RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., June 23, 2014 – With a demanding schedule the prior week that included a round of golf, a few fund-raisers, and several fairly irrelevant speeches, President Obama must have been pressed for time to prepare for his scheduled press conference on June 19th. Arriving an hour late, the President spent slightly less than 30 minutes presenting his five-point plan and answering a limited number of questions about the crisis in Iraq. However, that was more than enough time to raise serious concerns about his strategy and to draw a disturbing parallel between the sectarian regimes in Iraq and the political regimes in America.
President Obama’s five-point plan was stated as follows:
- “First, we are working to secure our embassy and personnel operating inside of Iraq. As President, I have no greater priority than the safety of our men and women serving overseas.”
Perhaps this is a “lessons learned” experience spawned belatedly by the fatal attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
- “Second, at my direction, we have significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq, and this will give us a greater understanding of what ISIL is doing, where it’s located and how we might support efforts to counter this threat.”
Please note that we withdrew our last troops from Iraq on December 18, 2011. Yet, we evidently did not anticipate the possibility of a weak or sectarian-skewed Iraqi Administration. Otherwise, we would have already established a robust “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” program with regard to Iraq.
- “Third, the United States will continue to increase our support to Iraqi security forces. We’re prepared to create joint operation… to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL. And through our new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund… provide additional equipment. We have had advisers in Iraq through our embassy, and we’re prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisers — up to 300 — to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward. American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well.”
Does the term “slippery slope” come to mind? It should. Also, you may wish to remember the promise that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists.” The political nuance of that phrase may become critically important over time.
- “Fourth, in recent days we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region. Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL, and going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it. If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region. I want to emphasize, though, that the best and most effective response to a threat like ISIL will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces like Iraqis take the lead.”
Let the nuance spinning begin. “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq” but “we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region” and “we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.” Apparently from this day forward, taking “targeted and precise military action” will not constitute “returning to combat in Iraq.”
“Finally, the United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners. And just as all Iraqi’ neighbors must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists.”
Again, we withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Why are we just beginning to “lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq”? Political unrest surely could have been anticipated, and the need to build a regional coalition should have begun immediately upon our withdrawal (if not before).
After the delivery of this relatively feeble strategy, the press conference really became interesting. President Obama continued:
“Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds, all Iraqis must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities…
“The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
“… It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”
Substitute the words “America/American” for “Iraq/Iraqi,” “Republicans” for “Shia,” “Democrats” for “Sunni,” and “TEA Party members” for “Kurds” and you have the following:
“Above all, American leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for America’s future. Republicans, Democrats, TEA Party members, all Americans must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across America’s different communities…
“The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Americans.
“… It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the American people together and help them through this crisis.”
Ironic, isn’t it?
If you’d like to extend the irony, substitute the words “the American people” for “we,” “President” for “Prime Minister,” and “I” (or “me”) for Maliki (or “him”) in President Obama’s answer to the first question that was posed after he delivered his remarks. (Coleen McCain Nelson asked whether the President had any confidence in Prime Minister al-Maliki and whether he believed Maliki could bring political stability to Iraq.)
President Obama said, “Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and chose (sic) their own leaders. But I don’t think it — there’s any secret that, right now at least, there is (sic) deep divisions between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders. And as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats.
“And so, we’ve consulted with Prime Minister Maliki. And we’ve said that to him privately. We’ve said publicly, that whether he is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that it has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.”
After making the word substitutions, this becomes:
“… Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in America was the right and the opportunity for Americans to determine their own destiny and chose their own leaders. But I don’t think it — there’s any secret that, right now at least, there is deep divisions between Democrats, Republicans, and TEA Party leaders. And as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an American central government to direct an American military to deal with these threats.
“And so, the American people have consulted with me. And they’ve said that to me privately. They’ve said publicly, that whether I am President or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that it has to be an agenda in which Democrats, Republicans, and TEA Party members all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.”
A day later in an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan, President Obama stated, “…if we don’t see Sunni, Shia and Kurd political support for what we’re doing, we won’t do it.” Why doesn’t he apply that same rule to his internal political decisions?
Why is the problem so clear to the President when it pertains to other countries yet so foreign to him when it pertains to our own?
Perhaps this will help. Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam just as the Democratic Party represents the largest element of our Nation’s registered party voters. Shia Islam is the second largest branch of Islam just as the Republican Party represents the second largest group among our Nation’s registered party voters. In fact, the only material difference in the analogy is that Shia Islam found a way to win the most recent election rather than lose it as their Republican brethren did.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are an ethnic group rather than an Islamic alternative much like the TEA Party is more of a movement than a political Party.
To continue the analogy: The Middle East has been torn apart by sectarian differences for thousands of years, while the United States has been divided by political factions for several hundred. The majority of Iraqis pray to different forms of Islam, while the majority of Americans worship one of the polarized political Parties. In both cases, elements have evolved that harbor deep animosity toward one another driven by their radical interpretations of ideological beliefs.
Both threads of hatred and dissension seem to have become more extreme in recent times. Perhaps it is because communication technology has become far more advanced, so the animosity has gained greater public awareness. Then again, it could be because “sticks and stones” have given way to weapons of mass destruction and other high-casualty capabilities.
While the President was criticized by Conservatives for his initial “apology tour,” it may be time for him to consider doing a second one that acknowledges his contribution to the problem. His baiting and blaming of the “opposition” have grown to epic proportions (as has theirs of him).
The President (like his compatriots on both sides of the aisle) has been guilty of committing the “Holy Trinity” of political failures:
- Solving the wrong problem;
- Trying to shape solutions that conform to his Party’s platform and placate its base; and
- Either ignoring the potential for adverse consequences or limiting the window of such consideration to a single election cycle.
In the case of Iraq, we allowed hubris to create “mission creep” under the guise of “nation-building” and our support for “democracy.” Next, we shaped both surges and reductions in forces (as well as other forms of support) to follow political polls and correspond to election cycles. Then, we pretended that a democracy had been established and that no further action or assets would be required on our part other than the obligatory infusion of taxpayer money in the form of foreign aid and the sale of weapons systems to ensure that a hostile government could remain well-armed.
You can apply the formula above to the country of your choice and anticipate the same long-term results (e.g., Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Ukraine, Syria, etc.).
We haven’t exhibited a particularly strong proclivity for entering and exiting civil crises in an effective manner in other sovereign nations, and as long as we adhere to the “Holy Trinity” of political failures, we probably never will. Until we learn to recognize our own failings and begin to fix them, maybe we should be hesitant to lecture or interfere with others.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).