The capture of terrorist suspect Ahmed Abu Khattalah, who is accused of organizing the 2012 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, on Tuesday, June 18th, 2014, resulted in some fairly mixed reactions for the Obama Administration. Where Republicans used the event to criticize the President for allowing his belief in a legal philosophy rooted in civil liberties for all to supposedly hinder anti-terrorism efforts, the Obama Administration’s assertion that the detainment of Khattalah demonstrates America’s resolve when it comes to going after those who harm Americans reveals much more. What this surgical use of American military might does is show how foreign engagement is changing.
Despite what political opponents of President Obama say, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign policy is not one of disengagement. It is, in fact, one of a strategic, non-domineering engagement of a superpower with limited resources facing too many divergent global crises. Because the military option has largely been exhausted thanks to the George W. Bush Administration’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Obama Administration is forced to experiment with new strategies in order reassert America’s leadership on the global stage. This can be seen in America’s efforts to discourage Russian interference in Ukraine, the Obama Administration’s targeting of individuals and companies with sanctions to avoid hurting the Russian People. In other words, the Obama Administration learning to use limit resources to assert American interests while minimizing collateral damage.
Unfortunately, the capture of Khattalah did come with collateral damage in the form of an angry Libyan government over America’s failure to respect Libyan sovereignty. While the public statements of the Libyan government may have exaggerated the sentiments of officials, the lack of respect from the US does make it harder for the Libyan government to represent itself as legitimate in the eyes of its People. Looking at the ever-increasing reliance on drones and covert operations in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, the world needs to be more honest in how it reacts to US intervention. The world likes to complain when America acts unilaterally, but the International Community also expects the US to lead and act when there is a crisis, often without the support of allies. With all this is mind, friends like Libya need to have honest conversations with their populations and the US on how we can effectively operate in their countries without explicit permission when the United States is trying to address our mutual interests of stopping extremists.
Furthermore, the Obama Administration’s experimental approach to foreign policy and international security is the type of international engagement that the US will be forced to use in the foreseeable future. Where there is failure, there will be backlash that will result in more interventionist approaches that will be doomed to failure as the US does not have resources to pursue such paths in all the global crises. Consequently, the world needs to start recognizing this reality and learning how to better deal with a new America. For starters, the US will be more likely to be more engaged in regions of the world where conflicts are less likely and people can help themselves; henceforth, the Obama Administration’s pivot away from the Middle East, South America, Russia, etc. to Asia.
That said, the current situation in Iraq presents quite the conundrum. On the one hand, political pressure, concerning national security and economics, i.e. oil, force the Obama Administration to consider renewed intervention in Iraq. On the other hand, the failures in Iraq and the need to address the unstable region in the context of a broader approach leave the Obama Administration struggling to offer a surgical option that can be effective. Unfortunately, there are multiple conflicts of interests in play when it comes to relying on regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Iran to help stabilize Iraq. This means the US will ultimately need to rely on a political solution as we hope the various militants groups and Iraqi military can reach a draw, which will allow a political solution to be implemented.
For those nations not wanting intervention by the US in favor of the Shia majority, yet looking to America to stabilize the situation, they need to push for honest, straightforward efforts on behalf of the Iraqi government to reform while regional powers must step up and openly support US involvement in the process. This means putting aside their conflicts of interests to help find solutions to this crisis for all the Iraqi People. For regional powers, the core issue behind stopping a sectarian war is preventing Iraq from turning into a breeding ground for militant extremists. As regional powers have even more pressings interests in preventing this from occurring than the US, they must treat the destabilization of Iraq as a regional problem and not an America or Iraqi problem. In short, the Iraqis and the governments of the Middle East must do their part to stop extremist behavior before the US will be to help implement a solution.
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