Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat to discuss President Obama’s decision to order U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); click on the video above or here. In her segment, she focused on the deep causes and historical antecedents of America’s current policy crisis in Iraq.
“President Obama is now the fourth U.S. president in a row to order military action in Iraq, which some refer to (I think accurately) as the ‘graveyard of American ambition.’ That’s the big strategic picture here—that, regardless of what we bomb, how much we bomb, this is the graveyard of American ambition.
The invasion of Iraq, the continued occupation, and, now the blowback that we’re receiving puts the United States, I think, in a dire strategic corner.
–If we bomb, we are likely to galvanize Sunni Muslims across the Muslim world, not just in the Middle East. It’s not going to be everybody, but we’re likely to galvanize a strong recruitment tool for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
–If we don’t bomb, we could face a really serious confrontation in or around Erbil, where the United States has thousands of people—not just in the American consulate and all of the associated U.S. government agencies there, but a lot of businessmen, from oil companies and other places.
So we’re really, I think, in a serious, if not dire strategic corner.”
As Hillary explained, America’s broader strategic failure in Iraq has its own deep roots and historical antecedents—which are, in turn, inextricably and causally related to the rise of ISIS (which, since the end of June, has been calling itself simply ad-dawla al-islāmiyya—“the Islamic state”).
“It’s a problem the United States has had for decades, and it’s a bipartisan buy-in by the foreign policy elite here in Washington: first, training the Sunni Islamist militias in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to oust the Soviets, and then in more recent times the Bush administration’s strategy, what was called the ‘surge,’ was really about arming, funding, and training 80,000 Sunni Islamists inside Iraq. And then President Obama, on his watch, armed, trained, and funded Islamist militias in Libya and so-called ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria…
We have been, over the years, pursuing these policies that have been not only counterproductive but, in recent history (the past three years), have fed upon themselves. So we’ve destroyed the state in Libya, opened it up to an Islamist internecine militia battle zone; same thing in Syria, and we’ve continued to turn a blind eye to that happening to Iraq. These three battlefields, in a lot of ways, are melding together, the fighters are melding together. ISIS is not made up of primarily or overwhelmingly Iraqis. There are Chechens from Russia, there are Uighurs from China, there are Saudis, there are Tunisians, there are lots of other nationalities there.
So this idea that we are constantly presented in Washington, that if Prime Minister Maliki were just more inclusive, this wouldn’t be a problem, is really strange on its face. There is no government in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or anybody else, who could be more inclusive of a terrorist organization that has significant foreign fighters within it. That just can’t be. [And, of course, ISIS also has] a great deal of money, and U.S. weapons that they’ve either confiscated or they were given indirectly by our so-called ‘allies’ in the Gulf.”
Responding to what is becoming part of Washington’s current conventional wisdom—that Obama’s “failure” to use force in Syria and his politically-driven reticence to re-engage in Iraq have conditioned ISIS’s rise—Hillary points out that this argument depicts on-the-ground dynamics in a manner diametrically opposed to on-the-ground reality. By doing so, it precludes sober consideration of the real requirements for a political solution.
“There’s a lot of focus here in Washington on how the president’s failure to bomb the Syrian military last year, in 2013, led to this increase in power of ISIS. It’s really just the opposite. The Syrian military was one of the few armies battling ISIS on a daily basis. If we could actually change the focus here—and it’s something that many Americans cannot even conceive of, because of the political narrative laid out principally by the White House that the Syrian government is irredeemable—if we could possibly change that and see what our interests are (which is that the Syrian government is fighting ISIS), that could…could open the door to talk to inconvenient but essential players, like the Syrian government, like the Iranian government, that have a lot of keys to the solution here.”
More broadly, Hillary argues that the idea of putting American “boots on the ground” in Iraq again is not just “politically untenable” for President Obama; this idea reflects a mindset—about using military forces to micromanage political outcomes in non-Western countries the United States wants to subordinate—that, strategically, “has failed us going all the way back to Vietnam.” As she elaborates,
“It has failed us in Vietnam, it has failed us throughout the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a proven track record of that not working to achieve strategic objectives.
While I would agree that the United States has to be very engaged in the Middle East, very engaged in the world, the idea to be ‘interventionist’ is very, very problematic, particularly in the Middle East. It has not worked for us; we have a proven track record of failure in that regard. We need to step back and not say, ‘Qadhafi has to go, Assad has to go,’ and now, ‘Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq has to go.’ Instead, we [should] recognize that’s the Iraqi government. It’s certainly not perfect; no government is. We agreed to sell them F-16s and Apache helicopters, attack aircraft, so that they could take of some of these problems themselves, and then we withheld them because [al-Maliki] wasn’t doing what we thought he should be doing politically.
That’s not going to work. I agree we should support governments that are there and sell them arms as other countries do, but to try and manipulate and micromanage political outcomes has failed us over and over again.”
Because—contrary to presidential candidate Barack Obama’s rhetoric in 2008—the Obama administration has not rejected this profoundly self-damaging mindset, it is facing massive strategic failure in the Middle East. The administration is not, as many of its critics charge, simply responding to one crisis after another. In reality, Hillary notes,
“Many of [these crises] are self-generated—in large part because of the administration’s strategic failure in responding to the Arab Awakening, principally in 2011. President Obama had a new shot when he came into office, and I think repeatedly has failed to put together a coherent strategic plan, outcome, for looking at the Middle East. We get focused on these day-to-day problems, as horrific as they sometimes are, without thinking about the strategic picture.
So the pressure, for example, to try to force Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out has just made him turn to Russia—which, literally overnight, doubled the aircraft we had given Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki has gotten much closer to the Iranians. And now you hear Iraqi government officials say those [Russia and Iran] are their real friends—because when they needed it, when they were asking for airstrikes against ISIS, the president, the Obama administration was withholding them until [Iraq] had a more ‘inclusive’ governing policy.
This is not a strategy, either for the Middle East or for the United States in the world, as we see power shifting from the west to the east, and we see critically important countries in the east—whether it’s China, India, or Russia, Iran or Iraq—because the United States is so antagonistic to all of them, they are aligning together. That is something that is not going to turn out well for the United States.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett