June 13, 2014
An image taken from a video uploaded on Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claiming to show fighters in Tikrit, Iraq. (Credit ISIS, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
The Arab Spring is over. Welcome to the Jihadi Spring.
Across a huge swath of what, up until recently, had been known as Iraq and Syria, a transnational movement of Sunni Islamic extremists has taken control. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered — without much effort — Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, along with most of the province of Nineveh. It’s also taken Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Along the way it has ransacked banks (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars), pillaged weapon stockpiles (including the stuff we left behind for the Iraqi army), and recruited ever more fighters from Iraq, Syria, and abroad.
ISIS started out as an al-Qaeda franchise, but in 2011 it broke off to become an independent dealer of Islamist mayhem. If anything, it is more extreme than al-Qaeda — though that fine distinction probably means little to the Shiites and Christians it slaughters.
Sunday in Pakistan, Taliban militants attacked the airport in Karachi, the country’s busiest and most important travel hub. They followed up with an attack on an airport security-training facility, showing that there was no area of Pakistan it could not threaten. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came into office seeking an accord with the Taliban. But the Taliban won’t abandon its key objective: a total Islamist state. After the attacks, most observers think Sharif will have little choice but to unleash the army on the insurgents.
Late last month, President Obama announced at West Point that we are definitely leaving Afghanistan, period. That period took the form of a prisoner swap in which we essentially gave back five top Taliban commanders. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda linked and inspired groups are on the rise in Nigeria, Yemen, the Philippines, Libya, and elsewhere.
The good news is that the administration has a policy to deal with the Jihadi Spring. The bad news is that it looks to be the same policy it had for the Arab Spring: nothing.
Nothing, that is, beyond casting lots of words and Twitter hashtags into the air like so many magic beans that will sprout into peace and security wherever they find purchase.
That’s the hitch. This administration’s words don’t have much traction around the world, or at least where it matters. (He’s still popular in Belgium!)
Often, when critics call attention to these and numerous other foreign-policy failures, the president and his defenders will argue that the critics want war. Indeed, in his West Point speech, Obama took a firm and forthright stand against an argument pretty much nobody is making: Military action “cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance.”
Even the most rabid hawks (though technically, I don’t think birds can get rabies) would never dream of arguing that the military should be the only or primary component of leadership in “every instance.”
But this is a clever, albeit grotesquely cynical, ploy. If you give the American people a choice between, on the one hand, doing nothing beyond tweeting slogans and lecturing the “international community” and, on the other, sending American troops into harm’s way in the Middle East (or Ukraine or the South China Sea), Americans are going to choose option A, and understandably so.
A better option would be a time machine. That way today’s President Obama could go back and give first-term Obama the benefit of his experience. He could tell him that foreign policy should define his talking points, not the other way around. With that foresight, maybe he would have done more to help democracy in Iran when the streets were full of protestors. Perhaps he wouldn’t have wasted so much time harassing Israel as if it were the cause of a centuries-old Sunni–Shia civil war. Or maybe he would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq to deter the rise of ISIS. Or maybe he would have followed through on his “red line” threats to Syria. Today’s Obama could tell first-term Obama that Mitt Romney was right about Russia, and that “Bin Laden is dead” isn’t a foreign policy, it’s a bumper sticker.
Defenders of the president often ask critics, “Well, what do you want to do?” I’ll be honest. I don’t know. We have no good options left. I certainly think we should provide assistance to the (corrupt and pathetic) Iraqi government to repel ISIS. (Obama turned down their requests for air support last month.) But I certainly don’t want boots on the ground.
What I want is that time machine.