The central mission of Barack Obama’s White House in the waning days of his administration is to communicate to the public that none of this is his fault. Their search for figures toward which this administration can shift blame for the suboptimal state of affairs is growing increasingly frantic, self-sabotaging, and reflective of an undisciplined political operation in the midst of a spiraling crisis.
Given the increasingly dire state of geopolitical affairs, securing exonerations for Obama’s conduct is a particularly urgent imperative on the foreign policy front. The resurrection of the Islamist militant threat in the Middle East is perhaps the most glaring failure of this administration. The largely pacified Iraq that Barack Obama inherited is a boiling cauldron of bloody sectarian warfare. Even the most stalwart member of the president’s thinning clique of apologists would today concede that the withdrawal of every last American solider from Iraq in 2011 was shortsighted. They contend, however, that the president had no choice. Proud Iraqi negotiators prevented this White House from securing a mutually satisfactory agreement that secured legal immunity for American soldiers tied his hands. Nonsense. This excuse has been thoroughly dispelled in reports that clearly indicate the administration was only prepared to accept full and total withdrawal in order to fulfill a political objective Obama set for himself in 2008.
The Iraqi crisis is, however, inexorably tied to another calamity just over the nation’s northwestern border. The Syrian Civil War is the sine qua non for the revival of al-Qaeda and the birth of the Islamic State in the Northern Middle East. It is a nightmare that has rejuvenated the impression for millions of disaffected fundamentalist sympathizers around the globe that militant jihad is a movement with a future. It has yielded the worst refugee crisis since World War II as a great human tide spills over the Syrian border into neighboring countries and Europe. And it has provided Russia with a vacuum into which it has poured troops, capital, and influence as part of Moscow’s strategic aim of decoupling Europe and the Middle East from the United States.
Like Iraq, the disaster that is Syria can no longer be ignored. Like Iraq, Barack Obama’s White House can only ever approach a crisis with political damage control as its first priority. America’s chief executive has but one approach to secure exculpation from the public and absolution from his confessors in the political press: blame shifting and buck-passing.
President Obama’s schizophrenic Syria policy has been a disgrace. He initially drew a line in the sand designed to intimidate Bashar al-Assad into refraining from deploying chemical weapons against rebels in civilian areas. Over a year after he was repeatedly ignored and amid a war now characterized by the routine use of WMDs, Obama’s secretary of state made the case for an “unbelievably small” war. That uninspiring pitch failed to convince either America’s European allies or the American public of the mission’s necessity. The president de-escalated by taking a Russian-provided off-ramp that allowed him to save face politically but did nothing to resolve the crisis. Predictably, it worsened, metastasized, and gave rise to the regional sectarian war that today threatens to deliver the Middle East into a new dark age. Finally and amid cascading failure, Barack Obama agreed to engage in the Syrian civil war with a two-pronged strategy: airstrikes on ISIS targets from above and training and equipping native insurgent elements on the ground.
It was a hopelessly convoluted strategy. The aim was to identify reasonably secular moderate fighters in Syria, transfer them to third-party countries in the region, train them, equip them, and reintroduce them into the theater of operations. By August of this year and $500 million later, the Pentagon acknowledged that only 54 Syrian rebels had been prepared for combat. Less than a month later, almost all of them had been killed or captured. General Lloyd Austin told Congress this week that only “four or five” are continuing the fight against ISIS in Syria.
This self-evidently failed half-measure is a substantial embarrassment for this White House, and the administration’s insular and paranoid handlers cannot allow that. As is the wont of this pathologically defensive administration, they have gone about looking for blame-worthy figures outside the ever-shrinking circle of Obama loyalists. “The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker revealed, “a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
The White House all but washed its hands of the training program after General Austin’s testimony.
“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,”[White House Press Secretary Josh] Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”
Forget for the moment a craven and humiliating self-defense that rests on the notion that the president was led by the nose into executing this flawed strategy, and the inescapable conclusion inexplicably promoted by this White House that the commander-in-chief is simply too pliant and irresolute. The desperation of blaming not merely Republicans but the Democrats’ best hope for retaining the presidency and preserving Obama’s achievements in office, Hillary Clinton, is pusillanimous in the extreme.
Hillary Clinton has been clear in her contention that Barack Obama should have done more in Syria and done it earlier in order to stave off catastrophe. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the likely Democratic standard-bearer told Fox News in the summer of 2014.
As the primary executor of Barack Obama’s hideously failed approach to preserving U.S. interests abroad and executing American grand strategy in his first term, Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state is a liability. She has chosen the Syrian crisis as the way in which she can create distance between herself and this president in order to inoculate herself against attacks on his foreign policy record. It is testament to the shortsighted and thin-skinned nature of this administration that even this mild criticism cannot be tolerated. They would handicap their party’s successor before they would suffer even a modest critique.
The campaign is only just beginning. There is a reason why a political party has secured three consecutive terms in the White House only once in the post-War era. The voters are hungry for a change, and, presuming she is the nominee, Clinton will have to distance herself from the president if she is to win a general election next November. It’s not clear that Barack Obama’s capacious ego can take it.