Last week, President Barack Obama decided to conduct limited air strikes against front-line Islamic State “convoys” and positions near Erbil in northern Iraq. But the terrorist Islamic State has been on a rampage across northern and western Iraq for months. Why exactly did Obama decide to intervene at this time and in this way?
Obama’s foreign-policy decisions are relentlessly “case by case.” An overarching foreign-policy framework is hard to divine. But in his statement from the White House, the president talked about the need to defend U.S. personnel in Iraq and to save thousands of civilians “faced with the danger of being wiped out.”
What is fascinating is what the president didn’t say. He didn’t mention compelling U.S. interests or even U.S. national security once. We are finally taking military action against perhaps the most powerful terrorist organization of modern times, which has established a massive safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, from which it is promising to attack America itself, and the president wants us to know that it’s not a counter-terrorism operation. According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. officials warned . . . that the campaign was unlikely to inflict serious damage to the militant group now controlling large parts of Iraq and Syria.” That wasn’t a warning. It was a pledge.
It’s bad enough that Obama threw away the gains of the hard-fought Iraq War by withdrawing our forces too soon. Now it’s clear that he has jettisoned the very core of the national-security strategy that the U.S. adopted — on a broad bipartisan basis — after the attacks of 9/11.
One of the principal pillars of that strategy was the elimination of safe havens from which terrorist networks could threaten American citizens at home. The Bush administration recognized the danger of failed and failing states, and put in place a preventive doctrine of “partnership capacity building” to shore up the governance capability of threatened states. The idea was to prevent the sort of lawless safe haven from which al-Qaeda organized the 9/11 attacks on America. The first task was to make sure that sovereign states could control the whole of their territory.
Obama, by contrast, seems utterly unconcerned with failing states and terrorist safe havens. “I’ve been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military,” explained Obama, “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.” How that soft power is supposed to protect us from terror networks operating with impunity in safe havens across the Middle East has yet to be explained.
From one end of the Middle East to the other, we are beholding a disaster of historic proportions: a stupendous number of civilian deaths, a large number of failing states, and safe havens such as terrorists had never dreamed of. And it’s not over yet.
When the U.S. intervened in Libya, Obama let France and England take the lead, but he set one inviolable rule: no ground troops. As a result we have turned a fairly simple problem into a meltdown. In a country of just 6 million people, with one of the highest rates of education in the Arab world, the tiniest presence of international forces could have given Qaddafi’s successors a fighting chance to establish strong institutions of governance. Instead, we have a failing state racked by civil strife and overrun by terrorists. Indeed, Obama himself recently admitted as much. It’s hard to say that Libya is better off now than under Qaddafi — unlike Iraq, which was much safer when Bush left office than it ever had been under Saddam.
Moving to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration has unwittingly helped to nurture the terrorist safe haven that is the Gaza Strip. By pressuring Israel to stop its offensive against Hamas, Obama has only buttressed the most destructive and insurmountable obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace — namely, Hamas’s control of Gaza.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the White House has stopped shipping some categories of munitions to Israel. If those who support a “two-state solution” were thinking logically, they would be the first to demand that Israel decisively defeat Hamas and force it to disarm. Israel will never make major concessions so long as Hamas remains ensconced in Gaza with its missiles. It’s hard to believe that a democratic state would allow such a threat against its civilians to persist indefinitely. And yet that’s what the Obama administration requires of Israel — though, to be fair, administrations of both parties have rashly pressured Israel to pull back from defeating its enemies.
Meanwhile, in Syria, we have one of the worst conflicts in living memory. Here again, Obama refused — against the advice of most of his senior advisers — to intervene forcefully, or even to arm Assad’s moderate opponents. In the vacuum, as Hillary Clinton belatedly tells us, the Islamic State arose to dominance among the anti-Assad forces. Moderate elements are still begging Obama for help, as in this pitiful recent op-ed by Hadi al-Bahra, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. But if any help comes from Obama, we all know by now that it will be far too little, far too late, and in the service of no strategy at all.
The Islamic State eventually spilled over the border and quickly seized most of northern and western Iraq. This is perhaps the most awful of Obama’s failing-state failures. The condition Bush left Iraq in was far from perfect. But it wasn’t a failure. All things considered, going from Saddam’s cruel dictatorship in 2002 to a situation of lively parliamentary debate in a largely peaceful country just six years later was, to the say the least, a promising achievement. It was an achievement worth consolidating and building on — for humanitarian reasons, for our own national security, and to honor the sacrifices of those who fought and died for that cause. Instead, the Islamic State is on the march against America’s most deserving allies in the Muslim world — the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Sunnis of the “Anbar Awakening” in western Iraq. Now the Iraqi state teeters on the edge of collapse, its government increasingly dependent on Iran.
What has gone completely unnoticed is that the Islamic State has also been fighting south of Baghdad, in an attempt to surround the capital. A brief look at a map reveals that the only thing standing between these Islamic State units and the capital of Saudi Arabia is five hundred miles of empty desert. That desert has proved an insurmountable obstacle for ragtag insurgents, but Islamic State forces are now partly mechanized and capable of strategic maneuver across open desert. That capability could be thoroughly neutralized with a minimal application of air power, but who knows what Obama will do?
Meanwhile, the past several Arab League summits have been paralyzed by the rift between Qatar and most of the other Arab countries, because of Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the extremists in Syria, including the Islamic State. The tiny oil-rich peninsula of Qatar — which by the way owns Al Jazeera and hosts a major U.S. air base — is fomenting what many of the other Arab countries see as a threat to their own existence, namely Islamist extremism. To be sure, many of them long fomented Islamist extremism themselves. But revolutions have a way of eating their parents as well as their children.
In the new era of globalized communications, of which “the Arab Spring” is merely one manifestation, Saudi Arabia suffers from a fatal weakness. It is not a democracy, which means its legitimacy hangs by a thread, and that makes today’s Saudi Arabia a frightfully fragile state. It’s big and it’s rich, and it has a powerful military on paper. But its military is small — smaller than Iraq’s — and its members have little combat experience. Worst of all, Saudi Arabia has a very long border with Iraq. Caught between the Islamic State and Qatar, the Saudis will not take long to feel mortally threatened. And if the Islamic State starts operating in northern Saudi Arabia, then the Saudis’ border with Jordan will be threatened. Jordan, meanwhile, is increasingly surrounded by extremist forces.
Things stand to get a great deal worse in the Middle East because of Obama’s lack of concern over failing states and terrorist safe havens. His pledge not to put ground forces back in Iraq is a self-fulfilling prophecy to the contrary. Obama is creating the conditions for a general war in the Middle East, one the U.S. may not be able to avoid becoming embroiled in.
— Mario Loyola is a former foreign and defense counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.