“You’re all suckers.”
That has to be what Barack Obama is thinking as the country falls for his head-fake.
George W. Bush’s surge reduced the Islamic State’s precursor, al-Qaida in Iraq, to a paltry 700 members, according to CIA Director John Brennan. Its membership has grown by something close to 4,000 percent. As it metastasized, Obama yawned, calling it the “JV team.” When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad violated Obama’s “red line,” Obama yawned again, and the refugee crisis was born.
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By August 2014, Obama was grudgingly conceding he needed a new counterterrorism strategy. One tactic he ruled out: building up pro-American Syrian forces. He told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that was an unworkable “fantasy.”
Then, within weeks, the Islamic State beheaded American journalist James Foley. On vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Obama denounced the murder. Within eight minutes of that statement, he was on the golf course. He later conceded that was a mistake.
“I should have anticipated the optics,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “Part of this job is also the theater of it. … It’s not something that always comes naturally to me. But it matters.”
Let’s put a pin in that.
On Sept. 10, 2014, Obama gave a televised White House address in which he finally laid out his Islamic State strategy. Key to his plan: bringing the “fantasy” of training Syrian rebels to life.
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he said with theatrical confidence.
By late January, the Yemeni government — i.e., our partners on the ground — had collapsed. But the White House continued to insist that the strategy was a success.
In September, our effort to train rebels in Syria was exposed as a boondoggle of epic proportions. A $500 million program had produced “four or five” fighters, according to Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command.
When “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft asked about this spectacular failure last month, Obama replied that he always knew it wouldn’t work.
“Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” Obama said.
A day before the Paris attacks, the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the Islamic State had been “contained” inside its borders. This was shortly after the Islamic State had murdered hundreds of Turkish, Russian, Iraqi and Lebanese civilians — all of whom lived outside those borders. Then, the next day, the Islamic State slaughtered more than 100 people in Paris.
That brings us to Monday’s press conference in Turkey. For a moment, it seemed like the press had finally grasped the staggering failure of Obama’s strategy. One reporter after another asked the dyspeptic and defensive president why we weren’t making better progress against these rapists, slavers and murderers.
They repeated the question because Obama kept saying his strategy was working. He described the slaughter in Paris as the kind of “setback” we should expect from a successful strategy. Even liberals were aghast at Obama’s failure to appreciate the “theater” of his job.
Oh, but he gets it. Put aside the fact that his “strategy” was always theater to begin with. His phony war on the Islamic State was always more about seeming to do something while running out the clock until his successor inherits his mess.
Obama knew the media would take their eye off the ball if he distracted them with a passion play about GOP bigotry. He ridiculed Republicans for their cowardice and cruelty in raising concerns about the potential security threats posed by Syrian refugees. Never mind that such caution is informed in part by warnings from the heads of Obama’s CIA, FBI and DHS. Obama ludicrously mocked the idea that we prioritize Christian refugees — victims of Islamic State genocide — as an Islamophobic “religious test” that was “not American,” even though his administration already gives special preference to Yazidi refugees from Iraq and federal law requires taking religion into account when screening refugees. For Obama, politics ends at the water’s edge, unless he’s speaking abroad.
Obama’s dithering sparked the refugee crisis. He’s now using a smattering of refugees as a cynical prop to prove he’s the hero of his own morality tale. The reality is that he’s a villain in his own theater of the absurd. And we’re the suckers in the audience falling for it.
Jonah Goldberg, firstname.lastname@example.org.