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How America's Excessive Caution is Endangering the World

Updated on September 29, 2015

Many have scratched their heads trying to make sense of Obama’s foreign policy. There doesn't seem to be a single ideology or doctrine guiding his administration. Rather, policy is tailored to the specifics of each situation. Having campaigned on the promise of ending the War in Iraq and repairing America’s image following the recklessness of the Bush Administration, Obama has been reluctant to flex the US’s military muscle. His doctrine has even been called the “don’t do stupid s**t” foreign policy, a phrase used by Obama himself when describing his own decisions. The problem is, his administration eventually takes the very actions it has tried to avoid anyway, but only when it is too little too late. Such excessive cautiousness is partly to blame for the grave dangers that the world now faces.

Such perils are increasingly evident, for example, in Syria. Moderate Syrian rebels have long pleaded with the West for assistance. When such help finally arrived around mid 2013, it was too little too late. Large numbers of moderate rebels had defected and joined extremists groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, largely because they are better armed, better funded, and better fighters. The Western aid that moderates eventually did receive was insufficient and patchy, continuously being withheld by Congress. Consequently, these rebels never developed into effective combatants, and extremists that threaten the world grew ever stronger, bolstered by continuous defections from moderate groups. As disillusionment with the moderates grew, extremists continued to accrue more arms, fighters, territory, experience, resources, and funding. These radicals, now stronger than ever, are actively planning to attack the West. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria and Yemen are working together to develop bombs that look like ink cartridges to be brought on planes, prompting airlines to further increase security. The Khorasan Group, an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, has similar ambitions, and is now nearing the implementation phase of its attacks. ISIS, the deadliest extremist group fighting in Syria, was planning to attack subway systems in the US and Paris, according to the Iraqi government.

Do you think Obama has been too cautious in his foreign policy?

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Acts of terror committed by extremists, however, do not have to be the result of some intricate conspiracy sanctioned by the top ranks of radical organizations. Fighters have poured into Syria from all over the world, including thousands from Europe and around one hundred from the US, to join the extremists, including ISIS. There is much concern that these individuals, having been indoctrinated by extremist ideologies and trained on how to commit acts of terror, will return to their home countries and commit violent acts there. One such incident has already occurred, in which a former Syrian rebel with extremist links killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. These extremists pose a threat not just to the West, but to much of the world, including China, Russia, India, and most of the Middle East. These countries will have a more difficult time preventing acts of terror than wealthy Western nations.

Is Obama too cautious?

Much of these dangers could potentially have been avoided if the US had put forth a concerted effort early on in the war to strengthen the moderate Syrian rebels. If they had become effective fighters some time ago, the strength of extremists could have been put in check. Mass defections could have been avoided and moderates would have had an advantage in terms of recruitment. They would have been better able to capture territory and resources that are now under the control of extremists. They could potentially have even lead to the quicker demise of the Syrian regime. This would have been especially true if the West itself had attacked the regime of Assad, the Syrian dictator whom the rebels are trying to overthrow, but the Obama administration fell short on this matter as well. In September of 2013, the US had its warships positioned off Syria’s coast, ready to launch missiles at the regime’s military targets. But at the 11th hour, after days of dithering, the Obama administration reneged, opting instead to make a deal with Assad to have Syria’s chemical weapons turned over to the international community, which only further disillusioned the already disheartened moderates. Then again, even if the Obama administration had gone through with its plan, it is unclear how effective it actually would have been. The administration went out of its way to convince the public how “unbelievably small” the war would have been – a phrase used by Secretary of State John Kerry. It also did not help that the administration’s hesitance gave Assad ample time to re position his forces and weapons to avoid being hit by American missiles. A year later, Assad is still in power, the moderates are weak, and the extremists are as strong as ever.

Iraq on the brink of collapse

Now, as Syria’s chaos spills into Iraq, the dangers are greater than ever. And again in Iraq, just as in Syria, the Obama administration is doing too little too late. The genocidal extremists known as ISIS, or The Islamic State, have now captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and have declared an Islamic Caliphate. None of this would have been possible without its success in Syria. What is now ISIS, formerly Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, had been nearly eradicated when Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011. It was in Syria, however, that it gained much need revitalization. Largely unchecked by moderate rebels, and mostly left alone by Assad’s forces, its campaign in Syria allowed it to gain immense strength and territory, making its dream of an Islamic Caliphate a viable goal and giving it the ability to execute.

