Streetwise Professor

June 23, 2014

Barack Obama, Revisionist

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 pm

News from Iraq careens from bad to worse. In response, Obama is pressuring for changes in the Iraqi government, and providing a minimal force (300 special forces personnel) to aid in the training of Iraqi military and potentially providing targeting for future US airstrikes.

Obama is mainly doing two things. First, saying what he is not going to do, e.g., commit US troops. Second, playing revisionist historian.

Obama is desperate to avoid any blame for the current Middle East sh*t show. So whereas during the 2012 he trumpeted the total withdrawal as US troops, and took credit for ending the war in Iraq, now he says that the bugout was not his doing, but that of the Iraqi government.

The revisionism gets better, which of course means worse. In an interview yesterday, he minimized the importance of ISIS, by comparing it to other Islamic terror organizations like AQAP and Boko Haram:

“Their extreme ideology poses a medium and long-term threat,” the president said, of the group now taking control of large swaths of Iraq.

. . . .

He added that the immediate problem is that ISIS is “destabilizing a country that could spill over,” but they are “just one of a number of organizations that we need to stay focused on,” including al-Qaeda in Yemen and Boko Haram.

To put this in context, consider how Obama described AQAP in his speech justifying his drone campaign (and no, I’m not referring to John Kerry’s diplomacy):

But despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed. Al Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth.  They take refuge in remote tribal regions.  They hide in caves and walled compounds.  They train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.

In some of these places — such as parts of Somalia and Yemen — the state only has the most tenuous reach into the territory.  In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action.  And it’s also not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist.  Even when such an approach may be possible, there are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians — where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities, for example, that pose no threat to us; times when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis.

In other words, mere months ago, Obama characterized AQAP and other groups as “lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates” marooned in far away places. Now he compares ISIS to these groups. This comparison is farcical.

First, the ISIS threat is immediate, not medium to near term. Second, the ISIS threat is far more severe than either AQAP or Boko Haram, because it is a large force capable of taking on main force Iraqi units; it is extremely well-funded (some call it the richest jihadi group ever), and it is located in the cockpit of the Middle East, controlling vast swathes of two major countries, rather than being located in caves and villages in the “most distant and unforgiving places on earth.” What’s more, it’s not just the ideology that matters: it’s the fact that the adherents to this ideology have the power to create a base from which those espousing that ideology can launch attacks on vital US interests.

To equate ISIS with AQAP or Boko Haram is an outrageous distortion of the real threat that ISIS poses. It is grotesque for Obama to minimize this group’s importance, especially because his primary reason for doing so is to attempt to shift blame.

ISIS is wreaking havoc in Iraq now, but for the last couple of years the focus of its activity was Syria. As the Syrian war dragged on, the opposition to Assad became progressively radicalized. ISIS thrived in this environment. What’s more, there is reason to believe that Assad actually supported ISIS by releasing radicals from prison, for instance, and not attacking ISIS the way his forces attacked other opposition groups. This made sense for Assad, because ISIS fought against other opposition groups, including Al Qaeda-linked groups like Al Nusra as well as the Free Syrian Army.

The fact that ISIS metastasized in the years that the Syrian civil war dragged on also makes it necessary for Obama to argue that there was nothing that could have been done to bring the war to a quicker conclusion. And so he does:

The president rejected the idea that the power “vacuum” in Syria, and thus the current threat from ISIS, could have been averted if the U.S. had backed moderate rebels in Syria against Bashar Assad.

“I think this notion that somehow there was this ready-made moderate Syrian force that was ready to defeat al-Assad was simply not true,” he said. “The idea that they could have defeated” Assad and jihadist groups, he added, “if we just sent a few arms, was a fantasy.”

What would an Obama defense be without the ritual slaying of numerous straw men? “Ready made.” “A few arms.” Who ever said these things?

The fact is that the Obama CIA, Pentagon and State Department (!) all recommended arming the opposition, and Obama refused. Meaning that Obama is basically accusing the entire national security establishment-including his appointments to the top jobs in that establishment-of being fantasists.

Of course it is impossible to know whether this would have been decisive, but it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out any worse than it has.

