Obama may or may not be making the correct decision in attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — the well-armed Islamist terrorist group now attempting a horrifying takeover of Iraq — and so it would have been proper for Obama to raise the question for debate in the past few months while ISIS spread across Iraq. Also, the legality of attacking without congressional authorization is murky.
Finally, it’s hard to discern the objective of this attack: Will we bomb until ISIS is eliminated? Or does ISIS simply need to be contained? Are we simply protecting Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq? What if American intervention becomes a rallying cry for other terrorist groups in the region? Will we bomb them, too?
In this fog of war, it’s hard to see clearly. But the territory looks upsettingly familiar.
Obama said we needed to attack to prevent a genocide by ISIS. “When we have the unique capabilities to avert a massacre,” he said Thursday night, “the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”
This is a familiar line to anyone who has followed the liberal interventionist strain of thought articulated by Obama and President Bill Clinton, and championed by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Obama’s words Thursday echoed his justification for attacking Libya:
“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” Obama said in 2011, warning that Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi would exterminate the rebels in his country and their sympathizers. “The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the Images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Attacking Libya, it seems clear today, was a mistake. Deposing Gadhafi rid that country of a murderous tyrant, but every species of terrorist and extremist has slithered into the vacuum left behind. “Scumbag Woodstock” is how one counterterrorism contractor in Africa described Libya to Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake.
Four Americans died in an attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. This summer, the United States was forced to evacuate 80 Marines and 78 other Americans from the country, which is rapidly descending into bloody chaos.
Obama’s problem in Libya was that he wanted to walk a middle ground. He wanted to take out Gadhafi while somehow avoiding a full-fledged war. Before going to war in Libya, Obama said he asked himself, “How can I cabin our commitment in a way that is useful?”
So we eliminated the Libyan devil we knew — Gadhafi — and walked away while other devils possessed the poor country.
Now Obama wants another drive-by war, this time against ISIS in Iraq. “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” the president said as the bombing began.
Sometimes small wars are possible. Typically they are not. What if ISIS shoots down a U.S. pilot? What if a few ISIS commandos break away and penetrate into Kurdistan? What if local Iraqis take up arms against ISIS — will we support them on the ground?
And of course, removing one evil in the Arab world often opens the door for another evil — as we’ve learned from both the Arab Spring revolutions and the U.S.-led regime changes in Libya and Iraq.
The rise of ISIS seems to be a consequence of George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Once again, the United States turned the domain of a brutal tyrant into the bloody playground of Islamist terrorists. If Obama’s attack on ISIS is a war of necessity, it was brought about by Bush’s war of choice.
But to Bush’s credit, he acted not merely as a commander in chief, but as a leader. Bush spent months making the case for war in Iraq. He didn’t convince everyone, but he convinced most of Congress (including both of Obama’s secretaries of state, Obama’s defense secretary and Obama’s vice president).
Obama never made the public case for intervening in Libya and Iraq. He never tried to convince the country before taking it to war.
Obama says his attack in Iraq is not war. He wants some sort of half-war. He talks as if this is some reasonable middle ground. Instead, it may be the weak posture of a man who lacks conviction.