In Fight Against ISIL, Obama Finds Himself Facing Michael Corleone's Dilemma


If you think that American power and leadership is best demonstrated by our ability to blow things up, this probably wasn’t the speech for you. While President Barack Obama laid out a number of steps he would be taking to ramp up the effort against ISIL (the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or, as they now call themselves, the “Islamic State”), including, in addition to air strikes in Iraq, possibly striking the group inside Syria, the speech was much less than the full-throated call to war that his most hawkish critics wanted.

Coming in the wake of the heinous beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, clearly stung by criticism of his admission last week that “[w]e don’t have a strategy yet” for addressing ISIL’s presence in Syria, and pressured by relentless drumbeat to “do something”—which in Washington almost always translates to: “Make more war!” —the president obviously felt the need to explain that, yes, we are doing something, and here’s what it is, and we’re going to start doing a bit more of it. But let him be clear: “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

Importantly, Obama put the ISIL threat in its proper context: Currently, it’s primarily a regional one. “ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities,” he said. “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States.” While ISIL talks a big game against the U.S., “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” the president said. But, Obama explained, the problem has gotten serious enough that the U.S. has to escalate the military effort to prevent things from getting to that point.

In a speech that was understandably downbeat (to say that Barack Obama is not thrilled to announce, six years into his presidency, that the U.S. will be committing more blood and treasure to Iraq is to commit felony understatement) the president was most passionate when it came to explaining the various non-military ways that American power has been exercised recently:

Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America—our scientists, our doctors, our know-how—that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people—or the world—again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.

This has been a consistent theme of Obama’s foreign policy: American power is demonstrated not by acting impetuously and demanding that others fall in line, but by working to develop and strengthen international consensus on a range of issues, and then mobilizing that consensus behind cooperative action. He mentioned the moves against Russia as an example. He could have also mentioned multilateral cooperation to confront Iran’s nuclear program. (The absence of Iran from the speech was notable, probably explained by his not wanting to upset Iran’s rivals like Saudi Arabia, who look upon any warming of U.S.-Iran relations with deep suspicion, or have to deal with questions about how the U.S. and Iran are on the same side in Iraq right now, even while increasing support for those fighting Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.)

Obama stressed that the work of coalition-building is ongoing. “Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and supporting their efforts to promote unity, and in the coming days he will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight,” he said, “especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands.”

This is clearly not going to satisfy those in Washington who believe that American leadership is best shown through the application of ordnance and deploying of troops. “By [the] end of [the] speech, POTUS powerfully embraces cause of ‘freedom’ but commits only another 475 troops to the cause,” tweeted the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff. Well, the Bush administration embraced the cause of freedom, and committed over 100,000 troops to the cause. And one of the reasons Obama was up there speaking last night is because we’re still cleaning up the mess.

Speaking of Bush, I should mention that one thing that George W. Bush got right about the Middle East is that illegitimate, unaccountable, undemocratic regimes empower extremists. This analysis at the heart of his freedom agenda was, in my view, correct, even if the policies chosen to pursue it—the Iraq invasion chief among them—were disastrously counterproductive. Bush soon found himself turning back to those same regimes to help stem the tide of extremism unleashed by the Iraq war. It must be said that Obama’s claim that “[f]rom Europe to Asia —from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East—we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity” rings hollow as he prepares to assemble a coalition of those same undemocratic regimes like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to defeat ISIL.

There’s also the danger of playing right into ISIL’s hands. It’s worth remembering Osama bin Laden’s boast in his 2004 video, in which he described Al Qaeda’s strategy of luring America into economically unsustainable military commitments:

All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies… So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the issue of legal basis for this escalation. Obama has justified the new strategy on the basis of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), enacted in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Just last year, Obama proposed repealing the AUMF, yet now he offers it as legal justification for going after a group that did not exist when the AUMF was passed.

Taken together with the congressional leadership’s shrug, Obama has stripped the veneer off a contemporary fact of American national security: presidents make war on their own, and congresses acquiesce,” wrote the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman. (In addition to the constitutional issues here, Obama seems to have given his congressional critics a useful tool: They’re not asked to be on record supporting or opposing the escalation, so they can feel free to whack away at it whenever it suits them.)

Like Michael Corleone in his attempt to get out of the family business, Obama finds himself slowly pulled back into the Middle East, not only by the threats emerging there, but also by the continuing prevalence that hawkish views enjoy among the Washington intelligentsia. Proponents of global U.S. hegemony can hardly contain their delight over America getting its war on again, even as they predictably tee up arguments for how we need to get it on even more, and harder. Obama must know by now that there’s no level of military intervention he can announce that will not be criticized as insufficiently robust.

Speaking as a candidate in 2008 of his intention to withdraw from Iraq, Obama said, “I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” It was a statement that inspired a great many progressives, this one included. But every day of his presidency has shown how hard it is to change that mindset, and he continues to be battered and buffeted by it. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that, by constantly asserting vast executive authority for various anti-terrorism measures, from drone strikes to surveillance, Obama has also affirmed and strengthened that mindset. Like Corleone, he’s complicit in his own entrapment. And it’s something progressives will have to continue to struggle with long after his presidency ends.

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