Friday, August 29, 2014

Obama's cautious pragmatism is the best approach for dealing with Syria and ISIS

By Michael J.W. Stickings

There's a lot of talk today, the Friday before a long weekend, about President Obama's remark that "we don't have a strategy yet" regarding ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria and Iraq. The remark has identified as a "gaffe" by the press, Republicans jumped all over it (because they'll do or say anything to score political points at the president's expense), and the White House has gone into damage-control mode (because of course).

Now, to be sure, it was an inartful way of explaining the situation. The president was clearly talking about what to do about ISIS, not broadly about the region, but that hardly came across clearly. But it makes sense not to know quite what to do at this point. It's easy to be an armchair militarist like John McCain or Bill Kristol, much harder to the one who has to make the tough decisions, decisions that will result in significant loss of life, particularly when there are no clear answers to a problem that in and of itself is difficult to understand. How far do you go in dealing militarily with ISIS? Do you put troops on the ground? Do you rely solely on airstrikes, or on airstrikes with support for allies on the ground? But, then, who are those allies? ISIS is at war with Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, but that regime is hardly an American ally. Does the U.S. really want to get into yet another protracted war in Iraq, one with no clear outcomes? And what would airstrikes against ISIS accomplish anyway, particularly without clear allies on the ground?

And so on, and so on.

At a time like this, as most times, caution is a virtue, and President Obama's cautiousness, which very much defines who he is and how he governs, stands in stark, pragmatic contrast to the "bomb bomb bomb" recklessness of Republicans. Besides, it's not like the president has been soft on America's enemies -- just consider the extra-judicial drone war that he has been waging against various threats throughout the Middle East. Indeed, as Peter Beinart writes at The Atlantic, and I think he's right on this, President Obama is both a hawk and a dove, or neither, or somewhere in between: 

So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don't directly threaten American lives. He's proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran's nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He's been reluctant to arm Syria's rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn't want to get sucked into that country's civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he's wound down America's ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

On the other hand, he's proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he's basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don't focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don't really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he's dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they're unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan's permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high. When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He's a fierce minimalist.

A minimalist. A cautious pragmatist, I'd say. And therein lies his strategy for dealing with the region, with ISIS, and with other such problems facing the United States, and indeed his strategy for dealing with pretty much everything. It's not good enough for Republicans, but, then, nothing he does is ever good enough for Republicans. And it's not really good enough for the media either, because it's not a clear, simplistic strategy, or, rather, not a clear, simplistic worldview. In contrast to the "bomb first, think later, if ever" approach preferred by McCain, Kristol, and their ilk, as well as to the "America as global hegemon" worldview espoused by Kristol and his neocon ilk and embraced by the likes of Dick Cheney, President Obama's approach is really the only approach that makes sense, and that could actually produce positive, lasting results, given the crazy state of the world today, given the challenges the country faces, given the complexities of the problems in places like Iraq and Syria.

No, you don't get that rush of bloodlust that comes with, and underpins, right-wing militarism, and you don't get that sense of purity that comes with pacifism and/or isolationism, nor the perceived, and self-deceiving, moral clarity that comes with any sort of absolutism, but what you do get is a chance of achieving some sort of success in a world where, given the choices available and outcomes likely, success is awfully hard to come by.

Maybe President Obama's "minimalism" won't work in this case, but it's far more preferable than the alternatives, because at least it recognizes that there are no easy solutions and that missteps could lead to catastrophe. As occasionally frustrating as his cautious pragmatism may be, he knows what he's doing, even when the words don't come out as artfully as desired.

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  • Good post.
    >>Does the U.S. really want to get
    >>into yet another protracted war
    >>in Iraq, one with no clear

    I may be wrong, but I suspect that Iraq was America's last big ground war. Not only was the war such a disaster that it soured most Americans on war in general, but it was also so costly that I really wonder how on earth the U.S. would be able to afford another multi-trillion-dollar war.
    Of course, one might say, "We'll just put it on the tab, like we did with the Iraq War."
    The only problem is, China (our nation's banker) might have a problem with that. The fact is, America isn't going to participate in any future big, costly ground wars without the crucial behind-the-scenes approval of China. And I suspect that China is fed up with funding America's wars.

    By Blogger Marc McDonald, at 2:11 AM  

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