With characteristic condescension, President Barack Obama recently insisted that the world has succumbed to an irrational fit of panic. “We’re going through a spasm of fear,” the president said in response to the rise of right-leaning nationalist movements in Europe. “When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame.”
“We have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed,” Obama added. “If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.”
The implication in the president’s remarks is that the progress-stunting scare that has paralyzed those less enlightened than himself is not founded in anything logical or realistic. Actions, as they say, speak louder than ostentatious pomposity. If Obama had sought to convey to the world that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, he has done a spectacularly poor job of masking his own apprehensions. In the final months of his presidency, it seems Barack Obama is shedding his naïve attachment to multilateralism and leaning on good, old-fashioned hard power deterrents as the global threat environment worsens.
If the president wanted to calm frayed nerves, he would have perhaps not allowed his Secretary of defense to reveal that the White House was contemplating a strategic shift in the war against ISIS in the Middle East that would allow for “direct action on the ground” in some cases. As part of a review of the president’s stalled strategy in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon is considering the deployment of low-flying Apache attack helicopters to Iraq and a small number of ground forces to Syria. COMMENTARY’s Max Boot is correct to characterize these as gimmicky gestures, but they are also a public acknowledgement that the war on ISIS is not going well. Moreover, it is a tacit acceptance of the fact that Washington must fill the vacuum that they left in the region in 2011, one into which Moscow has been eagerly inserting itself.
“Recent Russian intervention in Syria on the side of the regime, and the threat of Moscow intervening in Iraq next, has spurred the U.S. to step up its role, defense officials acknowledge,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, went farther than that. He noted that Iraqi leaders have been toying with the prospect to of inviting Moscow to conduct airstrikes in Iraqi territory against ISIS as the American-led air campaign has stalled. Dunford warned that this outcome would invite a dramatic American de-escalation. He told lawmakers on Tuesday that American commitment to Iraqi defense would become “problematic” if Baghdad invited Russia to conduct airstrikes in its territory. He warning suggests that the U.S. would cede Iraq to Russia, Iran, and ISIS. That hardly seems feasible, however, given present U.S. commitments in that country.
Dunford’s comments highlight the extent to which the regional war in Iraq and Syria has evolved into a theater in which Russia and the United States compete for influence and authority. As he prepares to vacate his role as Obama’s anti-ISIS point man, retired Marine Corps. General John R. Allen warned Congress that Russian intervention in Syria is likely to produce more waves of Westward wandering refugees. The first waves of migrants upended European politics, forced the construction of thousands of miles of border fencing, accelerated the rise of rightist political forces, and rendered the Schengen Agreement virtually moot. The president’s admonition of American and European public’s unfounded fears is betrayed as hollow posturing by his own advisors.
While America finds itself being rapidly displaced in the Near East, the United States is working to reassert its position in the Pacific. This week, President Barack Obama took the laudable step of ordering American naval assets to sail within what China unilaterally declared as its 12-mile zone of protection around its man-made islands in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic warned of serious consequences for the invasion of its new territory, and revealed that it had tracked the destroyer USS Lassen as it transited through the contested Spratly Islands. So far, there have been no consequences of a military dimension for the United States. The benefits of this action certainly outweigh their costs. Obama successfully communicated to Beijing that the United States and its allies would not respect the territorial waters around its man-made military bases in the Pacific.
Obama had little choice. The alternative is to cede to China influence if not outright control over some of the world’s most heavily trafficked maritime shipping routes. The very foundations of American global hegemony are rooted in free and unfettered trade, and supremacy over the oceans across which trade transits. Should conflict break out in the South China Sea between two or more of the five powers that have competing claims on territory in the resource-rich Spratlys, China could exploit its position to prevent passage through those sea lanes.
With freedom of navigation at stake, Barack Obama chose to demonstrate his resolve. It’s a welcome, if belated, gesture. It is, however, wrong for the president to imply that those who are exhibiting a bit of worry these days are paranoid or susceptible to suggestion.
It becomes clearer by the day that the world’s revisionist powers are going to make the most of Barack Obama’s final months in office, and the president appears to be getting serious about the maintenance of American military supremacy through the exercise of hard power. He deserves credit where it is due, but Obama should also be straight with the public. The world has not succumbed to the throes associated with paralyzing terror for no discernable reason. Theirs is a justified response to America’s reckless stewardship of the geopolitical order for the last seven years.