WASHINGTON — President Obama came into office in 2009 telling the American people he would end the wars against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Six years later, facing a broader and more lethal terrorist threat, he is now telling us why we need to go to war again.
To say Obama can’t seem to make up his mind in the war on terror (a designation his administration stopped using the day he entered the Oval Office) is putting it mildly.
If anything, his naive plan of withdrawal and retreat, and the way it was carried out in the face of a growing terrorist menace, was the height of irresponsibility. Obama created a geopolitical vacuum into which a new and more deadly form of terrorism has spread like a cancer throughout the region and into North Africa and beyond.
A few weeks ago, he flatly told the American people he had no strategy to deal with the rise of the Islamic State’s armies that have rampaged, unimpeded, across Syria and Iraq, and were believed to be plotting to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies.
This week, he went on nationwide television to tell us he now has a strategy to degrade and destroy the terrorist killers known as ISIS in both Iraq and in Syria, where only a few days before he was unwilling to go.
He said this new offensive would be entirely done with airstrikes and there would be no “boots on the ground.” But 1,043 military personnel remain in Iraq, and Obama said he will be sending 475 more Americans. Presumably, all of them will be ground forces.
He had prematurely and thoughtlessly declared an end to the Iraq war three years ago, as he was withdrawing the last of our combat forces there. Obviously, the war was not over, or at least the terrorists didn’t think so.
If you have doubts that a well-thought-out strategy can be developed in so short a time, you’re in good company. It smacked of a slapdash, hastily put together response in the midst of his precipitous decline in the polls — especially about the job he was doing as commander in chief.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 47 percent of Americans now feel the country is less safe than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Just 32 percent of Americans said they approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, his lowest rating since his presidency began in 2009.
If that’s not bad enough for the politically besieged White House, the Gallup Poll delivered worse news this week. A new poll showed that the Republicans are now seen as the “better party” to handle the war against terrorism.
So Obama made a sudden, frantic, about-face decision to step up the war on terrorism, knowing both he and his party had lost the confidence of the American people, who now doubt he is capable of keeping us safe.
Indeed, it should be clear by now that Obama had sold them a bill of goods.
Throughout the course of his 2012 re-election campaign, he repeatedly told us the terrorist threat had ended under his leadership, that al-Qaida’s high command had been decimated and that their forces were “on the run.”
Now we know such claims were utterly false, and U.S. intelligence knew they were false. Al-Qaida, in fact, was producing spin-off cells that had metastasized into a much larger, deadlier, well-funded and better-trained terrorist threat.
But Obama and his campaign were selling a different reality to his political base and his apologists in the news media. And they bought it hook, line and sinker.
Here’s a sampling of what he was peddling on May 1, 2012, in an address from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan:
“My fellow Americans, we’ve traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq war is over. … We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al-Qaida.”
But that’s not anywhere near the perilous situation we face today — not even close. The Islamic State’s armies have seized significant territory in Iraq, taken control of key oil facilities and pushed closer to Baghdad.
They occupy vast stretches of Syria, free at this point from any fear of attacks from U.S. fighter planes or drones. The Taliban remains a force to be reckoned with as it continues its assault on government forces in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida operatives are there, too, playing a waiting game since most U.S. forces will leave in 2015.
Terrorist forces are at work elsewhere across the Middle East, with Lebanon and Jordan among their next targets, and have spread elsewhere in Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
But can a U.S. air war alone effectively degrade and, in the final analysis, defeat the terrorists in Iraq and Syria?
U.S. commanders say that will prove to be a huge, and in many ways, almost impossible challenge. Especially without a major ground-level operation to locate enemy encampments and guide airstrikes to their targets.
It will be hardest in Syria, where we face this conundrum: Killing Islamic State terrorists and al-Qaida will strengthen Bashar Assad’s war on moderate insurgents seeking to overthrow his brutal dictatorship.
“This is the most complex problem we’ve faced since 9/11. We don’t have a precedent for this,” a U.S. general told The Washington Post.
Yet another disturbing question hangs over Obama’s long-delayed decision to aggressively deal with the Islamic State’s nearly yearlong, multiple-state offensive.
These terrorists are dug in among civilian populations, which raises serious collateral damage problems for U.S. airstrikes, in which large numbers of innocent civilians could be killed and wounded.
Obama may find that making speeches is the easy part of being commander in chief. Plotting an effective and successful military strategy is another matter entirely. Especially a politically driven strategy as hastily taped together as this one appears to be.