Sep 20th 2014
BARACK OBAMA does not call it a war and Congress has not passed a war powers resolution. Yet America is poised to begin officially arming and training rebels fighting against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, where the CIA has offered some covert assistance for some time. And in Iraq American pilots have launched air strikes in support of Iraqi government forces for the first time since 2011, attacking targets near Baghdad. Whatever it is called, it looks a lot like a war.
America’s plan for fighting IS has two parts. On September 17th the House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution to fund the federal government until mid-December. Tacked on to it was a provision to pay for training and equipment for rebels fighting against IS in Syria. The measure passed with support from 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats. The opponents of the measure were an eclectic coalition of 85 broadly anti-war Democrats and 71 hawkish Republicans who wanted more direct intervention in Syria. As The Economist went to press the Senate was expected to vote in agreement.
This reflects a sharp turn in public opinion. A year ago, when Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, Mr Obama was unable to find the votes on Capitol Hill to support air strikes. Since IS began beheading Westerners on camera, public opinion has swung behind American involvement in Syria (see chart). Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary, said that American support, which will cost $500m, will consist of training for fighters conducted in Saudi Arabia, plus the provision of small arms, vehicles and communications technology. The plan is to train a few thousand soldiers who have been vetted to check they are not rapists, murderers or terrorists. It will be several months before they are deemed ready for battle.
If this goes well then more sophisticated weapons will be handed over. This approach has already been tested in the covert arming of rebels, some of whom have been loaned powerful weapons on the condition that they video their use, allowing American agents to verify that they have indeed been used for the purposes for which they were intended.
The strategy in Iraq, where IS is trying to hold territory it has already taken, is different. America is increasing the number of troops deployed there. Mr Hagel told Congress that there will eventually be 1,600 in Iraq, though they will not have a combat mission, a point Mr Obama has been keen to emphasise. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that some of these troops might, under some circumstances, follow Iraqi forces into battle on raids. He also said that he would, if necessary, recommend sending American ground troops into battle.
The difference in approach in Iraq and Syria reflects the line-up of forces in both places. Yet it is also consistent with an organising principle of Mr Obama’s foreign policy. The president is concerned to set norms for the use of force now that will hold good later in the century, when America will no longer be the world’s pre-eminent economic power. One of these is that countries should not send their troops into other countries unless the deployment meets one of three criteria: either their security is directly threatened, they have been asked to help by a host government, or their actions are backed by an unambiguous UN Security Council resolution.
In the case of Iraq, America has been invited in—hence the deployment of troops and launching of air strikes. In Syria, where Bashar Assad is still president, they have not, and so American boots will not tread there. Mr Hagel did suggest that once in Iraq, some troops might cross the border from there into Syria. “Our actions,” he told the Senate, “will not be restrained by a border in name only”.
Two other principles of Mr Obama’s foreign policy have been on display since he gave a speech on September 10th announcing plans to support some Syrian rebels and to weaken IS. As a presidential candidate, Mr Obama argued that the armed forces should not go to war without authorisation from Congress. In office he has claimed the authority to do so, in both Libya and Syria. The administration’s legal arguments have relied on one use-of-force resolution secured by George W. Bush three days after the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, another secured by the same president a year later and powers included in the constitution to protect Americans abroad: the recent operation to secure the Mosul dam in Iraq was justified in part on the grounds that blowing it up might threaten the lives of Americans in the embassy in Baghdad.
The other principle at work helps to explain why Mr Obama’s plans disappoint the hawkish members of Congress. The president thinks military power should not be used in such a way that it allows other countries to duck their responsibilities. The administration is eager to involve Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the fight against IS rather than just do the job for them. One person familiar with the plans to bolster Syrian rebels thinks that the funding announced by the president and passed by the House is insufficient to defeat IS, but will work instead as seed financing for a force that will get more financial support from Gulf states once it has proved its effectiveness.
In short, the president seems to feel about foreign policy the way many Republicans feel about welfare: too much help from the federal government is infantilising and ultimately makes the problem worse. For now Mr Obama has put this concern aside, but the test he has set for his plan is clear: intervention now must lead to less American help in the future.