One does not have to be Republican—RINO or otherwise—to be critical of President Obama’s foreign policy. It would be sufficient to be a member of what some have described as the “Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party.” In an interview in The Atlantic, Ms. Clinton made an observation that would be widely quoted: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” The reference to not doing stupid “stuff” was immediately recognized as a quote that White House aides had attributed, in a somewhat saltier version, to President Obama.
We agree with Ms. Clinton that an attempt to avoid doing stupid stuff is less than an organizing principal. Nevertheless, as it is a yardstick suggested by the President, it is worth considering which of his actions (or refusals to act) might fall into that category. Working chronologically, our first nomination would be the President’s decision in 2011 to withdraw from Iraq without leaving any American military force behind. The President, of course, has argued that he had no choice in the matter and that claims to the contrary are “bogus.” That argument, however, has been widely viewed as, to put it kindly, unpersuasive. The issue has been extensively discussed in the media and we will not pause here to rehash that discussion except to note that criticism of the President on this and related issues, has by no means been limited to his political opponents. For example, in an essay in The Wall Street Journal, General James Jones, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and President Obama’s national security adviser in 2009-2010, recently observed with respect to the present situation in Iraq:
Washington bears some blame for not taking timely action that could have limited this summer’s chaos. The Obama administration could have maintained a limited military training presence in Iraq after 2011; could have acted in Syria last year when the chemical weapons “red line” was crossed; and could have insisted that Mr. Maliki arm the Kurds. (Emphasis added).
Our second nomination would be the failure to provide military support to insurgents in Syria three years ago after Obama demanded that President Assad resign and when Assad was far weaker than he is today. Indeed, this was a point explicitly made by Hillary Clinton in her Atlantic interview. Noting that she had been unsuccessful in urging support for the Syrian rebels, she observed that:
I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.
As Secretary Clinton acknowledged, we cannot know how successful such support would have been. However that may be, the chances of success at an earlier point would certainly have been far greater than they were by June of this year–when Obama belatedly asked Congress for $500 million to arm and train Syrian rebels.
The third nomination goes to the matter referred to by General Jones: the statement by President Obama in August 2012 of a “red line” that would be crossed if Syria used chemical weapons. The failure to take any action when Syria did use such weapons became a worldwide symbol of a lack of resolve on the part of Obama and the United States.
Fourth, is the refusal of Obama to recognize the growing strength of ISIS, beginning in 2013, and his refusal, even today, to acknowledge that it constitutes a serious threat not only to Iraq and the Kurds but to the United States. A July 6 essay by Eli Lake in The Daily Beast presents a compelling, albeit depressing, chronology of the warnings that the White House ignored because they conveyed news it did not want to hear. Thus, we not only turned down Prime Minister Maliki’s plea for air support, but as General Jones pointed out, did not press him to arm the Kurds.
By May 28, when President Obama gave a major foreign policy speech at West Point, ISIS had already gained control over a vast swath of Iraq and was continuing to advance. Yet the President made not so much as a glancing mention of ISIS (or ISIL). Rather, he preferred merely to recount with pride how much better things were than when he had spoken at the Academy in 2009:
Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.
A scant two weeks later, however, ISIS succeeded in capturing not only Mosul but, in so doing, the President’s attention. At that point, as we discussed in Part I of this blog, President Obama reluctantly stepped forward with statements addressing the crisis. Even then, however, he insisted on portraying ISIS as merely a localized problem. Indeed, he did so again just this week: “Let’s remember ISIL poses a threat to all Iraqis and the entire region.” In the UPDATE to Part I, we pointed out that Obama’s cramped perception of the ISIS threat was contrary to the overwhelming consensus of administration officials, outside analysts and leaders of both parties. Subsequently, that consensus has been echoed by the significant voices of Hillary Clinton and Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron.
As Secretary Clinton put it:
One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.
Accordingly, Secretary Clinton suggested that given the threat of Islamic jihadism, we need an “overarching framework” comparable to the strategy developed to confront the Soviet Union and Communism.
In an August 16 essay in The Telegraph, Prime Minister Cameron spoke in even more vivid terms:
The creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria is not a problem miles away from home. Nor is it a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago. It is our concern here and now. Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent. Indeed, the first ISIL-inspired terrorist acts on the continent of Europe have already taken place.
We can only wish that the President Obama might acquire the clarity of vision of Clinton and Cameron before it is too late.
In response to an earlier post, two commenters questioned the importance of ISIS, noting that acts of jihadist terrorism do not require a caliphate the size of New England, but can be planned and carried out by small groups. Quite so. The threat of jihadist terror existed before the rise of ISIS and will continue even if the Iraqis and Kurds somehow find a way, with our support, to dismantle it. But the fact is that, so long as ISIS exists, it will act as a powerful stimulus and magnifier for Islamic extremists. As George Packer summed it up in the August 25 issue of The New Yorker:
Armed movements driven by an ideology like that of ISIS are expansionist as well as eliminationist. There is always a new enemy to defeat, a new threat to the dream of purifying the world. The Islamic State, whose success makes it a magnet for jihadists around the globe, has recruited hundreds of suicide bombers, who could carry out operations across the region. Its many hundred fighters holding European or American passports will eventually return home with training, skills, and the arrogance of battlefield victory.
