For President Obama and isolationists on the right and left who insist that we don’t have a dog in fights raging in Iraq and Syria, recent events have not been kind. And it seems the public is not much enamored of a weak-on-defense posture.
In the recent Fox News poll, when asked “Would you rather the United States continue to hold terrorist suspects in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and put more terrorist suspects there, or is it time to move them to federal prisons in the United States and close Guantanamo?” voters preferred Gitmo by a margin of 52 percent to 36 percent. By a margin of 52 to 42 percent, voters think the Obama administration is not as serious about fighting terrorism as was the George W. Bush administration. By slight pluralities, voters even agree that the Iraq war left Iraq better off and the United States more secure. While voters still disfavor putting troops into Iraq, they approve by considerable margins steps such as sending 300 U.S. military advisers to work with the Iraqi military and launching U.S. airstrikes to try to stop the terrorist insurgents.
Given how little the president has spoken to the American people about the threats we face there, it is a remarkable showing of concern and foreign policy resolve by the voters. Americans may remember Sept. 11, 2001, better than the president and isolationists on the right and left imagined. Having seen what comes from giving safe haven to terrorists and treating attacks as criminal justice issues, they seem wary about repeating the error. (“By a huge 63 to 29 percent margin voters favor trying the Benghazi terror suspect in a military tribunal not in a regular court.”)
Part of what is stiffening the voters’ spines certainly is the utter incoherence of the administration and the sense that things are spinning out of control.
In Iraq, for example, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is threatening to go to Russia for air support because the administration has been so slow to respond. Former State Department official Eliot Cohen doubts that the Russians are the solution to Maliki’s problem, telling me, “Maliki is the one who is deluded if he thinks the Iraqi air force will be able to make use of those aircraft without appropriate training, maintenance, spare parts, and so on.” However, frustration with the United States and resorting to the Russians seems to be an all-too-frequent phenomenon these days. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute muses, “It is as if the president has taken to seeing Russia as his backup plan: chemical weapons out of Syria? Turn to Putin. Don’t feel like helping Iraq out of a fight with Islamist extremists? Let Russia do the job. Has he thought for one moment that perhaps Russia doesn’t share our interests?” She confirms our experience that it’s hard to find a Democratic or Republican foreign policy expert these days who “isn’t flabbergasted by what’s going on in this administration.”
Iraq is only part of the problem, however. After three years, Syria’s multiple uses of chemical weapons and more than 160,000 dead, Obama has finally decided that we have an interest in the outcome of Syria’s civil war and is requesting $500 million in aid to non-jihadi rebels. Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes via e-mail, “Without question, this assistance would have been more likely to produce good results had it come three years ago — a time when not just Republicans but also many of the president’s top advisers were urging him to support the nationalist, non-Islamist opposition in Syria.” He nevertheless thinks it is not too late to act. “That said, if this signals that Obama is now seeing the need to defend America against jihadists – a word he and John Kerry have recently used instead of ‘violent extremists’ — that is encouraging,” he said. “But they need to go further. They need to understand: there are Sunni and Shia jihadists. Both seek America’s defeat and destruction.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reacted cautiously to the president’s announcement. His statement read, in part:
I’m supportive of the President’s decision to seek $500 million in assistance to train and arm vetted, moderate rebels in Syria. This is long overdue and the U.S. must lead, with European and regional partners, in helping to develop a cadre of fighters who will alienate ISIL and al Nusra Islamic extremists, and take the fight directly to Bashar al-Assad. The current turmoil in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere was foreseeable and the result of a rudderless foreign policy that has only contributed to endangering American interests and emboldening our enemies. We must act now to reverse this trend with a robust commitment on behalf of the Department of Defense and Department of State to tackle this problem while ensuring any weapons we provide do not end up in the wrong hands. We do not have any more time to waste.
Now, conservative hawks for years have been urging the president to do more. The president has always complained there is nothing to be done, even dubbing the idea of helping to foster a non-jihad government a “fantasy.” Now he turns on a dime, with nary a speech to the country or presentation of a full-blown policy. Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, observes, “The move to back the Syrian rebels demonstrates that the only obstacle to doing so has been the President.” Abrams recalls, “His own cabinet ([Hillary] Clinton and [Leon] Panetta, and [David] Petraeus as well) wanted this two years ago, as did so many of us on the outside, and he rejected the advice. His key Syria experts [e.g. Ambassador Robert Ford] resigned in protest over his passivity.” Nevertheless he, too, urges action: “Better late than never, for sure, but one wonders if the president ever asks himself why he keeps making these mistakes. The desperate situation in Syria and Iraq would not exist if he done exactly this in 2011 or 2012. The question isn’t what we learn from this, it’s what he learns from this.”
To sum up, the Middle East is becoming a far more dangerous and terrorist-friendly place than at any time in the Obama presidency. “Ending” wars didn’t end anything; it merely opened the door to greater violence and multiplied threats to the United States. It will now be vastly more expensive and difficult to correct course. The president and Congress need to explain the stakes to the voters, lay out a reasoned policy and then pursue it with full resolution — meaning no timetables or limitations. The voters seem ready to hear the truth — they know they’ve not been getting it.