How Obama Lost the Middle East

The president put politics and ideology ahead of preserving hard-won gains in the region. 

by Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online

In his first term, Barack Obama all but declared victory in America’s Middle East struggles.

As he precipitously pulled out all U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq, the president had his own “Mission Accomplished” moment when declaring the country “stable,” “self-reliant,” and an “extraordinary achievement.”

Those claims echoed Vice President Joe Biden’s earlier boast that Iraq somehow would prove Obama’s “greatest achievement.”

After the death of Osama bin Laden, and during Obama’s reelection campaign, the president also proclaimed that al-Qaeda was a spent force and “on the run.”

But what exactly was the new Obama strategy that supposedly had all but achieved a victory in the larger War on Terror amid Middle East hostility?

Fuzzy euphemisms replaced supposedly hurtful terms such as “terrorism,” “jihadist,” and “Islamist.” The administration gave well-meaning speeches exaggerating Islamic achievement while citing past American culpability.

We tilted toward Turkey and the Palestinians while sternly lecturing Israel. Military victory was caricatured as an obsolete concept. Leading from behind was a clever substitute.

Middle Easterners gathered that a bruised America would limp away from the region and pivot its forces elsewhere, saving billions of dollars to be better spent at home. The new soft-power rhetorical approach sought to win over the hearts and minds of the Arab Street, and thereby deny terrorists popular support.

To grade that policy, survey the current Middle East, or what is left of it: Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, Libya, Syria, and Turkey. It is fair to say that America has somehow managed to alienate friends, embolden enemies, and multiply radical Islamic terrorists.

So what happened?

In short, the Obama administration put politics and ideology ahead of a disinterested and nonpartisan examination of the actual status of the 2009 Middle East.

The more Obama campaigned in 2008 on a failed war in Iraq, a neglected war in Afghanistan, an ill-considered War on Terror, and an alienated Middle East, the more those talking points were outdated and eclipsed by fast-moving events on the ground. By Inauguration Day in January 2009, the hard-power surge had largely defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. It had won over many of the Sunnis and had led to a U.S.-enforced coalition government, monitored by American troops.

But there remained one caveat: What had been won on the ground could be just as easily lost if the U.S. did not leave behind peacekeepers in the manner that it had in all its past successful interventions: the Balkans, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Likewise, the once-derided “War on Terror” measures — Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, military tribunals, preventative detentions, renditions, and drones — by 2009 had largely worked. Since 9/11, America had foiled dozens of terrorist plots against our homeland and neutralized terrorists abroad, killing tens of thousands in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama for a while privately accepted that truth and thereby continued many of the very protocols that he had once derided.

But there was again one problem. Obama kept posturing to the world that he would close Guantanamo and substitute civilian trials for military tribunals. He continued to say that he did not enjoy using renditions or drones — even as he upped the latter’s deadly missions tenfold.

The results were contradictory messages that encouraged radical Islamists. The conclusion radical Islamists drew was that even the Obama administration had admitted its anti-terrorism protocols were either morally questionable or ineffective.

Blaming a video maker instead of immediately taking out the known jihadists who had murdered Americans in Benghazi only reinforced that mixed message. So did exchanging five terrorist kingpins in Guantanamo for an alleged American military deserter in Afghanistan.

A series of empty Middle East red lines, deadlines, and withdrawal dates likewise reinforced the idea of American abdication.

We warned Syria of air strikes and then backed down. We surged in Afghanistan only to simultaneously announce a withdrawal date for our troops. We issued Iran lots of deadlines to stop enriching uranium, only to forget them and end sanctions in hope of negotiations.

As was the case with Russia, at first there were few consequences to such reset diplomacy and promises of easy victory. Al-Qaeda had been nearly wiped out in Anbar province in 2007–08 and was still regrouping. Iran had been crippled by sanctions and was wary of U.S. intentions. Terrorists did not wish to end up at Guantanamo or in a military tribunal.

But newly emboldened terrorists gambled that the old deterrence was stale and now existed mostly as Obama’s reset rhetoric. They gambled that it was a great time to go on the offensive. They may have been right.

