America surrenders in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine

Now the world is learning the high price of American detachment

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On a Saturday afternoon in July 2012, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton invited CIA director David Petraeus to her brick colonial home in Washington. The four-star general had led George W. Bush’s U.S. troop surge in Iraq and President Barack Obama’s in Afghanistan. Clinton asked him whether it was possible to vet, train and equip moderate opposition fighters in Syria where the forces of President Bashar al-Assad had begun killing civilians by the thousands.

“He had already given careful thought to the idea, and had even started sketching out the specifics and was preparing to present a plan,” Clinton recalled in her new memoir, Hard Choices. The next month, Clinton flew to neighbouring Turkey to discuss plans for a no-fly zone over Syria and support for the opposition. Clinton and the Turkish foreign minister made calls to foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany to build an international coalition. She returned to Washington “reasonably confident” that allies were on side.

But when Petraeus presented the plan to the President, Obama balked. He had just ended the Iraq war and did not want to get mired in a new conflict. He had promised war-weary Americans he would do “more nation-building at home.” Besides, the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Given Saudi Arabia was already arming rebels, he didn’t think American arms would make a decisive difference in driving Assad from power. Clinton argued that the U.S. could train fighters responsibly, and that the goal was to weaken Assad enough to get him to the negotiating table with the opposition.

Still, Obama said no. Clinton turned her efforts to getting food and medicine to suffering Syrians, and cellphones to anti-Assad activists. But, she wrote, “all of these steps were Band-Aids.”

Clinton’s was not the only voice Obama overruled as he sought to keep the U.S. out of Syria. Last February, as the death toll surpassed 130,000 and Assad resisted UN-led peace talks, the U.S. ambassador, Robert Ford, became so frustrated with the President’s hands-off approach that he quit his job in disgust. “When I can no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go,” Ford told PBS this month.

Three years after it began, the Syrian crisis has now spread to Iraq. A portion of northern Syria has been taken over by an offshoot of al-Qaeda, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which, this week, declared it has established a theocratic caliphate. Washington has been jolted by the nightmarish sight of ISIS sweeping through a large swath of Iraq—the largely Sunni north and west—seizing city after city, and looting banks and oil refineries. Iraqi forces, trained and equipped by the U.S., have in some instances dropped their weapons and run away. Executions and beheadings by ISIS are hardening sectarian divisions between Sunnis, Kurds and the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Reluctance to aid Syria’s moderate rebels may not have been Obama’s only mistake. His failure to leave behind a residual force of several thousand troops in Iraq, as counselled by his generals and cabinet members, is now in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the President’s modest vision for American power is being tested, not only as the sectarian war in Iraq worsens, but as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism destabilizes Europe.

The President who aimed to extract America from its entanglements abroad is suddenly learning the price of detachment. Halfway through their second terms, presidents often turn to foreign affairs as a constructive diversion from gridlock at home. But Obama is facing what could be the biggest foreign policy challenge of his presidency. And, as the superpower steps back, it may be horrified to see who steps in to fill the breach.

The potential threat ISIS poses to America is chilling. It is technologically sophisticated and well-funded by wealthy donors, theft, kidnappings and extortion. It is seizing tanks and heavy equipment intended for the Iraqi army to defend against insurgents just like ISIS. U.S. officials estimate that ISIS now numbers 10,000 fighters, of which 3,000 to 5,000 are from outside countries. Some of them have European or American passports allowing them to travel to the U.S. without visas.

With a brutal terrorist organization now controlling an area the size of some countries, including border crossings in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, critics blame Obama’s neglect of Syria and Iraq for forsaking what stability had been achieved by a decade of U.S. military effort, at a cost of nearly 4,500 American lives, and more than $1.7 trillion in taxpayer dollars.

Critics point to several key decisions in which Obama’s desire to keep out of the conflicts may have helped enable the current crisis: his decision not to leave troops behind in Iraq after 2011; his decision not to arm the Syrian rebels in the early days of the conflict; and his declaration of a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons that was not followed up with military consequences.

They say the President was wrong to assume the threat could be contained, rather than confronted: “We saw this happening, and that was what’s so frustrating. We watched them pool in eastern Syria in a way we have never seen before, thousands and thousands of al-Qaeda-affiliated individuals,” the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, told CBS last week. As for the extremists with Western passports: “That is as dangerous as it gets.”

Of course, it was Bush’s invasion of Iraq that opened the Pandora’s box of sectarian violence in that country. Hillary Clinton had voted for it. And many of the voices now calling for a stronger U.S. role in the region had also supported the ill-fated war.

