According to Nasr, the White House only gave its blessing to negotiations with the Taliban in late 2011, once Obama had already announced that the surge would soon end, and the additional American troops would return home. In so doing, Nasr argues, Obama was “snatching away the leverage that would be needed if diplomacy was to have a chance of success.” By the time America was ready to talk, the Taliban no longer had an incentive to.

The critique outlined by Ford and Nasr doesn’t get as much air time as those leveled by doves like Greenwald or hawks like John McCain. It’s less sweeping and ideological. But it’s based on the idea that shaping conflicts like Syria and Afghanistan requires a greater tolerance for both military and diplomatic risk than Obama felt comfortable with. Solving Syria’s civil war, argues Ford, would have required the military risk of arming rebels even though American arms might have found their way to jihadists and the political risk of cutting a deal with Assad’s key patron, Iran. Solving Afghanistan’s civil war, argues Nasr, required the military risk of a more open-ended surge and the political risk of sitting down earlier with the Taliban and with Iran. It would have required Obama making the kind of all-in, high-stakes effort that he has made on health care and gun control but tended to avoid when it comes to foreign policy.