Canada's latest war, the one narrowly authorized by a Parliament split along party lines, is being led by a U.S. President who many doubt has the will to win it. Time and again, Barack Obama has vacillated while Iraq and Syria have imploded on his watch. Chances are that he'll continue to hesitate.
Just about every military expert consulted on the matter, including Mr. Obama's own top general, says the President was wrong to preclude from the outset the use of U.S. ground troops in his effort to defeat the Islamic State. Sure, everyone knows why Mr. Obama and the American public are allergic to seeing "boots on the ground" in Iraq again. But denial will only make a bad situation worse.
The latest to say so is Mr. Obama's own former defence secretary and spy chief, Leon Panetta, a straight-talking Democratic éminence grise. In a memoir released Tuesday, and in a series of interviews he has given to promote it, Mr. Panetta has drawn a portrait of the President as a smart man who too often "lacks fire" and who "lost his way" on Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Panetta's criticism of a sitting leader he served under is seen by many, including Vice-President Joe Biden, as a classless and unprecedented act of disloyalty. "At least give the guy a chance to get out of office," Mr. Biden snapped last week. Etiquette aside, however, Mr. Panetta's revelations tell us plenty about how we got into the mess we're in now.
Mr. Panetta is not the first to cite Mr. Obama's failure to leave a residual U.S. force in Iraq after 2011 and to arm "moderate" Syrian rebels as fatal mistakes. Both led to the creation of a vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to rise largely unchallenged by inept Iraqi and Syrian forces. But Mr. Panetta provides context and contradicts his former boss's explanations about how these decisions got made, or rather, not made.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly insisted that he was forced to pull all remaining U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 because then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to sign an agreement that would grant them immunity from Iraqi prosecution. Mr. Panetta counters that the President never personally pushed for such an agreement – mainly because he didn't want one.
"Those on our side of the debate viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests," Mr. Panetta writes in his memoir, Worthy Fights. "Without the President's active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized."
Without a U.S. presence to force Mr. Maliki to build an inclusive Iraqi regime, the "sovereign, stable and self-reliant" state that Mr. Obama claimed the United States was leaving behind soon descended back into sectarian violence. Mr. Maliki's Shia-led government systematically marginalized Sunnis. Within this cauldron, IS emerged as an even more barbaric terrorist group than al-Qaeda.
Mr. Obama has publicly defended his administration's refusal to arm so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad because 1) he believed there were no true moderates in Syria's civil war and 2) the weapons risked falling into the wrong hands. Mr. Panetta counters this version of events, too, suggesting that Mr. Obama simply dithered.
"To a large extent, it wasn't that the President kind of said … 'No, we shouldn't do it.' The President kind of never really came to a decision as to whether or not it should happen," Mr. Panetta told CNN. "… There were these decisions that basically never were confronted that I think, in many ways, contributed to the problems we're facing today."
In the past month, Mr. Obama has launched air strikes on IS in Iraq and Syria, sent 1,000 U.S. military advisers to Iraq and promised to arm and train moderate rebel forces in Syria. Why Mr. Obama believes the latter would be any more feasible or effective now, more than two years into a civil war that has seen IS seize ever more territory and other rebel groups grow more radical, he has not said.
What's plain is that air strikes have not stopped IS from taking more territory, and the elephant in the room has only grown more obvious. It will be almost impossible to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" IS, as Mr. Obama vows, without American boots on the ground.
It's a terrible fact, but a fact nonetheless. Mr. Panetta says so. But his ex-boss will likely let this decision slide, too.