Flynt Leverett Critiques Obama’s Syria Strategy and its Regional Implications

Flynt went on Russia Today’s CrossTalk to discuss the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State; click on the video above or see “Washington’s Jihad,” here or here (YouTube).  As this campaign expands into Syria, we think the points that Flynt made on CrossTalk, and that Hillary has been making in several appearances on CNN, remain important—and underrepresented in what passes for a policy debate in Washington.

Flynt opens by setting the current U.S. campaign against the Islamic State against the backdrop of U.S. policy since 9/11:

America’s self-declared post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ has been strategically disastrous for the United StatesIt has weakened America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally; squandered vast material and human resources; and has basically destroyed the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people who live in this strategically critical region.  And now President Obama is effectively recommitting the United States to this profoundly self-damaging, post-9/11 template for never ending war in the Middle East.”

As Flynt points out, one of the clearest indicators of the thought-free character of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Islamic State is its emphasis on stepped-up support for Syrian oppositionists:

I have been saying for over three years that the idea there is some moderate, secular Syrian opposition with enough military potential and, even more importantly, enough political standing in Syria to overthrow the Assad government flies in the face of realityTo say that this mythical moderate Syrian opposition is now going to be able to take on the Islamic State is, I think, just delusional.

The Syria policy that the United States and its partners in the region have been pursuing since the spring of 2011 has helped, in a big way, to create the situation in Iraq, with this dramatic ascendance of the Islamic State.  We have created this problem, and now we’re coming up with pseudo-solutions that are only going to make the problem worse…The one thing that could come of this is that you’re going to create more channels for the Islamic State to get hold of Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.  Having the Saudis train these so-called moderate fighters is just going to augment the problem that we’re supposedly trying to deal with.

We have fed the creation of the Islamic State through our policy of support for the Syrian opposition.  And it’s going to have huge repercussions regionally.

Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t IslamicBut the fact is—as evidenced in polls, in social media across the Sunni Arab world—is that this movement has a lot of sympathy and support, even among constituencies that don’t like some of its tactics, don’t like prisoner beheadingsBy launching this military campaign against them, the United States is basically—in the eyes of a lot of Sunni Muslims—it is basically re-launching a post-9/11 war against Islam.  And the one thing we know, over thirteen years since 9/11, is that that drives jihadi recruitment more than anything.  It is going to make the problem vastly worse.”

In the program, Flynt also critiques the Obama administration’s thoroughly warped notion of what a “regional strategy” against the Islamic State should look like.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss President Obama’s address—delivered, ironically enough, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—laying out his administration’s “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State.  Listening to the speech, we thought it confirmed that political and policy elites have essentially learned nothing from a thirteen-year trajectory of hugely counterproductive foreign policy choices—choices made ostensibly in response to 9/11.  In her segments (see videos above or here, here, and here), Hillary sought to explain why this is the case:

“There are two sets of people that the president has around him.  One is a set of people who made their way among powerful domestic constituency groups, and [the other are] are people who made their way through the party.  This isn’t just a Democratic Party thing; the same thing happens on the Republican side…Then, on the so-called ‘expert’ side, you have people from the CIA and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense.  They are not there to provide facts, to provide information.  Remember, in 1947 both the Department of Defense and the CIA were created—after World War II—not to provide the president with facts, but to provide the president with a basis for power projection.  And this is what both parties fall into, both [post-9/11] presidents across the board fall into.

Remember, President Bush started his presidency with wanting to have a ‘humble’ foreign policy (if we can remember that).  What happens is that both of these presidents, President Bush and President Obama, are captured by their parties and a bipartisan commitment to American dominance, to American hegemony, to power projection.  Then they are fueled by ‘information’ coming from the CIA and the Pentagon, that are there for that purpose, for power projection, not to give simple facts or to inform.”

These dynamics are an important driver for many of the disastrously self-damaging foreign policy decisions American presidents have made in the post-Cold War period.  For, as Hillary explains, once a president is “captured and paralyzed by the bipartisan buy-in for dominance,” he is left “without another option.” 

In fact, as Hillary notes, “there is another option, there is a diplomatic way forward, there is conflict resolution.  [Obama] could be not just going to Saudi Arabia and having regional governments that are totally dependent on us for their security—he could have Iran at the table, he could have the Syrian government at the table.  These things are never said to the American public, but they are essential for conflict resolution.  He could go to the United Nations and not just give a speech, but get the Russians to buy in” for a legitimate international effort at conflict resolution.

But that’s not what Obama will do.  Instead, he has Secretary of State John Kerry say that having Iran at the table would be “inappropriate” until Tehran accepts the fatally flawed premises of Washington Syria policy and stops supporting the Assad government.  Moreover, Obama is asking for—and getting—bipartisan support for more U.S. assistance to so-called “moderate” Syrian oppositionists—who, as Hillary points out, “are the rebels who kidnapped Steve Sotloff and sold him to ISIS to be beheaded.  So you have bipartisan buy-in for that.”

Obama’s speech on the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies embodied in the “bipartisan commitment to dominance” described by Hillary.  In his initial presidential campaign, Obama seemed, to some extent, to run against those orthodoxies, which have done so much to weaken America’s international position since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.  Now, the public presentation of his Islamic State “strategy” makes all too clear just how thoroughly Obama has embraced them.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett