08/14/2014 07:20 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

Isis Crisis: Obama's Flawed Strategy, Hillary's Farfetched Excuse


Well, isn't that reassuring? President Barack Obama and his famous former secretary of state, once and probably future presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, made nice Wednesday night at a chi chi Martha's Vineyard party and seemingly put an end to their blame game over responsibility for the alarming rise of Isis and the shattering of the colonial construct we call "Iraq."

In an expansive interview with The Atlantic, during much of which she seemed to channel the spirit of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the former first lady -- who did not negotiate a residual force agreement after the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq -- blamed her recent boss for the rise of the Al Qaeda offshoot which has captured vast swathes of Iraq and Syria in becoming the richest terrorist organization in the world. How so? Her argument is that Obama failed to jump into the middle of the Syrian civil war.

Because there's nothing the American people want more than part of another war in the Middle East...

Putting aside that obvious problem with Hillary's reasoning, there's another deep problem with her argument that intervening on the side of moderate opponents of Syria's Assad regime would have blocked Isis. It's non-serious.

Once the Arab Awakening protests against Assad turned into armed revolt and civil war, real moderates weren't easy to find in the uphill fight against an effective dictatorship. And even with big backing and advice from the US, taking out a regime backed to the hilt by Russia and Iran was probably never in the cards. Not without a lot of US troops on the ground. And that just might have triggered a world war, because it was clear that neither Moscow nor Tehran was backing away from one of its oldest allies.

Reacting to this part of Hillary's interview, Obama is said to have described her Syrian intervention scenario for preventing the rise of Isis as "horseshit." Which would be fine had he not nearly careened into the Syrian civil war himself last year before accepting a lifeline from Vladimir Putin in the form of disposal of the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

Obama, of course, has one great fundamental advantage over Hillary in any blame game over the rise of Isis. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and she was for it. The ensuing chaos flows from that boneheaded decision point.

But Obama's strategy in dealing with the rise of Isis is flawed. Either because he's resisting being the president on whose watch the 1916 colonial construct that is "Iraq" finally divides into three natural ethnic pieces or because he actually still buys into nation-building.

Obama did his own interview, with the New York Times. Prior to it, Obama administration sources blamed intelligence failure for their supposedly being surprised by Isis feats, the latest of which -- the capture of Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest -- immediately preceded the new US intervention. An unintentionally amusing thought, given the vast global surveillance/electronic intelligence apparatus created under Obama. But Isis advances along the region's great rivers have been no secret. I wrote about it over six weeks ago. A national security apparatus that failed to monitor the Isis advance needs a major overhaul.

So Obama trotted out another rationale for not moving earlier on the Isis threat. Slapping down Isis with air strikes would have undermined the diplomatic effort to ease out the long troubling Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Maliki's Shia-centric party finished first in the April 30 elections. He has been working at staving off challenges to his position ever since. Now Maliki may be in the process of being pushed aside, with the agreement of Iran's man on the scene, Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani. So what we call "Iraq" may be on the verge of getting another pro-Iranian prime minister untainted by a history of oppressing Sunnis and Kurds.

That's one way to use three and a half months. Another way, the Isis way, is to expand and consolidate its territories, wealth, and power. So much so, in fact, that it has become a threat of sorts to the only remaining part of "Iraq" that is pro-American, Kurdistan. Which intends to become independent of Iraq anyway.

Since beginning by taking out a few mortars lobbing shells in the direction of Kurdish capital Erbil, Obama has upped the operational tempo some. But Isis has gained tremendously in the past few months while Obama played his political waiting game. And air strikes are best at preventing bad facts on the ground, not reversing them.

Now Obama has to begin realistic definition to a military campaign for which there is not much support in the US, against a foe that will be very difficult to dislodge, much less defeat.

The horse is out of the barn. For Obama, it's a matter of keeping things from getting worse.

William Bradley Archive