Last night President Obama announced two operations, “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.”
From our standpoint, this is a positive step, albeit too little and too late to combat adequately the growing menace of the Islamic State, which Obama’s advisers have called a national security threat to the United States. Unfortunately, his remarks were so self-contradictory and inconsistent with his positions on other more dire situations that his remarks will no doubt confound friends and foes alike.
As for the Islamic State, however, despite directing new military action Obama avoided labeling it a direct threat to the United States. He cryptically said he was making good on a promise to take “targeted military action in Iraq if and when it was determined that the situation required it.” (But why? He skipped over that point.) He seems allergic to recognizing the full import of a terrorist-run land mass in the Middle East. That acknowledgment might require more robust action — which he, of course, ruled out with his reflexive assurance that no land forces would be used. (He is incapable of announcing action without announcing what we will not do.)
He went on at some length describing the plight of the Yazidi civilians trapped with no water or food. But here’s the rub — what about the 160,000-plus dead Syrians for whom he’s done virtually nothing?
He said this: “I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.” Did he fail to get a “mandate” (what is that, pray tell?) to act in Syria? His rationale for acting in Iraq makes plain how morally outrageous his inaction in Syria is.
This is all a bitter pill for him, of course. He defensively insisted, “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.” Yes, no war is ended; in fact, premature celebration has disastrous results and eventually requires that we re-engage. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton observes, “There is simply no doubt that U.S. political influence over events in Iraq dropped to near zero when our military withdrew. And as Iraq’s government became increasingly dominated by Iran, the likelihood of fragmentation grew, as did the likelihood of Sunni extremists rising again to take advantage of it.”
He won’t allow the United States to be “dragged” in, but what if we had left a stay-behind force and didn’t now have to re-enter a conflict that was won when Obama entered office? There is zero recognition that his refusal to work out a status-of-forces agreement directly contributed to the collapse and humanitarian crisis we are now seeing. And is the ultimate goal not to “be dragged in” or to obtain some strategic objective in Iraq? You won’t find out by listening to him.
In fact, his entire address was riddled with contradictions and reservations:
So let me close by assuring you that there is no decision that I take more seriously than the use of military force. Over the last several years, we have brought the vast majority of our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’ve been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military, because America has other tools in our arsenal than our military. We can also lead with the power of our diplomacy, our economy, and our ideals.
But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action. That’s my responsibility as commander in chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.
Really? Then why not act in Syria? Why not commit to eradicating the Islamic State, which threatens the United States and our allies? Why set a date certain to pull all troops out of Afghanistan, repeating his Iraq error?
Virtually every action or refusal to act has now come back to haunt Obama. Trying to reconcile past mistakes with grudging action is impossible, and yet he refuses to admit error or commit wholeheartedly to a different set of policies. As Bolton puts it, “The problem is not just Iraq, but the entire Middle East where state structures are collapsing and terrorism increasing to fill the vacuum. Thus we have moved from the American Century to the Obama Chaos.”
We should be pleased, I suppose, that he acted in some fashion. Now he needs a new policy team, a coherent policy for the region and a recognition that retrenchment failed and is indeed the cause of many of the horrors we now see. That would require adequately funding the military, taking action to prevent Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and ensuring that non-jihadi rebels in Syria succeed — to name only a few significant policy reversals that would be required. Let’s hope that this is the first indication of an about-face on Obama’s entire foreign policy approach.