Doomed to Fail: A President Dithers

During a 60 Minutes interview in which President Obama could only offer rambling and incoherent answers to Steve Kroft’s fair and pointed foreign policy questions, the President did manage to shed new, and rather unflattering, light on his disastrous Syria policy. After backing down from his own red line when Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, Obama decided to launch a $500 million rebel training program whereby the United States would train moderate fighters to oust Assad. With only 4 or 5 trained rebels currently fighting in Syria, it is safe to call this program a failure. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the President himself said last night, “I’ve been skeptical from the get-go” that the training program would work.

What does it say about a President who built a strategy around a program he deemed doomed to fail? How callous to watch thousands of Syrians die each month at the hands of Assad, and now ISIS, while pursuing a program that you don’t believe can work. It is one thing to try and fail; it is entirely different to pretend to try and fail. In a Presidency chock full of stunning admissions, this has to rank near the top of the list. The Syrian Civil War has raged for over 3 years, and the only strategy the Administration could come up with was essentially fictitious.

While dithering away time and letting Syria devolve into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises of the past quarter-century, he’s let ISIS stand up and fill the power vacuum. The President doesn’t even have a plan to deal with ISIS, saying that over time “the community of nations” will deal with ISIS. What is this community the President speaks of? China enjoys all the perks of being a world power without assuming any responsibilities, Europe hasn’t led in decades, and Russia is directly flouting Obama’s high-minded goals. The concept of such a community is noble and works well as a dissertation at Columbia University but is dangerously simplistic when applied in the real world. A community of nations only exists when America plays the leading role.

Instead, Obama has stepped back and is now letting Vladimir Putin decimate the rebels we’ve aided without impunity from the air. What message does this send to other potential allies in the region? The US will not stand by you when times get tough, which will undermine our ability to form strategic relations in the region for years. With Putin allied with Iran—the region’s aspiring hegemon—the moderates are being wiped out, leaving only Assad and ISIS, an unpalatable choice, and the Russia-Iran axis will inevitably pivot to push back ISIS from Syria and Iran all while the President awaits for the community of nations to respond.

The overarching failure of President Obama’s foreign policy is a simple one: he dithers until the United States is left with virtually no winning option. In Syria, we could have provided substantive support for moderate rebels and toppled Assad. Now any action risks direct military conflict with Russia, and quickly, the only two feasible options are ISIS or Assad. Three years ago, we had options that could tip the balance in our favor; now, there are none.

In Iraq, we could have signed a “status of forces” agreement to leave residual troops in Iraq, continue to train their military, and ensure the hard-fought gains we made were kept. Instead, Obama made no serious effort to get this agreement, pulled out entirely, leaving Iraq weak and vulnerable, and leaving it easy for ISIS to take large swaths of territory. Now, what is left of Iraq is morphing into an Iranian client state as the US has unilaterally ceded all influence. Obama could have kept troops in Iraq, or he could have provided serious assistance in the fight against ISIS last year. Instead, he has done as little as possible and somehow allowed a nation we spent a decade building to align with our major rivals, Iran and Russia.

In 2014, Obama had a chance to swiftly respond to Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea by providing arms to the Kiev government and restart the Eastern Europe missile defense shield, a real cost in Putin’s eyes. These actions could have stopped Putin in his tracks, winning Crimea but realizing the rest of Ukraine would not be worth the fight. Instead, Obama merely lectured Putin, so he launched a covert operation in East Ukraine and essentially split the country in two. What can the US do now apart from some meaningless sanctions? Providing the necessary support to the Ukrainian government to roll back Russia would be exceedingly costly and risk direct military confrontation with a nuclear power while giving Putin cover to escalate his involvement. The other option, to accept Russian expansion, would be the most humiliating strategic defeat against Russia since the Carter Administration. By doing virtually nothing serious for 18 months in Ukraine, we face another no-win situation.

Last, Obama foolishly loosened sanctions on Iran just for coming to the negotiating table, ceding the leverage that brought them there. At that point, reasserting the sanctions was all but an impossibility, forcing us to accept an embarrassingly weak deal. Iran doesn’t even care about the few restrictions in the deal, testing a long range missile this week despite that likely being forbidden in the text. They know this administration won’t do anything to nullify the deal because we could never get Russia and China to okay sanctions at the UN again. If we had actually kept sanctions in place during the negotiation, we would have maintained leverage and been able to reach a good deal with real verification. Either we accept a flawed deal that lets Iran become a threshold nuclear state over a decade or we isolate ourselves diplomatically by exiting the deal and imposing further sanctions ourselves.

From Syria to Iraq to Russia to Iran, Obama has been so consistently wrong and soft that we are left with a host of complex situation where there is no clear option for the US. In each situation, had we acted swiftly, we could have gained the initiative and reached a strategically favorable outcome. Instead, American power is being challenged around the world. That is the legacy of this President. His successor will have to navigate minefields just to scrape out draws, by aggressively reasserting our military presence to assuage panicked allies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe alike while reminding bad actors like Putin that the U.S. really is a force to be reckoned with.

Obama’s Presidency is one of bungled opportunities. Would you expect less from a man who expects his own policies to fail?

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