When he leaves office in 2017, President Barack Obama will become the first commander-in-chief to serve two terms with the U.S. at war. This new record reflects how military engagement has transformed in the 21st century.
When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, there were a combined total of 200,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, there are only 13,000 personnel still stationed in those two countries, Business Insider reports.
Despite dramatically winding down the number of troops engaged in combat across the globe, Obama has failed to end the wars he inherited. While the U.S. no longer leads the combat missions in Afghanistan or Iraq, troops remain in advisory roles and new threats have cropped up across the Middle East.
The Taliban has made a comeback in Afghanistan, ruling over more territory in the country since 2001. Meanwhile, a sizable chunk of Iraq is now occupied by the Islamic State (ISIS).
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Obama’s supporters have praised the president for managing threats while reducing the number of U.S. soldiers put in harm’s way, while his critics have contended that he has allowed new enemies to rise while reducing the military’s capability to combat them.
"No president wants to be a war president," military historian Eliot A. Cohen of Johns Hopkins University told The New York Times. "Obama thinks of war as an instrument he has to use very reluctantly. But we’re waging these long, rather strange wars. We’re killing lots of people. We’re taking casualties."
Dr. Cohen, who supported President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, chided Obama for not having a foreign policy vision for how to win the War on Terror.
“He hasn’t tried to mobilize the country,” Cohen said. “He hasn’t even tried to explain to the country what the stakes are, why these wars have gone the way they have. … [F]or all his faults, with Bush, there was this visceral desire to win.”
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Former assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet of international security affairs stressed that the nature of war has changed in the 21st century and that Obama’s foreign policy reflects this.
“It’s the difference between being a war president and a president at war,” Chollet told The Times.
“Being a war president means that all elements of American power and foreign policy are subservient to fighting the war," he added. "What Obama has tried to do, which is why he’s careful about ratcheting up the number of forces, is not to have it overwhelm other priorities.”
Obama has favored launching surgical strikes against U.S. enemies using special forces and drone weaponry. His critics have said the Obama administration favors pulling out weeds instead of cutting out their root causes.
For instance, Republicans have said that by drawing down the U.S. military’s presence in the Middle East, coupled with the refusal to intervene sooner in the Syrian Civil War, the Obama administration contributed to rise of ISIS.
In the gargantuan profile “The Obama Doctrine,” published by The Atlantic, the president dismissed the argument that he had failed to appropriately use military force in the Middle East.
“What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order,” Obama told the magazine in regards to Syria. “We just can’t do that.”
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes added that the Obama administration has been effective in dealing with threats to the U.S. but that critics have disagreed with what constitutes a direct threat.
“He applies different standards to direct threats to the U.S.,” Rhodes said of the president. “For instance, despite his misgivings about Syria, he has not had a second thought about drones.”
Whether or not Obama has been an effective commander-in-chief, he has overseen the longest-sustained period of war in American history. The recent announcement that 250 U.S. Special Operations forces will be deployed to Syria signals that whoever inherits the White House in 2017 will be inheriting the same War on Terror that Obama had.