Six weeks ago when President Barack Obama, no doubt after reading the latest opinion polls, decided to “do something” about the so-called “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), many welcomed it as good news. After all, if used effectively, the United States’ unique military capabilities could shorten a tragedy that has brought immense suffering to Iraq and Syria and threatens to spread to other parts of the Middle East.
Knowing Obama, however, some of us had doubts about the genuineness of his professed change of tack.
Over the past weeks, those doubts have been confirmed.
By now you might think that I am embarking on yet another round of Obama-bashing; that is not my intention. I was a critic of Obama when everyone praised him and now that almost everyone, including his two former defense secretaries and, sotto voce, even current members of his administration, are bashing him, I feel no need to join the chorus.
Obama’s behavior is consistent with his vision of the world and the place of the United States in it, a vision formed during his checkered youth and influenced by mentors who regarded America as a force for evil.
Obama has not always tried to hide his negative view of America’s role in history.
Even before he was elected, he charmed a crowd in Berlin by avoiding reference to the fact that, at least in part, Germans owed their democracy to US participation in destroying the Nazi regime.
Later, as president, Obama offered to apologize for the American occupation of Japan and the “humiliation” of its emperor.
Even where he might have claimed credit on behalf of the United States, for example in relations with Muslim nations, he has been in apologetic mode. He did not remember the role played by the US in putting an end to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Nor could he recall the fact that the fall of the Soviet empire, partly brought about thanks to US resolve in the Cold War, allowed the emergence of five new Muslim-majority nations with a total population of over 80 million.
Obama regarded the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as “ the wrong war in the wrong place,” and disengaged the US as fast as he could, breaking the moral bound created by the initial American intervention.
Even in Afghanistan, where he claimed there had been “a right war,” he was only anxious to keep up appearances pending a retreat.
Again and again, on Iraq and Afghanistan, he insisted that he was not looking for “victory,” mocking the very idea that anyone could win in any war.
The same vision enabled Obama to weasel his way out of boastful remarks he had made about “red lines” in Syria, in effect giving Bashar Al-Assad the green light to continue using chemical weapons.
Over the years, Obama has refused to describe America’s bitterest enemies, including hostage-takers and throat-cutters, in terms that he regards as unkind, terms such as “terrorist,” let alone “enemy of humanity.”
Instead, he uses terms such as “extremists,” “militants” or, under pressure from opinion polls, “violent extremists.”
Before all else, war is a medium of communication through which would-be adversaries make it clear what they want, how far they are ready to go to achieve it, and what means they intend to use.
According to classical textbooks on war, every belligerent must be able to formulate his ultimate goal in a single sentence. If he is not, he should try to avoid war.
In the case of the war against ISIS, Obama has carefully refrained from stating a clear objective. Sometimes he says the aim is to “reduce its space” or “push it back” or “degrade its capabilities.” He has shunned the term “war,” preferring words such as “action,” “efforts” or “campaign.”
In other words, since the US is not at war, there is no need to declare a clear objective.
Traditionally, the American war mantra is simple: Get in, kill the enemy, and get out!
Obama would have none of that.
His is a slow motion dance of shadows to be played out “over many years,” as Vice-President Joseph Biden has put it, which means long after Obama has retreated to write his memoirs.
The message to ISIS is: Don’t worry! American power will be used in homeopathic doses only!
In his speech at the United Nations’ General Assembly last month, Obama established an oblique moral equivalence between ISIS throat-cutters and a policeman who shot a black youth in a small town in Missouri.
The message was: It has been a hot summer, we have all had problems!
The self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would not be dumb enough to get the message. He has seen that in six weeks, Obama’s fantasy coalition has carried some 300 airstrikes against ISIS, compared to 3,000 on the first day of the war that toppled Saddam.
Obama is using America’s firepower with greater avarice than Harpagon, the miser in Moliere’s comedy, spent his gold coins.
Obama is not a credible war leader, if only because he does not believe in the justice of his cause.
To be sure, as the elected leader of his people he can and must pursue policies that he deems fit, regardless of what detractors such as my humble self might suggest. What concerns me is the danger that Obama might mislead America’s European and Middle Eastern allies by promoting a false sense of security. Worse still, allies might see through him and reciprocate his duplicity with shadow-boxing of their own in a coalition of bluffs and counter-bluffs.
And that would be bad news for the Middle East, Europe and America—indeed, for the whole world.