Abandoning Iraq and failing to act in Syria have left a vacuum that ISIS and other terrorist groups are filling. Obama's criticism of his predecessor is no substitute for a real foreign policy.
BERLIN — The world still remembers that May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" moment, when U.S. President George W. Bush, clad in a flight suit, landed on the aircraft carrier "USS Abraham Lincoln" and declared victory in the war in Iraq.
After that, of course, civil war in Mesopotamia really started, costing untold numbers of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers their lives.
The "Mission Accomplished" banner earned Bush much ridicule and criticism from Barack Obama's Democrats — even years later, when Bush's embattled decision to deploy additional troops and apply a new surge strategy to fighting the rebels really did turn a page.
Now it is time to point out Obama's "mission accomplished" moment. In December 2011, when the troops were about to come home, the president gave a speech at Fort Bragg in which he applauded this "moment of success" and claimed that America was leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and independent Iraq."
The most recent territorial gains made by the Islamist terrorist group ISIS make it clear, however, that much of what the Americans achieved at the cost of so much bloodshed has now been lost again. The city of Mosul and the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh are now in the hands of radical Islamists. In his need to pull out of Iraq as quickly as possible, along with his failure to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sign the U.S. troop agreement, Obama put nine years of American work to stabilize and rebuild the country at risk of coming undone.
Of course, it's not fair to blame the Americans alone for the renewed disintegration of Iraq. The sectarian actions of Maliki well and truly deserve part of the blame for the Islamist victories. While the United States had been counting on reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, the Shiite prime minister did everything to alienate the Sunnis instead of including them.
Still, American hesitancy in the region shares part of the blame for the fact that ISIS — which split from al-Qaeda because it was too radical even for bin Laden disciples — is not only in control of Raqqa in Syria but also Iraq's second largest city (Mosul), and major chunks of northern territory. Obama's strategy of moving away from involvement in global crises, American world-weariness, and the disintegration of Arab statehood in the region have created vacuums that various terror groups have exploited — in Syria as in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
According to a just-published Rand report, terrorist danger in the world has registered a disturbing rise in the last few years. While there were only 28 salafist-jihadist groups in the al-Qaeda mold in 2007, there were 49 in 2013. In 2007, they carried out some 100 attacks. Last year, there were 950 attacks. The groups now have 44,000 to 105,000 active adherents, which is twice the 2007 number.
New bases, more momentum
The number of attacks by groups with ties to al-Qaeda has tripled. Even the U.S. State Department had to admit in a recent report that for some time now the number of terrorist attacks has been on a strong upward curve. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, the number of attacks increased from 6700 to 9700, according to the report. Some 18,000 people have been killed, and 33,000 injured.
The hope in the West a few years ago was that the Arab Spring revolutions would decimate societal support and breeding grounds for the jihadists. But the opposite has happened. The disintegration of Libyan statehood, Sinai and Mali have offered the terrorists the possibility of using these areas as bases for operations and rehabilitation. And the ongoing civil war in Syria is the best instrument for recruiting fighters and acquiring donations for arms.
The country has become the new Afghanistan — a center of attraction and a training ground for the next generation of jihadist fighters who will be able to make use elsewhere of the fighting experience they get there. And now the same thing has happened in Iraq. ISIS cleverly used the porous borders with Syria to draw jihadists initially recruited for Syria into the neighboring country.
After initial ISIS victories in Syria, it began to meet resistance from moderate rebels and Kurds. That apparently led the organization to concentrate more of its considerable fighting power in northern Iraq, where the Iraqi army was not able to take much of a stand against them. Winning oil-rich Mosul was lucrative booty for sure.
ISIS can thus create the reign it so desires over an extensive territory comprising parts of Syria and northern Iraq. Since the Americans destroyed the Afghan symbiosis between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, no terror group has achieved anything like this. And it will draw more Islamist radicals from around the world who will either join ISIS or donate money. From that point of view, the Mosul victory was a successful PR coup.
Where foreign policy is concerned, Obama has always positioned himself as anti-Bush, as someone who wanted to avoid the errors of his predecessor. But it's not enough to aspire to be the anti-Bush or to espouse a "don't do stupid things" foreign policy. Mistakes can often be the result of hyperactivity, but there are also mistakes of omission, the consequences of which usually require more time to emerge.
Syria is such a mistake, as was the unwillingness to help stabilize Libya after the fall of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. And that's a reproach that applies to Europe as well, which is far more vulnerable to the new nests of terror in its vicinity than the United States. These terrorist breeding grounds in the Middle East are far closer to the Western nerve center than al-Qaeda in Afghanistan ever was.
The mistake of underestimating the dangers of global jihadism should not be repeated.