Politics

US fails to lead while "leading from behind"

Barack Obama's strategy of "leading from behind" in foreign conflicts is constrained as the fault lines deepen in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, critics charge.

04.09.2014
US fails to lead while "leading from behind"

By Kasim Ileri

WASHINGTON

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama promised the American people that he would pull American forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and that the U.S. would not take the leading role in any military operation under his leadership. 

And since occupying the White House, Obama, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, has shown a reluctance to engage in military actions, particularly boots on the ground undertakings. This strategy resonated early on with a war-weary American public but as crises abroad deepen and intensify – especially in the Middle East and Eastern Europe – a chorus of loud voices are calling on the president to engage American military resources in solving some of these problems.

Obama's passiveness in addressing the crises in the Middle East and East Europe has "terribly damaged both U.S. and its allies," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Donnelly told the Anadolu Agency (AA) that the administration's strategy of "leading from behind" is constrained as the fault lines in the Middle East and Eastern Europe deepens.

When compared to his predecessors, Donnelly said that Obama's time in office has been "the most disastrous period" since World War II, in terms of American foreign policy.

Obama’s approach to foreign conflicts were formed by the strong overseas intervention policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, according to Harith Alqarawee, a fellow at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.

Eight years of the Bush presidency damaged the U.S’ credibility with friend and foe alike but it also created "a messy foreign policy that harmed the U.S. financially and politically," he said. 

- Obama's policy of "leading from behind" 

In his second term, crises in the Middle East, West Africa and Eastern Europe helped to intensify criticism against Obama for remaining passive and his sometimes slow response to the conflicts as the leader of the free world. 

When coalition forces intervened in 2012 to overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the U.S. took a step back and allowed France to lead the operation.

An official with the Obama administration referred to this strategy as "leading from behind," implying that although the U.S. was the mastermind, it created coalitions and allowed other powers to help shoulder the political, military and financial costs. 

The "leading from behind," strategy however, has failed not only in Libya but also in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine as all have been left in turmoil and have been characterized as failed states.

A failure to produce the desired results in these operations have produced no shortage of criticism from Republicans, who call the president’s strategy a "policy of no policy" claiming that Obama actually doesn't have a policy for the U.S. to lead the world. 

"This is an administration, which the kindest word I can use is 'feckless,' where they have not outlined a roles (sic) that the United States has to play. And that is a leadership role," said Republican Sen. John McCain during a TV interview.

 - “Red line” crossed in Syria 

In the ongoing civil war in Syria that began in 2011, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was found to have used chemical weapons attack against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus last year that killed more than 1,000 people.

Despite a growing demand of voices at home and abroad calling for intervention, the American president failed to launch an offensive against Assad, even after his own "red line" comment, in which he implied that he employ military action against Syria if chemical weapons were used.

While seemingly on the verge of striking Assad targets, Obama decided to consult with Congress but the legislative branch ultimately rejected the military option in Syria. 

Although most of the dangerous chemicals in possession of the Syrian regime have been removed and destroyed, in part, under the leadership of the U.S., possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria have so far gone unpunished. 

- Crisis in Eastern Europe miscalculated

Following the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych early this year, Ukraine has been besieged by pro-Russian separatists. 

But Obama failed to go beyond placing economic sanctions against Russia for its role in escalating conflicts in the eastern region of the country. 

According to Donnelly, the administration thought that the crisis in Eastern Europe was going to be temporary, but it has escalated.

Russia armed rebels and annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, just two days after voters approved a referendum to separate from Ukraine.

There is evidence that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down a civil Malaysian airliner, killing all 298 souls onboard.

As Russia continues to encroach on Ukraine’s territory, the Obama administration has not yet been able to stop Russia’s arming of rebels and remains hesitant to provide military assistance to Ukraine. 

Some Democrats have now joined Republicans in urging Obama to provide more than just "non-lethal" aid to the Ukrainian government as it tries to fight Russian forces. 

"We should be more forceful when supporting the Ukrainian government," said Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. "I think it's appropriate to up that aid to make them a more capable fighting force, to resist this incursion," he said.

- "Obama doesn’t have ideological doctrine like Bush" 

Obama's seemingly passive standing is related to his "unideological thinking of the world abroad," according to Harvard academic Alqarawee.

"He doesn’t have an ideological doctrine like Bush and other presidents of the U.S., who tried to project America as the power abroad and place it within a broader ideological framework, especially during the cold war," he added. 

But others have a different perspective. Rather than “unideological,” others see the president’s approach as cautious and measured. A senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Daniel Serwer, said that Obama is careful but selective towards U.S. vital interests. 

"He is trying hard to reduce American commitments abroad by triage: deciding what deserves top priority and what doesn’t," he said. "Obama is careful but willing to put the U.S. on the front line where he thinks U.S. vital interests are at stake: in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, for example, or in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula in Yemen."

After all, these cases were not direct threats to U.S. national security, thus, Serwer added, "It just doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to act alone in a lot of situations."

- No strategy to defeat Islamic State

The upsurge of the Islamic State terror group, formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, has apparently caught the administration flat-footed as the militant group has not only threatened U.S. interests and nationals in Iraq but also created a threat to the U.S. homeland. 

In early June the armed groups affiliated with the IS plunged into Iraq and advanced toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad taking over several cities along the way. 

Republicans accused Obama of causing the current crisis in Iraq for what they call his "unplanned withdrawal" of U.S. troops from the country. 

Furthermore, the issue of foreign fighters joining terror groups has fueled criticism of the administration's policy of substituting military engagements with diplomatic dialogue and political solutions. 

There is growing alarm that Western nationals who have joined Islamic State militants will return to their country of origin and create terror bases by attracting some of the most marginalized in society including, the unemployed and disadvantaged groups in Europe and the U.S. 

While defending Obama’s cautious approach to U.S. priorities, Serwer noted that the president has been "slow to recognize that the situation in Syria threatens American national security." 

The recent brutal killings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff sends a strong message to western nationals but it also threatens the presence and standing of the West in the region and across the globe. 

Responding to a question on defeating Islamic State militants who are disrupting the Middle East and threatening U.S. interests and nationals in the region, Obama awkwardly said that his administration has not yet developed a strategy to defeat the militants.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers pounced on the remark and said that Obama’s foreign policy is “in an absolute free fall.”

Some Democrats have tried to offer a lukewarm defense of the president with a powerful long-time senator coming to his aid.

"I've learned one thing about this president, and that is he's very cautious. Maybe, in this instance, too cautious," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in reference to fighting IS militants.

 

*Atheer Ahmed Kakan, AA Washington correspondent contributed to this report.

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