AEIdeas » Marc Thiessen The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute Thu, 02 Oct 2014 02:51:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 No one warned you about the ‘chaos’ American withdrawal would cause, Mr. President? How about your predecessor? Mon, 29 Sep 2014 17:55:50 +0000 read more >]]> In an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes, President Obama blamed the intelligence community for underestimating the chaos that ISIS would unleash in the Middle East.

Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.… [B]ut over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.… And so this became ground zero for jihadists around the world. [Emphasis added]

So no one warned him about the chaos that would ensue if America withdrew from Iraq and allowed the terrorists to reconstitute themselves? No one at all?

As The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake points out, the intelligence community did warn Obama.  But someone else did as well – repeatedly. That was his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Bush constantly talked about the danger that terrorists would “take advantage of the chaos” if America allowed them to regroup and regain the safe havens they had lost.

Here is Bush in a March 19, 2008 speech at Pentagon:

If we were to allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq, the violence that is now declining would accelerate — and Iraq would descend into chaos.Out of such chaos in Iraq, the terrorist movement could emerge emboldened — with new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to dominate the region and harm America.

Here is Bush in a July 24, 2007 speech in South Carolina:

[If America withdraws] fighting could engulf the entire region in chaos, and we would soon face a Middle East dominated by Islamic extremists…. We’ve already seen how al Qaida used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities — and we must not allow them to do so again.

And here is Bush in April 24, 2007 press conference:

Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq … could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region … [and] ultimately … would increase the probability that American troops would one day have to return to Iraq and confront an enemy that’s even more dangerous.

Those are just a few examples. So sorry, Mr. President, you were warned – by your intelligence briefers and by your predecessor. You just failed to listen.

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At the UN, Obama channels his inner Bush Thu, 25 Sep 2014 19:03:14 +0000 read more >]]> Many commentators have noted the parallels between George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” and the “network of death” Obama described in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly this week.

But the parallels don’t end there. Now that he has launched military action in Iraq and Syria, it seems Obama is channeling his inner Bush. Consider:

Bush fought an “axis of evil,” and declared “You can’t reason with these people. There’s no need to negotiate with them.” Obama told the UN General Assembly last week, “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil.”

– Bush said “the future belongs not to terrorism but to freedom.” Obama told the UN “the future belongs to those who build – not those who destroy.”

– Bush said, “The terrorists who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, are followers of a radical and violent ideology.” Obama said, “It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.”

–  Bush said “we must be steadfast in the face of these cold-blooded killers…. The only way to deal with them is to bring them to justice.” Obama told the UN, “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

We should applaud Obama’s rhetorical shift as progress. Now let’s hope that the president’s determined rhetoric is matched by equally determined action on the ground.

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Obama is sending more troops to fight Ebola than to fight ISIS Tue, 16 Sep 2014 15:54:37 +0000 read more >]]> Last week, President Obama announced that he was sending 475 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the total number of troops in the country to about 1,600.

This morning, Reuters reports:

The United States announced on Tuesday it will send 3,000 troops to help tackle the Ebola outbreak as part of a ramped-up plan, including a major deployment in Liberia, the country where the epidemic is spiraling fastest out of control.

The US response to the crisis, to be formally unveiled later by President Barack Obama, includes plans to build 17 treatment centers, train thousands of healthcare workers and establish a military control center for coordination, US officials told reporters.

So let’s get this straight: President Obama is sending almost twice as many troops to fight Ebola as he is sending to fight ISIS.


As I point out in the Washington Post this week, in refusing to send more ground troops to Iraq, Obama is once again overruling the advice of his military commanders.  In 2010, Gen. Lloyd Austin advised keeping 24,000 troops in Iraq – a recommendation that President Obama rejected. And the Washington Post reports that, when asked for military options to fight ISIS, Austin told the president “his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants.” Austin’s recommendation, the Post reports, “was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve US ground forces in a front-line role.”

As my colleague, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, has repeatedly pointed out here, here and here, President Obama needs to do more to fight the Ebola outbreak.

But the question remains: why is Obama willing to put ground troops in harm’s way to fight a virulent epidemic, but not to fight a virulent terrorist network that has threatened the American homeland?

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Turns out Obama did not ‘end’ the Iraq war after all Mon, 15 Sep 2014 18:28:22 +0000 read more >]]> After Secretary of State John Kerry insisted on CNN last Thursday that America was not at war with the Islamic State, he reversed himself this weekend, telling CBS News’ Face the Nation that, “we are at war” with the group.

