As the Obama administration contemplates enlarging the engagement with the Islamic State into Syria, it’s timely to consider the broader foreign policy of the United States. Contrasting the George W. Bush and Barack Obama doctrines offers a good case study.
In the second presidential debate of the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush said American troops should not be used for nation building. He elaborated “troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests.” The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center brought a quick change in by-then president Bush’s actions. Less than a month later, U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan seeking Osama bin Laden and defeat of al-Qaida. With some success, a fledgling democracy emerged.
The Bush policy thus became both regime change and nation building. If there were any doubt about that, it was put to rest by the attack on Iraq in March, 2003 with the avowed purpose of removing Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. The disastrous consequences of that action are still unfolding.
In an early and possibly premature recognition of Mr. Obama’s dovish oratory, he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he said: “First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence….” His record of carrying out that noble principle, however, is uneven.
Soon after becoming president, Mr. Obama rightfully made known his intention to end the United States’ engagement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Notwithstanding that decision, he authorized the troop surge in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the use of armed drones in several countries, even killing U. S. citizens accused of being al-Qaida terrorists, without any pretense of due process of law. He directed special operation forces to enter Pakistan, without permission, in the daring capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
The withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011 and the announced withdrawal of our combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war and to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons, and his perceived timidity in Libya and Ukraine have all led to charges of a failure of leadership and an increasingly isolationist foreign policy.
Mr. Obama’s risk-averse policy is perceived by many as weakness, especially abroad. His decision not to attack Syria over the chemical weapons issue, however, demonstrated strength, not the opposite. He seized a diplomatic opportunity that resulted in the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, without risking the unintended consequences of a missile attack. Likewise, his continuing negotiations with Iran to limit its nuclear capability to peaceful purposes may avoid much more serious risks of military action.
Without defending all of his actions or inactions, the measured foreign policy of Mr. Obama, including the use of force when necessary to protect the national interest, is more prudent and responsible than the aggressive policy of Mr. Bush.
Mr. Obama’s air attacks on the Islamic State forces in Iraq, and the probable expansion of that action into Syria, are a case in point. If the attacks prove to be precisely limited to the destruction of ISIS as a threat and not a broad engagement in the Syrian civil war, they will vindicate the caution and strength of Obama’s foreign policy.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.