Monday, 1 June 2015

The 'New World' That the Hawks Don't Understand

by Alex McKirgan

Barack Obama - criticised by the hawks
Last year, in a blog post titled 'What Obama Should Do About Ukraine', Sam Collings-Wells, describing Obama's foreign policy, stated "Obama's reputation on the international stage is in tatters. His bungling of almost every foreign policy during his tenure has shown him to be both weak and indecisive." This comment came in the wake of the decision by the US and other countries (including Britain) not to use military force in Syria and the imposition of what were seen as weak sanctions on Russia for Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

The only way that one could make that statement would be if one were to judge current foreign policy solely against the standards that prevailed from the Cold War until the end of the Iraq invasion. Those standards required America to project "strength" and military power around the world. There was hardly a conflict in the world that could not be solved (it seemed) by American boots on the ground. In every conflict the default reaction was to immediately declare the American position, with the threat of military action should local forces resist.

Before discussing the failures, I accept that there were a couple of campaigns which can be deemed successful: the first Iraq War, the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999 and the British action in Sierra Leone in 2000. However, these successes were not enough to justify continuation of this approach. If Obama's foreign policy is to be judged against this benchmark, then I can see how someone could describe his policy as weak and indecisive. For sure, he has taken a different route and for very good reasons.

George Bush Sr halts the attack on Iraq 
This description, however, misses the larger point. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were foreign policy disasters. We know now for sure that "nation building" does not work and - if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result - then to stick to the standard hawkish foreign policy playbook would not only be futile but a criminal waste of human and financial resources; and it would certainly not further US interests. The first Gulf War was deemed a success because it had clear and achievable goals (evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait), was carried out by a large coalition, had UN backing and was paid for by the local, affected countries. George HW Bush made the smart decision not to pursue the retreating Iraqi army into Iraq and resisted the temptation to overthrow Saddam. A subsequent, NATO-enforced no-fly zone kept the country largely under control.

After 9/11, the US used the Northern Alliance, backed by US Special Forces, to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and push al Qaeda into the mountains bordering Pakistan. Had the campaign stopped there, it could have been deemed a success, but, without much public discussion, the mission morphed into full-scale nation building. Now that NATO forces have withdrawn, it seems clear that there will have to be some kind of negotiated peace, including the Taliban. We could have done this fourteen years ago, saving thousands of lives.

George W Bush Jr - decisively wrong
As large areas of Iraq fall to ISIS, the hawks' only response is that the US should still have a residual presence on the ground. Really? Intervention did not work so what we need is more intervention? The decision to invade was a disaster. The decision to disband Iraq's army was a disaster (and guess where most ISIS fighters come from) and the country is rapidly becoming a failed state. Whatever lessons you take from this experience, it certainly doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of the conventional wisdom against which Sam judges Obama.

The traditional approach to foreign policy has many political advantages both at home and abroad - words like "strong", "decisive" and "powerful" get used, but, as George W Bush shows, this does not make it right.

So my main point is that the people who call Obama's foreign policy weak, indecisive and a failure miss two important points. Firstly, the kind of foreign policy to which the people who make this kind of criticism aspire, has been an abject failure, but secondly they fail to appreciate how much public opinion has changed. The experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have convinced most people in Western countries that hawkish foreign adventurism is self defeating. It does not make us safer and may make a bad situation worse. The main reason Syrian intervention was abandoned was because governments in both the UK and the US realised there was no legislative support for the policy. When Obama and Cameron pursue a different, less interventionist foreign policy, it is not because they are weak and indecisive. Rather than being a sign of weakness, this new approach is highly democratic and representative of public opinion. Hawks may hate this, but it is not a failure of leadership - it is democracy in action.

People in the West like to say that terrorists hate us "for our freedom" but virtually every comment from a terrorist or jihadist group is clear: it is not our freedom they hate - it is our proximity. It is because we flip flop from supporting local dictators to occupying their countries. Here is a novel idea: let's stop doing it. The Middle East is becoming an existential war between Sunnis and Shia. Let them sort it out. The problem of dealing with Russia in Eastern Europe is a diplomatic challenge for the EU - not a Cold War re-run.

The combined cost to the US taxpayer of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was $4.2 trillion and thousands of lives. If anything, those places are worse off than before the invasions. If Obama is trying a new policy, that is without doubt a good thing. George W Bush invaded the wrong country after 9/11 and said finding Osama Bin Laden was not important. During the first Presidential debate in 2008, Obama and his Republican opponent McCain were asked, "If you had reliable intelligence about the location of Bin Laden in Pakistan, would you go and get him?". McCain (the classic foreign policy hawk) said "no" and called Obama "naive" for saying yes. In office, Obama has ended two wars and authorised the killing of Bin Laden. There is no doubt which approach has been more effective.

If you want a traditional, neo-conservative foreign policy, then Obama is not your man. That traditional approach is not only a failure but has little or no support in Western countries. Obama has had the courage to pursue an effective policy of ending wars and hunting down known terrorists. There can certainly be a discussion about the effectiveness and supervision of the CIA drone policy, but the one thing you can't accuse Obama of being is weak and indecisive. It may feel good to have a US president preaching moral clarity and a willingness to project military power abroad, but it doesn't work and people have no appetite for it. Not because we are weak but because we have learned from our mistakes. If you don't like that, blame your fellow citizens - not Obama.

So, unless you are willing to strap on a rifle and write a cheque from your own account to pay for a futile mission, stop the hawkish posturing and thank President Obama for pursuing an effective strategy that reflects our foreign policy objectives. Anything else is a waste of lives and money - usually someone else's.

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