That’s good news.  If you can’t admit you’re at war, it’s unlikely you will prevail in that war.

But the Obama administration still is having trouble deciding which war it is fighting.

When he took office, Obama stopped referring to our fight with al Qaeda as the “war on terror” but he continued to use the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to go after al Qaeda and its affiliates. Indeed, just last week, when the Obama administration was insisting that it did not need to go to Congress for authorization to fight ISIS, it cited the 2001 AUMF.

But the administration insisted it was not operating under the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq – the resolution which endorsed Operation Iraqi Freedom, and under which we initially fought ISIS (which then went under the name “al Qaeda in Iraq”).

After all, Obama had opposed that resolution (as a state senator, he did not arrive in Washington till 2005) and he told us that he had “ended” the “long war in Iraq.” Indeed, this past July, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the 2002 AUMF was no longer operative, telling Speaker John Boehner in a letter, “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq…the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any US government activities and the administration fully supports its repeal.”

Fast forward two months. On Saturday, a senior administration official admitted to the New York Times that the White House is now relying on the 2002 Authorization for Military Force in Iraq, which provides “an alternative statutory authority basis on which the president may rely for military action in Iraq.”

So not only is Obama’s fight against the Islamic State a “war,” as a matter of law it is the same war that Obama told us he had ended.

This makes perfect sense, of course, since we are fighting the same enemy in Iraq that we fought during the surge in 2007.  But it illustrates the utter confusion in the White House today.

If Team Obama has this much trouble deciding whether we are at war, and which AUMF’s it is fighting under, how clear can it be about its strategy to defeat the enemy?

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Unlike Bush, Obama admitted no failure, took no responsibility Thu, 11 Sep 2014 11:09:48 +0000 read more >]]> At a similar point in his presidency, President George W. Bush gave an address to the nation laying out a new strategy in Iraq. In that speech, Bush:

  1. Took responsibility for the failure of his prior approach;
  2. Explained to the American people why his previous strategy failed;
  3. Acknowledged that he was changing course; and
  4. Explained how his new strategy differed from what was being done before.

Obama did none of this last night. He did not admit any failure on his part, or take any responsibility for allowing the rise of ISIS. He did not explain why his previous strategy had failed to stop ISIS or admit that he was changing course in any way. And he did not explain in any detail how his new strategy would actually work.

Here, in part, is what Bush said that night in January 2007. The contrast with Obama tonight is stark:

The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.

It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. So my national security team, military commanders and diplomats conducted a comprehensive review.

We consulted members of Congress from both parties, allies abroad, and distinguished outside experts…..

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have….

Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work….

So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad…

Here are the differences.

In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents but, when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned.

This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.

In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods. And Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations or IED attacks.

Yet, over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad’s residents….

Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.

But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world: a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people. A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them, and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that Obama would show similar willingness to acknowledge his own failures, or admit that he was changing course. He was at pains last night to let us know that he was no George W. Bush and he did – though not in the way he had hoped.

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Dismissing the ISIS threat: Remember these quotes Thu, 04 Sep 2014 14:40:43 +0000 read more >]]> In 2009, the Obama administration believed that al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking Americans’ homeland. Then, on Christmas Day 2009, they sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.

The administration got lucky – the bomb malfunctioned. Had it not, hundreds of Americans would have been killed. But in the aftermath of that attack, the administration was forced to admit that it was caught by surprise and didn’t realize AQAP had developed the intent or capability to strike the American homeland.

Now, with the rise of ISIS, is history repeating itself?

Today, the Obama administration is arguing that we are safe here at home because … you guessed it … ISIS has not developed the intent or capability to hit the American homeland.

Never mind that ISIS has made its intent to attack America clear. Their “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently warned: “Our last message is to the Americans: Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.”

You can’t get much more straight forward than that.

Not only is the administration ignoring the terrorists’ plain words, incredibly some administration officials are actually using the example of AQAP to prove their point, arguing that unlike AQAP, ISIS is not focused on attacks here in America.

This is the very terrorist network whose intent and capability Team Obama underestimated – and they are using them to argue that ISIS does not have the intent or capability to strike America?  Can they be any less self-aware?

You would think after their experience in 2009, the administration would be more careful this time around. But apparently this White House fails to learn from its own mistakes.

