Following a string of al-Qaeda suicide bombings claiming the lives of 7,000 Iraqis over just two months, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens posed this question in a piece titled “Iraq Tips Toward the Abyss“:
At what point does all this start to, you know, worry us?
Maybe when they start killing Americans again.
It had also been nearing the two-year mark since the American withdrawal from Iraq, a fulfilled campaign promise of the president’s that Mr. Obama reminded the country of as recently as the evening of August 7.
That night, the president announced that he had authorized “limited” and “targeted” air strikes in northern Iraq in response to ISIS’ ethnic cleansing. One hopes American strikes are always limited and targeted in nature. The redundancy stressed that we weren’t re-entering the war Mr. Obama carried us out of in 2011. We were only doing bottom-level damage control for the mess Iraq had devolved into since.
Minimal effort paired with minimal courage is all the foreign policy we’ve gotten in the Obama presidency.
Being in a less comfortable political position than he was in the Senate when he voted against the 2007 Iraq surge, Mr. Obama has acknowledged ISIS’ outgrowing threat and has continued American strikes in the region, however “limited” they are. He’s also denounced ISIS in his strongest terms. However, neither these limited strikes nor Obama’s strong words will defeat ISIS, and any real solution to the crisis smells too much like war for the president’s political comfort. Significant material support and training for Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian forces; full air support against ISIS; and castigation of the group’s financers are all necessary. However, these things are unlikely to come from a man who has seldom shown that he can muster the determination to summarily defeat enemies.
President Obama must always stop short of full commitment to the cause, for fear that those plans might fall through. For him, a political back door always needs to be open.
Consider Syria. Mr. Obama talked a great game against Bashar al-Assad’s regime: chemical weapons were stockpiled; thousands of civilians were killed, including hundreds of children; and international weapons prohibitions were being trampled on. The danger of letting those deeds go unpunished was too dire. But the action we ended up unwittingly taking was what the president called a “pinprick” strategy: a hopeless maneuver, made when you know you have to act but either don’t know how or don’t want to pay the costs associated with a prolonged engagement.
In the case of Syria, it was a lot of talking. There was no arming of the moderate Free Syrian Army, and air bases used to transfer support from Hezbollah were left intact. Assad wasn’t made to rue the day he gassed toddlers, except for having to hear the president say “let me be clear” a lot.
“Let me make something clear: The United States… doesn’t do pinpricks.” We’ll take your word for it, Mr. President.
Syria required courage to act, but the president faced a war-wary public that was unenthused by the perceived tangential threat posed in the region. The president didn’t have enough courage to stand by his statements that Assad’s actions demanded a response. Now, after it has been left to fester, Syria has become a safe haven for jihadists. ISIS is what it is because America left room for it to grow in Iraq and refused to act in Syria to stop it. (Iraq’s got a hell of a border problem of its own.)
The atrocities by ISIS in Iraq now outnumber and outweigh Assad’s in Syria, so there’s hope that our shivering leader can be inspired to end the group’s existence in enough time. However, that will involve taking the lives of many evil men–an action which in the eyes of this president is not only war, but George W. Bush’s type of war, the exact type he has made a brand of opposing.
But if only the pinpricks continue, whether in the form of empty words or half-in commitments, we must wonder: at what point will this start to, you know, worry us? Maybe when the killing starts happening on our own shores again.