Putting Obama's Middle East policy in perspective
The way Barack Obama has conducted his presidency has been anything but apologetic, says Michael O'Hanlon.
September 14th, 2012
04:06 PM ET

Putting Obama's Middle East policy in perspective

By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.

The partisan furor over President Obama's Middle East policy strikes me as misplaced.

While there is plenty to debate in foreign policy, and even more to debate on economic matters — themselves central to America's future global role — the allegations of supposed Obama apologies do not hold water.

I say this as someone who was dubious about Obama's big promises during his 2007/2008 campaign. The talk of reconciling with dictators, stemming climate change, making a big dent against global poverty, working towards a nuclear-free world, achieving Middle East peace and healing the broader breach with the Islamic world was unrealistic and, for me at least, overdone.

In fairness, the big vision did help Obama get elected, and it did excite the world at large about his presidency. But that also set up false expectations around the world about what he could really do. And that has led to disappointment, especially in the Middle East. (In Europe, Obama is still popular. In much of Asia, President George W. Bush was never so unpopular and the U.S. stock was never so low prior to Obama's inauguration.) Throughout the Islamic world, Obama's standing as measured by public opinion polls is similar to Bush's. That is surely a disappointment.

However, even for those of us who shared in the critiques of Obama the candidate the first time around, the way he has conducted his presidency has been anything but apologetic.

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O'Hanlon: 7 reasons for hope in Afghanistan
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard in the main square of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
May 16th, 2012
11:05 AM ET

O'Hanlon: 7 reasons for hope in Afghanistan

Editor's note: Michael O’Hanlon is co-author, with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal, of the new book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public SquareThe views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

The Afghanistan war is a slog at best. There is little doubt about that.

Even those of us supporting the mission must acknowledge that it has been slower and harder than expected. The reasons are generally well known, including a resilient and highly motivated insurgency with sanctuaries in Pakistan; a corruption-ridden Afghan government that, by its poor governance, gives sustenance to the Taliban; and mistakes on the part of NATO, which for years pumped too much poorly regulated cash into a country unable to handle it, fueling corruption in the process.

As NATO leaders gather in Chicago this week for a major summit where Afghanistan will be issue No. 1, it is understandable why their citizens are tired of this effort. And with Osama bin Laden dead and other al Qaeda leaders out of the picture or out of the region, the motivation behind the effort seems less compelling to others as well.

Nothing I saw on a recent trip to Afghanistan dispelled the above realities. But I also saw plenty of good that should give us encouragement.

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Topics: Afghanistan
O'Hanlon: Reasons for hope on Afghanistan
Obama salutes troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
May 2nd, 2012
10:01 AM ET

O'Hanlon: Reasons for hope on Afghanistan

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

President Obama’s trip to Afghanistan this week is a very good thing for American national security in general and the Afghanistan mission in particular. Thankfully, it should probably arrest some of the unproductive dialogue on both sides about whether Governor Romney or President Carter or anyone else would have authorized the same raid that killed Osama bin Laden a year ago. (In fact, of course, Carter did authorize a similar raid, Operation Desert One in 1980 in Iran, but largely because the U.S. military was not nearly as proficient at such things at the time, it failed.) President Obama deserves credit for authorizing the bin Laden raid but it is time to move on to a broader debate. FULL POST

March 26th, 2012
03:40 PM ET

O'Hanlon: My interview with General John Allen

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

Today I had the honor of interviewing General John Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution in Washington. We had a half hour of direct discussion before taking questions from the audience. The general was, as usual, impressive and inspiring. Of course, the mission he leads in Afghanistan remains challenging.

After a week of testimony and media appearances, much of what General Allen now believes about the current state and future trajectory of the Afghanistan effort had already surfaced. Today’s conversation focused largely on the campaign as it is unfolding in Afghanistan, in somewhat greater depth than many of his other recent appearances have permitted. It highlighted several key realities about the war effort.

A major theme of General Allen’s public discussions this month in Washington have focused on improvements in the Afghan security forces. Last week in Congressional testimony he called them “better than we thought.” Today he went a bit further - not breaking huge news, perhaps - but explaining a few key things: FULL POST

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Topics: Afghanistan • Military
March 13th, 2012
09:35 AM ET

In time of tragedy, don't forget strengths of U.S.-Afghan partnership

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

It is impossible to make sense out of the tragic killing of 16 Afghans by a presumably deranged American soldier on March 11. Our hearts go out to Afghan friends; our national sorrow and condolences and apologies are profound and heartfelt.

I cannot rationalize this tragedy. On such a sad occasion, I can only reiterate what Afghan, American, and other NATO and International Security and Assistance (ISAF) troops do together on a daily basis in Afghanistan, to provide some broader context and perspective:

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Topics: Afghanistan
March 10th, 2012
02:33 PM ET

Colombia's lessons for counterinsurgency - and Afghanistan

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign PolicyYou can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

How do successful counterinsurgencies tend to evolve over time? This question is paramount as the Obama administration tries to sort out next steps on Afghanistan. Most have heard by now the rule of thumb that even successful campaigns against insurgent groups typically take a decade or longer. But the recent Iraq experience, in which substantial military progress occurred in the short space of 18 to 24 months, still skews expectations among many Americans. In fact, Colombia’s ups and downs of the last two decades provide a more useful guidepost, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Bogota.

