We face many foreign policy challenges today, as even a passing look at the news flow makes quickly apparent. One almost gets the sense that every place our recent policy decisions have “touched” is now blowing up (excuse the descriptive phrasing). None of the latest developments is more troubling than the growth and consolidation of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now calls itself just “The Islamic State.” Needless to say that holding the mantle of our greatest foreign policy challenge in today’s environment is an accomplishment on its own.
If I had to guess the pulse of the American public regarding the establishment of ISIS, I would imagine most Americans asking themselves, “how did we let this happen?” For some, this would be a rhetorical question, asked in exasperation following years of Iraq angst. For others, it would constitute an angry demand for answers – for explanations and for attributions of culpability.
Personally, it angers me when politicians try to politicize tough foreign policy choices. For example, it has become a consistent mantra for Republicans to call on President Obama to show leadership on Ukraine; otherwise, the “great strategic mind” of Vladimir Putin will keep front-running the rest of the world, and President Obama will keep on “leading from behind.” I do not consider that criticism fair at all, especially as President Obama has already been doing exactly what Republicans are demanding from him: condemning the Russian Federation and imposing sanctions. I also think those critics give far too much credit to President Putin’s supposed grand strategy. I consider it just as likely that the Russian President is reacting himself to situations on the ground – he just may be more abrasive or brash than we would ever accept in our own president.
But back to ISIS: how did we let that happen? Obviously, a large part of this situation originates from the Bush Administration’s decision – and the subsequent bipartisan congressional approval – to topple Saddam Hussein. Clearly, creating a power vacuum in a massive country with artificial borders and pent-up ethnic tensions at the heart of the Middle East would not come without consequences. So, the gross underestimation of the “nation building” that was ultimately required was a major policy error with long-term effects, including, of course, ISIS.
Recall that the neocons despised nation building; so, when I heard former Vice President Dick Cheney place all blame for the current Iraq situation on President Obama, I thought for a second I was listening to a joke! Everyone is in the business of redefining their legacy, but they should really be focusing on articulating the truth, if not to the public, then to the families that have suffered.
President Obama does bear some blame, however. In particular, he missed an opportunity that could have redefined this region, an opportunity that did present itself solely during his term as President. It was late 2012 and early 2013 when President Assad’s government in Syria was at its heels. The United States could have equipped the local, moderate opposition, and could have achieved a desirable result (including the prevention of thousands of civilian deaths). Instead, the analysis paralysis gave the Syrian President breathing room to rebuild his government, to protract the Syrian conflict, and, ultimately, to provide the physical and normative space for ISIS to grow roots. In the process, the Obama Administration underwent a humiliating exercise of accusing President Assad of genocide (following the chemical attack in the summer of 2013), preparing to intervene unilaterally, but then, at the last minute, switching toward seeking Congressional approval, only to see President Putin take Secretary Kerry at his word when the latter casually raised the remote possibility of Syria voluntarily discarding its chemical weapons. You get the point.
So here we are, finding ourselves with President Obama asking Congress for half a billion dollars to equip the Syrian rebels. He has also just started limited airstrikes against ISIS to protect Americans working in the region. The general explanation offered to justify the limited, reticent approach to this growing danger is that, if Iraqis don’t have it in them to find a political solution for their differences, then the United States should certainly not be expending any more resources of its own. Maybe it is best not to initiate an outright fight against ISIS and cause a direct confrontation. That said, the reticent approach has only brought about unintended consequences so far, and we all know the United States has deeply-engrained interests in the region. These are not easy choices to make, and, if we want to make them wisely, then we better start respecting each other at home.