Barack Obama and the Will to Fight

by John Feffer

The Obama administration has admitted that it misjudged the extremists who set up the Islamic State in chunks of territory torn from Iraq and Syria. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, confessed that his analysts underestimated the “will to fight” of the jihadists. He also linked it to intelligence failures of the past, such as similar underestimations of the Vietnamese in the 1960s.

At the same time, critics have castigated the Obama administration for its apparent lack of a “will to fight.” According to this line of argument, the president should have armed the moderate Syrian rebels back when the civil war broke out in that country. He should have bombed the country when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents. He shouldn’t have withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq.

The Islamic State has shown a passionate devotion to struggle. The Obama administration has shown an equally passionate devotion to conflict avoidance. In making this stark contrast, U.S. hawks pay a backhand compliment to the Islamic State: at least they are fighting for what they fervently believe in.

This failure to fight in the Levant is part of a larger critique of Obama as an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism or the American economic system (no matter how many times Obama has in fact reaffirmed his faith in both). He wasn’t even born in this country, two out of five Americans still suspect, so how could he fully embrace America? And on war and peace issues, he has emerged as the ultimate betrayer of the national interest by giving ground to America’s enemies across the globe. He is a wimp, a traitor, the “coward-in-chief.”

There are two possible responses to this inaccurate picture. The first is to paint a picture of Obama as a president who judiciously uses military force. He has, for instance, been very clear about not sending ground troops into the fight against the Islamic State, even though the top brass believes that destroying IS—as opposed to simply degrading its capabilities—will eventually require “boots on the ground.” The president has also carefully assembled a coalition of international actors to provide multilateral cover in the latest escalation of the conflict in the region. Elsewhere in the world, the administration hasn’t intervened in Ukraine or gone head to head with China in the South China Sea. It has made strong statements, reassured allies, upped arms transfers, and even resorted to various covert strategies. But the president has generally avoided direct confrontation.

Combine this trajectory of restraint with the president’s statements on prioritizing diplomacy and you get the image that the administration would like to cultivate: the current government is committed to “smart power” as opposed to the blunt application of “dumb power” that previous presidents (i.e., George W. Bush) wielded. There is some truth to this picture.

But let’s consider the other alternative: President Obama is no less committed to military action than any of his predecessors. He might personally have a less gung-ho disposition than, say, George W. Bush. But Obama’s personality is only a small part of the equation. Despite the putative end of the Cold War, the United States has remained on a war footing. The national security apparatus is programmed for intervention. What we see now taking place in the skies above Syria and Iraq is not an exception to the Obama-as-pacifist rule. It is a summation of a particular evolution in U.S. militarism toward the asymmetrical warfare of dispensing death at a distance.

For those who doubt the “will to fight” in the White House today, a quick glance at a recent Congressional Research Service report—Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014—should dispel the misconception. Approximately 31 pages cover this 216-year history. The first 18 pages take the reader from the undeclared war between the United States and France in 1798 to the first deployments of the George W. Bush era. The next five pages list the military engagements of Bush’s two terms. Which leaves roughly eight pages for the as-yet-uncompleted Obama tenure.

By the end of Obama’s second term, he’ll likely be responsible for more than a quarter of all uses of the armed forces abroad in the history of the United States. It should be noted that this list also includes U.S. military participation in peacekeeping missions, earthquake relief, and the like. On the other hand, it doesn’t include the widespread use of air strikes and missile attacks, which have increasingly substituted for the deployment of U.S. armed forces.

In 2014 alone, the Obama administration sent an additional battalion to South Korea in January, several hundred U.S. personnel to pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda in March, several hundred advisors to Iraq in June to assess the threat of the Islamic State, another 130 “assessors” to Iraqi Kurdistan in August to deal with the Yazidi problem, and 600 soldiers also in August to Poland as “reassurance” in the wake of the civil war in Ukraine. The list doesn’t include the air strikes in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State and several other targets, recent drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, or the dispatch of 3,000 U.S. soldiers to Liberia to address the Ebola epidemic.

So, despite the rants of those hoping to goad the president into buying his very own piece of quagmire in the Middle East, the Obama administration has shown considerable “will to fight.” The problem with the current fight against the Islamic State is that, the adversary’s obvious barbarism notwithstanding, U.S. objectives are not entirely clear. Here are four concerns that should indeed undercut any thinking person’s “will to fight” in this particular situation:

The threat of terrorism – The Islamic State has decapitated its hostages, including American journalists, and routinely engages in atrocities against a wide variety of people. But it has no capability of launching any attacks on the United States. Indeed, the furthest it has gone has been to incite people within the countries arrayed against it to launch “lone wolf” attacks. To justify its latest strikes in Syria, the Obama administration held up “imminent” terrorist attacks devised by a shadowy organization called the Khorasan Group. But even these “imminent” attacks, in the wake of the Syria strikes, were downgraded to merely “aspirational.” It’s easier, of course, to justify a war if Americans feel directly threatened, as they did from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (though the former turned into a fight against the Taliban and the latter never materialized). IS will continue to make threats as long as they produce the result it wants: American soldiers to fight against on the battlefield and a “crusade” it can rail against to drum up more support.