Colombia has been a major success story in the fight against drug cartels and industrial-scale insurgencies over the last two decades. A good deal of progress against the big cartels occurred in the 1990s, but since the Alvaro Uribe presidency starting in 2002, remarkable things have happened in dealing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgencies as well. FULL POST

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Topics: Latin America • Strategy
O'Hanlon: Barack Obama's reluctant realism
(Getty Images)
February 28th, 2012
11:30 AM ET

O'Hanlon: Barack Obama's reluctant realism

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is co-author of the forthcoming book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

As the GOP primary season continues, criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy have become increasingly intense. One recent strand of attack, magnified of late by the Afghanistan Quran burning incident, is his supposed inclination to apologize too often for America. Others claim he is weak or irresolute. Of course, the ongoing crises with Iran and Syria remind everyone of the stakes involved in current world affairs and crises.

I hope that the new book on Obama’s foreign policy by Martin Indyk, Ken Lieberthal, and myself can contribute constructively to this debate. It is entitled Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy after the famous Martin Luther King quote that Obama likes and uses so much - to the effect that history’s arc is long but that it also bends in the direction of justice. This title conjures up the high hopes Obama conveyed to the world back in the heady days of 2007 and 2008 and early 2009, and surely held himself at some level, about what his presidency could accomplish.

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The specter of sequestration
Damocles, the Greek courtier of the 4th century BC, who sat through a feast with a sword suspended over him by a single horse hair, circa 350 BC. (Getty Images)
February 24th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

The specter of sequestration

Editor's NoteMackenzie Eaglen is a fellow in national security at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity.

By Mackenzie Eaglen and Michael O’Hanlon - Special to CNN

Last year, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the “super committee,” failed to agree on over a trillion dollars in budget cuts. This failure has triggered the looming “sequestration” of an additional $500 billion in defense dollar cuts over the next 10 years, among other mechanical cuts to other parts of the budget. But you wouldn’t know that from the budget released this week by President Barack Obama. Rather, Obama’s budget numbers hue closely to those in last year’s debt ceiling deal known as the Budget Control Act, as if the super committee had never existed. This is understandable at one level. But ignoring reality will not make the most drastic cuts to the military in U.S. history go away.

Sequestration was written into the budget control act as a Sword of Damocles over the super committee and Congress. Few favored it or even considered it a plausible outcome, and even today, not many appear to take it seriously. Rather, Congress, the White House and the Pentagon have embraced the hopeful but irrational belief that the necessary spending cuts or revenue increases to offset restoring the next $500 billion will happen during the expected lame duck session of Congress after the November elections. The hope appears to be that one party will have a clear mandate by then, or that a looming crisis will force rationality upon lawmakers. But the crisis is already looming. And since when do we expect clear mandates from elections, especially when the country’s politics are so closely divided? FULL POST

Obama's optimistic military budget
An F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
February 13th, 2012
08:42 AM ET

Obama's optimistic military budget

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

As the full details of President Obama’s new defense strategy and budget plan come out this week, I still have a few questions about what appears overall to be a well conceived plan for a leaner and somewhat less expensive American military.

My greatest concern is also the broadest: Even as the military is making cuts, and other so-called discretionary accounts are doing so too, entitlements remain spared by Democrats and tax increases of any sort remain anathema to Republicans. We cannot balance the budget on the 40 percent of federal spending within the so-called discretionary accounts. A broader approach is badly needed. If politics make that difficult now, we at least need informed debate on what either party would do to cut deficits by at least two-thirds if given the chance by voters in November.

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Topics: Budget • Military • United States
February 11th, 2012
02:32 PM ET

O'Hanlon: Three military options in Syria

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

As the violence worsens in Syria, the United States and international community are in a dilemma. Even more serious than the recent veto by Russia and China of a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, there are no great options for how to respond.

The various Syrian factions and populations are far too interspersed for a Libya-like operation to work. Al-Assad and his army are far too strong, still, for a simple and small peacekeeping mission to succeed. It would be opposed by the regime if it tried to enter the country. And if we invaded, the specter of an Iraq-style imbroglio would loom given Syria’s size and given the multitude of nefarious actors there. FULL POST

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Topics: Military • Syria
February 3rd, 2012
12:00 PM ET

O'Hanlon: Please be careful on Afghanistan

Michael E. O'HanlonEditor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made big news by telling reporters that the United States would seek to end its combat role in Afghanistan sometime in 2013.

2014 had been the previous target date for such a change. The Obama administration later clarified (and caveated) this statement so it sounded like less of a big deal.  But the statement was not actually withdrawn and it does represent something of a change.

I have my concerns about the latest Panetta statement because I think the administration continues to be inadequately careful in some of its messaging about Afghanistan. Not only American voters, but key Afghan and Pakistani partners hear such language and sense an administration no longer fully committed to the mission - one rushing for the exits, especially as election day in the United States looms. FULL POST

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Topics: Afghanistan • Military
O'Hanlon: Why foreign policy matters in 2012
President Barack Obama delivering his 2011 State of the Union address.
January 23rd, 2012
07:20 PM ET

O'Hanlon: Why foreign policy matters in 2012

Michael E. O'HanlonEditor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

As President Obama prepares to give his State of the Union message and the GOP field continues an intense battle for the Republican nomination to challenge him this fall, many pundits and political strategists are opining that this year the presidential race “will not be a foreign policy election.”  While they are surely right that the American economy, and its woes, loom largest in the fight for the White House, I believe that foreign policy will matter a lot too.

It always does.

Here’s why.  First, the intangibles.  Presidents have unusual power in our political system to make and lead foreign policy.  This is partly because they run our diplomacy, partly because they are commanders in chief of the military and partly because Congress’s war powers are feeble.  Mr. Obama cannot, and has not, dominated the domestic or budgetary agenda since taking over the White House.  But not surprisingly, he has dominated American foreign policy. FULL POST

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