Obama and his legacy of ending wars

Joyce Karam

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Since assuming his second term in 2012, there is hardly a foreign policy speech in which the U.S. President Barack Obama does not remind us of his accomplishment in ending the war in Iraq and his plans to close the Afghanistan chapter. This perhaps will be the defining foreign affairs legacy of the Obama presidency and his tool to deal with the continued challenges in the Middle East.

In his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, Obama quoted the fourth President of the U.S. James Madison who said that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare” reminding his audience that he chose to end the Iraq war, which he originally opposed in 2003 as a young Chicago senator, and is laying the ground today to end the 12 year war in Afghanistan. Ending wars is a recurring theme in Obama’s national security addresses, and will undoubtedly define a great deal of his legacy.

The cost of war

The aversion to war is prevalent in U.S. politics today, both inside and outside the Obama administration. Ironically, the Iraq war which was led by a Republican president has carried the isolationists in the party to the forefront of the debate. Today, the tea party movement dominates the Republican base, and champions the anti-war and anti-intervention rhetoric within the party. Its supporters are rising stars in Congress such as Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz. While the Libya intervention did not involve any U.S. boots on the ground, and no combat casualties, it triggered relentless hearings from Obama’s opponents over the Benghazi attack last September. Going to war is no more a casual business for any U.S. president and according to polls, it finds very little support among the American public.

There is a consensus among policy elites in Washington, from both Democrats and Republicans, against deploying ground troops in Syria

Joyce Karam

Part of this is due to the financial burden of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose cost transcends 3.5 trillion dollars according to Brown University, at a time when the White House had to cut visiting tours amidst budget constraints from the congress. The political cost is as hefty for the U.S. image and reputation abroad. In Germany alone, according to a Pew research poll, the confidence in former President George W. Bush was at 14% when he left office in 2008, compared with 88% in Obama today. Those numbers are driven mostly by Obama’s contrary image to Bush, and his pledges to end “receding wars,” and close the Guantanamo bay detention camp.

Impact on Middle East

This theme is shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East. Obama’s caution in dealing with Syria, favoring a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, and acting in concert with European allies in Libya while staying out of the Mali crisis, is redefining the U.S. role globally and in the region. The impact of the Iraq war is very much present in the Obama administration policymaking circles at both the defense and diplomatic levels. Leading officials on the Syria file such as Ambassador Robert Ford and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Matin Dempsey, both of whom served in Iraq and want to avoid at any cost a repeat of that involvement in Syria. Dempsey, according to Bloomberg news, even struck down a proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry last week to launch airstrikes against the Assad regime.

There is a consensus among policy elites in Washington, from both Democrats and Republicans, against deploying ground troops in Syria. Even on the issue of arming the rebels, many republicans in the congress have voiced reservations, including the influential congresswoman on the House foreign relations committee, Ileana Ros Lehtinen.

Against this backdrop, and part of his commitment to redefine the U.S. role abroad away from the combat zone, Obama is choosing to delegate some of the Middle East conflicts and chart new territory for America in the world. In Syria, Obama has been mostly relying on his Gulf allies and Turkey to organize and arm the rebels, and on Israel to perform air strikes if necessary. In Libya, Washington was the last to join the coalition and enforce a No Fly Zone against the former regime of Moammar Qaddafi. And in Iraq, Obama chose to leave instead of pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to grant immunity to a remaining combat force. The same trend is taking shape in Afghanistan, where Qatar will be mediating talks between the U.S. and Taliban, as Washington prepares to withdraw in 2014.

While former President Ronald Reagan ended the cold war, and President Bill Clinton managed the aftermath with Russia, Obama is looking for a larger footprint on the global scale that redefines the U.S. role and involvement. One that is founded in ending costly wars and rebranding Washington’s image of power abroad.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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