The Corner

NYT: How Obama Contributed to the Rise of ISIS

This New York Times article mostly argues that U.S. actions during the Iraq War fueled the rise of ISIS’s Iraqi leaders. But it also lays significant blame at the feet of President Obama: 

As more moderate Syrian rebel groups were beaten down by the Syrian security forces and their allies, ISIS increasingly took control of the fight, in part on the strength of weapons and funding from its operations in Iraq and from jihadist supporters in the Arab world.

That fact has led American lawmakers and political figures, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to accuse President Obama of aiding ISIS’ rise in two ways: first by completely withdrawing American troops from Iraq in 2011, then by hesitating to arm more moderate Syrian opposition groups early in that conflict.

To be precise, those two policy decisions actually presented themselves in reverse order. When the Syrian war broke out in March 2011 we were still in Iraq, and didn’t fully withdraw until the end of the year. That matters because, as I recently argued on the homepage, “Once the fighting started in Syria, it should have been blazingly obvious to everyone in the national-security establishment that unless the U.S. was prepared to intervene in Syria, the civil war had to be decisively contained,” in particular by securing the Iraqi-Syrian border. 

So actually Obama contributed to the rise of ISIS in three ways: (1) by not arming more moderate Syrian opposition groups early; (2) by not securing the Iraqi-Syrian border to guard against ISIS expansion; and (3) by withdrawing from Iraq too soon, leaving much of Iraq defenseless and Iraq’s Sunnis caught in a cross-fire. 

Obama likes to brag that he ended the war in Iraq, but has also argued that he was forced out by Iraq’s politicians. Logically, one of these two assertions must be false. But actually both of them are.  

Obama did not end the Iraq War. The Iraq War ended in 2007–08 when the U.S.-led coalition defeated both insurgencies and the fighting stopped — under Bush.

And the reason Obama pulled U.S. forces out is very simply that he wanted to. He didn’t even want to leave a paltry 10,000 troops in the country, not even on the off-chance that they might be needed in an emergency precisely like this one. Indeed when he brags about ending the Iraq War, the only thing he’s talking about is pulling the troops out. And now everyone can see how rash that was. 

The reason to keep troops in Iraq was not to continue a war, but to prevent a new one from breaking out. Hence, Obama’s historic accomplishment in Iraq was to create the conditions for a new war that would inevitably suck the U.S. back into combat.

That’s exactly the opposite of “ending” the Iraq War.  

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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