Post Paris: Ashamed of our President

NB:

In the days following the heartbreaking, cold-blooded terror attacks in Paris, I have opted not to post anything in this forum because my thoughts have been very harsh (I feared overly so). In times of strong emotion, one can say something they later regret, and I did not want to fall into this trap, stretch my arguments, or offer commentary I would later wish I hadn’t. Instead, I have pored over my words to be as precise as possible and ruminated over my thoughts so that I could articulate exactly as I feel without writing anything regrettable. I am saying this upfront because what follows is (for me at least) a very strongly-worded condemnation of not only our President’s policies but of our President himself as well. Personal attacks are quickly tiresome and rarely justified, and I attempt to avoid them. However after several days of thought, I have come to a clear conclusion: President Obama’s policies are making us less safe, likely because he has succumbed to delusion over fact, and he is undermining our moral authority on the world stage, which is the gravest of offensives. I am ashamed of our President, words I have never previously uttered—these words still feel foreign to me. Below are my views on these two points (the first is policy-driven, the second point houses my more severe criticisms for those who prefer to skip ahead); I hope you consider reading this worth your while, regardless of whether you agree with my conclusions.

  1. President Obama is in a State of Delusion

Friday marked a clear turning point in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). First, it bombed a Russian airliner, then it perpetrated a massive suicide attack outside Beirut, and it culminated with the devastating, extremely well-planned, coordinated attack in Paris Friday night (additionally, on Tuesday, Germany was forced to cancel a soccer match and concert in Hannover due to “concrete evidence” of an impending attack). ISIS has morphed from a powerful conventional ground force into a terrorist organization with al-Qaeda-like capacity to launch terrorist attacks in the Western world. This is a deeply disturbing development that makes ISIS a clear and present danger to the United States and our European allies.

We can engage in counterfactuals all day to assign the blame of ISIS’s rise. Many on the Left say if Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq, ISIS would not be here, and there is some truth in that point (not that Saddam was a saint). On the right, we can point to the fact Obama pigheadedly refused to negotiate a status of force agreement to ensure a stable transition because he wanted to win the political points associated with a rapid withdrawal. Fair-minded individuals can see that a lot of people share the blame for the conditions that allowed ISIS to form. However, the blame clearly shifts to Obama as the question turns to gains ISIS has made in terms of its capabilities and territory, taking control of half of Syria and Iraq, a landmass larger than at least 13 states.

Yet while speaking at the G-20 summit on Monday (after the Paris attacks), President Obama reiterated, “We haven’t underestimated their abilities.” Well, I hate to see how dangerous ISIS could be if we had underestimated them. While being dismissed as a JV-team, ISIS was racking up conquests in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul while we seemingly assumed they had the staying power of the pet rock. Yet, here we are 18+ months later, ISIS has barely lost territory, likely has tens of million (probably north of $100 million) in the bank, and has developed the ability to launch outward attacks of terror. We are left with two possibilities: the President is a bald-faced liar, pretending his strategy is working to avoid losing political standing, or alternatively, he is in a state of delusion. Neither option is a flattering one.

Considering the Administration is doctoring its own intelligence reports to better fit their narrative, reality be damned, I find myself in the delusion camp. A further sign of delusion is that the Administration seems hell-bent on continuing with the same, failing strategy (if Obama were lying to the public, I like to think he would change things behind the scenes). Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, promises a mere “intensification” of the current strategy, comments Obama has since echoed. However, the underlying strategy is misguided.

Here is what Obama said hours before the Paris attacks: “Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.” It is truly stunning how badly Obama could misread ISIS to think we had contained them. Even if, simply for the sake of argument, we concede that ISIS has been territorially contained, that is not success—it is an undeniable failure. Iraq has been ravaged, and what remains is quickly descending into an Iranian-proxy state. Similarly, Assad is merely a puppet for Iran and Russia. The status quo makes it easier for Iran, with Russia by its side, to become the regional hegemon, controlling the capitals of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. That tilts the balance of power in the region decisively against us, and nuclear deal or not, it is impossible to label a Russia-Iran axis as friendly to democracy or our interests (I’ve written about this very issue weeks ago).

By definition, a policy of containment cedes its current territory to ISIS. In this territory, ISIS can train and build the capacity to launch outward attacks, for which it has just proven a stunning proficiency. Was the policy of “containing” al-Qaeda to Afghanistan particularly wise in the 1990s? Obviously, not. Controlling territory gave it free rein to plan and execute the 9/11 attack. Should it surprise anyone that giving ISIS the same set-up allowed it to execute attacks of its own? All the while, ISIS has built cash reserves, trained a revolving door of foreign fighters who have returned home to the West, and entrenched itself in its territory, ensuring removal will be costlier and bloodier than necessary. The policy of containment has been disastrous at every level. Obama has allowed Iran to gain influence, Assad to hang on, and ISIS to develop al-Qaeda-like capacity.

