The epigram often connected to Barack Obama’s foreign policy is “don’t do stupid [stuff].” That’s inaccurate. The real mantra of this administration, enunciated over and over by the president and his top aides since he took office in 2009, is “there is no military solution.”
In the past four months alone, the president has said “there is no military solution” to justify his policy in three places where wars are underway: Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. Because there is no military solution in Iraq, the president has rejected his military commanders’ proposals to deploy U.S. Special Operations forces against the Islamic State. Because there is no military solution in Syria, he has refused to sanction strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And because there is no military solution in Ukraine, he has turned aside the desperate pleas of its new president for supplies of U.S. weapons.
“I was elected to end wars, not to start them,” Obama said in an August 2013 news conference. “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people.” That was immediately before he retreated from his plan to carry out punitive airstrikes in Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “We’re not going to get a long-term military solution for that country,” he said.
In a speech at West Point in May, Obama tried to elevate his slogan to a doctrine. “To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution,” he declared. “When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us — then the threshold for military action must be higher.”
In such circumstances, the president said, the United States should forgo force for “tools” such “diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation” and “appeals to international law.” Any U.S. military action, he said, must be as part of a “collective.”
Americans weary of half a century of global policing can cheer this deliberate curbing of U.S. power. The problem is that, as a nostrum, “no military solution” has proved harmful. In fact, it’s done much to produce the multiple foreign crises that the White House now says have no military solution.
The thinking behind the slogan is sloppy. It’s true of most modern wars that there’s no military solution, in the sense that they usually end with political settlements. But political and military solutions are not mutually exclusive but intertwined; political solutions are often dictated by military conditions. Obama typically employs the judgement that no military solution is possible as a way to rule out even limited, tactical or indirect action — preordaining either a bad political solution or none at all.
That repeatedly has been the case in Syria. First, Obama’s refusal to supply weapons or other military support to the moderate secular rebels fighting Assad in 2011-2012 opened the way to the creation of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Then, his decision to retreat from enforcing his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons caused countries around the world to change their calculations about U.S. resolve. Eastern European officials are convinced that it helped to produce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japanese diplomats say it contributed to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
At the moment, Obama’s failure to sanction even indirect military action against the Assad regime, such as the creation of a protected zone for rebels in Syria, is undermining the fight against the Islamic State. It is weakening rebel forces, alienating allies such as Turkey and emboldening Assad to step up his own military campaigns rather than accept a political settlement. Obama’s rejection of the use of U.S. troops even as target spotters in Iraq means that major cities held by the Islamic State can’t be recaptured. His denial of defensive weapons to Ukraine could encourage Russia, which recently sent fresh troops and armaments across the border, to launch another offensive.
In each of these cases, Obama has been relatively isolated, even inside his own administration. In Syria, he has overruled two secretaries of state, two secretaries of defense and a CIA director. In recently dismissing Obama’s constraints on action in Iraq, former secretary of defense Robert Gates appeared to be speaking for senior military commanders. The refusal to provide arms to Ukraine is opposed by a bipartisan majority in Congress.
One way to view that is as proof that Obama’s stance on military force is truly groundbreaking. Another conclusion, more supported by the record, is that it is profoundly misguided.
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