"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." -- W.B. Yeats
The worst way to follow the disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush's era may be with a disaffected administration that seems to be uninterested in forming a coherent and strong U.S. outlook on the world. This is bad timing as the stakes couldn't be higher. The destruction by Daesh (the so-called "Islamic State") of countless ancient artifacts and monuments in the Mosul Museum took me back to June 2014 when the city fell to Daesh militants. The fall of Mosul, a city of well over a million, was met with a muted response from the Obama administration. The destruction of the museum is just one of the latest episodes that displays Daesh's assault on the common heritage of humanity and their wanton disregard for civilization and human decency.
Just a couple of years after the Obama administration fiddled with misguided ideas about a "Pivot to Asia", the world has watched in horror as the medieval force of Daesh has grown from a terrorist offshoot of Al-Qaeda into something resembling an organized army in control of large cities in Iraq and Syria. In fact, Mosul fell to Daesh about a month after Obama declared Al-Qaeda to be weakened in their presence on the Pakistan-Afghan border. This was promptly followed by a deadly Taliban attack on Karachi's main airport, a city of almost 10 million and, as we've seen in the last several months, many more attacks including the tragic attack that killed 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar. In recent months the world has become numb to Taliban attacks on children, abductions of young girls by Boko Haram and routine acts of barbarism by Daesh including beheadings and burning people alive. Far from being decimated, Al-Qaeda and its offshoots and associates seem to be stronger and more present than ever.
In September 2014, John Kerry declared that the United States was "not at war" with ISIL. Daesh (ISIL) seems to disagree. The group has been on a murdering spree that has taken the lives of countless Arabs, Europeans, Australians, Asians and Americans. This is a World War, as King Abdullah of Jordan has wisely said. There is obviously no diplomatic solution to dealing with Daesh and airstrikes, while helpful, are not going to solve the problem given that the group has taken over large cities such as Mosul. Obama is in command of the largest military force that humanity has ever seen. Instead of meeting the most barbaric terrorist group in recent memory with decisive military force, he has pursued a foreign policy that has raised doubts in the minds of the United States' strongest allies of its commitment to fulfilling its role on the global stage. The U.S. must think, and act, (as my friend David Ignatius recently said) like the superpower that it is.
Today the "pivot" seems like a bad memory but it's worth discussing for what it reveals about this administration's approach to the world. The Obama administration's attempt to "shift the emphasis" of U.S. foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region was not only misguided; it is counterproductive. It came in the wake of an increasingly present and confident China and was widely seen as a way to engage emerging Chinese power (read "the threat of emerging Chinese power"). But China's overconfident bluster on the international scene is not the result of increasing Chinese confidence. China understands as well as anyone the extent of their military and economic inferiority when compared to the United States. The triumphalism of the Chinese government stems from a desire to mask a deep insecurity based on decades of financial and social unrest while simultaneously appealing to the increasing nationalism of the Chinese public. The Chinese government's strategy was simply a way to hide their failings and maximize their popular legitimacy. The "pivot" was, in large part, the result of the Obama administration misreading the Chinese government. On top of everything, the "pivot" has proven counterproductive partially because it lead to an increased perception on the part of the Chinese government that the motivation behind it is a U.S. attempt to contain their economic and military growth. Above all this, U.S. foreign policy must be based on a holistic, global outlook that responds to threats and maximizes opportunities wherever these threats or opportunities might emerge in the world.
The "Pivot to Asia" might represent the Obama administration's inability or unwillingness to deal with the most challenging and intractable foreign policy issues of our time, but it is also true that the administration has, correctly, registered a lack of appetite on the part of the American people for intervention in the Middle East and Europe. But government, even democratic government, cannot be turned into a popularity contest. U.S. foreign policy must have its foundations in protecting U.S. interests globally and the interests of its allies. American allies in the Arab Gulf states have been warning the United States and the world about the dual problem of Daesh and Syria's Assad for some years now. Even regional powerhouses (most notably Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.) that are famously private about their exercise of military and diplomatic power have been rather open about their taking the fight to Daesh and other extreme Islamist groups. Of all the U.S. allies, however, Jordan is perhaps the most pressed. They have been feeling the pinch of an unprecedented outpouring of refugees from Syria and the presence of Iraq and Syria tearing apart not far from their borders with Jordan. And Jordan is not a rich country. It is in need of both short-term military assistance to combat Daesh and long-term aid to help it deal with the physical and ideological ramifications of one of the most dire refugee crises in recent history. Neither Jordan nor the Middle East, nor the world, can live with a de-facto terrorist state at the crossroads of the planet.
This is a time for increased alliances; for old and strong friendships between the United States and its allies in the Arab World and Europe to be strengthened even further. Even a perceived withdrawal of interest in Europe will inspire confidence in the likes of Vladimir Putin. Any perception that the partnership between the U.S. and its Arab allies has become reticent or weak will simply embolden the terrorists that both sides seek to contain and destroy. After all, if a "red line" is shown to be meaningless then we can be sure that butchers like Assad and terrorists like Daesh will do everything in their power to cross every red line that they can.
In a Wall Street Journal article penned in June 2014 during the week that Mosul fell to Al-Qaeda terrorists, Daniel Henninger proclaimed that:
Barack Obama is fiddling while the world burns. Iraq, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria. These foreign wildfires, with more surely to come, will burn unabated for two years until the United States has a new president. The one we've got can barely notice or doesn't care.
It is now March of 2015. Mosul is still under the control of Al-Qaeda terrorists. The Iraqi government is involved in an attempt to take the city back, but not before Daesh could assault some of the most vital symbols of civilization at the Mosul Museum; not before Daesh could destroy thousands of years worth of manuscripts that bear the fingerprint of all humanity at the Mosul Library; not before the ancient Arab Christian and minority natives of Mosul could be terrorized, displaced, tortured and killed; not before Daesh could take the city back to the stone age and destroy countless lives in the process.
Mosul could have been saved months ago, indeed it needn't have fallen in the first place, if Daesh had been stopped when it was still a relatively small but dangerous regional terrorist group and not yet the organized army in control of large metropolitan areas that we see today. Instead Obama dismissed them as a minor league force immediately after they took over Fallujah in January of 2014. By the summer of 2014 their armies had taken cities like Mosul and Tikrit and even made their presence known at the Jordanian and Turkish borders and the gates of Baghdad itself. It is March 2015 and there is finally a glimmer of hope in that the Obama administration seems to be working more actively than before to combat Daesh. Not the least result of Obama's efforts is a broad coalition that includes more reticent Arab and Muslim states taking a strong stand. But after a very, very late wake up to the true extent of the danger we can only hope for continually stronger actions to abate the flames. If these fires of world war are not extinguished the next administration and, indeed, the next generation will be vexed with a global nightmare of unfathomable proportions.
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