CoverStory

Has Obama really toughened up?

The President should admit he allowed the Islamic State caliphate to grow and he must be the one to destroy it

By Mary Kissel

Watching the birth of a radical Islamic caliphate in Iraq, which was stable and democratic not so long ago, reminded me of the first line of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s seminal Commentary magazine essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” It began: “The failure of the Carter administration’s foreign policy is now clear to everyone except its architects.”

As I’ve argued in these pages before, Barack Obama’s doctrine of American retreat, like Carter’s, has allowed dictators and autocrats of all stripes to expand their dominion, from Putin’s seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to China’s declaration of a new Air Defence Identification Zone over Japanese waters to, now, the terrorist group Islamic State’s utter domination of a landmass the size of California in the heart of the Fertile Crescent.

The President can’t point to a single foreign policy achievement that advances American interests — after six years in the Oval Office. He has failed because his ideas about the nature of the world and of war are na├»ve, and wrong. He has failed because he elevates domestic political concerns above the national security of the country. And he is worse that Carter in the most important respect: His arrogance prevents him from admitting, and learning from, his mistakes.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq and Syria today.

Contrary to popular legend, the Bush administration won the Iraq conflict. The Obama team’s job was to consolidate the gains. Recall Vice President Joe Biden’s boast to CNN’s Larry King in February 2010 that he was “very optimistic” about Iraq, which “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” He continued: “You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

Or mull what the President himself told troops at Fort Bragg in December 2011: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self- reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” All true, at the time.

Granted, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t an easy partner, but he was disposed to ally with the United States to shore up his political legitimacy and attract economic support. Former CIA and Defense Department chief Leon Panetta’s confirms in his new memoir, Worthy Fights, how “privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some US forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence.” That wasn’t a big ask of the world’s biggest military, which has kept forces in South Korea, for instance, for more than half a century, and has military contingents stationed as far away as Darwin, Australia.

But Barack Obama had campaigned for office on the promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq, no matter what the strategic cost. And he believed that the world had entered a new phase. War was so “20th century.” His foreign policy would emphasise dialogue, “mutual respect,” and the devolution of power to international organisations like the United Nations. He disdained the idea that the American military is a force for good in the world. Recall his first major foreign policy speech, at Cairo University in 2009: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

Again, Panetta’s account on the White House’s Middle East thinking is instructive. The former defence chief argued for “leverage” to keep forces in Iraq, “but the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated ... [T] hose on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” The “other side” being the President’s political aides.

That account jibes with what Reuters recently reported: “One former senior US official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last US soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.” Several high-ranking sources have confirmed to me that the President regularly overruled senior military advisers with decades more experience, preferring to hew to the wishes of a close-knit group of advisors from his Chicago days.

Which raises the question, why? Why would a president ignore seasoned military advice and beat a premature retreat? The dangers were well-known. Here’s George W. Bush, in July 2007: “To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we’re ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean we’d be increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.”

The only answer is that President Obama values short-term, domestic political wins over longer-term national security victories. Consider Syria. As the Arab Spring erupted, ordinary Syrians rose up too, peacefully demanding more freedoms. When President Bashar al- Assad responded with violence, President Obama adopted the mantra that “Assad must go,” rolling the line out regularly in speeches and at press conferences. Yet he did nothing to arm the rebels — again, against the advice of close advisors, who at the time included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Foreign wars were unpopular in American opinion polls after the Bush years.

In August 2012, after reports that Assad used chemical weapons in breach of international treaties, the President said the following: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Yet Assad continues to use weapons of mass destruction, a fact confirmed months later by the United Nations, journalists, and US intelligence services.

The President’s legitimacy was on the line. He declared he’d order airstrikes and ordered a carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean. US allies like Britain and France declared their support. Then the President said the strikes would be “limited.” And then one Friday night, President Obama took a walk around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. The next morning, he announced he would ask Congress for permission to bomb — a patently political move meant to give the White House cover, should the strikes be unpopular: the president’s war powers clearly allow for a limited bombing campaign.

As Congress wavered in the absence of presidential leadership, Secretary of State John Kerry — who, embarrassingly, had made a cogent, public case for attacking the Assad regime — floated a Russia- brokered deal that would allow Assad to stay in power, impose perfunctory international inspections on his weapons program, and do nothing to degrade his army’s ability to keep slaughtering civilians. The killing continued. London and Paris learned the Obama White House is a fickle partner. Assad even used chemical weapons again — just not the kind forbidden under the United Nations treaty he had previously signed. Some deal. But the opinion polls at home suggested the President did the right thing — at least, in the short run.

