2016, bound to be a crisis year, is Barack Obama’s last year in office. It is also the year that will shape the security strategy for the next president.
The civil war in Syria and the terrorist threat from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will test the Obama Doctrine of “Strategic Patience.”
That practical strategy depends on successful diplomatic negotiations, backed by military force. In his Strategic Defense Guidance of 2012, homeland security, deterrence against aggression and fight against terrorism were set as the primary tasks for the U.S. military.
Guiding operations was the concept of a “Light Footprint” that led to deployments of special operations forces and drones in order to avoid boots on the ground in long-running wars.
No grand strategies to be found
Developing a grand strategy in the midst of the tumultuous Middle East was indeed elusive. Idealism searching for democracy and rule of law in the ongoing sectarian violence and civil war simply was not an option.
President Obama has cautioned that America “should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. […].”
He then outlined his strategy against the group: “With American leadership, the international community has begun to […] pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war.
Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL […]. ”
The effort to pursue diplomatic negotiations in the Vienna process to resolve the Syrian civil war includes international actors – especially Russia and Iran – aligning policies and actions with the international campaign against ISIS.
Addressing structural causes
Long-term, the strategy focuses more resources and efforts on the underlying social and economic causal factors. They are what promote instability, frustration and radicalization, and they provide ISIS fertile ground to build support.
Such a strategy, dependent as it is on partners, is complicated by discontent in the region. Countries are at odds with the United States — Israel on the subject matter of Iran, Egypt on human rights and Saudi Arabia on Yemen.
Republican presidential candidates like to regale their supporters by pointing to what they perceive as a leadership vacuum. They are vastly exaggerating the options that are realistically available to the United States under any president.
Moreover, the abrupt break of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has certainly complicated everything greatly.
Proposed military operations by Republican politicians are but big-mouthed talk. They fatally ignore the fact that what is needed is a political solution to the Syrian Civil War and the ISIS threat.
Aligning Iranian and Russian interests in Syria with those of the United States and Europe will not be easy.
However, the Iranian nuclear weapons agreement successfully negotiated by the UN P5+1 – i.e., the United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – is a hopeful model for international agreement.
Long after President Obama’s term is finished, his successes (including his restraint) will retrospectively define his strategy of the strategic pragmatism of multilateralism.
Beyond the Obama Security Strategy
More importantly, they will have a lasting effect on U.S. policy. These successes are worth reviewing at the start of his final year.
Most fundamentally, the unilateral strategy of George W. Bush, his predecessor, has given way to world leaders acting in partnership with American leadership – “Partners in Leadership.”
The Iran JCPOA agreement has delayed, and therefore for some years denied, Iran a path to nuclear weapons and opens the prospects for a beginning of an end to Iran’s destructive estrangement from the community of nations.
The U.S.-supported international climate agreement addresses an existential issue for the planet. The deal was finally reached in Paris by 196 countries after early defeats at home for Obama on his own climate change policy.
Also, his rapprochement with Cuba reverses a long-term, failed U.S. foreign policy and opens Cuba to change.
Obama’s early decision to capture or kill Osama bin Laden demonstrated his utter ruthlessness and decisiveness when it comes to eliminating enemies. His caution is reserved for large scale threats of war.
To foster longer-term trade relations, he negotiated a 12-nation Transpacific Partnership trade pact spanning the Pacific Rim. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership holds promise to strengthen partners’ economies.
The ISIS and Syrian Civil War threats will take years to defeat. New threats continue to emerge from technology and globalization that have empowered not just states, but stateless terrorists.
Obama also understands that disorder from “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors.
From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us [Americans], and governments seek a greater say in global forums.”
The United States will be forced to continue to strengthen containment, even as Russia may agree to a settlement on Ukraine to diffuse that current conflict, while ensuring that former Soviet States remain neutral.
In Asia, analysts predict China’s current growing authoritarianism will moderately intensify, as will the underlying economic problems that have already begun to surface.
The Chinese government will use its incursion into the South China Sea to convince its people that the country is a major regional power. However, no confrontation will result.”
In the face of these ever-mounting threats, Obama with his belief in a rules-based international order has fought to find the correct balance among national security, legality and democracy.
An astonishing amount of policy continuity, particularly with his predecessor’s counterterrorism strategy, has been tempered by his pragmatism in not rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.
His prudent pragmatism, steeped in law, will guide American security policy for years to come. And those who now carry a big stick and promise to throw caution to the winds and revert to Bushian bravado may well find that reality crudely intervenes in their desire to act in a full-mouthed fashion.
J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and currently the Henry Kissinger Professor for Governance and International Security, University of Bonn.