Shahid Javed Burki
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
The Obama doctrine, when it was presented to the world by its author, seemed an elegant statement of America’s view of the world and its intentions towards it. In a speech at the West Point Military Academy in May 2014, the American president laid out the ways in which the United States should participate in international affairs. He said that America will only go to war — that is to say have “boots on the ground” — when there was a direct threat to its security. In most other cases, it will project its values and interests by example and by working with other like-minded nations.
When laid before the public in the form of an address, it seemed like a workable way of handling Washington’s relations with the outside world. It was also a very different approach compared with the adventurism and impetuous behaviour in foreign policy adopted by his predecessor, George W Bush. Then Washington walked into Iraq in March 2003 without reason. America and the world were to pay a heavy price for that adventure. That said, many in the world and in the United States disagreed with the substance of the Obama doctrine.
The Obama doctrine was put to the test with the sudden and unexpected arrival of the Islamic State (IS) on the world stage. What shook the president, many in America and most people across the world was the barbarity practised by the followers of the movement that was behind the establishment of the new political entity. By displaying the beheading of two American journalists and two British aid workers on social media outlets, the IS was not only inviting attention to its arrival, it also seemed to be making the case for the spread of the conflict of which it was a part. Did these acts pose a threat to American society? Will the IS in some way attract Muslims from the many diasporas to join its cause?
The rise of the IS had raised a number of other questions that were equally relevant for addressing the rapidly developing situation. Why were policymakers and policy analysts in Washington and other Western capitals caught by surprise by the rise of this phenomenon and what gave it such enormous military muscle? Had the circumstances that led to the development of the IS been anticipated, could measures have been adopted and actions taken in time to bring it under control? The first question was answered in some form but the second one remained on the table. James Clapper, the director of intelligence in the Obama Administration, thought that he and his colleagues overestimated the capacity of the Iraqi forces to handle an insurgency, such as the one that led to the creation of the IS. He said that the intelligence community should have drawn some lessons from the experience in Vietnam in the 1960s when all the investments made by the United States to develop a Vietnamese army did not prevent the advance of the communist force, Vietcong. This explanation was repeated by President Obama in a television news show a few days later.
However, both President Obama and his officials need not have gone as far back as the American fiasco in Vietnam to explain the rise of the IS. They should look at the developing situations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to draw some important policy and operational lessons. These two countries are better laboratories for they, like those in the Middle East, are also Muslim societies engaged in momentous change. America has been involved in both and for the reason that it regards them as possible threats to its national security. For Barack Obama, the presidential candidate, America’s war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity but that in Iraq was a war of choice. Pakistan was linked to the latter since Washington held Islamabad responsible for its lack of success in Afghanistan. What lessons can be learnt from the AfPak region? This is a question for next week.