Not counting minor skirmishes such as Grenada and Panama, there have been six wars involving America in my lifetime — World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (Desert Storm), Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Afghanistan (Al Qaida). An equal number of such wars have arisen during the presidency of each political party. War is largely a non-partisan occurrence.
For 35 years following World War II, American Cold War security was principally directed to the deterrence of the threat posed by the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the USSR, America became the dominant military force in the world and it has maintained that status for over 20 years.
When Barack Obama sought election as president in 2008, a basic tenet of his campaign was for “change” and he was sharply critical of the wars initiated by his predecessor. Among his first articulations of his purpose as it applied to foreign affairs came in his Cairo speech in June 2009 in which he promised “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” His words, while elliptical, offered a potential for improved relations with the troubled Middle East.
Under our Federal Constitution, the President is empowered as to our nation’s security and its international relations. He establishes and alters our foreign policy. My dictionary defines “policy” as a plan designed to influence future decisions and actions.
The President’s Cairo speech may well have represented the apex of his policy making in regard to the Middle East. A succession of disruptive events has intervened — the removal of Mubarak in Egypt, his replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood and then the military takeover, the removal of Qaddafi in Libya, the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, the civil war in Syria, and most recently, the use of chemical gas by the Syrian government against the rebels.
The inadequately formulated administration policy gave America no clearly defined guidance and the absence of any reasoned supplemental policy making has left the administration without a coherent course.
The disarray was apparent in the tragic assault on the American embassy at Benghazi. The failure to make suitable protection available for the relatively isolated and endangered outpost, the mistaken identification of the rationale for the assault and the attackers, and the subsequent Nixonian coverup for the mistakes made are all troubling. As reprehensible as the lack of protection for the embassy was, the coverup is the most dismaying. Governments must learn that with truth comes forgiveness, but deception and stonewalling are insidious and remembered.
The most recent challenge for the Obama administration has been Syria. Syria is a perplexing situation. It is ruled by a brutal dictator, Bashar Assad, who is trying to suppress a rebellion of his people most prominently led by Al Qaida forces. Over 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives in this civil war and more than 1 million have fled the country.
In my view, Mr. Obama has made several missteps as to the Syrian position. Understandably, but without due regard for the consequences, he asserted a couple of years ago that Assad must go.
America is the preeminent military power on earth, but it should not endeavor to be the world’s policeman. When an intolerable state of affairs arises, any military action to correct it should best be undertaken by a coalition of international organizations or nations. Mr. Obama could not gain the support of the American people or Congress for any engagement in Syria and he failed to enlist the backing of any international body or other nations for such an undertaking.
It might be noted that Mr. Obama has roundly criticized his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the invasion of Iraq, but that move was supported by Congress and over 30 nations.
Last year, Mr. Obama unwisely stated that if the Syrian government used chemical or other weapons of mass destruction, there would be serious consequences.
When last month’s use of chemical weapons occurred with the death of over 1,000 Syrians, Mr. Obama faced a grave dilemma. After again failing to enlist any foreign support for any American use of force, the President threatened a limited missile strike under his claimed war powers authority. After domestic criticism, he then determined he would seek Congressional approval for any action.
Recognizing the probable unwillingness of Congress to authorize a warlike measure, Russia sensed a power vacuum and inserted a proposal to impound and destroy the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons.
It remains to be seen whether such a proposal will be implemented, but the whole scenario is a troublesome embarrassment to American credibility and prestige.
These missteps have tarnished our image and credibility. In consequence, uncertainties exist as to the Obama administration intentions.
The reorientation of American purpose and the restoration of its integrity are vital. The American people deserve clarifications as to the role the administration wishes America to have.
Walter Lewis, a Princeville resident, writes a regular column for The Garden Island.