It has become clear for Republicans: Obama has no strategy, he ignores further outbreaks of violence, and the result is that half the region — from Libya through Lebanon, Israel and Syria to Iraq — is set on fire. And it is hard to defend the president’s politics on the Middle East even for Democrats.
On Aug. 7, Barack Obama gave the order to destroy the forces of the Islamic State — a branch of al-Qaida that is spreading terror and destruction in the northern part of Iraq. In the spring, jihadi fighters took control over these areas and began a reign of terror. They organize mass executions, rob banks of billions of dollars, take advanced American arms and gather crowds of fanatics to their sovereign country.
The immediate reason for the decision to begin the military strikes was the siege of tens of thousands of defenseless people near the Sinjar Mountains by jihadi groups. Runaways are the Kurds who follow the Yazidi faith — a religion combining elements of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Fanatic Islamists consider Yazidis to be Satan’s worshippers and want to wipe them from the surface of the Earth. Thus, American intervention is intended to prevent a genocide.
The Islamic State, earlier known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), was created as a result of a merging of the radical part of the Siberian rebels and Iraqi al-Qaida. In Syria, jihadis fought with the soldiers of Bashar Assad; they also slaughtered civilians. At the end of June, they proclaimed a caliphate on the areas they had encompassed before in northern Iraq. But their ambitions are much bigger; their rule, which is based on Koranic law, intends to also encompass Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus and the south of Turkey, apart from Iraq and Syria.
Republicans hold the view that if Obama had militarily supported the Syrian opposition on time, Assad’s regime could have been defeated and the Islamic State would have remained one of many unimportant local military groups. Now, the government in Baghdad is powerless. The Sunni minority living in the north of the country is supporting the jihadis. The Iraqi army, though more numerous than the army of the Islamic State, has neither equipment nor appropriate training to retake the occupied territories.
Is it All Bush’s Fault?
Obama tried to defend his Middle Eastern policies in an interview with The New York Times that was widely discussed by the American media. Obama decided that the Shiite government is responsible for the situation in Iraq as they “squandered an opportunity" to build cooperation with the Sunnis and Kurds, and adopted the law that eliminates people of the old regime from public life. This way, they guaranteed public support to the Islamic State. Implicitly, George W. Bush and his inconsistent advisers are to be blamed, because the law was their idea.
And that is true — but Bush retired five and a half years ago. No one forced Obama to continue with the strategy of his predecessor. But the president also has the answer for this argument: It was too late. Iraq was inevitably divided. Apart from this, it is an effect of growing divisiveness in Washington. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” claims Obama, who blames right-wing politicians in control of the Republican Party.
According to the president, the arming of moderate sections of the Syrian opposition could stop Islamic State jihadis. And the thesis that “doctors, farmers [and] pharmacists" could be equipped with "some light arms" and face the militarized State of Syria that is supported by Russia and Iran and "a battle-hardened Hezbollah” was laughable. Obama does not deny that the U.S. Army is capable of closing every Pandora’s box, but only temporarily; long-term solutions should be based on social consensus that is possible only in authentic democracy.
The Sunnis who constitute the ignored minority in Iraq and oppressed majority in Syria want a country that could offer them equal chances. Thus, the most important task is not defeating jihadis on the battlefield, but finding a formula that would enable the realization of political aspirations to all religious and secular groups. In Tunisia, that compromise had been reached and the country is, therefore, doing well.
What is the source of this decision to bombard Islamic State positions? “When … genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus … then we have an obligation to do so.” Obama says that Kurds managed to build “an island of real decency” in Iraq, so the target of this intervention is “both repelling military forces of the Islamic State and guaranteeing space for development of the best individuals in Iraqi society.”*
Americans not only ensure the Yazidis’ evacuation and drop them food, but also provide the Kurds with heavy artillery for the sake of the fight with jihadis. Such shipments require air cover. Earlier, Obama did not want to “be in the business of being the Iraqi air force” in order to force Prime Minister al-Maliki to cooperate with the minorities and to take matters of security into his own hands. It was tough, as President George W. Bush had taught the authorities in Baghdad that they can always count on the U.S. Yet last Monday, the silent wish of the administration came true.
President of Iraq Fouad Massoum dismissed al-Maliki and entrusted Haider al-Abadi with establishment of the government. In practice, however, it does not change much. The candidate is a member of the same Shiite party of Dawa that had supported the Islamic revolution in Iran and was responsible for assassinations, including the attacks on the embassy in Beirut and American and French Embassies in Kuwait. The new government is not likely to create a coalition of national understanding.