Obama’s reticent approach to the region is largely a reaction to Bush’s zeal. But the debate in Washington is whether he is being too passive where Bush was too aggressive. On May 28, in a major speech at the West Point military academy in New York, Obama laid out his vision for a more modest American role in the world. He told graduating cadets he would be betraying his duty if he ever “sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

Obama said he reserved the right to use unilateral force “when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” In other situations, he said, the U.S. will act through diplomacy, development and in co-operation with allies. “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.

Some critics see Obama’s approach as an alarming departure from America’s traditional postwar role as the guarantor of a stable world order. They fear that U.S. withdrawal will leave a power vacuum filled by the likes of ISIS. Some have argued that it emboldens leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who witnessed Obama drawing a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Assad, but then took no military action to stop it. Moreover, when Russia invaded Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. response was much softer than what many had hoped for, and rattled allies in the region. A Polish newspaper recently published a leaked recording of the country’s foreign minister describing the alliance with the U.S. as “worthless” and harmful, because it leads to a “false sense of security.”

The Iraq crisis is also a challenge to Obama’s stated approach to counterterrorism. Where Bush invaded Afghanistan to root out the Taliban, who were giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda, Obama has said he will not follow suit to pursue other terrorist groups. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” Obama said at West Point. (Of course, the U.S. has built up its counterterrorism efforts since 2001, including intelligence and a lethal drone program, which give it more options.) At a press conference this month, Obama emphasized he would not “play whack-a-mole” by going after individual groups such as ISIS. Instead, he would “partner” with countries where terrorists seek a foothold.

Yet Obama’s failure to reach an agreement to leave a U.S. military force in Iraq past 2011 made the country vulnerable to the invasion by ISIS, critics argue. Military commanders had counselled him to leave 20,000 troops behind. His defence secretary, Robert Gates, argued for 10,000 to 15,000 troops to be left for a transition period of three to five years. Obama ultimately offered the Iraqis a small force of 3,000, but could not strike a deal with Iraqi leaders that would give legal immunity for the troops. Obama withdrew all of them at the end of 2011. While on the re-election campaign trail Obama claimed credit for ending the Iraq war, now, he blames Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for the absence of U.S. forces there: “That wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government,” he said at a press conference this month.

Insisting on a small number of troops, however, may have made a deal less likely. “Few Iraqi politicians were willing to fight for such a meaningless presence,” argues Kenneth Pollock, a Middle East specialist at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “There were other ways that Washington might have handled the legal issues as well, but the White House made clear it was uninterested.”

But Steve Simon, who served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012, argues there was little Washington could do. “My recollection is that the administration tried very hard. They put a lot of pressure on Maliki and they worked parliamentarians pretty hard to make the case,” he told reporters.

Only last summer, after the U.S. government concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, did Obama approve sending small arms to the rebels who are fighting against the regime but are not ISIS extremists—a move that Ford, the former U.S. ambassador, and other critics say was too little and too slow.

Ford is urging for more and heavier military hardware, including mortars and surface-to-air missiles to help the Free Syrian Army. “More hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime simply hasten the day when American forces will have to intervene against al-Qaeda in Syria,” Ford wrote this month in the New York Times.

As the crisis has worsened, Obama has responded. On June 20, he ordered 300 members of the U.S. special forces to “assess” the situation on the ground and to “advise and assist” the Iraqi military. On June 26, Obama formally requested $500 million from Congress to train and arm the Syrian rebels, the biggest single step taken so far by the administration. The money was part of a request for $1.5 billion for a stabilization fund that would also include partnering with neighbours such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The same day, the United Nations said conditions have deteriorated to the point that 10.8 million Syrians—half the population —now require humanitarian assistance.

Obama is under pressure to do more, such as launch air strikes against ISIS, a step he did not rule out. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” However, sending U.S. troops into combat is off the table. “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”

Both in Obama’s speeches and in his actions in Syria and Iraq, some see a troubling shift to a more circumspect America on the world stage. “Superpowers don’t get to retire” is the title of a recent essay by historian Robert Kagan in The New Republic. Kagan argues that the Syria and Ukraine crises “signal a transition into a different world order, or into a world disorder of a kind not seen since the 1930s.” He thinks that with military spending larger than all other nations combined, the U.S. had the power to enforce a liberal world order and promote democracy. If America refrains from using its own power, other actors, such as Putin, will fill the void. “The world will change much more quickly than they imagine. And there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters,” Kagan wrote.

