How America's Excessive Caution is Endangering the World
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?
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: