From the Bowe Bergdahl controversy to handling of the current crises in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration's foreign policy has drawn a steady barrage of criticism from friend and foe alike. But the truth is that Obama's recent reluctance to use military force makes good sense in a complex world in which the United States can't control all events or put out every fire. He should stick to that approach in dealing with the current crisis in Iraq.
The most hopeful aspect of President Obama's foreign policy approach has been his instinct to rebalance U.S. foreign policy after what he has described as "a long season of war." His administration has made progress in that direction by getting out of Iraq and substantially reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While doing so, he has resisted calls for military intervention in Syria or saber rattling over Russia's actions in Ukraine. And rather than giving in to those who were pressing for military action in Iran, he has engaged in negotiations that may end up curbing Tehran's nuclear program without a shot being fired.
President Obama now faces tough choices over how to respond to the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, but it is worth remembering that it is not a problem of his making. A major part of the problem is the sectarian regime in Baghdad that the United States helped install after the Bush administration and its supporters in Congress decided to launch a costly war in Iraq.
Contrary to the calls from Sen. John McCain and others to use military force in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that sending arms or dropping bombs can extricate Iraq from a crisis that has been sparked by the repressive actions of the al-Maliki government. In fact, if U.S. bombing were to result in civilian casualties or the deaths of allied forces, it could make matters worse by handing a propaganda victory to ISIS while adding to the needless killing already under way in Iraq. The Obama administration is in the midst of deciding whether to engage in drone strikes or other military action in support of the al-Maliki regime. President Obama should resist the pressure to do so.
A reluctance to use military methods -- from sending troops, to dropping bombs, to providing weapons -- is a strength, not a weakness. The history of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy demonstrates that even seemingly low-risk propositions like arming the rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan can end up threatening long-term U.S. security. Many of the fighters that received U.S. weapons and training in the Afghan war against Soviet aggression went on to join Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations that have killed U.S. citizens and attacked U.S. allies -- a classic case of "blowback."
It is also important to remember that military force is irrelevant to many of the most urgent threats we face. Actions like President Obama's recent decision to curb emissions from coal plants can have important foreign policy implications, strengthening the United States' hand in persuading other countries to reduce their own carbon footprints. Climate change is a perfect example of the kind of pervasive threat to our lives and livelihoods that must be dealt with cooperatively, and that has no military solution. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has decided to do something about it, even in the face of strong Congressional resistance and a significant undercurrent of climate denial in the body politic.
If there is a weak point in Obama's foreign policy vision, it is that although he is less likely to use force than his predecessor was, he still sees virtually every global problem as requiring some level of U.S. involvement. And he is still too attached to drone strikes and the use of Special Forces, tools that run the risk of embroiling the U.S. in a series of "small" wars and undermining our standing in the international community.
If we are to solve our myriad domestic problems and revitalize our economy we need to be more selective about our involvement in foreign crises large and small. The president should embrace that truth in his remaining years in office. For starters, that means staying out of Iraq.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
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