On November 16th, 2016, the Middle East Institute held their 70th Annual Conference, covering “Foreign Policy in the Middle East for the Trump Administration.” One of the panelists, Dr. James Zogby, commented on the campaign rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump. He believed one should, “Never judge a President on what he says he’s going to do, but rather by the reaction to the circumstances he steps into as the realities of the world unfolds. He is less a captain of his own destiny than a captive of the limitations and changes of the world and those who seek to influence him.” While Dr. Zogby’s comment was meant for President Donald Trump, they were just as relevant to President Obama prior to assuming office in 2009.
Due to the ongoing threat stemming from the global jihad ideology to the U.S. homeland and interests abroad, U.S. leaders in the post-9/11 era found it unacceptable to allow terrorists to abide in ungoverned spaces while they continued to plot future attacks. Many within the Obama administration, including the President, believed the counterterrorism (CT) strategy under the Bush administration lost focus of the real threat by occupying Iraq. On the campaign trail, then-Senator Obama criticized President Bush for missed opportunities, commenting in a July 2008 speech on what could have been if the U.S. had “deployed the full force of American power to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all the terrorists responsible for 9/11, while supporting real security in Afghanistan.” After taking the oath of office and bearing the full responsibility of keeping Americans safe, he and his national security team realized “governing had turned out to be more complicated than criticizing from the private sector or campaigning.” Despite all of “Obama’s soaring rhetoric and appeals to idealism” during the campaign, by the time he entered the office of the presidency “he was a foreign policy realist.”
Despite domestic pressure along with strategic and tactical constraints in the global war on terror (GWOT), the threat still required continued action. Those within the administration, including the former Department of State legal advisor Harold Koh, argued the mission of protecting the homeland was even tougher in 2009 than 2001. The situation in 2009 could be “traced back to the fact that Al-Qaeda was not destroyed when they were concentrated, so we had to figure out what to do when they dispersed.” The Obama administration sought a strategy and methods to eliminate non-state terror worldwide, specifically jihadi terrorist organizations including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents (AQAA), all while respecting the sovereignty of other countries and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally. More as the captive rather than the captain, President Obama set out to refocus the mission of the GWOT on the central threat, but did so under the already enacted policies of the Bush administration. President Obama’s administration had to carry the previous administration’s baggage, including the stark fact they “could not un-invade Iraq.” President Obama would not be “starting with a blank slate [like] on the morning of September 12, 2001, able to put in place what they saw as the ‘right’ policies.’” The “change candidate” would be readjusting or “right-sizing” the strategy to “overcome extremism,” his often used moniker for the campaign against global jihadism and the perpetrators of 9/11.