Now, only after ISIS has established brutal Islamic rule over large portions of Iraq and Syria, has the Obama administration began conducting airstrikes on its territory. And in this feat, too, it has acted too late. Before ISIL’s current campaign in Iraq even began, the Iraqi government had repeatedly requested US airstrikes on ISIL’s staging and training positions, but it was denied. The Obama administration reportedly conditioned such airstrikes on whether Iraq formed a more inclusive government. Of course, it ended up conducting airstrikes anyway before such a government was formed, but by then, the damage had been done. ISIS had already captured significant territory, amassed thousands of more recruits, captured Iraqi resources, looted US-made military equipment from Iraq’s army, and begun a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Now, even as the US extends its air campaign into Syria, it will likely be insufficient to fulfill Obama’s goal of ultimately destroying ISIS. Many observers, including several of America’s top generals, have noted that such a feat would probably require ground troops, something which would seem almost sacrilegious to a cautious administration which has time and time again gone out its way to ensure the American public that it would avoid doing precisely that. Obama has instead left the infantry work to Iraqi fighters and moderate Syrian rebels, to whom it plans to ramp up its support and training. These are the same Iraqi fighters that basically dropped their weapons and ran in the face of ISIS, despite having already received American weapons and training for years. If Iraqi forces cannot get the job done, one can only wonder what 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels who are already fighting Assad are supposed to do against tens of thousands of ISIL fighters, now the most powerful jihadist group the world has ever seen.

The U.S. now less safe than before 9/11 terrorist attacks?

The deadly effects of Obama’s reluctance extend beyond just the chaos in the Middle East. In fact, the most egregious example may just be in Africa, where the Ebola virus has already killed nearly 3,000 people, and has shown little sign of slowing down. The US has just announced plans to send hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and 3,000 soldiers to help contain the virus, in addition to more modest assistance already being provided. This aid will give much-needed relief to overwhelmed NGOs and African governments, which have been unable to contain the virus themselves. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is again acting too late. Relief organizations have for months been pleading with the US government for help, only to come up empty handed. Had the US provided sufficient help when it was first requested, the virus could have been easier to contain. Now the situation has spiraled out of control, and it is unclear how effective US aid will be. The current Ebola outbreak has become the worst in history by far. Some have predicted that the virus, currently estimated to have around a 70% fatality rate, could end up infecting millions, which would be a far deadlier situation than any current war in the Middle East.

To be fair, the Obama administration had very good reasons for its reluctance in most situations. It was hesitant to arm the Syrian rebels because it was afraid that those arms would end up in the hands of extremists. There was uncertainty as to who the moderates even were. The administration was particularly wary of giving rebels the weapon they needed the most – MANPADs (aka shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles) – which could be used to shoot down civilian aircraft. When his administration finally did decide to begin arming the rebels, its efforts were repeatedly delayed by congress, due to much the same concerns. As for the US attacking Assad itself, such an act had very little political support. Furthermore, by the time the US was actually on the verge of attack, the Islamic extremists were already very powerful, and weakening Assad could have made them even more dangerous. This could have also made it more likely that Assad’s chemicals weapons ended up in the hands of radicals. The US’s decision to instead make a deal to have the weapons turned over to the international community may have deflected a major risk in that regard. In Iraq, Obama delayed airstrikes partly because he feared this would only further provoke Iraqi Sunnis, who are deeply resentful of the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. Despite all the attention given to ISIS, it did not capture Iraqi territory on its own. Rather, it had help from various Sunni militias who feel oppressed by Iraq’s government. Targeting ISIL could have been seen as an attack on all Sunnis – a warning heeded even by General Petraeus, who commanded US troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama tried to condition US airstrikes on the formation of an Iraqi government that was more inclusive for Sunni Muslims. It is the perceived discrimination against Sunnis that is at the heart of the Iraqi conflict, and sustained peace would be unlikely until such issues are addressed. Regarding Obama’s reluctance to provide significant aid to contain Ebola, it is unclear as to the reasons. Perhaps his administration merely underestimated the threat. After all, there have been a dozen Ebola outbreaks since the mid 1970’s, all of which were contained before inflicting too much misery. All past outbreaks, however, occurred in more remote and sparsely populated regions of Central Africa. The current crisis is unfolding in West Africa, where it has been able to spread more easily.

