During the 2008 election narrative, Max Boot remembers how Iraq was the Bad War and Afghanistan the “good war”. Afghanistan was the War of Necessity, the place where Barack Obama would finish what Osama bin Laden began. It was in contrast to Iraq regarded as “won” or at least easily winnable, an easy victory lap for a president who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of all his prospective achievements. But Boot notices that nobody wants to talk about Afghanistan any more, certainly not the president, because the won War looks irretrievably lost.
A new Pentagon report, which is invariably written with an optimistic perspective, concedes that security worsened in the second half of 2015.
Over at Long War Journal, Bill Roggio spells out how bad it’s gotten: “The Taliban now controls 37 districts in Afghanistan and contests another 39 … These numbers may be low given the methodology used to assess control and contested districts. The group has made a push to gain territory over the past two months, seizing 15 districts in the north, west, and south.”
Afghanistan was not the only foreign policy disappointment of the last seven years. Barring the administration’s “historic” nuclear deal with Iran and his Climate Change accord, the foreign policy landscape is one of desolation. This week marks the 5th anniversary of another epic chance missed, a once in a century opportunity turned to ashes: the Arab Spring. Once synonymous with hope it has become shorthand for the Mother of All Screwups.
One of the people who sparked it is guilt stricken at her role. “When I look at the region and my country, I regret it all. Death everywhere and extremism blooming, and killing beautiful souls” said Faida Hamdy “the council inspector who, five years ago today confiscated the vegetable stall of a street vendor in her dusty town in central Tunisia” and started it all rolling. Her confiscation led a young man to set a fire seen round the world.
In despair, that young man set himself on fire in a protest outside the council offices. Within weeks, he was dead, dozens of young Arab men had copied him, riots had overthrown his president, and the Arab Spring was under way. As the world marks the anniversary, Syria and Iraq are in flames, Libya has broken down, and the twin evils of militant terror and repression stalk the region.
Imagine a Battle of Lexington leading to a War of Independence that went horribly, horribly wrong. That wouldn’t be hard if you could conceive of a leadership that decided to “lead from behind”. Sohrab Ahmari, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says that when the old order collapsed an Islamism waiting in the wings came out to fill the vacuum left by a distant Barack Obama. “Good Guys” who were without guns found themselves abandoned by Western governments to bloodthirsty Mustache Petes in the cynical belief that it was easier to make a deal with political Islam or dictators than build a region on new democratic principles.
This was for some reason regarded as smart. Ahmari argues that by the time West found they could not negotiate with bad guys it was too late to reverse the damage:
How did dreams turn into nightmares? …Washington favored all actors equally, as though Egypt were Luxembourg and the Muslim Brotherhood just another center-right party. … In Libya, the U.S. removed Moammar Gadhafi under a legal abstraction—the responsibility to protect—then swiftly abandoned a country with few viable institutions to its tribal furies. In Syria, President Obama declared that Bashar Assad “must go,” and then watched impassively as the Iran-backed tyrant continued to kill and gas his own people, triggering a refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe.
Shadi Hamid, looking back on the Arab Spring in the Atlantic, concluded that the Obama administration’s inaction was objectively tantamount to complicity. “The notion of neutrality, for a country as powerful as the United States, is illusory.” Everyone took a side because everyone takes a side. Everyone that is, except Barack Obama, who was too smart to fight for his own interests and opted for intentional passivity.
America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy. Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture. The foreign-policy analysts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr called it the “Responsibility Doctrine,” a strategy of “prodding other influential nations … to help shoulder the burdens of fostering a stable, peaceful world order.”
The “Responsibility Doctrine” basically amounted to giving regional powers the license to loot while Washington stood with arms folded. Eventually the Obama administration’s “Reponsibility Doctrine” grew so expansive it even attracted far-off Russia, despite the fact that Moscow had been absent from the region for decades. Perhaps unable to refrain from joining the free for all, Putin appeared in time to turn American policy on Syria completely around. In a move that had even cynics shaking their head, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US was reversing its policy and was now willing to consider Assad remaining in office. For years Obama had considered Assad the problem. Now it was predisposed to see him as the solution.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following a day of meetings in Moscow with Russian officials, said the U.S. wasn’t committed to a policy of regime change in Syria—a sign of a further softening of the American position on President Bashar al-Assad’s role in a political transition.
Bradley Klapper of the Associated Press says that Kerry’s new attitudes go further than a mere concession on Assad. The administration has signed on to Moscow’s entire agenda. “As the United States and world powers gather again in a bid to end Syria’s civil war, Russia appears to be calling the shots.”
Nations meeting Friday in New York and the U.N. will essentially be negotiating a Russian plan for a “political transition,” based on the Syrian government’s consent and with no clear reference to President Bashar Assad’s departure.
And as they look for a way to secure and enforce a peace that has proved all too elusive since 2011, Russia’s recent military intervention appears to be providing the key leverage. As President Barack Obama said earlier this month, rebels who join the process could enjoy “pockets of cease-fire” where they no longer face Syrian or Russian bombs. The implication was that those who refuse could still be targeted.
There appears to be nothing the administration cannot screw up yet tout as a triumph. The transformation of an American hegemon into a water-carrier for Moscow, coupled with the loss of “won” Afghanistan not to mention the completely unnecessary squandering of the Arab Spring resulting in the wholesale destruction of the region must rank as one of the greatest reversals of all time. To invert Winston Churchill’s famous phrase: never has so much been thrown away for so little.
The population of the Middle East has lived to regret the Arab Spring. The only question is whether the West will endure long enough to regret Hope and Change.
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