The poster sits on my office wall, chosen from all the entries in the 2012 Banksy calendar as the one to keep and display. It says something clever and a bit funny, I think, about the US and its propensity to use force – in particular its increased reliance under Obama on air power, especially of the unmanned variety, to achieve the administration’s goals and “get the bad guys”. A new PhD student scanned my walls last week, pointed at the poster, and remarked: “that’s what they’re doing in Iraq and Syria”. But is that right? Is Obama’s latest military venture against Islamic State (IS) a typical kneejerk reaction to be condemned for its shortsightedness, or the best option given the likely deepening of regional instability and rising levels of horrific violence if IS is left alone to build its self-professed caliphate?
The US was slow off the mark to deal with the rise of IS. Obama has admitted that the US intelligence services failed to identify what was happening within the Syrian civil war and also that they overestimated the ability of the Iraqi government to thwart the rising threat. Obama was also no doubt mindful of the potential response from the US public and his political and media opponents if he was to drag the US back into a war in Iraq. Looking to build a legacy beyond his final term, Obama had begun to define his presidency as one that would take the United States out of the long-running post-September 11, 2001 wars.
“A decade of war is ending,” Obama declared during his Second Inaugural Address in January 2013. US combat troops had already withdrawn from Iraq and the exit strategy for Afghanistan promised full withdrawal by the end of 2014. The “war on terror” itself had been redefined under Obama, with its nomenclature diluted and focus directed more specifically at al Qaeda and its associated groups, largely through targeted killings carried out with unmanned drones. The US had engaged briefly in Libya but more in a supporting role within NATO, and had toyed with the notion of some sort of military action in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war until the Russian brokered deal had made the use of force unnecessary. With the campaign against IS, however, rather than bringing the US into a new era of peace, as many of his supporters hoped he would, Obama’s most likely legacy now looks like being a long-term military engagement with a transnational force that threatens to deepen the instability in the Middle East that his administration had strived to manage and overcome.
Obama is often characterized as a reluctant warrior, yet even before he became a US Senator he made clear that he is a true believer in the necessity of the war against terrorism to protect the US. He has also used prominent speeches in his presidency, including his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, to detail his philosophy of the use of force and his absolute willingness to threaten and use the full range military options the US has at its disposal. Unlike many opinion shapers and policy makers in the US, Obama recognises that there is not a simple equation between the number of US war dead and the public’s opposition to continued US involvement in a conflict. The US public will accept significant casualty figures if they believe the cause is worth the sacrifices being made. Obama was able to deepen and then maintain the US war in Afghanistan, for example, because he understood that a majority of Americans still believed the war had been worth fighting even while they did not believe it was going well.
Obama seemed unsure whether the US public would accept US intervention against IS and took some time arriving at a decision. Ultimately he calculated that because of the humanitarian crisis being created by the IS advances and their seizing and then slaying of US and allied hostages, that elites and the public alike would support US action not only in Iraq but then also in Syria. Yet throughout the debate over whether Washington should act, there was constant insistence that US ground troops would not be involved. Throughout much of his presidency, Obama has found targeted airstrikes, particularly using drones, an especially attractive proposition because, compared with the use of ground troops, it minimizes the chances of US personnel being killed or injured, enables access to difficult or remote terrain, and allegedly limits collateral damage in major urban areas.
One of the biggest problems for Obama, however, is that the utility of US military force has proven to be limited time and again. Despite its undoubted military superiority in terms of sheer size, technology and firepower, the United States has failed to achieve its political or strategic objectives in several of the conflicts it has entered into since World War II. Vietnam is the most obvious example but there are others such as Somalia and Iraq where its military prowess was insufficient to overcome asymmetric warfare and the US had to extricate itself from intractable conflicts without fully securing its goals. Air power alone has rarely been enough to weaken enemy resolve or capabilities to the point where the US has emerged victorious. Given the complexities of both Syrian and Iraqi politics and the diversity of the ethnic and religious groups involved, it seems extremely unlikely that the US and its allies will defeat IS merely through the extensive use of airstrikes. No matter how much he may insist that US ground forces will not be involved, the deeper into the conflict Washington is drawn the more difficult it may become for Obama to avoid deploying troops. Banksy may need to spray a new slogan: “If at first you don’t succeed…send in the ground troops.”
Trevor McCrisken is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His research focuses on US foreign policy, in particular the ideational bases of policy making, the threat and use of US military force, and most recently the counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration on which he has published in the journals International Affairs and Survival.