Return to Iraq: Obama's Islamic State quagmire
Op-ed: President who vowed to end United States war in Iraq has found himself locked in a conflict there, even as he fends off criticism from those once closest to him and negotiates with allies with their own agendas. Can he win the war he never wanted?
WASHINGTON - Many an eyebrow was raised in the corridors of power in Washington this past week, and experts in political subterfuge began weaving conspiracy theories around a thick book that landed suddenly on the shelves of the bookstores.
It's not every day that a former defense secretary and CIA chief spills the beans, and certainly not while the president who was his boss is still in office. The release of Leon Panetta's new book was accompanied by a sweeping and powerful public relations campaign that made him the star of most of the country's leading television talk shows.
The book made most of its noise thanks to its harsh criticism of the president – of the kind usually voiced against him by his political rivals from the Republican Party, and certainly not by his right-hand man, someone who was party with him to the most sensitive security and military decisions in the United States.
Panetta, who knows a thing or two about the decision-making process in the Obama administration, shot the president right between the eyes this week, with precise knowledge of the weak points of the strongest man in the world. According to Panetta, Obama's hesitancy regarding Syria was a blow to American credibility, and he slams the president for drawing a red line against Syria's use of chemical weapons and then failing to back it up with military force when Syria crossed the line.
Panetta also says that the US left Iraq too soon, without managing to reach an agreement with then Iraqi president Nouri Al-Maliki that would have allowed some American forces to remain there. This is what led to the emergence of Islamic State, Panetta charges.
Former US cabinet members tend to hold their fire and publish their memoirs only after the president they served under leaves office. Only then, if at all, do they air the gripes they've been harboring. But Panetta didn't wait; and just moments before mid-term elections, with Obama fighting tooth and nail to prevent his party from suffering a crushing defeat in Congress, he released the flames he's been kindling at his home in California and thus turned up the heat under the already boiling political cauldron.
White House officials, of course, were livid. They couldn't believe that a man who Obama had appointed to the most sensitive positions, despite him being a close confidante of the Clintons, was now stabbing the president in the back like this. There was no official statement, but cries of joy were heard from the Oval Office and the residential wing when Dick Morris, another one-time close associate of the Clintons, said, "I think Hillary put him up to it… What Panetta is doing is a hit – a contract killing – for Hillary. Panetta at core is a Clinton person, not an Obama person… By accurately and truthfully describing the deliberations in the (Obama) cabinet, he makes Hillary look better, and he makes Obama look worse... And I think he'll get his reward in heaven."
Robert Gates, Panetta's predecessor as defense secretary, was quick to have his say too, commenting that Obama was doing himself a disservice by pledging not to use ground troops in the fight against IS.
"I think that by continuing to repeat that, the president in effect traps himself," Gates said. "We've been at war with al-Qaeda for 13 years. We have dealt them some terrible blows, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. But I don't think anybody would say that after 13 years we've destroyed or defeated al-Qaeda. I think to promise that we're going to destroy ISIS or ISIL sets a goal that may be unattainable."
Heading for catastrophe
Islamic State doesn't need the former senior officials in order to continue to brazenly continue giving the finger to the US administration, which promised to "eradicate and destroy" but has thus far only achieved the very opposite.
As the aerial assault on IS intensifies, the organization only grows stronger; and the American strategy appears to be falling apart. The Jihadists are close to taking Kobani in Syria, near the Turkish border, which has become a ghost town with body parts and decapitated heads in the street.
"Our focus in Syria is in degrading the capacity of (IS) at its core to project power, to command itself, to sustain itself, to resource itself," said US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken this week. "The tragic reality is that in the course of doing that there are going to be places like Kobani where we may or may not be able to fight effectively."
Early in the week, a senior US official announced that Turkey had agreed to allow the United States to use the Incirlik Air Base from which to launch strikes against IS; but barely two days went by before Ankara issued a denial. Turkey informed Washington of its demand that American airstrikes against IS should also include the toppling of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the establishment of a no-fly zone. Since then, there's been progress on the issue.
In Iraq meanwhile, despite the US airstrikes, IS forces are a mere stone's throw from Baghdad, having notched up impressive achievements and significant successes in battles against the local army. In fact, about one-quarter of the area of Iraq is under IS control, despite Uncle Sam's air support.
"The Islamic State (IS) has been on the offensive in Anbar since August and their effort has finally paid off with another collapse by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)," says Iraq analyst Joel Wing, whose opinions ring loud and clear in the White House and State Department. "This was a huge victory for IS as it gives the insurgents virtual control over Anbar and poses a serious threat to western Baghdad."
All the smart bombs from America have failed to halt the progress of the IS fighters in Iraq. "They're winning and we're not," Republican Senator John McCain summed up last Sunday. And before he ordered the airstrikes, Obama himself said that the problems in Iraq and Syria were political and couldn't be solved by military means; and he knows that the end is not yet in sight. This week, in a closed discussion with his national security advisors, he said: "It isn't simple and will take a long time."
The countries of the coalition against IS have realized that their inability to save Kobani will turn into a military and political catastrophe for the West. Despite this understanding, a sufficiently broad coalition that can try to repel the threat posed by IS has yet to be formed. Obama tried to enlist Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but each of these countries had its own agenda, and the eradication of IS wasn't at the top of their list of priorities. White House officials put this down to the fact that "IS had caused more problems for the Shias than the Sunnis, and thus they remained on the sidelines."
