Barack Obama is wearing warpaint again. This is the United States senator who voted against the Iraq war, the candidate who had an anti-war platform and chief executive who bringing his troops back from Afghanistan.
This same man is now moving towards taking his navy and air force into the killing fields of Syria. A closer look at Obama’s past actions indicates that there is less contradiction than meets the eye.
Obama is a president who has treated foreign policy almost as a distraction. He believes the US home front is in desperate need of reconstruction and this task means the avoidance of conflicts overseas. Accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq and getting out of Afghanistan in almost unseemly haste followed from this.
“The American people want us to be focussed on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work...Nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” Obama said last month, a refrain he has made throughout his presidency.
The mistake is to assume because Obama isn’t interested in the US being a superpower means he is a pacifist. Yes, he is a reluctant warrior in places like Libya and Syria.
But the real measure of his views on military force is his use of armed drones, a global campaign he has expanded and supported without compunction.
David Sanger, in his book on Obama’s first term, Confront and Conceal, has argued the “Obama Doctrine” is that only if US security is directly threatened will Washington act unilaterally and militarily.
The preference is for strikes carried out “in a targeted, get-in-and-get-out fashion, that avoid, at all costs...messy ground wars and lengthy occupations.”
Obama has been unwilling to exert US muscle to assist other countries. Hence his unresponsiveness to India’s concerns about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. His response to China’s attempts to intimidate US allies in Asia has been, to put it mildly, fuzzy.
When it comes to protecting the US, those who work with him admit to being surprised by Obama’s aggression.
One said, “When it’s decision time about whether to order a strike...he often comes out pretty close to where George W. Bush did.”
Obama underlined this when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”
None of this fully explains Libya or even Syria, whose desert sands can be inspected in vain for any overriding US national interests.
The difference may well be a second term and the fact a new, personal agenda has been grafted to the Obama Doctrine -- legacy. This is Obama’s last term. His first term have been defined by the winding down of two wars, riding out a recession and national healthcare legislation. His worldview today is marginally more expansive.
The moral component in Obama’s still rare foreign policy statements has increased. Over Libya, Obama was offered two choices: do nothing and watch a massacre in the rebel capital of Benghazi or intervene, but massively enough to change the order of battle.
His Republican Pentagon chief, Bob Gates, took the line: no US interests, no US intervention. Obama disagreed. If he did nothing, there would be questions about US credibility and leadership.
But what seemed to bother him the most would be that history would hold him morally responsible for the bloodbath that would follow. “We can’t play the role of a Russia or a China,” he said.
In the case of Syria, there are crudely two schools in Washington calling for intervention.
One group are the same humanitarian interventionists who pushed for Libya and probably include his National Security Advisor Susan Rice and his United Nations ambassador Samantha Power.
Combined with equally hawkish Hillary Clinton, during the Libya debate they were collectively dubbed “the Durgas” inside the Beltway.
The other is a realpolitik school which argues that the most dangerous West Asian problem facing the US is Iran and its ambitions to be a regional hegemon. The US has been squeezing Iran to make Tehran more flexible about its nuclear programme.
Damascus is Tehran’s only Arab ally, therefore bombing the former further helps put pressure on Iran.
At worst, Iran looks impotent. At best, the rebels win and Iran is isolated.
Obama, in his second term, combines both schools in his mind. His earlier announcement that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” was off-the-cuff, catching his staff by surprise. But he let it stay and it became embedded in US policy.
It has become part of his intervention argument: “I believe part of our obligation as a leader in the world is making sure when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms..that they are held to account.”
The Iran argument also registers. Obama is obsessed with how to keep Iran from crossing a nuclear threshold and dragging the US into its third Persian Gulf war. He personally tracks the nuclear programme and has authorised each action against Iran, from Stuxnet to sanctions.
Iran, its economy in tatters, has begun to signal a desire to engage with the US, recently even tweeting positive things about Jews. A Syrian strike would be a further stick to belabour a hard-bitten Tehran.
Obama is uneasy with Syria because the consequences of a military strike are unclear.
The evidence of his uneasiness is his unusual decision to call for a US congressional vote, an act that both his political and foreign policy teams opposed.
A loss would be a domestic humiliation. But a victory would give him political cover to carry out a military action in which the US would be almost alone. Obama is said to spend an unusual amount of time wondering about the collateral damage of his actions.
In Syria, he is reducing the political fallout to an absolute minimum.
If the strike works out right, he could get an Iran solution in the bag. If it goes wrong, Congress will share the blame. If it doesn’t happen, most will sigh in relief and forget.