Obama’s Middle East Choice: Time to Use America’s Power?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” noted former Secretary of State (and the possibly the Democrat’s 2016 presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton in a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Her description of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine may be less expansive than his recent speeches, but it is not far off the mark. During a tour of Asia earlier this year, Obama explained that his administration focuses on not rushing to judgement when presented with crises. Critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and its budget, he stated. “That may not always be sexy,” Obama said of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

And the Syrian Civil War — a more than three-year-long conflict — not only gave Clinton the opportunity to judge Obama’s effectiveness at guiding the United States through global crises, but it has also proven to be a test of what Hillary Clinton termed the organizing principle in the United States. Withholding judgement, in order to avoid making errors costly in American lives and treasury, is sound reasoning; and for the large share of Americans who judge the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been misguided, based in the Bush administration’s overzealousness to spread democracy or to ensure the safety of the Americans, that reasoning is welcomed. And that reasoning is not where his critics get their ammunition. Rather, the president has been faulted for using caution as a cover for indecision or an inability to make tough decisions on the international stage. That the threat ISIS has metastasized quickly, leaving the jihadist militant group Obama termed “junior varsity” terrorists in control of great swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, means the time to make an analysis is running out. The immediate task weighing on the Obama White House is whether to expand U.S. bombing raids on ISIS positions within Syria.

But as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday, “the President has not made any decisions at this point about any military operations in Syria.” And there are a whole host of considerations Obama must weigh before deciding whether or not to expand U.S. military operations in the Middle East as fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continue to seize territory. The group turned the attention of United States back to Iraq in June when its fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. After ISIS continued to take control of Iraqi territory, Obama announced earlier this month that U.S. troops would be conducting airstrikes to defend American citizens and members of the ethno-religious minority group known as the Yazidi, who were being indiscriminately attacked” by Islamic State terrorists. The beheading of American photojournalist James Foley by ISIS militants in Syria, an execution that was a response to U.S. airstrikes, has caused a number of lawmakers to worry that Obama’s approach to the Islamic State’s advancement in the Middle East has been too mild. Of course, Hillary Clinton already has said that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”