The Washington Post has decided to run an article from editorial page editor Fred Hiatt pinning blame for the Syrian catastrophe on President Barack Obama.
Hiatt is far too mild, fails to acknowledge that conservatives have been warning about the fallout from Obama foreign policy for years, and does not come to grips with the media’s role in protecting Obama for so long. However, it is still remarkable to see the President taken so clearly to task by a member of his adoring media.
“This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy,” Hiatt begins.
Hiatt observes that despite rampant ISIS vandalism of historical sites, and one of the biggest refugee crises the world has ever seen, “the ‘Save Darfur’ signs have not given way to ‘Save Syria.'” This should not be a surprise. No one on the Left was going to launch a populist crusade to “raise awareness” about the plight of Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and others victimized by what Obama dismissed as the “JV team” of terrorism. The media only assigns credibility—usually disproportionate credibility — to populist crusades originating on the Left.
With those points out of the way, the rest of Hiatt’s critique is devastating. He slams Obama for trying to sell indecision and inaction as “smart power”:
He has argued, at times, that there was nothing the United States could do, belittling the Syrian opposition as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”
He has argued that we would only make things worse — “I am more mindful probably than most,” he told the New Republic in 2013, “of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.”
He has implied that because we can’t solve every problem, maybe we shouldn’t solve any. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked (though at the time thousands were not being killed in Congo).
Hiatt also calls President Obama out for his habit of taking little check-the-box actions to get the public off his back, when it became impossible to tout inaction as smart policy, intriguingly including the much-ballyhooed recent plans for a safe zone on the Turkish border as an example. He also mentions how the big Obama plans for a white-hat “moderate Syrian army” trained and equipped by the U.S. turned into fifty soldiers per year, without going into the ugly details of what al-Qaeda did to the first fifty guys the President sent into the meat grinder.
Hiatt also claims that “when Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state.” That is not true. Republican critics were strident in warning that Obama’s talking-point-driven Iraqi pullout would lead to disaster. They did not see ISIS coming across the border in a handful of militarized pickup trucks and knocking over Mosul, but smarter men than President Obama—notably including his ultimate presidential rival in 2012, Mitt Romney — were yelling from the rooftops that Iraq was not ready to be trusted with its own security.
Romney said in October 2011:
President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.
Most of the GOP presidential field followed suit, while Democrats mocked them for lacking faith in the towering genius of President Obama, and the media sided with the Democrats.
It is sheer historical revisionism to suggest that critics of Obama’s pullout were muttering vaguely about how it might be a tad premature. They explicitly warned of disaster, and they were right.
As for Syria, Hiatt notes that “critics” worried President Obama’s blustery threats to Bashar Assad “might prove empty.” (“Critics” in this sense means “everyone who knows anything at all about either Barack Obama or Bashar Assad.”)
Obama’s now-infamous comments about a chemical weapons red line were another example of the feckless “get off my back” approach Hiatt criticizes earlier in his piece. Obama never thought Assad would call his bluff and deploy WMD against his own people; he thought he was setting up an exceedingly unlikely precondition for action, to justify never taking action. He was pretending to be a tough-guy bully without any intention of lacing up his gloves and climbing into the ring. Assad, and his patrons in Russia and Iran, took Obama’s measure perfectly and used his empty threats as leverage to weaken American influence in the Middle East.
Hiatt then returns to all things nobody could have envisioned:
Not just the savagery of chemical weapons and ‘barrel bombs,’ but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.
It is notable that he studiously avoids mentioning Libya, a crucial piece of the migration puzzle, or the way President Obama played his cards during the “Arab Spring,” which the President completely and dangerously misinterpreted as a flowering of liberal democracy, rather than the replacement of icky semi-competent corrupt regimes with murderous Islamist fascists.
It’s a matter of established fact that the Turks — not the loveliest of regimes, to be sure, but a potent NATO ally — have been yelling about the dangers of the Syrian bloodbath and calling for the West to knock over Assad for years. This was, in part, because they had a close-up view of both the ISIS recruiting and outbound refugee problems. There have been huge Syrian refugee camps in Turkey for a long time. But taking Turkey’s advice would have involved President Obama going up against Iran, and the North Star of his foreign policy is his unshakable belief that Iran is the incipient regional hegemon the West can do business with, the only Muslim power with the capability and will to enforce order on the Middle East.
To be sure, there has never been much of an appetite in any quarter of either European or American politics for war in Syria, except for the John McCain-Lindsey Graham interventionist wing of the Republican Party. Some who might have rallied around a serious plan to take decisive action against Assad, al-Qaeda, and ISIS were not prepared to sign up for the usual desultory cruise-missile strikes, followed by Obama collecting applause from the media for “doing something about weapons of mass destruction.”