President Obama is now exactly where we at The American Interest were afraid he would be when the whole Syria mess started: from the beginning it was crystal clear that all his choices were bad and we sympathized with his desire to do nothing—but we also warned that doing nothing was in fact the worst option of all. The longer he waited, the worse all of his options would get. In the end, procrastination would require him to take more action, and riskier action, than early intervention would have entailed, while both he and the country (not to mention the people of the region) would pay a high price for delay.
Sadly, those fears were justified. With his speech on September 10, President Obama acknowledged that the policy of delay has run its course, and he is now setting out to do what not only his critics but his own national security team have been begging for since 2011. The policy of evasion has failed; he is now back to engagement—military engagement—in both Syria and Iraq. The man who wanted to end America’s wars in the Middle East is now wading back in.
The policies of delay and abstention gave ISIS an opportunity that it seized with both hands. Thanks to the policy of delay, we now face a major and strategic setback in the war on radical jihadis. While ISIS’s territorial gains have shocked the world, land isn’t the real problem here. ISIS was never likely to establish a caliphate that would sweep the Middle East; it’s a virtual caliphate that was only able to flourish in the power vacuum created by the intersection of American abstention with imploding states in Syria and Iraq. Killing the ‘caliph’ and breaking up its forces are necessary tasks, but the forces of jihad will be significantly stronger after ISIS’s defeat than they were before it started. Thousands of new fighters have been trained; thousands of jihadi careers are launched.
Moreover, the sheer drama of ISIS’s sweeping victories in Syria and Iraq has given the jihadi cause a much needed shot in the arm. Victory, slave girls, beheadings: the feverish jihadi imagination and its depraved fantasies of orgiastic bloodletting in the name of righteousness have spread across the internet and corrupted the imaginations of alienated and vulnerable kids. Worse even than that, the core cadres of ISIS have developed qualitatively better and more sophisticated organizations. The new wave of terrorists may still have its share of ignorant looney toons, but this wave has more education, better technical skills, more Western passports, and better connections to funders than the wave that bin Laden inspired.
We needed to nip ISIS in the bud, not give it a chance to flower and spread spores across the Middle East. But the President chose to wait, steeling himself to inaction in the face of his chief military and civilian advisers. Now we’ll have the worst of both worlds; we’ll have all the risks and horrors of a war against ISIS, and we’ll have all the risks and horrors of playing Whac-A-Mole with the next iteration of better trained and better organized jihadi nutjobs.
So America’s Middle East policy is in a mess, and the last thing President Obama wanted to do was to launch a new war in the Middle East on the anniversary of 9/11. He didn’t say it in so many words, but he didn’t need to: it’s clear to everyone that we are where we are because his chosen policies did not work. His diagnosis was off, and his prescriptions failed. The patient got sicker under his care, and the problem is going to be harder, more painful, more expensive to treat than it could have been. The thinning chorus of full-throated Obama defenders in the press will do their best to conceal the ugly facts, but even the New York Times seems to be losing the will to keep spinning cocoons. Going back to war in the Middle East is not the kind of setback that can easily be swept under the rug.
The President made some solid points in his speech, mostly when he was talking about something besides the Middle East. He was right to remind people that the United States is much better positioned to face the 21st century than most other countries, and the chatter about decline and dysfunction is wrong now as it has been wrong for the past 60 years.
But the most disconcerting element in the speech was that even now, six years into the job, President Obama still doesn’t know how to avoid telegraphing weakness even as he seeks to project strength. By making such a point about “no ground troops”, the President did two very bad things. First, he reduced the enemy’s uncertainty about our intentions. Second, he gave a global impression that he needed to promise “no ground troops” to the American people because he thinks that otherwise his political position is so weak that he couldn’t get support for an air war.
This is a bad mistake: it suggests to our enemies that our resolve is shaky. Even and especially if that is true, we don’t want to tell them this. The message the President actually delivered, which is not at all the message he wanted to send, is that America is heading into this conflict irresolute, divided, and more bent on limiting its involvement than on achieving its goals. Even a marginally competent enemy knows how to read that signal.
As it happens, we agree with the President that American ground troops aren’t the answer to our ISIS problems, and if by some ghastly mischance we ended up in the Oval Office we would be no more eager to send ground forces into this war than he is. But we wouldn’t want our enemies to know that—and we would also be aware that war is, above all other things, unpredictable. You take that first step and you just don’t know what comes next. If things don’t go as planned, the President could find himself in a position where all those “no ground troops” pledges could haunt him; certainly many of his critics will begin to rake him over the coals about the number of advisers and others that he must now inevitably send into harm’s way.
It’s a sign of the President’s tone deafness (and also substance deafness) when it comes to the military that he just doesn’t seem to get this. Telling the enemy that you are going to be out of Afghanistan by date X, or that you won’t put more than Y thousand troops in the country, or that you won’t put any boots on the ground makes life much, much easier for the bad guys. Indeed, in most wars this is exactly the kind of information that the enemy is most eager to get—this is why there are spies. Innocently blabbing our secret plans and red lines out on TV is probably not the best way either to win wars or to win the confidence of those you are about to send into combat.
It’s the same mistake the President has repeatedly made when dealing with Putin; once you rule things out, Putin can calculate more accurately what he can get away with—and he goes for it.
Sadly, it appears that, while President Obama understands that the line of policy he has followed so far in the Middle East has decisively failed, he has not yet come to grips with the reasons why so many of his well intentioned, carefully calculated and hedged strategies blow up in his face. Until that happens, he is likely to repeat both the strategic and the messaging errors that, as their consequences accumulate, have made his presidency an increasingly unhappy one—both for him and for his party.