Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Real Obama “Pivot”: Back to the Middle East

As Oval Office addresses on national security go, President Obama’s remarks Wednesday night were pretty sound. He identified the enemy as the Islamic State, stated a goal to "degrade and ultimately destroy" it, and described four components of that campaign. But taken in the context of his serious and serial mishandling of foreign policy over ...

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

As Oval Office addresses on national security go, President Obama’s remarks Wednesday night were pretty sound. He identified the enemy as the Islamic State, stated a goal to "degrade and ultimately destroy" it, and described four components of that campaign. But taken in the context of his serious and serial mishandling of foreign policy over the last six years, the president’s speech also struck an oddly discordant note, one that throws into sharp relief just how much the tenets of his speech contrasted with his previous policies. In short, this speech represents the real Obama’s "pivot" — not to Asia, but back to the Middle East.

After years of bragging about "ending the war in Iraq," Obama is now escalating a new war in Iraq. After years of refusing to support the Syrian rebel opposition, Obama now announces not only that he will support the rebels but that doing so will be one of the cornerstones of his IS campaign. After years of claiming that the al Qaeda threat is sharply diminished, Obama now claims that the threat from an al Qaeda spinoff (IS) is so serious that it merits a new war — a war, moreover, that he strongly hints will be conducted under the legal authority of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. After years of insisting that any use of force needs formal legitimation by a multilateral institution, Obama now prepares to go to war with a coalition of the willing of just nine countries — but without U.N. Security Council authorization, without the formal endorsement of any other multilateral organization such as NATO or the Arab League, and even without explicit authorization from the U.S. Congress. And after years of believing that reducing the American presence and leadership abroad is necessary to get other nations to step up and take ownership, President Obama now asserts that "This is American leadership at its best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity."

I do not list the preceding shifts to play a cheap game of "gotcha" — I am cautiously supportive of these new policies, certainly as improvements on the old ones. But I do want to highlight a more serious set of questions: in announcing this new phase of war, has President Obama substantially changed his mind on all of the above? Is his new strategy one that he believes in deeply, or one that he will continue to debate and question?

It was telling that the two examples President Obama (inaccurately) cited as precedent were Yemen and Somalia, when the most similar intervention would in fact be Libya, where an American-led coalition undertook months of airstrikes in support of Libyan rebel ground forces to defeat the Qaddafi regime and end its control of Libyan territory. Likewise the new IS strategy as announced tonight will consist of an American-led coalition engaging in prolonged airstrikes in support of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel ground forces to defeat the Islamic State and end its control of its territory. It is not clear why the president did not cite the Libya precedent, but it may be because he now realizes that in light of Libya’s ongoing meltdown, he got many things wrong about Libya. His most significant mistake was believing that regime change could be done only with airstrikes and local forces, while failing to develop a robust post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction policy.  

It is often forgotten today, but in President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office he developed an assertive policy towards the Soviet Union including a major defense buildup, support for rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and suspending any further arms control agreements. Carter adopted these policies after the many traumas of 1979, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made him realize that the previous three years of his Cold War policies had been naïve and weak. Six years into his presidency, perhaps President Obama has now arrived at a similar "Carter moment" and realizes that with just over two years left in his administration, he needs to make a similar shift.

As Oval Office addresses on national security go, President Obama’s remarks Wednesday night were pretty sound. He identified the enemy as the Islamic State, stated a goal to "degrade and ultimately destroy" it, and described four components of that campaign. But taken in the context of his serious and serial mishandling of foreign policy over the last six years, the president’s speech also struck an oddly discordant note, one that throws into sharp relief just how much the tenets of his speech contrasted with his previous policies. In short, this speech represents the real Obama’s "pivot" — not to Asia, but back to the Middle East.

After years of bragging about "ending the war in Iraq," Obama is now escalating a new war in Iraq. After years of refusing to support the Syrian rebel opposition, Obama now announces not only that he will support the rebels but that doing so will be one of the cornerstones of his IS campaign. After years of claiming that the al Qaeda threat is sharply diminished, Obama now claims that the threat from an al Qaeda spinoff (IS) is so serious that it merits a new war — a war, moreover, that he strongly hints will be conducted under the legal authority of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. After years of insisting that any use of force needs formal legitimation by a multilateral institution, Obama now prepares to go to war with a coalition of the willing of just nine countries — but without U.N. Security Council authorization, without the formal endorsement of any other multilateral organization such as NATO or the Arab League, and even without explicit authorization from the U.S. Congress. And after years of believing that reducing the American presence and leadership abroad is necessary to get other nations to step up and take ownership, President Obama now asserts that "This is American leadership at its best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity."

I do not list the preceding shifts to play a cheap game of "gotcha" — I am cautiously supportive of these new policies, certainly as improvements on the old ones. But I do want to highlight a more serious set of questions: in announcing this new phase of war, has President Obama substantially changed his mind on all of the above? Is his new strategy one that he believes in deeply, or one that he will continue to debate and question?

It was telling that the two examples President Obama (inaccurately) cited as precedent were Yemen and Somalia, when the most similar intervention would in fact be Libya, where an American-led coalition undertook months of airstrikes in support of Libyan rebel ground forces to defeat the Qaddafi regime and end its control of Libyan territory. Likewise the new IS strategy as announced tonight will consist of an American-led coalition engaging in prolonged airstrikes in support of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel ground forces to defeat the Islamic State and end its control of its territory. It is not clear why the president did not cite the Libya precedent, but it may be because he now realizes that in light of Libya’s ongoing meltdown, he got many things wrong about Libya. His most significant mistake was believing that regime change could be done only with airstrikes and local forces, while failing to develop a robust post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction policy.  

It is often forgotten today, but in President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office he developed an assertive policy towards the Soviet Union including a major defense buildup, support for rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and suspending any further arms control agreements. Carter adopted these policies after the many traumas of 1979, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made him realize that the previous three years of his Cold War policies had been naïve and weak. Six years into his presidency, perhaps President Obama has now arrived at a similar "Carter moment" and realizes that with just over two years left in his administration, he needs to make a similar shift.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.