Once more in the Middle East, Barack Obama is looking to blame others for a mess that has grown since 2009. But mostly he just wants out of the lose-lose region at any cost and wishes that someone would just make all the bad things go away.

© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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11 Thoughts on “How Obama Lost the Middle East

  1. Pete Selda on July 3, 2014 at 9:35 am said:

    From my perspective, President Obama entered office with a naive world view, then he compounded the issues by believing he could influence radicals from a position of understanding and forgiveness. We often elect our leaders because we like their personalities versus experience. President Reagan was effective because he came to understanding people and issues via experience. Political theory often misses the messages of reality.

    • trashcup on July 18, 2014 at 6:32 pm said:

      It’s always amazing to look back and re-write what happened. Bush/Cheney got us involved that was going to last less than one year, where we would be greeted as liberators and that would be paid for from the oil in Iraq. Bush declared victory on an aircraft carrier off the Los Angeles coastline, they even had to turn the damn boat around so you couldn’t see the shoreline.

      Meanwhile the Mid East has been in turmoil for thousands of years – all over religion and guess what? it continues to be in turmoil and will be that way no matter if we sent 100,000 or 500,000 or 1,000,000 troops in there. The minute they have a chance to continue to fight for power, they fight.

      Nothing’s changed after Bush/Cheney bombed the hell out of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s, and Bush himself said we’ll leave it to the next guy to figure out how to get out of there. Bush made the timetable agreement. Obama is the smart one to get us out of there finally.

  2. Alex Hetes on July 3, 2014 at 9:53 am said:

    I always look forward to getting an email alert that you’ve written another piece. Keep up the great work!

  3. Jim Stead on July 3, 2014 at 3:05 pm said:

    It’s true; that is his biggest achievement. Or at least the equal of any other.

  4. libra on July 3, 2014 at 3:45 pm said:

    obama has gutted the military and given the muslims the funds that once were spent on space exploration. he has filled the whitehouse with questionable muslim characters–most of whom cou,ld not pass a security clearance as obama could not either. he celebrates ramadan, and holds religious feasts in the in the whitehouse to uphold his islamic traditilons. he wears a shahada ring on the 4th finger –left hand. he spoke recently at some dinner bash of the w.h. chef’ ‘s pies—.. they were so good obama said he thinks billy puts crack in them.. what a juvenile stupid remark from our top gun. how much longer must we suffer this fool–who would much rather be on the golcourse. at fundraisers or just flying around on airforce one.?

  5. John on July 3, 2014 at 9:44 pm said:

    Er… I’d say the failure in Iraq started long before Obama took office. It started with Grampa Bush’s handling of that conflict. And radical Islam… the U.S. support of rebels in Afghanistan.

    So yeah. Republicans. They basically started this whole mess. It’s odd that for a guy who can’t seem to open his mouth without mentioning ancient history, you fail to grasp the consequences of recent history.

    • Richard on July 8, 2014 at 8:06 am said:

      So, yeah- Republicans. Like George W. Bush who successfully defended our country after the 9/11 attacks, took out the Taliban, made Osama run and hide and not be able to do all the ‘good work’ he did in the 1990’s, removed Saddam Hussein like he should have been if we did not have to rely on the UN instead of American ‘Democrat’ senators, and made the hard decisions to give Iraq a chance to not be a cesspool of civil war.

      Er…I’d say ‘radical Islam’…take a look at Jimmy Carter, my friend.

  6. At its core, Western Enlightenment is something like a perpetual-motion self-interest correction machine. Progressivism is a very worthy enemy of this machine. Progressivism is at enmity with the Western civic pledge of mutual allegiance to self-restraint while concurrently checking non-angel leaders (who might mesmerize like a god) for their unsurprising bedevilment schemes, with humane systems to stop all such egomaniacal bedevilment aided powers of mystic tyranny.

    Obama, who cannot admit error, who therefore believes if he is not an angel, the “towering genius” of the Progressive agenda… is at the very minimum, an angelic sword with which to bash unenlightened peons, believes he has broken Western Enlightenments machine of exception. Except he hasn’t. He and his cause will lose, it will just take time to re-learn old lessons that mystic-tyranny slavery really sucks.

