Barack Obama’s Strategic Dilemma


From Syria to Gaza, through Ukraine or Iraq, two classic dilemmas are shaking up the international community and causing foreign politicians to hesitate. The first is about the compatibility between interests and principles: Is it necessary to act in a situation when required by morality, but in which the foreseeable cost of action risks being too high for the national interest? The second focuses on means of implementation so that interests prevail: Is the use of force always the best way of imposing upon others, or has it become, in a world increasingly globalized since 2010, extremely counterproductive?

Faced with these two questions, the conservative approach, which maintains its belief in hard power serving state interests in a world governed by confrontation, responds through military interventionism as a demonstration of power and credibility toward allies as enemies. A more modern and liberal approach places a disadvantage on the restrictive effect of a global system, where cooperation and common interests, shared by the global society, form a normative constraint to which all actors must yield.

“Adding War to War”

From an initial perspective, intervention is almost always the solution. From a second perspective, it only “adds war to war,” to use Mitterrandian rhetoric. It is an old question about the theory of international relations, except that the most audacious defender of the second approach is now the president of the United States, the position is worth public ridicule and the results of his gamble could be full of surprises.

Was it necessary to intervene in Syria in 2013, or even earlier, against the Bashar Assad regime? Is a massive retaliation against Russian policy in Ukraine needed, including a military component, if necessary? Is there a need for an extensive military re-engagement in Iraq in order to stop the caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi? In response to these three questions, Barack Obama says no, in the name of a belief expressed on numerous occasions in which such military action is no longer the solution to the crises of the modern world.

This “no” was late and brutal in Syria, immediate in Ukraine and more difficult to maintain in Iraq: in the end, based on attacks against the Islamic State since Aug. 7. Washington nevertheless consistently emphasizes that these attacks are intended to protect Americans and that, besides, they have humanitarian motives and the United States cannot resolve all of the world’s problems by intervening on every occasion.

Contortions of Hesitant Communication

This position, blurred by contortions of sometimes-hesitant communication and sudden changes, consists of at least three faults.

Firstly, it appears to be a weak declaration in the American debate, and contributes to the “encapsulation” of the president by a Republican Party quick to accuse him of having lost the Middle East, Crimea, Asia and just about everything else.

Next, the position concerns and displeases certain allies of Washington who are beginning to doubt the credibility of the American guarantee in case of problems for themselves, or they consider Obama’s overly-subtle thoughts to foreshadow many pure and simple betrayals.

Finally, it is wrong to be in the minority in a world where the fait accompli seems to remain a safe bet, where the arms race remains a priority, where the alliances’ displayed determination continues to pay and where disengagement is very costly.

Given all of that, Obama’s gamble is far from being stupid. In the first instance because the recent report of international use of force is disastrous. The United States knows this better than anyone, following the Iraqi and Afghani experiences.

Israel, which continues to gamble on armed intervention, has come out neither truly victorious nor more secure, nor strengthened by its interventions in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-2009, and without a doubt will not be better at the end of the summer crisis. For Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the political cost of the Crimean intervention and of the situation in East Ukraine could prove to be very burdensome.

Successful displays of military devices are in recent times truly rather rare, and conform to some rules that are difficult to combine: They must be sharp, proportionate, limited in time, legitimized by the United Nations and in a position to give way to multilateral action: In this regard, the French Operation Serval in Mali is considered a case in point, but will not be possible to reproduce every day, let alone by any power.

In particular, the world no longer meets the rules of a zero-sum game, where what was won by a player was lost to its opponents. To Putin, who wants to show the superiority of the fait accompli of taking Crimea, Obama responds: “We will isolate you,” straightaway excluding a higher military bid and playing for the long term.

The Structural Power Card against Brute Power

Rather than opting for a show of force — quite uncertain — the American president’s gamble is different; it involves proving that, in the world of 2014, no one can afford the political or economic costs of this type of behavior. He is also playing the structural power card against brute power by opposing the use of force and the constraint of protean international rules, which are played out on land as diverse as security, commerce, investment, image …

Barack Obama probably has reason to believe that caution and avoidance of errors are a foreign policy in itself, where others want to improvise great plans, regardless of the complexity of the land.

In order for his policy to pay, the American president firstly needs some visible results obtained through the policy of soft power (not violent) and progressive pressure: a de-escalation in Ukraine and a softening of the Russian position as the sanctions against Moscow strengthen would be life-saving for him.

He then must make up for the dissatisfaction of certain challenging allies by reinforcing new structures of solidarity related to the guarantee of American security, particularly in Europe and Asia.

Lastly, it would be necessary (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that a sparing and controlled use of force and of military presence, combined with the implementation and work of new political pacts initiated by the United States, quickly appears to be productive in comparison with the “total military” of absurd “creative chaos” of neoconservatives in the 2000s. Only then will it be demonstrated that hard power (use of force) in a pure state is no longer appropriate and that the system of the post-Cold War, nowhere to be found until now, would finally enter into its phase of consolidation.

In the inverse scenario, Barack Obama’s report of action will first of all provoke a formidable pendulum swing towards the United States, then the triumph of power policy elsewhere, and the classic brutal rules of international relations will resume.

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