Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Bench Obama for ‘JV team’ foreign policy
“The causes of the disaster are easily stated: the difficulty of campaigning in the inhospitable terrain; the turbulent politics of the country and its armed and refactory population, and the failure of the authorities to… campaign competently and decisively.” — Historian Archibald Forbes on the catastrophic British retreat from Kabul in 1842
“Deploy a special forces group (Approximately 400 personnel) in order to accelerate…training. The first increment, for immediate deployment to Vietnam…should be a Special Forces company.” — From the action section of National Security Action Memorandum 52, May 11, 1961.
Is there an echo in here, or do history’s worst mistakes just never go out of style?
Last week, our president admitted — while off-teleprompter — that his Middle East strategy of nullity, indifference and surrender was “developing.” This, a year after ISIS, the “JV team” — whose Caliphate of horror now stretches from the suburbs of Aleppo in Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq — began driving our erstwhile “partners” in the region before them like frightened sheep.
Then, perhaps realizing the bad optics and worse politics of his admission and reminded by several departments of his government that they had presented strategies to him some time previously, the president pulled a policy out of wherever such policies are pulled at short notice. Presto! The announcement of 450 additional troops to be sent to Anbar province, the hottest spot in Iraq nowadays. As “trainers,” of course.
Apparently Obama, who recently lost a last-ditch effort to save his Trade Authorization bill through a two-hour visit to Capitol Hill, has not yet learned that victories worth having are usually the product of diligence and sacrifice. True, his two presidential terms were achieved without much effort, but that may have more to do with the superficiality of the American voter than with objective realities. Unfortunately for us, whatever the leaders in the Middle East are, they are not superficial. They see his announcement of more troops for what it is: a cheap attempt to persuade the American people that he is “doing something” about the related problems of a growing ISIS and disintegrating Iraq; a few of them have said as much.
All of this was unnecessary. Four years ago, a competent administration focused on US national security, not on fulfilling an election campaign promise, that would have successfully negotiated a status of forces agreement with the government of Iraq. Two years ago, a competent administration would not have blustered about a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria – and then denied saying any such thing, rather than standing behind their word. A year ago, a competent administration would not have downplayed the threat from ISIS, calling them a “JV team.” It would have taken vigorous and direct action against them at the first possible moment, and every moment afterward, until it was extinct. Alas, the only thing vigorous about the Obama administration’s actions in this situation has been its incompetence.
Four-hundred fifty additional troops — whether “advisors,” trainers or the specialist teams they likely are — will not alter realities on the ground. ISIS is arrogating to itself all the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. They are able to do so largely because they are motivated, while the Iraqi army, corrupt and sectarian, is not. Sunni Arab Iraqis are moreover likely to see the largely Shi’ite Iraqi army as a problem, not a solution.
So, we will soon have 3,000 American soldiers in the midst of a developing sectarian civil war, which offers us nothing but frustration and danger. In 2007, 20,000 additional US soldiers in Iraq made a difference, bringing stability even to Anbar, the sole Sunni-dominated province. In 2015, 450 US soldiers are far likelier to become a target, drawing lethal opposition from all sides. This is an amateurish decision, made in haste for political reasons, not for strategic purposes. And, when Anbar slips away despite our having staked our prestige on winning there, the negative repercussions will echo across the world. Iran’s hand, among others, will be greatly strengthened.
There seems little we can practically do. We might reinforce and work directly with the Kurds, who have vigorously resisted the Islamic State. We could still save the situation in Syria by helping to depose Bashar Assad. We could mend our ties with traditional regimes in the region. But, the first would require assurances to our longtime friends the Turks, who are now receiving blandishments from Russia about “regional cooperation.” The second needs an adroit touch and the ability to be stealthy; the third is apparently not to this president’s taste. All require diplomacy, strategic vision and a willingness to work hard and long for incremental results; none of which seem within this administration’s grasp.
Elections do, indeed, have consequences. Our present perilous situation is one.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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