The Ebola virus could devastate Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The worst may be yet to come

Despite the Obama administration’s legitimate concerns, everything it was afraid would happen ended up happening anyway, and everything that it was reluctant to do it ended up doing, only under much worse circumstances. It was afraid arms would end up in extremists’ hands. They ended up with a large arsenal of weapons anyway. Some of these were American made, having been looted from military stockpiles in Iraq, and captured from moderate rebels who were armed with American military equipment by both the US and Saudi Arabia. Extremists have also looted the Assad regime’s weapons stockpiles. The Middle East is awash with weapons, and it is not difficult for well-funded extremists like ISIS to get their hands on them. The US was most afraid of jihadists acquiring MANPADs, but these too ended up in extremists’ hands, despite the US’s refusal to provide them even to moderates. Ultimately, the US ended up arming moderate rebels anyway, but it was too little too late. What they had feared had already occurred without the US’s incidental contribution. In Iraq, Obama hesitated on providing air support, only to end up doing so anyway once the situation had reached crisis proportions. In Africa, too, the US has finally committed to providing a significant amount of aid, but it may no longer be enough to contain the catastrophe that the Ebola outbreak has become. It is not unthinkable that the next incidence of Obama’s excessive caution will manifest as yet another US ground war in Iraq, which again, may ultimately have to happen anyway if ISIS is to be defeated. Currently, Obama has expressed no interest in such an incursion, even though a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (conducted after this article was published) shows that a plurality of Americans (45%) support putting boots on the ground, while 72% expect it to happen anyway. If the crisis were to become even worse, and especially if ISIS or another extremist organization were to successfully execute an attack on US soil – which has become all the more likely now that jihadists in Syria have become so powerful – expect those numbers to grow. Another ground invasion in Iraq would be an embarrassment for the administration, given that it has repeatedly boasted about getting the US out of Iraq. Despite Obama’s understandable caution, the damage of his procrastination has been done, and the worst may be yet to come.

What do you think about Obama’s foreign policy? Please respectfully comment your opinion. Thank you for reading!!!

Here are a few sources:


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Uh, yeah... but didn't we invade and corntol Iraq when all the Christians had to flee? Remind me what problem we solved again? Replacing a bad guy with a worse system is not a solution. Good intentions are worth bullshit.

    • Luke Souders profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke Souders 

      3 years ago from Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan area

      Hey Bradmaster. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment your very long opinion. Heck, you might as well make a Hub out of it and make some ad revenue.

    • profile image

      bradmaster from orange county ca 

      4 years ago


      All that you say in this hub is probably true, but the problem is deeper than president Obama.

      The US has a history of taking defeat out of the jaws of victory.

      We are great at military victories, with the exception of Vietnam, but we are not winning the wars.

      First off, we haven't really had a war since WWII. The military actions that followed WWII were not official wars. Now our latest military actions are not even with other countries, it is with terrorist groups that have infested other countries.

      Let me explain, why we didn't win WWII. In the Pacific Theater we beat Japan. Japan had occupied China, but shortly after the end of the war, China became a communist country. So the Japanese were replaced by the communists.

      In the European Theater we beat Germany. Germany started the war by invading Europe, and they had control of Europe. At the end of the war, Eastern Europe which had been occupied by Germany, was now occupied by Russia.

      That could hardly be defined as victory.

      The problem is politics and a wimpy congress, and that is congress in general.

      At the end of WWII had we told Russia, Nyet to Eastern Europe there would not have been a cold war. Unfortunately, once the Russians stole the plans for the A bomb, they became the reason why we lost the Korean War and Vietnam to communism. Congress feared dealing with China and Russia. Even today these two countries block a lot of our military action with Iran, and North Korea.

      Had we taken on North Korea beyond the Yalu River during the Korean War they might have had a unified non communist Korea.

      The same is true of the war in Vietnam, again the real foe was China and Russia.

      See how the thread from what we didn't do at the end of WWII has affected the world, and our military actions.

      Of course no one wanted to continue WWII, but the result of not doing so continues even today.

      Desert Storm was won militarily, but it was another loss because we left Iraq, like WWI left Germany, ready to do it again.

      The wars or military actions in the Middle East are based on religion, extremists version of religion, but religion.

      Taking military action after 911 on Afghanistan and Iraq was done without a real plan. Nevertheless, when the country sends troops in harms way, they need to have a plan to win, both military and the objectives as well.

      Like Vietnam the people waffled, while the troops were dying, and getting maimed and injured. There was no United in the United States.

      The country in both Vietnam and after 911 became worse than the enemy faced by the troops.

