Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Barack Obama and the Will to Fight

President Obama does not lack a “will to fight,” as many of his critics claim, especially given the many military interventions that have taken place under his watch. He does, however, lack a will to fight hawkish opponents in Congress and the media.

Print Friendly

LobeLog/Foreign Policy in Focus

The Obama administration has admitted that it misjudged the extremists who set up the Islamic State in chunks of territory torn from Iraq and Syria. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, confessed that his analysts underestimated the “will to fight” of the jihadists. He also linked it to intelligence failures of the past, such as similar underestimations of the Vietnamese in the 1960s.

At the same time, critics have castigated the Obama administration for its apparent lack of a “will to fight.” According to this line of argument, the president should have armed the moderate Syrian rebels back when the civil war broke out in that country. He should have bombed the country when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents. He shouldn’t have withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq.

The Islamic State has shown a passionate devotion to struggle. The Obama administration has shown an equally passionate devotion to conflict avoidance. In making this stark contrast, U.S. hawks pay a backhand compliment to the Islamic State: at least they are fighting for what they fervently believe in.

This failure to fight in the Levant is part of a larger critique of Obama as an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism or the American economic system (no matter how many times Obama has in fact reaffirmed his faith in both). He wasn’t even born in this country, two out of five Americans still suspect, so how could he fully embrace America? And on war and peace issues, he has emerged as the ultimate betrayer of the national interest by giving ground to America’s enemies across the globe. He is a wimp, a traitor, the “coward-in-chief.”

There are two possible responses to this inaccurate picture. The first is to paint a picture of Obama as a president who judiciously uses military force. He has, for instance, been very clear about not sending ground troops into the fight against the Islamic State, even though the top brass believes that destroying IS—as opposed to simply degrading its capabilities—will eventually require “boots on the ground.” The president has also carefully assembled a coalition of international actors to provide multilateral cover in the latest escalation of the conflict in the region. Elsewhere in the world, the administration hasn’t intervened in Ukraine or gone head to head with China in the South China Sea. It has made strong statements, reassured allies, upped arms transfers, and even resorted to various covert strategies. But the president has generally avoided direct confrontation.

Combine this trajectory of restraint with the president’s statements on prioritizing diplomacy and you get the image that the administration would like to cultivate: the current government is committed to “smart power” as opposed to the blunt application of “dumb power” that previous presidents (i.e., George W. Bush) wielded. There is some truth to this picture.

But let’s consider the other alternative: President Obama is no less committed to military action than any of his predecessors. He might personally have a less gung-ho disposition than, say, George W. Bush. But Obama’s personality is only a small part of the equation. Despite the putative end of the Cold War, the United States has remained on a war footing. The national security apparatus is programmed for intervention. What we see now taking place in the skies above Syria and Iraq is not an exception to the Obama-as-pacifist rule. It is a summation of a particular evolution in U.S. militarism toward the asymmetrical warfare of dispensing death at a distance.

For those who doubt the “will to fight” in the White House today, a quick glance at a recent Congressional Research Service report—Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014—should dispel the misconception. Approximately 31 pages cover this 216-year history. The first 18 pages take the reader from the undeclared war between the United States and France in 1798 to the first deployments of the George W. Bush era. The next five pages list the military engagements of Bush’s two terms. Which leaves roughly eight pages for the as-yet-uncompleted Obama tenure.

By the end of Obama’s second term, he’ll likely be responsible for more than a quarter of all uses of the armed forces abroad in the history of the United States. It should be noted that this list also includes U.S. military participation in peacekeeping missions, earthquake relief, and the like. On the other hand, it doesn’t include the widespread use of air strikes and missile attacks, which have increasingly substituted for the deployment of U.S. armed forces.

In 2014 alone, the Obama administration sent an additional battalion to South Korea in January, several hundred U.S. personnel to pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda in March, several hundred advisors to Iraq in June to assess the threat of the Islamic State, another 130 “assessors” to Iraqi Kurdistan in August to deal with the Yazidi problem, and 600 soldiers also in August to Poland as “reassurance” in the wake of the civil war in Ukraine. The list doesn’t include the air strikes in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State and several other targets, recent drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, or the dispatch of 3,000 U.S. soldiers to Liberia to address the Ebola epidemic.

So, despite the rants of those hoping to goad the president into buying his very own piece of quagmire in the Middle East, the Obama administration has shown considerable “will to fight. The problem with the current fight against the Islamic State is that, the adversary’s obvious barbarism notwithstanding, U.S. objectives are not entirely clear. Here are four concerns that should indeed undercut any thinking person’s “will to fight” in this particular situation:

The threat of terrorism – The Islamic State has decapitated its hostages, including American journalists, and routinely engages in atrocities against a wide variety of people. But it has no capability of launching any attacks on the United States. Indeed, the furthest it has gone has been to incite people within the countries arrayed against it to launch “lone wolf” attacks. To justify its latest strikes in Syria, the Obama administration held up “imminent” terrorist attacks devised by a shadowy organization called the Khorasan Group. But even these “imminent” attacks, in the wake of the Syria strikes, were downgraded to merely “aspirational.” It’s easier, of course, to justify a war if Americans feel directly threatened, as they did from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (though the former turned into a fight against the Taliban and the latter never materialized). IS will continue to make threats as long as they produce the result it wants: American soldiers to fight against on the battlefield and a “crusade” it can rail against to drum up more support.

