Obama’s Change of Direction Is Long Overdue

The American president took office with the aim of ending the war in Iraq [that belonged to] his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Now he is conducting his own war against the terrorists from the Islamic State.

In his national address, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an increase in the number of airstrikes in Iraq. In addition, a further 475 military and security advisers will be dispatched to the country.

Once again, America is waging a war in Iraq. Barack Obama would never call it that; ultimately, he wants to be thought of as the president who ended George W. Bush’s war in Mesopotamia. The [current confrontation] is not a classic war with U.S. ground forces seizing and securing territories, but it is a war nonetheless. It will resemble the one that the Americans waged alongside the (Afghan) Northern Alliance to expel the Taliban from Afghanistan after 9/11. Then, the Northern Alliance served as the Americans’ ground forces. They sent troops from the special forces into the field at the start in order to coordinate American airstrikes with the Northern Alliance.

The question is whether a similar strategy can be successful in Iraq and Syria. Those who leave the fighting on the ground up to others can quickly become slaves to the interests of others. Above all, the Kurds want to secure their own region. Iraq’s army is, alongside Shiite militias, following a Shiite sectarian logic. And the Sunni groups, which Obama wants to mobilize against the extremists, have already had the wool pulled over their eyes by the government in Baghdad.

The situation in Syria is even bleaker, as Assad’s troops and radical Islamists are annihilating the moderate opposition due to years of neglect by the West. Obama’s new strategy is built on a lot of hope. It is driven by tactical, domestic political considerations. Obama had to eventually propose a plan for the fight against the Islamic State group. However, he doesn’t want to do anything that will bring his reputation as a diffuser of war into question. This has resulted in a compromise that is being marketed as an upgraded anti-terror operation — too much for a defeat by the Islamic State group, but probably too little for a victory over the terrorists.

The Iraqi Illusion

The problem with Obama’s foreign policy is that it has arisen out of negative self-portrayal. It was drawn up in order to resist repeating Bush’s mistakes — which implicated America in two long wars. Even in his last keynote address on foreign policy in May, Obama implied that all those demanding more American intervention in the world were power-hungry warmongers. As if there are only two ways of doing things when it comes to foreign policy — overreaction like that of Bush in Iraq or extensive avoidance like that of Obama — and nothing in between.

Anything that doesn’t fit into this government’s narrative is suppressed. In 2011, Obama announced America’s final withdrawal from Iraq with the words that it was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” country with a “representative government.” When The New York Time published an article in 2012 on the rising death toll, the newspaper’s Baghdad correspondent had to listen to an angry denial from Vice President Joe Biden’s office.

Also, when it was becoming more and more obvious that the Shiite prime minister was ridding the military and administrative departments of Sunnis, the U.S. Department of State simply didn’t want to know. And when the Islamic State had already taken Fallujah at the end of last year, the president played down the danger. The Islamic State was a secondary organization, [Obama] said disdainfully.

A Team of Like-Minded People

By now, even [Obama’s] own secretary of defense considers this “secondary organization” the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. Such refusal to accept reality is reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, who insisted that all was well in Iraq long after its invasion. At that time, dozens of people were dying in conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites.

Over the years, Obama’s administration has become an isolated entity. At the beginning, things were different. There were personalities in the cabinet with their own opinions. Parallels were even drawn to Abraham Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals.”* Since that time they have become a team of mainly like-minded people. Even commentators who support Obama are drawing unflattering parallels with Bush.

He did make a lot of mistakes in his first term, but he at least he corrected them with a new team and personal involvement. Obama has been different in this respect until now. “It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office,” declared David Rothkopf, editor-in-chief of the magazine Foreign Policy.

America’s Burden

With a renewed military engagement in the Middle East, Obama is silently taking his leave of the Obama doctrine. This is based on the assumption that Bush is the fundamental problem in American world engagements. If America was to withdraw and adopt a less aggressive foreign policy, it would produce fewer scandals, experience less resistance to its politics and be able to compromise with problem players on the world scene — a misunderstanding that seems almost European.

After all, the villains of this world — from Assad in Syria to Putin in Russia, from the new Kim in North Korea to the caliphate in Mosul — haven’t attended any politeness seminars by the soft power guru Joseph Nye of Harvard, but continue to believe in classic hard power. And if America were to go back on this part of its foreign policy, it would test what it could get away with. Re-establishing order once it has been thrown off course is, as a rule, more costly than timely and consistent engagement. Look at Syria and Iraq.

Preserving a liberal and stable world order requires constant effort in order to protect [the effort] from perpetrators of authoritarianism and disorder. If America doesn’t take this on, then no other country will either. It is one of the burdens a superpower must bear, alongside making mistakes that are criticized and don’t earn [the country] any praise wherever it is playing a positive role. But who said that life was fair in this world? Obama needs to invest more in Iraq and Syria — not because he wants to, but because it is part of the role that America has to play if it doesn’t want to leave the field clear for other, less honorable players.

*Editor’s note: “Team of Rivals” is the name of a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin published in 2005, which examines the personalities of some of the men in Lincoln’s cabinet from 1861-1865.

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