Obama's War and the Demise of the Freedom Agenda

Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, Syria Photograph by Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group via AP Photo

In his address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Obama will make his case for a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign against the jihadists of Islamic State. According to Bloomberg News, the administration is preparing to ask Congress for billions in additional funding for the war effort. Pentagon officials have estimated that it could take three years to accomplish the U.S. goal of “degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist group,” in the words of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

The war against IS, in short, will almost certainly dominate Obama’s foreign policy agenda for the rest of his presidency. And that likely signals the end of a project that was once the linchpin of America’s strategy for defeating Islamic terrorism: bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is preparing to expand the U.S. offensive against Islamic State extremists, including targeting the group’s havens inside Syria. Phil Mattingly reports on “Bloomberg Surveillance.” (Source: Bloomberg)

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush embraced the argument, promoted by scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, that the underlying source of al-Qaeda’s strength was the absence of political liberty in Arab societies. To vanquish terrorism, you had to defeat tyranny, too. That thinking led, in part, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq; but as the human and economic costs of the war mounted and the public turned against it, Bush’s team spoke less openly about transforming the region in America’s image. Even so, as Gary Gambill reported, the U.S. continued to provide funding and moral support to pro-democracy activists in places like Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt—and pressured Mubarak to hold open parliamentary elections and free political prisoners.

When Obama took office in 2009, he sought to distance himself from Bush’s Freedom Agenda. He told an audience in Cairo: “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Yet liberal members of Obama’s foreign policy team remained sympathetic to the idea of democratic reform as an antidote to violent extremism. During the Arab Awakening of 2011, Obama threw his support behind the masses clamoring for the ouster of autocrats such as Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh; in Libya, he backed a NATO military intervention that ultimately brought down the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

The chaos that engulfed the region ever since has soured Obama on rapid, destabilizing political change in the Arab world. He issued only a token rebuke last summer when Egypt’s military ousted Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, and then launched a brutal crackdown against Morsi’s Islamist supporters. In Syria, the White House has insisted that Bashar al-Assad “must go” but steadfastly refused to provide weapons to the rebel groups seeking to make that goal a reality. Due in part to Western reluctance to arm Syrian moderates, the rebellion against Assad metastasized into a jihadist insurgency that rampaged across the border into Iraq—and finally forced the U.S. to intervene.

In his address to the nation, Obama will likely couch the U.S. war against Islamic State in the language of liberal humanitarianism, justifying military action against the terrorists in moral as well as strategic terms. But he’ll also insist that the U.S. won’t shoulder the burden of defeating IS alone—and that’s why democracy promotion is going to take a back seat. Dismantling IS will require the assistance of sclerotic Arab sultanates like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates; quasi-autocracies like Turkey; and probably even an authoritarian adversary, Iran. It will mean working with an Iraqi government riddled with corruption and sectarianism. And if Assad’s emboldened forces launch an offensive to retake territory within Syria currently controlled by the jihadists—which would almost certainly produce atrocities on an appalling scale—the U.S. will probably have to go along with that, too.

It’s unquestionably in U.S. interests to liquidate Islamic State and prevent the rise of a terrorist petro-state. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of another 9/11 and make the world a safer place. Just don’t expect it to do much to advance freedom in the Middle East.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.