Friday, January 23, 2015

Historical Lessons, if America Really Were to Step down from the World Police

When President Barack Obama’s made a remark that the United Staes was no longer the world policeman, hardly any people around the world welcomed that. Even those who vehemently opposed the “arrogance” of the Iraq War were puzzled to hear his so abrupt announcement. The vital problem is, if the United States really were to step down from the world policeman, it needs to nominate some partners to share some portions of responsibility. In history, once America expressed withdrawal from global commitment after the Vietnam War. Like today, Americans were annoyed with a long war. But the post Vietnam America under Richard Nixon acted more responsibly than Barack Obama does today.

To begin with, let me review the Nixon doctrine, which was announced in 1969 when President Nixon to Vietnamize the war. In those days, opinion leaders around the world talked about American decline, and even cast doubts whether the United States would continue to be the anchor of global stability. As Obama does today, Nixon delivered a message to placate anxiety of the post-American world among the allies that the United States would keep treaty commitments and help allies when vital its security interests were threatened. On the other hand, Nixon stressed that the United States simply helps countries facing enemy threats from behind, and they assume the primary responsibility of defense. These points are somewhat similar to Obama’s foreign policy directions. However, when the superpower steps down or cedes responsibility to others, it is necessary to help the partner grow capable of sharing burdens. So far as this aspect is concerned, Obama is far poorer than Nixon. Stark differences are shown in their Middle East policies.

Shortly after Nixon announced his doctrine, he assisted the Shah’s Iran to ascend to the Guard of the Gulf. This is typically illustrated in his generous and prompt support to build up the Imperial Iranian Air Force. In the early 1970s, Iran was plagued by the Soviet invasion to its airspace. Particularly, MiG-25s flew so fast that even IIAF F-4s were unable to intercept them, and Iran was at the mercy of Soviet air reconnaissance those days. Iran was desperately in need of advanced fighters to shut out the Soviet Air Force from its sovereign territory. Therefore Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi met President Nixon at Andrews Air Force base near Washington DC in July 1973. Nixon invited the Shah to see the flight demonstration there to select either F-14 or F-15 for Iranian air defense, whichever he preferred. The Shah chose F-14 without hesitation, as soon as the show ended (Thirty minutes to choose your fighter jet: how the Shah of Iranchose the F-14 Tomcat over the F-15 Eagle”; Aviationist; February 11, 2013).

After returning home, the Shah ordered 30 F-14s in January next year, and subsequent 50 of them in June, along with AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The Nixon administration acted so promptly that Iran received the first F-14s in January 1976, while the United States provided intensive trainings for Iranian pilots (“Grumman F-14 Tomcat#Iran”; Wikipedia). The result of this was spectacular. IIAF F-14 shot down a drone in a test firing of Phoenix missile in August 1977 to demonstrate Iran’s air defense capability against Soviet intrusion. Since then, formidable MiG-25s stopped flying over Iranian territory (“Aircraft/Jet fighters/F-14”; IIAF.net). Nixon kept his words as he succeeded in helping the Shah build up military power, capable enough to defend his own homeland, and even act on behalf of America as the Guard of the Gulf. We must learn a critical lesson from this story that the United States can cut back its military commitment only when there is a staunch and reliable strategic partner in the region.

In view of the above historical comparison, Obama’s remark to step down from the world policeman is extremely imprudent. Unlike Nixon, Obama has no reliable partner in the Middle East to cede America’s responsibility for regional security. Particularly, his poorly devised policy on Iraq deepens regional instability furthermore, as typically seen in the rise of ISIS. While Nixon helped the Shah’s Iran grow strong enough to police the region, Obama withdrew from Iraq without reconstructing its security forces. The Iraqi Air Force was virtually nonexistent as Saddam Hussein let his flight squadrons fled to Iran when the Gulf War broke out to avoid war damages, and the rest of them were destroyed in the Iraq War. Therefore, it was a prerequisite to rebuild Iraq’s air strike capability to conclude the security agreementbetween Iraq and the United States, and thereby driving out terrorists on the ground (“Iraq to Have Some Air Strike Capability, U.S. Says”; AssyrianInternational News Agency; December 6, 2007).