For now, there is little consensus among Americans about their role at a time when they thought they were finished with Iraq and had decapitated al-Qaeda. But they are worried about the unfolding crisis. A recent New York Times/CBS poll suggests 58 per cent disapprove of the way Obama is handling foreign policy, a jump of 10 points in the last month to the highest level since he took office in 2009. (Obama’s overall approval rating is down to 40 per cent, with 54 per cent disapproving of his job as President. That is where Bush was at the same point in his second term.)

They are evenly divided about whether Obama should send 300 people from the special forces to Iraq, or whether he should have left a residual force behind in 2011. The poll found the biggest decline in support for Obama was among Democrats, many of whom oppose sending even a small number of troops.

There is one thing they do agree on. A record number of Americans—75 per cent—now believe the Iraq War was a mistake. No one knows that better than Obama.




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America surrenders in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine

  1. Obama is letting the American people down the ladder step by step in the gentlest way he can.

    Eventually they’ll all realize they are only 1 country out of 200 in the world, and the wisdom of Washington’s words about ‘avoiding foreign entanglements’.

    • So, essentially your idea is that we hide out as best we can, and let the rest of the world go hang. Sounds exactly like what we did in the 1930′s.

      • You didn’t win WWII either, so don’t even go there.

        • As with all other aspects of Emily’s contributions……..she remains clueless.

          • Emily is right and you are the clueless one, my friend. The geopolitical situation is rapidly changing, the new world order is slowly becoming a reality and yours and Cheney’s opinion on the matter has become utterly meaningless. Try to educate yourself.

  2. Hey, America !!!!

    This is what happens when someone qualified to be a “community organizer” is given the job as president of the United States.

    don’t worry though…it will be our turn to mess up the country of Canada soon enough. We’ll be electing a part-time, subsititute drama teacher to be PM. ….and ours will make Obama look competent.

    • When you have to lie, you’ve already lost.

    • Yeah, Canadians are totally sick of Harper & Co. and can’t wait to kick them out. You stick with Cheney, Fox, Sun ‘News’ and other losers; that’s where you belong!

  3. Adolescent, left wing feelings based policy is kind of a disaster isn’t it?

    • You’re going to have to explain that one.

    • Disaster like the Iraq one, which has lead to establishment if a modern Caliphate? Didn’t know Bush and Cheney were lefties. You’re a moron!

  4. What a load of garbage. Just keep repeating that lie that it was Obama who failed to get an agreement to keep troops in Iraq. Bush signed the agreement to remove them all, back in 2008. You’re saying Obama had to find a way to renege on that deal.

    How was he going to keep troops in Iraq indefinitely when 75% of Americans say it was a mistake and the Iraqis wanted the US out?

    And Syria: if the US had done as you imply, and heavily armed the opposition two years ago- ISIS would be ruling Damascus too by now. What on earth leads to this comical notion that the “moderate opposition” would not have been swept away even if the US had bombed Syria? It’s likely it would have happened faster.

    And now Obama’s reluctance to plunge headlong into a war drives warmongers crazy. What if there’s no way to help short of permanent occupation? Are you suggesting sending back 250,000 troops? Because that’s what it would take. And not ten years, this time- forever. Are you ready for that?

    This “troubling shift” you’re talking about to a more circumspect America is actually a return to common sense.

    • Bush’s agreement was to end the occupation. It is separate from and is not related to a Status of Forces Agreement, Further, the US has many SOFA agreements around the world that solely rely on executive order by the host country, not a sitting parliament, so Obama could have left whatever size force he wanted to because Maliki stated he would sign it through exec. order and not through his parliament. The American people were war-weary in 2009, but most were not even paying attention in 2010 when we left because Bush’s surge had stabilized and largely solidified the gains that the decade of war had brought about. Bush left Iraq stable, free, and with growing prosperity. As the author has stated, Iraq’s collapse starts with the failure to kill terrorists and deal with ISIS in Syria.

  5. America is finding out the hard expensive lesson that it is harder to rebuild a country…10-20 years & trillions of dollars & thousands of dead people than it is to blow it up…6hrs shock & awe & billions of dollars.
    Canadians could have directed them to watch CBC’s Air Farce but then certain corporate entities would have been robbed of the chance to make $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

  6. “Iraqi forces, trained and equipped by the U.S., have … dropped their weapons and run away. ”

    Well, you obviously cannot fight a war for a people who do NOT even want to fight for themselves.

    …, ALL of this ’cause n effect, can be blamed solely on that
    other foolish President, George W Bush.
    I will say one thing that Saddam Hussein did get right,
    when he warned America, that they will have a “Desert Vietnam” on their hands, and we all know how that one ended.
    He was right, and Americans, as well as the whole world, can see this now.

