In January, President Obama likened fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to a “jayvee team” in Lakers jerseys on the basketball court.
Eight months later, that squad of bloodthirsty maniacs is playing quite a game of pickup. Occupying swaths of territory stretching from Syria into Iraq, ISIS stands in control of a landmass unprecedented in the annals of terrorist organizations, makes millions of dollars a day selling oil on the black market, has beheaded men and sold women into slavery, and now threatens to kill 40,000 Yazidis — an Iraqi sect ISIS accuses of devil-worship.
It was the plight of the Yazidis, stranded on a mountain, that ultimately compelled the president to initiate a humanitarian airlift of food and water, which he announced from the White House Thursday night. The president has also authorized a limited number of air strikes on ISIS forces approaching the Yazidis. The mission, however, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, will be “very limited in scope.” This led Senator John McCain, in an exclusive interview with my Daily Beast colleague Josh Rogin, to ridicule the strikes as mere “pinpricks,” a reference to Obama’s insistence last year that the strikes he briefly supported in response to Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks would not be useless.
Asked seven years ago if the need to stave off potential genocide might convince him to change his mind about a total and precipitous withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, then-candidate Obama replied that it would not. “Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” Obama said.
This cynical avowal, I wrote at the time, was an indication of what might become the “Obama doctrine,” which I described thusly: “The United States will remain passive in the face of genocide.” Seven years later, I regret to say, my prediction stands up pretty well.
In Syria, some 150,000 to 200,000 people have died as a result of President Bashar Assad’s war on his own people. “The photos show crimes the likes of which we have not seen since Auschwitz,” international war-crimes prosecutor David Crane said last month upon viewing images of tortured and murdered Syrians. Never mind the innocent lives lost: Assad is an enemy of the United States, Iran’s sole Arab ally, and, as a backer of Hezbollah and Hamas, a major source of instability in the region. Equipping and training the moderate rebels who were once poised to defeat him was categorically in the American interest. But Obama never seriously entertained the idea of overthrowing Assad. Far from it: The first three years of his presidency saw one slavish attempt at conciliation after another, until Assad began murdering Syrians en masse and Obama, fecklessly, announced that the president-for-life must “step aside.”
In Libya, Obama did act to prevent a mass murder in Benghazi, however late and indecisively. But his failure to help support the post-Qaddafi government has contributed to today’s dire situation, with a security vacuum so perilous that the United States has evacuated its embassy.
As for the Yazidis, Obama seems more concerned with avoiding the appearance of American involvement than he does with saving innocent people about to be slaughtered. And if his “pinprick” attacks are not enough to defeat ISIS, there is no indication that he will up the ante to save innocent lives, never mind to regain the country that America, under his failed leadership, has lost to internecine warfare and Iranian machinations. “As commander-in-chief,” Obama said Thursday, “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.”
Guiding the administration’s hands-off approach to everything in the Middle East (everything, that is, except the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is the desire to forge accommodation with — or capitulation to — Iran. That’s why there has never been a serious effort to overthrow Assad, why Kerry attempted to intercede on Hamas’s behalf in the latest Gaza war (over the objections of not just Israel, but our other key regional allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and why Obama has been so reluctant to assert American power in Iraq, where Tehran now enjoys supreme influence over the Shiite-dominated government. “The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison,” writes former Bush-administration official Michael Doran in a perceptive essay for Mosaic magazine. “The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.”
President Obama has a grand vision in mind, something no less than a wholesale realignment of the Middle East’s traditional alliance structures. This would be an ambitious agenda for any president, never mind one who, in discussion of another crisis, riffs about the obsolescence of the “Cold War chessboard.” Obama, in conversation with David Remnick earlier this year, envisioned a Middle East in which Iran “operate[s] in a responsible fashion” and where “equilibrium” develops between Tehran and our traditional Sunni Arab partners. Hoping for the former is a dangerous fool’s errand; the latter spits in the eyes of our allies.
So pity the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Israelis, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the rest of America’s erstwhile friends in the region. They had the naïveté to put their trust in Barack Obama.
— James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.