From Europe to the Middle East, we have seen how disaster follows U.S. retreat and disengagement from the world. But the one area where President Obama seemed to be leaning forward was drone strikes. He personally approved terrorist “kill lists” and has taken out many hundreds of terrorists with drones in Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa.
So why, when Iraqi officials began pleading with him one year ago to strike Islamic State terrorists with drones, did Obama repeatedly refuse — standing by while terrorists overran the country?
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce made the stunning revelation in a congressional hearing last week that Iraq had been urgently requesting drone support against the Islamic State since August 2013 and that those requests were repeatedly turned down.
Obama officials have publicly claimed that Iraq requested air support only in May of this year, after Islamic State had already taken Fallujah and was marching on Mosul. That is untrue. And it is Royce’s version of events that is borne out by the public record. On Aug. 17, 2013, in a little-noticed story entitled “Iraq Open to U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorists,” Bloomberg News reported that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was in Washington “seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or even drone strikes” and that “the top Iraqi diplomat’s comments are the first time he has publicly raised the possibility of working with the U.S. on anti-terrorist drone strikes.”
That was a year ago. Had Obama acted on those requests, the Islamic State offensive might very well have been stopped. The United States could have hit the terrorists while they were still in staging areas in the western Iraqi desert, away from civilians, where they were easy targets for U.S. drones. Instead Obama did nothing, while the Islamic State massed its forces, marched into Iraqi cities, and proclaimed a radical Islamic state.
Why did Obama refuse? Perhaps authorizing drone strikes against terrorists in Iraq would have been an admission that his withdrawal from Iraq had backfired — that in the absence of U.S. troops the terrorists were making a comeback. This much is certain: The president did not take the Islamic State threat seriously. In a January 2014 interview with the New Yorker, Obama glibly dismissed the Islamic State as a bunch of junior varsity terrorists who posed little danger to Iraq or the United States. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama declared. He brushed aside the rise of the Islamic State as just internal Iraqi sectarian violence, something that is not “a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
If he would not listen to the warnings of Iraqi officials, perhaps he should have listened to experts in his own administration. On Feb. 5th, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk predicted that the Islamic State planned to launch an offensive designed “to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in the western regions of Iraq and eastern Syria.” He testified that the United States had identified “a series of armed [Islamic State] camps — staging areas and training grounds . . . in western Iraq” and that Iraqi security forces “lacked the ability to target [the camps] effectively, thereby providing [the Islamic State] safe haven just miles from populated areas.”
In other words, Obama was not taken by surprise by the Islamic State offensive, as administration officials have repeatedly claimed. He had been warned by Iraqi officials, and even by officials in his administration. U.S. intelligence had identified the camps. Obama had not only been given a green light from the Iraqis to strike, but they also were pleading with him to do so. Obama simply refused to act. As a result, Royce said, “we watched [the Islamic State] go from city to city across Iraq without it being hit from the air with drones despite the requests that I know were being made.”
McGurk has assured Congress that the Iraqi request for drone strikes “is still under active consideration.” Oh, great. That’s like telling a homeowner that his request for a fire engine is under consideration after his house has already burned down.
The consequences of Obama’s failure to act may be felt far from Iraq. In January, at the very same time Obama was dismissing the Islamic State, the terrorists’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued a stark warning: “Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.” The Islamic State has larger ambitions than simply establishing an Islamist state in Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s own attorney general, Eric Holder, recently told ABC News that the rise of the Islamic State is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general,” adding that “9/11 was something that kind of came out of the blue. This is a situation that we can see developing.”
Remember those words. Obama saw the threat from the Islamic State developing for a year. He had a chance to stop it. He failed to do so.