When U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his foreign policy doctrine in a speech at West Point last month, raising the threshold for the use of American military force, he got a muted response from the army cadets in the audience. Only one line seemed to elicit more than polite applause.
"You are the first class to graduate since 9/11," the President said, "who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan."
Americans are so war weary that not even those in training to defend their country want anything to do with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They've cost $2-trillion, taken the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and permanently maimed a generation of veterans. And for what? Efforts at nation-building in Iraq are unravelling before our eyes. Afghanistan may follow once U.S. troops leave in 2016.
Mr. Obama has been so eager to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan before he leaves the White House that considerations of the consequences of a total pullout have been given short shrift. Advisers who argue that America always ends up a loser when it tries to police the world have won him over.
Though he always opposed George W. Bush's "dumb" war in Iraq, Mr. Obama did come to office calling the invasion of Afghanistan a "war of necessity." He took the advice of his generals and tripled the number of U.S. soldiers there. But he soon felt burned by the hawks on his team – among them Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state – and grew increasingly wary of any military commitment anywhere.
Aside from surgical drone strikes, what the world has witnessed under Mr. Obama is a continuous racheting down of the U.S. role in resolving global conflicts.
Mr. Obama never seriously pushed for a "status of forces" agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow a post-2011 U.S. presence troop presence that could act as a restraint on the Iraqi leader's sectarian impulses. The troop withdrawal allowed Mr. Obama to repeatedly declare, as he sought re-election, that "the war in Iraq is over."
He reluctantly agreed to U.S. participation in the air strikes that toppled Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, but provided no follow-up support to stabilize that country. He did nothing to prevent Syria from becoming the training ground for a new generation of more brutal and richer terrorist organizations, with the results now visible in Iraq's rapid descent into chaos.
Had Mr. Obama agreed to arm moderate Syrian rebels two years ago, he might have prevented the vacuum that has allowed ISIL – the Twitter-savvy Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – to thrive and recruit hundreds of young Westerners, including Canadians, to fight for its cause.
Now, as former Iraq correspondent Dexter Filkins warns in this week's New Yorker: "The vast swath of territory between the Euphrates and the Tigris – from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq – threatens to become a sanctuary for the most virulent Islamic pathologies, not unlike what flourished in Afghanistan in the years before 9/11."
It is a vast understatement to say that Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a mistake. But it is also a vast overstatement to suggest that, had it not been for that error, the world would have been spared the sectarian extremism in that region it is facing now. This is a battle with many fronts.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who admittedly has an interest in rehabilitating his own reputation after backing Mr. Bush's invasion, is nevertheless right in noting that intervention gave Iraqis a chance at building a safe and stable country, while partial intervention has left Libya "racked by instability, violence and [exporting] vast amounts of trouble and weapons" across Africa. Non-intervention in Syria, meanwhile, has left it "in the worst state" of the bunch.
Intervention, direct or indirect, is the hardest choice for any leader to make. That's why Mr. Obama's self-described motto in foreign policy is "Don't do stupid stuff."
But sometimes inaction is stupider. Inaction in Syria is why Iraq is exploding now.
"At it's simplest, the jihadist groups are never going to leave us alone. 9/11 happened for a reason. That reason and the ideology behind it have not disappeared," Mr. Blair said. "There is no sensible policy for the West based on indifference. This is, in part, our struggle, whether we like it or not."