Politics & Policy

The Collapse of Obama’s Foreign Policy

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
When even Al Franken is goading you for having no strategy, your approach has failed.

President Barack Obama’s stated goal in the fight against the Islamic State, aka ISIS, is to reduce it to a “manageable problem.”

What this means, he hasn’t spelled out in great specificity. Presumably fewer beheadings. A slower pace of Western recruiting. Fewer genocidal threats against embattled minorities. A downgrading of the caliphate to a mini state, or merely a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The evil of the Islamic State has stirred nearly everyone around President Obama to ringing statements of resolve. Vice President Joe Biden says, “We will follow them to the gates of hell.” The president himself? He says it will be “degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.”

Put to the rhythms of Winston Churchill’s famous call to arms in Parliament in June 1940, the Obama posture is, “We shall degrade you, we shall lessen you as a factor, we shall make you manageable, we shall hope that the attention of this great continental nation . . . turns to something else soon.”

What we have been witnessing the past few weeks is the intellectual collapse of Obama’s foreign policy, accompanied by its rapid political unraveling. When Al Franken is ripping you for lacking a strategy against The Islamic State in Syria, you have a problem.

The hoary hawkish clichés about the stakes in Iraq — repeated over and over again by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham through the years — have proved correct. In 2007, McCain argued that if we failed in Iraq, “these people will try to follow us home and the region will erupt to a point where we may have to come back or we will be combating what is now, to a large degree, al-Qaeda.”

And so it is that seven years later, we are bombing Iraq as we battle an offshoot of al-Qaeda amid fears that the terrorists will attack us here at home.

It is not that the latest events in Iraq and Syria necessarily vindicate a rigorously McCainite foreign policy. You can believe that IS must be defeated and still think that the Iraq War was a mistake and McCain and his allies are too recklessly interventionist. But events have vindicated the surge that devastated the forerunner of IS and demonstrated the folly of Obama’s total pullout from Iraq.

The strife-torn Middle Eastern country for which the “don’t do stupid stuff” doctrine has been most consistently applied is Syria. Yet, in a country of roughly 22 million people, nearly 10 million are refugees or internally displaced, roughly 200,000 have been killed, and the Islamic State has established a base from which to launch operations in Iraq. This is not only a humanitarian catastrophe but a disaster for our interests, and more and more people are recognizing it as such.

The political worm has turned so completely that even Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the strictest of noninterventionists, now supports war in Iraq and Syria.

The most prominent figure who is out of step with this new zeitgeist is President Obama. The other day, he explained that things aren’t as bad as they seem because social media is amplifying events. He has gone from blaming Bush to blaming Instagram.

Does anyone really believe that if we were reading about a radical terror group of unspeakable savagery sweeping through the Middle East in the print editions of newspapers instead of on Twitter, it would seem any less alarming?

The social-media excuse is another evasion by a president who wants to avoid speaking too forthrightly about the threat of IS, lest he commit himself to the forceful action necessary to defeat it.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, President Obama has said of President Bush’s alleged approach to the world, every problem looks like a nail. By the same token, when the only tool you have is retreat, every problem looks “manageable.”

— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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