WASHINGTON — The conflict in Iraq presents the sharpest test yet of the foreign policy doctrine of President Barack Obama.
That philosophy, most recently outlined at a May speech at the U.S. Military Academy, resists pressures to intervene militarily at flash points around the globe; limits military force to cases where U.S. interests are clearly at risk, Americans are threatened or allies are in danger; and puts greater emphasis on allies or foreign governments.
Under that doctrine, Obama has ruled out sending combat troops to Iraq, instead announcing plans to send up to 300 military advisers. Another 200 troops were authorized this week to defend critical interests such as Baghdad’s airport.
While his actions in Iraq may be consistent with his doctrine, critics charge it’s not comprehensive enough for the complexities of the threat posed by the chaos in Iraq.
“Retreating from the world stage, in my view, is not an option,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “It only undermines our allies and leads to more chaos that puts Americans at risk.”
Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, warned that Obama’s reluctance has fueled “perceptions among U.S. allies that think the U.S. does not have the will to defend certain interests.”
Obama’s first step is not unusual. The U.S. already has military advisers in more than 70 countries. But it is very much in keeping with a president who has always been “very cautious” on his use of the military, said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington.
“This is not a major move. It’s pretty minimal,” Goldgeier said of the U.S. advisers in Iraq. “I really don’t think we are going to have a major impact on the future of Iraq.”
Many observers say they’d be surprised if Obama ordered airstrikes, although the administration has not ruled them out. A senior administration official who was knowledgeable about the situation but was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of administration policy said that strikes would be considered only after Obama receives “better information” about the situation in Iraq. Some officials have said the U.S. still lacks the intelligence information required to conduct effective strikes.
Obama considered airstrikes last year in neighboring Syria, where he’s also been reluctant to engage in an ongoing civil war. Instead, he backed off and endorsed a Russian plan to eliminate the Syrian regime’s cache of chemical weapons. The weapons were removed, but the war in Syria continues. Obama last week asked Congress for the first time for $500 million for lethal aid to arm moderate Syrian rebels.
Goldgeier said Obama’s approach is aimed at showing that he’s acting to help the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — while ensuring Americans that he won’t be dragged back into a war he campaigned against.
“He’s determined to make sure when he leaves office that we are out of both” Iraq and Afghanistan, Goldgeier said. “He’s not been eager to get us into new wars.”
Indeed, one of the few references to Iraq in Obama’s May 28 West Point speech came as he noted that the cadets he was addressing were “the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
One exception to Obama’s approach was his decision to intervene in Libya in 2011, but not until organizing an international coalition to remove Moammar Gadhafi. No U.S. troops were deployed on the ground in what Obama later called an operation that could be a “recipe for success in the future.” But the country remains mired in chaos and widespread violence, including the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in 2012.
Obama’s thinking goes deeper than a reflexive campaign promise made when Americans yearned to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It’s a philosophical approach to international security,” said Rick Brennan, a career Army officer and senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. “It’s an underlying philosophical belief.”
Obama’s approach is not about using the military but about providing assistance in other ways and “getting others to do more,” Brennan said.
Obama said as much during the West Point speech. He said then that the biggest threat to the U.S. remains terrorist attacks launched by al-Qaida affiliates and extremists. He called for a way to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”
Obama has pointed to Yemen as a potential model of cooperation. The U.S. has no combat troops in Yemen but has launched drone strikes in support of the government’s war against al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Looking at how we can create more of those models is going to be part of the solution in dealing with both Syria and Iraq,” Obama said at the White House recently.
He said the U.S. has been able to help develop Yemen’s capacities “without putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.” And he said the U.S. has “enough counterterrorism capabilities that we’re able to go after folks that might try to hit our embassy or might be trying to export terrorism into Europe or the United States.”
Obama’s West Point speech has limits, said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It really can’t apply when things escalate,” he said, noting that Obama’s actions in Iraq have been the “right first steps.”
But the problem is with his “second, third, fourth steps,” he said. “What happens when you need to take decisive action?”