I don’t pretend to understand the president’s thinking and certainly have no insider knowledge. My general sense is this: the administration finds itself today with no operable strategy with respect to the Arab/Islamic world. The initiative symbolized by the Cairo speech back in 2009 yielded nothing. The same applies to Kerry’s effort to bring closure to the “peace process” — the major diplomatic initiative of the second term. In the meantime, the Arab Spring with all of its unexpected turns and repercussions finds the US and the world at large as spectators.
Apart from a possible deal with Iran (not a lot of public chatter on that subject), the president faces the prospect of completing two terms in office without a major foreign policy accomplishment to his credit. From his perspective, the closest thing to an achievement is the negative one of ending wars, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. He proudly claimed to have ended the first when the last US troops left Iraq in December 2011. The claim was a bogus one. In reality, the Iraq War simply continued without direct US participation. Still, the administration found it politically expedient to pretend otherwise. The last thing the president or the people around him wanted to do was to acknowledge that the trend lines in Iraq were all negative — which they were even before ISIS exploded onto the scene. Yet it was the appearance of ISIS — Fallujah falling, Mosul falling — that made it impossible to sustain the pretense that the US had finally accomplished its mission in Iraq. The result: this half-hearted military effort, which might possibly blunt the ISIS offensive but which has no chance of affecting the basic reality, which is that Iraq is mired in crisis at the center of a region that is mired in crisis. Despite all the Washington chatter about the need for Obama to exercise “leadership,” the truth is that he doesn’t know what to do because practically speaking there is very little we can do to affect the course of events.
- ANDREW BACEVICH