The significant turning point in Western public opinion occurred when IS fighters executed the American hostages, on the Syrian dunes, with small knives in hand and to the accompaniment of Hollywood special effects. US public opinion demanded action and Obama responded by saying he doesn't have a sufficiently effective strategy. He subsequently retracted that statement, said he didn't mean it, and announced some three weeks later that he had ordered airstrikes on IS targets in Syria and Iraq.
A CNN poll conducted after the announcement showed that 61 percent of the respondents believed that military action against IS was a clear-cut US interest. Only 13 percent opposed the airstrikes. "The beheadings are so chilling to the American public," said Peter Hart, who conducted the poll. "The only things I think of equal impact are the self-immolations back in Vietnam."
The airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are only a part of Obama's strategy to combat IS, which he promised to eradicate. The lesser known part is his instruction to the Pentagon to put together a plan of action designed to assassinate the leaders of the organization that is threatening to establish the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.
This plan has yet to be put in motion. The IS leaders are in hiding, and all the US intelligence efforts have failed to bear fruit. In addition, Obama also decided on a secret plan to cut off IS from its sources of funding, with some of the organization's money coming from oil wells it has taken control of in Iraq.
Another source of income for IS are the ransoms the organization exacts for the release of prisoners. The US refuses to pay any ransoms, but there are enough countries in Europe that do pay, with IS receiving an average sum of $1.25 million for every prisoner it frees.
The president's countdown
Even in his worst nightmares Obama didn't envision a war under his name. And here we are, deep into his second term of office, and he is well on the way there. Even before his election to the Senate, long before his race for the White House, Obama spoke at a huge anti-war rally in Chicago against the war declared by George Bush in Iraq. "I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars," he said at the time, and listed his reasons.
Later, when running for president, he promised the American people that he would secure the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and put an end to the US Army's era of war. The American public elected him not only on the basis of that promise, but it carried very significant weight in their choice: America was tired of paying the price of war, particularly in Iraq, and Bush left the White House with is popularity at an all-time low. Historians bestowed upon him the dubious title of "the worst president in the history of the United States."
The American public was angry with Bush, who invested the taxpayers' money in distant wars at the expense of the US economy, which was starting to crumble under the financial burden of the fighting. Obama promised to turn things around saying: "We will build our own home instead of building other countries."
He won applause after bringing the US forces out of Iraq; but it wasn't long before Iraq fell into utter chaos. When the Republicans blamed him for the mess, charging that he had pulled out of Baghdad without leaving behind any soldiers to maintain order, the White House responded by saying that the people responsible for going into Iraq in the first place were to blame, not the ones who withdrew from there.
As leader of the free world, Obama could not have sat idly by, and he was forced to take action to preserve America's role as a leading player in the international arena. He wanted to be a president of reconciliation and peace, if only to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he received during his first year in office, as advance payment for the peace he was to bring to the world. The Americans have been bombing IS positions in Iraq and Syria for almost a month already; the situation, however, is going from bad to worse.
Some 1.5 million Iraqi have already fled their homes in fear of IS, and survivors in Syria tell of mass killings in the streets, with the airstrikes doing absolutely nothing to deter the terrorists. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that he may advise the president to send US "advisors" to Iraq to fight alongside the Iraqi Army – in other words, a limited number of ground forces that will try to alter the picture. Dempsey also revealed that IS fighters had taken up positions in Sunni neighborhoods in Iraq from where they were managing the fighting, and that soon they'd start firing rockets at Baghdad too.
The eyes of the US administration have now turned towards Mosul. If the Iraqi Army manages to retake the city and defeat the IS forces there with massive US help, it could prove to be a turning point in the war in general. If not, the United States can gear up for years of fighting against a cruel terror organization – and the lessons learned from the war against the Viet Cong in Vietnam are still fresh in the minds of everyone there.
The war against IS has caught Obama at the sensitive juncture from which the countdown to the end of his term in office begins. Mid-term elections take place in two weeks; and after that, he will begin doing what all other presidents do before leaving office – dedicating the last two years to brushing up his legacy and place in history. Obama's popularity today is at an all-time low, yet the pundits summing up his term in office are showering him with praise.
This week, Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics and holds significant sway over US public opinion, published an article in which he names Obama as "one of the most successful presidents in American history." Krugman lists the Obama administration's achievements in several areas including healthcare, the environment, national security and the economy; and on foreign policy, he states: "He hasn’t done anything really stupid and that is a big improvement over his predecessor."
According to Krugman, "Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy."
If IS had not grown into the monster it has become, Obama may well have been able to sit back and relax and work on summing up his final two years in office; but he's now up to his neck in a war he didn't want, a war that will forever be recorded under his name.
It matters not how many operational orders he issues to the US Air Force, or how effective a coalition he manages to put together; he cannot win a war of this kind. He knows this all too well, and soon he will have to respond to the American public that will want to know what the United States is actually doing again on the other side of the ocean and why the US taxpayer has to foot the bill for putting out fires in a place that the average Americans views as the ends of the earth.