On a Saturday afternoon in July 2012, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton invited CIA director David Petraeus to her brick colonial home in Washington. The four-star general had led George W. Bush’s U.S. troop surge in Iraq and President Barack Obama’s in Afghanistan. Clinton asked him whether it was possible to vet, train and equip moderate opposition fighters in Syria where the forces of President Bashar al-Assad had begun killing civilians by the thousands.
“He had already given careful thought to the idea, and had even started sketching out the specifics and was preparing to present a plan,” Clinton recalled in her new memoir, Hard Choices. The next month, Clinton flew to neighbouring Turkey to discuss plans for a no-fly zone over Syria and support for the opposition. Clinton and the Turkish foreign minister made calls to foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany to build an international coalition. She returned to Washington “reasonably confident” that allies were on side.
But when Petraeus presented the plan to the President, Obama balked. He had just ended the Iraq war and did not want to get mired in a new conflict. He had promised war-weary Americans he would do “more nation-building at home.” Besides, the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Given Saudi Arabia was already arming rebels, he didn’t think American arms would make a decisive difference in driving Assad from power. Clinton argued that the U.S. could train fighters responsibly, and that the goal was to weaken Assad enough to get him to the negotiating table with the opposition.
Still, Obama said no. Clinton turned her efforts to getting food and medicine to suffering Syrians, and cellphones to anti-Assad activists. But, she wrote, “all of these steps were Band-Aids.”
Clinton’s was not the only voice Obama overruled as he sought to keep the U.S. out of Syria. Last February, as the death toll surpassed 130,000 and Assad resisted UN-led peace talks, the U.S. ambassador, Robert Ford, became so frustrated with the President’s hands-off approach that he quit his job in disgust. “When I can no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go,” Ford told PBS this month.
Three years after it began, the Syrian crisis has now spread to Iraq. A portion of northern Syria has been taken over by an offshoot of al-Qaeda, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which, this week, declared it has established a theocratic caliphate. Washington has been jolted by the nightmarish sight of ISIS sweeping through a large swath of Iraq—the largely Sunni north and west—seizing city after city, and looting banks and oil refineries. Iraqi forces, trained and equipped by the U.S., have in some instances dropped their weapons and run away. Executions and beheadings by ISIS are hardening sectarian divisions between Sunnis, Kurds and the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Reluctance to aid Syria’s moderate rebels may not have been Obama’s only mistake. His failure to leave behind a residual force of several thousand troops in Iraq, as counselled by his generals and cabinet members, is now in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the President’s modest vision for American power is being tested, not only as the sectarian war in Iraq worsens, but as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism destabilizes Europe.
The President who aimed to extract America from its entanglements abroad is suddenly learning the price of detachment. Halfway through their second terms, presidents often turn to foreign affairs as a constructive diversion from gridlock at home. But Obama is facing what could be the biggest foreign policy challenge of his presidency. And, as the superpower steps back, it may be horrified to see who steps in to fill the breach.
The potential threat ISIS poses to America is chilling. It is technologically sophisticated and well-funded by wealthy donors, theft, kidnappings and extortion. It is seizing tanks and heavy equipment intended for the Iraqi army to defend against insurgents just like ISIS. U.S. officials estimate that ISIS now numbers 10,000 fighters, of which 3,000 to 5,000 are from outside countries. Some of them have European or American passports allowing them to travel to the U.S. without visas.
With a brutal terrorist organization now controlling an area the size of some countries, including border crossings in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, critics blame Obama’s neglect of Syria and Iraq for forsaking what stability had been achieved by a decade of U.S. military effort, at a cost of nearly 4,500 American lives, and more than $1.7 trillion in taxpayer dollars.
Critics point to several key decisions in which Obama’s desire to keep out of the conflicts may have helped enable the current crisis: his decision not to leave troops behind in Iraq after 2011; his decision not to arm the Syrian rebels in the early days of the conflict; and his declaration of a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons that was not followed up with military consequences.
They say the President was wrong to assume the threat could be contained, rather than confronted: “We saw this happening, and that was what’s so frustrating. We watched them pool in eastern Syria in a way we have never seen before, thousands and thousands of al-Qaeda-affiliated individuals,” the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, told CBS last week. As for the extremists with Western passports: “That is as dangerous as it gets.”
Of course, it was Bush’s invasion of Iraq that opened the Pandora’s box of sectarian violence in that country. Hillary Clinton had voted for it. And many of the voices now calling for a stronger U.S. role in the region had also supported the ill-fated war.
Obama’s reticent approach to the region is largely a reaction to Bush’s zeal. But the debate in Washington is whether he is being too passive where Bush was too aggressive. On May 28, in a major speech at the West Point military academy in New York, Obama laid out his vision for a more modest American role in the world. He told graduating cadets he would be betraying his duty if he ever “sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”
Obama said he reserved the right to use unilateral force “when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” In other situations, he said, the U.S. will act through diplomacy, development and in co-operation with allies. “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.
