Obama’s Middle East Choice: Time to Use America’s Power?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” noted former Secretary of State (and the possibly the Democrat’s 2016 presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton in a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Her description of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine may be less expansive than his recent speeches, but it is not far off the mark. During a tour of Asia earlier this year, Obama explained that his administration focuses on not rushing to judgement when presented with crises. Critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and its budget, he stated. “That may not always be sexy,” Obama said of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

And the Syrian Civil War — a more than three-year-long conflict — not only gave Clinton the opportunity to judge Obama’s effectiveness at guiding the United States through global crises, but it has also proven to be a test of what Hillary Clinton termed the organizing principle in the United States. Withholding judgement, in order to avoid making errors costly in American lives and treasury, is sound reasoning; and for the large share of Americans who judge the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been misguided, based in the Bush administration’s overzealousness to spread democracy or to ensure the safety of the Americans, that reasoning is welcomed. And that reasoning is not where his critics get their ammunition. Rather, the president has been faulted for using caution as a cover for indecision or an inability to make tough decisions on the international stage. That the threat ISIS has metastasized quickly, leaving the jihadist militant group Obama termed “junior varsity” terrorists in control of great swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, means the time to make an analysis is running out. The immediate task weighing on the Obama White House is whether to expand U.S. bombing raids on ISIS positions within Syria.

But as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday, “the President has not made any decisions at this point about any military operations in Syria.” And there are a whole host of considerations Obama must weigh before deciding whether or not to expand U.S. military operations in the Middle East as fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continue to seize territory. The group turned the attention of United States back to Iraq in June when its fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. After ISIS continued to take control of Iraqi territory, Obama announced earlier this month that U.S. troops would be conducting airstrikes to defend American citizens and members of the ethno-religious minority group known as the Yazidi, who were being indiscriminately attacked” by Islamic State terrorists. The beheading of American photojournalist James Foley by ISIS militants in Syria, an execution that was a response to U.S. airstrikes, has caused a number of lawmakers to worry that Obama’s approach to the Islamic State’s advancement in the Middle East has been too mild. Of course, Hillary Clinton already has said that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

What has Obama said?

“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but tyrants and murderers before them should recognize that kind of hateful vision ultimately is no match for the strength and hopes of people who stand together for the security and dignity and freedom that is the birthright of every human being,” Obama said before the American Legion on Tuesday. In that same speech, he reaffirmed that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” noting he would “not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq.” And his comments also framed U.S. airstrikes as a notable success. “The limited strikes we’re conducting have been necessary to protect our people, and have helped Iraqi forces begin to push back these terrorists,” he said. “We’ve also been able to rescue thousands of men and women and children who were trapped on a mountain. And our airdrops of food and water and medicine show American leadership at our best.”

As for Syria, he kept his comments brief. “Our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader strategy to protect our people and support our partners to take the fight to ISIL,” Obama said. “So we’re strengthening our partners — more military assistance to government and Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate opposition in Syria.”

Meanwhile, experts believe Syria presents complexities for U.S. involvement

“The U.S. has long held the view that the situation in Syria is too complex in regional terms for it to get involved. The U.S. and Iran have opposing interests in Syria, overall, whereas in Iraq, they largely coincide,” Brookings Institution fellow Charles Lister told German newspaper Der Spiegel. “That’s one reason the US has felt freer to intervene on some level in Iraq. Also, the U.S. has interests in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and long relations with the Kurdish Autonomous Government’s peshmerga fighters. I don’t expect that we will see much of an expansion beyond the limited air strikes we are seeing now and an extremely minimal footprint on the ground in order to ensure security for refugees. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is sufficient to push back the IS. Air strikes have slowed but not weakened them. They’re pushing back and will probably start to threaten Aleppo in Syria soon.”
Generally, the administration has kept pushing its pet theory

“What we have also made clear that is the President, as a matter of policy, will not hesitate to use military force where necessary to protect Americans. We’ve been just as clear about our view that resolving the situation in Iraq, related to ISIL, is not something that can be done only using America’s military might,” Earnest told reporters. “Permanently restoring — or at least restoring on a sustainable basis security to the nation of Iraq and to that region between Iraq and Syria will require the United States to use so many other tools in our arsenal. It will require an effective, inclusive Iraqi government that can unite that country to face the threat that’s posed by ISIL. It will require the involvement of other governments in the region that have a blatantly obvious interest in this outcome. It will require the involvement of countries around the world, particularly our Western allies that also have an incentive to confront that threat that’s posed by ISIL.”

The Obama administration has repeated on multiple occasions that “there’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support,” and “that can’t happen effectively until you have a legitimate Iraqi government.” And while Benjamin H. Friedman, a Cato fellow in defense and homeland security studies, noted in a recent analysis that U.S. airstrikes will only reduce the government’s incentive to give representation to the Sunnis, the Obama administration is right that other countries in the region need to play a role in the peace process.

Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff supports further airstrikes

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, said Thursday in his most illuminating public statement on the crisis. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no. It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes,” he added. “I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military.”

Obama’s critics believe the president has been too weak

The president explained to the American Legion the United States must use its power wisely.  “History teaches us of the dangers of overreaching, and spreading ourselves too thin, and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” he said.

But the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted that the problem of the past five and a half years of Obama’s administration has not been “overreaching, and spreading ourselves too thin.” Rather, she argued that “it is time for Obama to stop campaigning against President George W. Bush and start taking responsibility for his presidency. The dangers we face from the vicious Islamic State, an expansionist Russia and an aggressive Iran are not due to overreach. They stem from the president’s lack of will and ideological blinders.” And that opinion is shared by many U.S. lawmakers.

In a letter sent to Speaker of the House John Boehner, lawmakers — Representatives Barbara Lee of California and James McGovern of Massachusetts, both Democrats, and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) — stated it was time for Congress to decide whether to give Obama the power to broaden the United States’ limited military mission in Iraq.

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