The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has sailed into the Persian Gulf with a cruiser and a destroyer. The carrier’s jets could provide close air support for the Iraqi Army. Jets and cruise missiles could strike marshalling points, supply lines and advancing units of the Islamic militant insurgency away from urban areas.
The current crisis in Iraq provides a rather poignant illustration of the results of the failure of the administration of US President Barack Obama to use reasonable care in the handling of US foreign policy. It is difficult to watch what is occurring given that opportunities to avert the present situation were ignored. The Obama administration came into office pledging to repair the grave foreign policy errors of the administration of US President George W. Bush. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, White House staffers spoke confidently about their administration’s efforts and how they wanted to establish their president’s place in history, or his legacy. Yet, his administration has proven to be too risk adverse, and has attempted to absolve itself of the more assertive and aggressive aspects of exercising US power as part of its role as the world’s leader. The Obama administration has faced a number vicissitudes in foreign policy. Its ability to successfully find its way out of a colossal mess in Iraq remains uncertain. Questions exist in Washington, DC, other capitals worldwide, and the global media on whether Obama has the will to take military action in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni insurgent groups to the Iraqi government. More useful, however, might be a discussion of the ideas that may cause Obama to display restraint in this crisis, and how, from another lens, he might see how those ideas have failed him and why taking action in Iraq is necessary.
Through the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, hopes of the US public were raised by Obama’s speeches on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing forces, and taking new approaches on foreign policy that would establish some tranquility of order in US foreign affairs. Obama’s voice was that of a man speaking from a source. His administration’s captivating assessments were satisfying enough for those who were unable or unwilling to look more deeply and those seduced by simple answers. All things are beautiful through the right lens. However, as a result of a string of policy “disappointments” or failures, it became evident that many of the views proffered by the administration on foreign policy were distorted, albeit unintentionally, through a selective discussion of circumstances. Many efforts to create positive change were fruitless. Recall the claim by the administration that by cautiously arming and training the patchwork Free Syrian Army, burdened from the start with al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon face defeat and surrender power at the negotiating table. It was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. The talent to captivate through speeches proved not to be the same as the talent to truly lead internationally. While the sincere goal may have been to revamp US foreign and defense policy, the effort should have handled with diligence to avoid taking US policy on a course that could lead to its unraveling.
The Obama administration has displayed a predilection toward restraint on military action contrary to the Bush administration. However, that proved to be problematic whenever military was actually needed. Gallivanting around the world attempting to solve its ills through pre-emptive military action, as the Bush administration was perceived as doing, is wrong. However, not responding to aggressive actions that threaten US interests, its image, and peace and security worldwide is wrong, too! Failing to take military action in one instance might settle one situation, but sends a message or creates an impression, that could lead to greater difficulties in another. In 2013, in Syria, everything needed was available to cope with Assad, after allegations were made of his regime’s use of chemical weapons, and to cope with ISIS, after its countless abuses and murders of Syrian citizens and brutal attacks on mainstream Free Syrian Army units. Yet, Obama was unwilling to wield US military power. No action was taken, and the message was sent that Obama would not commit himself to red lines he sets and that he is reluctant to take robust military action for any reason. More recent policy speeches about transnational interests and multilateral responses offer a seductive kind of superficiality, perhaps a shallow entrapment for the administration, itself. The truth is that without strong US leadership and support for friends and partners, militarily, financially, or politically, big things would never have been accomplished internationally, especially during crises. Consider that the United Kingdom, unquestionably one the closest allies of the US, has already announced through its Foreign Secretary William Hague, that it is “not planning military intervention of any kind” in Iraq. Except for some sort of coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US would likely have to take action in Iraq alone. The Obama administration could hardly have imagined that it was creating such a circumstance.
On a number of other issues, such as Ukraine, the Obama administration could have simply acted more decisively, effectively and rapidly. As a leader, Obama may want to be able to say as Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way!” However, his duty as president is not to respond to issues based on his own needs, values and principles, but only those of the US. That comes before legacy, and truly sets one’s destiny as president. Current events in Iraq indicate there was a failure to recognize the problem, and a failure to find real answers. Intellect and will determine choices. However, pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem. Despite any strong feelings Obama has against military action, as a matter of self-sacrifice, he should have been willing to act for the sake of US interests. In today’s world, it is just not possible for a US president to create an image of himself as a benign philanthropist.
Difficulties between Obama and the US military’s leadership were well-discussed in former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ book, Duty. Those difficulties accordingly have contributed somewhat to Obama’s views on the use of military power. Lacking experience in the military arena, Obama should have had an adviser on military affairs, perhaps a retired general or admiral involved in the presidential campaign, added to the White House staff to better familiarize him with the nuts and bolts of military affairs. General Maxwell Taylor served US President John F. Kennedy in this capacity in 1961. Any mistrust resulting from any negative interactions between the president and his generals should have been quickly resolved. That mistrust hopefully has not ruined relations of the president with other senior foreign and defense policy officials in the government.
In the history of successes and accomplishments in US foreign and defense policy, there are many interesting cases that can provide guidance on how to develop creative solutions to current problems. Among the staffs at the State Department, Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly at the senior levels, is enough experience, wisdom, and capabilities to meet all of today’s challenges. They must be relied upon with a degree of trust. A president should be receptive to their views, and moderate those advisers urging caution. The memoranda, reports, and other documents produced by these professionals manifest US values and principles, and certainly embody the history of US foreign and defense policy as they have most likely been part of it. History is the country’s life blood. Without knowing the country’s history, a US leader might appear as a child, searching for answers, paralyzed with uncertainty over what should be done. Therein lie the makings for a tragedy. The decisions of a US president can shape the destiny not only of the US, but the world.
Devising approaches in foreign policy in our times requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature. It requires understanding how to deal with people who think differently, and well as knowing people’s frailties. The US should not tolerate threats and aggression from maniacs playing God in other states and among non-state actors. The US is not a door mat for others. There is a real need for Obama to be more attentive and more active. Deeds, not just words, count! That does not mean the US must act with vindictiveness. It means the US must act to correct wrong acts of coarse leaders, when US interests’ are at stake. There is a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil. Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. The list of matters that have long been understood to fall within US interests should not be curtailed through sophistic arguments to sidestep action either. It is not too late for the Obama administration to turn the corner. Perhaps Iraq presents that opportunity. Time is of the essence. The danger of the situation in Iraq must be fully recognized now. The US must rapidly formulate and implement solid approaches, a strategy, for its resolution.