Politics & Policy

Enough Idealism

(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
How two presidents courted Middle East disaster

As the president who pledged to end two wars restarts our fight in Iraq (and perhaps expands it into Syria), it’s worth reflecting on one of the cardinal lessons of our 13 years of post-9/11 conflict against jihad: Idealism kills.

President George W. Bush, infamous as a “warmonger” to the Left and mocked for his allegedly black-and-white, Manichean worldview, was an idealist. The president who consistently opposed “evildoers” and decried the “axis of evil” is also the president who proclaimed Islam a religion of peace and declared, “I believe God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom.”

President Barack Obama, by contrast, apologized for the sins of the Bush era and declared in Cairo, “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.” Never mind that Cordoba and Andalusia happened to be conquered territories — conquered by Muslim armies; the idealism shines through.

But while Presidents Bush and Obama both declared affection for Islam in their words, their deeds reveal two distinctly different kinds of idealism, both of which move far beyond the all-too-familiar willingness of politicians to deliver “up with people” political saccharin in speeches. Speeches are one thing, policies another — more consequential — thing altogether.

In their policies, George Bush possessed a deadly idealism about our potential friends, while Barack Obama possesses a deadly idealism about our enemies.

Let’s examine President Bush first. He was of course under no illusion about the threat of either al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, initially attacking both Afghanistan and Iraq with far greater levels of force than Barack Obama ever contemplated using in any of the conflicts he initiated, whether it was the Libya campaign or the upcoming one against the Islamic State.

However, Bush actually seemed to believe his own rhetoric regarding the people of the Middle East and their God-implanted “desire to live in freedom.” In fact, as we have seen, many had a desire to oppress, a desire to seek vengeance, and a desire to kill.

The three cardinal sins of the first phase of the Iraq War were all grounded in this misplaced idealism. First, we invaded Iraq with the smallest possible force necessary to depose Saddam Hussein. Next, we dissolved many of Iraq’s most basic forms of local government through “de-Baathification.” Finally, by disbanding the Iraqi army, we stripped Iraq of any viable, indigenous means of restoring or imposing order.

The result? Near-anarchy. Rather than celebrating freedom, all too many Iraqis began looting, then tribal violence flared, and by 2005 Iraq was mired in full-blown civil war.

Yet for years, even faced with the awful consequences of our presumption that Iraqi society was better off and more functional than it was, we kept doubling down on failure — through war-fighting strategies that emphasized light footprints and a minimal American presence in Iraqi neighborhoods. Concentrated in large bases, American forces ventured out to patrol or conduct strikes but then returned to relative safety, an approach that General David Petraeus scornfully labeled “commuting to the fight.”

We turned the tide when we jettisoned the idealism, increased not just troop numbers but — critically — the troop presence in Iraqi towns, and became, in Bing West’s phrase, the “strongest tribe” in Iraq.

Yet between the invasion and the troop surge lay thousands of bodies and years of lost opportunities. It is, of course, true that wars often begin with mistakes. Indeed, it is something of an American military tradition to begin by fighting the wrong war the wrong way. From Bull Run to Bataan to Task Force Smith, our entry into war has all too often been marked by early defeat and costly lessons that preceded the ultimate victory.

And this seemed to be the arc of not just our war in Iraq but also our larger battle against jihad — until President Obama disrupted the cycle with his own idealism, an idealism that sought to woo the enemy and has led only to grief, beheadings, and a metastasizing jihadist threat.

President Obama is a creature of the American academic Left, with all its assumptions about the way the world works. The short version of its view of the Middle East is this: Muslim extremism grows out of a series of legitimate grievances, including Israeli treatment of Palestinians, American military actions and alleged economic exploitation, and oppressive, Western-supported regimes. Deal with the grievances and you can blunt or neuter the extremism.

And so, in a series of colossal foreign-policy blunders, President Obama has actively sided with jihadists in both military and political conflicts — going beyond appeasement to render actual aid (or to attempt to render aid) to some of the world’s most extreme Islamic movements.

In Libya, we used the might of NATO airpower to tip the balance in the civil war to a motley collection of jihadists — jihadists who later thanked us by overrunning our diplomatic compound in Benghazi (killing four Americans) and most recently have been filmed swimming in our ambassador’s pool in Tripoli.

In Egypt, we immediately affirmed our support for the Muslim Brotherhood government and promised to continue arms shipments (including F-16s and M1 Abrams tanks) even as the Muslim Brotherhood stood aside and allowed a screaming mob to overrun our embassy, launched a nationwide campaign of persecution against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, violated the Camp David Accords by moving heavy weapons into the Sinai, and provided direct aid and comfort to Hamas, a State Department–designated terror organization.

Even worse, when the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown, in what some have called the largest political protests in history, and replaced with a government that cut off Hamas, restored cooperation with Israel, and took steps to protect the Copts, only then did we end our military aid.

In Gaza, Secretary of State John Kerry defied both Egypt and Israel to advance Hamas’s key allies — Turkey and Qatar — in cease-fire talks, leading to angry denunciations in Israel and one of the worst diplomatic crises in the long history of the American–Israeli alliance. Using the language of moral equivalence to describe the terror tactics of Hamas and the lawful military actions of Israel was its own appalling scandal.

In Syria, the Obama administration has repeatedly sought to arm and support jihadists fighting the Assad regime (and now allegedly fighting the Islamic State). These jihadists are every bit as brutal as Assad, have reportedly signed non-aggression pacts with the Islamic State, and have apparently already allowed American-supplied weapons to fall into the Islamic State’s hands.

And now we face a Middle East in flames, strained relations with key allies (Israel, Egypt, and the Kurds), and jihadists controlling more territory with more men under arms than before 9/11. This summary doesn’t even include Iran’s growing strength and our looming exit from Afghanistan, where President Obama’s idealistic “benevolent counterinsurgency” (Bing West’s excellent description in his recent book One Million Steps) has largely failed to create conditions similar to those that followed President Bush’s much harder-edged surge in Iraq.

It’s time to end the idealism. How many times must it fail before we face reality?

Our nation first and foremost must understand its enemies. Jihadists cannot be appeased, they do not have “legitimate grievances,” and they mock and exploit our naïve hopes for their reform. One does not end jihad by providing F-16s to the Muslim Brotherhood or close air support to Syria’s Army of Mujahedeen.

At the same time, however, we must be careful about our friends. We have to replace foolish hopes and deadly dreams with hard-nosed evaluations of action. Allies such as the Kurds have proven themselves reliable time and again, and Egypt’s new government has shown promise in its treatment of Hamas. Yet, bizarrely, the Obama administration seems more willing to arm jihadists in Syria than to arm the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq.

Always — always — we must project real strength. The people of the Middle East don’t respect weakness and are unimpressed with kindness when it’s combined with weakness. I’ll never forget the frustration and contempt that, during my own deployment in Iraq, we got from local villagers when we expressed reluctance to raid a mosque housing a known jihadist terror cell. They were utterly unimpressed with our attempts to respect their faith and instead received the message that only the jihadists had a true commitment to victory.

In the Middle East, idealism leads to weakness, and weakness leads not just to death but also to everlasting contempt. This is how the world’s sole military superpower becomes a laughingstock and our citizens pay the price — pawns in jihadists’ deadly games as they jockey for power and prestige in a region that respects strength more than it cares about even the best of our naïve ideals.

— David French is a senior counselor at the American Center for Law and Justice and a co-author of the forthcoming book Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore.

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