Madrid view: Obama’s three wars

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Barack Obama received a poisoned legacy from his predecessor. Though distinguishing between Iraq as a war “of choice” and Afghanistan as a “necessary” conflict, in both cases he promised a pull-out. The first withdrawal has already taken place, and was certainly more honourable than Obama could have imagined. The withdrawal from Iraq does not make up for the disaster of the invasion in the first place, validate the subsequent loss of life or even leave a stable democracy behind; but it does allow for a turn of the page, a budget reduction in time of crisis, and a concentration on the real objective: Pacific Asia.

The second withdrawal is also underway, with a military deadline (2014) and a political schedule that seems to be just about working out. To negotiate with the Taliban, who shielded Bin Laden, might not seem to be the best way of closing the September 11 case, but seen from Washington the alternatives look worse. Like it or not, the Peace Prize president’s war record is not likely to end here. Just as Obama was jettisoning the last legacy of Bush Jr., he was becoming entangled in three low-intensity conflicts — as if, for a president, it were impossible to escape the magnetic field of the immense military power that the United States places at his disposal. Obama’s first war was, of course, Pakistan, where since the beginning of his mandate he opted for a sharp increase in bombing operations in the country’s northwest. This campaign against the Al Qaeda leaders and Taliban forces based there (killing an estimated 1,500 militants) required daily arm-twisting of Pakistani politicians and soldiers, deeply averse to US presence and activity on their soil. After 26 Pakistani soldiers died in an American raid (and with the memory still fresh of the humiliation caused by the operation to kill Bin Laden), the Pakistani government has cancelled the CIA’s permission to use the Shamsi base for its drone operations. So, though this war is linked to Afghanistan and may well continue after the pull-out thence, its end is highly uncertain.

Obama’s second war took place in the airspace of Libya. He said he was taking a “back seat”, leaving the leadership role to the French and British, but the fact is, once again, that the US role was absolutely decisive — so much that the Europeans could not have sustained the campaign beyond the first days. The war was not secret, but indeed opaque, given Obama’s desire not to visibly involve the United States in yet another war against a Muslim country.

Obama’s third war is taking shape, it seems, around Iran. The 8,000 US pilots and technical personnel sent to Israel in recent days for joint manoeuvres are clearly a response to Iran’s announcement that it is going to enrich uranium above the levels required for civilian use. In turn, the series of attacks on Iranian scientists, though supposedly carried out by intermediary agents — either Iranian dissidents, the Israeli intelligence services or (why not?) Saudi Arabia, or others who also consider the Iranian nuclear program a threat of the first order — is something that cannot go on without the acquiescence, if only implicit, of the United States. Added to the tension generated by the sanctions on Iranian oil and Tehran’s threats on the Strait of Hormuz, everything indicates that the actors involved have decided to up the ante and, in consequence, the chances of an open conflict.

So far, just like Bush Jr., Obama has not hesitated to use force to defend what he perceives to be the interests of the United States. But, in contrast to Bush, he has always preferred to use force in the least visible manner, not to commit forces on the ground, and to allow others to play the leading role. Until now, Obama’s wars have been low intensity ones but, as we move further into 2012, things may change.

The article first appeared in El Pais. Follow José-Ignacio Torreblanca on Twitter @jitorreblanca

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