Obama’s Contradiction: America Must Lead, But How?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has been telling us for months now that the United States cannot shoulder the burdens of the world alone. We are not re-invading Iraq and we cannot defeat ISIL alone; only with the help of allies and the non-extremist leaders of Islam. We ultimately stand with our NATO allies, but America won’t go any further than sanctions to handle tension with Russia over Ukraine. His interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft was no different.

This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country,” said Obama, admitting that American intelligence community may have underestimated ISIL — a comment that’s deeply satisfied Republican opponents who believe his decision to pull out of Iraq was implemented too quickly and resulted in a power vacuum, causing the current situation. His main message, though, remains that we have an “unprecedented international coalition that is serious about this,” i.e. we aren’t doing this alone again. Most of the interview had the same rhetorical pattern: Obama justified past actions and emphasized the cautious, but necessary path being taken from the present to the future.

Being a Leader

All except one. Kroft pushed Obama, claiming that America does 90 percent of the work; that while other nations put effort forward, “they are not getting particularly close contact,” while America is “leading the operation.”

“We are carrying –” began Kroft, interrupted by Obama with perhaps the most flat and strong statement of the whole interview: “Steve, that’s always the case. That’s always the case. America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us,” he said, “That’s how we roll. And that’s what makes this America.”

Likely, Obama’s words were one part patriotic pep talk (to the targeted detriment of China and Russia specifically, it’s worth noting), one part honest assessment of the demands placed on America, and one part contradiction. One cannot be the the sole capable force in the world, bearing 90 percent of the weight — and, notably, this sort of discussion is why many nations feel America is a tyrant — and still be acting as just one force among many. One cannot lead without being, in effect, rather alone. More practically speaking, one cannot lead other nations with military aid and resources in Iraq without spending more; spending more time, more money, and more resources.

Obama uses the rhetoric of leadership as an alternative to America as the lone wolf with boots on the ground in Iraq and the Middle East. He wishes to draw the minds of Americans away from any alarming familiarity of Bush era Iraq involvement, the loss of life, and the economic toll. He may be absolutely fair to do so; because in many important ways, he’s signaled that America’s involvement will be very limited in certain respects. The fact of the matter remains that there is an inherent self-contradiction in insisting one is a leader, but also that one is not alone, but surrounded by efforts of fellow nations. Now, being a leader in some sense is advantageous, and nothing but advantageous.

Like being a global economic leader, for example, or a civil and human rights leader. But in handling conflict, aid, and an international force against terrorism, being a leader has other factors in play both economically, politically, and militarily — as modest as U.S. military involvement is promised to be. Perhaps the intended message is that America is being cautious, but taking charge; putting forth resources, but no longer working in isolation. Unfortunately, there’s nothing lonelier than being a leader.

Iraq Timeline

Overall, Obama came across as a realist on Iraq’s future and the work being done — in particular on the new leadership that has taken the place of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying that the new government is making “some progress” toward finding a stable and representative government. “I wouldn’t say great [progress], yes,” cautioned Obama. “It’s going to take time.”

Time was a great theme in discussing Iraq’s future, especially given the President’s belief that much of Iraq’s future lies in “a generational change,” not “something that’s going to happen overnight.” In particular, changing the emphasis taught to youth, who will one day be the adult citizens of Iraq, which places religious division at the forefront of issues and drives continued conflict. Given this long-term outlook, and the many years of strife and work that may be needed to stabilize Iraq and surrounding areas, it only makes sense that the President has been cautioning a sort of one hand in but feet out plan. Even non-invasive leadership could come at a hefty price if the conflict’s resolution hinges upon a generational change.

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