Monday, October 27, 2014

Obama’s weak leadership

Barack Obama has tried to avoid risk to America by avoiding military commitments. "I am the president who ends wars," he once proclaimed. But has he been too cautious?

"From the moment Syria's government declared war on its own people, we should have acted," says Stephen Hadley, a former US national security adviser. It was in 2011 that Syria's Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful mass demonstrations with furious mass murder.

Regional powers including Turkey and the Arab states were ready to intervene but looked to US leadership, he says. They didn't get any.

"We sat on our hands for three years" as Syria's civil war raged, "and the result is what you see today," a typhoon of barbaric violence and medieval chaos spreading danger from Syria and Iraq to Canada's capital and Sydney's suburbs and many points in between.


The post of US national security adviser is the highest office in the world that any professional strategist can attain. Yet Hadley does not have an unblemished record on Middle East matters.

He was the deputy to Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser to George W. Bush when the president decided to launch the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hadley fully supported that ill-begotten decision.

Today he concedes that the invasion was based on a fallacy: "If we knew in advance there were no WMD stockpiles, it would have been very difficult for the President to go to war," Hadley tells me. But he defends the former president nonetheless: "On what he believed at the time, he was justified."

Yet Hadley has proved to be prescient on the Syrian civil war and its spillovers. He, among others, has been warning for three years of the danger of Western inaction:

He had been saying that "the longer the Syrian civil war goes, the more people die, the more sectarian it becomes, the more it destabilises Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and the whole region, and the more it opens the door to Al Qaeda. All that has come to pass."

Obama waited three years too long, so that the barbarians masquerading as Islamic State enjoyed "the perception of unbridled, uninterrupted success and a reputation of being ten feet tall."

That's why the first task of the allied operation to defeat IS is "to break the attack, stop their momentum and make them six feet tall," he says during a stint in Sydney as the Telstra Distinguished International Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Hadley thinks the Obama strategy is the right one and should be supported. He applauds the Abbott government for taking "the very courageous decision early – and he was early – to make a major commitment of aircraft and people."

But he says that it's too early to know whether the strategy is actually working: "In some places it seems to be working, in other places it's not. What's clear is that you can't defeat ISIL" another name for IS "with air power alone".

For this reason he makes two further predictions. The US ultimately will have to take two extra steps that Obama has so far resisted. First, America will end up committing more ground forces to the battlefield.

Not because the US will end up doing all the fighting on the ground, but because it must convince Iraq's Sunni tribes to do some of the fighting on the ground. The Sunni tribes, in fear of IS, are hesitating to the join the battle. The Kurds and the Iraqi army are not enough, he says, to win. The Sunni tribes are an essential part of the combat force needed to succeed:

"If they rise up against ISIL, the price of failure is a brutal death. They will only rise up if they're convinced they will win, and they will only be convinced they will win if they are convinced the US will do what they need to help them win."

Second, Hadley predicts that the US eventually will wage war directly against Syria's Assad. Because as the US tries to train some of the Syrian opposition forces, the Syrian military is killing them.   

But it's not enough for the US to defeat IS. The superpower has to deal with multiple threats, including an aggressive Russia and an ever-spreading Ebola plague.

Hadley sees a similar tendency to inaction in confronting these dangers, too. With Ebola, "the issue is, did we respond fulsomely enough and fast enough? You'd always like to do better, and that's certainly the case with Ebola."

And on Russia, the West's sanctions are not enough to stop Vladimir Putin's  aggression, he says. Because Russia is winning:

"He has achieved his objective in Ukraine, just as he did in Georgia and Moldova. He grabs some territory so there's a conflict, so the EU will not touch them." They will remain outside the Western sphere and the reach of the US.

Next, says Hadley, Putin will destabilise the Baltic states and, if unopposed, end up dominating the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that Russia controlled during the Cold War. "This is big stuff," he emphasises.

"All that is possible unless Putin decides he has failed in Ukraine and the strategic costs of proceeding are too high." And that will only happen if the West raises the costs to Putin.

The US needs to station forces in the Baltic states, and Poland too. Trade and energy policy must be enlisted too, says Hadley.

Abbott's promise of a shirtfronting should be just the beginning. Hadley concludes: "In addition to shirtfronting Putin, there have to be concrete steps to deter him."

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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