With just over six months left until the end of his Presidency, President Obama was reminded recently that he stands to leave office as the first two-term President who presided over eight years of seemingly endless military conflict:
Throughout this trip, Mr. Obama has confronted the reality that the United States is engaged in military operations around the world. At a NATO summit meeting in Warsaw, he announced that American troops would lead a battalion stationed in Poland to deter an aggressive Russia. The destroyer in Rota is a pillar of a missile-defense program that Mr. Obama has stuck with despite the tensions it raises with Moscow.
Small wonder, then, that Mr. Obama was in a reflective mood on Saturday when a reporter asked him at a NATO news conference about the nature of war in the 21st century — and, specifically, how he felt about the likelihood that he would be the first two-term president to have presided over a nation at war for every day of his presidency.
Mr. Obama characterized his approach to war as a hybrid: committing limited numbers of American troops to conflict-ridden countries, but working with those countries to develop their own armies and police. He drew attention to an announcement at the Warsaw meeting that NATO would begin training Iraqi troops inside the country. (The alliance had already been training them in neighboring Jordan.)
The result of such efforts, Mr. Obama acknowledged, is mixed. Iraq’s American-trained army melted away in the face of the Islamic State’s jihadist fighters in 2014, forcing him to send troops back into a war he thought he had ended two years earlier. Weaknesses in the American-trained Afghan Army allowed the Taliban to retake some lost territory.
“What I’ve been trying to do is to create an architecture, a structure — and it’s not there yet,” the president said. The difficulties of working with unreliable partners is “probably going to be something that we have to continue to grapple with for years to come.”
Mr. Obama said chronic, low-level counterterrorism campaigns could have a debilitating effect on society. “This different kind of low-grade threat, one that’s not an existential threat but can do real damage and real harm to our societies, and creates the kind of fear that can cause division and political reactions — we have to do that better,” he said.
Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Obama spoke of taking the United States off the perpetual war footing of the post-9/11 era. These days — with troops going back into Iraq and Afghanistan, airstrikes in Libya, and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan — he says less about this.
The current state of perpetual war that the nation finds itself in didn’t begin with this President, of course, but started some eight months into George W. Bush’s Presidency with the September 11th attacks, followed a year and a half later by a war in Iraq that in retrospect was both unwise and unnecessary, and which led directly to many of the problems we are dealing with today. It also won’t end when this President leaves office. Afghanistan is likely to continue to be as unstable as it is today, with a war between the government in Kabul and and the Taliban and the reports of ISIS intervention in the country resulting in a extended American presence that is likely to last well beyond the time that President Obama leaves office in January 2017. The war against ISIS is likely to continue in Iraq and Syria for some time to come and could easily spread to Libya, Yemen, or other parts of the region depending on where ISIS tries to set up camp next. Outside of the campaign against ISIS, the ongoing issues regarding Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war, China’s continued encroachments in the South China Sea and other surrounding areas, and of course the ongoing problem that is North Korea, will no doubt be on the plate of the next President. While none of these situations rises to the level of a military conflict, each one of them could easily flare up to the point of crisis at any point.
In other words, the period of seemingly perpetual war that began some fifteen years ago shows no sign of ending any time soon. ISIS and al Qaeda will continue to be problems into the foreseeable future, as will our relationship with other potentially hostile regimes around the world. While this doesn’t mean that we’ll need to maintain the same kind of military commitment that we did during the majority of the Bush Administration, and much of the Obama Administration, it’s still likely mean continued military commitments around the world that are far different from the relatively peaceful bases we kept in Germany and Japan after World War II. Additionally, the seeming uptick in terrorist activity, especially from so-called ‘lone wolves’ who may have been inspired by foreign radicals but not directly commanded or controlled by them will make issues of domestic security far more of a concern than they have been in the past.
On some level, one has to wonder what all of this will mean for the nation as a whole and how it will change the country. The Cold War lasted 45 years, of course, but with the exception of wars in Korea and Vietnam that lasted for discrete period of time, this wasn’t a 45 year period during which we were essentially constantly at war. Now, though, we stand ready to enter our sixteenth year of conflict with no end sight and we can already see ways in which the country has been changed ranging from the relationship between the military and civilian worlds to the beating that civil liberties have taken in the name of “security.” The longer this situation continue, the worse all of that is likely to become. This is especially true given the fact that neither Presidential candidate has presented a pan to end the perpetual war, they’ve only talked about fighting it more aggressively. This means that the war without end will continue well into the first term of the next President and probably well, well beyond that.