Thursday, June 18, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox

OBAMA and Maliki
Maliki and Obama: A Green Light?
Claims that President Obama facilitated the ascent of the Islamic State have come from both right- and left-wings.  The right blames him for being late in recognizing the ISIS threat and excessively cautious in responding to it; liberal mainstream criticism has focused on his failure to constrain Maliki's repression of Sunnis.  Some observers to the left of the mainstream dismiss accusations that the President has been too cautious and instead claim he has actually pursued an interventionist agenda similar to the one promulgated by neoconservatives and liberal war-hawks during the Bush years.  This agenda, they say, has played into ISIS' hands.

Obama Turns Over the Keys

Liberals have criticized Obama for his reluctance to constrain Iraqi President Nuori al-Maliki’s sectarian maneuvering to purge Sunni Muslims from influential positions in his government and consolidate Shiite control of the country. As the story goes, he missed an opportunity to crack down on Maliki when the Iraqi president came to Washington in 2011 to formerly sign the withdrawal of American troops agreement.  During their meeting in the White House, Maliki told the President about the pending arrest of Iraq’s vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest ranking Sunni in his government (for allegedly plotting against the government).  The President is said to have responded that such an action was Iraq’s business; the US had no intention to intervene in the country’s internal affairs. These critics claim this assurance gave Maliki a green light to carry out a campaign of violence against Sunnis, a campaign that stirred up a hornet’s nest of Sunni resentment that would later drive many into the arms of ISIS.

Some critics further to the left have argued that Obama aided the emergence of ISIS by continuing the interventionist narrative spewed forth during the Bush years by neoconservatives and liberal war-hawks.  In their view, Obama  facilitated the rise of the Islamic State by following a neocon interventionist game plan.  They point to Obama's interventions in Ukraine, Libya and other parts of Northern and Eastern Africa, and support for the Saudi war in Yemen, as well as his accelerated use of drones (far more than President Bush used), as evidence of his aggressiveness.  In Syria, they site his support for Saudi, Turkish, and Qatarian efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which ignited the Syrian crisis. In Iraq, they say, he has moved forward with an interventionist agenda by reinserting American special forces as part of a larger coordinated air and ground war against ISIS.

These critics argue that President Obama's aggressive agenda has inflamed tensions, undermined regional security, and fomented intense Muslim enmity toward the United States. In Syria, they believe Obama's support for the campaign to bring down the Assad government helped unleashed forces that led to the blossoming of an extremist Sunni insurgency, and, ultimately, the rise of the Islamic State.

Most of the accusations about Obama's culpability in the ascent of ISIS, however, have come from pro-interventionist circles.  The first salvo in their blame game was to criticize the President for leaving only a meager U.S. military presence in Baghdad after the December 2011 withdrawal of American forces. They believe this made the establishment of order during the transition to Iraqi governance far more difficult.  It also created a gap in the training of senior military leaders that has been hard to overcome. Less than 200 military advisers were left in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, far fewer than conservatives believe were needed to help in the post-occupation creation of an effective or even semi-effective fighting force--one that could resist Islamic extremists.  

But it is for his alleged failure to respond strongly enough to the crisis in Syria that Obama has received his harshest criticism--from Republicans and neocons, to be sure, but also from Democrat war hawks.  The main criticism is that Obama was blind to the growing extremist threat in Syria and timid in responding to it when it became obvious.  

Syrian President Assad
Bashar Assad
It was no secret that President Obama wanted to see Syrian President Assad, whom he saw as a threat to our friends in the Middle East and too closely connected to Iran, removed from office and replaced by a person more friendly to U.S. interests. Accordingly, he actively supported the campaign by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove Assad from power.  He wanted to more directly assist rebels fighting to overthrow the despised Assad regime, but he wasn't sure which rebels to support.

His problem was to identify so-called moderate fighters who would be capable of mounting an offensive against Assad's forces.  The groups his advisers identified, however, were undisciplined and had little actual military experience. There were serious doubts about their reliability to carry out a sustained offensive. Not knowing if we could trust the supposedly West-friendly rebels, and worrying that our weapons might end up in the hands of the wrong insurgents, Obama equivocated. His stalling infuriated those who wanted immediate action to arm moderate rebel groups.  

Obama Tough choices
What To Do?
In the summer of 2012, CIA Director General David Petraeus proposed a covert action plan to secretly arm rebels in Jordan to fight in Syria. (This would provide plausible deniability about attacking a sovereign country and cover if weapons turned up in the wrong hands.) The plan was strongly supported by Senator John McCain and other hawks in the Congress, as well as by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The Obama Administration was deeply divided on the plan, which delayed the president’s decision. Worried about being dragged into another war, and noting that neither did most of the American public, Obama rejected the Petraeus proposal. This intensified the anger of the hard-liners.

Obama’s reluctance to arm a rebel force early on in the crisis is a source of much of the conservative criticism of his role in aiding the subsequent rise of ISIS. As the argument goes, had he acted at this time to train, arm, and support moderate rebels they could have taken the fight to Assad and would have been able to fend off extreme Islamist rebels who were preparing to enter the fray. So in the eyes of many of his conservative critics, the president's hesitance enabled ISIS to eventually come to dominate rebel groups in Syria.

