Last Tuesday night, May 26, PBS showed a Frontline documentary called “Obama at War,” the title itself being an oxymoron of sorts because the portrait they painted of President Obama was basically that of a wimp who doesn’t want to get the U.S. involved in any more wars over the Middle East, particularly having troops on the ground in places like Syria that don’t have that much discernible importance to the U.S.’s national interest. The title was a calculated bit of irony, obviously evoking the name of Bob Woodward’s first book about the George W. Bush administration, Bush at War, and the extent to which “national security” issues and particularly the hysterical response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks came to define the second Bush presidency (and incidentally almost certainly saved him from the one-term fate that befell his father). Obama, as is well known, won the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 to a large degree because he was, and apparently always had been, against Bush II’s ridiculous and counterproductive invasion of Iraq in 2003, whereas his principal rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, had been a sitting Senator when the war was being debated and had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to make the attack. Though the collapse of the U.S. economy probably had more to do with Obama’s ultimate victory in the 2008 general election than his stand on foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular (John McCain was actually catching up to him until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 reversed the trends in the polls almost overnight and gave Obama his victory margin), Obama still took office with the self-image of someone who gets his country out of wars, not into them — and even when he has escalated he’s tried to do so “on the cheap,” getting other countries to contribute. Indeed, under Obama the U.S.’s principal tactic against real or alleged terrorists has become the air strike with drones, which has the obvious political advantage of not putting any U.S. servicemembers directly at risk — though given how much more sloppily the drones have been targeted than the hype surrounding them suggests (including wiping out an entire wedding party in Pakistan) it seems highly likely there will be “collateral damage” from them as terror organizations find new recruits among the surviving relatives of civilians killed by drone strikes and engage them to mount terrorist attacks against Americans, either here or (more likely) abroad.
What was most amazing about “Obama at War” is that, despite all the hype from the Right that regards PBS as just another part of the “liberal media Establishment” they regularly denounce, the attitude the show takes towards the Obama administration almost exactly lines up with the Republican propaganda line denouncing Obama as a dangerous wimp whose actions, or rather non-actions — failing to keep a U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq and failing to intervene on behalf of the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria (whose existence was actually a collective fantasy on the part of the U.S. military-industrial establishment — there are basically two sides in the Syrian civil war, the Bashir al-Assad government and the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, including but not limited to ISIS, and to the extent that there are fighters who aren’t aligned with either of those camps, there are so few of them they are basically irrelevant; indeed, the show itself notes that the so-called “moderate rebels” are abandoning the struggle altogether, I suspect because they know that they are likely to be executed either by the al-Assad government if it survives or by ISIS if it takes over, and they figure quitting altogether is the best hope they have to live through the outcome, whichever of those it is) — basically created ISIS and allowed it to survive, thrive and take over cities like Mosul and Ramadi the U.S. already laid down a lot of blood and treasure to capture in the first place in the 2003-2011 war. One of the most interesting exchanges in the program was this one, regarding the pull-back from Obama’s “red-line” position that he’d launch air strikes against the Assad government if it used chemical weapons against its citizens to the position that he’d accept a proposal from the government of Russia (i.e., president Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister) to broker a peace deal in which the Syrian government would turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for not being attacked by the Americans:
DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: It was the right decision. Had we conducted the military campaign that had been planned, we would not have taken out a high percentage of his chemical weapons. The credible threat of force brought about an opening for diplomacy to come in, which then led to something that no one thought was possible.
AMR AL-AZM, Syrian Opposition: No. I think it was a terrible, terrible error on the part of this administration. I mean, it’s not just a red line. This is the president of the United States, this is the White House, and a tinpot dictator challenges that and gets away with it? Who’s going to believe you next time?
Yet at the same time, the show acknowledged towards its end that there aren’t really any good options on how to deal with ISIS. The irony is that ISIS has gripped the world of Sunni Islam like the proverbial prairie fire, catching the imagination of hundreds of thousands of potential recruits. I’ve noted the irony of President Obama saying recently that as part of his strategy against ISIS he wants to recruit and help train a new Iraqi army, which will fight … the last Iraqi army the U.S. trained, whose Sunni members have deserted en masse and joined ISIS, giving the guerrilla group (and ISIS is really much more a guerrilla group than an al-Qaeda style terror organization — indeed, it was precisely over the issue of whether the way to bring about the revival of the Islamic caliphate was to stage spectacular 9/11-style attacks in foreign countries or to take and hold territory in Muslim-majority states that ISIS broke from al-Qaeda in the first place) the backbone of its fighting power just as its success in holding oil-producing regions of Iraq has given it its financial clout. There doesn’t seem to be any good way for the U.S. to counter ISIS; trying to create puppet states in the region to limit its influence (as the U.S. did with Iran from 1953 to 1979 and with Iraq from 2003 to 2011) hasn’t worked; drone strikes have created havoc but haven’t harmed ISIS long-term because their “bench” is strong enough they can easily replace anyone we kill; and while I suspect the fooforaw about ISIS allegedly using social media to recruit terrorists worldwide is largely propaganda bunk, it’s true they’ve been able to turn up people in surprising locations even though most of the people who are claiming allegiance to ISIS and citing it as a motivation for terrorist idiocies like the attempted attack on an anti-Muslim rally in Garland, Texas probably have no more to do with ISIS than I do. ISIS is going to be a headache for the U.S. for years, and is probably going to get a lot stronger before it gets weaker (and the example of Iran, where a Fundamentalist Islamic government has kept a stranglehold on power for 36 years and shows no signs of letting up despite an increasingly restive population, many of whom — particularly their younger people — want to break free of Islamic restrictions and be part of the same world as the relatively cosmopolitan West, doesn’t encourage the thought that ISIS’s excesses, especially where it actually rules, will provoke a successful revolution against it) — and neither claiming that Obama hasn’t been “tough” enough (I’m convinced the next President, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or a Republican, will put U.S. troops in the ground in yet another ill-starred campaign in the Middle East, this one with the avowed purpose of defeating ISIS) nor continually blaming the Bush administration for the mess (yes, they made the mess, but it’s still the responsibility of America’s future leaders to clean it up) is going to be much help.