At a press conference held today in Turkey where he is attending the Group of 20 summit, President Obama was not in a mood to answer questions about the efficacy of his anti-terrorism strategy. Though the very day that Obama had said ISIS was “contained,” the group pulled off a series of coordinated terror attacks in Paris that took the lives of 129 people, in his first press availability since then the president showed no signs of being chastened by events. If anything, he was annoyed. Annoyed at ISIS for demonstrating how ineffectual his efforts at defeating them have been. And he was clearly annoyed, as he often is when pressed about his failures, at the press for continuing to probe for any sign that he is willing to re-evaluate his approach to the issue.
The question about what is the smartest way to respond to the ISIS overseas offensive as well as how to rout them out of their stronghold in Iraq and Syria that is the size of a small country is both difficult and contentious. But the main takeaway from Obama’s presser is not so much that he is unwilling to consider alternatives to an American strategy that offers little hope of defeating ISIS. Just as important is his dogged refusal to admit that he has failed in spite of the manifest evidence that American policy is an ongoing disaster. That’s a terrible failing in any man, let alone a commander-in-chief. But it is particularly bad for Obama because, at least when viewed from this perspective, because it proves that the keynote of his entire presidency is a falsehood. Throughout the last seven years, Democrats have justified everything that Obama has done, good or bad, on the basis of the contrast with the supposedly failed administration of George W. Bush.
Most of us may agree that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake and there is much else to criticize about the Bush presidency. But when faced with the disaster that the insurgency created after Saddam’s fall, Bush did not pretend that all was well as Obama did today. Though he was no more eager to admit failure than anyone else, Bush did not double down on a strategy that was going nowhere. At the end of 2006 with the war at a stalemate, he faced up to facts. He sacked his secretary of defense and switched strategies allowing the troop surge that would during the course of the next two years turn the war to America’s favor. By the time that Obama came into office, he had inherited a stable situation that he could declare Iraq to be a war that had been won.
Obama threw away that victory by abandoning Iraq and opened the door for ISIS. Yet Democrats can argue, with at least a little justice that the whole thing is Bush’s fault for starting the Iraq war. The question of who is more to blame for the current mess is more one for the historians than policymakers. Instead, what we need to address today is whether the U.S. will persist in a half-hearted approach to fighting an enemy that is committed to expanding its caliphate in the Middle East while also bringing the war to the West as it just did in Paris.
The president continued to insist today that his effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS is working. While conceding that the Paris attacks were a “terrible and sickening setback,” he claims, “we have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through.”
But you don’t have to be a security expert to understand that the U.S. doesn’t have the right strategy. In the 15 months since the president was forced to declare his intention to fight ISIS, the group has more than held its own in the field in Iraq and Syria while repeatedly demonstrating the ability to inflict terror on Western targets. Wars are either being won or lost, and ISIS’s cadres can’t be blamed for thinking that they are currently winning. Rather than inspiring Americans to do what is necessary to achieve victory, Obama’s stand projects both weakness and defeatism to a world that has a right to look to the United States for leadership.
Obama came into office determined never to fight any more wars in the Middle East and that has colored his desultory effort against ISIS. The pinprick bombing attacks and the resolute refusal to apply the sort of massive force that only the U.S. can deploy makes it clear that the president’s only real objective is to maintain the status quo until he is safely out of office. That’s why the president sees the Paris attacks, criticism from Republican opponents and questions from the press about the obvious disconnect between his rhetoric and reality, as annoyances rather than a potent challenge to reassess his preconceptions.
For all of his manifold talents, President Obama’s chief shortcoming remains a dogged refusal to ever consider the possibility that he might be mistaken. To an objective observer, the course of the war in Iraq and Syria, as well as the spread of Islamist terror on his watch, would at the very least call into question the president’s strategy. Yet everything that has happened in the last seven years has only served to deepen Obama’s conviction that he was right about everything in the first place. As much as it is hard for Bush to shake the reputation of a failed president, he had one characteristic that Obama lacks: the ability to admit error and change his mind to adapt to circumstances. Unless President Obama stops sniping at the press and develops the ability to emulate Bush in that respect, ISIS will continue to win placing the entire world and not just Iraq and Syria in jeopardy. That he is willing to stick to his preconceptions about the war in spite of the mounting evidence that he is not living up to his responsibilities to the American people is nothing short of a disgrace.
It is President Obama’s great misfortune that the wars he wanted so much to end cannot be concluded by an executive order. The enemy has its own ideas and they have prospered as his focus abroad has been on appeasing Iran and picking fights with Israel. Like it or not, he must now concentrate on the war on ISIS that is obviously going badly. But if he persists in conducting a phony war against ISIS, the world that his successor will inherit will be far less safe than the one he was handed by Bush.