providing a sense of common purpose and common interest to the United States' contentious relationship with China.

Since Beijing surely would not bind itself until Washington does, Congress would almost certainly have to pass such a measure in order for China to sign. That would be quite a heavy political lift. Republicans would insist that such a measure be revenue-neutral, which is to say that it would have to be offset by a tax cut and thus could not be used to invest in, say, alternative-energy development. But that's self-defeating: The American people, as I've said before, will accept serious climate change measures as an opportunity for growth and bold change, not as a sacrifice or punishment. The highest of the high bars would thus be a deal with China, bringing with it a carbon tax and new investment.

That would require mighty deft diplomacy both at home and abroad -- though now that we're on the subject of legacy, it's hard to imagine a more lasting one for a Secretary Kerry. Both Kerry and Obama will, in fact, want to lay a big bet somewhere. I say, let's wait for a few more hurricanes and droughts, and then get to work.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Exit, Minus Strategy

Barack Obama has clearly decided to cut his losses in Afghanistan. Will all hell break lose when he does?

President Barack Obama listened to his generals the first time around; now he knows better. The Obama of 2009, new to the job, unsure of his relationship to the military and perhaps slightly overawed by his superstar commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley MacChrystal, agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign he didn't quite believe in. The Obama of 2013 is prepared to overrule the recommendation of his current commander, Gen. John Allen, and leave few -- if any -- troops behind after U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. That's what's known as a learning curve.

America's obsession with terrorism has wrenched the relationship between civilian leadership and the military in several different directions. The attacks of 9/11 unleashed the ideologues around President George W. Bush -- and exposed his own fervent dreams -- while the uniformed military clung to the cautionary precepts inherited from the Vietnam War. It was Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who acted as field marshal of the war in Iraq, operating through the compliant commander he chose, Tommy Franks. Having routed the Taliban on his own terms, Rumsfeld felt that he had every reason to ignore advice from service commanders who argued for more troops, much as he ignored advice from State Department officials who warned to prepare for the post-conflict setting. We know where that got us.

By the time Barack Obama took office, the situation was reversed. Obama was a cautionary figure with an ingrained skepticism about America's capacity to reshape the world, especially through the use of force. But by 2009, David Petraeus, mastermind of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, had come to incarnate a new kind of hero-general, bold and brilliant and charismatic. Stanley MacChrystal, who replaced him as commander of forces in Afghanistan, had the ascetic appeal of a Jedi Knight. Both men, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book The Insurgents, captured the public imagination and helped re-write the public understanding of military culture and military leadership. And both had come to be gripped by a master idea: counterinsurgency, or COIN. They were ideologues, just as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had been in the years before.

Obama never caught the bug, as Bush had. He tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, with punching holes in the optimistic counterinsurgency narrative. Over time, according to Bob Woodward in Obama's Wars, the president grew increasingly skeptical that the U.S. could remake Afghanistan in the few short years during which American troops would remain there, or even that it needed to. He wondered why the United States had to worry about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan when the real threat was al Qaeda. But both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that a Taliban victory would bring al Qaeda back to Afghanistan; and Obama ultimately agreed to a slightly diminished version of MacChrystal's middle option, which had called for 40,000 troops along with a big increase in civilian presence. He may have felt that he could not afford to substitute his judgment for that of America's military poster boys.

COIN has had its great experiment; and it has been found wanting. The massive program of development assistance and government reform which accompanied the military surge has done little either to reduce the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state or to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan public. One recent study found that in the country's most fiercely contested provinces aid is negatively correlated with both stability and popular perceptions of the international presence. It never seemed plausible -- save, perhaps, to MacChrystal, who spoke of bringing "government-in-a-box" -- that the U.S. could significantly boost the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's government in three years; and White House officials have long since stopped speaking of political or economic reform as a crucial piece of their exit strategy.

Over the last year, as public support for the war effort has dropped as low as 23 percent, Obama has abandoned one piece after another of the strategy he once envisioned. A new "partnership" with Pakistan involving development assistance, security coordination, and regional diplomacy was to persuade Islamabad to close up the sanctuaries where insurgents trained and organized, and took refuge from U.S. forces. That, too, has turned out to be a pipe dream; it's a good day when Islamabad and Washington are even speaking to one another. The neologism "AfPak," meant to denote the inextricability of the two problems, has become an anachronism. Indeed, the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama created soon after taking office in order to forge "whole-of-government" solutions to this complex regional problem has probably outlived its usefulness. It was, after all, created for Richard Holbrooke, the late diplomat who fervently embraced this approach. The White House is said to be thinking of replacing the office with a special envoy.

The exit strategy from Afghanistan increasingly looks like: exit, minus strategy. General Allen has been constantly ratcheting down the number of U.S. troops needed to remain after 2014 to carry out counterterror missions and continue training Afghan forces -- from 20,000 to 15,000 to three options at 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops. But that still may be too much: Earlier this week, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said that the president may leave no troops behind at all. That was a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's now in Washington trying to make case for a larger residual U.S. presence, but also to the Pentagon. General Allen is not David Petraeus. (David Petraeus is no longer David Petraeus, for that matter.) And Obama, who must think about many things which do not enter into his generals' ken, like public opinion and the budget deficit, will make up his own mind. He is saying, in effect, that he can live with failure.

Is that a bad thing? In a Washington Post op-ed last November, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, the gung-ho generals of the Institute for the Study of War, predicted that, absent a remaining force of 40,000 troops, the United States will be unable to engage in serious counterterror operations, affect the Afghan political process as the country approaches a crucial election in 2014, or engage in meaningful nation-building.

That may be hyperbolic, but it certainly defines what's at stake. It is, for example, extremely unlikely that Afghan forces will be able to stand on their own once U.S. troops leave. Even the Pentagon's extremely rosy December 2012 progress report concedes that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is ready to fight on its own. And a recent article in the New York Times reports that the people of Marja district in Helmand Province, brought back to bustling life after months of bloody battle by U.S. Marines, have already resigned themselves to the return of the Taliban once American forces pack up.

The Obama who hopes to pivot to Asia, and to nation-building-at-home, just may not care that much anymore. I imagine that the president and his team, now thoroughly cured of the military's can-do spirit of optimism, regard reports of Afghan military readiness with as much skepticism as most of the rest of us do. They would like to keep Afghan whole after 2014, but they are no longer prepared to pay the price that may be required to do so. They are hoping -- but it's just a hope -- that they can close the door on Afghanistan as they already have on Iraq, continuing to provide billions in development assistance, budgetary support, and military training while the Afghans sort out their security and political problems on their own. Drone warfare has seriously eroded al Qaeda's ranks in Pakistan, and the war on terror has moved on to Yemen and North Africa. Even the counterterror aspect of the Afghan war has thus lost some of its urgency.

And if the hopes for Afghan self-sufficiency prove baseless, as they very well might? U.S. failure in Vietnam was supposed to bring calamity in its wake -- but it didn't. If Afghanistan really is the Vietnam of our time, then Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon, has decided to cut his losses.

Scott Olson/Getty Images