No Thanks to Obama, the World Is Finally Figuring Out How to Fight ISIS

King Abdullah of Jordan in Fighting Gear
The Royal Hashemite Court/Instagram

Yes, it’s unfortunate that the US has a president, Barack Obama, who consistently sees things from the Muslim point of view.  Even the Obamaphilic reporter Juliet Eilperin, writing for the Obamaphilic Washington Post, had to admit, “President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.”

With a pro-Muslim commander-in-chief, and with the administration insisting that “climate change” is the greatest threat we face, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the villainous Islamic State is on the march in the Middle East.

That’s the bad news.  And yet, paradoxically, there’s also some good news.  Moreover, the good news points to a new kind of better strategy for the US—or, more precisely, to the revival of a successful old strategy.

The story of US foreign policy since World War Two has primarily been the story of American efforts to counteract two evil “isms”: communism and Islamism.  And over these last 70 years, the US has applied two different approaches to these threats: first, direct confrontation with enemies, in the form of American military units doing the actual fighting; and second, indirect confrontation, in the form of American support for other militaries, as they do the fighting instead.  Today, the US, having recently tried the first approach and finding frustration, is increasingly reliant on the second approach, which is working better.  President Obama didn’t plan for this, to be sure, but he nevertheless stumbled into it.  As they say, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

The first approach—Americans doing the fighting—was first tried in 1950, with the Korean War.  In those days, the Truman administration had a previously declared policy of opposing communist expansion in the aftermath of World War Two.  And so, for example, in the 1940s, we sent military aid to anti-communist forces in Greece, Turkey, and China.  This policy succeeded in Greece and Turkey, although it failed in China.

And on June 25, 1950, when North Korea, aided by Mao’s China along with Stalin’s Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, it soon became clear that if the US didn’t immediately intervene militarily, all of South Korea would fall to the Reds.  Hence what became known as the Truman Doctrine emerged: Uncle Sam would do whatever it took to keep a country from going communist, including “boots on the ground.”

In the Korean War, 1950-53, almost 34,000 Americans died in combat.  Indeed, the public backlash against the Korean War derailed Truman’s presidency; in 1952, he was forced into retirement.  The next president, Dwight Eisenhower, managed to end the Korean fighting.  Ike also resisted calls to send US ground troops in a combat role to other countries, notably Vietnam, where the French colonialists were defeated in 1954.  Ike was plenty anti-communist, but he judged that the Red threat didn’t justify an American combat role.

Yet in 1961, a new president, John F. Kennedy, restated the Truman Doctrine in his ringing inaugural address.  Kennedy pledged an open-ended commitment to the anti-communist cause; as the 35th President declared, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The result of this resonant rhetoric, of course, was an increasing US military commitment to South Vietnam.  On the day that Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, some 16,000 American military personnel were in country, and nearly 200 had been killed in action.  In other words, the American military commitment was clear enough in the Kennedy administration, and in the wake of his death, JFK’s policy was simply continued—even as it was escalated by his hand-picked successor in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson.

So once again, the US found itself carrying out the tenets of the Truman Doctrine—that is, the direct involvement of US ground troops, if need be, in a faraway war.  And once again, the war, which claimed the lives of more than 36,000 Americans during Johnson’s presidency, proved unpopular at home.  Mostly because of the public backlash against this overseas fighting, Johnson, like Truman before him, was forced to retire in 1968.

In 1969, a new president, Richard Nixon, came into office with a mandate to end the war.  Nixon had campaigned on a “secret plan” to stop the fighting and, in fact, he had one.  His plan was to negotiate a deal with the patrons of the North Vietnamese, China and the USSR.  Yet in the meantime, Nixon outlined what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, which held that the US would always send aid to countries resisting communism—but what was left out was the part about committing US troops.  That is, Nixon amended the Truman Doctrine; as he said many times in those days, it simply wasn’t possible for the US to be the policeman of the world—with US help, countries would have to police themselves.

The Truman Doctrine and the Nixon Doctrine had the same goals, but the Nixon Doctrine was more modest.  And because it was less costly in terms of blood, it was more politically sustainable.

As noted, Nixon had a strategy for ending America’s direct participation in the Vietnam War, while yet not losing the war: He called it “peace with honor.”  Nixon negotiated over the heads of the North Vietnamese; the 37th President traveled to both Beijing and Moscow in 1972 to seal the deal.  The result was Chinese and Russian acquiescence, as the US expanded the bombing of North Vietnam in order to force the final negotiations.  This bombing bore fruit: The North Vietnamese signed a peace agreement in 1973.  Indeed, Nixon’s top diplomat, Henry Kissinger, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.  In the wake of the peace deal, Nixon intended to use military aid—the Nixon Doctrine—to guarantee the terms and so preserve the independence of South Vietnam.

However, Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal in 1974, and, after that, the ascendant Democrats in Congress felt no obligation to maintain his Vietnam policy.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that many Democratic doves couldn’t wait to cut off aid to South Vietnam, as a way of registering their contempt for the last vestige of Nixon’s policy.  And so in 1975, South Vietnam collapsed, and leading Democrats were jubilant.  The obvious defeatism of many Democrats became a big issue in the 1980 presidential election—the one in which Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.

