US President Barack Obama speaks to reporters about ongoing military actions and humanitarian drops in northern Iraq on Aug. 9. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Iraq again has descended into sectarian violence and political chaos. An Islamic extremist group controls more land than al-Qaida ever has. Vladimir Putin appears poised to invade eastern Ukraine.
As those global hotspots — and others, like northern Africa — all moved closer in recent weeks toward melting down, even US President Barack Obama’s supporters wondered just what he was doing about each crisis. His detractors see a second-term foreign policy in shambles — and many question whether the president known for drone strikes and brash commando raids even has much of a national security philosophy anymore.
Obama administration officials have struggled during the president’s second term to describe the boss’ foreign policy vision, and how he views the use of US military force. But in recent weeks, a series of high-profile moves — along with a few quiet ones — have begun to link the puzzle pieces of what might be called Obama’s second-term foreign policy doctrine.
“If you closely read [Obama’s] recent West Point speech, there’s a very strong emphasis on empowering partners to take action ... so the United States doesn’t have to be directly involved,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.
“In that, you hear some echoes of the Nixon Doctrine,” the US policy of empowering security partners rather than directly fighting, said Fontaine, a foreign policy adviser to the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and a senior Senate Armed Services Committee aide. “I think these kinds of things that we’ve seen of late fit into that kind of an approach.”
At a series of congressional hearings this summer about a new $5 billion counterterrorism partnership program Obama has proposed, even hawkish lawmakers predisposed to approve it had myriad questions, and slammed administration officials for being unable to clearly describe the president’s vision for it.
As Ukraine simmered and Iraq boiled over, some questioned Obama’s approach.
“If you look around the world it’s not just the issue of people wanting to know where America is, but they’re also seeing our allies being less certain and more concerned about American leadership,” Rep. Mike Turner, a senior House Armed Services Committee member from Ohio, said last week.
“And therefore, even they are being more concerned and less likely to act,” Turner said. “If you look in Ukraine, the Middle East, Asia, throughout the world people are saying, where is the United States? Where is our policy and where’s our results?”
In With The New
But if one looks closely at the global chess board and Obama’s recent moves, his new approach is taking shape.
Out are the targeted armed drone strikes he launched in the hundreds during his first term to cripple al-Qaida’s core leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and take out top leaders of its splinter groups in Yemen and North Africa. Also out are the kinds of risky — but largely effective — special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
In are “limited” and “targeted” uses of American air power, like those Obama has green-lighted in northern Iraq to prevent the Islamic State from slaughtering minoritypopulations. US Central Command’s daily updates to journalists indicate American drones aren’t taking out Islamic State commanders, but hitting small vehicles by the ones and twos.
In are shipments of US-made weapons directly to indigenous forces to fight violent Islamic groups, such as Obama has sent to arm Iraq’s Kurdish militia.
Also in: Sending millions of dollars to American allies to fight al-Qaida splinter groups, work the US commander in chief is reluctant for his own troops to do. Obama on Aug. 11 approved $10 million in aid to Paris to assist 20,000 French troops in their counterterrorism operations in northern Africa.
Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to six secretaries of state, told Defense News he expects Obama will continue with what some have called a “small-ball” foreign policy approach.
“I would think so. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more to analyze here,” Miller said. “We’re looking at events that are playing themselves out, including what’s in the president’s head.
“I would be stunned, and I’ve watched him carefully for a while, if he went from zero to 60,” Miller said, referring to a scenario under which Obama sent large numbers of US ground forces to fight the Islamic State.
Will It Work?
Former officials and security experts acknowledge some global challenges leave Obama few options but to pick actions from a “small-ball” playbook. Still, they agree the approach of empowering allies like the Kurds and French while ordering only limited US military actions will have its limits.
“We’re seeing the limits of this kind of approach already in Iraq,” Fontaine said. “We can arm the Kurds and work with the government of Iraq to better arm their security forces, but at the end of the day it’s only the United States that can take the immediate and decisive action. There’s certainly some limitations.
“Can this [approach] work against [the Islamic State]? I don’t think so,” he added. “We should be arming the Kurds and trying to push forward a political solution, and improving Iraq’s forces. But in the short run, I don’t see a purely Iraqi solution to this.”
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who helped craft its counterinsurgency manual and commanded forces in Iraq, doubts that the emerging approach is a new “Obama Doctrine.”
“This is a reaction to a crisis he could not ignore. It’s not a comprehensive vision for the way ahead,” said Mansoor, a professor of military history at The Ohio State University. “That kind of strategy would require more resources from US and our allies, and more leadership from the president.
“I would like to see a grander doctrine or strategy than what the president is doing in the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “But I’m just not seeing it. We’re dealing with various groups and nations on a case-by-case basis without a unifying strategy.”
Miller said the emerging approach has to be viewed in the context of the post-9/11 American political experience.
“I see this whole frame of the president’s foreign policy … in terms of a dialectic,” Miller said. “George W. Bush was too risk ready. This administration responded with too much risk averseness.
“He has less than 1,000 days left in his presidency and is faced with an intractable set of open-ended problems, which don’t appear to have conventional political or military solutions,” Miller said. “I think he will continue to cobble together sets of instruments from more special operations forces on the ground to the airstrikes to militarizing our help to the Kurds to getting the Europeans and Arabs involved to creating a more credible Iraqi military.
“None of that will degrade [the Islamic State’s] capabilities. It will leave whole areas of Iraq beyond the capacity of any Iraqi military to control, and leave those areas in [the] hands of [a] highly trained terrorist group,” he said. “In my judgment, the president really has no set of tools to fix that. … [The Islamic State] may still be in Iraq when he leaves the presidency. … This fits into every other problem in the Middle East: We have to really understand that there are no solutions to these problems — there are outcomes.” ■