Secretary of State John Kerry signed a UN arms treaty Tuesday which aims to "reduce the risk that international transfers of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world's worst crimes," and to regulate the $70 billion international conventional arms business. "How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, but we’re embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?," President Obama asked of Syria in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday. "What’s the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct?"
Judging by the Obama Administration's actions, the answer to these questions is "threaten airstrikes until John Kerry stumbles backwards into a diplomatic proposal." But how does this approach fit with Obama’s standard approach to the application of force abroad? That question is difficult to answer, because while Obama generally expresses similar principles and rhetoric when confronted with foreign crises (or “opportunities,” as his former Chief of Staff puts it), he hasn’t demonstrated a consistent approach to how and when the administration applies military power abroad. Let's take a look back at how the president's approach to using force abroad has evolved:
By the time Obama took office, George W. Bush had already signed an agreement to end the American presence in Iraq by 2012. Obama initially tried to keep U.S. military bases open in the country after the troop withdrawal, but this plan was rejected by Iraqi authorities. In mid-December, the last U.S. troops left the country, and Obama could accurately claim to have ended the "dumb war" in Iraq.
When Egyptian protesters began filling the streets in late January of 2011 to protest the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, Obama was put in a tricky position. While he professed to agree with the demands of the Egyptian people (he couldn't well have done otherwise, really, since they were asking for basic civil rights), it was somewhat awkward because Mubarak had been a super important U.S. ally in the region for years, due largely to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Obama initially resisted pleas that he call for Mubarak’s resignation. Eventually, in early February, he did demand that Mubarak step down. What Obama didn’t do was take military action in the country. For foreign policy doves, it was a heartening course of action — but not one that would be repeated.
In October of 2009, after being in office for all of eight months, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some, including Obama, found this premature, but others suspected a deeper motive on the part of the Nobel Committee. At the time, the Obama administration was in the midst of a heated internal debate over whether or not to send tens of thousands of additional troops to fuel the war effort in Afghanistan; it was speculated that the Nobel Committee was attempting to pressure Obama away from expanding the war, since it would be awkward to order a troop surge after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
If that was the idea, it didn't work. Obama sent 30,000 troops to Afghanistan two months later, a massive increase that essentially doubled the number of U.S. troops in the country. Since then, he's waffled a bit on how long the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan; the general plan is to end combat operations by 2014, but there's a nagging question of how many "residual troops," if any, will remain.
Obama's doctrine regarding the use of military force appears, at this point, to be somewhat muddled. Maybe it will seem more coherent after he leaves office; maybe not. Maybe the biggest point here is that it's not necessarily possible, helpful or realistic to try and compress an entire eight years of disparate military actions into one doctrine. Maybe foreign policy is a lot more complicated than that.
As the turmoil in Egypt began to wane, Libya was heating up. What began as a protest against the government’s arrest of a human rights activist eventually turned into an all-out civil war, with leader Muammar Gaddafi waging a violent campaign against both peaceful protesters and rebel fighters, the latter of whom coalesced into a formidable opposition force. Unlike Mubarek, Gaddafi gave no indication that he’d slow the brutality, let alone step down as leader. Loyalist and opposition forces hit a stalemate in March, at which point Obama, citing both “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings” and “an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him,” decided to act.
Obama didn’t do so unilaterally, however. He first sought the approval of the United Nations Security Council, and then, when he did ultimately commit U.S. forces, he did so on a limited scale (airstrikes only, no boots on the ground, and only for two weeks) before handing control of the operation over to NATO forces. He did, however, circumvent Congressional authorization which, predictably, upset a lot of people in Congress.
The operation was a military success: The NATO intervention turned the tides of the conflict, and Gaddafi was ultimately toppled and killed. It was a military intervention, but by most standards it was limited — and transparent.
America’s policy in Pakistan, on the other hand, has not been transparent. While it was President Bush who first authorized the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) abroad, Obama has dramatically expanded their deployment, ostensibly only to take out suspected terrorists and their leaders. However, many, many civilian deaths have been reported as well, including at least four U.S. citizens.
A lot of the controversy over American drones in Pakistan is due to their secrecy: Obama only acknowledged last year that the U.S. had UAVs in Pakistan, even though it had been using them there since at least 2004. The controversy also stems from the civilian death toll estimates: While there are no official numbers on how many civilians have been killed by UAVs, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that number to be around 926 (that’s almost a third of all drone-related deaths in Pakistan). Furthermore, Americans have been killed in drone strikes abroad (another fact the government only acknowledged long after it was made public), which some say violates citizens’ Constitutional right to due process.
Compared to the U.S. response to Syria, Libya and Egypt, the use of drones in Pakistan has been expansive and secretive. This — along with America’s unilateral assassination of Osama bin-Laden in Pakistan in 2011 — suggests that while Obama is often restrained when it comes to internal disputes in other countries, he has a different standard regarding foreign combatants who target Americans directly.
In the course of several months last year, Tuareg rebels in northern Mali calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA (yes, we know the acronym is wrong) ousted the country’s president, suspended the constitution, seized control of the three largest cities in the north and declared the independence of a new northern state. The MNLA was initially backed by the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine, which is reportedly tied to Al-Qaeda. After the coup, Ansar Dine began imposing Sharia law across northern Mali, which led to a fracturing of the original coalition of the two groups. Pretty soon, the MNLA had lost control of the region to Ansar Dine.
The U.S. wasn’t eager to jump into the conflict, but France was, largely because Mali is essentially in its backyard. In January 2013, newly-elected President Francios Hollande announced that French troops would fight alongside Mali forces to oust the newly-empowered Islamists.
While America’s involvement in Mali was neither as expansive nor as highly publicized as the Libyan intervention, it did enter the conflict nonetheless. Officials initially said that the U.S. would only provide French forces with intelligence and refueling support, but eventually ended up supplying military trainers and troop transports as well. This seems to be the most limited U.S. military engagement Obama has launched abroad, but it set the stage for the U.S.—France alliance that seems to now be shaping up in Syria.
While the uprisings in several Arab Spring countries ended rather quickly with the deposition of longstanding leaders, that wasn’t the case in Syria. Protests first erupted in mid-March of 2011, and as with Libya, they were met with a violent crackdown by the government. The situation gradually devolved into a civil war, but much to the dismay of the Syrian opposition, there wasn’t a significant international cry for an intervention.
This was largely an issue of timing — things began getting dicey in Syria just as the U.S. and NATO were conducting airstrikes in Libya, and so the appetite for another intervention wasn’t terribly high. The United Nations debated the issue tirelessly to no avail (largely because Russia and China repeatedly blocked any significant condemnations of President Bashar al-Assad), and diplomat Kofi Annan was deployed as an international peace envoy, but all efforts to end the conflict hit a wall. Current death tolls exceed 100,000.
Obama said in August of last year that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” and that such actions “would change my calculus.” After evidence of a massive chemical weapons attack surfaced last month, Obama announced that the U.S. would launch airstrikes on the country, pending congressional approval.
But then, at the eleventh hour, Secretary of State John Kerry accidentally proposed a diplomatic solution that would rid Assad of chemical weapons and prevent a U.S. strike on the country. The U.S., Russia and Syria entered negotiations last week, and came to a tentative agreement wherein Syria would submit an inventory of its chemical weapons and allow for their complete dismantling by mid-2014.
Obama endorsed the diplomatic approach, but stressed that a military strike is still possible if the negotiations and dismantling efforts fail. As with Libya, he's pledged that no matter what, there will be no American boots on the ground.