Obama, the serial interventionist

Barack Obama has been more at ease waging wars than in waging peace. He has proved to be one of America’s most militarily assertive Presidents since World War II

September 30, 2014 12:56 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, who helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling its ruler Muammar Qadhafi, has started a new war in Syria and Iraq even as the U.S. remains embroiled in the Afghanistan war. Mr. Obama’s air war in Syria — his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and the one likely to consume his remaining term in office — raises troubling questions about its objectives and his own adherence to the rule of law.

While it has become imperative to contain the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist army that has imposed a despotic medieval order in the territories under its control, any fight against terrorism can be effectively waged only if it respects international law and reinforces global norms and does not become an instrument to pursue narrow, geopolitical interests.

Ever since America launched its “war on terror” in 2001 under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the scourge of international terrorism, ominously, has spread deeper and wider in the world. Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. Once stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt remains “ground zero” for the terrorist threat the world confronts.

War on U.S. terms

Mr. Obama was supposed to be fundamentally different than Mr. Bush — an expectation that led the Nobel committee to award him the Peace Prize soon after he assumed office. Yet, underscoring the disconnect between his words and actions, Mr. Obama has been more at ease waging wars — that too in breach of international law — than in waging peace. He has proved to be one of America’s most militarily assertive Presidents since World War II, with his readiness to use force driven by a penchant to act as judge and executioner.

Mr. Obama in Cairo in 2009 sought “a new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” However, his reliance on U.S. hard power has been underlined by his serial bombing campaigns in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. He also directed a threefold increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, sharply escalated drone attacks in Pakistan, and initiated “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism. And now comes the news that this warrior-in-chief, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most-sophisticated.

Core of a coalition

What stopped Mr. Obama from seeking United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate before initiating a war in Syria against IS militants? The answer is obvious: Mr. Obama wants to wage his open-ended war on U.S. terms, like his earlier interventions.

Five repressive Arab autocracies form the core of his “coalition of the willing” on Syria. Paradoxically, four of the five — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — plus the U.S., aided IS’s rise, either openly or inadvertently. This is a coalition of sinners now dressed as knights in shining armour.

Such has been the tepid international response to what the White House admits will be a multiyear military offensive in the Syria-Iraq belt that only five of the 22 Arab states (or, to put it differently, five of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) have joined the coalition. And even though the U.S. is striking a terrorist group, its urge to test new weapons has led to the debut in war of the problem-plagued F-22 stealth bomber.

Mr. Obama displayed his disdain for international law by addressing the U.N. after presenting his bombing blitzkrieg in Syria as a fait accompli. To rationalise the unleashing of force in Syria by bypassing the U.N., his administration has meretriciously claimed the defence of a third country, Iraq, as a legal ground. Such a precedent could allow the sovereignty of any nation to be violated.

In reality, this is just the latest U.S. action mocking international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC authority, Qadhafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) renditions of terror suspects, and the National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance programme. Yet, Mr. Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

Creating, fighting the problem

Indeed, he has not sought even U.S. congressional authorisation before embroiling his country in yet another war. To justify his serial interventions and interminable war making, Mr. Obama has continued to speciously cite the congressional authority Mr. Bush secured to specifically go after those that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But given that linking IS to the 9/11 attacks would stretch plausibility, especially since al-Qaeda has publicly disavowed IS, his administration started the Syria war by claiming an “imminent” threat to U.S. homeland security from a previously unknown “Al Qaeda affiliate,” Khorasan.

The unpalatable truth that Mr. Obama seeks to obscure is that the main IS force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded rebels who were reared to help overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Obama turned a blind eye as IS made significant advances from mid-2013 onward. IS militants ceased to be “good” terrorists undermining Mr. Assad’s rule and Iranian interests after they threatened U.S. interests and beheaded two American journalists.

If President Ronald Reagan accidentally fathered al-Qaeda, Mr. Obama is IS’s unintended godfather turned self-declared slayer-in-chief. Having earlier tasked the CIA with aiding Syrian rebels to help oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama has now tasked the agency to create a proxy ground force against IS in Syria by training and arming thousands of more insurgents.

It affects India

Training and arming non-state combatants flies in the face of international law. The directive also ignores the lessons from past covert interventions. “We had helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” Ms. Hillary Clinton candidly told Fox News as Secretary of State, saying “we had this brilliant idea we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of mujahideen and equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else to go after the Soviets inside Afghanistan.” Mr. Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces in Libya has badly backfired.

The U.S. indeed has also contributed to India’s terrorism problem. After all, large portions of the CIA’s multibillion-dollar military aid for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to trigger insurgencies in India’s Kashmir and Punjab. India — and Pakistan — have paid a heavy price for America’s continued cosy ties with the Pakistani military and its ISI spies. Yet, paradoxically, the U.S. has used counterterrorism as a key instrument to build a strategic partnership with India.

Mr. Obama pledged in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there for a virtually unlimited period. The resolution of the political crisis in Kabul opens the way for Afghanistan to sign the bilateral security agreement that Mr. Obama has sought as the legal basis to keep U.S. bases. A residual U.S. force, however, will be more vulnerable to Taliban attacks, thus strengthening Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the “Quetta Shura.”

As the longest war in its history in Afghanistan attests, the U.S. is better at starting wars than in ending them. What Mr. Obama has started as an offensive against IS is likely to evolve into something more geopolitical in nature, including to repair the damage to U.S. interests from America’s decade-long Iraq occupation, which made Iran the real winner.

More broadly, America’s long-standing alliance with the Gulf’s jihad -bankrolling Islamist monarchs does not augur well for its “war on terror,” which has spawned more militants than it has eliminated. With U.S. support, the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, have been able to ride out the Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the U.S. practice of propping up malleable Islamist rulers in the Middle East not just spurs strong anti-U.S. sentiment, but also fosters grassroots support for more independent and “authentically” Islamist forces.

A rolling, self-sustaining war targeting terrorist enemies that America’s own policies and interventions continue to spawn is not good news even for the U.S., whose military adventures since 2001 have cost $4.4 trillion, making its rich military contractors richer but destabilising security in several regions. At a time when America faces a pressing need for comprehensive domestic renewal to arrest the erosion in its relative global power, it can ill-afford self-debilitating wars. Unfortunately for it, one eternal warrior in the White House was succeeded by another serial interventionist.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.)

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