Proceed with Caution

Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine: Four political and military crises, four fronts where the complexity of the situations makes finding solutions difficult, four terrains where the U.S. is being asked to take the lead in political or military interventions. But Barack Obama refuses to cede to these demands, preferring instead to evaluate the consequences before acting.

For six years, the American president has rejected the easy way out of striking first and asking questions later. When elected in 2008, he promised to break with the adventurism of his predecessor and put an end to the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are promises he has kept.

Since then, the president has avoided engaging his country too deeply in conflicts and has carefully doled out the use of American military power. In 2011, he left the task of assuming leadership in the Libyan intervention to Europeans. Today, the country is in chaos, and undoubtedly, the current situation strengthens the president’s tendency toward caution in the use of force.

Faced with the crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, Obama has analyzed the roots of each conflict, taking into account the regional context, and weighing the options available to him and his allies. There is no point in rushing in if it will only create an even bigger mess. We can see this in his handling of the crisis caused by the Islamic State, a terrorist group that, through its power, methods and goals, poses a definite threat to other countries in the region.

One way to weaken this group might be to strike it in Iraq as well as in Syria, where it originated. Washington has already led military operations in Iraq with the help of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and has succeeded in stopping the jihadis’ advance on Baghdad. But the question of whether to bomb Islamic State bases in Syria — a strategy advocated by Republicans in Washington — is still relevant for the reason that the president is looking for a global strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State and the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

At a press conference on Thursday, Obama implicitly reminded warmongers that we can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans,” he stated, promising to consult with Congress and his allies on his plans. He had also dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to create a coalition to fight against the Islamic State, and examine options for peace in Iraq and Syria.

Fluid and Changing Reality

Kerry has the military part of the project in hand. But he has yet to negotiate a sufficiently attractive political strategy to assemble a very diverse coalition. Officially, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others, are allies. But each is playing its own game in the Middle East, and each supports camps and groups in Iraq and Syria with different goals. For example, Qatar and Saudi Arabia support different factions in Syria, and are at loggerheads over whether to follow Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Obama thus has to deal with a fluid and changing reality. In the Middle East, as in Ukraine, he must advance on tiptoe. This caution must not be confused with weakness. The U.S. remains the only country in the world with the power to stage a massive intervention, and the world knows this. But this just emphasizes the importance of reflecting on the consequences before taking action.

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