In Libya, rebel fighters are closing in on Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli - though remain locked in a six-month civil war and face a potential bloodbath in taking the city. This is despite Mr. Obama’s headlong rush to lead “kinetic military action” in March to back them up, an effort expected by some optimists in Washington to last weeks. NATO, with U.S. forces at the core, is still at it.
With Syria, Mr. Obama finally called for strongman President Bashar Al-Assad to step down – only now that 2,000 pro-democracy demonstrators have been killed in military assaults with tanks, infantry and naval bombardment. Though certainly the right decision, unfortunately it’s about five months overdue, and too late for those who have already lost their lives.
It’s almost as if Mr. Obama has been operating in fast-forward to support democracy and protect lives in Libya, while going slow motion in Syria.
Why is that?
First, when it comes to entrenched regimes like Qaddafi’s and Al-Assad’s, dictators know that the law of the jungle applies. Weak states like Libya are more vulnerable to foreign military intervention and internal unrest - strong states like Iranian-backed Syria are more secure. Despite Mr. Obama’s lofty statements defying dictators and promoting human rights, he only really tried to deliver in lower-risk environments. Egypt and Tunisia come to mind.
Second, rather than leading from the front as American presidents have traditionally done – save Jimmy Carter, Mr. Obama takes his cues from international organizations like the UN and Arab League. Once they pressed for military action in Libya, it was Tomahawks away – with the U.S. leading the charge.
Third, despite his popularity overseas, Mr. Obama arguably still doesn’t have the experience of a seasoned chief executive to deal with thorny issues like the Arab Spring. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering his four years in the Senate were known for voting “present.”
Though admittedly it’s easier to criticize the government than to be responsible for producing successful results – my five years at the Pentagon taught me that hard truth, here are some tangible steps that the Obama Administration could have done better, and should do next on Libya and Syria:
On Libya, instead of committing U.S. forces to a third war while we’re already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, he should have insisted those shouting the loudest for military action – France, the U.K. and Arab League, do the heavy lifting. The U.S. fired roughly 98% of the Tomahawk missiles, deployed the most ships and aircraft, dropped the majority of precision-guided munitions, and thus got stuck with the highest bill.
And since Qaddafi struck us twice in the 1980s with terrorism in retaliation for military confrontations, we’re now squarely in the cross hairs for a reprisal. Thus we ought to be doing more to push him out now that we have attacked him again - each day he remains in power represents a threat to Americans. We should do more to shape a U.S.-friendly, Al-Qaeda-free rebel movement – while we still have the chance.
On Syria, instead of waiting for the protester death count to reach 2,000, Mr. Obama should have called for Al-Assad to step down long ago. And instead of merely slapping economic sanctions on just 7 Syrian leaders in May, he should have expanded them to include Syria’s oil, banking, and communications industries – a move he has just now undertaken.
Next, he should recall U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus - failure to do so adds legitimacy to the regime. He should start supporting the Syrian opposition without delay. After all, Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez before him were not shy about supporting those fighting U.S. forces over these past decades.
Syria was the main conduit for pan-Arab fighters pouring into Iraq to wage jihad against our troops. They’ve also armed and trained Hezbollah and Hamas - terrorist organizations bent on forcing our withdrawal from the Middle East and Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah was behind the 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen.
Short of “military kinetic action,” there’s a lot Mr. Obama could and should be doing on Syria – but appears unable to get the job done.
Though his speeches may sound great, he hasn’t been effective in delivering positive outcomes for America in complex world events like we’ve seen in Libya and Syria.
Such a flawed foreign policy strategy – one that in essence rewards strong dictators and punishes weak ones, regardless of the direct threat to us – harms our reputation as a world leader and encourages rogue regimes to build up their own military arsenals.
J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington-D.C. think tanks and a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. For more info: www.jdgordoncommunications.com
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.