By David Frum
Updated 9:30 p.m.
President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night delivered a simple, clear, and forceful message: “Don’t blame me.”
The top foreign-policy priority of the president’s first term was to end the U.S. commitment in Iraq as rapidly and completely as possible, with minimal regard for what followed.
That policy was successfully implemented. Now we face the policy’s consequences: the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). So today we have a new priority: back to Iraq, back to war. To the untutored, that might seem like a pretty dismal outcome.
No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that.
The war against ISIS is a war that will be fought in alliance with Iran in support of Iranian client states: the Assad regime in Damascus and the sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad. Obama forced Iran’s special friend Nouri al-Maliki to resign as Iraqi prime minister. That prettied up the Baghdad government’s image, but the real power in Iraq remains the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). If U.S. airpower weakens ISIS, it’s the IRGC that will command the advancing Iraqi forces—and IRGC cadres who will stiffen the demoralized Iraqi army. In Syria, that same job will be done by Hezbollah.
If the United States were the kind of cold-blooded, realpolitik-practicing, 19th-century power so lovingly described by Henry Kissinger in his excellent histories, then the U.S. government might extract some cynical advantage from the situation. “Okay Mr. Ayatollah, we’ll save your bacon—pardon the expression—in Syria and Iraq. But we want something in return…”
For better or worse, however, the United States is not such a power. It is a moralistic democracy, accountable to voters who remember 35 years of Iranian terror attacks on Americans around the world. Alliance with an unreformed Iran is deeply embarrassing. The president has covered this embarrassment with the tried-and-true politicians’ method of refusing to acknowledge the blazingly obvious. The policy in Syria and Iraq is to bomb to smithereens the deadliest enemies of Bashar al-Assad and the mullahs of Iran—while insisting that the U.S. has no intention of helping Assad or the mullahs. Viscount Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, offered this explanation of cabinet government: “It doesn’t matter what damn lie we tell, so long as we all tell the same damn lie.” Helpful advice then, helpful advice now.
The trouble with the policy of aid-Iran-but-don’t-admit-it is that the United States receives nothing in return—and specifically, no abatement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration may hope that by acting as Iran’s air force today, the United States may somehow gain Iranian goodwill tomorrow. Instead, the bizarre real-world effect of the administration’s deny-the-obvious messaging is to empower the Iranians to act as if they were doing the United States a favor by allowing the United States to whomp their enemies for them.
This summer, Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that his greatest foreign-policy regret was not following up on his Libya intervention to ensure a stable transition to a new government. As admissions go, this one was a flabbergaster. Over four years, first in the U.S. Senate, then as a candidate for president, Barack Obama powerfully upbraided the Bush administration for the defects of its plan to stabilize Iraq after overthrowing Saddam. If he hit that point once, he hit that point a thousand times. Yet when it became his turn to overthrow a dictatorial regime, he dismissed his own top critique of his predecessor. He went to war in Libya without any clear idea of what was to come after, or how that was to be achieved. But more incredibly yet, Obama is now preparing another intervention—this one vastly more important—in Syria and Iraq with no clearer idea of what he hopes to achieve than he had in Libya.
Debates over foreign policy have a bad tendency to vaporize into abstract discussions of first principles: intervention or non-intervention? Responsibility to protect or mind our own business? Iraq and Syria today present a case that makes nonsense of abstractions. Intervene? The United States and its allies should intervene when intervention will advance U.S. and allied interests, consistent with U.S. and allied values. But where do we find the U.S. and allied interest in a war between al-Qaeda’s even nastier younger brother, on one side, and the mullahs of Iran on the other? If Iran were saying, “Please help us, and we’ll reorient our policy in a friendlier direction,” that would be one thing. They are not saying that. They are not doing that. They are doing the opposite.
It seems like only last year that this president was asking Congress for authority to bomb Assad. Twelve months later, he will bomb Assad’s enemies. Why does bombing one side of a war require congressional permission, while bombing the other side does not? The administration doesn’t answer, because nobody is asking. Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!
Those of us associated with the Bush administration bear the burden of having launched a war on false premises that then yielded disappointing results. It’s a heavy responsibility, and one most of us have struggled with in our various ways. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. But it’s one thing to fail to achieve your aims. It’s another to start a war with no discernible aims at all. It’s not crass, not narrow, not unethical for the president of the United States to test any proposed foreign policy—and most especially the use of armed force—against the criterion: “How will this benefit my nation?” That test is not a narrow one. The protection of allies is an important U.S. interest. The honoring of international commitments is an important U.S. interest. And it could even be argued that humanitarian action can be justified when it will save many lives, at low cost in American blood and treasure, without creating even worse consequences inadvertently. This new campaign against ISIS does not even pretend to meet that test. It’s a reaction: an emotional reaction, without purpose, without strategy, and without any plausible—or even articulated—definition of success.