Not since Richard Nixon thought he could survive Watergate, has a President been so detached from reality. Nixon’s delusions put the nation in a constitutional crisis, and Obama’s threaten a security crisis. This crisis is even more acute for Europe, which has faced a tsunami of migrants entering without any vetting. Plus, its Schengen area policy of open borders has allowed these migrants to travel to any member state with minimal if any tracking, making it impossible for any government to know who is in their country at any given time. Each European nation is only as safe as the nation with the weakest borders, in this case Greece (austerity to deal with its budget debacle has crippled its ability to police borders and hold migrants). This migrant crisis, coupled with returned foreign fighters, exacerbates Europe’s security situation. Amazingly even though his own FBI director has expressed concerns about our vetting, Obama wants to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees and has suggested anyone who opposes him is a bigot (I would note the presumed head of Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer, happens to have reservations about the current system). Obama has avoided policy debate and simply attacked the character of those who oppose him on this issue. The rational decision is to suspend the program for 3 months, ensure all vetting is done to acceptable standards, and then if concerns are dealt with, reopen the program.

For 18 months, we have watched ISIS grow like a cancer as Obama underestimated them and then employed a wrongheaded policy of containment. He touts launching 8,000 airstrikes, though this amounts to ~20/day, less than 1/5 the pace of Bill Clinton’s strikes in Serbia. On Monday, Obama had the gall to say, “We have been fully aware of the potential capabilities of them carrying out a terrorist attack. That’s precisely why we have been mounting a very aggressive strategy to go after them.” That is indisputably untrue; our bombing campaign has been anything but aggressive. These strikes barely manage to slow the advance of ISIS but do nothing to roll back its capacity. Our President’s policies are that of an inveterate invertebrate. He fecklessly dithers, leaving us in a situation where there are no easy options. In 2013, we should have enforced a no-fly zone and aided the Free Syrian Army in their fight against Assad, but Obama backed away from his own red-line.

Now, Russia is propping up Assad, moderate rebels have been squeezed from both sides, and ISIS has a serious foothold. A full no-fly zone risks confrontation with Putin. Considering how Obama backed down to Assad and Putin in Crimea, it is hard to see Putin taking our no-fly zone seriously. The temptation to partner with him is tantalizing, put aside the Assad question now, deal with ISIS, and then work on Assad. Aligning with Putin is like sleeping with the devil, fun at first not so good in the long run. If we deal with ISIS together, there is no pressure for Putin to support removing Assad (except to replace him with another crony—any crony will do!).

Instead, the US must significantly intensify our airstrikes, encourage rather than discourage France to invoke Article 5 of NATO, and build a Western coalition to systematically roll back ISIS. This means directly arming the Kurds, whom we have long-standing relations with and who are adept fighters. US troops embedded with the Kurds and FSA, Gulf partners providing ground troops, and NATO air-strikes and some ground troops can decisively roll back ISIS. Simultaneously, we need to create safe zones where refugees can go in Syria and Jordan, financed by the West, to keep refugees from flooding Europe. We, both Western and Muslim states, then need to maintain a presence to help new governments in Iraq and Syria build the institutions and structural strength to endure. This is a battle among civilizations, and we need to treat it as such.

The idea containment would ever work is a pure fallacy, perpetrated by an administration unable to deal with ISIS and unwilling to admit its mistakes. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Obama continues to delude himself into believing the strategy is working. If we continue on this course, the threat ISIS poses to the Western world will only grow. I fear a world in which Paris is not an anomaly but the beginning of a long string of attacks, apparently we barely avoided another in Germany Tuesday. Simply containing ISIS allows them more time and space to develop their capabilities and export there terror. We need to get tough now; to do otherwise is to gamble the security of our homeland and that of our allies.

  1. President Obama Has Shamed this Nation

This (briefer) section pivots away from my policy critique and focuses instead on the character of our President. While I have never been a fan of his simplistic and pessimistic policy platform, I have long considered President Obama to be a good man and have defended him to fellow conservatives as such (at the expense of being dubbed a RINO occasionally). As his administration progressed, this has been a tougher argument to make, particularly after he blatantly lied about his healthcare plan (you can keep your doctor…). However, there is a difference between telling a lie and shaming the nation, or at the very least, there needs to be a very high standard when it comes to saying someone has shamed the nation (Nixon is the lone President whom I had previously put in this basket in the post-WWII era). Monday that changed.

