This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.
The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself — until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 — had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.
Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.
In a widely noted November 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he emphasized his belief that the war had been not just a “failure of implementation” but “also a failure of conception,” going on to argue that “the rationale behind the war,” including an excessive faith that “we can impose democracy on a country through military force,” was “misguided.”
Some thought they heard echoes of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous 1967 speech declaring opposition not just to the war in Vietnam but to “a far deeper malady of the American spirit” that, if not confronted then, could lead to other misguided wars in other countries also waged in the name of guaranteeing liberty.