Hillary Clinton made an issue of then Senator Barack Obama’s inexperience and naiveté during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember the commercial with the phone ringing at 3 AM? She was right. That doesn’t excuse her promotion of a risky foreign policy she warned would come with Obama, along with her own phone-answering neglect. (Benghazi, anyone?) In any event, many others warned that a community organizer who spent five minutes in the US Senate before running for President of the United States was not the right choice to be commander in chief and leader of the free world. Oh well. Now, after we left Iraq too soon, after we allowed Syria to fester into more than just a civil war as nearly 200,000 have been killed and more than 3 million have become refugees, we are faced with a toxic crisis in a toxic environment. And unfortunately, we have no choice but to act.
Believing we should not have gotten into Iraq in the first place, whether ousting Saddam Hussein was right or wrong, was not the reason to remove US troops once things had in some part settled down. Obama’s military advisors thought it was prudent to leave a residual force behind, and contrary to claims by the Obama administration, the Iraqis did want that force, and agreement could have been made. But President Obama was more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise than doing what was right. Most serious hostilities at that point had ended, but security was tenuous at best with hundreds being killed each month. We still have nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea well after the Korean War, and over 60,000 soldiers in Germany and other European countries 69 years after the end of the Second World War. (Good thing, too. What’s up, Kim Jung? How goes, Vladimir?) Leaving a still hot, unstable war zone was not ending a war and certainly not winning a war, irrespective of the braggadocio that accompanied the withdrawal.
Not arming certain Syrian opposition rebels a couple years back was defended by saying we didn’t know the good guys from the bad. It was recently revealed the president’s generals along with Hillary, knew who to arm, and they wanted to arm, certain forces but were overruled by the flaccid Obama. Then the red line comment. Obama should have never drawn that line in the first place, but he did. And then he did nothing. Oh, the president did get Vladimir Putin to push Syria to rid itself of its chemical weapons (and that is a good thing if indeed they are all gone, and we don’t know for sure), but Obama claimed it would also bring Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiating table. So how has that gone? Tens of thousands of more killings later, Assad now drops barrel bombs, metal barrels loaded with explosives, chlorine and shrapnel, on his people, the carnage continues unabated, and peace in Syria is as elusive as ever.
Feckless American leadership in the Middle East left a vacuum. A territorial vacuum filled by ISIS, a leadership vacuum still yet to be filled. As has become cliché, our friends no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear or respect us. We can never know for sure what would have happened, but had we left a residual force in Iraq, perhaps ISIS would have left that country alone. Had we done something, anything, about Syria, perhaps Assad would be gone, or in the least, ISIS would never have had a base of operations from where to begin its butcherous march into and through Iraq.
The Middle East is like teeth; ignore them and they will go away. And turning a blind eye to world crises only causes the other eye to get blackened. The president knew how dangerous ISIS was before he called it a JV (Junior Varsity) team, but he failed to act. Did he really need to wait till two American journalists were beheaded on camera? (And now a British hostage has been beheaded.) OK, the US is war-weary, and that is understandable, but leadership is just that, leadership. And sometimes a president has to rally the country to the unpopular and yes, even disappoint his base.
So where are we now? President Obama, having been forced to do something other than allow his administration and himself give mixed and conflicting signals, decided to do more than use our Air Force to pin-prick the terrorists. He gave a prime-time speech outlining a strategy. That’s right, he now has a strategy. Obama is willing to destroy ISIS, and that’s good. But there are so many unanswered questions and ambiguities, and I still don’t think the president has a grasp of what is involved and what is necessary.
The president identified ISIS as one of a small group of killers. Small group? ISIS numbers over 30,000 fighters according to some estimates and is growing each day, and it controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. He then declared, “ISIL is not Islamic.” Sure it is. Obama might not like how it practices Islam, but ISIS, otherwise known as ISIL, is Islamic, and not just because the IS stands for Islamic State. Whether ISIS is, or is not, corrupting the Koran or the teachings of Muhammad, its members are adherents of Islam. And to defeat ISIS, the president needs to abandon political correctness and understand that religious fanaticism and the irrational intensity that comes with it is involved. ISIS is not simply some dispassionate military force; its warped ideology makes the task that much harder.
The president laid out a four part plan that he said includes a broad coalition of nations, although it is unknown which coalition members will put combat boots on the ground, and soldiers are needed because air strikes alone will not do the trick. Iraq’s army has shown that it’s not much of an army. The Kurdish Peshmerga, proven fighters (will we finally arm them?), may not want to venture too far from their own area in northeastern Iraq, and may want some kind of guarantee of independence or at least stronger autonomy for their territory before they take part. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to put the coalition together, but a number of countries whose support is important want to sit this one out. Germany, no. The UK, no. And Turkey, on the border with Syria and perfect for being the air base for attacks on ISIS, is acting less and less like the NATO country that it is, and it does not want to help at all.
More closely related to the conflict, ten Arab countries have agreed to join but were hesitant to do so because they just don’t trust Obama to match his words with action. I wonder why. And we don’t yet know if their involvement will be substantive. It is also unclear if we will finally take the fight to Syria where ISIS is based, and who we will arm there if anyone at all. Some Syrian rebels may not join the fight against ISIS wishing to concentrate only on Assad, while other rebels may not help without assurances the US will assist in getting rid of the Syrian dictator. And now Syria says it wishes to work with the coalition to destroy ISIS.
Bewildered? I don’t blame you. And it didn’t have to get to this point.
Our reluctant and confused president, who wants to be president but just doesn’t want to “do” president, likes to say he has been clear about this or clear about that. As do members of his cabinet. Watch administration officials when defending Obama or when they are answering questions. You will hear each say the president was clear, or he has always been clear, etc. They do so because everyone knows it’s not true but they think saying it over and over will make it so. It won’t. They are not an imminent threat, they are an imminent threat. There is no strategy, there is a strategy. We are not at war with ISIS, we are at war with ISIS.
President Obama may eventually get it. And he may have to go after ISIS without an all-encompassing congressional resolution and with only tepid coalition partners, but he should stop the hand-wringing and just act. Finally, let’s hope that whatever Obama does to defeat and destroy ISIS, it won’t be too little too late.