Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Even in admitting failure, Obama is disingenuous

On Sunday, President Barack Obama admitted that the United States had underestimated the rise of ISIL. Agreeing with the director of national intelligence, Mr Obama observed: “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

For Mr Obama to shift the burden of responsibility onto Mr Clapper was disingenuous. From the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, numerous people warned that if the breakdown there was allowed to continue unabated, it could spread, creating blowback that could ultimately target the United States.

Indeed, the initial American reluctance to get involved in Syria was due to a fear that this might tip the balance in favour of Islamist groups fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Early on there was an understanding in Washington of the nexus between violence in Syria and the fact that the growing sectarianism in the country might attract foreign jihadists.

Is that surprising? The link was well grasped by Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services, which falsely labelled the opposition “Islamist terrorists”, then tried to create that reality. By crushing peaceful demonstrations, the regime knew it would push the opposition to arm, drawing foreign jihadists and allowing the regime to portray itself as a victim of terrorism.

Mr Obama acknowledged that ISIL had exploited the vacuum in Syria, stating: “Over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swathes of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”

Blaming America for that void is unfair, but it is not unfair to insist that America should have foreseen the consequences. Mr Obama came to office promising a rules-based international system. That promise collapsed in Syria, which did not mean Mr Obama had a licence to do nothing. Time and again his unwillingness to involve America in another Middle East conflict hit up against the rationale for doing so to uphold a rules-based order.

This was most flagrant in August last year, when Mr Al Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing perhaps as many as 1,700 people. Mr Obama prepared to retaliate, though when he was offered a way out by Russia, he took it, allowing Mr Al Assad to get away, literally, with murder. This hardly reinforced international norms of behaviour.

The president’s refusal to act in Syria was bolstered by an isolationist mood in the United States. For instance, earlier this year a Politico poll asked Americans about, among other things, their country’s involvement in Syria. Only 15 per cent supported more involvement; 42 per cent sought less involvement; and 26 per cent supported the current level of involvement.

These attitudes changed radically when two Americans were decapitated by ISIL. But conducting foreign policy by opinion polls is never a good idea. The public, unlike an administration, rarely has all the information needed for making sound judgements.

When ISIL last year was seizing larger expanses of territory in eastern Syria and seeking to cut off the Syrian opposition’s access to Turkey, the administration was in a good position to assess where this was going. After all, it involved the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which America had fought years earlier.

The reality is that Mr Obama’s Syria policy has been irresponsible and hypocritical, but in no way has it been based on a misunderstanding of the Syrian situation. His administration stood aside and did as little as possible to stop a great crime of the decade, couching its position in high principles that Mr Obama had no intention of implementing.

The president’s reference to his administration’s “underestimation” of the ISIL threat was embarrassing. What Mr Obama should have said is that he was responsible for a massive failure in policy. Senior administration officials – including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defence secretary Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petraeus and joint chiefs of staff chairman General Martin Dempsey – had advocated arming the less-dangerous rebels, but Mr Obama rejected their views.

Now the president intends to arm the rebels. It may be too late either to defeat Mr Al Assad or prevail against ISIL. Mr Obama had hoped to kick that can into early next year, but ISIL’s murder of two Americans forced him to act now. As some have observed, this, not the death of nearly 200,000 Syrians, turned the tide. No wonder the Syrian opposition mistrusts America.

Mr Obama might respond that the US is being unfairly blamed when the rest of the world, too, did nothing about Syria. True, but only America anchors the international system and claims to uphold the values that have been systematically undermined in Syria for more than three years.

Mr Obama would agree. As he told an interviewer with the CBS network this week: “America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. That’s the deal.”

It’s good that the president has finally acted, even if the outcome is unclear. Had he done so sooner ISIL might not have become so strong. Some will welcome Mr Obama’s honesty about Syria, but it is tinged with more than a little dishonesty.

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