    • We actually agree on something Rickster, but for different reasons.

      We should have left Saddam Hussein in power. The only way to deal with islamic extremists, is with an extremist dictator like Saddam.

      saddam would have taken his army and “mowed them down”….which, when you realize what we are dealing with in some Muslim nations prone to extremism (all of them isn’t it?)….is the ONLY way to deal with them.

      • There’s that phrase again….’the only thing these people understand is……’

        Iraq had nothing whatever to do with ‘Islamic extremism’

        • BEFORE the Iraq war…..you would be partially correct. I think we’re talking about how it is today.

          THere are islamic extremists throughout that region…..and only Saddam Hussein knew the proper methods to keep them under control.

          We should have followed his lead.

          • We should have left Saddam alone….the US and UK have been interfering in the ME for centuries….and now it’s a complete mess.

          • We actually agree, Emily.

            We should have left Saddam there to wipe out the Islamists.

      • We do not agree, James. You have no idea what an Islamist is.

        • Emily,

          Just turn on your TV. There are daily examples of what an Islmist is, and what they do. It usually involves decapitation, murder, mayhem, chaos, ignorance…etc…etc….

          And it always involves the same religion. (no…it’s not the Mormons)

          • James, kindly peddle your racist nonsense elsewhere….I’m not interested in it.

          • Religion is not a race, Emily….

            but keep trying.

  7. Jesus. The author is amazing.

    Not only did she gloss over that US elites started destabilization and destruction of Iraq, Syria, Ukraine (and do many more like Afghanistan , Libya etc,)
    Not only did she try to out right lie and pass of the blame to anyone else (outright fear and war monger).
    BUT she tried to make a case to INCREASE the destabilization and destruction, and expand imperialism of US elites.

    Obama admin not only extended wars, but started new ones. The plan of overthrowing governments, and bombing, is still stronger than ever.

    Remember who over threw he democratic government of Ukraine, who put Biden’s and Kerry’s sons in Ukraine largest gas company, who sent CIA and politicians to lead the coup (now US backed) government in Kiev, who ignored referendums, who ignored people burned alive in Odessa – when political parties are banned media banned, offices burned – AND MOST ESPECIALLY – months of artillery strikes on civilians killing hundreds.

    The US created and encouraged all this.

    Was Mac magazine always a government mouth and propaganda piece? Christ.

    • “Was Mac magazine always a government mouth and propaganda piece?”

      Only since November 2008.

      Completely agree with you. No mention of the Benghazi weapons smuggling to Syrian rebels. Pretending that Syrian rebels are “moderate”. Pretending that Obama did everything he could to stay out of Syria when had to be dragged back by the scruff of the neck from a military invasion. No mention of the State Department’s recent dalliances with “hashtag diplomacy”.

      If you are looking for decent US coverage, don’t bother looking here. You won’t find it.

      • After their recent articles, I think I’ll cancel any subscription to this magazine and the parent company, Rogers. I won’t finance warmongers and government brownnoses. big oil and military finances should be enough for them.

  8. Um, no mention of the fact that Obama was preparing to intervene in Syria until the British parliament prevented one of his putative allies, David Cameron, from helping him? At that point, the US congress began demanding to be heard — as did the American public. I’m sorry, but there was literally tons of commentary on this — Google it.

    One hundred years ago, in 1914, the world order created in Vienna in 1815 came to an end.

    We’re simply approaching the end of the world order created in 1945.

    Obama’s merely bit player, he’s not the main cause.

    Enjoy the ride, folks.

  9. I find this publications’ headline that “the world is learning the high price of ‘American’ detachment” rather presumptuous. Better “the high price of UN and Nato” dysfunction. We forget just how “many” problems he inherited from the previous administration and decades of American imperialism having learned nothing from Vietnam. It is time that America stop being the policeman of the world and let others play the roles they were initially promoted to do. Unfortunately America will again be called on to “save the world” and for that they pay the price while others duck or climb on the accolade train ipso facto. Wars begin when and where they will but seldom end when, where and by whom you please – Machiavelli

    • No one ever called on the Americans to ‘save the world’.

      It’s usually the Americans who’ve caused the problem in the first place.

      • Not to mention the British, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, French and of course Russians. We forget that if US did not come into WWII the world would indeed be quite a different place.Things started to go sideways with Vietnam. I would be careful about painting the villain because we are all culpable. Regardless of the hornet’s nest that has been stirred up, a hornet is still a hornet. Living under Sharia Law not for me thank you. And this war has been going on for centuries

        • Russia won WWII….the Americans just helped in the mopping-up, long after others had done the heavy lifting.

