National Security & Defense

Obama’s Mixed Anti-Terror Legacy

President Obama waves to military personnel at McDill Air Force Base, Fla., December 6, 2016.(Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
His record isn’t nearly as positive as he’d like you to think.

Yesterday, President Obama surveyed his work fighting terror and declared it to be good. In a speech at MacDill Air Force Base, he wrote his own first draft of history, defending his record as the only American president to spend two full terms of office at war. His bottom-line assessment? He killed Osama bin Laden, decimated “core al-Qaeda,” “rolled back Iran’s nuclear program,” and is defeating ISIS — all while bringing tens of thousands of American troops home and protecting the nation from 9/11-style attacks. In his words, “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland.”

It’s true, there are real accomplishments in Obama’s war record. We haven’t faced a 9/11-style (or 9/11-scale) attack on his watch, and no one should take that for granted. Killing Osama bin Laden was a monumental achievement. We are on the offensive in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is in retreat. All of those developments are encouraging, and none of them were inevitable. Obama could have made different choices that left our nation more vulnerable than we already were, and we should all be thankful he didn’t.

Moreover, no one should minimize the challenges Obama faced. The strategic difficulty of confronting a jihadist movement with ancient theological and cultural roots is immense. It is only compounded by tribalism, great power rivalries, and our own past flaws and mistakes. The Middle East is the graveyard of idealism, and every American president since World War II has seen his own dreams of Middle East peace die in the dust.

All of that said, Obama also made a series of grave mistakes — mistakes that have costs countless lives and led to a vastly expanded terror threat.

Obama’s intervention in Libya is the first stain on his record. There, American and allied forces helped remove a brutal dictator but failed to fill the resulting power vacuum. We lost four brave Americans in Benghazi. We lost much of the country. ISIS gained ground. And now our forces are back in action again — this time trying to dislodge jihadists from their urban strongholds.

The tragedy of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq is difficult to overstate. In one move, we lost our hard-won battlefield gains and gave jihadists a soft target for the 2014 blitzkrieg they would mount from Syria. By the end of that year, ISIS controlled more territory, had more men under arms, and had more striking power than any jihadist force in the modern era. Its success inspired militant Muslims across the globe, and its terror helped trigger the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

He had his successes, but he fails the simplest test of all: Are we really safer today than we were eight years ago?

The Iraq withdrawal had the added downside of improving Iran’s position in the region, which is of a piece with Obama’s broader record: At every turn, his administration has strengthened the Islamic Republic. His nuclear deal has enriched Iran without stopping its weapons program, and his feckless foreign policy has created opportunities for Iran to advance its sinister interests. Iran has killed American soldiers and actively worked to undermine our positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet our response has been to provide the ayatollahs with sanctions relief, cash payments, and access to international arms markets. Given the power disparity between the U.S. and Iran, the nuclear “deal” may go down in history as one of the most one-sided diplomatic agreements, ever.

In Syria as elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama was presented with few good options, but nevertheless managed to choose poorly time and again. He drew a red line that he wouldn’t enforce. He failed to recognize the emerging ISIS threat. And he failed — along with our allies — to create a workable response to the refugee crisis. Putin’s Russia has stepped into the gap, and it’s now difficult to imagine a resolution to the war that doesn’t leave the Kremlin and Iran with more regional influence.

There’s a common thread here: When we receded, our enemies advanced. It turns out that the alternative to projecting American power isn’t peace but a power vacuum that our enemies are eager to fill. And indeed, by 2015, it seemed that Obama had awoken to that reality. Without fanfare and without mea culpas, our policies began to change. Thousands of soldiers flowed back into Iraq, even engaging in ground combat. We maintained troops in Afghanistan. And American air power began striking targets in at least a half-dozen different countries.

#related#In other words, Obama got busy correcting key mistakes. If the Mosul offensive can succeed by inauguration day, he will have partly re-won the Iraq war, and President Trump will at least have the advantage of facing a profoundly weakened ISIS. But mistakes have lasting legacies. Trump will face a stronger Iran, seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, a violent and dangerous strategic situation in Syria, and a magnified terror threat from jihadists who’ve now spread to cities across the world.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but ISIS is alive. There has been no 9/11-style terror attack, but there have been attacks in Paris, Brussels, Fort Hood, Boston, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, Orlando, St. Cloud, Manhattan, and Columbus. Jihadist violence has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Iran’s nuclear program has arguably been slowed, but at the price of magnifying its power, influence, and ability to kill Americans. So Obama’s legacy is mixed. He had his successes, but he fails the simplest test of all: Are we really safer today than we were eight years ago?

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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