Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > Obama's Playing “Small Ball” in Iraq and Syria

Sep 29, 2014

Obama's Playing “Small Ball” in Iraq and Syria

tags: Barack Obama,ISIS,Andrew Sullivan

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

Critics have blasted President Obama for saying back in April that American foreign policy can advance the nation’s interests in ways that are “not always … sexy [and] may not always attract a lot of attention.”

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” the president said. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Max Boot called Obama “ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct.”  Maureen Dowd criticized Obama’s “tone of resignation” and opined that a “singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody…. we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.” (Baseball fans understand that if a single is all it takes to win the game, a singles hitter is plenty scary.)

I’ve been thinking about this framing of foreign policy ever since the president announced his plan to expand airstrikes against ISIS into Syrian territory. The build-up to and atmospherics of the statement (done in the same venue as the announcement of the killing of bin Laden) gave every indication that Obama was swinging for the fences.

The reality is that the president’s plan amounts to a “small ball” strategy. In baseball, “small ball” refers to an approach that does not rely on home runs, but rather focuses on batters getting on base through walks and singles. It looks to advance runners by stealing bases and making “productive” outs, which--when strung together--score runs.

As he has often done in his presidency, Obama is confounding critics from all ideological positions. Some, like Andrew Sullivan, see Obama as doing far more than he really is, and are convinced that Obama has effectively betrayed those who voted for him as the candidate who would end America’s wars: “Maybe it will take another humiliating, devastating defeat in an unwinnable war to finally get Americans to understand the limits of their military power,” Sullivan fumes.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, demonstrating once again that they both suffer from incurable cases of Churchill envy, assert that the “challenges we face today are more significant than we have witnessed in decades.” They charge that Obama is not doing enough and that defeating ISIS “will require much more than a continuation of our current counterterrorism efforts as outlined by the president.”

Neither the alarmism of Sullivan nor the chicken-littleism of McCain and Graham is warranted. I have serious reservations about Obama’s decision, but not for the reasons that concern these critics.

First, there is no doubt that by expanding military operations into Syria, Obama has reversed course. He made clear his aversion to intervening in the Syrian civil war many times. Air strikes against ISIS in Syria, no matter how he tries to frame them as a defense of American national interests, amount to intervening in that civil war. It is also clear that U.S. intervention will mostly benefit the regime of Bashir al-Assad. With American forces entering the battle against the Islamic radicals, Assad has ramped up his attacks on the so-called “moderates” the U.S. supposedly supports. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Assad is the big winner here.

My second concern is that I fear Obama was pressured into taking this by a combination of domestic political pressure and ISIS provocation.

Polls show that the cumulative effect of the crises in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria has been to erode the public’s support for Obama conduct of foreign policy. In such circumstances, the temptation to “look tough” by launching airstrikes is tremendous. That does not make it good policy.

It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that the horrific ISIS videos showing the beheading of American hostages added to the urgency to “do something.” But in the aftermath of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, we would do well to remember that the purpose of the terrorists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to provoke a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that would lead to the creation of a greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary took the bait, and the result was the collapse of its empire and the creation of Yugoslavia. ISIS may actually want a larger American role in Syria and Iraq, in order to frame themselves as the sole alternative to western domination.

Obama’s “small ball” strategy against ISIS--with its seemingly firm opposition to the use of American ground troops--seems designed to avoid making that big a mistake, while also responding to the concern that an unopposed ISIS could one day grow into a threat that might resemble what McCain and Graham say it already is. It is meant to hurt ISIS (or in the president’s word, “degrade” it), but has little chance to “ultimately destroy” it.

My hunch (and that’s all it is) is that Obama knows that. He thinks that swinging for the fences in this case has a much greater chance of leading to a strike out than a home run. Maybe a few singles can win this game. Or maybe it will just extend the inning until the next batter (president) steps into the box.

Small ball may be the right approach in this case, but it would have been better if the president had not appeared to be calling his shot and pointing to the stands. Singles may be all it takes to protect U.S. interests, but now people are expecting a home run. In that atmosphere, there is a danger that a limited success may appear to be a failure, and increase the pressure to escalate American involvement to include ground troops. That’s a game the United States will not win.

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