In the 1980s, President Reagan revived the Nixon Doctrine, but not the Truman Doctrine.  Under the leadership of our 40th President, the US was fully committed to opposing communist regimes around the world, from Nicaragua to Angola to Poland to Afghanistan.  And yet Reagan always resisted using American forces in a combat role; as far as the US military itself was concerned, the Cold War would stay cold.  The result was a huge success: American aid helped defeat or unravel communist regimes from Central America to Central Asia.  Soon, the Berlin Wall fell, and then the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

Yet even as the struggle against communism ended in an American victory, the struggle against Islamism began to heat up.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush revived the Truman Doctrine; he sent more than half a million US troops to participate in Operation Desert Storm, which ejected the invading Iraqis from Kuwait.  Bush 41 deliberately limited American military objectives—that is, no “regime change”—so US casualties were minimal.

Later in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton, himself a non-participant in Vietnam, became more aggressive in pursuing new military ventures.  The 1993 “Blackhawk Down” incident in Somalia was part of a failed attempt at “nation building.” And, curiously, the various US interventions in the former Yugoslavia later in the decade were aimed mostly at actually helping to protect and emancipate Muslim populations.

Then beginning in 2001, President George W. Bush, another non-participant in Vietnam, loudly proclaimed the revival of the Truman Doctrine—that is, the direct use of US troops—even if he didn’t use those precise words.  And Bush, of course, added some additional rhetoric about the importance freedom as an end in itself.  For their part, while Truman and Kennedy had talked in generalities about “freedom,” they never worried very much whether or not, say, South Korea or South Vietnam were free countries: if they were American allies against communism, that was good enough.

Still, it is useful to compare the open-ended language of George W. Bush to the open-ended language of John F. Kennedy, 44 years earlier.  In 1961, Kennedy had declared, “We shall pay any price… in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  And in 2005, Bush echoed that ambitious tone when he declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were military successes, at least at first, but over time, the success seemed to dissipate as American casualties mounted.  Yes, the US military could score military gains, but it never could be effective at its political aims.  Indeed, the mere presence of US troops in a combat role seemed to galvanize opposition in occupied countries—the Muslim equivalent of Yanqui go home!

Moreover, the innate improbability of bringing Western-style freedom to Muslim countries was underscored by a 2013 Pew Center survey of Muslim populations across the world, which found that, for example, 99 percent of the people of Afghanistan support the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in that country, while  91 percent of Iraqis and 84 percent of Pakistanis support Sharia for their countries.  In other words, Sharia-minded Islamists are likely to win even the freest elections—and that means, of course, no freedom.

Indeed, even the staunchest supporters of Bush 43 policies have to concede that public anger over Iraq contributed mightily to the Democrats’ success in the 2006 and 2008 elections.  It might even be fair to say that Barack Obama’s rise to power—having bested two relative hawks, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, in the primary campaign and in the general election—was directly attributable to public antagonism to Bush war policies.  In other words, Bush + Revived Truman Doctrine = Obama.

For his part, Obama’s situation upon taking office in 2009 might be compared to Nixon’s situation back in 1969.  Yes, the enemy had changed, from communism to Islamism.  Still, in both cases, the new president faced the challenge of winding down a war waged by an unpopular predecessor from Texas.

Yet Obama followed a much different approach than had Nixon.  Whereas Nixon sought to preserve the US position in Vietnam, albeit without the expenditure of American blood, Obama sought to liquidate the US position in Iraq.  And that’s what he did: Obama wanted out, period; in 2010, the last US troops of Operation Iraqi Freedom were withdrawn.

The result of this precipitous withdrawal, as we know, was debacle: ISIS filled the vacuum and took over much of Iraq in 2014.  Today, operating from parts of Syria, too, ISIS has brought the Middle East to a new level of media-savvy savagery; the videos of beheadings and burnings have sent shock waves of fear and loathing around the globe.

Indeed, because ISIS is so awful, a new factor has entered into the geopolitics of the Middle East: There is now significant armed opposition to ISIS within the Arab world.

Whereas the Bush administration’s high hopes about the democratization of the Middle East proved illusory in the last decade, in this decade, ISIS depredations have caused a furious backlash in, most notably, Jordan.  Today, a vengeful Jordan pledges “a continued process to eliminate [ISIS] and wipe them out completely.”  Moreover, Jordan’s King Abdullah, always a friend to the West and more recently a fierce ISIS opponent, is probably more popular than ever.  Indeed, it seems that he now defines a new style of Arab military heroism.

Today, with US help, Jordan is now actively engaged against ISIS.  Indeed, other Arab countries, too, are helping in the effort, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.  In other words, the Nixon Doctrine is back: We are providing aid to the countries that are doing the fighting that serves our strategic interests.  Indeed, with enough American aid, it’s even possible that the anti-ISIS coalition could roll back the murderous Islamists.

Of course, none of these allied countries are democracies, or anything close, but that hardly seems to matter.  The US saw what it was like, for example, in 2011 when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won a national election; America’s interests, after all, are much better served by the autocratic generals now ruling in Cairo.

Once again, this wasn’t the planned policy of the Obama administration, but it is what has come to pass.  As noted, it’s better to be lucky than good.  And President Obama has, in fact, lucked out: He has stumbled into a rediscovery of the Nixon Doctrine.  Or, more precisely, the Nixon Doctrine has rediscovered him.


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