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Obama's New Guidelines for War Don't Provide Much Guidance on Iran and Syria


When the Cold War ended in 1989, many Americans, including myself, expected that the military would take a back seat in American foreign policy, but over the last 25 years American forces have intervened in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Speaking in December 2009 at West Point, President Barack Obama devoted the bulk of his speech to defending the surge in Afghanistan. He had to assure his audience that “in the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms.”

But in his speech at West Point on Wednesday, Obama described a foreign policy in which American military force would play a diminished role. This time, he told the cadets that “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership” (my italics). And he laid out a role for the military that had very little to do with exercising force. It would “respond to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food caused by climate change." It would “work as a team with diplomats and development experts” and “become the strongest advocate for diplomacy and development.” In his 2009 speech, Obama had contrasted the role of the military with that of the Peace Corps. In today’s speech, they performed similar duties. As I watched the speech, I wondered what the graduating cadets—who gave the president tepid applause—were thinking.

Nonetheless, the speech was a valuable retreat from mindless saber-rattling and reflected a recognition that the world had changed since 1989 or 2009. The United States is not facing a “direct threat.” One of the principal causes of world or large-scale wars—the rivalry over colonies—has largely disappeared. The main conflicts are local and regional and some can be better dealt with through artful diplomacy, economic sanctions, or special forces. But while the world and the United States is in less danger of conflagration since 1989, it is probably less capable of dealing with the conflicts that do arise. On this count, Obama’s guidelines in his speech about when military force can be used didn’t really provide much guidance to the cadets or to foreign policy planners in Washington.

Obama laid out two circumstances in which the United States would use force: first, it would use force “unilaterally if necessary ... when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.” The second circumstance would be “when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction” but “do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” These would include Syria, Libya, and Ukraine. In these cases, the United States should limit itself to “collective action” with “allies and partners,” and should use sanctions, isolation, and appeals to international law and should only use “multilateral military action … if just, necessary, and effective.”

At first glance, these conditions seem entirely appropriate. The first condition would apply to Pearl Harbor in 1941 and to Al Qaeda’s attack out of Afghanistan in September 2001, both of which directly threatened the United States. The second condition would apply to the first Gulf War, when George H.W. Bush assembled a formidable coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but not to George W. Bush’s narrow “coalition of the willing” against Iraq, which ended up embroiling the U.S. in a fruitless nine-year war and leaving the Middle East and even, perhaps, Iraq worse off than before. The second condition would also apply to the administration’s reluctance to threaten force in Ukraine. But these principles are far more difficult to apply to other key conflicts that Obama cited in his speech.

Obama’s second set of conditions would justify the administration’s unwillingness to use force in Syria. But it could be argued that by refusing to use force in Syria, the administration made it impossible to achieve what Obama said in his speech were his objectives in Syria. Two years ago, the United States threatened force if Dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his opposition. When the Obama administration determined that he had done so, it readied an attack, but then backed down after Britain refused to join the U.S. and France, and after opposition surfaced in Congress. By backing down, the Obama administration endangered its credibility in future conflicts. (Obama dismissed this problem in his speech.) But the administration also forfeited any chance to achieve a negotiated resolution to the conflict. As Secretary of State John Kerry had acknowledged in his Senate testimony, the United States and France would have been able to inflict significant collateral damage on Assad’s forces that might have led the dictator’s supporters to favor negotiations.

In his West Point speech, Obama promised to “help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his people.” And he promised to “ramp up support” for the Syrian opposition without putting “American troops into the middle.” And he promised “to push for a political resolution of this crisis.”  But there is little or no chance the conflict can be resolved politically. After having agreed to eliminate his chemical weapons—which were not essential to his military strategy—Assad appears to have gotten the better of the rebels, and the rebels themselves are deeply divided. So by forgoing military intervention, Obama may have forfeited his only chance to achieve a political resolution that would have helped “the Syrian people stand up against” Assad.

Here, then, is the rub: there are cases where in order to achieve a certain objective, the United States may have to back up its diplomacy with force. The alternative would be to abandon or significantly modify the objective. To do that in Syria would have meant negotiating with Assad himself, which the United States was, and still is, unwilling to do. And there are also cases where the United States will be unable to mount “collective action” through international institutions or large-scale coalitions. In Syria, our European allies except for France were skittish, the Arab countries were divided, and Iran and Russia backed Assad. Obama faced similar disarray in opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. In the wake of the Eurocrisis, European countries that were formerly America’s staunchest allies can’t agree among each other. So while Obama’s second condition could provide a reasonable guide to action, the United States would have to be willing to alter—and water down—its objectives to meet it. It couldn’t continue to demand a result that could only be achieved by the unilateral or bilateral use of American force.

As for Obama’s first set of conditions, they would seem to currently rule out any unilateral military intervention except in cases of terrorist attacks. But in Obama’s speech, he repeated a past threat to use military force against Iran if it tries to obtain nuclear weapons. “We reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he declared. But he didn’t explain how this threat of unilateral action fit his guidelines for the use of force. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would not seem to pose a “direct threat” to the American people. Perhaps Obama would say that the United States is obligated to act because the “security” of an “ally” is threatened. That could mean Israel or perhaps Saudi Arabia. But these nations would not be directly and immediately threatened simply by Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Obama’s first and second conditions for military intervention would certainly fit some cases, but it seems difficult to reconcile either with his specific policy pronouncements about Iran and Syria. If American policy toward these countries was inconsequential, then there would be little reason for concern. But Iran and Syria are at the center of American foreign policy. Obama’s speech deserves attention as a description of what our military will eventually look like and be doing, but it is less important as an account of what our military should or could be doing now.