I would further note that Assad was indeed tottering for a time. His bases were falling. Major cities were falling. Troops were deserting. At that time, additional help to the rebels could have been decisive. But Obama demurred. Russia and Iran did not. They rushed support-arms and fuel and money (literally-Putin flew in planeloads of currency) from Russia, arms and fighters (primarily from Hezbollah but also from the Qods force) from Iran. Assad was brought back from the brink, the war turned into stalemate, and the opposition became increasingly radicalized.

Obama is not entirely to blame here, of course. This is the culmination of years of US policy under both Bushes and Clinton. But in Iraq, Obama was like a doctor who ended an antibiotic treatment prematurely, allowing an infection that had been controlled to come back more virulent than before. And the abdication of any role in Syria made inevitable that the opposition would radicalize.

This is where we are. We are confronted with a choice between a pile of dung and a pile of manure. In other words, no good choices. Allying with Iran is insane. Putting in a token force of 300, which will serve in smaller groups that will have to spend most of their time watching their backs because even our ostensible allies hate Americans and are more than willing to kill us, seems a recipe for disaster. The only non-insane, non-virulently anti-American , and militarily capable force in the region is the Kurds. Maybe we should just throw in with them as a way of containing ISIS.

But our biggest obstacle is that the man that has to make the hard choices has proven utterly incompetent in his past decisions, and what’s more, is totally unwilling to acknowledge that he has made any mistakes in the past. Indeed, rather than acknowledge past misjudgments, he engages in wholesale historical revisionism, and misrepresentations of the current threat, in order to deflect blame. With that attitude and mindset, it is almost inevitable that further debacles will follow on his past blunders. Satayana said those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The outcome has to be even worse when someone not just doesn’t remember history, but actively and aggressively distorts it, as Obama is doing now.

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  1. What would it take for Obama to actually commit to troops somewhere?- because Assad and Putin will continue to push his buttons until he does. I have never heard a leader before start with the statement,’we will not send in soldiers, full stop, but we will review other options…’ The opposite of Teddy Roosevelt,”Speak harshly and carry no weapon”

    Comment by scott — June 24, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

  2. @scott. If the Pskov Airborne Division was parachuting on the White House lawn he might commit troops.

    Signaling weakness encourages the Putins, Assads, etc., to push because they know there is no risk.

    I agree with you. I have never seen a president (or leader of any country) spend so much time saying what he *won’t* do and so little saying what he will.

    In my opinion, this is exactly why the military raises so many obstacles to the deployment of military force. They know that Obama has no stomach for it, and if force is in fact committed he is likely to leave them high and dry, sooner or later.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 24, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

  3. As a Frontman, Barack Obama is undoubtedly Slippery When Wet, and when isn’t he wet? This is why I don’t look to the rhetoric first, but rather review the rhetoric secondarily when I’m confronted with the Establishment’s contradictory behavior to see if any clues can be gleaned from the carefully, or not so carefully, constructed exhortations.

    If you review my latest post at my blog, I’ve highlighted a YouTube video of a 1994 interview Dick Cheney gave where he explains, quite convincingly, why he and the Bush I administration refused to go all the way to Baghdad and dethrone Saddam during the Gulf War. Ten years later, Cheney and Bush II ignored his convincing and rationalizing reasoning and went to Baghdad, and guess what, the rationalized reasoning was spot on, just as Cheney had said in 1994, but yet they went in anyway. No official explanation comes close to reconciling this contradiction.

    Since Cheney was right the first time, not the second time, I would think Obama is doing precisely the right thing by avoiding the entanglement in another quagmire in Iraq. You can’t be serious in taunting him to commit American blood and treasure to Iraq once again, can you? In this case, his rhetoric matters not to me, it’s the actions of his administration, and I think he’s doing the right thing right now by resisting being enticed into another quagmire in Iraq. Could he compose a more rhetorically convincing case to justify his reluctance or refusal to commit substantial support to Maliki? Sure he could, and I’m at a loss to explain how he’s so out in the wilderness in constructing an articulate and convincing rhetorical response to his critics concerning his actions. All I can think is that he’s being purposely isolated from reality and being spoon-fed an alternate reality from the one we’re living in and observing. This can and does happen. Presidents these days are so reliant on their staff to prop them up, those staffs, if they were so inclined, can literally isolate the President to such a degree, they can create an alternate reality that differs quite substantially from the reality being conveyed by the mainstream and alternative press.

