On the same day (October 21, 2011), President Obama was able to remark upon the killing of Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and to announce the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by the end of this year. This fortuitous conjuncture invites a comparison of how presidents Bush and Obama dealt with the tyrants in those two countries.
Obama, who gained many votes by his promise to end the war in Iraq, nonetheless bought into Bush’s commitment. He also did what Bush may never have intended: he honored the agreement Bush concluded in 2008 with the Iraqi government to withdraw American troops by the end of 2011. Similarly in Afghanistan, where Obama saw the conflict as legitimate, he bought into Bush’s commitment but demanded that it be limited in both size and duration. As a result, the U.S. commitment to that conflict will also wind down in the next year.
In short, Obama has set a major contrast in style and strategy with George W. Bush: he does not grandstand, he does not order massive military interventions. He doesn’t question Bush’s commitments, but he set up the rules of engagement and the negotiating positions to allow him to dial them back.
Obama is no dove, however, as he made clear in his Nobel Peace Prize address. He has used unmanned drones far more than Bush, and to deadly effect in combating al Qaeda and the Taliban, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, and in Libya. Again, he has accepted Bush’s definition of the struggle, but adopted tactics much less costly in both lives and dollars.
Confronted with the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Obama has resisted the temptation to intervene on a large scale, though we should not doubt that the CIA is discreetly active in Syria and Yemen, at least. In Bahrain and the rest of the Persian Gulf oil states, Obama has given no encouragement to the protests. Only in Libya (led by a chronic bad boy disliked not only in the West but also among Arab leaders) did he respond to pressure to lend support to the anti-Qaddafi rebels. And rather than take the lead in a major invasion like that in Iraq, Obama chose to orchestrate a NATO air war, supported by the Arab League and mandated by the Security Council for the exclusive purpose of protecting civilians. In practice, as we know, the air war was coordinated with the rebels to gradually erode the regime’s capabilities and allow the rebels’ territorial advances.
It was a fitting end to the Libyan conflict that Qaddafi was finally driven into a culvert by a drone strike on his convoy as he was trying to flee the rebel forces capturing his last redoubt. His unfortunate death by an apparent lynching cannot really be laid at Obama’s door, but may nonetheless be useful to the administration in persuading the leaders of Syria and Yemen to be more reasonable.
Somewhat surprisingly for a president who is coming to be regarded as politically inept, it appears that at least in the Middle East he is showing a good deal of what Machiavelli called virtù. That is, he seems to grasp how he can best maximize his power and achieve his objectives, whether by doing good or evil. Without bluster, without excessive force, he contrives to move toward where he wants to be, even when it is not obvious that he has moved at all.