A president sweeps into office, promising to turn the page on an era of horror and recrimination. In foreign policy, he can redeem America's promise, reversing a great country's fall into temporary iniquity. He deserves every bit of the credit for genuine improvement. And yet the very hostility the previous regime earned cloaks the leader of the new one with extra immunity from scrutiny: It provides a space in which, amid complacent uplift, many continuities in policy are established. A chance is missed to examine what actually went wrong and to debate how to put things right.
Yes, revisiting the early days of Barack Obama's presidency in 2009 provides an excellent vantage from which to pose questions and express worries about the foreign policy of President Joe Biden as he begins his term.
There are, of course, many disparities between the two moments. Obama's fairy-tale candidacy for his first term in 2008 bears no similarity to the nerve-racking experience of seeing American democracy challenged during and after the 2020 presidential election. And in part because of his advanced age compared to his onetime boss, Biden stands less for innovation than restoration — albeit restoration of the promise of American life that the youthful Obama incarnated.
It was also not clear in the early phase of Obama's presidency, as seems obvious today, that the immorality and rot that confronted Obama had as much to do with our dysfunctional domestic politics as with a misbegotten war and the unsavory overseas practices to which George W. Bush and his administration had stooped — epitomized by the illicit torture of Abu Ghraib and the offshore prison of Guantánamo Bay. Yet it is precisely the choices Obama made as he sought to "reset" America's war on terror that are illustrative of our current situation. For all of Obama's talk of reversing the policies of his predecessor, it dawned agonizingly slowly on an expectant world that there were going to be profound continuities in wartime policies. In 2021, once again showy reorientation — including, crucially, in foreign policy — could easily mask too much substantive resilience.
After sighs of relief that he won handily enough to avoid the bitter controversy that attended Bush's election to the highest office, Obama spent his earliest hours as president marking lines between profane vice and restored virtue — just as Biden has been doing. Obama never went as far as some demanded in providing accountability, including for outright crimes like torture. Still, Obama's pledge of change worked like a heady elixir of national redemption. Obama, too, declared that "America is back" — a phrase Biden has now made his own, including in his debut foreign policy speech Feb. 4. Both promised a nation once again exemplary for the world, in the familiar position to which it is predestined. The excesses of some Americans are glaring, both acknowledged, but do not reflect "who we are" (one of Obama's favorite phrases) as a people.
No wonder our new president has been celebrated for using executive orders, from Day One, to make a clean break and impose moral limits. The most notable contained Trump's indecent border enforcement and lifted his racist travel ban. Executive order as moral hygiene was Obama's approach, too. On Jan. 20, 2009, Obama banned torture — though it had not really been practiced for years — and we understandably cheered the cleansing of America's most horrendous stain. "Obama consigned to history the worst excesses of the Bush administration's 'war on terror,'" New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer commented the first week of the new age, as America moved from the "dark side" back into the light. Such relief captured the sensibilities of many who cared most about the restoration of a taboo after a bout of sacrilege. Obama famously won an unexpected and unwanted Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009 for the change the world believed he was bringing.
But Obama's position as a progressive emissary of a new age of peace also gave him room to maneuver — and his moves were not always in a progressive direction. (To be sure, during his campaign Obama had called for sending more troops to Afghanistan even as he pledged to withdraw them from Iraq; some supporters may always have read more dovishness into him than was reasonable.) In fact, within a few decisive months, his administration placed Bush's military approach snugly into a formal legal framework for endless war. Early policy decisions about detention of terrorists, for instance — reflected in a landmark legal brief filed in March 2009 that mentioned no constraints in space or time in America's ongoing wars — ended up implying an important shift: Obama was transforming America's wars, not bringing them to a conclusion.
By the end of his eight years, Obama had drawn down troops in Afghanistan (after an initial surge) and in Iraq. But he ramped up use of light-footprint and no-footprint forms of war. He turned to an unprecedented extent to small teams of Special Forces (which, by 2016, were deployed in a whopping 70% of all countries). And his enormous escalation of armed drone strikes as supplements to missiles — over 10 times more than the 50 Bush had ordered away from battlefields, with at least 3,500 dead — became notorious. Such choices produced a new form of war without territorial or temporal boundaries; if "endless war" means anything, it means this transmogrified mode of American belligerency.
Looking back on the spring of 2009, as Obama shifted from peace candidate — at least as a popular interpretation he permitted — to a president overseeing permanent war, it is easy to understand why most Americans failed to perceive the transformation that was underway. Some activists were incensed at the detention length and trial rules for captives at Guantánamo and elsewhere, but it took a long time to grasp the ramifications of Obama's pivot from capturing enemies to sending Special Forces or drones to kill them. The full extent of the change in American warmaking only became evident later. "He has relentlessly questioned the efficacy of force," noted the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, in April 2016, "but he has also become the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand to his successor a set of tools an accomplished assassin would envy." He had built a machine of war that would be scary no matter how judiciously it was governed — and that was before the identity of his successor became known (only six months after Goldberg wrote).
Trump intensified these tactics himself even beyond Obama's high-water mark, while struggling to the bitter end of his administration to finalize the withdrawal of American forces on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. He capitalized, in his 2016 campaign, on the perception that mainstream politicians in both parties would never own their mistakes in war. But he, too, was militaristic in practice, threatening war against Iran and North Korea and approving a brazen drone strike against Iranian spymaster Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, not to mention increasing the military budget to its highest levels ever.
The proximity of the Capitol insurrection to Biden's assumption of power meant that it was not as easy for him as it had been for Obama to take flight into any fanciful return to innocence. But Biden also had campaigned on a pledge to "end the forever wars" (a meme that had originated in the late Obama years but that Trump took over himself on his now defunct Twitter account). And in 2020, Biden — who supported the Iraq War, unlike Obama but like his longtime adviser and new secretary of state, Antony Blinken — understood that Trump had won in part as a critic of American military disaster.
Biden's first foreign policy speech committed to end our "offensive" participation in Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen, stop "relevant" arms sales so that our products do not kill there, and — more broadly — review American troop deployments globally. The next few months may reveal whether Biden and his staffers are responding with public relations, as Obama did, to growing popular support for restraint, while leaving too many lessons unlearned. One open question is how much pressure Biden will face from hawks to the right. (Obama was almost immediately attacked by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, on CNN, for being soft on terrorists.) Many neoconservatives, after all, were central to the "Never Trump" movement that backed Biden, and some appointments of progressive foreign policy voices who favor restraint have faced opposition.
Biden's silences at the State Department the other day spoke more loudly than what he said. They suggest that his promise to end endless wars so far means some wars and not others, and one egregiously inhumane proxy campaign rather than America's permanent shadow war.
Biden won't win a Nobel come October merely for replacing Trump. This time, observers abroad — and voters at home — will watch to see whether a president benefiting from hatred of his predecessor and promising a new age of peace is true to his word.
Moyn is Henry R. Luce professor of jurisprudence and professor of history at Yale University, and a fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. This piece was written for The Washington Post.