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D. Robert Worley Headshot

Has the Obama Administration Changed Strategy?

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A new trend asserts that the Obama administration has changed its grand strategy or at least its strategy against al Qaeda. One typical article is entitled "Obama: Peacemaker to Warrior?" The claim is that the first Obama strategy was to end wars and make peace, and the new strategy is to wage war by strikes, raids, and targeted killing. I see it differently.

Strategy is a linkage of ends, ways, and means. Ends are the objectives we pursue, e.g., reducing the probability of terrorist attacks, the severity of terrorist attacks, and the number of people who are supportive of terrorist attacks. Means are the resources -- lives and money -- that we are willing to devote to achieve our objectives. And ways refers to the ways we organize and apply resources to achieve our objectives. Keep your eyes on ways, the heart of strategy.

On September 10, 2001, I attended my regular meeting in the Pentagon. The next day, while waiting to go to the airport, I watched the 9/11 attacks on television. Flights canceled, I walked to a neighborhood coffee shop and began thinking about strategy. I made a long list of ways. One by one, almost all fell into one of two piles. One pile was for those ways that were effective when applied to states but simply didn't apply to non-state actors. Ways that were exhaustive of resources and unsustainable over the long haul went in the other pile. To keep the story short, the way that survived was a manhunt or something similar to what we called a kingpin strategy in the counterdrug world.

Others independently arrived at a similar conclusion. One October 2001 article, written by the distinguished historian and strategist, Sir Michael Howard, was entitled, "It's not so much a war, it's more like a hunt." I first presented my strategy on November 8 at a conference jointly sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Johns Hopkins. The response was favorable enough, or at least not so negative, that I submitted a proposal to the Army War College to flesh out the idea. It was on again and off again, but the paper was eventually published in February 2003. I don't think my paper convinced anyone, but it did get me invited to a number of meetings to develop the concept. It was briefed at Langley soon after it was published. A member of Senator Joe Biden's staff told me that the senator had already arrived at the same conclusion. In early 2005, the four-star commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command assembled a small panel to discuss strategy. I was invited to be a panel member based on my War College paper. Manhunt seemed to resonate within the special operations and intelligence communities.

But another conception of the "Global War on Terrorism" developed in parallel and rapidly overtook the manhunt conception. The dominant way included invasion, major combat operations, and forced regime change. Those would inevitably be followed by nation building amidst an insurgency although that inevitability was not planned for. The U.S. entered Afghanistan in October. By November, Pentagon plans were in preparation for regime change in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. During a March 13, 2002 White House press conference, President Bush was questioned about what appeared to be a shift in emphasis away from Osama bin Laden and responded, "I am truly not that concerned about him." Manhunt was out, regime change was in. After criticizing the Clinton administration for the "misuse" of military forces for nation building, the Bush administration's interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq turned into major nation building efforts.

Candidate Obama opposed the war in Iraq and soon after taking office began winding it down. Ending wars is tricky business requiring planning, coordination, and time. Emphasis was shifted to Afghanistan and then a drawdown begun there as well. This progression was recognized and well covered by the press. But the progression from a strategy emphasizing nation building to a strategy emphasizing manhunt seemed to be missed by many until it was near completion. I don't know why. Perhaps the magnitude of the first masked the second. Perhaps it was never adequately explained to the public. Regardless, the transition from nation building to manhunt is a change in strategy from one administration to the next. The shift was put into motion early in the administration and took time to work its way through.

Honest people can argue over which strategy makes better use of scarce resources in pursuit of security objectives.

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