September 18, 2014
By John Zogby
Being the world's top superpower is not all it is cracked up to be. The American brand is still a strong one worldwide but the United States is increasingly viewed as a nation with its own self interests that do not always act in the best interests of other peoples or even consistently with its own principles.
Compounding this troubling duality is that expensive military hardware and training that have been designed to combat other nations and armies are relatively useless in a world where the enemies are rag tag insurgents, organized thugs, and cyber thieves and warriors.
This reality is not new. I recall a magazine story I read in the late 1960s on how sophisticated American B-52s would fly low over southern Vietnamese hamlets using state-of-the art sensors to detect concentrations of human blood. These airborne monsters would then signal back to the next wave of B-52 pilots. Meanwhile, unbeknown to the greatest superpower on Earth, Vietnamese villagers would hang buckets of urine on trees before fleeing their homes. Millions of dollars were being spent bombing buckets of pee.
The limits of power. Which brings us to today? It is so hard to fight and win an insurgency. President George H.W. Bush assembled a most impressive coalition to punish Saddam Hussein's forces. He amassed a huge military force and even won tacit support from Syria and Iran. But this was a traditional war against a nation, a leader, an army, against a cross-border invasion. Mr. Bush's son responded to the 9-11 attacks of Al- Qaeda by launching a traditional hand-to-hand war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq and defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both were removed from power but at a terrible cost to American treasure and lives. There was no stable replacement leadership, no tradition of democratic institutions, and no proper exit strategy for the United States forces. Zogby polling in Iraq was very clear: the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Kurds all wanted the U.S. presence to end immediately. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was adamant that we leave. President Karzai of Afghanistan was equally adamant in his country. Any assessment, like the silly ones I have seen in recent days by GOP elected officials, that Mr. Obama pulled out of Iraq too soon and that PM Maliki wanted us to maintain a residual force is foolish and ahistorical. Sadly, it is the moral equivalent of the buckets of pee in Vietnam.
Let me examine a few other charges. Mr. Obama is being criticized for not acting in a timely manner in Syria and enabling the rise of ISIL (at first, ISIS) to grow and develop. There simply was never any public opinion support for American intervention in Syria. Even the President misread the situation when he drew red lines against Syria's President Bashar al-Asaad for using chemical weapons against his own people. The President thought he could act, as he did in Libya, but right before he was to present his case to Congress, his colleague Prime Minister David Cameron was handed a resounding parliamentary defeat. Message to Mr. Obama: don't try this at home.
Then there is the old saw that we should have armed the moderate Syrian militias sooner. Does anyone remember the same Congressional leaders having a fit when the President did that very same thing in Libya? But, another sad lesson comes into play: dictators like Asaad (and Hussein) are very adept at destroying (including killing) their most capable opponents. The "moderate" Syrian elements are simply not credible – inept, incapable, without sufficient constituencies – and are not prepared to govern. They are not unlike Mr. Maliki. In none of these cases has there been a Charles de Gaulle waiting in the wings.
Many of the GOP arguments in this case are either ahistorical or useless shadowboxing. They condemn the President's actions as either too late or too soon, too indecisive or too precipitous. In this vein, they are not acting as a credible loyal opposition but as a destructive force with no realistic solution to serious crises.
I give Mr. Obama credit for patience and for measured leadership. He first needed to know that public opinion was ready to act. He also needed to be assured that regional allies would be willing to step in. This will require even more patience and some strong incentives – but Mr. Bush 41 took almost six months to assemble his grand coalition to launch Operation Desert Storm. There will be no huge number of American boots on the ground nor will there be any American mission creep. That is for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies. This is, after all, their battle and ours to support.
The President, again bowing to American public opinion, had to frame his argument in terms of protecting the homeland. Credit must be given to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama for ensuring that no serious attacks have reached our shores since that awful day 13 years ago.