Time to loosen America’s foreign policy straightjacket

Obama needs a new strategy in Iraq and Syria, yet will probably remain hindered by his own ideological constraints. He's still locked inside a narrow-minded rejection of the Bush years, and the world is paying a heavy price

The Iraqi army didn't stop ISIS. Will the Americans?
Taylor Dibbert
On 2 June 2015 07:47

Since Ramadi, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, have both recently fallen to the Islamic State, it continues to get easier to criticize U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to combat the ruthless terrorist organization.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has come down hard on the Iraqi army. Speaking about recent developments in Ramadi, Carter stated that, “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.”

In a way it’s nice to see the Obama administration admit that the fight against the Islamic State will go beyond January 2017. What’s disconcerting is that -- in spite of the way things have been going -- Obama’s miscalculations don’t necessarily mean he’ll see a need to do anything differently.

Moreover, many Republican presidential hopefuls have lacked specifics regarding how they’d deal with the group. During a recent U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, several leading analysts called for up to 20,000 American troops.

In this context, it seems unlikely that even the most hawkish elements of the party would call for more than 20,000 or 30,000 combat troops. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, presidential candidate Marco Rubio lays out a few good ideas, including broadening the coalition against the Islamic State and increasing American involvement from both the ground and the air.

Obama needs a new strategy in Iraq and Syria, yet will probably remain hindered by his own ideological constraints. Even if the situation deteriorates further, ground troops would probably still be a nonstarter for him. It would be truly praiseworthy, presidential even, if Obama began to lower his self-imposed blinders and view this current battle through a lens that goes beyond the end of his own term of office.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has gone out of his way to prove that he’s not George W. Bush, a president whose record, while arguably less polarizing today, will remain controversial in the coming decades. Yet in the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Bush provided the leadership that the country needed.

Journalist Ken Walsh reflects upon Bush’s visit to Ground Zero after the attack:

In this electric moment, Bush captured the mood of the country, delivering just what the American people wanted; a combination of gratitude for the rescue workers' bravery and diligence, defiance toward the terrorists, and resolve to bring the evil doers to justice.

Then came the invasion of Afghanistan; then Iraq; Abu Ghraib; black sites and more. That important balance between liberty and security was, to say the least, not quite right. And so there are lessons that can be learned and past experiences that must inform the present.

And while Obama hasn’t exactly been the polar opposite of Bush on counterterrorism (or other policies), he obviously sees America’s role in world affairs far differently, especially when it comes to the projection of military power.

We may still be learning the “lessons of Iraq”, but hopefully we’re vigilant enough to know if or when we’re overlearning those lessons. Obama’s latest foreign policy interview reveals that he doesn’t think that’s the case (or at least he doesn’t think he’s overlearning those lessons).

Going forward, the smart money says that that Obama is betting his legacy on the Iran deal and that everything else is secondary. Passing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would also be big (and good for the country). The administration remains optimistic on Cuba, though outside of that one doesn’t see many possible foreign policy achievements for the duration of this presidency.

When it comes to the Islamic State, one gets the sense that Obama’s plan is to kick the (policy) can down the road -- which would invariably allow the group to metastasize further and likely expand the territory under its control.

That would ensure that foreign policy (and Obama’s inept handling of it) remains a major issue during the race for the White House. Far more importantly, it would also be bad news for global peace and security and remind people that, when facts and ideology don’t align nicely, this president wont’ hesitate to ignore the former and embrace the latter.

Is that really how Obama wants to be remembered?

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert

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