As readers of RINOcracy.com are doubtless aware, much has been written about President Obama’s approach to foreign policy and what appears to many, both here and abroad, to have been a projection of weakness. President Obama’s approach to foreign policy—reliance on allies with minimal direct intervention by the United States—is just that, an approach. In the abstract, there is something to be said for Obama’s approach (just as there was to the approach George W. Bush’s in the 2000 campaign when he promised humility in a foreign policy unburdened by nation building.) But an approach to policy is not a policy itself, much less a strategy (a plan to achieve specific goals), and it must be flexible enough to respond to changing threats. Does Obama’s approach have that flexibility? Back on March 16, David Sanger wrote a perceptive analysis in The New York Times, “Global Crises Put Obama’s Strategy of Caution to the Test.” Since that time, as the crises have grown more urgent, the tests have only gotten tougher and it is far from clear that Obama’s “strategy” (more accurately, approach or instinct) is passing them.
At the moment, events in Ukraine have forced the President into engagement and leadership. Considerably aided by the tragic downing of the Malaysian airliner with its many Dutch passengers, he has been successful in persuading European countries to adopt stronger sanctions against Russia than many had thought possible. Nevertheless, effectiveness of the sanctions remains to be seen, and the extent of the Europeans’ commitment, the President’s–and ours–remains uncertain. Equally uncertain are the outlines of an overall strategy for Ukraine and more broadly, Europe. What will Europe and the United States do if the sanctions fail to have the desired result or, worse yet, if Russia takes even more aggressive actions. Is providing Ukraine with arms and other military support a good idea or bad idea? If Putin persists in his apparent attempt to revise the post Cold War map of Europe, do the EU and NATO have the resources and the will to resist? These and related questions will be addressed in a subsequent post, but here we will focus on a crisis that, for the moment, has lost prime attention from the media: ISIS.
President Obama did not address the threat of ISIS (or “ISIL,” or the “Islamic State”) until June 13, by which time ISIS had captured the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, as well as a good deal of territory in both Syria and Iraq. A July 28 column in The Washington Post by Marc Thiessen presented a chilling timeline of warnings about the growing threat of ISIS that the Administration had ignored. Thiessen quoted from the February article in The New Yorker wherein Obama had dismissed ISIS as jayvee terrorists. (“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.”) By June 13, however, a different perception had clearly begun to take hold.
Even then, however, the President played down the threat to the United States from ISIS, noting only rather obliquely that “eventually” it could be a threat to unspecified “American interests.” He indicated that the Administration would be considering what steps to take and, a week later, on June 19 he did announce some actions, though with evident reluctance. The rather grim state of affairs was underscored by the fact that the very first step the President mentioned was improving the security of our embassy in Baghdad and relocating some embassy personnel. The President also announced the dispatch of up to 300 military advisers “to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.” In view of the collapse of the Iraqi Army before a much smaller ISIS force, such a step seemed clearly warranted but of dubious sufficiency.
The President also raised the possibility of “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” The President, however, gave no indication of what kind of “situation” that might be and made it clear that possible military action did not include the use of combat troops. He also continued to employ the vague locution of referring to “threats to American interest.” Only in answer to questions did he acknowledge a threat to the “homeland” and implied that if such threat did appear it would not be any time soon.
An op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Ryan Crocker on the same day, was much more direct. Crocker served as US Ambassador to Iraq under both Presidents Bush and Obama and his words were sobering:
We would be foolish to think that ISIS will not plan attacks against the West now that it has the space and security to do so. This is a more formidable force than Osama bin Laden’s group that brought us 9/11. Its fighters are experienced, completely committed to their cause, well armed and well financed. As many as 2,000 of them hold Western passports, including U.S. ones, so there’s no need for visas. This is global jihad, and it will be coming our way.
A few weeks later, on July 14, Crocker’s concerns were echoed by Attorney General Eric Holder. Referring to the ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, he observed:
“If they are able to consolidate their gains in that area, I think it’s just a matter of time before they start looking outward and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular. So this is something that we have to get on top of and get on top of now.”
There should, moreover, be little doubt of the ability of ISIS to consolidate its gains. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Syria, Brett McGurk, made that clear in testimony before a House Committee on July 23. ISIS, he said, “is no longer a terrorist organization. It is a full-blown army.” Put another way, perhaps, ISIS is now the varsity.
In the meantime, what of the President? Does he have a plan to get on top of the situation? Although he expressly promised, in his June 19 statement, to keep the American public informed, he has had nothing of substance to say since then. To be sure, the President has had other problems to deal with, including the crises on the border and in Ukraine, but lack of information from the Administration has frustrated even his allies in Congress. A July 24 story by the AP in The Washington Post reported that Senator Bob Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had threatened “to block U.S. arms sales to Iraq if Congress doesn’t get an assessment of Iraqi forces and assurances the weapons won’t fall into the hands of extremist militants.” The same article noted a previous report in The New York Times that “a classified military assessment found it unsafe for Americans to advise Iraqi forces given their infiltration by Sunni extremist informants and Iran-backed Shiite militants.” Nevertheless, the article continued, Brett McGurk had testified before the House Committee that “options being developed for Obama are becoming more concrete and specific.” Let us hope that McGurk is correct and that, when the President has reviewed the options, he will explain to the public just what he has decided and why.
Admittedly, we Republicans have not had much helpful to say either. Senator Rand Paul has managed to convey a sense of foggy neo-isolationism suggesting that he might attempt to lead from even a little further behind than President Obama has. Senators McCain and Graham, on the other hand have called for military support for the Syrian rebels (that is, the right Syrian rebels, or the ones we think are the right Syrian rebels) and for Iraq to fight ISIS (but presumably not for Assad to fight ISIS in Syria). Yet it is not clear in each case just what military assistance would be provided and what, realistically, it would be likely to accomplish. In any event, the fact is that leadership in resolving such issues must lie with the President. Perhaps the best that Republicans can do is to demand candid assessments of the conditions in the area and press for the articulation of some coherent and realistic strategy.
Another serious problem, perhaps not yet quite a crisis, lies in the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and the Administration’s apparent determination to ignore them in proceeding with our scheduled departures from that country. Afghanistan will be the subject of Part II of this blog, while the challenges of Ukraine and Europe will be addressed in Part III.