Top Stories of the Year: #2
Some of us have been warning for years that President Obama is undermining all the pillars of US foreign policy, which would lead to disaster. This second biggest story of this year is that the disaster has arrived. America’s foreign policy collapsed in many small ways, and in two big ways: the return of naked Russian military aggression in Ukraine, and above all, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
As I warned when President Obama unwisely traded five high-level Taliban detainees for capture American soldier Bowe Bergdahl:
Obama has stopped going through the motions of caring what happens in Afghanistan. Before his term is over, he wants us out of Afghanistan, he wants terrorist detainees out of our custody, he wants to wash his hands of the last vestiges of American intervention overseas.
This is his declaration that he’s just not interested in the War on Terrorism any more. Unfortunately, I suspect we’re going to find in the years to come that the war is still interested in us.
It didn’t take years. It took days.
The Obama administration’s policies had already been failing throughout the year, particularly in Ukraine. When a street uprising deposed a corrupt president who was attempting to turn Ukraine into a kleptocratic Russian satellite, the Putin regime responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and threatening to take a big chunk of Eastern Ukraine (which it has essentially done, swallowing them up into a self-proclaimed “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia”).
It all looks like a return to the Cold War—which might require some of the same strategies that took down the Russian/Soviet empire the first time around.
You may recall a notorious moment from one of the 2012 president debates when President Obama cited Mitt Romney’s warning about the growing threat from Russia and dismissed it with a snarky one-liner: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Fast forward a year or so, and President Obama faces the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which brings the curses of war and imperial conquest back to Europe….
The 1980s are calling. They want to know if we want their foreign policy back….
[W]e know what it looks like when American weakness and uncertainty allow an aggressive dictatorship and its allies to advance across the world. To avoid that outcome, we need to reverse course and do it fast.
If we don’t, pretty soon the 1970s will be calling.
By now, the 1970s have us on speed-dial.
Within a week of when I warned about President Obama’s disengagement with the War on Terrorism, the self-proclaimed Islamic State made a spectacular surge forward in Iraq, taking control of key cities where American soldiers had once waged costly campaigns to drive out al-Qaeda, and threatening some of our best allies in the country, the Kurds of Northern Iraq.
I argued that this result was hardly accidental or unforeseeable.
Democrats predicted that the war in Iraq was unwinnable, Harry Reid said it was already lost, and Senator Obama declared that President Bush’s “surge” wouldn’t work.
And now here we are in 2014, and by golly it looks as if they were right: Iraq is a total disaster. An al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, overran Fallujah months ago and just knocked over Mosul and Tikrit, reportedly executing hundreds in the street and sending half a million Iraqis fleeing for their lives. They’re on a path that will take them straight into Baghdad, if there is no one to stop them. And the Iraqi army is in disarray.
So were the Democrats right? Was Iraq a lost cause, inevitably, all along? There’s one big problem with this narrative: Iraq has fallen apart on President Obama’s watch, as a consequence of his own policy of willful neglect.
I would say that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that doesn’t quite seem to cover it. Instead, I would characterize this as a wish-fulfilling prophecy. If Iraq is falling to al-Qaeda, it’s because this administration deliberately chose to throw away the victory handed to them by George W. Bush. The left thought we should have lost the war in Iraq, they wanted us to lose it—and finally they’re getting the outcome they wanted.
But the problem wasn’t just the administration’s total neglect of Iraq. It was their dithering and reluctant response to Syria’s civil war, capped off by Obama’s betrayal of the rebels.
When Syrians first rose up against Bashar al-Assad, it was obvious that we couldn’t back the regime, a brutal dictatorship that was closely allied to Iran and had vigorously backed the insurgency in Iraq. But President Obama refused to take any significant action to back the rebellion, which was largely non-sectarian in its early days. This left a power vacuum that would be filled by Sunni Islamists. Yet the administration still kept stringing along the non-Islamist rebels, leaving them some hope that if they opposed al-Qaeda and declared a non-sectarian agenda, we might tip the scales in their favor.
And then came the Putin-brokered deal last summer in which Assad agreed to begin maybe dismantling some of his chemical weapons, in exchange for being accepted as the indispensible man in Damascus. It was another off-ramp deal designed to take the issue off the president’s plate. This betrayal crushed the hopes of the non-Islamist rebels and gave a huge boost in credibility to the Islamists. It helped create a whole new arena for al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself—which naturally crossed over the border. Notice who’s taking over in Iraq: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
None of this just happened out of the blue in the past few weeks. All of this has happened slowly, agonizingly, over a period of five years. There was plenty of time to notice what was going on—some of us were pointing at the unfolding disaster and jumping up and down and screaming—and to do something about it.
