President Obama cannot avoid his share of responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As dangerous as ISIS is now, its rise was neither inevitable nor unpredictable. Time after time, President Obama had the opportunity to act when U.S. engagement could have made a decisive difference, and in pulling back from America’s traditional leadership role, he left a vacuum for other, more dangerous actors to fill. As a result, the situation in Iraq and Syria has descended into a crisis that poses a direct threat to the United States. Worse yet, our options for countering this threat are fewer and far worse than they were just a few years ago.
At least four of President Obama’s key decisions stand out.
The first was the President’s failure to leave a residual force in Iraq in 2011. In May 2011, the two of us were in Iraq as the deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces neared. During our trip — one of dozens we made during the course of the war — we met with leaders from all of Iraq’s main political blocs, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Masoud Barzani of Kurdistan, and Parliamentary Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi. They conveyed a common belief that it was in their country’s best interest for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq in a non-combat mission of training and assisting Iraqi security forces beyond 2011. In our meeting, Prime Minister Maliki asked us the number of troops the United States wanted to maintain and what tasks they would perform. We turned to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who said they couldn’t answer — not because they didn’t want to, but because the White House still had not made a decision.
As soon as we returned to the United States, we called Tom Donilon, who was then the president’s national-security adviser, to find out the number of troops the administration was proposing to maintain in Iraq and what missions they would perform. He said they were still working on it. This indecision continued for months. By August 2011, leaders from all of Iraq’s political blocs joined together and stated that they were prepared to enter negotiations to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. But an entire month passed without a response from the White House. All the while, during internal deliberations within the Obama administration, the size of a potential U.S. force presence kept “cascading down” from upward of 16,000 to an eventual low of less than 3,000, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey later testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. By that point, it was clear that a force that small would be able to do little more than protect itself, and Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders recognized that the political cost of accepting such a proposal was not worth the benefit, so negotiations failed, and the disintegration we’ve seen in Iraq in recent years began.
A residual force in Iraq would have maintained American influence in Iraq that could have played a key role in checking Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s worst sectarian tendencies and in supporting Iraqi security forces — both key contributors to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. That’s why our top military leaders recommended leaving a follow-on force — to secure the gains made in Iraq at such terrible sacrifice in American blood and treasure. Instead, Iraq descended into chaos, and the ISIS threat grew.
A second key turning point came two years ago, in the summer of 2012, when President Obama’s entire senior national-security team — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey — identified the threat posed by radicalization in Syria and recommended a proposal to arm and train elements of the moderate Syrian opposition. At the time, extremist elements and al-Qaeda-affiliated forces that later became ISIS were weak and the balance of power strongly favored more moderate opposition forces. A properly empowered moderate Syrian opposition could have stymied the growth of ISIS and prevented President Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. But the president rejected his national-security team’s proposal, and the moderates, starved of resources and vital assistance, quickly began losing ground to better-funded and better-equipped radical groups.
Third, and worse still, was President Obama’s decision not to strike the Assad regime in September 2013 after Assad crossed the president’s own red line and used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. At the time, we were invited to the White House, where we met with the president and his national-security advisor, Susan Rice. Together, they made a compelling case for air strikes in Syria and laid out a plan to degrade Assad’s capabilities and empower the Syrian opposition. We walked out of the Oval Office feeling positive that the president had finally changed course, and we gave him important bipartisan support for the plan that he had laid out. To our great surprise and disappointment, only days later, he reversed course, choosing instead to shirk responsibility once again and refer the issue to Congress, having never consulted with Congress in advance about his decision and thus running an enormous risk that the legislature would not give him the authorization he said he wanted.
The impact of this decision by the president cannot be overemphasized. Not only did it violate every moral obligation we have to prevent mass atrocities and punish the use of chemical weapons, but it also gave a green light to Assad to accelerate his sectarian war against the moderate opposition. Moreover, the president’s inaction destroyed U.S. credibility with our Arab partners in the region who had been prepared to support the U.S. mission, and it shook the confidence of America’s allies worldwide. From that moment on, many around the world had good reason to question whether America would live up to its word, a crisis of credibility that haunts us to this day.
Finally, in the fall of 2013, President Obama refused to launch targeted strikes against ISIS in Iraq when some U.S officials and Iraqi leaders were urging him to do so. It was clear then that ISIS was rapidly expanding and had a growing presence of training camps in Iraq. Yet the administration rebuffed the Iraqi government’s requests for U.S. air support to help it eliminate these training camps. At the time, ISIS fighters were more exposed in the open, making them easier targets for air strikes. Yet absent U.S. action to prevent its expansion, ISIS launched its operations in western Iraqi cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi and swiftly took control of huge swaths of both Syria and Iraq.
At each of these key moments, there were opportunities to act that could have prevented ISIS from metastasizing into the grave threat it poses to our national security today. The problem was never that the president was doing too much — it was that he overruled his civilian and military advisers in favor of feckless policies that failed to decisively address predictable, gathering threats, leaving us in the predicament we are in today. Those in our party who believe that ISIS’s rise is somehow a result of too much action by President Obama and our nation are either misinformed about world events or wedded to naïve ideologies that, if acted upon, would put America at even greater risk.
The challenges we face today are more significant than we have witnessed in decades. ISIS is now a terrorist army, rich from plunder, and it controls an area the size of Indiana — the largest terrorist sanctuary in history. Its ranks have more than doubled in recent months, swelling by some estimates to as many as 31,500 fighters. Thousands of these terrorists hold Western passports and would require only a plane ticket to arrive in America; some have expressed ambitions to attack the U.S. homeland. There have been reports that ISIS is looking to exploit critical vulnerabilities such as those on our southern border.
We can still defeat ISIS and protect our national-security interests, but it will require much more than a continuation of our current counterterrorism efforts as outlined by the president. After all, al-Qaeda has not been defeated in Somalia or Yemen, the two countries he cited as models for his campaign against ISIS. In the fight against radical Islamic extremism, failure is not an option. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past few years — if we fail to pursue an aggressive, realistic strategy for victory — the ISIS threat will only grow stronger.
— John McCain represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. Lindsey Graham represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate.