When America acted as the world’s policeman it helped check the advances of corrupt regimes. But the cost of such an endeavor precludes policies that rest on good intentions alone. Such ideals must be defended with more than words.
By Stanley H. Hartt, July 20, 2016
Most observers who conclude that the tenure of Barack Obama in the White House will be treated by history as a failed Presidency place the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of the Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate. In a country where the division of authority between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government was expressly intended by the framers of the US Constitution in order to limit the risk of a restored autocracy to replace the one from which they had so recently been liberated, no initiative can ever get anywhere unless it has broad support, across party lines and among the electorate.
Dominated for much of Obama’s tenure by the opposition, the two chambers of the US Congress did indeed represent a formidable obstacle to what the young, idealistic, ideologically left-of-centre Chief Executive came to office to achieve. The rise of the Tea Party coupled with the demand in conservative ranks for uncompromising purity in all things undoubtedly set the Obama agenda and legacy up for failure (even while ensuring that the reputation of right-wing policies became scarred in the process). But despite the germ of truth available to lay blame for Obama’s botched promise on his opponents, it is sadly correct to insist that his most colossal blunders were self-inflicted.
Even without getting into domestic disasters such as Obama care, skyrocketing debt, legislative gridlock and questionable Executive Orders, one particular bungled file has led to continuing violent unrest and instability in the Middle East, world-wide out-of-control terrorism, mass migrations threatening the fabric of Western societies and the integrity of the European Union itself, including, arguably, the recent Brexit referendum result and its attendant economic uncertainty and volatility.
Did one man, because of noble intentions distorted by his naïve, almost romantic world view, cause all this? The plain, sad, realistic answer is “yes”.
During his 2008 primaries and election campaigns, the future President had appealed to the deep emotions felt by Americans frustrated and repulsed by the failure of US force to overcome insurgencies and terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Heroism by body bag induced not only a sense that these were wars that could not be won, but that the military premise of local resistance by amateur militias familiar with the terrain created contests of attrition that were humiliating to the might of the super power.
Obama’s vow to end the US military presence in both theatres of combat – virtually immediately in Iraq and eventually in Afghanistan – struck a chord and, as President-elect, he would have been entitled to conclude that his electorate had given him a clear and powerful mandate to withdraw from the commitments made by the Bush Administration.
That would have been serious enough, but, coupled with a view that it was the very offense taken in fundamentalist Muslim quarters to American “boots on the ground” that was generating the problem of continuous insurrection and instability in the region, he came to believe that withdrawal was more than a gesture in favour of the US anti-war mood but also represented, at very least, the beginnings of a solution to the perennial problem of peace in the Middle East.
This was clearly the thought-process that informed Obama’s fateful, and massively ill-advised, address at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. His talk was both an apologia for past US military intervention in the region and a call for Arab populations to infuse what he pre-supposed were the universal human yearnings for liberty and democracy into the governance of their various nation states, all of which presaged (some would say encouraged and induced) what has become known as the Arab Spring.
Those words clearly left the impression that, in his naiveté, the President believed that there was some parallel or similarity between the Minute Men and the Muslim Brotherhood, or between Paul Revere and Mohamed Morsi, and that the noble American struggle for independence could somehow be replicated in the vastly different culture and traditions of Islam.
The President began his review of the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States by stating: “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam … need not be in competition. Instead, they … share common principles … of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
“Islam is a part of America,” he continued. “And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations — to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity”.
As he reviewed the contribution of Islam in harbouring accumulated human knowledge during the Dark Ages in Mediaeval Europe, and the Muslim presence in the fabric of life in the United States, he built towards the core message of his speech: “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”
“That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Those words clearly left the impression that, in his naiveté, the President believed that there was some parallel or similarity between the Minute Men and the Muslim Brotherhood, or between Paul Revere and Mohamed Morsi, and that the noble American struggle for independence could somehow be replicated in the vastly different culture and traditions of Islam. At very least, the leader of the free world was telling his audience “Choose your own path to liberty and democracy. The United States will no longer project its military power in this region to tell you what to do”.
Just as US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, is reputed to have induced Saddam Hussein to believe that America would not intervene to prevent his takeover of Kuwait in 1990, a reasonable reader of the entirety of Obama’s solicitous attempt to resolve long-standing Middle East tensions with the weapon of goodwill could have concluded that the time was ripe for insurrection and insurgency.
