Given President Obama’s preference for hacking away at the defense budget and disregarding military advice (e.g. to leave a 10,000-troop force in Iraq), it is not surprising that civilian-military relations are frayed. But Obama outdid himself recently when he admitted there is “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State, as NBC reporter Richard Engel disclosed on Sunday:
Well, I speak to military commanders. I speak to former officials. And they are apoplectic. They think that this is a clear and present danger. They think something needs to be done. One official said that this was a Freudian slip, that it shows how the United States does not have a policy to deal with Syria.
Even when you have ISIS, which has effectively become a terrorist army, roughly 20,000 strong, about half of them foreign fighters, and incredibly well armed after two major weapons hauls. The first when ISIS took over the city of Mosul and the Iraqi Army, the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army, disgraced itself by not fighting. And the second just last week, when ISIS took over a Syrian air base.
You would think the rest of the mainstream media would be reporting on this, but apparently it’s not a topic they have interest in reporting. At any rate, what flowed from Obama’s inertness is a preventable tragedy. Engel continued:
So what has the U.S. done about it? To a large degree, the administration’s policy has been to ignore Syria, ignore it until the horrors there become too barbaric to stomach. A year ago, that was a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, when Washington blamed the regime for gassing over 1,000 to death, including hundreds of children. The Syrian regime crossed, leapt over, in fact, the President’s red line. . . . Instead, without Congressional support, the bombings against Assad never came. Neither did large-scale support for the Syrian opposition. In retrospect, the bombings probably would have been too little, too late to have made things better in Syria. ISIS was already on the rise. Weapons given to the opposition would very likely have ended up in the hands of radicals.
Then, after empty threats and empty promises, the administration turned away from Syria again, for another year. Until ISIS shocked the world by occupying large parts of Iraq and declaring a new state, the Islamic state, the caliphate. The U.S. is now flying surveillance missions over Syria, looking for targets it can attack from the air. . .
The build-up of ISIS in Iraq and Syria was incredibly predictable, Andrea. We’ve reported about it. Reporters risk their lives going into Syria to talk about this buildup of — extremists in the country. Yet, nothing seemed to have been done. And now we have a very serious situation.
That is as succinct an explanation as you will find as to how the Islamic State flourished in Syria. Along with Obama’s determination that pulling all troops out of Iraq was “the right thing to do,” we aggravated the problem by leaving a vacuum in Iraq, into which the Islamic State rushed.
The responsibility for this debacle rests with the president, but he had some help along the way. Aside from Robert Ford, no other top official resigned in protest, an act that would have focused attention on the developing mess. Why didn’t Hillary Clinton or ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power quit? Perhaps careerism triumphed over principle, but in continuing to spin for the administration both bear some responsibility for what unfolded.
There was also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who routinely exaggerated the amount of force and degree of risk involved in U.S. action. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it, “The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has done nothing but invent ways for us not to be engaged. I’ve watched him and observed him for years, and I do not believe that he’s doing the job that should be done for the American people.” In feeding the president precisely what he wanted to hear — a reason not to act — Dempsey also contributed to the do-nothing policy.
Then there is Congress. Top GOP leaders supported authorization for use of force, but many others did not, including all three freshman senators mentioned as presidential candidates. Congressional objections gave Obama the pretext to call off any military action. These senators, too, were derelict. (Wouldn’t it be refreshing if one of them admitted error?) In fairness, some acknowledged that we did have a national security interest in Syria but found the president entirely lacking the will and a game plan to do something effective. However, others denied that we had any security interest in Syria at all or acted as though there was no alternative to the jihadis and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (In fact, we could have simultaneously stepped up support for the Free Syrian Army, as McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham urged.)
In any event, the president has no one to blame but himself for the current humanitarian and strategic disaster. That said, plenty of others didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. They, too, have some explaining to do.