President Barack Obama has received much criticism, especially domestically, for his foreign policy, and it has to be said that much of that criticism is justified. However, his strategy in relation to the self-styled Islamic State is a good one, and has a far better chance of success than any proposed by his opponents. His articulation of his plan though has been poor, and as a result he doesn’t have the support in this undertaking that he deserves.
Politically he’s in an extremely difficult position. He has multiple competing factors to deal with, and publicly explaining his rationale to one group will alienate others that he needs to keep on side. Several of these groups understand privately the tightrope he’s walking, but will be forced to oppose him if he publicly offends the group they represent.
The Groups in Obama’s Balancing Act
1. His supporters on the far-left of the Democratic Party.
In 2008 then Senator Obama’s main point of difference between himself and Hillary Clinton was his record opposing the war in Iraq. Whatever he does in the current crisis, he has to at least maintain the illusion he hasn’t got America into another war in Iraq. Further, this group is vehemently anti-war, and it is unlikely they will listen to any justification for ground troops, so he needs to maintain the semantic divide between offensive personnel and defensive/advisory personnel.
2. The Hawks in the Republican Party.
Principally lead by Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, they’ve always advocated a much more interventionist policy. Now that President Obama is finally taking action, their calls have become even more strident. They want America to take control and dominate all activity in the region. This approach won’t work long-term, but it has many supporters so it is important Obama keeps their demands in mind. It also plays to the large section of the electorate that thinks America is the only country whose military is capable of doing the best job in any given situation. I don’t want to disillusion you guys, but there are situations where other countries can actually do a better job than America – they’re often equally well trained and equipped but aren’t saddled with the “great imperialist” label.
3. The Libertarians in the Republican Party.
Led by Senator Rand Paul, they insist that this is a local problem and the rest of the world shouldn’t be involved. It’s hard to know whether he really believes this, or is pandering to a war-weary public. Either way, there is a potential for this group to combine with the far-left to create a sizeable opposition.
4. The American general public.
The people of America don’t want to get into another war. At the same time, there’s also a general impression that Obama isn’t projecting the strength they feel an American president should. (A Pew Research Center survey in August 2014 showed 54% of Americans thought Obama wasn’t tough enough on foreign policy and national security.)
5. Coalition Partners in the Middle East.
President Obama has managed to get ten Arab Muslim countries into his coalition to defeat ISIL, which is remarkable. While not downplaying the threat of radical Islam, he has to be careful not to leave the people of these countries feeling like he is insulting Islam in general. To this end his speech on 10 September included the phrases, “ISIL is not Islamic,” and “no religion condones the killing of innocents”. Four days later Britain’s prime minister David Cameron’s supported Obama in his own speech with the assertion “Islam is a religion of peace”. (These phrases about religion, especially Islam, are simply not correct, but that’s a topic for another article.)
There is also criticism that Obama has been slow to act against ISIL in Syria. He was clearly waiting for the political climate in Iraq to improve, and this was entirely the correct strategy. The main reason for ISIL moving into Iraq from Syria was the sectarian leadership of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had, among other poor decisions, side-lined Sunni politicians and allowed Sunnis in general to be poorly treated. Until Sunnis have someone other than ISIL to turn to when they are marginalised, it doesn’t matter how effective the Obama’s coalition is in destroying ISIL, they will just be replaced by another group that will insist it is acting on behalf of oppressed Sunnis. Now that there is a new prime minister who appears to be heading a more inclusive government, Sunnis have a voice and are less likely to turn to groups like ISIL.
Obama’s reticence to be seen to take command in the fight against ISIL is another area in which he is being attacked. Again, this condemnation is misguided, and demonstrates the short-sightedness of his critics. Worse, these critics are playing into the hands of ISIL – something that Obama is managing to avoid. For a solution to the problem of ISIL to work, it has to be owned by the countries of the region. If the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand and the more than twenty other western members of Obama’s coalition against ISIL are seen to be imposing a solution on the region, that solution will soon come to be as well regarded as ISIL’s view of the Sykes-Picot Line. The emphasis has to be on the western countries of the coalition supporting the ten local countries of the coalition i.e. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There are, of course many barriers to these countries working together, and it is going to take a great deal of diplomatic skill to get them cooperating successfully.
ISIL knows this, which in my opinion is the reason it is provoking the United States and the United Kingdom in particular by beheading their citizens. They want those countries to commit ground forces against them as it will enable them to characterize themselves as holy warriors for Islam. This will also assist in attracting more fighters to their cause. If the western members of the coalition are seen more as supporting the Muslim countries, ISIL’s narrative becomes much more difficult.
President Obama needs to maintain the course he’s on, and continue his diplomatic efforts to get the Muslim countries of the region to work together for the shared goal of eliminating ISIL despite their sometimes significant enmity. They need to own the problem, because they are the only ones who can make a solution that lasts.