The Reluctant President

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The White House is scrambling to contain damage from an unusually public call for action by its top general as it began to build a coalition against the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) — even as Arab nations underlined the impotency of US policy in West Asia by secretly bombing Islamic militias in Libya.

Just back from an eventful two-week vacation, US President Barack Obama on 26 August ordered surveillance flights over Syria, days after General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, virtually forced action by telling reporters at the Pentagon that the IS could not be defeated without attacking it at its stronghold in Syria.

This brutally frank assessment by the top military adviser to the US president is a significant break from administration policy. The president had steadfastly refused to get involved in the Syrian conflict, where disparate groups of fighters have been battling for over three years to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad.

“Can they (IS) be defeated without addressing that part of their organisation that resides in Syria?” Gen Dempsey summarised a question from a reporter on 21 August as he prepared to answer it, with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel standing beside him. “The answer is ‘no’. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border (between Iraq and Syria).”

The timing of the statement — during Obama’s vacation — and its very public venue at the nerve centre of the US military, came as worries among Democrats and Republicans alike grew over the president’s “hands off” approach to West Asia, and to governance in general.

The gory images of the beheading of an American journalist on 19 August by IS militants collided incongruously with photos of a grinning Obama on the golf course, bringing the president’s aloof, laidback style into sharp focus for ordinary Americans.

IS militants control large parts of Iraq and Syria, where they have declared a Caliphate and imposed an extreme form of Islamic law known as sharia, after a lightning advance in June. They have massacred minorities, including Christians and Shias, prompting the US to launch “limited air strikes” on 8 August — an action widely seen as inadequate and lacking in broad strategy.

Arab unhappiness over Obama’s weak policies to contain growing turmoil in the wider West Asia was highlighted, also in dramatic fashion, with secret air strikes by Egypt and the UAE on Islamic militants in Libya in the middle of August.

The strikes, however, could not prevent a pro-Islamist militia that calls itself Operation Dawn from taking the airport in the capital, Tripoli. The ‘Dawn’ has been fighting ragtag armies of secular and moderate forces composed of Libyan soldiers, tribes and “nationalists” for the control of Tripoli since July, when Islamists lost the national election.

The bold, even desperate, move by the Arab nations took US officials by surprise because both have long been US allies, with strong military links forged over decades. Like other countries in West Asia, they are fearful of the gains being made by Islamic militants in a region long shielded from protest movements, either secular or Islamic, by tight control over public expression.

There has been growing concern among ordinary Americans over what was once seen as Obama’s “deliberative” style — when weeks and sometimes months go by as he is said to be giving deep thought to a policy matter, which is then reduced to a single, simplistic principle.

Obama has famously condensed his entire foreign policy into the sentence: “Don’t do stupid shit”, with senior political reporters masking the last word with a few suggestively placed asterisks to render an operative principle palatable in polite company. No s**t!

But six years into his presidency, a more insidious picture of the president may steadily be emerging, casting him as a shallow man driven by politics and a narcissistic obsessing over his public image.

Soon after the American journalist Jim Foley was publicly beheaded, it came out that Obama had delayed a rescue mission by a month because he was worried it could harm his image if it failed, tarnishing his legacy by “Carterising” it. Jimmy Carter, who is often sneered at by the right-wing media, is remembered as America’s worst Democratic president of recent times: an operation he ordered to rescue hostages from the US Embassy in Tehran failed, humiliating the US.

A story in the reputed British newspaper The Sunday Times quoted a senior retired military officer as saying that the plan to rescue Foley was on the president’s desk in early June. By the time Obama okayed it to begin after the midnight of 4 July, Foley and other American captives had been moved. The Special Forces team that landed in Syria at great risk found no sign of the hostage.

The operation’s timing, on deeply-symbolic 4 July, which America celebrates as Independence Day, is suspicious and adds to the story’s credibility. It is also supported by the unsettling fact that Obama had played golf several times during June — when he was supposed to be “agonising” over the operation to free Foley. However, the White House quickly denied the damaging story.

Obama’s public response to Foley’s beheading during a leisurely vacation at an upscale island resort was also jarring: After reading a sombre statement with all the gravitas he could summon at short notice, he went straight back to his golf game — grinning incongruously from ear to ear as he drove a golf cart minutes later.

The order to fly spy planes over Syria came after a meeting with Hagel, who has also been painting a dire picture of the situation in Iraq and Syria.

Even till a day before it began moving to take possible action in Syria, the White House tried to walk back the import of Gen Dempsey’s cautionary words. Spokesman Josh Earnest seemed to be guided by a need for the administration to save political face. Earnest argued that reporters should not “jump to the conclusion” that the General’s words meant that “US strikes” in Syria would follow. While the president had demonstrated his “willingness to order strikes to protect the American people”, there were a “range of options” not just “brute military force” to defeat is, including Iraqi unity, and the help of countries in the region.

Matching action to words, the administration on 26 August began talking to allies to build a coalition to include Australia, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE to participate in the possible air strikes. There was no word on when the strikes could come — and “the coalition”, is nothing more than a collection of US allies who have long been awaiting US leadership.

Obama said the coalition would “take the fight to these barbaric terrorists”, who were “no match” against a united world. “Rooting out a cancer like (IS) won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick,” he warned.

Gen Dempsey’s public call for action should be seen against the background of his service in Iraq at a critical time. He spent over a year in Iraq as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-dead founder of the original avatar of IS, was building a network with a unique signature of brutality. In 2003-04, the Jordanian was attracting former Ba’athists, Sunnis and foreign fighters to join him, carrying out mass attacks in Baghdad, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco. At the time, his reputation was beginning to eclipse even Osama bin Laden’s.

The Arab world is also in upheaval over Obama’s inattention, unsettled by his moves to engage Iran. The indrawing of US power has disturbed the framework that was built post-World War I, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

The comfortable sense of security girded by oil wealth had helped smooth over a somewhat contradictory view of Islam within Arab nations. For example, Saudi Arabia has evangelised a fundamentalist Wahhabi view of Islam while keeping a tight rein over Islamists within its borders. And there’s no telling what bitter fruit the Arab spring will yield.

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