I’ve collected some of the various statements emanating from the Obama administration dismissing the ISIS threat. Feel free to clip this post and hang it on the fridge – a handy reminder of how Obama and his team dismissed the ISIS threat.

We’ll continue to update it with more quotes as they become available – though hopefully Obama officials will get a clue and stop downplaying the danger these terrorists pose to America.

President Obama:

 [S]ince 9/11 [we] have built up a security apparatus that makes us in the here and now pretty safe.  We have to be vigilant, but this [ISIS] doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland.


Al Qaeda affiliates still target our homeland — we’ve seen that in Yemen. Other extremists threaten our citizens abroad, as we’ve seen most recently in Iraq and Syria.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

There’s no evidence or indication right now that ISIL is actively planning or plotting to attack the United States.

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken:

One is the question of the threat that ISIS poses to us here in the homeland. Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey:

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

Pentagon Spokesman Adm. John Kirby:

And I’ve said this before, and say again today. We don’t believe they have the capacity right now, the capability to conduct a major attack on the homeland.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes:

While both [al Qaeda and ISIS] are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. That’s the direct threat that we have taken direct action against for many years. Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.

State Department Spokesman Jen Psaki:

I know there have been comments made about 9/11-style attacks. To date, we’ve not seen them focus on that kind of planning.


But our view is what I outlined, that while we don’t feel – and I know some have said that they see a 9/11-style attack – I think that’s come from the Hill – we’ve not seen them focus on that kind of planning.

Let’s hope, for the sake of our country, they don’t have to eat these words one day.

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Gen. Dempsey’s ISIS reversal, and his dangerous Yemen analogy Mon, 25 Aug 2014 18:51:43 +0000 read more >]]> Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey was crystal clear about the danger posed by ISIS. Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, he declared:

[The Islamic State] is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated. Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.

It appears Dempsey’s assessment was too forward-leaning for the Obama White House.  So, the Associated Press reports, he clarified his views over the weekend:

[T]he chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that right now, he still believes the insurgent group is still more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.

This was more in tune with the official White House line, as articulated by Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken that:

Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their [ISIS’] focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.”

This is a dangerous thing for a senior administration official to be saying.  But unfortunately Dempsey went even further during his “walk back” interview, comparing ISIS’s regional focus to that of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, which has attempted several attacks on the homeland.  Writes the AP:

He contrasted the Islamic State group to the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted and attempted attacks against the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes against the group within Yemen.

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

One problem with that:

This was precisely the Obama administration’s assessment of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – that it was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking America – back in 2009 … right before it sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Later, in the aftermath of that attack, the Obama administration admitted it did not know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had developed the capability and intent to strike the American homeland.

Now they are claiming that ISIS has not developed the capability or intent to hit America.

As Winston Churchill put it in his book, The World Crisis, “Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.”

They were wrong once. Disaster was averted only because the bomb malfunctioned.  The next time, we might not be so lucky.

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Obama on Iraq: A tale of two press conferences Thu, 21 Aug 2014 13:43:37 +0000 read more >]]> Contrast President Obama’s press conference yesterday following the execution of American journalist James Foley in Iraq with the one he gave on Iraq two days before.

Yesterday, August 20, Obama said that the Islamic State is “killing unarmed civilians,” committing “torture and rape and slavery,” declaring “their ambition to commit genocide,” and has “no place in the 21st century.” America would be “relentless” in dealing with the threat.

Tough words. But two days before, he was singing a different tune, more concerned about stopping “mission creep” than stopping the Islamic State. Here is the president’s statement of resolve on Monday, August 18:

We’re not the Iraqi military, we’re not even the Iraqi air force. I am the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and Iraq is gonna have to ultimately provide for its own security.

Translation: Not my problem. America will help at the edges – stopping a Yazidi genocide, protecting our diplomatic facilities, taking back a dam. But that’s it. We’ve got nation-building here at home to worry about.

That attitude – that reluctance to lead – is why the Islamic State has been able to take control of a swath of the Middle East the size of Belgium and carry out all the horrific acts we are seeing today – from burying women and children alive, to crucifixions, to the beheading of an American citizen.

Yet even after that horrific act, Obama continued to downplay the threat poses by the Islamic State. He said yesterday:

They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.

They don’t claim they are at war with America, they are at war with America. Taking an American hostage and beheading him on global television is an act of war. It is a terrorist attack. And for the Islamic State, it is only the beginning.

Worse still, Obama declared that “People like this ultimately fail” – as if the Islamic State was going to somehow magically collapse on its own accord.