      The common thread for all the failures in our "wars" is the partisan Congress, instead of being purple, it is vivid Red and vivid Blue. They have done this preservation of color since the end of WWII. This has become our biggest weakness and it offsets our military might.

      The terrorists know how weak this lack of unity is in this country, and they patiently wait to take advantage of it.

      911 was a failure of our military to have a plan that protected us from the threats of terrorists, and not countries. The military had ample evidence back to the Clinton presidency that there was a new game plan for war. Yet, they didn't change their military strategies, and especially the protection of our country.

      Not a single military defender was able to protect the threat by four hijacked US passenger planes. Washington DC was not protected by Andrews Air Force Base, and there were no other defenders. President Bush could have taken control of the situation by ending the deadlock between FAA control of the situation versus NORAD. But, he even didn't follow protocol to go to a safe place. He stayed at the school, but how did he know that he wasn't another target?

      We should have finished with Afghanistan before we went to Iraq. Winning the military action in Afghanistan was not winning the objective. And we had personal history to know that because of the Russians failure to hold Afghanistan.

      We didn't learn from the lesson that Afghanistan gave to the Russians, even though we were backing Afghanistan and Bin Laden. Then we go into Iraq and mess things up, as Saddam had the religious people under control. We train the troops in Iraq, but today that doesn't seem like it was a good plan.

      So, doing the same for Syrian rebels isn't working out either.

      My point is when we put troops in harm's way, we need to have a unified congress and country to win the action, both military, and the reason why we took action. Winning a military victory is the easy part, but winning the objective is difficult. We have won the objective.

      The diplomatic approach only works with countries.

      The Geneva convention rules don't apply to terrorists without countries.

      The countries in the world that are threats to the world and the US, need to be handled by the many nations of the free world, not just the US.

      A new strategy for protecting the US homeland needs to be developed that is current, and forward looking with the current global landscape. The cold war is over, but different wars are growing around the world.

      The enemies are foreign governments like Iran, and N Korea and they are backed by China and Russia.

      The other enemies are religious extremists that even kill each other, and they all don't like us. They are not easy to spot, and they are distributed around the world, and many of them are cloning the people in the country they occupy.

      Now, the problem that Obama has caused in my opinion is that he is causing the unity of the country to decline. This is a moral victory for our enemies to take advantage of in the quest to destroy us, and our way of life.

      Non US citizens are able to use our constitution against us.

      This is an internal threat to the US, versus the external threat of physical attacks.

      Remember, a person can die from an attack by microscopic creatures that grow unopposed in our bodies, as well as from a bullet or a bomb.

      It is time for Mommy to get off the phone, so the kids can be put back under control of the parents.

      Likewise, the same reasoning applies to all of this civil discord caused by President Obama, the congress, and the dissident people in the country.

      We need to be like the Musketeers.

      "All for One, and One for All"



    • Luke Souders profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke Souders 

      4 years ago from Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan area


      3. You said that the American people should first be convinced that the danger posed by ISIS is sufficient to warrant a ground invasion. Well, according to a poll that came out a couple days ago, a plurality (45%) of Americans now do support a ground invasion.

      4. I noticed that in your first comment, you say you were with Obama in not wanting to topple a "legitimate government" in Syria. Well, as Obama himself has said, the government is not AT ALL legitimate, as it has virtually no support outside of its ethnic group, which compose about 10-15% of the population, hence why his own people are trying to overthrow him.

    • Luke Souders profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke Souders 

      4 years ago from Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan area

      Creedence - Again, thanks for your response my friend. I will certainly check out your work when I have time. Maybe when can even argue some more. Lol.

      But I again have to refute some or your points.

      1. Yes, I do believe we should distribute the costs, but the costs ARE being distributed. The UK and France are helping with airstrikes. Saudi Arabia has offered to arm and train the Syrian rebels. Numerous countries have agreed to help arm Iraqi and Kurdish forces. I can't think of a major US-lead military operation in modern history were the costs WEREN'T distributed.

      2. I don't understand your point about losing credibility by going around and destabilizing governments. The only government we are talking about destabilizing here is that of the Islamic State. Rather, we will be destabilizing governments as a result of our INACTION if we DON'T take the necessary steps to defeat ISIS, and THAT would certainly cause us to lose credibility.

    • Credence2 profile image


      4 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      I hear you, Luke, Seriously though check out the Department of State, they appreciate political scientists, I took their exam over 20 years ago and did not pass because your knowledge and use of the English language has to be exceptional.