The benefits for Assad – War is never an easy sell, but it’s particularly difficult if it’s against an enemy of your enemy. The Obama administration naturally has not emphasized the benefits that accrue to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad when U.S. air strikes degrade the capabilities of one of his leading opponents. But Syrian diplomats have not been shy to trumpet this self-serving interpretation.

The nature of the “moderate” Syrian forces – The air attacks against Syria are part of a larger policy that includes training Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. The program, which will cost $500 million, is slated to train 5,000 rebels in the first year. The trainees are naturally expected to fight against the Islamic State. But frankly their main objective has been to topple the Assad regime, and it’s not inconceivable that at some point they might team up with the extremists if that advances their prime directive.

It doesn’t help that the United States is wading into a situation where alliances and ideologies seem to change on a daily basis. Case in point: the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). It’s affiliated with al-Qaeda, but it also has fought alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA). When the United States listed the Nusra Front as a target of air strikes, many FSA fighters balked. “As long as al-Nusra, whose members are mostly Syrians, did not attack the Syrian people while fighting the regime, we are against targeting it,” explained an FSA leader on the northern front. It’s a war going on over there: “moderate” is a word that juts doesn’t make sense in an increasingly brutal environment.

The slippery slope of advisors – Although the president has drawn a red line on the issue of U.S. boots on the ground in this conflict, he has fudged the issue by sending over advisors to help with the targeting. He has also warned the U.S. public that this will not be a quick mission, like the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s useful to remember that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War also began with advisors—in 1950. At that time, we were helping the French in what would be a losing effort. Later, after the partition of the country in 1954, Washington tried to keep the South Vietnamese government afloat (sound familiar?). By 1963, 16,000 U.S. advisors were in country. So, considering the complexity of the war in Syria and Iraq, we might well see a similar “advisor phase” that grows and grows until, surprise: boots on the ground.

These four caveats make the application of “smart power” by the Obama administration look increasingly dumb. There were good reasons for the president to hesitate before intervening directly in the past. He was not Hamlet seized by an existential crisis. He understood the significant trade-offs and calculated that intervention was not worth it.

But that was before domestic political pressure combined with the demands of a national security state still geared to fight a long war on terror. Obama, in the end, indeed showed that he did not have the will to fight. He was willing to stand up against the Islamic State. But he didn’t have the courage to stand up against his more hawkish opponents in Congress and the media.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This article was first published by FPIF and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. I think Obama is one of the more thoughtful Presidents the US has had. He is not a shoot-from-the-hip type of President. I think, ultimately, he will be remembered as being mainly right and his opponents mainly wrong.

    The Vietnam analogy is interesting. The Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh, during the Second World War, wrote to US President Roosevelt, offering an alliance against the Japanese, in return for a free Vietnam, organised along similar line to the USA. Roosevelt never bothered to respond and this mistake was compounded by siding with – initially – the French imperialists, who were eventually let go after Dien Bien Phu, and then a rotten corrupt “South” Vietnam regime that was always on the losing side of any conflict. Incidentally, before the French returned to what they called French Indo-China, it was necessary to re-arm Japanese troops to maintain order prior to the arrival of French forces. You could not make it up, could you?

    The US is making a similar mistake in refusuing to deal with the Assad regime and by trying to establish it’s own preferred regime in direct contravention of Russian interests in the area. How crazy is that?

    Today, the US has more-or-less normal relations with Vietnam. It will end up having to create normal relations with the people and regime of Syria. Why not spend the $500 million on restoring relations with Assad and re-building Syria for the benefit of its people?

    Instead,”hawks” in the US and elsewhere seem determined to wreak even more destruction on Syrian and the Syrian people through ISIS, Al Nusra and the FSA. The Syrian people are sick and tired of the conflict, as are the people of Iraq. They want some normalcy in their lives.

    Instead of being Israel’s boot boy and arch achiever for the Yinon Plan, the US needs to wake up and start pursuing its own interests, mainly involving not intervening in the Middle East and primarily letting the locals sort out their own local problems.

  2. Interesting post. The last paragraph sums up fairly well, which is what the Bush/Cheney cabal wanted. Inserting their brand of thinking into all levels of the various departments that advise/make decisions, State especially. The fact that “O” has surrounded himself with Neocons as well as letting them make moves affecting the whole of the U.S. regardless of whether or not the population agrees or for the betterment of the country/image, also plays into what will be his legacy.

