Advancements in Iraq suggest a change in Obama’s foreign policy

Barack Obama Speaks

Increasing US airstrikes in Iraq indicate a significant change in Obama’s foreign policy – and may suggest a more proactive leadership in the future

Last weekend, US forces have pummeled Islamic State, IS, militants’ positions around the Mosul Dam, in northern Iraq. The move has allowed Kurdish Forces, known as Peshmerga, and Iraqi Special Forces to close in on the dam. This marks another victory for the Kurds, whose success in recapturing territory, lost since the start of the conflict, has greatly improved since the US began airstrikes two weeks ago. It also indicates an expansion of the US military’s narrowly defined mission, announced by President Obama on the 7th August, to protect American personnel in Iraq and help fleeing Yazidi villagers trapped in the Sinjar mountain.

Obama justified these new airstrikes in terms of his initial authorization, claiming failure to recapture the dam could “endanger US personnel”. However, US officials have admitted that fears of the IS militants blowing up the dam have been overstated. It would be difficult for them to get the explosives necessary and, even if they could, it is still unlikely as Mosul – the biggest city the IS militants control – would be first to disappear if the dam was destroyed.

These developments have important ramifications for Obama’s foreign policy. It hinders Obama’s plan to end the war in Iraq, which he has fervently pursued since his first Presidential election and which many war-weary Americans elected him to achieve. He has been insistent that this is not a step backwards, initially claiming “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.” Since him and his staff have reiterated that this decision involves the US air force only, not ground troops.

The decision indicates a willingness to use military force. Obama’s foreign policy has come under heavy criticism; he has often been accused of being weak due to his reluctance to use military force alone. His statement on the 7th August repeatedly referenced his West Point speech in May this year, which outlined his less militarized and more multilateral foreign policy. He, once again, claimed that just because America has a strong military does not mean every problem has a military solution. Yet, despite outlining other tools within the US arsenal, including diplomatic and economic, he is using the military tool in the meantime.

Obama also showed willingness to act alone. Obama was heavily criticized in 2012 when the President of Syria – Bashar Al-Assad – after a vote in the Commons meant Prime Minister David Cameron was unable to help. Now, while Obama has worked to garner multilateral support, some allies – such as Britain – had already said they would not help the US militarily when Obama announced his decision to do so. Similarly, although Obama has been keen to point out that the US has acted in response to a request from the Iraqi government, support for US involvement has been far from universal. For example, the main Shi’ite bloc in Iraqi Parliament was strongly opposed.

Obama also showed willingness to act without the full support of Congress. In 2012 he sought Congressional authorization to take action in Syria, which failed. Now, he has said he will keep Congress fully informed but has not said he will seek their authorization, for example last Sunday he released a letter notifying Congress of his actions.

While Obama’s readiness to play the role of global leader was present in his speech at West Point he was much more insistent that the US lead by following international law. In his speech on the 7th August, however, he claimed that the world looked to the US to lead by virtue of its norms and, even more surprisingly, he claimed that the military “represent American leadership at its best”.

The more pessimistic of commentators, such as Phyllis Bennis at the Institute for Policy Studies, believe this is “a slippery slope” back to war. Others, such as Representative Adam Smith claim it is an isolated circumstance. It may, however, be somewhere between the two. The decision to use force could indicate the conquering of a middle ground between the interventionists in America, such as John McCain, and the more cautious members of the Obama administration, including Obama himself. Obama may be more willing to take responsibility for the world’s problems while acknowledging that a unilateral, military solution is never sufficient. Only time will tell.