While on the Sunday shows, Rhodes suggested Paris was a “setback.” People do misspeak or overstate their case, particularly on talk shows, and I aim to give all the benefit of the doubt, despite the callousness of that remark. Then on Monday, we were presented with dueling remarks from French President Hollande and Obama. Hollande powerfully declared to his nation: “France is at war. No barbarians will prevent us from living how we have decided to live. To live fully. Terrorism will never destroy the republic, because the republic will destroy terrorism.” Hollande understands the stakes of this battle. We are dealing with suicidal maniacs who want the world to burn, and we need to pulverize them. Hollande is seizing the gravity of this moment to eradicate a great evil from this earth.

Our President could not match this rhetoric. Instead, Obama doubled down on Rhodes line, saying, “The terrible events in Paris were a terrible and sickening setback.” Setback was not an off-the-cuff remark, it was clearly chosen in advance by our President to describe the Paris attack after being test-run by Rhodes Sunday. Our oldest ally has just suffered its worst terrorist attack since World War II, and that is all Obama has to offer. Families were destroyed, innocent civilians murdered, and children’s lives and sense of safety have been forever destroyed. This is not a mere setback; Friday we saw the face of evil. Even Orwellian newspeak cannot contemplate such emotionless verbiage.

Our President takes no issue calling his political opponents immature racists who are helping ISIS recruit (he did so earlier this evening!), yet he has no moral outrage to show psychopathic terrorists? Meanwhile, his Secretary of State suggests we shouldn’t be so shocked about the Charlie Hebdo shooting from earlier this year as though you make yourself a target merely by engaging in political discourse. That is anathema to the founding principles of this country, and the Western world.

Our President demeans fellow republicans with alarming ease but is incapable of calling out true evil on the world stage. Is he afraid of offending ISIS? There is no rationale for this cowardice. America is the world’s moral beacon, and as such, we have a responsibility, no a duty, to stand with allies and call out evil, yet we paper over a vicious action that has rocked France to its very core. In doing so, Obama is abdicating the moral authority of his office, and undermining our position in the world. We are seeing a stunning, virtually unprecedented, absence of leadership. How can we rally the world against evil when our President is all but unwilling to acknowledge its existence?

Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of Paris are unfathomable and show a moral compass gone haywire. The slaughtering of over 100 civilians is not a setback; that language is disgraceful, particularly when contrasted with the language he uses to demonize republicans. I shudder at a President who shrugs off allied civilian mass murders. We have a responsibility to lead the world, and Obama is throwing away our moral authority, which is particularly astonishing since he went on an apology tour over our supposed sins to restore it.

This is disgusting. Decency and a love for humanity demands anger, pain, and condemnation when discussing Paris or any terrorist attack. Hollande understands this; virtually all civilized people do. Yet, our President is so busy playing politics, he can see it as a mere setback in his strategy. Tell that to the families of the murdered.

President Obama has been disgraceful in the aftermath of these attacks, and I feel ashamed he is our representative to the world.

 

 

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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?

Beware Russians Bearing Gifts

When addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely have a swagger in his step. Thanks to his reassertion of Russian power on the world stage over the Ukrainian crisis, Putin enjoys domestic popularity that Western leaders would salivate over—despite an economy in recession and overly reliant on exporting oil and gas. On top of this, Putin can take additional delight over his ability to reshape the West’s thinking over the Syrian crisis almost overnight by deploying forces to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is now offering assistance in fighting ISIS and supposedly is even willing to fight ISIS single-handedly. However, we must view this offer with deep skepticism. Often, accepting gifts from enemies is a dangerous proposition.

With over 200,000 dead and millions displaced, the Syrian civil war has devolved into arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda, and our failure to do anything substantive merits significant blame for this. Europe prefers to live in blissful decline than carry its weight in the Middle East and now faces refugee inflows unseen since the end of World War II, putting tremendous pressure on its political union. At the same time, the President failed to act when Assad crossed his red line by gassing his own people. Our effort to arm moderate rebels has been a total embarrassment; for $500 million, we have trained “4 or 5” active fighters. Considering our government lacks the competence to even count with confidence to 5, it is no wonder this training program has failed at every level.

Unfortunately, power vacuums inevitably get filled; that is the one time-tested truth of geopolitics. By abdicating our leadership role, we left space that has since been filled by ISIS, leaving us with a civil war where both sides are evil. Fight ISIS and the child-gassing Assad stays in power; fight Assad and watch an apocalyptic terrorist state reign. The moderate rebels have been all but vanquished in the cross-fire. From Syria to Ukraine to the Iran deal, the bumbling of the Obama Administration has consistently left the United States with no-win situations.