For this objective, Iraq decided to purchase F-16 fighters and Apache attack helicopters. The Maliki administration began to consider purchasing F-16s at the end of the Bush era (“Iraq Seeks F-16 Fighters”;Wall Street Journal; September 5, 2008). They made a decision a few months after the Obama administration started (“Procurement: Iraqis Put Up The BucksFor F-16s”; Strategy Page; April 9, 2009). Iraq finally reached an agreement with the United States to order first 36 of them in 2011, but according to UPI, that is still far from sufficient to cover the whole area (“Iraq F-16 Order Finally Confirmed”;Iraq Business News; December 7, 2011). The problem was that Iraq had not had jet fighters since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and few pilots were skilled enough to fly such advanced machines (“Iraq Has Brand New F-16s, But Can't UseThem Against ISIS Yet”; International Business Times; June 12, 2014). Moreover, for the safety of instructors and Iraqi pilots from ISIS attacks, the F-16 training site was changed from Balad air base in northern Iraq to Tucson Arizona.  In addition, Iraqi pilots need long and intensive training. Therefore, F-16 fighters will be handed to Iraq in 2017 (Islamic State threatdelays delivery of F-16s to Iraq”; Military Times; November 10, 2014 & “IraqiF-16 pilots need years more training in U.S.”; Military Times; December 11,2014). The Iraqi parliament is infuriated with further delay in F-16 delivery (“Iraq urges US to explain delay in F-16 jets delivery”; IslamTimes; 25 December, 2014).

AH-64 Apache helicopter is another air strike arsenal that Iraq asked the United States to sell. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Democratic Senator Bob Menendez raised critical concerns with human rights that Shiite Maliki administration might use them to repress Sunni minorities rather than to fight against ISIS and other insurgents, when the Obama administration reached the agreement with Iraq (Agreement Reached toSell Apache Helicopters to Iraq”; Defense News; January 27, 2014). Though the deal was made, the Iraqi government demanded a lease of further 6 Apaches in addition to mutually agreed 24. Finally, Iraq cancelled the deal (Iraq passes on Apache buy”; Jane Defence Weekly; 25 September, 2014). As in the case of F-16, the Obama administration failed to meet the demand of the Iraqi government to deliver the requested quantity quickly.

Those failures have made Iraq vulnerable not only against ISIS, but also against Iran. The Obama administration solicits Iran to work together to fight against ISIS, while holding tough negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Moreover, Iran has been a troublesome actor in Iraq as its influence penetrates there through Shiites in the south.   Now, the Iraqi government is increasingly dependent on Shiite militia. Obama may think anti-ISIS partnership with Iran temporary, but that poses long term negative effect to Iraqi security. Iran still supports the Assad administration in Syria. Also, Shiite militias want to displace Sunni people. The only way to overcome such sectarian chasm is founding a solid security force of the central government incorporating all ethnic and religious backgrounds (“The U.S. and Iran arealigned in Iraq against the Islamic State — for now”; Washington Post; December27, 2014).

As a key ally to the United States in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government sees ISIS threats were relatively contained as a result of coalition air raid, but critically alarmed with Iranian penetration through Shiite militias. Among those militias, Asaib Ahl Haq and the Badr militias are vital threats to the Kurds as they are closely connected with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Shias are most active in Diyala Governorate that borders the Kurdish region and Iran, and they are moving further north to Kirkuk (“Forget ISIS: Shia Militias Are the RealThreat to Kurdistan”; National Interest; January 7, 2015). Despite such a problem, the Obama administration is easing sanctions on Iran for nuclear talk. That provoked anger on the Hill at his State of the Union Speech, and legislators cast doubt whether Obama understands the threat of Iran (Unanimity at last: Obama isdelusional on foreign policy”; Washington Post; January 21, 2015). I agree to their vehement criticism, and it seems as if Obama were consigning Middle East security to Iran. I wonder if Obama really has long term visions to stabilize Iraq and manage Iran.

Ever since America took over the hegemony from Britain, its preeminence repeats upturns and downturns. Historical backgrounds of Nixon and Obama are quite similar, but policy responses are so starkly different. Obama is throwing away the responsibility of the world policeman and pivoting to Asia without any preparation. So many commentators talk about a superficial decline of the United States, but what really matters is the quality of leadership. Unlike Nixon, Obama has no vision of foreign policy. While the Shah had mutual trust with Nixon and Ford, neither Maliki nor Abadi trusts Obama so much. Nixon had Henry Kissinger, but Obama has no reliable foreign policy advisors. I believe that historical comparison between both presidents will be of much implication to American foreign policy today.