But despite the germ of truth available to lay blame for Obama’s botched promise on his opponents, it is sadly correct to insist that his most colossal blunders were self-inflicted.
It should not be surprising, then, that some see a direct line between the President’s abandonment of the option of intervention and the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Beginning with the overthrow of the government of Tunisia, in December 2010, and rapidly spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria (with incidents falling short of successful coups in Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Mauritania, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia), the entire region was engulfed by competition amongst various factions to oust existing regimes. Some of the revolutionaries were not imbued with the honourable Jeffersonian principle, cited by Obama, that “the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
In a biblical series of “begats”, the Commander-in-Chief reaped what he sowed. The NATO bombing of Libya beginning in March, 2011 was led by Canadians, not Americans. Perhaps the most shameful exhibition of the super power’s new non-interventionist stance was the hesitation to send military aid to the US Consulate in Benghazi when it was attacked on September 11, 2012, and which resulted in the deaths of the Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
The precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, so much the symbol of the new policy of leading from behind, and the announced intention to do the same in Afghanistan, renewed the seething militant uprisings in those countries and breathed fresh life into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. One group allied to Al Qaeda morphed into what has become known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Daesh in its Arabic acronym) which proclaimed the creation of a worldwide caliphate.
Limiting the Western response to ISIS’ territorial ambitions to air strikes has proved grossly ineffective to stop the expansion of the rebels in Iraq and Syria, with enormous cost in terms of human suffering.
The weakness demonstrated by the President became more palpable as the months progressed. When the Syrian regime appeared poised to use poison gas on its own people, Obama draw a “red line”, without making clear exactly what he would do about it. In the event, the answer was nothing. He has continuously insisted on using the “ISIL” version of the terrorist organization’s name instead of “ISIS” as his way of avoiding involvement in Syria. Putin’s Russia quickly adopted Syria as a client state and tweaked America’s nose, as it had previously done in the power vacuum created by American absence in Crimea and Ukraine.
Limiting the Western response to ISIS’ territorial ambitions to air strikes has proved grossly ineffective to stop the expansion of the rebels in Iraq and Syria, with enormous cost in terms of human suffering. In Syria, with virtually the entire country reduced to rubble, the do-gooders have turned their attention to the mammoth task of assisting refugees. By the hundreds of thousands they have poured over the borders into Europe, thousands drowning by fleeing in unsuitable craft across open waters and capsizing when wind and waves battered their fragile vessels. Various European countries improvised tactics to contain the mass migration for which they were totally unprepared in terms of basic services, but which they felt obliged to facilitate under the EU’s Schengen Agreement.
Even wealthy Germany eventually capitulated to reality and agreed that quotas needed to be placed on the number of refugees swelling its population centres at the rate of more than 10,000 a day.
Then the refugees began to reach the United Kingdom. Pitched battles occurred at the Eurotunnel as migrants sought to force their way into Britain. The pressure to accommodate them, together with large numbers of other foreigners legally (in accordance with European freedom-of-movement rules) living and working in England, created a backlash among working class Britons in an economic atmosphere of stagnation, provoking fears of unsustainable labour market conditions.
Of course, fear of competition for jobs, and the costs of looking after the homeless and displaced of the Middle East, were not the only things voters in the UK had in mind when they voted to leave the European Union in the recent referendum. They certainly resented the arrogance of the unelected Commissioners, the sovereignty ceded to the bureaucrats in Brussels, the vulnerability that integration brings as the price of opportunity, in addition to other fears, grievances and misgivings. But if the Syrian refugee crisis had even a small part to play in the decision of June 23, and the uncertainty brought about by institutional discontinuity, then President Obama must accept his share of the blame.
All in all, it is clear that a super power that does not use its power loses its power. America has paid a great price in its role as the world’s policeman. Since the end of the First World War, it has been a force for good in a world replete with evil. Other powers have arisen to challenge the pre-eminence of the United States in world affairs and have, thankfully, been overcome in their ambitions. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union come to mind. But fatigue about foreign involvements, however justifiable, must not lead to an abandonment of the very principles Obama went to Cairo to extol. And those values unfortunately are not, as yet, universal, and must be defended with more than words.