This three-part series assesses whether the non-interventionist foreign policy of US President Barack Obama will have a neutral, beneficial or detrimental effect on US interests and international security. The assessment will use two case studies, taking the militancy in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria and the American response to both.
Mr Obama is not a foolish man, and he is surrounded by excellent thinkers and strategists. He is also a deeply moral leader. Yet his foreign policy is being chastised for its immaturity and its damages to US power. Given his leadership position and life history, this assessment begins at the position that Mr Obama has rational reasons for his actions. This series will attempt to understand what those reasons are.
The former United States Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara had a number of lessons gleaned from his time at the top of the Washington political pile. One was to try to get in the other person’s shoes and think like them. To see the world from their eyes.
The year of 2014 is not even halfway finished and already it has been called a year of crisis. The nation “in charge” is still the enormous United States, but the Obama administration is receiving criticism for apparently not doing enough with his phenomenal power to minimise or negate the various threats around the globe.
According to many analysts, it is neither fumbling nor incompetence on Mr Obama’s behalf which stays his hand, but ideology. At bottom, Mr Obama is purported to despise war and does everything he can to avoid it. There is a sense in his administration’s ideology that America should not be trying to direct the world by force or manipulation.
America is bound to attract some measure of criticism. When he spoke to the UN General Assembly about the Middle East in September 2013, Barack Obama observed wryly that America is “chastised for meddling in the region...at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems.”
The United States’ power burdens them with a unique level of responsibility to world safety, but it also offers the rest of the world an excuse not to right the wrongs it sees by themselves. Yet this is no way to operate a world-system of interdependency. Mr Obama is realising that a New New World Order might be required if the globe is to find its way forward in the dark.
Those who think this is a position of weakness claim the world is more dangerous precisely because Mr Obama has not authorised the use of force to nip developing conflicts in the bud. They say acting early ends aggression and acting fast will deter future threats.
Their claim that Mr Obama’s reticence saps American prestige and legitimacy is echoed by anti-American ideologies in China and Russia too. American commentators have also heavily criticised the Obama administration for its seeming inability to differentiate between a legitimate conflict requiring intervention, and a legitimate conflict requiring a more nuanced approach.
It seemed as if America had fallen into a trap that Charles de Gaulle, the French president, had pointed out 40 years earlier. The general told the American ambassador to Paris that all countries with overwhelming power mistakenly come to believe that force will solve everything.
Sometimes, no matter how much it might hurt the sensibilities of kind people, it is better to sit on one’s hands than to stir the pot when all the dynamics are not understood. Mr de Gaulle was worried America would exhaust itself by overcommitting. The old metaphor is apt: when you have the world’s best hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.
Few are happy about this, especially America’s senior officers. “It’s too easy to use force,” says United States Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It’s almost the first choice.” General Brent Scowcroft, national-security advisor to Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush, agrees. One reason why politicians have turned to the armed forces, he argues, is that war looks like a shortcut to success. Trying to change people’s minds and influence them in other ways is long and slow. “The fallacy is that often the use of force changes the circumstances of the question. By the time you have finished, the question is different and we frequently find ourselves in an unanticipated situation.”
We are now living in the long tail of the post-Cold War world. Many of the globe’s security issues are the direct result of the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union. As the US won, so did all of its proxies and allied regimes - some of them quite unpalatable. Others were inherited by the world from the defunct Soviet Union.
For decades, the US viewed geopolitical stability as more important than the promotion of democracy and freedom. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Afghan Islamists, Saudi Arabian sheiks, Israel, Egyptian junta leaders, Central American narco regimes - the list goes on. Each one was for some of its tenure backed by Washington troops and money.This was a realist calculation made to, again, break the back of the Soviet Union. And it was very effective.
The Soviet Union has fallen, and the world is a better place because of it. But the idea of how to deal with the consequences of that bitter struggle has not yet been fully thought out.
Nevertheless, Mr Obama realises the more America stirs the dynamics of various parts of the world, the more the various situations become unpredictable. Stepping in to kill a hundred terrorists here may seem like a short-term gain, but which people-group did that intervention benefit? Which nasty leader did US troops implicitly thrust into a position of power? Is the US now seen not as protecting peace and freedom but as propping up one sect of a religion which has been fighting another for centuries? In removing one militant group, did the US grease the path for a rival nation-state to leverage more control over the region?
In other words, does the pursuit of and unconditional support for democracy and freedom trump a more sober and nuanced view of the world? Mr Obama clearly believes that democracy is a good thing, but his foreign policy actions suggest he believes it doesn’t always have to arrive down the barrel of a tank.
His predecessor would have gone out of his way to support every democratic push around the world, even if it meant locking in US forces for extended campaigns, or removing stability. That was George W. Bush’s foreign policy in a nutshell.
Mr Obama looks at the Syrian civil war, the Ukraine stalemate, the Islamic terror blitzkrieg in Iraq, and the bubbling pools of ethnic conflict in Central Africa and chooses to do almost nothing. Aside from tasking special forces and intelligence officers, or funneling covert arms and training to particular groups, Mr Obama condemns from afar but does not decisively change the reality on the ground. His reasons are clear - and he has articulated them better than many of history’s best statesmen - but will his strategy of delaying intervention bolster US interests? Can it at least not detrimentally affect those interests?
In his speeches Mr Obama has made a stab at setting a new balance. He starts by affirming democracy, human rights and open markets, insisting that they are not Western exports but fundamental values. He goes on to accept that these ideas cannot be imposed by force, which means that America will sometimes be accused of hypocrisy for working with undemocratic governments.
But he also gives warning that some governments’ crimes are so egregious that other nations must act. If they fail, they will be undermining the very norms and institutions that they claim to cherish. This is the fine balance between intervention and isolation which Mr Obama is trying to strike in the new century.
Two of the world’s conflicts are worth analysing whether Mr Obama’s non-intervention policy is working. Part two asks: Is Mr Obama’s position on the Ukraine conflict detrimental, neutral or positive for US interests and world security?