Foreign policy by hubris

Foreign policy by hubris

August 12th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

It all comes down to hubris.

On Aug. 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, desirous of looking tough in the eyes of the Kennedy men who surrounded him after the former president's assassination the previous November and needing to look strong against November election foe Sen. Barry Goldwater, signed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that ultimately brought the United States into a war in Vietnam that wouldn't end for nine years.

On Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon, who had widened and then ended American involvement in the Vietnam War, resigned from office after helping cover up what press secretary Ronald Ziegler described as a "third-rate burglary" perpetrated by men who were working for the president's re-election, a re-election that was practically in the bag but one he wanted to win in such a grand style to show up all of the people who had disdained and belittled him.

Now, in August 2014, President Barack Obama is reaping the consequences of the same type of excessive pride or confidence that Johnson and Nixon had, his overreach evident in -- among other things -- his cocksureness that once the United States withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011 the country would have no further strategic military interest there.

The president's lack of understanding and interest in foreign policy kept him from concluding a status of forces agreement that would have kept troops in the country and perhaps would have prevented parts of the country from being overrun this year by a militant Muslim army referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The importance of the country now apparent three years too late, Obama finds himself without a lot of win-win scenarios as the situations in Syria and Iraq worsen and as members even of his Democratic party worry about the spread of militant Islamic groups to the United States.

He is right when he says this country is war weary and not likely to want boots on the ground in the country where more than 4,480 died between the start of hostilities in 2003 -- because of what some have said was the hubris of another president, George W. Bush-- to today.

But airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops, which the administration began in the country last week in an effort to stop the advance of ISIS troops and help Iraqi forces regain control, might not be enough.

Nor is it clear whether Obama can have influence to foster a more consensus government than the one led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has pursued a sectarian agenda that alienated that country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

But apparently the United States is also arming the Kurds in the northern part of the country, where the sect has begun to turn back ISIS troops, according to news reports. Although the effort is a reversal of administration policy, which previously allowed selling arms directly to the Iraq government, it is a welcome, albeit late, step.

Had Obama helped arm the moderate Syrian rebels in their civil war with President Bashar al-Assad that dates to 2011, ISIS troops based there might not have gotten a green light to launch into Iraq. There is still time for that, of course, and sooner or later airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria will have to be considered.

Now, even the administration's former secretary of state, 2016 Democrat candidate-in-waiting Hillary Clinton, wants to add her two-cents' worth.

Although she has said she urged Obama to arm and train the Free Syrian Army early on, she hedged when asked recently whether arming the Syrian rebels would have prevented the rise of ISIS.

"I don't know the answer to that," she said in an interview with The Atlantic, adding, "I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad -- there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle -- the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."

Clinton also seemed to make light of Obama's sophomoric foreign-policy mantra of "don't do stupid stuff," saying, "Great nations need organizing principles. And 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."

So while the majority of the American people may not yet be ready to believe Sen. Lindsey Graham's recent pronouncement about the crisis being "just not about Baghdad ... not just about Syria ... [but] about our homeland," the South Carolina senator may understand what Obama's hubris may not let him -- that militant Islamists hate the United States, won't be soothed by words spoken over a negotiating table and aren't ready to stop in Syria and Iraq.