Barack Obama’s State Of The Union address presented a restrained foreign policy, contrasting past years when he has talked about smashing Al Qaeda.
In one part he even acknowledged how past U.S. aggression may have been exactly what terrorists wanted:
I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles — (applause) — that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.
Bin Laden, who was killed in 2011, stated as early as 1996 that he aimed to draw the U.S. into a protracted and economically costly conflict.
Later, in 2004, Bin Laden would say of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost — according to the lowest estimate — more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”
Judging by his history with the Soviets, Bin Laden could have imagined the cost of keeping 100,000+ troops in rural Afghanistan for ten years.
Just last year, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged small attacks that would “bleed America economically by provoking it to continue in its massive expenditure on its security.”
Obama’s speech also acknowledged the growing complications of fighting Al Qaeda, and how in many cases America’s best option is to support local enemies of the group.
“The threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks. In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks,” he said.
It has been clear in countries from Libya to Iraq that American involvement has led to or at least failed to prevent the rise of Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, despite the president’s rosy coloring, Washington’s exit from Kabul is coinciding with a re-legitimization of the Taliban in political Afghanistan’s political sphere.
Obama’s other options for the “evolving threat” — drones, special operations strikes, and funding opposition groups — have not only been criticized as “tactics” rather than coherent strategies, recent history shows they haven’t succeeded in strengthening U.S. foreign policy positions.
The only other option Obama mentions essentially boils down to keeping America out of land wars in Asia, and as The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman points out in a tweet, “We’re really defining ‘doctrine’ down if ‘don’t get involved in quagmires’ qualifies.”
It’s not much to get excited about, but acknowledging Al Qaeda’s most effective strategy is a start.