      As for your point of view, these kinds of upheavals are planet wide, what else is new? Coming from the Vietnam generation, I have realized that there is a limit to the use of conventional military power to deal with adversaries. If I recall, did we not work with allies to bring about the fall of Khadafi? We lose credibility if we give others the perception that we are going around destabilizing governments that are ideologically or geopolitically opposed to our points of view and objectives. I think that we make more enemies in the long run. As you say ISIS is the new Taliban and it may have to be neutralized at great cost. I just don't have the resources to pursue them exclusively. Let those that are affected in the region pony up resources to fight the terror and not hide politically and financially from taking responsibility for solving their own problems. I am among many that are not convinced that Iraq war was justified, I wanted the people and group responsible for 9/11, Afghanistan should have been our focus. Lets stay focused, there are tyrants all over, I can't get after all of them. Before the President does an about face on Iraq, the American people need to be convinced that the danger rises to such a level and we are not just rattling sabers. Yes, we have a large budget, but our presence is all over the world, in places I cannot pronounce. Is it possible to spread yourself too thin? As was seen in Vietnam, having the biggest bang does not insure our victory all the time. With our troubled economy the LBJ era of plentiful guns and butter are over. If it can't stop us it has got to slow us down. Your point of the cost needing to be distributed is the only way in this day and age, it succeeded in Desert storm back in 1991 and with dealing with the Balkans under Clinton during the mid 1990s. Look forward to checking out more of your point of view in the future, a truly great read. I am certain a not neo-conservative when it comes to foreign policy, I may have an article that touches upon foreign policy, check it out when you have time

    • Luke Souders profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke Souders 

      4 years ago from Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan area

      Thank you for your response, Credence2. I much appreciate the hypothetical job offer. I love how you used the word "posse." Lol.

      I would like to refute a couple of your points. First, your comparison of Syria to Libya and Egypt. The Egyptian government - although it's response to protesters was rather harsh - did not declare war on its own people and kill tens of thousands of civilians. At no point did war break out, and at no point was it inevitable that such a conflict would occur, and ultimately the dictator stepped down on his own. In Libya, the regime DID declare war on its own people and kill thousands of civilians, and we DID drop bombs on regime targets, which assisted in the overthrow of the government and spared the people of the devastation seen in Syria, while also sparing everyone else of the accompanying dangers.

      Second, you mention that we can't repeat the Iraq "debacle of 2003." But an Iraq mission now against ISIS would be under very different circumstances. It's interesting - people regard the Iraq war as a big mistake, and the Afghanistan war as a necessity. The Iraq war was about overthrowing a dictator to disarm him of nuclear weapons, and then reducing the sectarian violence that ensued. The objective of Afghanistan was to dismantle an extremist organization that threatens the United States and rid them of their safe haven. The new Iraq war would be much more similar to the "necessary" war in Afghanistan, in that the objectives are similar.

      I also don't quite buy your claim that we don't have the resources. Our defense budget is larger than most of the world's combined. Sure, we can't exactly afford it, but when has that ever stopped anybody? The safety of its citizens should always be America's number one concern. Regardless, we do currently have "posse" of nations who are aiding us so that the costs are distributed, but none are willing to commit troops.

    • Credence2 profile image


      4 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Well written, Luke, but it is known that hindsight is always 20/20. I was with Obama in being concerned about overtly toppling a legitimate government in Syria. This is a civil war and most of us are tired of getting involved in the region. We are not at war with Assad and the compromise and sanction approach as opposed to openly advocating and promoting an overthrow was sensible. Assad is no worse than other heads of state in the region. We let the people take care of affairs in Egypt and Libya, why should it be any different in Syria? Yes, I want caution, the debacle of 2003 with Iraq must not be repeated.

      Yes, ISIS is dangerous and will need to be dealt with through a posse of involved nations rather than by the US military, solely. We do not have the resources to chase after these people, we must take on a defensive posture in the face of what is going on now. There are plenty of nations in the region who want to see ISIS eliminated, lets work with them for an outcome acceptable to all. Mr. Obama is reluctant to reengage the American people in a conflict that was supposed to be coming to an end, 9/11 occurred over 13 years ago and we are still engaged in that part of the world in military adventures, imagine if WWII lasted as long?

      If I had a job for you, I would hire you. Have you tried getting on at the State Department?

    • handymanbill profile image


      4 years ago from western pennsylvania

      All your points are valid. Time will tell.


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