Obama’s foreign policy, how to rescue it

Obama’s foreign policy, how to rescue it

United States President Barack Obama was elected on a platform to end the Iraq War and to better pursue the so called war on terror and the subsidiary conflict in Afghanistan. And while he certainly ended the war in Iraq – and hopes to have all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016 – he is being criticized on foreign policy issues by most of the U.S.’s allies, as well as the American public.

So, what is going on here? President Obama is leading an ideological campaign to remove military action effectively from the American foreign policy toolkit. In almost a dozen situations, Obama has opted not to use any sort of military action or assistance – however limited and low cost. From “leading from behind” in Libya, to suggesting in June he would attack the advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) in Iraq, but only acted limitedly to protect Americans at risk in Arbil, and Yazidis facing genocide. He has not followed through on any of his commitments concerning Syria.

Obama has refrained from bombing in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government; he has refrained from arming moderate insurgents; and he also refused to provide weapons to the beleaguered Ukraine government.

In various speeches, including a major foreign policy speech at West Point, the President termed almost any military action a possible “slippery slope” heading towards another Iraq. In his West Point speech he stated that since World War II some of America’s biggest mistakes have involved military adventures without considering the consequences. He then compared the military to a hammer, explaining to his audience that “not every problem is a nail.”

There is nothing wrong per se with these statements, but in a complex world they are too simplistic. The U.S. has made serious military mistakes since 1945, from invading North Korea in 1950 to Vietnam, and then Iraq. But, as the president himself noted in a speech in September 2013, it is also true that for seven decades the U.S. has been the “anchor” of global stability, not only with words but actions. Finally, it is true that while not all problems are nails, some are.

We live in a world where international security has been maintained in good part by the U.S. This has been evidenced by military action in areas such as the Gulf, Korea, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Kuwait for decades. Removing that key element from the international equation obviously unleashes forces, as well as opportunities to profit from the ensuing violence, that are inimical to universal values, the U.N. Charter, and global peace.

The president, despite not following through on the Syrian chemical weapons “red line,” continues to cite the term in discussing the Iranian nuclear program, in regard to the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and with our NATO allies in reference to Russia. If Obama were to explain to the American people the logic for such red lines and underline his willingness to act when they are crossed, he could “reset” much of our security agenda. He would have to do so not only through statements but also by military deployments and diplomacy – including diplomacy with the Russians, Iranians, and Chinese – to resolve problems if possible and ensure that misunderstandings do not trigger confrontations.

The president authorized limited strikes to protect Yazidi Kurds besieged on Sinjar Mountain and to protect American personnel in Arbil, and after a new Iraqi prime minister was nominated, approved 100 more military advisors. But we have no assurance that he will commit sufficient air power and advisors to stop ISIL’s advance into Shiite, Kurdish, and Christian areas. Likewise, at West Point, the president promised $500 million for the Syrian resistance. If he “gave gas” to this initiative, it could produce results fairly quickly.

The above steps would strengthen our diplomacy and rebuild relations with Turkey, the Gulf States, Israel, and nervous Eastern European and East Asian states who have come to doubt the U.S.’s grit. Certainly, give priority to diplomacy, but let’s provide it with military options.

* James F. Jeffrey is a Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was also United States Ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010. This article is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s Summer 2014 issue. For more information, visit: www.turkishpolicy.com