Retrenchment Reversed?

"Ample historical precedent exists of retrenchment losing public support because of the tide of events, only to give way to a more robust policy option."

For those looking or hoping for signs that U.S. President Barack Obama has shifted away from what many would argue as his grand strategy of modified retrenchment, recent headlines have provided plenty of fodder. His televised announcement that he’s expanding an airstrike campaign initiated last month in Iraq to provide cover to U.S. personnel and religious minorities into one aimed at “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appears to mark something of a volte-face for a president who has been determined to avoid repeating what he sees as his predecessor’s cardinal mistake of bogging down the nation in Middle East conflicts of indefinite length and dubious strategic value.  That this campaign includes increasing military assistance to elements of the Syrian opposition in that country’s toxic civil war, action Obama had stoutly resisted for three years against the counsel of his national-security team, suggests that he concluded the merits of inaction had become outweighed by its risks. This comes on the heels of a rather pugnacious speech in Estonia, in which he coupled condemnation of Russia’s behavior in Ukraine with vows that this “moment of testing” will be met with a vigorous response, thereby providing the rhetorical basis for the creation of a rapid-response NATO force that will counter possible Russian transgressions against the alliance’s members.

Yet more indicative of a resurgence of U.S. foreign-policy activism than this apparent course correction, which is limited in scope and remains consistent with Obama’s aversion to costly external adventures, is something that has gone relatively unnoticed by commentators: growing public disenchantment with retrenchment and the sense that it hasn’t advanced American security. This nascent shift in popular sentiment will help shape how the next administration, Democrat or Republican, approaches the world. Obama’s successor will most likely display fewer inhibitions about wielding American power.

While Obama’s recent actions mark an escalation in rhetoric, they substantively represent a modification in tactics and underscore his continuing search for aligning America’s security requirements with its finite resources. His political ascent propelled by his consistent opposition to the Iraq War and his reelection campaign in 2012 resting in no small part on satisfying public clamoring for bringing the troops home, Obama was in no rush to go back into Iraq. Indeed, even as he announced a concerted bombing campaign against ISIS and the dispatch of 475 additional U.S. service members to Iraq, Obama stressed that this was a “counterterrorism strategy…different from the [combat] wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Betraying his own limited conception of how to counter the threat posed by ISIS, which U.S. intelligence concedes is uncertain and not imminent,  Obama has spoken elsewhere of “shrink[ing] ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” By forgoing U.S. troops and relying instead on local ground forces in Iraq and Syria, in combination with American airstrikes, the president is hoping this goal can be achieved without the pitfalls of full-scale intervention.

Similar restraint continues to characterize Obama’s response to the standoff with Russia. He has yet to complement criticism of the Kremlin’s sponsorship of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine with military support to Kiev, which is favored by some in Congress and even among a few White House advisers, out of fear of further heightening tensions and potentially drawing the United States into a conflict over a country whose fate impinges far less on American security than it does on Russia’s. Firm declarations of U.S. fealty to the security of NATO members in Eastern Europe and the Baltic are seen as necessary for allaying the concerns of nervous allies, but it’s also hoped that reiterating existing commitments to countries already under America’s defense umbrella, as opposed to issuing new guarantees to those outside it, will, alongside Russia’s limited capacity for power projection, prove sufficient in deterring Vladimir Putin from entertaining ambitions beyond Ukraine.