The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet today it seeks a peace deal with that enemy. And now Obama has declared a new war to get rid of the Islamic State — a war that is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature.
Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times
America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, who helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi, has started a new war in Syria and Iraq even as the U.S. remains embroiled in the Afghanistan war. Obama’s air war in Syria — his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and the one likely to consume his remaining term in office — raises troubling questions about its objectives and his own adherence to the rule of law.
While it has become imperative to contain the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist army that has imposed a despotic medieval order in the territories under its control, any fight against terrorism can be effectively waged only if it respects international law and reinforces global norms and does not become an instrument to pursue narrow, geopolitical interests. After all, all strains of the cancer of Islamist terrorism — not just the type IS represents — need to be eliminated.
Ever since America launched its “war on terror” in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the scourge of international terrorism, ominously, has spread deeper and wider in the world. Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. Once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt remains “ground zero” for the terrorist threat the world confronts.
Obama was expected to be fundamentally different than Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq left a broken, failing state — an expectation that led the Nobel committee to award him the peace prize soon after he assumed office. Yet, underscoring the disconnect between his words and actions, Obama has been more at ease waging wars — that too in breach of international law — than in waging peace.
Although elected with the support of the left, he has proved to be one of America’s most militarily assertive presidents since World War II, with his readiness to unilaterally use force driven by a penchant to act as judge and executioner.
Obama in Cairo in 2009 sought “a new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” However, his reliance on U.S. hard power has been underlined by his serial bombing campaigns in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Obama also directed a threefold increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, sharply escalated drone attacks in Pakistan, initiated “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism, and authorized the helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan’s heartland. And now comes the news that this warrior-in-chief, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most-sophisticated.
In fact, Obama enunciated his rejection of nonviolence and his partiality for use of force in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, saying: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” He has since used the fight against terrorism to make never-ending war, to the delight of the military-industrial complex.
Still, what stopped Obama from seeking United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate before initiating a war in Syria against IS militants? The answer is obvious: Obama wants to wage his open-ended war on U.S. terms, like his earlier interventions.
Five repressive Arab autocracies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — form the core of his “coalition of the willing” on Syria. In addition, Turkey has overcome initial hesitation and agreed to allow the U.S. military to launch operations against the Islamic State from its territory. Paradoxically, the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE aided IS’s rise, either openly or inadvertently.
This is a coalition of sinners now dressed as knights in shining armor.
Such has been the tepid international response to what the White House admits will be a multiyear military offensive in the Syria-Iraq belt that only five of the 22 Arab states (or, to put it differently, five of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) have joined the coalition. And even though the U.S. is striking a terrorist group, its urge to test new weapons has led to the debut in war of the problem-plagued F-22 stealth fighter.
Obama displayed his disdain for international law by addressing the U.N. after presenting his bombing blitzkrieg in Syria as a fait accompli. In his address, as if to undergird the mismatch between his own words and actions, he condemned what he called Russia’s ethos of “might makes right,” saying “right makes might.” He then told the U.N. climate summit that the U.S. has “reduced our total carbon pollution by more than any other nation on Earth,” yet data released by the U.S. energy department show U.S. carbon emissions — already the world’s highest in per capita terms — are climbing again.
To rationalize unleashing force in Syria by bypassing the U.N., the Obama administration has meretriciously claimed the defense of a third country, Iraq, as a legal ground, thus invoking the doctrine of hot pursuit. Such a precedent could allow the sovereignty of any nation to be violated. It also flouts the UN Charter, which defines self-defense as actions necessary to uphold a country’s territorial integrity and political independence and limits self-defense to exceptional circumstances, such as when a nation is under direct attack.
In reality, the war in Syria is just the latest U.S. action mocking international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.
Indeed, Obama has not sought even U.S. congressional authorization before embroiling his country in yet another war.
To justify his serial interventions and interminable war making, Obama has continued to speciously cite the congressional authority Bush secured to specifically go after those that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But given that linking the Islamic State to the 9/11 attacks would stretch plausibility, especially since Al Qaeda has publicly disavowed Islamic State, his administration started the Syria war by claiming an “imminent” threat to U.S. homeland security from a previously unknown “Al Qaeda affiliate,” Khorasan.