Packer also observed, much as Clinton, Cameron and many others had, “It’s hard to believe that the ambitions of ISIS will remain confined to the boundaries of the Tigris and Euphrates.” Finally, Packer pointed out, “Only the President can explain to the public why containing and defeating ISIS requires deep, steady, patient engagement.” Unfortunately, the President has shown no inclination to undertake any such explanation.
Finally, we come to Afghanistan and to consider where it might fit in the overarching framework of our response to Islamic jihadism—if only such a framework existed.
On May 27, President Obama announced the American troop level in Afghanistan, some 32,000 at the time, would be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year and would be withdrawn entirely by the end of 2016. He gave no indication that the timetable might be subject to change or reconsideration in light of changing conditions in Afghanistan. On the contrary, he appeared to make it appear utterly immutable. (The full transcript is here).
The President’s announcement was immediately met with expressions of skepticism and concern. The New York Times reported from Kabul that:
In interviews with officials and business leaders, one common reaction to the decision was the belief that too few American troops were being left behind for too few years. Some worried that announcing such a short deadline would allow the Taliban to easily wait out the American presence, or that the quick drawdown would put Afghanistan’s weak economy at greater risk of failure.
Closer to home, the Times reported on similar concerns from former military and civilian officials who had worked to develop and implement the Administration’s policy in Afghanistan. For example:
James N. Mattis, the retired Marine general who oversaw the war in Afghanistan as head of the United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said it was particularly unwise to set a public deadline for removing American troops.
“When you set a deadline, you give the enemy a reason for optimism, and in foreign policy, we should be reticent at telling our adversaries in advance what we will not do,” General Mattis said in an interview.
David S. Sedney, a former deputy assistant of defense who served as the Pentagon’s point person for Afghanistan until he left the government last year, said that cutting back the American advisory effort so quickly could lead to trouble on several fronts.
“The consequences are not just that the Afghan forces are going to fight less well,” Mr. Sedney said. “They are going to take more casualties. They are going to commit more human rights abuses.”
He added, “The president’s language that this will bring the war to a responsible end is just wrong.”
Within the Administration, concerns with the Afghanistan timetable deepened as the ISIS Crisis overtook Iraq. By July 15, a story in The Daily Beast reported that an earlier CIA assessment, which had supported Obama’s plan, was increasingly viewed as too optimistic: “The idea of pulling nearly all American troops out of Afghanistan in 2016 suddenly seems pretty lousy, after so much of Iraq has collapsed under a similar scenario.”
In the meantime, as if on cue, the Taliban were moving aggressively to fill the vacuum created by the American drawdown already in progress. As the Times reported on July 26: “Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.”
One might think that the developments in Iraq and Afghanistan would lead the President to reconsider, or at least consider reconsidering, his timetable for withdrawal. On July 6, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, having returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, called on the President to revise his plan. A month later, on August 5, Speaker Boehner issued the following statement:
“I have told the President privately and publicly that my biggest concern is that America will end its mission in Afghanistan just short of the goal line. After my visit there in May, I warned that if we did not demonstrate a determination to finish the job, we would be looking at a reversal of progress similar to what we have seen in Iraq. The national security interests of our country are too high, and too much sacrifice has been made to watch that happen. So let me reiterate: if the President decides to re-think his strategy, including withdrawals, deadlines, and policy restraints, particularly on certain associated terrorist networks, he will have my support.
The President, however, remained unmoved and seemingly unmovable. On August 20, the Times reported that:
The president, a senior administration official said, was rejecting a growing chorus of arguments in Washington that the chaos in Iraq should prompt him to reconsider his timetable for withdrawing the last soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
According to the Times, Obama told his advisers that “delaying the pullout of American troops from would make no difference there as long as the country did not overcome its political rifts.” That is, however, a non sequitur. There is no question that it is important for both Afghanistan and the United States to have a resolution of the political standoff between the contending Presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani as quickly as possible. One way or another, however, it will be resolved and, in the meantime, it is important to support strongly the Afghan military to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the government’s instability. Moreover, it is not a situation where, as in Iraq, the government is using the prospect of additional military aid as a “carrot” to promote political unity. Whatever the political situation in Afghanistan is or becomes, there is no prospect of additional military support; all that is at issue is the rate at which we reduce resources already committed.
If a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan should allow the Taliban to regain control of the country, the potential consequences are obvious and severe. Foremost, it would again make Afghanistan a safe haven for Islamic jihadists. It would also discard and dishonor the sacrifices of the men and women killed and wounded while fighting what we were told was the “good” war. Further, it would subject the women and children of Afghanistan to the Taliban’s relentless brutality. While we would never have gone to war to improve the lives of Afghan women and children, we will not be able to witness their subjugation and abuse without a good measure of guilt at having betrayed them along with the Afghan men who followed our leadership. (Anyone who has doubts on this score should read the portrait of the Taliban in I Am Malala, written by the courageous young Pakistani woman whom the Taliban attempted to assassinate.) Beyond the borders of Afghanistan, restoration of Taliban control would undermine the stability of neighboring Pakistan where the Pakistani Taliban are a continuing source of unrest. It would also be seen as a powerful example of America’s lack of resolution that would have reverberations around the world.
Perhaps the most convincing explanation of President Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan was succinctly put by Vali R. Nasr, formerly a senior official in the State Department and now Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: “Intellectually, he is beholden to the notion that his greatest legacy is getting us out of [the Iraq and Afghan] wars.” For the rest of us, the question may be how much stupid stuff must we endure in pursuit of that legacy?