People like this don’t “fail.” They have to be stopped. Nazi Germany didn’t fail. It was defeated.

The Islamic State won’t be defeated until the president of the United States understands that.

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Why the Foley beheading will force Obama to continue US airstrikes Wed, 20 Aug 2014 17:08:25 +0000 read more >]]> President Obama’s decision to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq was made with deep reluctance. He resisted calls from the Iraqi government for such strikes for a year. And when he finally did authorize them, he made clear that the US campaign would be limited in scope – only to prevent the Islamic State from overrunning US diplomatic facilities in northern Iraq (for fear of another Benghazi), massacring Yazidis and controlling the Mosul Dam.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, the success of those initial strikes has created pressure on Obama to expand the American air campaign.

In an article titled “US Airstrike Success Spurs Push for More Iraq Attacks,” the Journal reports:

The US military’s recent success in weakening Islamic State extremists and pushing them away from a key dam in Iraq is creating momentum for a broader campaign that could take American air power to the militant group’s heartland northwest of Baghdad.

Military planners are considering new airstrikes to prevent militants with the Islamic State from taking control of another strategic site, the Haditha Dam, which lies in Iraq’s Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province, US officials said Tuesday….

The prospect of expanding America’s role has set off debate within the Obama administration and the military…. It isn’t clear how American airstrikes in Anbar would fit under Mr. Obama’s stated rationale for renewed military operations in Iraq. Earlier this month, the president said the US military was launching strikes to protect American military and civilian personnel working in Iraq and to prevent Islamic State forces from wiping out the Yazidis.

Obama’s natural instinct would be to resist this pressure to expand the US military role in Iraq, and even to curtail the current air campaign once the limited objectives he set out have been met.

But now, thanks to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, Obama cannot curtail US military action, without appearing to give in to terrorist demands.

In the video they released showing Foley’s brutal execution, they force him to read a statement blaming Obama’s airstrikes for his death. And they threaten to behead another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, depending on Obama’s “next decision” with regard to the air campaign.

This sinister threat makes it impossible for Obama to scale back US airstrikes. If he does, the terrorists will believe that their brutal execution tactics worked. The world will believe it as well, sending a signal of American weakness in the face of terrorist threats. And it will create incentives for the Islamic State to capture more Americans, whose lives they can threaten to deter US military action.

In other words, Obama really has no choice but to continue the American air campaign – whether he wants to or not.

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The (latest) Obama Doctrine: ‘No victor/no vanquished’ Thu, 14 Aug 2014 13:35:07 +0000 read more >]]> It’s been hard to keep up with all the Obama Doctrines that have emerged over the past five years.

First, the Libyan war gave us the doctrine of “leading from behind.”

Then, in Syria, we saw the birth of a new Obama Doctrine: military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked” (though, Obama backed off of even those miniscule strikes, taking that one out of contention).

Then earlier this year, Obama claimed the guiding principle of his foreign policy was “Don’t do stupid shi*t.”

Now, in an interview with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Obama unveiled yet another Doctrine – one, he says, that guides both his domestic and foreign policies: “No victor/no vanquished.” Said Obama:

We have so many things going for us right now as a country — from new energy resources to innovation to a growing economy — but we will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that we’re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together.

It’s hard to fathom just how inane – and hypocritical – this is. Domestically, Obama didn’t exactly follow the “no victor/no vanquished” approach when he controlled both houses of Congress and rammed the stimulus and Obamacare through on party-line votes. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor gave President Obama a list of modest proposals for the stimulus at a White House meeting, but Obama told the assembled Republicans that “elections have consequences” and “I won.” In other words, he was the “victor” and they were the “vanquished.” Deal with it.

Internationally, does he really believe that we should follow a doctrine of “no victor/no vanquished” when it comes to the fight with the Islamic State – a movement so radical it has been crucifying its opponents? Apparently so. For a year, he rejected repeated calls by the Iraqi government for drone strikes to prevent the advance of the Islamic State. Now that the Islamic State has taken control of large swaths of Iraq, Obama has launched limited strikes – only to protect US diplomatic facilities in northern Iraq (for fear of another Benghazi) and prevent the massacre of Yazidi minorities, but not to defeat the Islamic State or drive it from its strongholds.

So it seems our policy when it comes to the Islamic State is a hybrid of the Obama Doctrines: “no victor/no vanquished” and strikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked.”

That explains a lot.

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