Last Thursday, President Obama made headlines for two reasons. Firstly, he wore a khaki suit to a press conference. This is incredibly irrelevant, but the Internet still went insane.
It’s a stupid controversy not at all worth even 1/1000th the attention it’s received, but Pres Obama really did not look good in that suit. — Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) August 29, 2014
Secondly, he made an imprudent statement surrounding his administration's approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: "We don't have a strategy yet." It seems that the president was having quite an off-day in both his choice of wardrobe and words.
This will likely continue to haunt Obama, but it's important to understand that not having a strategy isn't the same thing as not assessing the situation and having the intention to act.
In essence, defeating ISIS is not a simple task, and no amount of brute force will solve such a complicated problem. It will take forethought, careful consideration and thoughtful coordination. It's better to admit that you are still thinking about the problem as opposed to jumping prematurely into a full blown war or ineffective bombing campaigns.
Of course, Obama's critics immediately took his statement out of context, and attempted to present it as a reflection of his approach to foreign affairs in general.
“We don’t have a strategy yet” -President Obama, 8/28/14. #ISIS is largest, richest terrorist group in history & 192,000 dead in #Syria — John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 28, 2014
Not having a strategy perfectly sums up the foreign policy approach of President Obama's entire presidency. — Michele Bachmann (@MicheleBachmann) August 28, 2014
It would be interesting to see how many of these same people might argue that President Bush had a coherent strategy for Iraq. Does "Mission Accomplished" ring any bells?
President Obama has been characteristically tentative about getting too involved in the Middle East since his first day in office. After all, his campaign was essentially ran on the promise that he would pull US troops out of Iraq and scale back American involvement in the surrounding region.
Yet, Americans have continued to view terrorism as the greatest threat to the country, despite the extremely low probability of dying in a terrorist attack. Accordingly, Obama has not been able to disengage from the Middle East completely.
It's very difficult to satisfy a fickle public when it doesn't want boots on the ground, but still wants the government to combat the ostensible threat of terrorism. Primarily, President Obama has accomplished this goal via his heavy reliance on the use of drones and drone strikes.
In fact, some might argue that Obama has been incredibly aggressive in his pursuit of terrorists. Are people so quick to forget that it was President Obama, and not Bush, who successfully found and killed Osama bin Laden?
In the case of ISIS, however, no amount of drones, airstrikes or special forces operations will solve the problem. Indeed, this is an incredibly messy situation involving multiple players.
Furthermore, it seems that far too many assume that the United States can simply waltz into any foreign crisis and use its military and economic means to save the day.
This is an incredibly narrow worldview, and one that has led the United States to some of its greatest failures. Hubris is terrible for foreign policy.
America needs to recall the mistakes of its past, like the 2003 Iraq War, in order to combat ISIS effectively. Rushing into military escalation without international and regional coordination would be extremely imprudent. To put this into context:
Obama on strategy: Look, guys, we need a plan before we can just rush in, so breathe. Putin on strategy: LEEEEEEEEROY JENKINS — Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) August 29, 2014
Obama: Any successful [Iraq] strategy needs strong regional partners — Julian E. Barnes (@julianbarnes) August 28, 2014
Yes, @BarackObama does have a Mideast strategy. He's a hawk on terrorism. A dove on everything else. http://t.co/evmbxm0nuV — Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) August 29, 2014
It would be interesting to see what Senator John McCain's "strategy" on Iraq would be. He has spent much of the summer essentially blaming the rise of ISIS on Obama's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq.
The hypocrisy of this is almost laughable, particularly when one views this tweet he wrote in 2010:
Last American combat troops leave Iraq. I think President George W. Bush deserves some credit for victory. — John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 19, 2010
Basically, McCain and others like him, are unwilling to acknowledge the fact that President Obama inherited two astronomically misguided and mismanaged wars from President Bush.
Moreover, they are also apparently unaware of the fact that the 2003 Iraq War, and the War in Terror in general, completely destabilized the region.
Ultimately, this created the power vacuum that allowed ISIS to grow and to flourish. Furthermore, much of the early funding that ISIS received came from US allies like Saudi Arabia, yet McCain has never acknowledged this. He has actually continued to praise the Saudis.
Simply put, in many ways the United States is responsible for this mess, so it has a duty to help clean it up. Yet, attempting to solve a problem the same way that it started is simply oxymoronic.
Placing US troops in Iraq, or in the Middle East generally, creates the illusion of stability while creating long-term problems. It fuels animosity towards the West and inspires extremism.
President Obama is certainly worthy of criticism for his foreign policy, but not for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. He is correct to approach this situation with caution. As Peter Beinart puts it for the Atlantic:
When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the war on terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States... By contrast, Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is more clearly defined... With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians. ... President Obama’s Mideast strategy is not grand... But it’s what the American people want and what their government knows how to do. And Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.
The most sound way to approach the fight against ISIS is through cooperating with other partners in the region. Moreover, the United States might even consider coordinating with states that it has historically shaky ties with, such as Iran.
ISIS is an enemy to both Iran and the United States. Hence, despite their differences, it is arguably in both of their interests to combine resources and fight together. After all, the two countries have coordinated on a technical level before.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. There are historic and practical reasons the United States may not and perhaps should not consider cooperating with Iran.
The Syrian civil war is incredibly convoluted and involves a number of players, both states and non-state actors. The rebellion is quite factionalized, leaving room for extremists, like ISIS.
At the same time, the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has support from Iran, Russia and China for example. To put it simply, ISIS is now the enemy of both the United States and its geopolitical competitors.
If the United States took out ISIS, it would actually be doing Assad's regime a tremendous favor. Accordingly, Assad's government has actually reached out and pledged its willingness to cooperate on this matter. The Obama administration, however, views this prospect as abhorrent. The Syrian regime is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
This is exactly why there is no clear strategy for approaching Syria and ISIS at present, because there are a multiplicity of factors to consider.
President Obama was elected because the American people wanted a leader with a more thoughtful and diplomatic approach to foreign policy. He has lived up to that promise, and those critical of him seem to forget that democracy is ultimately about the will of the people.
Moreover, despite struggling in terms of domestic approval ratings, a recent Gallup poll reveals that President Obama and other US leaders have the highest approval ratings across the globe.
President Bush, on the other hand, had consistently low global approval ratings. Accordingly, it seems that the world prefers diplomacy to warmongering.
Yes, ISIS needs to be destroyed, but the United States cannot do this alone. Any effort to eradicate ISIS must involve international cooperation, as this is a problem for the world.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 without international approval, and the results were disastrous. Thus, any strategy for approaching ISIS must be driven by an acknowledgement of America's recent mistakes in the region.
With that said, President Obama needs to come forth sooner rather than later with a coherent approach to this situation, or it will only continue to metastasize. It would be an understatement to say that his statements the other day were unsettling, but in the end, actions speak louder than words.
Photo Courtesy: VICE