Extremists Love a Vacuum

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

If there is an epitaph written about the Obama foreign policy legacy, it would highlight the word vacuum. The latest transformation of the Obama Doctrine should be entitled the Grand Retreat – not quite a rout, but not quite a strategic withdrawal either. It is almost exhausting making a list of every location that America has either left or never bothered with. However, one can focus on the single issue of Islamic extremism to illustrate this disaster.

The stage for this was set by the last two-term Democratic administration under President Bill Clinton. In an effort to avoid the large footprint of traditional American foreign policy, the Clinton team dithered over Bosnia, then Kosovo. In desperation, groups in both places took aid from radical Islamists, who gained battle experience fighting the Serbs and are now reappearing in places like Syria and Iraq. In the former Yugoslavia, they were sometimes referred to as El Mudzahid. These Islamic extremist fighters fought on the Bosnian and Kosovar side, partially due to America coming late to the game to assist against the imperial ambitions of Serbia, a historically Russian client. The presence of Islamic extremism in the former Yugoslavia proved so horrible that Ambassador Richard Holbrooke would ultimately demand the fighters’ ouster as part of the Dayton Accords.

The Obama mentality was illustrated in Libya, where American halfhearted intervention assisted in justifiably removing dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but lack of further involvement allowed parts of the country to fall under the sway of the Islamic State group. Naturally, the worst example is in Iraq and Syria, where initial timidity followed by a rump policy of limited intervention with farcical rules of engagement led to the assembling and metastasizing of the Islamic State group, whose current grip is expanding worldwide. This vacuum has now been fully repeated in Yemen, and elements of it are in play in Egypt. America is absent from the field, and the enemy has exploited it fully.

The newest wrinkle to this vacuum policy is in the Ukraine. We are witnessing the deployment of Chechen fighters against the Russians. Ukrainian sources indicated their presence near the city of Mariupol. This might seem merely disturbing from a general perspective, as it illustrates both the chaos and desperation of the Ukrainian government. It is made a bit more salient due to the Boston Marathon bombing enacted by Chechen jihadists.

However, a more poignant issue is whether or not the Chechens in the Ukraine have any link to Islamic extremism abroad. The evidence is sparse, but Occam’s razor would indicate the answer to be yes. Isa Munayev, the Chechen leader of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion fighting in Ukraine, has connections with an Islamic State group fighter who goes by the moniker of Khalid. There is a larger amount of evidence that Muslim foreign fighters of Uzbek and Balkan origins have joined the fights as well.

The Chechen jihadi relationship is not confined to Eastern Europe. For instance, French authorities have questioned Chechen fighters for possible connections between Islamic extremists inside France and as a provider of weapons to extremists. Their organization, if one wants to call it that, is known as the “Brothers,” who are stateless Islamic jihadists with connections to the Islamic State group. Those in the Ukraine see the war there in terms of jihad; others simply want to hurt the Russians. The truth of this misses the larger question: Why is the United States not leading in the forefront to control events?

The United States cannot continuously choose the perceived lesser of two evils and call that a policy. The first problem with this non-strategy is we could be wrong. Were Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein worse than the Islamic State group? Probably not. Is the Islamic State group better than Iran? Maybe, though probably not. If this is now the benchmark of the Obama foreign policy, things are worse than they were even a year ago. We are beyond notions of a devil’s bargain; we are simply choosing how close to the Ninth Circle of Hell we can live.

Tyrants like Gadhafi and Hussein had to go. They were inimical to liberal values and realist interests. The natural follow-up to the ouster of both would have been the United States leading the charge (as the Bush administration did in Iraq) of helping to establish order, rule of law and Islamic democratic values. Instead, we have the false narrative in the mainstream media that the devil’s bargain is a viable and legitimate choice. This cannot be allowed to be the fate in the Ukraine, where the false choices are either supporting Islamic thugs or Putin’s gangsters. Neither can this be the story in Iraq where the false choice is between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorists or Islamic State group murderers. Nor again can this be the case in Syria, where the fallacious option is between the brutality of the Assad tyranny and the barbarism of the jihadists.

This can all be avoided with clear, unambiguous American leadership that is unabashedly aggressive. The number one job of any president is national security; an effective foreign policy is integral to this. The power vacuum created by the Obama administration is generating a military-diplomatic black hole that will be difficult to reverse.