It's said that the best defense is a good offense. This strategy probably lies behind Hillary Clinton's recent takedown of President Barack Obama's foreign policy. After all, Clinton was a lead architect of that policy as Secretary of State, and the policies that she espoused until recently now lie in shambles.
The most aggressive of her claims, that Obama's unwillingness to give support to the Syrian rebels has led to the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) -- is not true. The US and allies have supported the rebels, though the exact numbers and means are unknown as the operations have been mostly covert. The policy was mistaken from the start: it has contributed to more than 160,000 dead in Syria, and in fact helped to open the way for ISIS to threaten both Syria and Iraq. This failure is both Clinton's and Obama's, and to this day is obscured in a cloud of lies and deceit.
Here is what we know. When the Arab Spring broke out in early 2011, the US foreign policy and intelligence establishment was caught flat-footed, without any warning, anticipation or policy. Our policy in the Middle East was wholly reactive, and the one glimmer of an initiative -- Obama's Cairo Speech in June 2009 -- proved to be empty words without any follow up.
Two anti-government insurrections broke out, one in Libya and the other in Syria. In both cases, Obama and Clinton, together with the UK and France, decided to use these local uprisings as opportunities for "regime change." On the pretext of protecting civilian populations, the US and Europe pushed through a UN Security Council resolution on Libya that was the fig leaf for NATO bombing to destroy the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, something not authorized by the UN resolution. (In his recent NY Times interview, Obama acknowledges that indeed the NATO goal was Gaddaffi's overthrow.)
The result has been unending chaos, both within Libya where warlords now destroy the country, and beyond Libya, as weaponry and paramilitaries from Libya stoke wars throughout Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, both China and Russia, which had abstained on the Security Council vote, decided that they had been duped by the US and Europe, having warned accurately at the time that NATO's real purpose was to bring down Gaddaffi.
The Syrian situation is even more absurd and tragic. On March 27, 2011, on Face the Nation, our then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised Bashar al-Assad: "There's a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer."
By the summer of 2011, however, the US and Europe, at the urging of local allies (most notably Saudi Arabia), decided that they would indeed aim to oust the Syrian regime. In August 2011, Obama declared publicly that Assad must go. What began with sanctions in 2011 turned to US and allied direct support for an army of Syrian rebels, the so-called Free Syrian Army, by 2012.
The facts are necessarily murky at this time since US operations have never been explained to the US public, and the scandalously supine US Congress hasn't shown the slightest curiosity either. Yet we do know that as of the fall of 2011, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey were already giving the Syrian rebels support of various kinds (sanctuary in Turkey and financing from Saudi Arabia), and that by early 2012 the US began to orchestrate a scale up of aid, logistical support, and arms flows to the rebels, through the so-called "Friends of Syria," meaning external supporters of the Syrian rebellion.
According to Reuters reports in August 2012, earlier that year Obama had signed an intelligence finding that permitted the CIA and other US agencies to provide support to oust Assad. In December 2012 the Sunday Times of London reported that the US began to send heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels, including mortars, anti-tank missiles, and anti-aircraft heat-seeking missiles (SA-7s). Overall, the US pledged at least $250 million to the rebellion during 2012 and 2013, though the true content of that aid is certainly unknown.
What is the result of all of this? In Syria, sheer destruction and mayhem, that now jeopardizes Iraq as well. The US efforts under Obama, Clinton, and Kerry, and those of Syria's neighboring countries, have been sufficient to ratchet up the Syrian violence, destruction and deaths but not to overthrow Assad; a predictable outcome given Assad's own forces and his backing by Iran and Russia. The result to date is 160,000 dead, mass destruction of irreparable parts of Syria's, and hence the world's, cultural heritage, around 3 million refugees, and even more internally displaced people.
Yet by weakening Assad, the entire US-stoked effort opened up the space for ISIS to claim large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq. This advance of ISIS is not a mere "side effect" of the Syrian War, but a highly predictable blowback that the US has incurred nearly every time it has engaged in violence-led regime change. Now ISIS is actually using US heavy weapons that it captured from Iraq's retreating army, weapons that had been supplied to Iraq by the US government after the 2003 US-led regime change that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Hillary may want to walk away from this mess, but she can't. The flames engulfing Tripoli, Gaza, Aleppo, and Mosul are the fruits of a US foreign policy without insight, creativity, morality, or respect for international law. Of course, the US is not the only failure in this story; there is failure galore among almost all participants. Yet with all of the urgent issues the world faces -- fighting diseases, climate change, extreme poverty, high unemployment, widespread illiteracy -- our political leaders have doubled down on war, including Clinton's new tough talk. Yet most of us are utterly tired of the mindless call for more war that is leading the world deeper to despair.
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