Skip to main content

Back in January, Barack Obama sat down with New Yorker editor David Remnick for what might best be characterized not so much as an interview as a victory lap. This was the U.S. President at his smartest-person-in-the-room best. He'd ended one war (in Iraq) and was about to wrap up another (in Afghanistan).

Al-Qaeda was "decimated," he crowed. When Mr. Remnick countered that rebels in Syria and Iraq were flying the al-Qaeda flag, and branches in Africa were causing trouble, too, the hoops-loving President shot back: "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a [junior varsity] team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant."

Fast-forward almost seven months to what Mr. Obama said on Saturday, just before explaining that his move to authorize U.S. air strikes on ISIL forces in Iraq was part of a "long-term project" to contain the most dangerous al-Qaeda offshoot yet: "Did we underestimate ISIL? I think that there is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and I think the expectations of policy-makers both in and outside of Iraq."

Do you ever get the unsettling impression that there's a junior varsity team in the White House?

Hillary Clinton, who spent four years in the thick of internal Obama administration national security debates as secretary of state, can no longer contain her frustration. Her recent memoir laid the groundwork for her 2016 positioning as the anti-Obama on foreign policy. And she's "hepped-up" about the jihadis in Iraq.

In an interview last week with The Atlantic, Ms. Clinton took her biggest swipe yet. It came in her response to recent White House leaks that Mr. Obama has characterized his foreign policy doctrine as "Don't do stupid shit," which has been softened for mass consumption as "Don't do stupid stuff."

"Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," Ms. Clinton said. "You know, when you're down on yourself, and when you're hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward."

Former Obama campaign guru David Axelrod tweeted: "Just to clarify, 'Don't do stupid stuff' means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision."

Nice try, but Mr. Obama can no longer blame the chaos in Iraq on his predecessor. It was the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq, which then-senator Obama opposed, that "decimated" al-Qaeda there and paved the way for President Obama, in 2011, to herald "the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy."

Almost no seasoned Middle East expert believed that could be accomplished, however, by withdrawing every last U.S. soldier from Iraq. A residual U.S. force was required not only for security purposes, but to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to build an inclusive government.

Alas, maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq clashed with the political cycle and Mr. Obama's cherished narrative as the President elected to end the war and bring U.S. troops home.

The result is an even bigger mess than George W. Bush left behind. Mr. Obama's risk-aversion allowed ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to flourish in Syria before moving across the border into Iraq, funnelling, as a senior State Department official told Congress in June, as many as 50 suicide bombers a month into Iraq. Hundreds of ISIL fighters are young men from North America and Europe. If they survive, many will eventually make their way home, creating unknown but surely scary possibilities.

Mr. Obama and his advisers, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Hass wrote this week in the Financial Times, "tend to exaggerate the costs and risks of acting and discount those of inaction." That allows threats to grow, eventually requiring a more costly response.

This is where Mr. Obama finds himself now. His administration is desperate to avoid mission creep in Iraq. But that's exactly what's happening. "We're not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq," the President told The New York Times last week.

Almost 1,000 U.S. military personnel are back in Iraq. And after insisting there would be no U.S. troops on the ground, the Pentagon is reportedly hatching plans for boots on the ground.

Mr. Obama is learning the hard way that, sometimes, it's stupider to do nothing.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe