Belmont Club

It's Alive

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters that ISIS “is beyond anything we have seen … They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded.”

Hagel’s realization that it’s beyond Obama’s ken is understandable. You really can’t see much from the 18th hole.

ISIS and the riots in Ferguson are examples of emergent events, which happens when big things suddenly constitute themselves out of a myriad of seemingly harmless little things and become something much larger than the original. It is the result of “a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties”.

President Obama’s whole approach to the world has been predicated on the idea that you can make deals with enemies of the United States in specific circumstances because each deal can be isolated from the others. Thus, he could engage in a ‘prisoner swap’ for Bowe Berghdahl or otherwise talk to the Taliban while still remaining in actual combat with them. Likewise it was possible to make a deal with Iran while remaining an ally of Israel.

It is well known for example that Qatar is a supporter of ISIS. “German Development Minister Gerd Mueller accused Qatar on Wednesday of financing Islamic State militants who have seized wide areas of northern Iraq and have posted a video of a captive American journalist being beheaded.”

“You have to ask who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops. The keyword there is Qatar – and how do we deal with these people and states politically?” said Mueller, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the center-right Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

In Obama’s world the observation that Qatar was a source of support for ISIS would not be germane. The relationship with Qatar was separable from the problem of ISIS. The “axis of evil” stuff was for limited minds. The president prided himself on being able to straddle all sides of an issue at once as the “only adult in the room”. He could take the big view of things and therefore hated the idea of “war” because it was so limiting, implying that one had to take just one side in a quarrel.

Why, with his great mind, Obama figured he could take all sides. Early in his presidency, deputy press secretary Bill Burton boasted that “when you’re President of the United States you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time”.

This is how to ring a motel front desk bell the Barack Obama way.

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Walter Russell Mead captured the conceit of Obama’s worldview in a 2013 article, “The Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East.”  Mead was starting to believe that Obama had overreached.

The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the ‘moderate middle’ of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.

President Obama (whom I voted for in 2008) and his team hoped that the success of the new grand strategy would demonstrate once and for all that liberal Democrats were capable stewards of American foreign policy.

Obama failed to realize the little bits and pieces could take on a life of their own. When Obama glowered over Putin, treating him like a doorman, little did he imagine that Putin was plotting to turn the tables on him. When he decided to overthrow Khadaffy, planning to cast himself as the protector of the persecuted Libyan masses, the president didn’t really foresee Benghazi. And when he became best buddies with the Gulf States over the Arab Spring it was far from his mind that Foley might be decapitated.

The same process was at work domestically. The ongoing recession has been particularly cruel to the black community. But so what, they would vote for him. They would always vote for him. But he needed to get in the good graces of the cops. So he gave them armored vehicles. Together recession and armored vehicles spelled F-e-r-g-u-s-o-n, but how could he anticipate that?

But when they came together, he got something he couldn’t buy his way out of with a few Obamaphones any more than he can put ISIS back in the bottle with a few airstrikes.

So Hagel now realizes that ISIS “is beyond anything we have seen … They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded.”  All the pieces were there. Obama just thought they were separately harmless and never come together.

Can Obama still control all the forces he’s ‘separably’ unleashed?  Maybe the reason he stays in the Vineyard is that he’s guessed the answer.  It’s his psychological bunker, where he waits, hoping for a last minute reprieve from Steiner. He doesn’t know what comes next anymore and frankly, is afraid to look.

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