The World Comes Looking for President Obama
Were he capable of admitting, much less learning from, past mistakes, President Obama might now be contemplating the limits of “Don’t do anything stupid” – i.e., avoid all foreign interventions – as a sufficient guide for foreign policy. If you are still the president of the country with primary responsibility for maintaining international order, events in places you would prefer to ignore have a way of coming after you.
Sometimes an ounce of prevention in time can spare the need for incomparably more expensive and less effective interventions later. Had the United States aided Syrian rebels sufficiently when the rebellion against Bashar Assad’s government was still a largely non-jihadist operation, for instance, Syria might not today be a primary training ground for global jihadists or have spawned the ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is now marching on Baghdad and Shiite holy cities, after having captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
With the capture of Mosul, the ISIS imposed strict sharia law on the city. No more cigarettes or alcohol; thieves to have their hands cut off; and women only permitted to leave their homes in case of emergency. Just in case anyone doubted their seriousness, they executed thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and other potential opponents in gruesome fashion, including decapitation. No wonder half a million people fled Mosul in advance of their takeover. By seizing nearly $500 million of gold bars from the vaults of the Mosul central bank and the American-supplied equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi Army, the ISIS also became overnight the richest and best-armed jihadi force in the world.
FOUAD AJAMI ANALYZES OBAMA’S contribution to the disaster that is today’s Iraq in the Wall Street Journal (“The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster in a Handshake”). When Barack Obama came into office in 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, had been nearly decimated by the Awakening movement of 90,000 Sunni tribesmen armed by the United States in the surge designed by General David Petraeus – a surge that then Senator Barack Obama denounced as folly.
After the success of the surge, Iraq conducted an election in 2010 in which a non-sectarian, anti-Iranian Sunni-Shiite coalition headed by Ayad Allawi captured the majority of the parliamentary seats. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with already evident authoritarian tendencies, refused to acknowledge the result and disqualified a number of Allawi’s candidates. And the United States government let him get away with it, brokering a power-sharing agreement that Maliki subsequently ignored.
Maliki’s sins in bringing about the destruction of everything that had been gained in Iraq were ones of commission; those of President Obama and his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ones of omission. Before leaving office, President George W. Bush signed a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government set to expire in late 2011. Dexter Filkins, who reported the Second Iraq War for the New York Times, writes in The New Yorker that all parties in Iraq expected and wanted the Obama administration to renegotiate the Status of Forces agreement to permit several thousand American military personnel to remain in Iraq. The Obama administration did not begin negotiations with Maliki’s government until a few months before expiration of the previous agreement, and even then only half-heartedly.
There were issues between the parties, particularly the immunity of American troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts, but rather than negotiate over them, the Obama administration preferred a complete withdrawal from Iraq in fulfillment of Obama’s 2008 campaign promise. As New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and retired Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor make clear in their book Endgame, the Obama administration had little interest in a continued American presence in Iraq.
Thus in December 2011, Obama announced in celebratory White House event, with Maliki at his side, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iran.” Would that had been true.
The U.S. presence had long exercised a restraining effect on Maliki. According to Lieut.-Gen Michael Barbero, Deputy Commander in Iraq, when Maliki tried to send tanks against the Kurds, he was told in no uncertain terms that the U.S. Army would block him. In a rare dissenting memo, prior to the U.S. troop withdrawal, U.S. diplomats in Iraq warned that the “U.S. with its combination of support and indifference is encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”
These warnings of the impact of American withdrawal fell on deaf ears. As soon as American troops were withdrawn, Maliki set about consolidating power in Shi’ite hands and trashing Iraq’s federal structure. He failed to follow through on the sharing of oil revenue with the Kurds and cashiered senior Sunni and Kurd officers from the armed services and replaced them with Shiite political hacks loyal to him, completely alienating both Sunnis and Kurds and destroying any hopes for Iraqi federalism. Yet, in Ajani’s summary, he was backed at every turn by the Obama administration, as he substituted “American tutelage for Iranian hegemony.”
The flight of the better armed and far more numerous Iraqi army last week before the onslaught of a few thousand ISIS fighters last week was but the bitter fruit of Maliki’s policies. Shiite soldiers had little desire to meet a horrible end at the hands of ISIS jihadis defending Sunni cities. And the Sunni tribesmen who fought to rid Sunni areas of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the surge, welcomed Al Qaeda in Iraq’s successors as liberators from Maliki’s efforts to subjugate the Sunni population.
