Jonah Goldberg: Foreign policy inaction grips President Obama

06/14/2014 11:00 AM

06/13/2014 10:37 PM

The Arab Spring is over. Welcome to the Jihadi Spring.

Across a huge swath of what, up until recently, had been known as Iraq and Syria, a transnational movement of Sunni Islamic extremists has taken control. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered — without much effort — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, along with most of the province of Nineveh.

It also took Tikrit. Along the way it has ransacked banks to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, pillaged weapon stockpiles, including the stuff we left behind for the Iraqi army and recruited ever more fighters from Iraq, Syria and abroad. Late Thursday, the Iranians finally sent troops to support the teetering government and managed to reclaim most of Tikrit. So either the regional war just got bigger or Iraq is poised to become even more of an Iranian vassal.

ISIS started out as an al-Qaida franchise, but in 2011 it broke off to become independent. If anything, it is more extreme than al-Qaida, although that fine distinction probably means little to the Shiites and Christians it slaughters.

Sunday in Pakistan, Taliban militants attacked the airport in Karachi. They followed up with an attack on an airport security-training facility. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came into office seeking an accord with the Taliban.

But the Taliban won’t abandon its key objective: A total Islamist state. After the attacks, most observers think Sharif will have little choice but to unleash the army on the insurgents. Late last month, President Barack Obama announced at West Point that we are definitely leaving Afghanistan, period.

That period took the form of a prisoner swap in which we essentially gave back five top Taliban commanders. Meanwhile, al-Qaida linked and inspired groups are on the rise in Nigeria, Yemen, the Philippines, Libya and elsewhere.

The good news is that the administration has a policy to deal with the Jihadi Spring. The bad news is that it looks to be the same policy it had for the Arab Spring: Nothing. Nothing, that is, beyond casting a lot of words and Twitter hashtags into the air like so many magic beans that will sprout into peace and security wherever they find purchase.

Often, when critics call attention to these and numerous other foreign-policy failures, the president and his defenders will argue that the critics want war. Indeed, in his West Point speech, Obama took a firm and forthright stand against an argument pretty much nobody is making: Military action “cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance.”

Even the most rabid hawks would never dream of arguing that the military should be the only or primary component of leadership in “every instance.”

A better option would be a time machine. That way today’s president could go back and give first-term Obama the benefit of his experience.

He could tell him that foreign policy should define his talking points. With that foresight, maybe he would have done more to help democracy in Iran when the streets were full of protesters.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have wasted so much time harassing Israel. Or maybe he would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq to deter the rise of ISIS. Or maybe he would have followed through on his “red line” threats to Syria. Today’s Obama could tell first-term Obama that Mitt Romney was right about Russia, and that “bin Laden is dead” isn’t a foreign policy, it’s a bumper sticker.

Defenders of the president often ask critics, “Well, what do you want to do?” We have no good options left. I certainly think we should have provided assistance to the Iraqi government when officials asked for air support last month. But I don’t want boots on the ground.

What I really want is that time machine.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor at large of National Review Online. Reach him at

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