A past warning from Afghanistan and Libya: Why Obama will never attack Iran’s nuclear program

In his speech before AIPAC last March, President Obama had this to say about America’s willingness to tolerate a nuclear Iran:

“We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States – just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.


I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.


Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Strong words, to be sure. After all, the core of Obama’s rationale for Israel staying her hand against an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is his own oft-stated willingness to take military action himself should diplomacy fail to prevent Iran from obtaining a weapon. But the question is: Does he mean it? Would he ever use force? The question, I think, can be definitively answered by a look at Obama’s willingness to resort to the use of force when it was required, along with the manner in which he used it when it was demanded, both of which are clearly demonstrated in his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Libya.


Throughout the campaign of 2008, Obama and his fellow Democrats all campaigned on their support for the war in Afghanistan as the neglected “war of necessity” that had been supposedly held to ransom by Bush’s pursuit of the “war of choice,” i.e.,Iraq. This Obama vowed to fix, and he promised to support the war in Afghanistan with a vigor that he charged Bush with lacking. Upon entering office, the President commenced a sixty-day comprehensive review in consultation with NATO allies to formulate his Af-Pak policy, and he signed off on a deployment of 17,000 troops along with 4,000 trainers of troops to beef up security.

On March 27, 2009, the President, looking and sounding every bit the combative and aggressive Commander-in-Chief, and flanked by Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates, announced the new policy in a press conference at the Pentagon, and asserted that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan required “urgent attention and swift action” and that,

“This [troop] increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border.


So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.”

Note the President’s use of activist, starkly unequivocal language here: Urgent attention and swift action. Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda. The goal that must be achieved.  The cause that could not be more just. Threatens America. We will defeat you.

The President could thus not have been clearer about the absolute importance of the Afghanistan war to America’s security, and about his resolute commitment to give the prosecution of the war the resources and the priority that had heretofore been lacking.

After this press conference, however, the war dropped completely from the President’s radar screen, and went virtually unmentioned for the next several months while he concentrated the bulk of his energies on promoting his health care initiative.  But, much to the President’s shock and dismay, the war rudely reared its ugly head again in the late summer of 2009.

Throughout July and August, the Taliban had been making dangerously significant gains, and it was becoming clear that a regional catastrophe would soon be in the making if more troops and resources were not dispatched to stem the tide of the Taliban’s momentum, and secure and hold areas of strategic importance until Afghan army and police were ready to be deployed in significant numbers.

Following a review of the security situation throughout the summer, General Stan McChrystal, the new Afghanistan theater commander, sent to the President in mid-September 2009 a comprehensive assessment explaining the dire urgency of the situation, what was needed to rectify it, the further dangers of inaction, and the need for quick action. He recommended a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces as the only viable strategy to retrieve the situation, and put in a request for a further 60 to 80,000 troops, with 40,000 as a bare minimum to implement it.

Grumblings about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the inadequate troop levels had been making themselves heard ever since August, and the Administration had quietly counter-leaked against any suggestion that more troops and resources were needed or would be forthcoming, hoping McChrystal would get the message, shut-up with his grumblings, and somehow make do with what he had. So anxious was Obama to avoid the reality of the situation that McChrystal had admitted in a September “60 Minutes” interview that Obama had not even spoken to him for 70 days—an unprecedented period of unbroken silence between a President and his commanding general in time of war. With McChrystal’s request now being formally forwarded to the President, the quiet feud of leaks and whispers between the military and the White House now broke the surface.

Obama’s response to McChrystal’s request was to scream and cry foul as though the general had dropped a dead fish in his lap. Obama seems to have believed that his earlier deployment of troops would constitute the sum of his contribution to the “war of necessity” and that his future involvement would consist largely of briefings on the progress of the war from Defense Secretary Gates, and occasional conversations and meetings with General McChrystal. Now it was clear that he had a real war on his hands, one that would require real sacrifice and support, and he responded to this unwelcome development by shooting the messenger.

The White House countered the McChrystal proposal with a few of their own less resourced alternatives: one, favored by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, was to tie any sending of resources or reinforcements to Afghan progress in clearing up corruption; another, favored by the President’s political advisors, was to send in 10,000 trainers of troops to accelerate Afghan police and army deployment. The other, one favored by Vice President Biden, was a “hybrid” option that rejected McChrystal’s comprehensive counterinsurgency option for a limited counter-terrorist option to put some 20,000 troops in to go hunting about Helmand and Kandahar provinces for Taliban insurgents and training Afghan police and army to take over—all options that had been extensively considered and rejected as unworkable in the course of McChrystal’s strategic review.

Though McChrystal had done nothing more than tell the truth and simply inform the President of what would be required to implement the strategy of the policy outlined to him by the President himself, the White House now singled out McChrystal as the bad guy for being the bearer of bad news. The military and the President’s advisers were now feuding openly, and the atmosphere was so poisonous that when the quiet-spoken and self-effacing McChrystal answered a question at a speaking engagement in London about why the situation in Afghanistan required a counter-insurgent rather than a counter-terrorist response, the White House accused him of “insubordination,” and attempting to “box” the President in to accepting his proposal.