    John’s last paragraph is spot on, but IMHO. will not be a part that “O” will do for the good of the country, as he doesn’t seem to really care, but allows these events to occur from some area that to this day, remains a mystery, though speculation is all over the spectrum.

  3. Let’s be clear: the goal of this latest round of intervention is to topple Assad in Syria not fight ISIS. Saudi Arabia and Israel have been trying to do for a few years. The Saudis have poured millions into the hands of DC lobbyists, chief among them the Clintons.

    There are no “moderate” Syrian rebels. Just the other day a bunch of them ran of to join ISIS. If there are moderate rebel groups most likely they will be specializing in kidnapping and selling the hostages to ISIS for head chopping purposes.

  4. I do not want to sound alarmist but I believe that if matters stay as they are Syria could become the launch point for a Third World War.
    Turkey is just itching to enter Syrian territory with its own tanks and other weaponry, in order to start the process of re-building the glories of its former Ottoman Empire. In supporting and funding Syrian rebels, it plans to push them aside once Syria is taken and Assad toppled,
    But the Turks need to remember two things: they are members of NATO; and the principal supporter of Syria is Russia, led by Putin.
    Putin will not stand by if Assad is toppled and Syria is re-stitched back into the map of Turkey.
    If Putin authorises military action against Turkey to relieve Assad and Syria, this would involve Russian and allied forces advancing South through Azerbijan to attack Turkey on its narrow Eastern border, while simultaneously launching naval attacks across the Black Sea.
    Going back to the days of the Czars, the Russians have always harboured ambitions to control the Bosphorus Straits and the Marmara Sea.
    They might even drag in appeals to global orthodox christianity to support the re-taking of the former Constantinople as a religioius basis for their actions, thus putting their own kind of border right up against the underneath of Europe. Quite a coup for them!!
    Turkish provocation of their ally Syria could provide a pretext for Russia to attack a NATO ally.
    Russia took Crimea with virtually no opposition.
    Turkey is no longer a viable EU candidate.
    Who – today – would really be prepared to go out on a limb in defence of the Turks?

  5. If I have it right, a factor not mentioned often is that Turkey was essentially secular government, as is Lebanon, Egypt and Assad’s Syria, all of whom have internal and externally-influenced religious/fundamentalist sects and groups and armies, all trying in their way to gain and then keep power and then being vindictive, cruel, exclusionary and murderous to the non-aligned.
    Our campaigns and Crusades haven’t “solved” anything in the region, it seems, because of the cognitive dissonance relative to the area and the actors: Western democracies want Eastern monarchs, emirs, mullahs and strong-men leaders to give up their oower: likely? Methinks not.
    And as we decry ISIS’ horrors and beheadings, our wonderful [coughbullsh!tcough] Saudi allies just beheaded 15 men and 4 women: “witchcraft” was one of the mentioned crimes. Now, I remember reading about our own Salem witch trials in this country (by Christians) and The Inquisition in Catholic Europe centuries ago and the expulsion of Muslims from Spain –in 1492– by Their Most Catholics King Ferdinand and Queen Isisbella ….oops, ‘Freudian slip’ there…
    Point being, like it or not, that region will always be the way it is. Period. Non-Muslims will never be ‘accepted’ in most Muslim countries, especially those regimes more consrvative/religious. And don’t forget: the Turks are Muslims primarily, but they are NOT Arabs, don’t like ’em, and they sure don’t like Kurds (or Armenians), yet Kurds, Syrian Arabs, non-Arab Turks and a panoply of The Willing Fighting what will be, IMHO, just the most recent of what has been and will be a violent pest of a particular ilk whose existence and odious actions will spawn yet-another pest needing extermination by an ever-shifting alliance of gunshy and often duplicitous partner/allies.
    I am a Vietnam veteran (Tet1968 – 1969, Mekong Delta). I was also in the class 1year ahead of Bill Clinton at Georgetown; we were both in the Foreign Service School there, where we were both educated in the value of Diplomacy: History, Government, Money & Banking, languages and Geography were our courses. I am 100% positive thst such an education and outlook would’ve stood this country and the world if Dubya, Rummy and President Cheney had had similar exposure to the ability of moral suasion (salesmanship, psychology and acting abilities wouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive to a case at-hand) rather than their draft-avoiding flaccid fake ersatz faux mamachismo and subsequent chickenhawkery…easy to throw away hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers if you’ve never experienced it yourself and it happens far away.
    As inevitable as war seems, and hopefully only as a last resort,it is still disgusting, with ramifications far beyond the place and time of battle…my brother dies from Agent Orange 18 years after his return, and 41years after my own return from Green Hell, I now have the same Agent Orange lymphoma. (The V.A. has been great; the staff and care are wonderful and I’m still alive, 3 1/2 years later.)
    Remember the game of “Risk”?
    This is Risk, writ large.
    Reality. Really real. Awful, but true.
    For better or worse, this is REALPOLITIK.

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