One of the few sophisticated arguments the Republican Party has developed to question the Obama administration’s foreign policy is that its lack of forcefulness has sent a message of weakness to the traditional enemies of the U.S., and that has contributed to emboldening them.
In other words, hesitation when it was time to intervene militarily in different crises that the northern power has faced has been interpreted by others as more evidence of the clichéd decline of that power. In this scenario, the costs of defying Washington and its international order decrease, and the benefits of adopting revisionist and bellicose behavior increase.
For example, Obama’s effort to attempt to resolve tensions with Russia over Crimea through diplomatic channels and the use of economic sanctions will inevitably lead Putin to opt for a more aggressive and expansionist policy. Simply because, according to this argument, he interprets Washington’s “good manners” as another manifestation of its weakness. Having felt that weakness, choosing a more defiant behavior will necessarily result in more dividends for Russia. Such an opportunity cannot be wasted.
This being the case, and according to the Republicans, Obama’s imprecise and shaky military hand in trying to stop the advance of fundamentalist terrorism is what has allowed the consolidation of the Islamic State to become a topic of conversation nowadays, and allowed its offensive to put Iraq on the verge of civil war and its eventual disappearance as a state, and Syria to lose ground every day against the self-proclaimed caliphate.
One of several problems with this argument lies in that it exaggerates the negative effects of the use of diplomacy (instead of force), while at the same time overlooking the counterproductive consequences military interventions have had. Assuming that the use of the military recourse only strengthens (and never erodes) the control capacity and exercise of power of a powerful country is naive at best. And to prove it, it should suffice to go back a few years and remember the great wave of anti-Americanism that the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially its decision to intervene illegally in Iraq, unleashed after Sept. 11, 2001.
But interventionism not only generates anti-American sentiment, it also feeds fundamentalism and facilitates its recruiting process: The more the U.S. employs its military might, the more motive its enemies will have to denounce its abuses and arbitrariness, and therefore the more reasons and arguments they will have to attempt to attack and destroy the world power. The paradox is evident: Using military interventionism to increase American security against the fundamentalist threat could have exactly the opposite effect of that which is desired.
Sadly, this last argument is not incompatible with the Republicans’ thesis. To put it more clearly: The U.S. may find itself in a scenario in which it loses if it makes more frequent and systematic use of its military power, and also loses if it chooses the route of diplomacy or economic sanctions, and/or if it decides to act through international institutions. It is not even possible to figure out how it would lose the least, because both strategies — in the short or the long term — have the potential to be harmful to the preservation of American security and to the continuation of its status as an international power.
The perfect combination of diplomatic, economic and military tools to contain a project that is opposed to many of the inherent principles of Western civilization, and that seems increasingly strengthened and unified, has not been figured out yet (and probably will not be). On the contrary, the Islamic State has become the Lernean Hydra: for every head that the U.S. and the West cut off, two more will grow.