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 USNews.com
The events in the Middle East have cast doubt on the future not only of the Obama presidency, but of American leadership. The victory of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, pushed the line on the Obama presidency in a fundamental way. The failure to act, the inability to lead and the rudderless foreign policy were all in place prior to the events of the last two weeks. The incompetence to deal with a terrorist army, using the excuse that the regime in Baghdad is not what we wanted, has moved this presidency from one of the worst track records in foreign affairs and national security to the number one slot.
The failure has created not only a backlash among the American people, whose voice through polling indicates a belief that this administration is incapable of dealing with international relations, but an equal backlash in the media to lay the blame at others’ feet. These are what I term the myths for deceit.
1) Islamic extremists like ISIL and al-Qaida were an outgrowth of the American invasion in 2003: The Islamic extremists were in Iraq long before the invasion. The American intelligence community confirmed that, prior to the invasion, there were senior-level contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida for a decade. Iraq was used as a safe haven and training ground for terrorists, allowing for the presence of al-Qaida in Iraq. Lastly, al-Qaida has attempted to gain weapons of mass destruction, and obtain training in poison gas and bombmaking in Iraq.
This myth is the most pernicious; it feeds the narratives that since we “broke” Iraq, we created the problem. The insanity of this argument is only equaled by its maliciousness. It is repeated so often that it has become gospel. Every CIA director of the last three presidents has confirmed that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups used Iraq and had worked with the Baathist regime when convenient. It is interesting that one of the arguments recently used to suggest that the Baathists would never work with the Islamic extremists has been muffled when reports now arise that they are working with ISIL in their advance against the Iraqi government.
2) There were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the whole pretext for the invasion was false: This is a subset of myth number one. It is almost as arthritic as the first. I have spoken about this topic in front of many experts and audiences, and have yet to find a counterpoint among the assemblage to the following: The same reports that indicated that Iraq had no stockpiles of WMD (the same reports repeated over and over again by the media) are the same reports that confirm that Saddam Hussein and the Baathists had an organized plan to restart WMD research and production once the attention of the world had shifted and the United States was lulled into a sense of security (or change of administration). One cannot have firm belief in the ontological certitude of one part of the report, and derisively dismiss the other.
3) The Iranians have a common enemy in this fight in Iraq: Iran has pursued a Shiite, Persian dominated empire for centuries, and has reignited this since 1979. It is the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world and one of the worst offenders using state terror at home against its own people. No state has killed more American soldiers in the 21st century than Iran through the funding, training and munitions of Shia terrorists and militias. No state has supported the Bashar Assad regime in Syria or the terrorists that inflict such pain and suffering on the Israelis more than Iran. If there was ever an evil regime, diametrically opposed to American core values in the contemporary world, it is Iran. Iran has no interest in an ISIL victory, but it has great interest in dominating the entire region. Cooperation with this regime would be a long-lasting disaster.
4) We handed the region to Iran: This is a subset of myth three. The logic is impossible to follow: We invaded Iraq to defeat the Baathists, who were the enemies of Iran. This weakened Iraq, allowing Iran to fill the vacuum. It is great logic for a carnival.
The invasion of Iraq was predicated on setting up an Arab, Islamic stable democracy. It meant staying in Iraq for decades, just as we had done in Japan and Germany following World War II. The tone was set for this by the Bush administration that planned on leaving a permanent force in Iraq to assist and train the Iraqi military. The Obama administration wanted desperately to leave Iraq and purposely fumbled the status of forces agreement to prevent this strategy. It replaced this strategy with a vacuum; it was at this stage that the Iranians took advantage of the situation and placed the Iraqi government in an impossible situation.
5) There are no good options: This is the best of the myths, because it translates into inaction and hope that the problem either goes away or is overshadowed by something else. However, there is a grain of truth to this myth, as our options have dwindled. The options stretch all the way back to Libya, where the Obama administration wanted to “lead from behind” instead of forcefully pushing an American strategic agenda. This decision resulted in the disaster at Benghazi.
The roadshow then shifted to Syria, where the failure to push an American strategic agenda unleashed the twin scourges of chemical weapons and ISIL. The United States made an active decision not to actively assist the moderates in Syria to overthrow Assad and defeat the Islamic extremists. The United States could have used special forces, naval power and air power to bring about an end to both. The scene shifts to Iraq, where the group the U.S. failed to stop in Syria moved into northern Iraq more than six months ago. Today, ISIL, supported by the former Saddam Hussein’s army, is nearer to Baghdad and the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders than Philadelphia is to New York.
The words of former Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was famous for his unpopular anti-appeasement positions in the 1930s, would be well remembered: “You may gain temporary appeasement by a policy of concession to violence, but you do not gain lasting peace that way.”