Such is Obama’s war-making itch that a year ago he almost went to war to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office, but now his administration pre-notified Damascus about the start of its airstrikes against the Islamic State so that U.S. bombers did not attract Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The new Iraqi prime minister has revealed that he conveyed Washington’s message to Assad that the strikes were not directed at his regime.
The unpalatable truth that Obama seeks to obscure is that the main Islamic State force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded rebels who were reared to help overthrow Assad. Flush with his success in overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011 — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to effecting regime change in Syria. The CIA, besides training Syrian militants in Jordan and Turkey, funneled weapons and funds to Sunni rebels in Syria from a base it set up in Benghazi at the U.S. consulate, which ironically was overrun on September 11, 2012 by CIA-armed Libyan Islamist militiamen, who killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Obama turned a blind eye as the Islamic State made significant advances from mid-2013 onward — or, as he now puts it euphemistically, his administration “underestimated” the threat from this hydra-headed group. Indeed, it was the “machinations” of the forces now waging war in Syria — the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — that “helped open the door for the terrorist Islamic State group to threaten the region,” as columnist David Ignatius said in the Washington Post. For Washington, Islamic State militants ceased to be “good” terrorists undermining Assad’s rule and Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq after they began threatening U.S. interests and beheaded two American journalists.
If President Ronald Reagan accidentally fathered Al Qaeda, Obama is the Islamic State’s unintended godfather turned self-declared slayer-in-chief. Having earlier tasked the CIA with aiding Syrian rebels to help oust Assad, Obama has now tasked the agency to create a proxy ground force against the Islamic State in Syria by training and arming thousands of more insurgents.
Training and arming non-state combatants flies in the face of international law. The directive also ignores the lessons from past covert interventions.
“We helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” Hillary Clinton candidly told Fox News as secretary of state, saying “we had this brilliant idea we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of mujahedeen and equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else to go after the Soviets inside Afghanistan.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces in Libya has badly backfired.
The U.S. indeed has also contributed to India’s terrorism problem. After all, large portions of the CIA’s multibillion-dollar military aid for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to trigger insurgencies in India’s Kashmir and Punjab. India — and Pakistan — have paid a heavy price for America’s continued cozy ties with the Pakistani military and its ISI spies. Yet, paradoxically, the U.S. has used counterterrorism as a key instrument to build a strategic partnership with India.
Obama pledged in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, Obama now wants bases there for a virtually unlimited period.
The end of the political crisis in Kabul opened the way for the new Afghan government to sign on September 30 the bilateral security agreement that Obama sought as the legal basis to keep U.S. bases, with almost 10,000 American troops. A residual U.S. force, however, will be more vulnerable to Afghan Taliban attacks, thus strengthening Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the “Quetta Shura,” the Taliban leadership ensconced in Pakistan.
As the longest war in its history in Afghanistan attests, the U.S. is better at starting wars than in ending them. In fact, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet it now seeks a peace deal with that enemy. Indeed, the birth of the Afghan Taliban — fathered by the ISI — was midwifed by the CIA in the early 1990s.
What Obama has started as an offensive to get rid of the Islamic State is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature for U.S. interests. The U.S., for example, is interested in mending the damage to its interests from its decade-long Iraq occupation, which made Iran the real winner. Yet the new involvement in Syria could end up as Obama’s Vietnam.
More broadly, America’s longstanding alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs does not augur well for its “war on terror,” which has spawned more militants than it has eliminated. With U.S. support, the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, have been able to ride out the Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the U.S. practice of propping up malleable Islamist rulers in the Middle East not just spurs strong anti-U.S. sentiment, but also fosters grassroots support for more independent and “authentically” Islamist forces.
A rolling, self-sustaining war targeting terrorist enemies that America’s own policies and interventions continue to spawn is not good news even for the U.S., whose military adventures since 2001 have cost $4.4 trillion, making its rich military contractors richer but destabilizing security in several regions.
At a time when America faces a pressing need for comprehensive domestic renewal to arrest the erosion in its relative global power, it can ill afford self-debilitating wars. Unfortunately for it, one eternal warrior in the White House was succeeded by another serial interventionist.
The writer is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and author.
© The Japan Times, 2014.