Obama was accused of another major strategic blunder when he didn't respond strongly when Syrian President Assad stepped up the violence against his opposition, including allegedly using resin-laced chemical weapons. Images of gasping and dying Syrian men, women and children were shocking. The president reacted by warning Assad that if chemical weapons were in fact being used it would “change my calculus.” At the end of a press conference, which mostly touched on other matters, he warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red-line threat” (apparently, this was an impromptu comment not in his original script).

Obama Red LineWhen Assad defied the red-line-warning, and more Syrians died as the result of chemical attacks, pressure mounted for Obama to carry out his threat. There was a renewed call for arming moderate rebels. He was urged to launch air attacks. Some extreme war-hawks called for American boots on the ground.  Again, the President hesitated. It was clear he was worried about the risks of a military engagement in Syria.

In an attempt to save some face owing to his red-line threat, Obama announced he was prepared to launch an air campaign against Assad, but only if Congress authorized it, an action he allegedly doubted would happen.  (His doubt proved correct when an authorization bill didn't get more than 100 votes in both the House and Senate).  The president's rhetoric sounded tough, but it was clear he was stepping back from the imminent attack he had threatened.  War-hawk temperatures rose.

Meanwhile, Moscow intervened to help broker an agreement in which Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons. The Obama administration hailed the deal as a great coup, boasting that we used a credible threat of force and got an intended result, but his right-wing critics saw it differently. To them, avoiding a fight after issuing a stern warning was an affront to U.S. international credibility. Under Obama, the U.S. had become a “paper tiger,” many war hawks complained.  Who will take our threats seriously in the future, they asked? It was February of 2014.

Syria asks where is the world

Obama’s reluctance to carry out his red-line threat against Assad infuriated those who advocated for the Syrian president's ouster.  U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford warned that the president's caution was not only helping Assad remain in power, but also playing into the hands of Iran, Assad's main backer. In protest, Ford resigned his post saying he could no longer defend US policy.

Pro-intervention advocates believe President Obama's reticence gave Assad a green light to intensify his campaign of violence against opposition groups.  This resulted, they argue, in shattering the will of moderate rebels to fight and emboldening extremist groups. Much of the non-extremist opposition to Assad, whose hatred of Assad had grown with his escalating violence, lost faith in American support for their fight against the Damascus government.  Many began to gravitate toward extremist groups. In the process, ISIS emerged as the strongest of the extremist factions. Six-months later, the Islamic State became a household word when it crossed the border back into Iraq and seized Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Obama no backbone in Syria
No Backbone?
Critics on the right have also criticized the Obama Administration for its failure to fully grasp the seriousness of the growing ISIS threat to both Syria and Iraq, despite ample warning from Ambassador Ford, Iraq Ambassador James Jeffries, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and others. Even the ISIS takeover of Mosul didn’t seem to register with the President. It took the much publicized march of the Islamic State deeper and deeper into Iraq, with its accompanying displacement of many Iraqis from their homes, massacres of Iraqi soldiers and suspected government sympathizers, and the horrific beheading of journalist Jim Foley, which sent chills throughout America, to finally get Obama to acknowledge he had a problem.  The battle against ISIS had been brought home to America.

President Obama’s belated decision to enter the fight against the Islamic State, with air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq, was seen by his critics as much too little, too late. 

Few advocates of a strong U.S. military response in Syria believe that bombing alone is going to kill the Islamic State. ISIS fighters have mixed with residents in several Syrian cities and towns, which has complicated bomb targeting.  Many have called for American boots on the ground, or, if not American, then at least a fighting force the US trains and equips. Obama has promised a well-trained rebel force of 5000 fighters. Bottlenecks, however, have slowed the training. Five-thousand vetted and trained rebel fighters won’t be ready until the end of this year. To Obama’s critics, 5000 fighters are insufficient in light of the mushrooming ISIS insurgency. They blast the president for not acting to establish a fighting force back in 2012 and 2013 when jihadist elements were in a distinct minority.

Interventionist advocates thus blame Obama for much of what has transpired: the rise of ISIS, unraveling of Syria and Iraq, expansion of ISIS-held territory, thousands of deaths and displacements from homes, and for the harm they believe he has caused U.S. global prestige and credibility. To them, Obama has tarnished America’s reputation, created more enemies in the Middle East and abetted terrorism, if unwittingly.


In a fifth and final post, I will offer a personal reflection on the ISIS mess.

1 comment:

  1. In blaming Obama, one can argue that his failing is simply a matter of his apparent belief that in policy-making, the best course is to split the difference. Not too timid, not too agressive = just right. Also, I wonder in the various explanations you are describing for the rise of ISIS, why the word "oil" does not appear or that there's no consideration given to the longer historical context, viz., the role of imperialism in the creation of artificial "nation" states that defy the ethnic/religous conflict that has been going on for centuries. (Like the US could defuse that.) In this larger context, perhaps Islam as a maturing religion is at the stage Christianity was during the Crusades, i.e., little or no concept of separation of Church and State. It took maybe 400+ years for that idea to take hold in the West.


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