 

Unfortunately, political expediency doesn’t make for a sound foreign policy in the long run. If that were true, President Bush would’ve withdrawn from Iraq in 2007 to great cheers back home, rather than risk his presidency on a surge that even his top advisors opposed. Margaret Thatcher would’ve let Argentina seize the Falklands. Just as with Carter’s weakness, there were serious consequences to be paid in the wake of the President’s failure to enforce his red line in Syria and his abandonment of Iraq: namely, the rise of the Islamic State.

Imagine for a moment that the United States had armed the Syrian rebels during the first six months of protests, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham advocated. Would they have turned the tide against Assad? We’ll never know. But by not arming them, the Obama White House assured Assad’s eventual victory. What we do know is that many decided they had no choice but to join the growing jihadist movement or risk they and their families’ personal safety. Others felt America abandoned them and were attracted to the terror group’s anti-American rhetoric. Still others fled to Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon.

Imagine if the United States hadn’t abandoned Iraq. Would the country have fallen into such secular disarray? Would the Sunnis have fought more vigorously against the marauding Islamic State terrorists streaming across the Syrian borders? What we do know is that the moderate Sunnis who allied with the United States back in 2007 felt abandoned by President Obama, for good reason. Without the leverage of a US military force in the country, al-Maliki turned to political score-settling. He accused his Sunni vice president of “terrorism” and gifted top military posts to his political allies. Kurdistan chafed for independence and control over its oil fields. The Islamic State consolidated its power.

And it’s consolidated that power quickly. The terrorists took the western city of Fallujah in January and have since gained territory at a breathtaking pace. They now control Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and have captured Tikrit. They briefly took over Mosul Dam. Their banks and oil fields now produce millions of dollars of income. They have seized US military equipment, including tanks and Humvees. They have started mass executions of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. They behead foreigners and post the grisly videos on YouTube. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced and thousands more slaughtered.

Remarkably, almost unbelievably, President Obama has downplayed the threat from all of these developments, even as the situation on the ground has worsened. In November last year, he talked to the New Yorker’s David Remnick about the fall of Fallujah: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” referring to the distinction between a professional and a rank amateur.

That quote may go down in history as one of the most ill- considered statements a President has ever made. Only three months later, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, testified to Congress that IS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.” Which is exactly what they did.

Supporters of President Obama point to his decision to order airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as a sign that the President has toughened up. But has he, really? President Obama and his advisors claim their goal is to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, but the constraints the President has placed on the Pentagon suggest he isn’t serious about the “destroy” part — namely, no combat troops. Serious military analysts, from Army General Ray Odierno to the Institute for the Study of War’s Jessica Lewis, have all said that strategy will fail.

The real goal of President Obama’s studied weakness in Iraq is to kick the problem to his successor, whomever that may be. Witness National Security Advisor Susan Rice on NBC’s Meet the Press in mid-October, calling the United States–led fight against the Islamic State “a long-term effort” and asserting the campaign wouldn’t “benefit from American ground troops in combat again.” Or President Obama’s assertion a few days later that “this is going to be a long- term campaign.”

But why should a US victory take so long? The first Iraq war in 1991 didn’t take years. If President Obama had the nerve of yes, Jimmy Carter, he’d admit that he allowed the Islamic State caliphate to grow on his watch and he would be the one to destroy it — for real. He’d go to Congress to get bipartisan approval for an updated war authorisation — which he’d acquire with ease — and explain frankly to the American people why the United States has to send in ground troops to eliminate a terrorist threat that will ultimately threaten our allies and our homeland.

Such a strategy would require political courage and humility — two qualities that this president just may not have. He described winning the Democratic presidential nomination as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” He’s compared himself to Lincoln. He’s claimed he’s a better speechwriter than his speechwriter. He has refused to take responsibility for setting a red line in Syria, claiming that “the world set a red line.” He told CNN’s Jim Acosta in June the failure to keep troops in Iraq “wasn’t a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”

I’m afraid that President Obama’s final two years in office will simply be a continuation of his past six. He’ll try to contain the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq through airstrikes, and let the terrorists retreat to a safe haven in Syria. He’ll denounce Assad but allow him to keep killing. He’ll call on the United Nations to denounce the murders of civilians while doing nothing to stop it, in either country. He’ll hope that US police and intelligence services manage to thwart terrorist attacks on the American homeland. America’s allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, will be on their own.

The most generous interpretation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy of retreat, with all of its horrific consequences, for the people of Iraq and Syria and for America’s national interest, is that it’s based on the president’s genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing by keeping American troops out of another ground war. Perhaps he truly believes that, despite the events of 9/11, terrorism can be contained to far-flung shores. Perhaps he’s doesn’t value non-American lives.

My advice, for what it’s worth: Perhaps he should contemplate the conclusion of Kirkpatrick’s Commentary essay, in which she writes: “Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.”