President Barack Obama’s comments last week on how the United States intended to address the presence in Syria of the Islamic State provoked well-deserved incredulity. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said, pushing back against calls for robust American intervention in Syria.
While astounding, Obama’s comment was hardly surprising. His administration has been defined by its foreign policy negligence, so it’s hardly shocking to hear that it had failed to think through and prepare contingency plans for a problem that had been brewing for months, and that early on, it was clear, posed a threat to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East – a threat the Americans had acknowledged.
Bolstering the president’s bad choices have been America’s premier foreign policy commentators. Prominent among these is Fareed Zakaria, who hosts a CNN show and writes a weekly syndicated column. When Iraq led in Washington, Zakaria supported American intervention, saying of the Middle East, “The place is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.”
But under Obama, the mood in the United States has swung wildly the other way, toward isolationism. Zakaria has adapted. Rare are the dimensions of Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East that Zakaria has not defended. Far from stirring the pot for the good, American activism in Syria, he wrote after Obama decided to earmark $500 million to train and supply Syrian rebels, will “more likely to throw fuel onto a raging fire.”
Zakaria is hardly alone, but his voice has resonance in the White House, and he has lent intellectual weight to Obama’s calamitous foreign policy. Now the president himself is engaging in gymnastics, as he decides what to do after the beheading of a second American by the Islamic State.
In Estonia on Wednesday, Obama declared: “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”
Obama’s call to arms was welcome, because it is perhaps beginning to dawn on Americans that they don’t have the luxury of engaging in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. The president’s great shortcoming is that while he rejected the interventionism of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he formulated no strategy to ensure that the American absence would not create a destabilizing global vacuum.
In fact Obama did not formulate much of a foreign policy strategy at all. American officials privately described the president’s approach as “don’t do stupid shit.” That is, until it the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton derisively observed: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid [shit]’ is not an organizing principle.”
Obama will most definitely need an organizing principle to deal with the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, because hitting the group in Iraq and not doing so in Syria could make matters worse. If the Islamic State is able to flee into the safety of Syria from Iraq, it will spread elsewhere, destabilizing other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Jordan.
That is precisely why Obama has to approach the problem in a comprehensive way. As much as he would like to believe so, there are no shortcuts with the Islamic State. Though the United States has lost much credibility in the Middle East in the past six years, only Obama has the power to take the lead in coordinating a regional response to this transnational menace.
Witness what has happened in Iraq. In 2011, Obama was unable to conclude a status of forces agreement with Baghdad, allegedly because Iran blocked it. A contentious point was that Iraq refused to grant American military personnel immunity from prosecution. Yet when the Islamic State took over Mosul recently, the Iraqi government quickly approved an immunity arrangement, while Iran did nothing to prevent the deployment of American forces to counter the Islamic State.
In other words American power can impose new realities, even if that does not mean America should seek to do so anywhere and everywhere. However, given the void in the Middle East, the states of the region are willing to accept, or at least tolerate, a measure of American leadership, particularly in the face of apparently implacable threats, such as the Islamic State.
That is why the views of, let’s say, Jeffrey Sachs seem almost absurdly naïve. Sachs recently wrote: “It is time for the United States and other powers to let the Middle East govern itself in line with national sovereignty and the United Nations Charter.” Whatever regional states think of America, today not one is holding up the UN Charter to keep it away. The Middle East cannot govern itself and is incapable of devising a collective effort to defeat the Islamic State. It wants America to do more.
But will Obama listen? It remains unclear what his ultimately strategy is in Iraq, where American forces are already committed. So what of Syria? But this is one conflict the president cannot sweet talk his way out of. With two Americans already dead, the Islamic State poses a clear and present danger for the United States. Since national self-centeredness governs this administration’s behavior, these killings impose a convincing American military response, and less time-wasting.