Grand strategy is a blueprint that sets the path to foreign policy; more specifically, it reveals which foreign policy decisions should be taken and which tools can be used to protect national interest and security. Among many states, which produce and follow a grand strategy, the United States is the most remarkable example. Soon after the Cold War, different conflicts started to emerge and the approach of different presidents to these conflicts resulted in different grand strategies. Indeed, within the context of grand strategy, the United States started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11, 2001 attacks, soon to find itself socioeconomically damaged. Moreover, the United States was shaken even more by the economic crisis of 2008, which translated into difficulties in domestic politics. In light of these developments, Obama came to the presidency and set out to follow a new grand strategy.
Strategic Failure aims at analyzing the strategy followed by Obama during his eight years as U.S. President. With critical tones, Mark Moyar, a historian who has been in and out of government on national security affairs, offers a detailed analysis starting from Obama’s electoral campaigns. Nevertheless, the main focus of the book remains war in the Middle East, especially the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how Obama responded to the threats that loomed large during his presidency.
Calling Obama “the man of change,” Moyar in the first chapter presents how Obama changed his position regarding national security issues quite often. A good example of this is how, while previously Obama had argued that 9/11 was the result of America’s neglect of global poverty, later (a couple of years before running for president), Obama argued that the U.S. needs to fight against these perpetrators. A similar change was seen in Obama’s stance toward the war in Iraq and Afghanistan where the main reason behind this shift can be found in the swing votes that Obama was trying to attract. In the next two chapters, the author analyzes Obama’s team and its divisions to later focus mainly on the fact that when he came to power, Obama –albeit not in a visible way– ignored the military and tried to leave them out of politics. In a struggle of power between the military and Obama in terms of the number of troops that needed to be sent to Afghanistan, Obama seems to have won after making the military officials sign a six-page “term sheet,” where all of the top military officials had to agree to the number of troops proposed by the president (p. 44).
“Doing more with less” can be considered the motto of the Obama Administration and in Chapters 4 and 5, Moyer presents the struggles within the administration and how Obama considerably cut the budget of the Department of Defense (DoD), a decision which according to Moyer was a strategic failure. In the following chapters the author provides different cases to support his main argument that due to Obama’s budget cut, light footprint strategy, heavy dependence on drone strikes, and reluctance to use boots on the ground, the situation in states like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya became worse, and new threats, i.e. ISIS, started to emerge.
Relying on allies was another characteristic of Obama’s strategy, which according to Moyar was another mistake which resulted in failure. According to the author, despite the fact that the U.S. should be the leading state and not expect aid from others (p. 194), Obama started to rely on forces such as the EU or NATO without taking into consideration that these states did not have the military capability to lead (p. 183). The last of Obama’s strategies criticized in the book is how the U.S. heavily relied on smart power in states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and regions like Latin America at a time when the ground was still trembling and the use of hard power was a prerequisite. Lastly, Moyer presents some possible war scenarios for the U.S. and proposes a new grand strategy that needs to be followed. According to him, restoring DoD spending, and using hard power and boots on the ground should be the main elements of this new strategy. By supporting neither Obama’s retrenchment nor the Republicans’ isolationism, Moyer seems to promote U.S. primacy, arguing that the U.S. as a superpower has to “play policemen of many of the world neighborhoods, because the alternative is to have a rival play that role, or to allow chaos to take hold” (p. 273).
Strategic Failure is a well-written and well-structured book which aims at presenting how Obama’s policies “led the nation and the world toward disaster” (p. x). It can be said that Mark Moyer achieves his aim via this book and sheds light on some of the negative aspects of the Obama Administration, which many others tend to hide. Moreover, the author provides some insightful information on the foreign policy decision-making process within the Obama team and the rifts within the administration, and between the administration and the military, which make it easier to understand why Obama followed such a changeable strategy during his eight years in power.
Despite its strengths, the book suffers from some minor faults. First of all, it can be said that the author is subjective to some extent while analyzing some of Obama’s policies. For example, Moyer presents Iran as a nation dangerous to American interests; while criticizing Obama’s strategy, the author fails to recognize that at some point Obama was successful and tried to contain a possible threat through diplomacy. If we take into consideration Iran’s response after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal in May 2018, Obama’s strategy in this regard deserves some credit.
Moyer’s subjectivity can also be seen in terms of American exceptionalism. While the author presents the U.S.
as a nation inspired by Christian universalism … motivated not only by national self-interest but also by the impulse to help other peoples … Presidents of both U.S. parties have conditioned aid to the third world on good governance and respect for human rights, and have prohibited American corporations from bribing foreign officials,
he goes on to present other states such as India and China as a direct threat to U.S. interests because, in the case of China, they “are inspired by a Confucian tradition that does not aspire to reform other peoples or promote adherence to universal principles … the Chinese lavish aid on rapacious dictators without making demands for democracy or good governance …” Presenting the situation this way is not a correct assumption. Many American presidents, including Obama, have supported rapacious dictators as in the case of Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. in order to protect U.S. national interests.
In some cases, the author loses focus, which makes the argument difficult to follow. For example, while explaining some shortcomings of drone warfare, i.e. the inability to yield prisoners, the author follows with a two-page explanation of the Guantanamo Bay detentions, which could have instead been summarized in 1-2 paragraphs so the reader would not lose focus from the main topic. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the book in general is very well structured. Each paragraph has its own introduction and conclusion/summary, which helps the reader to better understand the points presented by the author. In light of this it can be said that the book can be read not only by scholars, officials, or journalists, but also by people who are interested in American foreign policy.