          Vietnam was not the first or only war the US lost…there’s been a long string of them.

          • Others? Not the only war lost?

          • True. the nazis broke their teeth in Russia, just like Napoleon. The americans got in to get a piece of the pie. Global domination requires some interventions, as we’ve all seen over the time.

        • Name one war since WWII where the US has been on the winning side.

          Oh wait…there’s Grenada. But they didn’t even know they were in a war until you arrived and declared victory. LOL

          In fact, the US has been at war since it began….they just don’t do very well at it.

          Attacked Canada 5x….got sent home. 1812….all that.

          Very different than the Hollywood versions.

          • America hasn’t won a major war because they lost their nerve after the 2nd World War.

            the main problem of course, being that they use TOO LITTLE FORCE…and not too much.

            If you go to war…..go to win.

            Screw what the UN says.

        • Well James, if you don’t regard 2 nuclear bombs dropped on 2 cities….for the first and only time in human history….as ‘sufficient force’ there is no hope for you.

          • You’ll notice I wrote “since the 2nd World War”….

            Also…..I agree with the dropping of nukes on Japan. yeah, it sucked for the Japanese, but it saved a lot of lives on the good side.

      • Sentence 1 correct.

        I will disagree in part with sentence 2. The Americans do not/did not cause the majority of the worlds problems, the British Empire did/does. The French take second place for creating messes past and present, Vietnam was a French mess. The Americans do have a knack for screwing up everything they touch and making thinks much worse.

        • Oh the Brits caused tons of problems, I’ll agree. I think there are only 22 countries in the world they HAVEN’T invaded. But the Americans took over from them some time ago, and particularly after the war.

          Vietnam became an American problem the minute Eisenhower sent ‘advisers’. The French saw their chance and took it. Au revoir.

          Americans never seem to catch on that they’re being used by other countries….mostly as cannon fodder.

          There’s even a saying …..’the Saudis will fight to the last American to protect their oil’

          • Yeah….just look what British Imperialism did to the world today. What did it give us?

            1. United States
            2. Australia
            3. New Zealand
            4. Canada
            5. Modern democracy in India
            6. Other rinky dink regions too small to mention, but now civilized.

            Those damn Brits…..bringing civilization and the rule of law to the world. Who did they think they were?

        • You mean none of those places existed before the Brits arrived?

          That will certainly amaze all the people living in those countries.

          The ‘White Man’s Burden’ is lousy foreign policy James….only works for people with hoods.

          • the land existed, Emily….

            but modern civilization did not.

            If the brits didn’t show up..what would you have had?

            North American would be largely stone aged today
            Australia and NZ…same.
            Indian widows would still be chucking themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead hubbies…etc..

            It isn’t the White Man’s burden…..it was white man accomplishments.

            If not for the Brits emily….where would you be, and what rights would you have?

  10. Looks like Mr.Savage is a friend of Cheney’s policies that have brought peace, prosperity and democracy into Iraq and hell, into the whole ME region! Bad Obama had to ruin it!

  11. How about respecting others the way you want to be respected? If a muslim country had stronger military than ours and came to… what do our southern neighbors call it… “install/reinforce democracy” their own way, I bet you’d be quite unhappy. So supporting more invasions is a bit imoral at least.
    Btw, i find it hypocritical to talk about human rights/justice and bombs/drones/invasions in the same sentence. War in the name of peace? Killings in the name of humanity? Get real…!

    • Kandan,

      When a muslim country invades…..they don’t bring democracy or human rights.

      They bring murder, mayhem, and 7nth Century ideology.

      The fact they remain backwards is due to the fact they have not been able to create ANYTHING since muhammed. Even the explosives they use to make their kdis vests are created by someone else.

      As for War bringing peace…….sometimes it does, and sometimes it is necessary.

  12. The fact that Obama sees this and starts acting like a responsible citizen of the world is not what’s wrong. What’s wrong is expecting that the US will be the world’s Police or bully enforcer.

    People that look from the outside have mostly seem that the US has created many enemies by creating extraterritorial jurisdiction.

    I think Obama’s policies are sensible.

    • I think you meant to say, “I think Obama’s lack of policy is sensible”

      Anyone who thinks Obama knows what he is doing…..frankly, is an idiot.

  13. So Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake and are glad to be withdrawn from Iraq & Afghanistan, yet the US should still around the globe be everywhere always. Got it.

    • Oh pick a country….any country [as long as it's unarmed of course] and do a PR campaign about how evil it is [for whatever reason].

      Two weeks tops and Americans will be chomping at the bit to invade.

      It’s what they do.

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