Already in 2002, experts had been warning that overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who was keeping belligerent religious and national groups under control, would lead to the breakdown of Iraq into three countries. Today, it is obvious that they were right.
It’s All Obama’s Fault
First of all, if al-Abadi is going to remain in power and secondly, if he will compromise with the minorities, then political horse-trading will last for weeks. And even if it succeeds, it will not improve the state of the army. Even gallant Kurds, who resisted fanatics and are now saving Yazidis, warned a month ago during the debate in Washington that the Iraqi army will not get rid of jihadis.
According to the Republicans, it is time to break the policy of non-alignment. America has to equip moderate Syrian rebels who were also harmed by the jihadis, help in creating the Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish coalition in Iraq and then support it with bombardment.
The opposition criticizes Obama for being guided by large-scale surveys rather than national interest. Raids on Syrian military sites were supported by only a quarter of citizens, and NATO’s support for Ukraine by only one-seventh of society. The president was giving in to social moods, whereas, according to the right wing, he is obliged to enforce decisions based on principle. Since surveys indicate that people tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are afraid of commitment in the Middle East, then Obama should explain why the game is really worth the candle. And if explanations will not be enough — he should do his own job.
Contrary to the calculations of the White House, decisions compatible with social expectations did not bring popularity to Barack Obama. According to a recent CBS survey, his foreign policy is supported by nearly 36 percent of U.S. society, whereas almost half disagree with it. Even in such sensitive areas as the economy and healthcare, the president’s shares are higher. Why? Americans like strong and determined leaders. They do not want to be involved in the issues of other countries, and at the same time they long for the era when the U.S. was the leader of the free world and the sole superpower.
The president who is able to win enjoys higher credibility and admiration than any skilled diplomat. Clinton ignored the polls indicating that U.S. society did not like the idea of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. But when he succeeded, support for his foreign policy increased to 57 percent.
At the same time, gone are the days in which a hostile dictator could be replaced with a friendly tyrant. And installation of democracy in the countries where the majority prefers Sharia is not easy. Yet, it is anticipated that bombarding of the Islamic State will improve Obama’s ratings.
Obviously, there is a reverse side to the coin — the president of the United States does not exist in isolation. Obama was trying to use Europeans’ outrage at Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and convince them to punish the dictator. But all in all, France — the loudest country — refused to help. Finally, the idea to use NATO to deter Putin alienated Germany. The other issue is that the president was not eager to take action because it is a different matter to criticize Russia than to impose sanctions adopted by Congress, where such actions could be perceived by Moscow as a military challenge.
”Don’t Do Stupid Shit”
Obama’s doctrine can be summed up by the aphorism that is often repeated by the president during the [U.N. Security] Council’s deliberations: “Don’t do stupid shit.”** It can be translated as, “Don’t do stupid things,” but in English it sounds much harsher. In other words, stop repeating the mistakes of your predecessors. Unfortunately, Obama is learning from the mistakes of his predecessors selectively. Putin is reaching for Eastern Ukraine because Bush let him trespass on the territory of Georgia and allowed the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the current president of the U.S. does not try to amend his mistake and stop the imperialist ambitions of the Kremlin.
Last week, Hillary Clinton criticized Obama’s minimalism. Although it is true that she was recently in charge of American diplomacy, in two years’ time she will run for the presidency; so she is currently trying to communicate that as a the secretary of state, deep in her heart, she has always been against the boss’s inaction. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” said Clinton to the monthly magazine Atlantic.
The president’s passivity is obviously much deeper than just fear of solutions that do not guarantee a great success. Obama thinks that the global economy is a system of linked vessels, so that any aggression is ultimately economically harmful to an aggressor. And in democracy, voters decide the course of politics.
The problem is that the rational vision of Obama is not always a good idea, as voters are often irrational. They are guided by superpower fantasies, superstitions, religious fanaticism or — speaking delicately — by credulity. After the invasion of the Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to embarrass Putin by asserting that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion.” Unfortunately, the president of Russia, Kim Jong-Il, Xi Jinping, Assad, Iranian ayatollahs and especially fanatics from the Islamic State are not moved by allegations that they are like fossils from the past. Stronger arguments need to be made.
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
*Editor’s note: This quote is attributed to Obama’s aides, and not Obama himself, when asked to summarize their president’s foreign policy ethic.