    But while the world is afire, Obama is the caped-marvel-wonder who slayed the dragon Western Enlightenment. THAT is the most important thing, he thinks, and everyone should ignore the smoke in their nostrils as it is but a small price to pay for killing the “oppressive” freedom and liberty of Western Ways.

    Though the world burns, Obama, in his mind, knows we should all be thankful! He can’t understand why we are not of his worldview. Any worldview not enslaved unto the unquestionable Progressive decline worldview, he knows must be squashed like a bug.

    The media is mesmerized by the Progressive decline-via-hidden-slavery worldview also. They believe, like Obama and the Zombie Democrats, any worldview not enslaved unto Progressive decline must also be squashed like a bug.

    How can Obama really care about the Middle East, or any other region, or even the US with its un-borders, when the important thing is ONE worldview of mystic-tyranny Progressivism? Why, oh why can’t the world appreciate, he thinks, what he’s doing with his under-loved Borg-Hive, Hail Hydra, whadda-LIFE!-Progressive worldview?

  7. JHoover on July 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm said:

    The results were contradictory messages that encouraged radical Islamists.
    YES, its very obvious Victor

    Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, John McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in January 2014. Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends, the senator said once again a month later, at the Munich Security Conference.

  8. Clive Grafton on July 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm said:

    I just completed reading Savior Generals. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on General Ridgeway. I was in Korea at that time, an intelligence analyst with the USAF. His arrival and subsequent actions were a never to be forgotten lesson in leadership.

    I did note an important error of fact. On page 159 you make reference to General Edward (“Ned”) Almond as “Marine General Almond as head of Tenth Corps.” General Almond was an Army commander. The Marine Division was commanded by General O.P. Smith. The two did not get along. Smith was highly critical of the advance north, before polishing off the NK troops trapped in the south. The failure of that decision resulted in the escape of a significant part of the NK army. MacArthur pushed for Seoul, rather than “close the bag.”

    It was obvious to many of us that MacArthur’s intelligence estimates were erroneous. Cherry-picking intelligence is a quick way to disaster.

  9. At its core, Western Enlightenment is something like a perpetual-motion self-interest correction machine. Progressivism is a very worthy enemy of this machine. Progressivism is at enmity with the Western civic pledge of mutual allegiance to self-restraint. The Western Way is also concurrently checking its non-angel leaders (who might mesmerize like a god) for their unsurprising, “towering genius,” bedevilment schemes, with humane systems to stop all such egomaniacal-bedevilment-aided powers of mystic tyranny. (On the other hand, Progressivism news headlines say its rabid, predictable, decline-making worldview hard results are, oops, “unexpected,” always so “unexpected!”)

    Obama, who cannot admit error, who therefore believes if he is not an angel, the “towering genius” of the Progressive agenda… is at the very minimum, an angelic sword with which to bash unenlightened peons, believes he has broken Western Enlightenments machine of exception. Except he hasn’t. He and his cause will lose, it will just take time to re-learn old lessons that mystic-tyranny slavery really sucks.

    But while the world is afire, Obama is the caped-marvel-wonder who slayed the dragon Western Enlightenment. THAT is the most important thing, he thinks, and everyone should ignore the smoke in their nostrils as it is but a small price to pay for killing the “oppressive” freedom and liberty of Western Ways.

    Though the world burns, Obama, in his mind, knows we should all be thankful! He can’t understand why we are not of his worldview. Any worldview not enslaved unto the unquestionable Progressive decline worldview, he knows must be squashed like a bug.

    The media is mesmerized by the Progressive decline-via-hidden-slavery worldview also. They believe, like Obama and the Zombie Democrats, any worldview not enslaved unto Progressive decline must also be squashed like a bug.

    How can Obama really care about the Middle East, or any other region, or a Western (Mother Gaia-God Forbid!) NATO ally, especially Western-Loving-Throwback-Troglodyte-Israelis, or even the US citizens with the (Obama) un-borders, when the important thing is ONE worldview of mystic-tyranny Progressivism? Why, oh why can’t the world appreciate, he thinks, what he’s doing with his under-loved Borg-Hive, Hail Hydra, whadda-LIFE!-Progressive worldview?

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