It is official: US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama is at war again. After toppling Libyan ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi and bombing targets in Somalia and Yemen, Obama has initiated airstrikes in the Syria-Iraq belt, effectively declaring war on the Islamic State – a decision that will involve infringing on the sovereign, if disintegrating, state of Syria. In his zeal to intervene, Obama is again disregarding US and international law by seeking approval from neither the US Congress nor the United Nations Security Council.
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, launched America’s so-called “war on terror” to defeat groups that he insisted wanted to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” But Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was so controversial that it fractured the global consensus to fight terror, with the Guantánamo Bay detention center and the rendition and torture of suspects coming to symbolize the war’s excesses.
After Obama took office, he sought to introduce a gentler, subtler tone. Contending in a 2009 interview that “the language we use matters,” he rebranded the war on terror as a “struggle” and a “strategic challenge.” But the rhetorical shift did not translate into a change in strategy, with the Obama administration moving beyond security concerns to use its anti-terrorism activities to advance America’s broader geopolitical interests.
Thus, instead of viewing the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 as the culmination of the anti-terror “struggle” that Bush launched, the Obama administration increased aid to “good” rebels (such as those in Libya), while pursuing “bad” terrorists more vehemently, including through a “targeted killing” program. When it comes to terrorist activity, however, such lines are difficult to draw.
For example, Obama initially placed the Islamic State in the “good” category, as it undermined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and Iran’s interests in Syria and Iraq. His position changed only after the Islamic State threatened to overrun Iraq’s Kurdish regional capital, Erbil – home to US military, intelligence, diplomatic, and business facilities. Add to that the beheadings of two American journalists, and suddenly Obama’s team was using Bush’s war rhetoric, declaring that the US is at war with the Islamic State “in the same way that we are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates all around the globe.”
America’s war on terror now risks becoming a permanent war against an expanding list of enemies – often inadvertently created by its own policies. Just as covert aid to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s contributed to Al Qaeda’s emergence – something that Hillary Clinton acknowledged when she was Obama’s secretary of state – the help that the US and its allies provided to Syrian insurgents after they emerged in 2011 contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
The US returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to wage an as-yet-unfinished war on the jihadists whom its actions had spawned. Likewise, it is now launching a war in Iraq and Syria against the offspring of Bush’s forced regime change in Baghdad and Obama’s ill-conceived plan to topple Assad.
It is time for the US to recognize that since it launched its war on terror, the scourge has only spread. The Afghanistan-Pakistan belt has remained “ground zero” for transnational terrorism, and once-stable countries like Libya, Iraq, and Syria have emerged as new hubs.
Obama’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, whose top leaders enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan, indicates that he is more interested in confining terrorism to the Middle East than defeating it – even if it means leaving India to bear the brunt of terrorist activity. (In fact, Pakistan’s ongoing war of terror against India also sprang from America’s anti-Soviet operation in Afghanistan – the largest in the CIA’s history – as the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence siphoned off a large share of the billions of dollars in military aid for the Afghan rebels.)
Similarly, Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State seeks merely to limit the reach of a barbaric medieval order. Moments after declaring his intention to “degrade and destroy” the group, Obama responded to a reporter’s request for clarification by stating that his real goal is to turn the Islamic State into a “manageable problem.”
Making matters worse, Obama plans to use the same tactics to fight the Islamic State that led to its emergence: authorizing the CIA, aided by some of the region’s oil sheikhdoms, to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels. It is not difficult to see the risks inherent in flooding the Syrian killing fields with even more and better-armed fighters.
The US may have some of the world’s top think tanks and most highly educated minds. But it consistently ignores the lessons of its past blunders – and so repeats them. US-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilizations only by fueling a clash within a civilization that has fundamentally weakened regional and international security.
An endless war waged on America’s terms against the enemies that it helped to create is unlikely to secure either steady international support or lasting results. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tepid Arab and Turkish response to America’s effort to assemble an international coalition in support of what the Obama administration admits will be a multiyear military offensive against the Islamic State.
The risk that imperial hubris accelerates, rather than stems, Islamist terror is all too real – yet again.