US President Barack Obama is pondering whether the United States should attack the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from air in Syria. He has already ordered the bombing of ISIS militants in Iraq. The trouble is, in Iraq, these militants are out to topple a friendly regime and, in Syria, they are fighting against an enemy regime. It is a colossal moral dilemma for a Nobel Peace Prize winner president, which raises serious questions about US foreign policy.
Obama is trying to find a consistent narrative and a seemingly coherent principle to justify his action between two contrasting objectives. In Iraq, he wants to protect the Shia-dominated government from the menacing onslaught of the ISIS militants. In Syria, he wants President Assad, an Alawite Shia, removed, and the ISIS militants could fulfill his objective. The ISIS has already established its control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
This is not the first time, however, that the United States has faced such a foreign policy dilemma. During the Cold War, such dilemmas were common but easy to handle. The overarching principle, motivation and justification were to keep the friends in and enemies out at any cost. Whenever there was a conflict between Washington’s objective of promoting democracy and protecting friendly government, it was always the latter that prevailed. The US claimed its democratic superiority and controlled the democracy and free market narrative.
This made possible for the United States to stand for democracy in some countries and continue supporting military dictatorship in others, across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The US backed dictators in Pakistan and the Philippines and democrats in Costa Rica and Japan, without anyone doubting consistency or principle. The only requirement for them to have US support was to have a US-friendly regime.
But several factors have rendered this relatively simple choice of the past a complex phenomenon now. The end of the Cold War and the narrowing of the ideological divided has weakened the United States’ control over the democratic and free market narrative. The media of other countries – Al Jazeera, RT, CCTV – have expanded their reach globally. What is more, anyone having a smartphone has become a self-appointed journalist capable to communicate their different narratives with the rest of the world with a click of a button.
If the US pursues two contradictory policies on the same issue now, it cannot resort to the Cold War justification. It will be caught and ridiculed. Russian and Egyptian media have already been driving home the contractions between the police’s heavy-handedness in Ferguson, Missouri, and the US criticism of other countries about their human rights record. This makes Obama’s task inordinately more difficult in principle. Politically, the Republicans will drag him over the coal no matter what policy he embraces.
This applies to any US action against the ISIS. In principle, in Syria, Obama has supported, with money and equipment, the Sunni forces that are fighting against President Assad, and these forces include the ISIS militants as well. In Iraq, the US air force is already pounding the ISIS militants. If Washington wants Assad removed, then it should also be ready to see the demise of the Shia-dominated friendly regime in Iraq.
Politically, the Republicans have already criticized Obama for not using force to remove Assad from power in Syria and for delaying attacks on the ISIS militants in Iraq. They will trash him no matter whether he orders the air force to attack the ISIS jihadist or not. First, the Republicans are divided over whether or not the US should support the Sunni militants in Syria. Second, since the Obama-care is losing its appeal as the lightening rod to galvanize their base for the elections due in November 2014, the Republicans are looking for anything that could improve their electoral prospects.
However, inaction is not an option for Obama, owing to his own ratings and to the core interests of the United States. Obama is deeply unpopular at home with his approval rating in the low 40s, and this rating has been damaging the prospects of the Democrats to win the House and retain the Senate in the upcoming vote. If he could do something the majority of the American people liked, his ratings will improve and his party will score better in the upcoming polls.
In addition, the US cannot sit back and let the ISIS militants establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, spread their influence in the entire Muslim world, and bring the war to western countries. The ISIS can bring the war to the West in two ways. First, the ISIS will export terror to the West. Now thousands of Muslim citizens of Western countries have joined the ISIS jihad. When they come home, they will bring terror with them. Second, the ISIS will control and manipulate oil resources in the Middle East, attack Western interests there and elsewhere, and eventually, wage war against the West for global domination.
As Al-Qaida before, the ISIS has been inspiring militants elsewhere. In Libya, the Sunni Islamists have already taken control of much of the country, including the capital. The wildfire will only spread in the days ahead if the ISIS are not checkmated and pushed back soon.
Which means Obama will have to withhold support from the Sunni forces fighting against President Assad in Syria, decimate the ISIS elements there, and let Assad stay and finish the ISIS in his country, while Washington supports the Baghdad government to do the same in Iraq. It will also have to take the initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Russia-Ukraine tension.
Nothing is more powerful than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in uniting the Muslims around the world. The ongoing cycle of violence in which Israel has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, more than 70 percent of them innocent women and children, has outraged not only the Muslims but also a large segment of the population in the West and elsewhere. The United Nations has decided to investigate war crimes committed by Israel. The United States should push for the two-state solution and end the recurring cycle of violence there without delay.
The United States has picked up a fight with Russia over Ukraine as if this was the appropriate time to do so. Sure, it was wrong for Russia to annex Crimea from Ukraine and support the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine against Kiev. At the same time, it was wrong for the United States to fueling anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine by supporting the Maidan uprising against the ousted pro-Russian President Yanukovych.
Now no one can undo what has already happened. However, what the US can still do is tell both Russia and Ukraine to cease the fight and negotiate a peace deal that ensures Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity and Russia’s strategic interest. This will permit the West to focus its resources on defeating the ISIS and everything it stands for. The ISIS is a greater and more immediate threat to the West than Russia.
Western sanctions are hurting Russia. However, they are not enough to force Moscow to abandon its strategic interest in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian sanctions are also hurting Western economies. Fruit and vegetable farmers have been protesting in many countries by destroying their unsold produces in the street. The next will be European manufacturers who have been losing business due to the sanctions.
If Western countries impose additional sanction, Russia may punish European countries by turning off the gas spigots in winter. More than 30 percent energy consumed in Europe comes from Russia. Moscow has been already building new markets elsewhere for its gas. It is, therefore, madness to engage in such a trade war between the West and Russia when the Islamists have emerged as the more immediate and menacing threat to the West.
So far, President Obama has pursued a careful, diplomacy-focused foreign policy. The neocon hawks have not liked it, but the majority of American people have. Outside the US, Obama is still quite popular despite the spygate exposed by the NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The world is yet to be what Fukuyama declared as the end of history. Neither is it what the neocons in Washington see it. Cautious but principled foreign policy is still the best option for Obama.