Hillary Clinton appears to have the better of the foreign policy argument now that President Obama's inaction in Syria has spilled over into a destabilizing crisis in Iraq.
There's politics involved here, sure, as Clinton, who is clearly maneuvering for another presidential run, tries to distance herself from Obama's foreign policy record and the abysmal poll numbers that accompany it. But the former secretary of state did not mince words about Syria in a widely reported interview with The Atlantic magazine.
Clinton said that she advised the administration to do more to aid Syrian rebels friendly to the U.S. in the early stages of the Syrian uprising. She said the administration's failure to do so led to the rise of the group alternately called the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL, which has swept to control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Clinton said she wanted the administration to provide modern arms to pro-western Syrian rebels early in the attempt to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. When the administration failed to do so, she said, it "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."
She also took a crack at the administration's supposed guiding principle of foreign policy, which is "don't do stupid stuff." Clinton said, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' isn't an organizing principle." Rather, she said, it is political posturing.
The truth of that is apparent as the administration now finds itself unwillingly sucked into the conflict in Iraq - ostensibly to protect Americans in the region - but in reality to try to find a way to prevent the Islamic State from seizing control of Iraq and slaughtering thousands in a bloody religious purge.
Iraq became its own vacuum when the president opted to withdraw U.S. troops and not leave a residual force to serve as a deterrent for just the sort of threat the Islamic State now presents. The president allowed himself to be driven by polls showing Americans have tired of the war. He made a move he thought would be popular without considering the practical consequences.
Further, he may have made the same mistake in Iraq that he did in Syria by dallying too long before arming Iraq's Kurds, who as a fighting force offer the last best hope of halting the Islamic State's advances in Iraq.
It is worth noting the remarks of Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dianne Feinstein of California in the past week. Both have warned that the Islamic State is training fighters from Europe and the United States who could return home to launch terror attacks. Feinstein took on a particularly hawkish tone, saying "It takes an army to defeat an army and I believe that we either confront (Islamic State) now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger army in the future."
But the president, as has become his pattern, is not moving with anything one could call decisiveness in the matter. He has authorized limited air strikes that did seem to help halt the Islamic State's advances against the Kurds in the past week. He also has bent over backwards to assure Americans that he will not send U.S. troops back to Iraq, only to announce in almost the same breath that we are (Vietnam-style) sending in hundreds of "military advisers" to assist the Kurds and other friends in Iraq.
Wednesday the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is considering a military operation to rescue thousands of Yazidi refugees from a mountaintop where they fled to avoid feared genocide by the Islamic State. That action is likely to bring U.S. forces into direct confrontation with the Islamic State, whether the president likes it or not.
While we're no more anxious to see a deepening military engagement in Iraq than the rest of America, we think Sen. Feinstein is correct - it would be better to deal with the threat of the Islamic State now than wait until it strengthens further or worse yet, succeeds in carrying out attacks on American soil.
President Obama needs to get out of his perpetual campaign mode and forget the polls on this one. He was elected to lead, and sometimes that means making difficult and even unpopular decisions. He needs to face the reality of the threat the Islamic state presents to this country, not just Iraq, and take the steps necessary to deal with it.
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