It was almost as if though the war in Afghanistan were some sort of pet project of the military, and the President, by bestowing concessions upon them, was conferring some sort of favor on them instead of fulfilling his duties as Commander-in-Chief tending a vital national security interest in time of war.

Upon receiving McChrystal’s request in September, the White House commenced a “strategic review” of their own to assess McChrystal’s recommendations, but which was, as we now know from Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” (2010), a mere façade behind which Obama and his spinners dithered, delayed, and searched for a way to weasel out of McChrystal’s troop request, all of which occurred against a backdrop of further infighting between the White house and the military, and a seriously deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

Six weeks into Obama’s “review” in early November, NATO and Afghan allies began to complain that Obama’s extended decision-making on the troop request was having serious consequences on the ground, and things finally came to head in late November at a meeting in the White House between Obama and his top military advisers. The President demanded more “options” to General McChrystal’s troop request. He did not get them, and, incredibly, angrily accused his top military advisers of holding out on him. Joint Chief’s Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates, and General Petraeus all bluntly told the President there were no other “options”; either there was an infusion of the required troops with a COIN strategy that was needed to clear, secure, and hold areas of importance, or there would be failure. The meeting ended without result; the President would get back to them.

Obama finally decided to accede to McChrystal’s 40,000 troop request, but to shave it off by 10,000; the military had “won.” He saw no other choice. According to Bob Woodward, Obama said to James Jones, his National Security Adviser,

“I’ve decided on 30,000,” he said. Obama described how he wanted to explain his strategy to the American people in a speech scheduled for Dec. 1 at West Point.


“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint.”

No mention of victory or the importance of completing the mission, but “how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan.” To Senator Lindsey Graham, the President ruminated aloud about his domestic difficulties with the war, and confided that, “I can’t lose the Democratic party.” To Thomas Donilon, his Deputy National Security Adviser, Obama seethed and unburdened himself, and made perfectly clear the generous favor he was conferring upon the military. According to Woodward:

“I’m done doing this!” Obama said, clearly annoyed.“


The easy thing for me to do – politically – would actually be to say no” to the 30,000 troops.   The president gestured out the Oval Office windows, across the Potomac River, in the direction of the Pentagon. He said, “They think it’s the opposite. I’d be perfectly happy . . .” He stopped mid-sentence. “Nothing would make Rahm [Emmanuel] happier than if I said no to the 30,000.”


There was some subdued laughter.


The military did not understand, he said. “It’d be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, ‘You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.’ ”


It was apparent that a part of Obama wanted to give precisely that speech. He seemed to be road-testing it.

Obama, in fact, was blowing smoke here. He knew that a refusal to grant McChrystal some sort of workable deployment of troops would have been his political death: Republicans would have crucified him for doing so while declaring the war a vital national interest earlier in the year, and even his acolytes in the media would have had a hard time selling his sending 21,000 troops into harms way only to pull the plug on the war several months later. The Taliban had facilitated Al-Qaeda’s attack on us on 9/11, and no American could ever forget that. Obama had earlier sold the war, and he now owned the war, and it was his resentful awareness of this grim, unchangeable fact that was reflected in his bursts of fury and frustration recorded by Woodward.

Obama also made clear his refashioning of the lexicon of war. Much as his head of Homeland Security renamed terrorism as “man caused disasters,” Obama sought to take the “war” out of the war on terror by renaming it “contingency operations” and, in this instance, he demanded that the term “counterinsurgency” be replaced with “target, train, and transfer,” lest anyone think we were actually at war.

So General McChrystal got his troops, some troops, at least, and COIN operations by coalition forces in Helmand and Kandahar have made significant progress and are playing an important part in helping to stabilize Afghanistan, but Obama did much to undermine the effort by announcing in his December 1, 2009 speech that the surge troops would be withdrawn by 2011 so that America could begin “nation building at home,” thus assuring his fellow Democrats of his abandonment of the war, and, incidentally, informing the enemy how long they had to wait us out.

The President, it should be remembered, had never presented himself as one who would end the war so America could “nation build at home,” but as one who would give the war  the”urgent attention and swift action” and the “strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” as well as to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda.” It was the “goal that must be achieved,” and the “cause that could not be more just,” and for which the President vowed to our enemies, with unblushing swagger that, “We will defeat you.”

Article II, Section II, of the Constitution, states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.” The Founders could thus not have been clearer that the principal responsibility of the President is his duty as Commander in Chief. “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 3, “is that of providing for their safety seems to be first.”

Obama, on the other hand, seems to see his principal responsibility as a kind of First Steward of the welfare state with matters of national security and foreign policy relegated to the periphery, where he evidently thinks they belong. In reality, it is perfectly clear in retrospect how the war had really defined itself for Obama; it was a “necessary” war vital to our national security when it was convenient for him as a candidate to look tough on a national security issue, but when it became a real war and demanded real sacrifice, support, and attention from him as President, he would splutter and protest, and demand an exit strategy to wriggle out of his responsibility in order to please his base and promote his domestic agenda.

