Our Astonishingly Incoherent Anti-ISIL Policy

So, notwithstanding the Obamaesque promises of 2008–and after–we are at war again in Iraq. And if that isn’t enough, we are also at war in Syria. Here is the stated reason for our intervention:

The U.S. launched eight airstrikes Monday night against a little-known, al-Qaida-affiliated militant group in Syria.

The United States Central Command said Tuesday morning that American forces hit the Khorasan Group near Aleppo to stop “imminent attack-planning against the United States and Western interests.” At a Pentagon press briefing shortly after, defense officials explained just how imminent such an attack may have been.

“The intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan Group was in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland,” said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. strikes hit the group’s “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building, and command and control facilities,” according to a Pentagon statement released Tuesday morning.

In other words, Barack Obama, having criticized his predecessor for having waged a preemptive war against terrorists and terrorist organizations . . . is waging a preemptive war against terrorists and terrorist organizations. This is the part of the blog post in which I am compelled to quote myself:

. . . I guess this means that Barack Obama is officially a neoconservative now. There is nothing about his speech that would sound strange coming out of the mouths of people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz or anyone else commonly known as a neoconservative.1 Is this what Obama voters expected when they cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012? I suspect not, so if Obama voters aren’t outraged by recent developments, they aren’t paying attention. Their man wasn’t supposed to turn into George W. Bush, after all. Please, oh please, oh please let us never again claim that this administration is filled with realists, or that this president has a healthy appreciation for the virtues of realpolitik.

Of course, when it comes to our action in Iraq, it is worth reminding ourselves–again, and again, and again, if necessary–that if we had not exited Iraq prematurely, we might not be in the mess in which we find ourselves. I trust that no one thinks of Dexter Filkins as some neoconservative warmonger; perhaps his expert analysis of the situation will convince some enthusiasts of the early Iraq pullout that leaving Iraq early has indeed led to a strategic disaster for the United States. Relatedly, I remember when George W. Bush waged war in Iraq with a broad coalition that was disparaged as consisting of “the bribed and the coerced”–as though bribery and/or coercion had never been used before or since in order to form an international alliance against a perceived threat. Boy, those were the good old days, huh?

As for our actions in Syria, let’s all remember that Team Obama accused Mitt Romney of wanting to drag us into war in that country, which I suppose looks kind of bad, given the fact that the administration has managed to wage war there without Romney so much as lifting a finger in order to help. Speaking of Syria, the New York Times editorial board is forced to come out against the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The bulk of the editorial complains that the administration failed to get the proper authorization from Congress for military action in Syria, but even if proper authorization were gotten, we are still left with the problem that there is no coherent design to be discerned in the administration’s actions regarding Syria. Kathy Gilsinan properly raises the concern that we are flying blind:

On Monday night, the United States struck targets in Syria for the first time as part of its expanded air campaign against ISIS—a campaign that had previously been limited to the Iraqi side of the terrorist group’s border-spanning domain. But the anti-ISIS mission Barack Obama outlined in an address on September 10—”We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”—had expanded in another way, too, as the U.S. launched strikes on a separate group in Syria that many Americans hadn’t heard of until recently. The Khorasan Group, which the president introduced briefly on Tuesday morning as “seasoned al-Qaeda operatives in Syria,” appears to be part of a faction that is actively fighting ISIS, meaning America has now bombed two opposing sides of Syria’s many-sided civil war. Has the military operation announced by the president only weeks ago already outgrown its original mission?

[. . .]

. . . with the mission of Obama’s September 10th speech so vaguely defined—“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven”—it’s hard to tell what the U.S. mission is creeping from, or what it might be creeping to.

The Obama administration has noticed that it’s not exactly doing a great job at convincing the American people that it knows what it is doing in Iraq and Syria. As a consequence, the president decided to give an interview to 60 Minutes to explain his actions. The result was . . . well . . . this:

President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which has seized control of a broad swath of territory in the Middle East, and had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military, allowing the region to become “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”

Reflecting on how a president who wanted to disentangle the United States from wars in the Middle East ended up redeploying to Iraq and last week expanding air operations into Syria, Mr. Obama pointed to assessments by the intelligence agencies that said they were surprised by the rapid advances made in both countries by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Mr. Obama said on “60 Minutes,” the CBS News program, referring to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. Mr. Obama added that the agencies had overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi Army to fight such Sunni extremists. “That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” he said.

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

We usually don’t see eye to eye on the political issues of the day, but for the second time in this blog post, I am going to cite favorably to Kevin Drum:

I can’t find a full transcript to verify that this was the complete context surrounding Obama’s remark, but I wonder what possesses him to do stuff like this? It’s Management 101 that you don’t throw folks under the bus (on national TV!) unless you have pretty convincing reasons for doing so. I mean, all he had to do was say that “we underestimated” what was happening in Syria.

This is really tone deaf. Even if the whole debacle really was Clapper’s fault, it would still sound terrible to say so. Was this just a real-time flub? Or, after six years, does Obama still not understand how petty it sounds to try to deflect blame this way?

More from Eli Lake:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq.

But in an interview that aired Sunday evening, the president told 60 Minutes that the rise of the group now proclaiming itself a caliphate in territory between Syria and Iraq caught the U.S. intelligence community off guard. Obama specifically blamed James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence: “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” he said.

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Clapper did tell The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this month that he underestimated the will of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and overestimated the ability of Iraq’s security forces in northern Iraq to counter ISIS. (He also said his analysts warned about the “prowess and capability” of the group.)

Still, other senior intelligence officials have been warning about ISIS for months. In prepared testimony before the annual House and Senate intelligence committees’ threat hearings in January and February, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the recently departed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the group would likely make a grab for land before the end of the year. ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” Of course, the prediction wasn’t exactly hard to make. By then, Flynn noted, ISIS had taken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and the demonstrated an “ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”

The 60 Minutes interview was supposed to make us believe that the Obama administration has a handle on things. If anything, it has only succeeded in increasing doubts about our anti-ISIL policy, not to mention the intellectual honesty of the president of the United States.

Comments

  1. I keep thinking it’s a matter of time before more and more decisions come back to the President, while I keep waiting for a coherent strategy. It’s a curious mix of ideology, complacency, caution, and ignorance.

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