Some critics see Obama’s approach as an alarming departure from America’s traditional postwar role as the guarantor of a stable world order. They fear that U.S. withdrawal will leave a power vacuum filled by the likes of ISIS. Some have argued that it emboldens leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who witnessed Obama drawing a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Assad, but then took no military action to stop it. Moreover, when Russia invaded Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. response was much softer than what many had hoped for, and rattled allies in the region. A Polish newspaper recently published a leaked recording of the country’s foreign minister describing the alliance with the U.S. as “worthless” and harmful, because it leads to a “false sense of security.”
The Iraq crisis is also a challenge to Obama’s stated approach to counterterrorism. Where Bush invaded Afghanistan to root out the Taliban, who were giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda, Obama has said he will not follow suit to pursue other terrorist groups. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” Obama said at West Point. (Of course, the U.S. has built up its counterterrorism efforts since 2001, including intelligence and a lethal drone program, which give it more options.) At a press conference this month, Obama emphasized he would not “play whack-a-mole” by going after individual groups such as ISIS. Instead, he would “partner” with countries where terrorists seek a foothold.
Yet Obama’s failure to reach an agreement to leave a U.S. military force in Iraq past 2011 made the country vulnerable to the invasion by ISIS, critics argue. Military commanders had counselled him to leave 20,000 troops behind. His defence secretary, Robert Gates, argued for 10,000 to 15,000 troops to be left for a transition period of three to five years. Obama ultimately offered the Iraqis a small force of 3,000, but could not strike a deal with Iraqi leaders that would give legal immunity for the troops. Obama withdrew all of them at the end of 2011. While on the re-election campaign trail Obama claimed credit for ending the Iraq war, now, he blames Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for the absence of U.S. forces there: “That wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government,” he said at a press conference this month.
Insisting on a small number of troops, however, may have made a deal less likely. “Few Iraqi politicians were willing to fight for such a meaningless presence,” argues Kenneth Pollock, a Middle East specialist at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “There were other ways that Washington might have handled the legal issues as well, but the White House made clear it was uninterested.”
But Steve Simon, who served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012, argues there was little Washington could do. “My recollection is that the administration tried very hard. They put a lot of pressure on Maliki and they worked parliamentarians pretty hard to make the case,” he told reporters.
Only last summer, after the U.S. government concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, did Obama approve sending small arms to the rebels who are fighting against the regime but are not ISIS extremists—a move that Ford, the former U.S. ambassador, and other critics say was too little and too slow.
Ford is urging for more and heavier military hardware, including mortars and surface-to-air missiles to help the Free Syrian Army. “More hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime simply hasten the day when American forces will have to intervene against al-Qaeda in Syria,” Ford wrote this month in the New York Times.
As the crisis has worsened, Obama has responded. On June 20, he ordered 300 members of the U.S. special forces to “assess” the situation on the ground and to “advise and assist” the Iraqi military. On June 26, Obama formally requested $500 million from Congress to train and arm the Syrian rebels, the biggest single step taken so far by the administration. The money was part of a request for $1.5 billion for a stabilization fund that would also include partnering with neighbours such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The same day, the United Nations said conditions have deteriorated to the point that 10.8 million Syrians—half the population —now require humanitarian assistance.
Obama is under pressure to do more, such as launch air strikes against ISIS, a step he did not rule out. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” However, sending U.S. troops into combat is off the table. “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”
Both in Obama’s speeches and in his actions in Syria and Iraq, some see a troubling shift to a more circumspect America on the world stage. “Superpowers don’t get to retire” is the title of a recent essay by historian Robert Kagan in The New Republic. Kagan argues that the Syria and Ukraine crises “signal a transition into a different world order, or into a world disorder of a kind not seen since the 1930s.” He thinks that with military spending larger than all other nations combined, the U.S. had the power to enforce a liberal world order and promote democracy. If America refrains from using its own power, other actors, such as Putin, will fill the void. “The world will change much more quickly than they imagine. And there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters,” Kagan wrote.
For now, there is little consensus among Americans about their role at a time when they thought they were finished with Iraq and had decapitated al-Qaeda. But they are worried about the unfolding crisis. A recent New York Times/CBS poll suggests 58 per cent disapprove of the way Obama is handling foreign policy, a jump of 10 points in the last month to the highest level since he took office in 2009. (Obama’s overall approval rating is down to 40 per cent, with 54 per cent disapproving of his job as President. That is where Bush was at the same point in his second term.)
They are evenly divided about whether Obama should send 300 people from the special forces to Iraq, or whether he should have left a residual force behind in 2011. The poll found the biggest decline in support for Obama was among Democrats, many of whom oppose sending even a small number of troops.
There is one thing they do agree on. A record number of Americans—75 per cent—now believe the Iraq War was a mistake. No one knows that better than Obama.