Surveying the wreckage of the Middle East and the fraying of Europe, President Obama understandably would like us to believe that no other policy could have worked better.
The United States has tried them all, his administration argues: massive invasion, in Iraq; surgical intervention, in Libya; studied aloofness, in Syria. Three approaches, same result: chaos and destruction.
So why bother? Why get sucked into “a transformation that will play out for a generation,” as Obama described it in his State of the Union address this year, “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”?
Even setting aside the offensiveness of such a sweeping dismissal of Arab potential, the formulation is wrong on two counts, one prescriptive and one analytical.
It offers no plausible path for Obama’s successor — who, as Obama’s own fitful, reluctant re-escalation shows, will not be able to ignore the region. Instead, it invites the kind of demagogic promises we have heard during the campaign, to “carpet bomb” Islamic militants until we find out whether “sand can glow in the dark,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) threatened, or, in Donald Trump’s words, to “quickly, quickly” “knock the hell out of” the Islamic State and then “come back here and rebuild our country.”
More fundamentally, the administration’s fatalism ignores a fourth policy option that Obama, from the beginning, was determined not to try: patient, open-ended engagement using all U.S. tools — diplomatic as well as military — with a positive outcome, not a fixed deadline, as the goal.
That is an approach that has worked before. In Korea, the United States forged an intimate alliance more than a half-century ago, and today U.S. soldiers and diplomats are still present. U.S. support deterred an external foe while — and people forget this, given South Korea’s stability today — helping steady a society torn by civil war as its people gradually built a democracy.
Obama came into office determined to avoid this approach. In Afghanistan, he set a timetable for troop withdrawal, untethered to conditions. In Libya, he bombed the Gaddafi regime out of power but did not stay to help a new government get on its feet. In Iraq, he overrode his civilian and military advisers and declined to keep in the country the 15,000 or 20,000 troops that might have helped preserve the stability the U.S. surge had helped achieve.
The president did not defend that withdrawal because millennia-old hatreds made Iraq a hopeless case. Just the reverse, in fact: Success had made a U.S. presence unnecessary. “This is a historic moment. A war is ending. A new day is upon us,” he said in 2011. “People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny — a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.”
It does not require hindsight to appreciate the recklessness of his decision. True, few foretold just how completely the nation would fall apart, with a vicious caliphate occupying much of the country and a return of frequent bombings in Baghdad. But The Post’s editorial page was not alone in warning at the time that “a complete withdrawal sharply increases the risk that painfully won security gains in Iraq will come undone.”
I understand why Obama and so many other Americans reject persistent engagement, often derisively called “nation-building.” It is difficult, and the United States often does it badly and sometimes doesn’t succeed; Americans can’t impose democracy; we often end up doing work that we wish the locals or their neighbors would do. Obama is right, too, that other regions, such as the Pacific, are more important to the global economy and more central to U.S. strategy.
But against all that wisdom stands one stubborn fact, again proved by Obama’s re-escalation: The United States does not have a choice. The unraveling doesn’t stay put, but spreads to Syria and Paris and Brussels and the skies over the Mediterranean and, eventually, the United States. Under conditions far more difficult than they might have been, the president finds himself unleashing bombers over Syria and dispatching soldiers into Iraq.
He cannot acknowledge, maybe even to himself, that disengagement was a mistake. That is why, even as Americans are, once again, being killed in Iraq, Obama insists that no service members are in combat.
But it would be healthy for the country, and the next president, to move beyond make-believe. There is no “quickly, quickly” defeating Islamist terrorism — and there is no safe way to retreat from the challenge of combating it for the long term.
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