One feather in the cap for many American presidents is to save a foreign democracy or, better yet, to create a new one. President Obama did not enter office with that aspiration. His goal was to first bolster American democracy. During the 2011 Arab Spring, he largely stood by. During the crisis in Ukraine, he has largely let Europe take the lead.
Not so in the Iraq of 2014.
Before Mr. Obama committed American forces to “destroy” the Islamic State group, he insisted that an authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, step down and that an inclusive government be formed in Baghdad. In other words, the fight against the evil of IS terrorism first required an assertion of its opposite, a sustainable democracy. Out-with-the-bad needed in-with-the-good.
In wielding US military leverage to promote democracy in Iraq, Obama now falls in line with modern presidential history. He also ensures that his actions meet his pro-democracy rhetoric, such as this line spoken Wednesday at the United Nations:
“We call upon others to join us on the right side of history – for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions.”
His newfound freedom agenda, however, still faces a challenge. Obama’s war on IS is not only in Iraq: It is also in Syria, and includes not only US airstrikes but also the arming of anti-IS Syrian rebels. And for three years, those “moderate” rebels have fought for democracy and to oust the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At some point, Obama may face a decision to use force to help bring democracy to Syria.
In 2013, he almost did bomb Syria – not for the sake of democracy but to retaliate for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. Russia intervened to head off the US threat, forcing its Syrian ally into a deal to eliminate the weapons.
Over decades, the US has been forced to learn many lessons on when and how to promote democracy. George W. Bush bit off more than he could chew in the Iraq invasion of 2003. Has Obama overplayed the US role in both Syria and Iraq?
“We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come,” Obama promised in his UN speech.
Such words now have some credibility after Obama’s action to save Iraq’s democracy. That move was not an overreach for a US grown weary of war and its ability to push for democracy with few mistakes. Syria might be an overreach.
Yet for Obama, two lessons are clear. Don’t let your rhetoric get ahead of your actions. And when you do act, act to support ideals as well as against something.
These sorts of feathers-in-caps don’t come easily for presidents.