White House

Reality killed Obama’s hope to end U.S. military entanglements

U.S. President Barack Obama, Sept. 5, 2014 (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)
U.S. President Barack Obama, Sept. 5, 2014 (AP Photo/Jon Super, File) AP

Unveiling a new defense policy in January 2012 that called for a leaner U.S. military, President Barack Obama assured the nation that more than a decade of foreign conflict that cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars was drawing to a close.

“The tide of war is receding,” Obama declared.

A little more than two and a half years later, Obama’s national security strategy to limit foreign entanglements and focus on fixing domestic ills _ an approach that mirrored the war-weary popular mood at the time _ appears overly optimistic and out of sync with the world’s harsh realities.

U.S. military intervention in Iraq is expanding into Syria, Russia is ignoring Obama’s demands to halt its armed incursion into Ukraine, and China’s military-backed challenges to disputed maritime territories are testing U.S. resolve to defend its Asian allies.

“Reality has intruded,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser. “The president’s assumptions about foreign policy are now seriously challenged by facts on the ground.”

As a result, despite successes like the killing of Osama bin Laden and other top terrorists and the neutralization of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Obama is likely to leave office in just over two years having failed in his goal of minimizing the U.S. role in crises overseas, especially those in the tumultuous post-Arab Spring Middle East.

“The world doesn’t bend to the will of a United States president,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who chaired the foreign affairs and intelligence committees in the House and now is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “If you look at all the problems . . . he’s not going to solve them and he’s going to hand them over in the best shape possible, I hope.”

On the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. forces have been back in Iraq for more than a month, staging more than 150 airstrikes, delivering humanitarian aid and advising Iraqi forces on reversing the stunning advances by the murderous Sunni Muslim extremists of the Islamic State, who are tearing the country apart in a tsunami of sectarian bloodletting. Obama is expected Wednesday to announce the deployment of another 475 American troops.

The administration, which oversaw the end of the U.S. military occupation in December 2011, is again deeply enmeshed in Iraq’s sectarian politics. Having engineered the resignation of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, whose divisive policies fueled the Islamic State’s rise, the administration is struggling to ensure that the government of his handpicked successor, Haidar al Abadi, wins the support of enough minority Sunnis to ignite a Sunni revolt against the extremists.

In line with his foreign policy approach, Obama sought for several years to limit U.S. involvement in Iraq. Instead, his administration used the Islamic State threat to press Maliki to reform. But Maliki’s refusal to cooperate and the collapse of his U.S.-trained military in the face of the Islamic State’s lightning charge this summer combined to short-circuit Obama’s policy.

To avert the total collapse of Iraq, Obama was compelled to authorize U.S. airstrikes, send in military advisers and ship arms to Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish militia. But with the Islamic State digging into about half of Iraq and threatening Baghdad, U.S. officials conceded that airstrikes alone wouldn’t end the danger, especially that posed by the return home of thousands of combat-hardened European and American fighters.

“We are facing the most serious collapse of authority and rise of extremism in the region in memory,” said Nasr. “The size of the problem has reached a level that you can no longer ignore it.”

In his speech to the nation Wednesday night, Obama announced that he will broaden U.S. military operations to anywhere the Islamic State is detected, including Syria, as part of a multi-year U.S.-led international effort that also will seek to curtail the group’s finances and recruits.

His about-face on intervention in Syria after more than three years of civil war has been helped by global revulsion over the Islamic State’s mass atrocities and the beheadings of two U.S. journalists, which turned a hefty majority of Americans in favor of attacking the group’s Syrian sanctuary.

Obama vowed not to put U.S. “boots on the ground.” But, in a moment of apparent candor Wednesday in Baghdad, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to put Americans on notice to just that possibility, saying that such deployments could happen if “obviously, something very dramatic changes.”

“That’s a loophole a mile wide,” said Hamilton.

Intervention in Syria is likely to go well beyond U.S. airstrikes.

Moderate rebel groups vetted by the CIA would be armed and advised by U.S. special forces and those of U.S. allies almost certainly based in Jordan and Turkey. And in order for them to hold the territory, their operations and U.S. air attacks would have to be coordinated in a way to prevent Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces from taking advantage of Islamic State losses. Obama explicitly rejected working with Assad against the Islamic State.

But it remains to be seen how aggressive his Syria policy will be. He said he would not “hesitate” to order airstrikes in Syria, but he provided no guidance on what might trigger such an order. His pledge to continue to seek a political solution to Syria’s civil war sounded little different from previous administration policy.

Moreover, Washington at some point almost certainly will have to wade back into the morass of trying to build a moderate political opposition to Assad. That would risk a backlash by Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia, endangering the international negotiations on curbing the Iranian nuclear program, Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative. Iran is also critical to the efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq.

Because of the reversals in Iraq, the president is under growing pressure to reconsider – or at least slow _ the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, due to be completed in December.

Taliban violence has been rising, and a political crisis ignited by presidential poll-rigging is raising fears of a return to the ethnic civil war that was stilled by the U.S.-led 2001 invasion.

Should U.S. mediation fail to resolve the political deadlock and a worse conflict erupt, the 13-year U.S. investment in lives and tens of billions of state-building dollars would go for naught. Al Qaida _ now competing with the Islamic State for leadership of the global jihadi movement _ could re-establish a sanctuary in which to plot new attacks against the United States and its allies.

Even if a catastrophe is averted, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan won’t end. The United States and its allies would still be on the hook for years for billions of dollars in aid to Kabul, and thousands of U.S. military trainers and counterterrorism forces would be deployed once a bilateral security assistance agreement is signed. The Taliban, meanwhile, remain entrenched in their sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan’s tribal area.

Elsewhere, the direct involvement of Russian troops on the side of the separatist rebellion in Ukraine is compelling Obama to recommit U.S. forces to the defense of Europe, especially the former Soviet bloc states that joined NATO.

And as Obama tries to refocus U.S. power toward the Pacific as part of his “Asia pivot,” China’s efforts to muscle away disputed territories from Japan and other U.S. allies is threatening to drag the United States into a confrontation with Asia’s superpower.

Many experts believe that Obama’s efforts to minimize U.S. intervention in overseas crises helped embolden Russia and China in their willingness to challenge the United States.

“The policy of retreat is not only untenable because of the politics on the ground, but the policy of retreat ultimately undermines itself,” said Nasr. “The reality is that retreat isn’t working. As we retreat, things are collapsing.”