The benefits for Assad – War is never an easy sell, but it’s particularly difficult if it’s against an enemy of your enemy. The Obama administration naturally has not emphasized the benefits that accrue to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad when U.S. air strikes degrade the capabilities of one of his leading opponents. But Syrian diplomats have not been shy to trumpet this self-serving interpretation.

The nature of the “moderate” Syrian forces – The air attacks against Syria are part of a larger policy that includes training Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. The program, which will cost $500 million, is slated to train 5,000 rebels in the first year. The trainees are naturally expected to fight against the Islamic State. But frankly their main objective has been to topple the Assad regime, and it’s not inconceivable that at some point they might team up with the extremists if that advances their prime directive.

It doesn’t help that the United States is wading into a situation where alliances and ideologies seem to change on a daily basis. Case in point: the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). It’s affiliated with al-Qaeda, but it also has fought alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA). When the United States listed the Nusra Front as a target of air strikes, many FSA fighters balked. “As long as al-Nusra, whose members are mostly Syrians, did not attack the Syrian people while fighting the regime, we are against targeting it,” explained an FSA leader on the northern front. It’s a war going on over there: “moderate” is a word that juts doesn’t make sense in an increasingly brutal environment.

The slippery slope of advisors – Although the president has drawn a red line on the issue of U.S. boots on the ground in this conflict, he has fudged the issue by sending over advisors to help with the targeting. He has also warned the U.S. public that this will not be a quick mission, like the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s useful to remember that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War also began with advisors—in 1950. At that time, we were helping the French in what would be a losing effort. Later, after the partition of the country in 1954, Washington tried to keep the South Vietnamese government afloat (sound familiar?). By 1963, 16,000 U.S. advisors were in country. So, considering the complexity of the war in Syria and Iraq, we might well see a similar “advisor phase” that grows and grows until, surprise: boots on the ground.

These four caveats make the application of “smart power” by the Obama administration look increasingly dumb. There were good reasons for the president to hesitate before intervening directly in the past. He was not Hamlet seized by an existential crisis. He understood the significant trade-offs and calculated that intervention was not worth it.

But that was before domestic political pressure combined with the demands of a national security state still geared to fight a long war on terror. Obama, in the end, indeed showed that he did not have the will to fight. He was willing to stand up against the Islamic State. But he didn’t have the courage to stand up against his more hawkish opponents in Congress and the media.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. This article was first published by FPIF and was reprinted by IPS with permission.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Clare Lopez is a former CIA officer and rightwing activist who has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood and a shadowy “Iran Lobby” are working to shape Obama administration policy.


Michael Ledeen, a “Freedom Scholar” at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has long been obsessed with getting the U.S. to force regime change in Tehran.


Michael Flynn is a former Trump administration National Security Advisor who was forced to step down only weeks on the job because of his controversial contacts with Russian officials before Trump took office.


The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney has emerged as the most visible advocate of hardline security policies in the Cheney family.


Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary.


Joe Lieberman, the neoconservative Democrat from Connecticut who retired from the Senate in 2013, co-chairs a foreign policy project at the American Enterprise Institute.


Former attorney general Edwin Meese, regarded as one of President Ronald Reagan’s closest advisers despite persistent allegations of influence peddling and bribery during his tenure, has been a consummate campaigner on behalf of rightist U.S. foreign and domestic policies. He currently serves as a distinguished visiting fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly

The President went to the region as a deal maker and a salesman for American weapon manufacturing. He talked about Islam, terrorism, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the benefit of expert advice in any of these areas. After great showmanship in Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, he and his family left the region without much to show for or to benefit the people of that war-torn region.


Print Friendly

Although the Comey memo scandal may well turn out to be what brings Trump down, this breach of trust may have had more lasting effect than any of Trump’s other numerous misadventures. It was an unprecedented betrayal of Israel’s confidence. Ironically, Trump has now done what even Barack Obama’s biggest detractors never accused him of: seriously compromised Israel’s security relationship with the United States.


Print Friendly

Congress and the public acquiesce in another military intervention or a sharp escalation of one of the U.S. wars already under way, perhaps it’s time to finally consider the true costs of war, American-style — in lives lost, dollars spent, and opportunities squandered. It’s a reasonable bet that never in history has a society spent more on war and gotten less bang for its copious bucks.


Print Friendly

Trump’s reorganization of the foreign policy bureaucracy is an ideologically driven agenda for undermining the power and effectiveness of government institutions that could lead to the State Department’s destruction.


Print Friendly

Spurred by anti-internationalist sentiment among conservative Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration, the US is headed for a new confrontation with the UN over who decides how much the US should pay for peacekeeping.


Print Friendly

Decent developments in the Trump administration indicate that the neoconservatives, at one point on the margins of Washington’s new power alignments, are now on the ascendent?


Print Friendly

As the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days as president approaches, it seems that his version of an “America-first” foreign policy is in effect a military-first policy aimed at achieving global hegemony, which means it’s a potential doomsday machine.


RightWeb
share