Monday, September 15, 2014

Obama’s Foreign Policy: A Legacy of Interventionism

My colleague Colin Wolfgang recently wrote about Pres. Obama’s speech last Wednesday, in which the president announced that US airstrikes would extend from Iraq into Syria to combat the growing threat of the terrorist group ISIS(/IS/ISIL/who-cares-what-they-call-themselves-they’re-nuts). While many, including Mr. Wolfgang, point to the speech as a turning point in the Obama administration away from isolationism, it in fact continues the Obama White House foreign policy that has been in place since he took office: namely, Pres. Obama’s policy of small- to medium-scale military intervention by another name.

Whether you call it “police action,” “counterterrorism,” “targeted airstrikes,” or any of the other Obama administration euphemisms, this White House has pursued interventionist tactics in almost every global hotspot where it has encountered national security threats. The supposed difference from the George W. Bush administration has been the absence of “boots on the ground,” despite the fact that there will now be nearly 2,000 American “advisors” and who-knows-how-many special operations and CIA agents in Iraq. While large-scale military operations such as the Bush-era wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wound down, the United States is far from an isolationist nation.

The most recent Obama speech does, however, point to the fact that the president is scaling up his military involvement in the Middle East. Recognizing that no fight against ISIS in Iraq alone could vanquish the group, he expanded his scope of military action to include the group's base in neighboring Syria. This policy may indeed have opened Pres. Obama (and his successor)'s administration up to an ever-growing military intervention in the region. Despite the dismal record of the US in blowing up and subsequently attempting to rebuild countries, Obama has placed the country in a position where it may find itself “reconstructing” war-torn Syria (as well as Iraq) in the years and decades to come.

Looking to the example of the Afghan reconstruction, setting aside the too-obvious disaster that was the Iraqi case, one can already see why this is a terrible idea. Despite over $100 billion spent in Afghanistan, over half of which was dedicated to building the Afghan security services, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, whom I had the honor of meeting last week, calls the program an almost completely unmitigated disaster. The country is far from secure, developed, or ready to transition to self-sufficiency as US troops prepare to withdraw this year. From mishandling of funds, to corruption, to downright idiotic policies and programs, the US appears to be ill equipped to try to rebuild even 20 percent of a country that was already at a very low level of human development. Given that Syria’s civil war is estimated to have cost the country 35 years of human development, rebuilding there will prove to be no easier task. Nor will it be easy to try to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, which was already in a precarious position (largely thanks to US and Maliki-era policies) before the invasion of ISIS.

Of course, for now, the president assures us that wider military action including “boots on the ground” is not an option in Syria or Iraq. Yet the regional partners he lauded in his speech, including Saudi Arabia, have not stepped up to the plate in a meaningful way that would decrease the chances of an ever-expanding US mission. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in particular, would be the most effective regional partners to stem the tide of money and arms to ISIS and other extremist groups, create training bases for alternative groups in the Syrian opposition, and work with leaders of the Sunni and Shi’ite communities in both countries towards political solutions for the two merging conflicts. With news today that Iran has declined to join the regional coalition on Iraq and Syria, and Saudi Arabia has only offered to create a training base for Syrian rebels, the odds for a truly regional solution seem to grow slimmer and slimmer.

The US does have growing support from longtime allies France and the UK, and given the tragic beheading of a British aid worker over the weekend this is hardly surprising. Yet a Western-led intervention can only breed more resentment, more calls of meddling, and more radicalization among citizens of Iraq and Syria. If the Obama administration is unable to convince at least Saudi Arabia that it faces a greater existential threat from ISIS than does the US, and should thus take the most active role in combatting the group, then the US mission will continue to creep, and creep, and creep, towards a conventional military conflict.

The Obama administration has been called weak again and again by hawks who think the absence of the march of thousands of the American boots means the US is not involved in the world’s conflicts. Yet anyone who has been paying attention can see the (albeit quieter) American hand in nearly every military conflict in strategically important states: drone strikes raining down over Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan; the NATO mission to Libya; military posturing in the Pacific; and now both “advisors on the ground” and air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Despite the fact that many claim this is Obama’s first turn at true military intervention, in reality, he has been intervening in countries all over the world long before this, and, if his track record is any indication, will likely experience the same disappointing results of his interventionist strategy in Syria and Iraq.


  1. The Saudi's have conflicting interests about intervening in Iraq/Syria. ISIS considers the Saudi's to be living in sin and would surely be a threat if they were just a bit closer geographically. However Saudi Arabia would also benefit from an oil shock caused by ISIS in say, Mosul, due to increased global oil prices. Mosul seems to be the southern line in the sand, defended heavily by the US in recent months due to its vitally important oil stream. The Saudi's won't become convinced unless ISIS is able to push further south. Allying with Assad in Syria is an obvious non-starter. It seems that with no obvious solution the goal right now is to just contain the threat. It would be interesting if you wrote a piece about the economics of this conflict, The trade off right now seems to be the roughly 3-4 million bpd of production coming out of Iraq vs. firing $500,000 dollar Raytheon missiles at $20,000 dollar pickup trucks.

    1. Thanks for your insight, Frank. The Saudis definitely have a split interest on this one, as well as a long history of relying on the US to solve their security problems, even ones that they've created. Many Mid East academics trace the rise of violent Islamic extremism to both Saudi and US bankrolling of the Afghan jihadis - who are actively participating in this conflict, as well - in the 1980s. While the US may have thought better of its funding of various mujahideen throughout the world, the KSA and its citizens have not bucked the tradition and continue to fund these groups throughout the Muslim-majority world. This policy of turning a blind eye to funding of terrorist groups is just as shortsighted as the US funding such groups in the past, and for a variety of reasons including the precarious state of domestic politics, is likely to come back and bite the KSA. Definitely worth a look to see if I can pull something together about the economics, however, thank you for the suggestion.

  2. That is interesting Vicky. I would say that violent Islamic extremism is inherent to the religion, not specific events. Even people who consider themselves moderate Muslims still condone practices such as treating women as second class citizens and killing people who leave the religion or are deemed kafir. No other religions are so violent. The funding is a whole other issue. At this point I believe ISIS is mostly self-funded, they have oil and heroin they can trade now and are on the way to becoming their own state.

    1. Hmmm violence against and repression of women being specific to Islam? Christianity, as well as most of the world's major religions, have a long history of violent extremists and misogynists in their midsts, a trend that clearly persists to the present day. Christianity and its extremists may be seen as "less violent" now, but certainly was one of the worst perpetrators of violence in recent history. The al-Saud deal with the Wahhabists (the al-Sheikh family, specifically) to create the KSA in the early 20th century was a turning point in Islamic history, one which seems to have negated the centuries of Islam being the world's most progressive major religion (see the Abbasid Caliphate) as well as the decades of secularist and/or progressive Muslim-majority countries in the mid to late-twentieth century in the popular imagination. If you actually read the Qu'ran, it is no more inherently violent (nor are the other major source of Islamic teachings, the Hadith) than the Bible or the Torah. In fact, having read and studied both, I find the Bible to be almost terrifyingly more violent than the Qu'ran.

      In short, religious extremism is no more unique to Islam than belief in one God is unique to Christianity.