Barack Obama is often accused by his critics of being a “ditherer” when it comes to foreign policy, but beneath the public weighing of his no-good options, there is a kind of stubborn, steadfast consistency to his decision making.
Take the unravelling of Iraq: if anyone was hoping that President Obama would throw up his hands and admit that it was a terrible mistake to allow jihadists to use Syria’s civil war as a launch pad for an unfettered Islamist state, they would have been sorely disappointed.
While old-school hawks have been demanding US air strikes to stem the advance of the black flags on Baghdad, Obama has remained his sanguine, professorial self.
To listen to him you would get no sense that, as the hawks contend, the Middle East is on the brink of a full-blown Sunni-Shia civil war, or that ISIS is about to partially realise its ambition for a mini petro-terror-state that will be a safe haven for terrorists.
In Obama’s telling, this is a “regional problem” that will, he admits, persist for years and then “eventually” threaten US national interests – the threshold Obama himself set for military intervention in his foreign policy speech last month.
If there are to be air strikes – and the emphasis is very much on the ‘if’ –Obama said last Thursday that they would be to target jihadis on behalf of all Iraqis, including Sunnis, tribesmen and Kurds, and not just to prop up Nouri al-Maliki’s failed government.
What disturbs the older parts of America’s foreign policy establishment, and not just the old neo-cons of the Bush era, is how narrowly Obama has defined the threat to US “national interest”.
A disruption in world oil supplies, Obama has admitted, is one such scenario, but he has made it clear that if other producers at home or in the Gulf can “pick up the slack” that would be just fine. The other is terrorism – “either the risk of blowback from returning foreign fighters, or a future 9/11-style spectacular”. But, while Obama concedes ISIS is a threat to “Iraq and its people”, he qualifies the risk it poses as “potentially” a danger to Europe and “ultimately” to the US.
Such limited definitions of American interests send shudders through the traditional foreign policy establishment that grew up during the Cold War and believes the country has a responsibility to defend the liberal world order that it built at great cost after the Second World War.
That maximalist position was espoused recently by Robert Kagan, the historian, in a 12,000-word essay entitled ‘Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire’, on why America’s willingness to intervene has underpinned the world as we have known it these last 50 years.
“One wonders whether Americans, including their representatives and their President, quite understand what is at stake,” wrote Kagan, whose piece rattled the White House and earned him a lunch with Obama to discuss their differences.
Kagan is clear: a rising China, a re-emergent Iran, a muscle-flexing Vladimir Putin, a belligerent North Korea are all watching a new US reluctance to enforce the rules of the road, and waiting to lift the lid on a Pandora’s Box of the kind of strife that caused two world wars.
The big unanswered question is whether anyone in today’s war-weary America, where belief in the power of intervention has been utterly sapped by the failure in Iraq, cares enough to demand a different course. America has lived disturbingly comfortably with the sectarian quagmire in Syria that Obama did nothing to prevent when he had the chance.
One senses, as ISIS reaches the natural limits of its advance, that Obama calculates that his nation could probably learn to live with similarly bloody dysfunction in Iraq too.
The Sunday Telegraph