Dick Cheney Is Still Right
WSJ Editorial, Sept. 9, 2014
President Obama will lay out his plan to counter the Islamic State on Wednesday night, and we'll judge the strategy on its merits. But the mere fact that Mr. Obama feels obliged to send Americans to fight again in Iraq acknowledges the failure of his foreign policy. He is tacitly admitting that the liberal critique of the Bush Administration's approach to Islamic terrorism was wrong.
Recall that Mr. Obama won the Presidency by arguing that the U.S. had alienated the world and Muslims by recklessly using force abroad. We had betrayed our values by interrogating terrorists too harshly and wiretapping too much. Our enemies hated us not because they hated our values or our influence but because we had provoked them with our interventions.
If we withdrew from the Middle East, especially from Iraq; if we avoided new entanglements, such as in Syria; and if we engaged with our adversaries, such as Iran and Russia, the anti-American furies would subside and the world would be safer. We should nation-build at home, not overseas, and slash the defense budget accordingly.
Mr. Obama pursued this vision starting with his Inaugural Address and throughout his first term. He tried to "reset" relations with Russia by dismantling a missile-defense deal with Poland and the Czech Republic. He muted support for the democratic uprising in Iran in 2009 lest it upset the mullahs he needed for a nuclear weapons deal.
When the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011, Mr. Obama called for Bashar Assad to go but did nothing to aid the moderate opposition. In the process he overruled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA director David Petraeus, and his ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford.
The U.S. absence left Syria's battleground to the Russians and Iranians, who helped Assad hang on, and to the Qataris, who have funded Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah. But Mr. Obama was unrepentant, saying as recently as August that it had "always been a fantasy" to think that arming the moderate Syrians would make a difference.
Above all Mr. Obama sought to end the U.S. presence in Iraq. He made a token effort to strike a status of forces agreement past 2011, offering so few troops that the Iraqis thought it wasn't worth the domestic political trouble. Mr. Obama then sold his total withdrawal as a political success, claiming Iraq was "stable" and "self-reliant" and making a centerpiece of his 2012 campaign that "the tide of war is receding." He ridiculed Mitt Romney for warning about Mr. Putin's designs.
Mr. Obama doubled down on his peace-through-withdrawal strategy in the second term, speeding up the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. On May 23, 2013, he summed up his vision and strategy in a sort of victory speech at National Defense University:
"Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure. Fewer of our troops are in harm's way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home. Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world. In sum, we are safer because of our efforts."
Then in January his friends at the New Yorker quoted him as comparing Islamic State to the "jayvee team," and this summer he said Mr. Putin is doomed to fail because countries don't invade others in "the 21st century."
So where are we less than a year later? Iran's mullahs continue to resist Mr. Obama's nuclear entreaties, while Mr. Putin carves up Ukraine and threatens NATO. China is breaking the rule of law in Hong Kong, pressing its air-identification zone in the Pacific, and buzzing U.S. aircraft.
Syria is now a terrorist sanctuary from which the Islamic State has conquered a third of Iraq, the first time since 9/11 that jihadists control territory from which they can plan attacks. Al Qaeda's affiliates have expanded across the Middle East and Africa, attacking a mall in Kenya and kidnapping schoolgirls in Nigeria.
Mr. Obama can blame this rising tide of disorder on George W. Bush, but the polls show the American public doesn't believe it. They know from experience that it takes time for bad policy to reveal itself in new global turmoil. They saw how the early mistakes in Iraq led to chaos until the 2007 surge saved the day and left Mr. Obama with an opportunity he squandered. And they can see now that Mr. Obama's strategy has produced terrorist victories and more danger for America.
Mr. Obama's intellectual and media defenders were complicit in all of this, cheering on his flight from world leadership as prudent management of U.S. decline. Even now some of his most devoted acolytes write that Mr. Obama's "caution" has Islamic State's jihadists right where he wants them. It is hard to admit that your worldview has been exposed as out-of-this-world.
We hope tonight's speech shows a more realistic President determined to defeat Islamic State, but whatever he says will have to overcome the doubts about American resolve that he has spread around the world for nearly six years. One way to start undoing the damage would be to concede that Dick Cheney was right all along.