Our calls for Assad to go have virtually no credibility given our unwillingness to do anything about it. Assad’s days have supposedly been numbered for years after all. At the same time, our effort to roll back ISIS from the air alone is proving to be ineffectual. Since stopping its advance on Mosul, ISIS has regrouped, solidified its territory, and controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Containing it is simply not a viable long-term strategy, and when the White House resorts to using inaccurate intelligence, you can be sure things are not going swimmingly.

Enter Russia.

Putin needs to keep Assad in power or at least ensure that a pro-Russia government takes power. Russia has a strategically critical naval base in Tartus, providing the Navy with a year round warm water hub and a replenishment base on the Mediterranean Sea. Putin cannot allow a regime that would threaten this base take power. At the same time, having risen to power in part thanks to his aggressive response to Chechen terrorists, Putin does understand the threat Islamic extremism poses to the world and probably sees the need to crush ISIS. As such, he has moved troops, tanks, and aircraft to Syria to assist Assad. With Russian assistance, Assad can stabilize the fight and even take some territory back.

Putin is now reaching out to the President to form a joint task force to fight ISIS and resolve the Syrian Civil War. While Putin may accept Assad gradually leaving power over time, Putin wants Assad at the negotiating table, a prolonged transition, and assurances any new government will be in-keeping with Russia’s strategic interests. Make no mistake, the timing of this military buildup is not coincidental. Putin is looking to gain leverage into the UN General Assembly where he can make a triumphant return to the world stage and show his citizenry the key role he played in solving this crisis. Putin has picked the perfect time to apply pressure and force the West’s hand.

Already, our European allies are ready to sign on. Nations like Austria and France now appear willing to let Assad remain in power for some time—perhaps indefinitely.

We mustn’t strike a deal with Putin so easily as there is a significant cost. Putin sees the U.S. retreating from the world, particularly the Middle East, and he has the ability to turn Russia into the regional power. Now with its lackluster and unproductive economy, Russia can do little to project power outwardly and compete with the US by itself (though its national will and nuclear arsenal keep it from being influenced by the United States). However, Russia with one or two regional powers can form hegemonic alliances that can effectively counter US power.

We have already seen Putin pivot East, ensuring Russia will be China’s primary energy supplier for decades as he tries to ally with a rising global power and project strength in the Pacific Basin. At the same time, with $150 billion in fresh funds, an economy unshackled, and 77 million people, Iran has the potential to be the regional power in the Middle East, usurping Saudi Arabia over time. Of course, this is another nation Putin is hitching his horse to. Iraq has turned to Iran for help fighting ISIS since Obama has all but abandoned the region. Shia Iraq is quickly turning into Iran’s proxy.

Similarly, Assad is merely an Iranian proxy, and a proxy Iran needs to keep funneling Hezbollah weaponry. Assad is the key to Iran maintaining its sphere of influence throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This is the danger of inviting Russian participation in a coalition against ISIS and accepting Assad at the negotiating table. Doing so guarantees a Russian-Iranian axis that extends from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. All the while, Russia makes overtures to Egypt and Turkey, which become all the more compelling as Russian dominance in the region becomes clearer. Even without these two nations, this turn of events would be devastating for the United States, shifting the balance of power away from us in the region and isolating the Gulf States who could turn to nuclear weapons to re-balance—opening the door to an arms race in the most volatile part of the globe.

The case for accepting Putin’s offer today may he compelling in the short-term. 2,000 Russian troops would help in the fight against ISIS, and since we have dithered for so long, there is no viable moderate opposition anymore. This makes our position that Assad must go less tenable—there is no one who can replace him. But to strike a deal with Putin today is to ensure Russian influence in the Middle East only grows over time as the balance shifts towards the Russian-Iranian axis. Plus working with him likely weakens Europe’s resolve to maintain sanctions over Ukraine, which will provide his economy with much needed oxygen.

Are we really prepared to welcome Vladimir Putin back to the world stage as the central dealmaker and risk ceding regional influence to him? A weak-willed Europe unwilling to do anything to actually deal with ISIS and Syria is. The United States should not be. Instead of striking the proverbial deal with the devil, the US should fight to win against ISIS, re-engage with Iraq, deploy 10-15,000 ground troops, roll back ISIS, and pry Iraq back away from Iran. Then with ISIS on the run into Syria, we again have leverage over Putin and can resolve the situation there in a more advantageous fashion. Yes, this strategy is more costly today than Putin’s offer of expedient assistance but it will pay dividends in years to come as Russia remains the outsider looking in at the Middle East.