Called upon to explain to the nation why sending 30,000 soldiers into harms way was either right or wrong for the national interest, the President escaped the dilemma of his decision by splitting the difference. The President enjoys the unique distinction of having both escalated and undermined a war at the same time, and sent 30,000 soldiers into harms way where hundreds have found their death for a cause he evidently, and by all accounts, does not even believe in, all in pursuit of the purest, most naked political advantage. The man’s cynicism, his brazen politicization of a vital national security interest, and his wholesale subordination of the nation’s foreign policy to his partisan political priorities is simply breathtaking.

From the very beginning, the most crucial task we had in Afghanistan was not to engage in precipitous troop withdrawals until certain districts could be safely handed over to Afghan Army and Police units. More than anything else, it has been Obama’s politically-motivated drawdown, and not the Taliban, that has been putting this in peril. The future of Afghanistan is now, at best, uncertain.


In the war in Libya Obama’s handling of our core strategic interests there has been even less reassuring, and betrays the same inertia and confusion of strategic priorities as the war in Afghanistan.

At  a critical stage of the conflict raging in Libya in early 2011, with the rebels counterattacking and Gaddafi in peril, the President had at his disposal overwhelming regional diplomatic support from both Arab regimes and European allies—an unassailable mandate for action, and he could have accomplished the task of Gaddafi’s demise without putting a single soldier in harms way. All that was needed was a decision and a will to carry it out. There was neither.

As with his tardy and tepid response to the Iranian election crackdown of June 2009, and his fitful, kicking-and-screaming response to McChrystal’s Afghanistan troop request, the President on this occasion was only spurred to action on this matter by his fear that the situation could become a domestic political embarrassment to him. After weeks of dithering and evasion, the President, warned and pressured by the womenfolk of his foreign policy team that he would be blamed for a humanitarian disaster like Rwanda or Srebrenica if Gaddafi conquered Tripoli, then reluctantly proceeded toward intervention.

The President’s tardy, half-hearted involvement in the conflict,  and his tepid, scattershot application of force, coupled with his neglect of arming the rebels (and forming a strong relationship that could be helpful in a future state), guaranteed that military action could never be concentrated overwhelmingly at the decisive points at the time of maximum enemy vulnerability.

Meaning, of course, that Gaddafi had ample time to regroup his forces, the rebels would lose their momentum, and stalemate would ensue, which meant more bloodshed and more destruction over a longer period. The protracted bloodletting of the next several months, though resulting in a rebel victory and Gaddafi’s capture and death in August 2011, should never have taken place at all. With swift, decisive action, the matter could have been settled much earlier and more cheaply. It wasn’t, and the chaotic security situation there that culminated in the recent Benghazi bombing was unquestionably the result of the tardy attention and paucity of resources begrudged to Libya by the Administration from the beginning.


An inclination toward diplomatic solutions, an aversion toward war, and a careful, scrupulous skepticism about the use of force are, of course, all signs of sober, responsible statesmanship. But when the use of force is called for, it must be used resolutely, or not at all.

War must never be waged on a string of improvised half measures. It must be waged swiftly, decisively, forcefully, and with a strategy apparent to all from the Commander-in-Chief right down to the buck private.

For those Jewish-American voters who share the President’s domestic concerns, and believe that the Iranian nuclear issue will be settled diplomatically,  or believe that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon poses no threat, I say: Here is your man.

But those for whom the issue of Iranian nuclear capacity is paramount, and who are apt to credit the President’s assurance that he will use force to prevent Iran from going nuclear if diplomacy fails, I say this: Be forewarned, and look at the record: You will see that the occasions in which this President has been called upon to exercise the use of force have all been marked by hesitancy, indecisive muddle, extensive dithering, and, above all, a ruthless subordination of any war-related contingency to his domestic priorities. Whatever the urgency, he will look to his political base, sniff the wind, and tailor his decisions accordingly.

Obama’s assurances toward Israel on Iran have the faint, troubling echo of the promises made to Israel in 1957 about America’s commitment to keep Nasser from remilitarizing the Sinai, and closing the Straits of Tiran, only to watch Nasser do just that 10 years later with America standing by as an equivocating spectator.  President Johnson, at least, had drawn a red line in the form of a direct Arab attack on Israel in June, 1967. Obama’s red lines are far more equivocal, and, as we have seen, whether he would carry through on any commitment to use force is uncertain to the point of improbability.

In light of his past record, there cannot be the slightest doubt that he would shirk from any use of force with Iran, whatever the situation or the danger, and that he would turn on a dime from any past promises in exactly the same way he did with the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. This, after all, concerned a matter of American national security. Is there the slightest reason to believe that he would somehow do more in a matter of Israeli national security?

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.