    Either way, it would be a mistake to play into Russia’s and Iran’s hands and commit substantial military support to Maliki’s Iraq. That’s exactly what both countries want, and since China and Russia are increasingly the recipients of the spoils of the Iraq invasion and occupation by The West, an invasion they took no part in and criticized The West over, I think it’s their turn to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. If they want Superpower status, it’s time to step up to the plate and quit sniping from the shadows as has been their wont. Personally, I don’t think either has it in them. Cowards remain in the shadows — it’s what they do best, just as Putin’s doing in Ukraine as we type.

    Comment by Cold N. Holefield — June 25, 2014 @ 6:04 am

  4. Cold, while I can’t speak for the Professor, I think you’re dealing with a strawman of your invention here. I’m not aware of anyone seriously suggesting we redo the Iraq Invasion. There are no good choices right now in Iraq. But that does not mean that Obama’s foreign policy prior to this was good.

    The problem isn’t what Obama is specifically doing right now in Iraq. It is that he’s run an incoherent and reactionary foreign policy for the last six years; and that America’s enemies have completely outplayed him. Obama has clearly botched the Middle East. The situation he inherited was not ideal, but it was stable. The idea that the current situation could not have been prevented by different policy choices is clearly false. Obama choose to not seriosuly pursue a status of forces agreement with Iraq that cut off much needed guidance and support to the Iraqi army. Obama choose not to apply pressure to Maliki to be more inclusive with the Sunnis and Kurds. Obama choose to not do anything in Syria and allow the situation there to metastasize to the point the conflict spread to Iraq. Obama choose policies in the Arab Spring that alienated every single major American ally in the Middle East. Obama choose to create a red line in Syria and then not do anything when it was crossed, which badly undermined American credibility. We now know that every bonehead decision Obama made was not supported by large numbers of officials in the State and Defense Departments. He clearly had other options.

    Every single time Obama has a made decision, it’s been with short term domestic considerations – “How can I stop people from criticizing me right now?” If there is pressure to do something about Syria, he comments about a red line that wasn’t in his original speech. With 2012 election upcoming, he decides its imperative to remove all troops from Iraq to keep his promise regardless if the timing makes sense. Everything is tactical and tied to domestic politics. There is no coherent strategy to achieve American foreign policy aims.

    Putin, Iran, and ISIS know this – which is why American foreign policy has fallen apart in the last year. They can actually make long term, coherent goals knowing they can play Obama like a fiddle.

    Until Obama becomes competent, any foreign policy decision is almost doomed to fail. The tactical reaction Obama makes now won’t be part of a coherent, unfied strategy, but one more in a long series of isolated actions that fails to achieve American policy aims because they are all contradictory to each other. Most likely, Obama will never become competent, and he’s going to leave his successor a worse mess than the one he inherited from George W. Bush. That is saying a lot.

    Comment by Chris — June 25, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

  5. Chris, I agree Obama essentially carried on Bush’s doctrine of nation destroying, especially oil-producing nations, rather than nation building. However, he managed to do it a bit more efficiently than Bush without committing too much American blood and treasure. Efficiency’s good, right? A dead Khaddafi’s a good Khaddafi, right? To do that without committing American troops is exactly what the doctor ordered. Sure, it might take some time for Libya and Iraq to sort it all out, say fifty to seventy years, but think of all the profit in the meantime from rationalized artificially high oil prices and weapons sales to one rebel group after another.

    From that YouTube clip, I’d say Obama has fulfilled Bush’s proclamations better than Bush ever did. Weird, that.

    Comment by Cold N. Holefield — June 25, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

  6. I think we can all agree that if Grupo Aeromovile de Fuerzas Especiales parachuted onto the White House lawn he would not commit troops.

    Comment by pahoben — June 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am

  7. Neither Tehran nor Riyadh had consulted Washington before they organized heavy arms shipments to their respective allies in Iraq.

    The Iraqi battle arena is become a veritable Babel of war. So far, six countries are involved in varying degrees: the US, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

    Comment by Anders — June 27, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

  8. It’s a total clusterfuck, @Anders. This is what happens when you don’t keep the lid on a boiling pot. We had it relatively under control, then bugged out, and now it’s a free-for-all that makes Spain c. 1936 look like a picnic.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 27, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

  9. Obama is waging an economic war by fining BNP over Hollande’s friendliness to Putin. Drones, economic terrorism, and deporting latin american children risking their lives for freedom. Those are his weapons of choice.

    Comment by scott — July 1, 2014 @ 7:34 am

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