The irony is that the disaster in Iraq and Syria is largely a result of anti-interventionism, as advocated by the blame-America-first left. Yet it is cited as proof of the failure of intervention by the anti-interventionist libertarians. I noted this irony in arguing that Senator Rand Paul’s flailing, superficial response to the rise of ISIS disqualified him to ever be president: “Rand Paul’s policy for Iraq is to do nothing. Thanks, but we were doing that already. That’s how the current disaster happened.”
President Obama eventually committed to doing something to stop the Islamic State, but in a way that was flailing and directionless. The key point came in late August, when the president admitted in a live press conference that after months of buildup from this threat, the US had no strategy for dealing with ISIS. This led me to ask, “If You Are Not Using the Presidency, Do You Mind If We Borrow It?”
I advised that “we need to make sure that ISIS and Assad both lose.” President Obama ultimately failed upward to that same conclusion—at least officially—but he has been doing little to actually implement it. I walked through the logic behind this strategy.
To those who object that we can’t support the Syrian opposition because we might be throwing our weight behind Islamists, the same objection holds with even greater force when it comes to the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad can only be considered “secular” if you ignore that his main geopolitical sponsor is the radical Shiite theocracy in Iran, or that he relies on the jihadist terror army of Hezbollah for his shock troops. These are our strategic enemies in the region, and an alliance with them would be self-defeating.
As Sherlock Holmes said, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Doing nothing about ISIS is impossible, and so is volunteering to serve as an air force for Iran and Hezbollah. What remains, then, is to support a non-jihadist opposition that will fight against the Islamic State without propping up the Assad regime.
But we have to recognize how improbable this is, or rather, how difficult it will be to pull it off, and we have to consider all of the concrete steps that will be required.
For now, unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Michael Totten, one of the Mideast analysts I respect most, explained in November how the non-Islamist opposition was foundering.
Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front just surrendered to Al Qaeda in Syria.
Most people have never heard of either organization, though they’ve been sort of quietly backed by the US since they oppose the Assad regime, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Now they may be effectively finished.
The US waited far too long to back proxies in Syria while the Islamic State and the Nusra Front spent years building up their strength and conquering territory. Throwing support behind anyone but the Kurds at this point is too little too late.
But we still have the Kurds, and as their fierce defense of Kobane in Northern Syria has demonstrated, that’s something.
For the longer term, I acknowledged that “A moderate opposition to Assad cannot be assumed to exist ready-made, pure, and effective.” But, “If it does not exist, it will be necessary for us to create it.”
Since the alternatives are worse, we have to support this effort and hope that rough experience and undeniable failure will eventually move the administration to adopt a more realistic strategy. Which, come to think of it, is how we got this new strategy in the first place.
I’m afraid that’s the best we can hope for.
In the meantime, though, our halting policy will have consequences, as we just saw in Australia, where a supporter of the Islamic State took hostages in a downtown Sydney cafe, eventually killing two hostages before being killed by police.
Islamic terrorism thrives on examples of success. The Muslim god is a god of war, and his prophet was a victorious conqueror. The example of a strident and victorious Islamist movement that carries all before it is a palpable incitement to other aspiring jihadists, whether they are directly linked to the Islamic State, or whether they’re just fanboys….
Terrorism is all about theater, about making a big splash and going down in a blaze of glory on behalf of the Muslim faith. That photo of terrified hostages holding the black flag of jihad up against the windows of an upscale cafe will be electrifying to other angry and disaffected Islamists. Anyone who cannot make it to Syria to join the jihad there–or, just as likely, someone who has already been there and come back–will see this as a new, highly effective way to bring terror to our streets….
Jihadism is back, and it may be coming soon to a Starbucks near you.
Although the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy is the second biggest story of the year, I wrote less about it than I did about some of the other top stories. The reason is that we are still very much spectators in the war. The point of analyzing our response to the Islamic State is to make recommendations for how to do better. But when it’s obvious that the man in charge isn’t listening and would rather get in his morning round of golf, there’s not much point to that.
There is much more point in changing the leadership in Washington, trying to put in place new leaders who will at least listen to us. Which leads us to the top story of the year, which I will discuss in the next edition of The Tracinski Letter.
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