President Obama’s foreign policy flubs and misjudgments were on full display on the Sunday shows as guests, moderators and panels bemoaned the potential for an ISIS-dominated state in the center of the already volatile Middle East. On “Face the Nation,” Sen. John Barrasso did an effective job laying out the threat we face:
I see ISIS as a direct threat to the United States, they have the capacity, and I believe they have the intent. They have stated in, in terms of their opposition and the whole Western world.
They are the richest, most powerful and most savage group of terrorists in the history of mankind, and they’ve taken over an area, truly, the size of Indiana, bordering Syria, as well as Iraq. So that is the direct threat to the United States.
He recommends in effect that we reverse key components of the president’s policies, beginning with Syria. He argued, “ I think that we should be arming and should have been arming some of the opposition in Syria. I would not negotiate with Iran, they are not our friends, they’ll try to use this as leverage to have a nuclear weapon. But I don’t think we should be the air power for Iran coming in on the ground. Additionally, we ought to today be developing American energy resources and finally, we ought to stop the clock button on Afghanistan in terms of withdrawing troops from there.” And he added that the pull-out from Iraq with no stay-behind force was a tragic error: “The President made a campaign promise that he would withdraw the troops, he withdrew the troops, and I believe he did not push hard to get [a status of forces agreement]. He wanted to get this thing confirmed by the parliament, would have been very difficult to do. And now, he said, ‘Well, their word would have been good enough,’ so the President is somewhat backtracking on his decision, and the way he laid it out.”
It is interesting that in his third presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Obama excoriated his opponent for the notion that we needed to leave troops behind. He wasn’t arguing then that he had tried and failed, but rather bragging that he knew better than to leave troops behind: “Now, you just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.” Apparently it was.
Put simply, we should do the opposite of what Obama has been doing for 5-and-a-half years. The centrality of the president’s failure in Syria shouldn’t be underplayed, as Mike Crowley of Time magazine pointed out:
Syria is the festering wound which is producing this infection that has contaminated Iraq. Syria is where ISIS has drawn its strength, power, money and territory before this splits into Northern Iraq. So you saw President Obama say, “I’m asking Congress for $500 million for a Pentagon program to arm and train the rebels,” that is a real reversal from his position in the past couple years where he says, “We don’t want to get too involved with that.”
Secretary Kerry on his travels to the region met with the new sort of quote/unquote “moderate, Syrian opposition leader,” so I think they’re taking another look at that Syria policy to say, “Is that an important component of beating back ISIS, of draining it of its strength?” at the same time of working with these other regional actors. Again, it’s a Rubik’s Cube, and getting it right, it’s going to be extremely hard. . . .
So you think Iraq is the problem from hell, it’s actually the problem from hell number two.
The President was already struggling to find some way to put some water on this raging fire in Syria, which I really think is producing the ISIS with the power and the ambition and the threat, possibly, to the Western United States that is storming into Iraq now.
So part of what’s happening here is, “How do we solve the political situation in Iraq? What do we do about Maliki?” But I think the White House is taking another look at Syria and saying, “Maybe, finally, some of these critics who are saying we’re not doing enough might be right, and we’re gonna go back at it.” And you saw the President make, I thought, a fairly dramatic announcement, asking Congress for $500 million to train and arm the Syrian rebels. Although, still not a clear policy.
The idea that we had no interest in Syria, a fallacy put forth by the far right and far left, proved to be a fundamental error coming on top of another fundamental error, not leaving U.S. troops behind in Iraq. As former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams wrote recently, “Defenders of the President’s inaction have always claimed that all the proposed lines of action in Syria, from bombing Assad’s air force to arming the rebels, are risky. Tragically for Syrians, and now for Iraqis, and perhaps soon enough for the rest of us, the consequences of a failure to act were given far too little weight. Regime brutality against the majority Sunni population of Syria and intervention by foreign Shia forces (Iranian and Hezbollah) have attracted a far larger and more dangerous group of jihadis than ever existed in Afghanistan, one whose threat to European and American allies and interests keeps growing.”
What has been missing in Syria since 2011 is Western, and especially American, leadership and determination, but it is not too late for a new policy. The early goal of a quick departure for Assad and transition to democracy in Syria is now impossible to attain. More disorder and suffering are certain. But Syria need not be an endless source of refugees, a center of inhuman suffering at the hands of a vicious minority regime, and a worldwide gathering place for jihadi extremists. Needed now are a serious and coordinated effort to assist the nationalist elements of the rebels, and organize assistance for them from others in the region — Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar are the most critical — and American (and if possible British and French) willingness to use force directly to punish chemical warfare and erode Assad’s air power. Those remain essential steps of a new policy that can over time diminish the tragedy being suffered by the Syrian people and the threat Syria now poses to regional stability and European and American security interests.
Convinced al-Qaeda was dead, insistent we could retreat from the world and determined to treat terrorism as a series of criminal justice matters, the White House’s perfect storm of foreign policy incompetence has made for a far more dangerous and unstable Middle East than the one they found in 2009. And those who helped implement or cheered these moves and misjudgments will have a lot to answer for. It remains to be seen whether and at what cost (human and financial) we can reverse the terrorists’ momentum and re-establish U.S. influence in the region.