SO IRAQ APPEARS to be well on the way to official “failed state” status, where it will be added to the long list of recent years, including Syria and Libya. We can stipulate that Libyan strongman Gaddafi was both a loon and a tyrant. But his removal by rebels abetted by Western forces, left a vacuum quickly filled by a variety of militias, many of them jihadi in nature, which are poised to slaughter one another over the spoils. Libya is today providing dangerous training for the jihadis who survive its internecine fighting. Syria too has become a major training ground for jihadis from around the world, many of whom will return to their home countries in the West bent on death and destruction.
Several thousand foreign jihadis from Jordan have trained in Syria, which increases the vulnerability of that none-too-stable monarchy on Israel’s eastern border. ISIS has already threatened to expand the area under control of its new “caliphate” to Jordan. The Sinai desert too will become a large jihadi haven if Democratic elder Senator Patrick Leahy has his way and continues to prevent shipment to the Egyptian government of Apache helicopters and other terrorist fighting equipment that the Sisi government needs to gain control of the Sinai.
Finally, in releasing five senior Taliban commanders, President Obama has signaled his clear conviction that the Taliban will retake Afghanistan after the U.S. removes all its forces at the end of 2016. That is certainly how senior Afghanistani officials, who were furious over the release of what one U.S. official called the equivalent of five four-star generals, viewed the matter.
Remember that the United States justifiably invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban government had sheltered Al-Qaeda and continued to do so after 9/11. Even Obama termed the war in Afghanistan the “good war,” in contradistinction to the misbegotten invasion of Iraq, and vowed to win it. Yet it now appears that he is resigned to a return to the status quo ante – thousands of U.S. lives later.
His former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton even attempted to downplay the significance of a return of the Taliban last week, saying that while it represented a threat to the people of Afghanistan, Americans had nothing to fear. That remark suggests that perhaps a tad too much is made of Hilary’s vaunted intelligence. The original problem with the Taliban was that they sheltered Al Qaeda, which launched the devastating terror attacks on the United States ever. True, they were a horror for the Afghani people, but their return will provide Al Qaeda with another base of operations and thereby threaten the United States.
In any event, Al Qaeda or its even more violent progeny now control vast swaths of territory in the Middle East and can operate from any of six or seven failed states where there is no central government control and which serve as a magnet for terrorist training camps and operational planning. Perhaps it is time to retire the election slogan, “Osama is dead and G.M. is alive.”
BUT LO, President Obama has figured out a way to take advantage of the disaster in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal reports that he has plans to open up direct talks with Iran about how to combat ISIS. On its own terms, the idea could be fairly described as lunatic. It was Maliki’s Shiite sectarian, pro-Iranian bent that alienated the Sunni and Kurd populations and opened the way for ISIS to capture much of the Sunni territory of Iraq. Further Iranian involvement can only heighten the sectarianism of the government.
But more important, when will President Obama realize that the number one priority of American foreign policy should be preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would have the capability and perhaps the motivation to trigger a nuclear conflagration. As David Goldman emphasizes in How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too) Iran is experiencing a population implosion. Since the fall of the Shah, the birthrate has dropped from nearly seven children per woman to well under two. By 2050, there will be ten workers to support every seven elderly Iranians, a ratio that no society can sustain.
So in the relatively near future, it’s curtains for Iran. But that renders Iran more dangerous, not less, in the short-run. A theocratic regime that it has nothing to lose may well decide that its greatest contribution would be to bring on catastrophe and with it the appearance of the so-called missing Imam. Any direct talks with Iran will only allow the mullahs to extract further concessions from Obama and bring them that much closer to obtaining the bomb.
Iran is not only an emerging regional hegemon, but the world’s primary sponsor of terrorism. And America is its prime target – the Great Satan. One wonders if President Obama ever reads the vitriol and contempt that Supreme Leader Khameini spews at him and the United States, even subsequent to the alleged rapprochement. The idea of finding common interest with Iran is of a piece with the idea that releasing five Taliban commanders could be the basis of new understanding with “moderate” elements within the Taliban – an approach rejected repeatedly by the Taliban negotiators. When will the perpetual fantasy of “moderate” Islamists eager to work with the United States be put to bed?
The only positive aspect of the current mess in Iraq is that it will draw Iranian and Hezbollah resources and fighters from Syria and other mischief around the globe. The United States should do nothing to make Iran’s task easier.
MEANWHILE, WALTER RUSSELL MEAD termed the worse news of the week the acknowledgment of White House officials that last week’s events took them by surprise. “It is amazing what this White House does not know,” Mead opined. “It did not know that Putin was planning to take over Ukraine. Indeed, it thought its policy of a reset with Russia was paying off and that Russia was becoming a partner for peace. . . . Do they know what Iran’s Supreme Leader is thinking? Do they know what Beijing thinks of their intelligence and resolution?”
Well, at least the president did not say he was very, very angry, and that he first learned of the ISIS, like everybody else, when he read about it in the newspaper.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.