Intervention’s limits

Over the decade since the invasion of Iraq, Republicans and Democrats alike have learned the hard way the limits of the US’s ability to effect change.

September 11, 2014 23:02
3 minute read.
President Obama

US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

President Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 in part based on his promise to pull out American soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous surveys have shown that keeping US troops out of Iraq and others places in the region remains popular among Americans.

In a speech given on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, in which he laid out his strategy for countering Islamic State, Obama remained faithful to his belief that US troops should not be on the ground.

“As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” Obama said, referring to a few hundred American servicemen dispatched to Iraq in June to provide intelligence, training and logistical support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

When he discussed the dangers to Americans that might result from a more aggressive offensive against Islamic State, Obama added, “But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

Instead, he proposed providing aid and air cover to populations in Syria and Iraqi opposed to Islamic State, while refraining from providing support to the Assad regime.

Many critics of Obama on the Right have accused him of showing weakness in his policies toward the region. They cite as proof his decision during his first term in office to pull out all American troops from Iraq and his push during his second term to hasten US departure from Afghanistan.

In an editorial titled “Dick Cheney is still right,” The Wall Street Journal blamed Syria’s deterioration into “a terrorist sanctuary from which the Islamic State has conquered a third of Iraq” on Obama’s “peace-through-withdrawal” strategy. The same went for the expansion of al-Qaida affiliates across the Middle East and Africa.

But is Obama’s foreign policy really to blame? The problems with Western intervention in Syria remain the same today as they did from the outset of the civil war. So-called moderate rebel groups remain divided and ineffective.

To succeed, air strikes need to be followed up by ground troops who can recapture and hold territory against Islamic State. The experience of the US’s invasion of Iraq has taught the world that foreign troops cannot be a surrogate for local forces.

That is not to say Obama has completely lived up to the “Don’t do stupid things” mantra that encapsulates White House thinking about foreign policy issues. He offered only muted support for the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, the first serious grassroots democratic uprising since the ayatollahs took over in 1979.

His demand that Israel impose a building freeze as a precondition for talks with the PLO at the end of 2009 served only to further harden an already intransigent Palestinian political leadership that seems incapable of taking responsibility for its own state-building. Backtracking on his redline regarding the Assad regime’s barbaric use of chemical weapons against rebels in Syria was both embarrassing and damaging to US deterrence.

Obama has made some stupid comments. In January, in an interview with The New Yorker, he compared Islamic State to a “jayvee” [junior varsity] team. Just last month during a discussion of his strategy to fight Islamic State he admitted, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet.”

But Republicans have little to offer as an alternative.

Suggestions for combating Islamic State, put forth by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, are almost identical to Obama’s strategy.

Like him, they suggest expanding US-led air attacks to Syria. And Americans view skeptically McCain’s claim that a large contingent of US troops should have remained in Iraq after 2011.

Over the decade since the invasion of Iraq, Republicans and Democrats alike have learned the hard way the limits of the US’s ability to effect change. Afghanistan and Libya offer additional examples of how difficult, if not impossible, regime change can be. In contrast, Egypt is proof that regime change is possible when the local population is actively involved in the shaping of its future.

Ultimately, Syrians, Iraqis and other peoples in the region will have to sort out their own problems and take responsibility for their own destinies. Obama speech on the 13th anniversary of 9/11 reflected this hard-learned fact.

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