Photo Credit: Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force
There is a scene in Hal Ashby’s classic 1979 adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There where the hapless Chauncey “the gardener” Gardiner, played by Peter Sellers, ends up at a meeting with the president of the United States. Complex policy discussions are taking place and the president turns to Chauncey to ask his opinion about the prospects for economic growth. “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden,” Gardiner replies, deadpan. As the president tries to come to grips with Gardiner’s nonsensical utterances, Gardiner concludes, “There will be growth in the spring.” The simplistic phrases, taken completely out of context, end up as the centerpiece of the president’s new economic initiatives, delivered to the American people in a televised address.
Watching Donald Trump deliver his much-heralded “foreign policy” speech last week in Youngstown, Ohio, I was struck by how much life imitates art.
In the days before Trump’s August 15 address, the real estate mogul/reality television star/presidential candidate engaged in a series of facially absurd attacks on President Obama and Hillary Clinton, labeling both as “founders” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and describing them as the “most valuable player” on behalf of the Islamic terrorist organization. The banality of these claims is hardly worth comment. (In fact, the roots of ISIS go back to the Bush administration.) And yet, a reality-based analysis would have to acknowledge that the Obama/Clinton policy for confronting the threat of Islamic-fundamentalist-inspired terrorism practiced by ISIS and others has been anything but a resounding success.
Trump attributed a litany of policy failures to President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He even seemed to channel Chauncey Gardiner, with such aphorisms as “anyone who cannot name our enemy, is not fit to lead this country” (a jab at President Obama’s supposed reluctance to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”), and “we cannot always choose our friends, but we can never fail to recognize our enemies” (his response to critics of his support of Russia’s targeting ISIS in Syria).
Such pithy pronouncements don’t carry much weight. One line, however, rang true enough that it gave credibility to a speech that otherwise deserved none: “With one episode of bad judgment after another, Hillary Clinton’s policies launched ISIS onto the world.” The allegation of bad judgment is worth considering.
To put it into perspective, one only needs to delve into the foundation of the Obama administration’s “regional reset” with the Middle East, spelled out in the president’s much-touted “New Beginning” speech delivered in March 2009 in Cairo, shortly after he took office.
Simply pointing out the obvious alternatives to demonstrably failed policy does not sound policy make.
Trump lambasted the Cairo speech on the grounds that Obama had advanced the theme of moral equivalency rather than a Reaganesque American ideological supremacy. Yet Trump missed the point of Obama’s Cairo address, which was to repair America’s relationship with a region that, because of the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years following 9/11, had grown weary and wary of the role America aspired to play in the Middle East.
The problem with Obama’s Cairo address was not the words he uttered, but the fact that his administration proved incapable of backing up those words with action, leading to inconsistent policies that only further alienated the United States from much of the Middle East.
One of the clearest examples of this hypocrisy is the fact that while President Obama, in his speech, condemned U.S. interference in Iran’s domestic politics in 1953 (when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh), he was authorizing similar interference in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, by both the CIA and the Hillary Clinton-led State Department, for the purpose of removing democratically elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office. One need only to Google the name Jared Cohen, who in 2009 served in the State Department, where he advocated for training Middle Eastern youth to use communications technology to promote “digital democracy”—little more than a millennial euphemism for regime change.
In Cairo, President Obama endorsed the notion that the world was better off without “the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,” proclaiming that in the future the United States would rely on diplomacy and international consensus to resolve regional problems “whenever possible.” Meanwhile, the CIA and the State Department were engaged in covert initiatives designed to take advantage of the extreme drought that gripped Syria between 2006 and 2009, exploiting the displacement and social unrest caused by ecological catastrophe to foment opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad and encourage regime change in Syria. The civil war in Syria was not brought about by Assad’s brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators, but rather by a deliberate strategy of subversion and subterfuge formulated in Washington (including “digital democracy” initiatives) and facilitated by Islamists who cut their jihadist teeth in post-Saddam Iraq. American intelligence reports clearly illustrate that it was the policy of the Obama administration to give these jihadists a relative free hand in Syria and western Iraq, operating under the assumption that they would undermine and weaken the Assad regime, whose demise was a top priority of the Clinton-led State Department.
Libya is another Obama administration/Clinton State Department policy fiasco that Trump highlighted in his speech. The elimination of Muammar el-Qaddafi at the hands of a NATO-led “popular uprising” removed from power a relatively secular head of state who had, in the years prior to his demise, cooperated with the United States and Europe on nonproliferation issues and regional security, although he admittedly used brutal measures to remain in power. Replacing him brought on the chaos and anarchy that inflamed the Islamist fundamentalism that continues to feed terrorism throughout the region (and led to ISIS setting up shop on Libyan soil). In the aftermath of Qaddafi’s demise, the United States, via the CIA and the Clinton-led State Department, coordinated with these very same Islamist groups to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars of military arms, ammunition, and equipment from Libya to Turkey, and then to the so-called “moderate opposition” inside Syria. The tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was directly linked to this illicit gun-running operation, as Stevens was in Benghazi to coordinate a CIA arms delivery. The Syrian “moderates,” however, proved to be illusory, the weapons instead falling into the hands of the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
President Obama’s Cairo speech wasn’t so much about failed ideas, but rather American hypocrisy in implementing over-hyped promises of freedom, democracy, and human rights through covert interference in domestic affairs and military aggression, the latter the best illustration of this point. Trump has been reviled for saying that to combat the spread of Islamist fundamentalism he would target the families of terrorists. Some even suggested that the American military might go so far as to refuse to carry out such orders. The record of the Obama administration, however, in carrying out its own “war on terror,” suggests not only that the deliberate targeting and killing of family members is already the policy of the United States, but that the U.S. military has no problem with such orders. As demonstrated by the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old American-born son weeks after his father’s extra-judicial assassination, family members of terrorists have always appeared to be justified collateral damage in the war on terror. (The very concept of “signature targets” used in Obama’s drone war on terrorism carries with it the notion of acceptable collateral loss of life.)
Donald Trump, in his simplistic way, was being open about what we as a nation already do in the name of combatting terrorism. The point, however, isn’t that such horrible acts are conducted in the name of the American people (they are), but rather that these actions do nothing to retard the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and indeed may actually facilitate its growth. The fact of the matter is that the failed policies of the Obama administration, including failures during Hillary Clinton’s four years as Secretary of State, have provided much fodder to feed the Trump narrative that America is better served by turning to him for solutions to the problems posed by ISIS and other Islamist fundamentalist-inspired terrorism.
On the surface, Trump’s criticisms sound plausible. Iraq was, in fact, better off under Saddam Hussein than it is today, and Russia is a very effective killer of ISIS in Syria. To mock these positions, as both Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden did in a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, just prior to Trump’s Youngstown speech, is both irresponsible and the clearest evidence yet that a Hillary Clinton presidency will provide little new in policies to combat ISIS—a disturbing notion given the dearth of success of the policies she helped formulate and implement.
But simply pointing out the obvious alternatives to demonstrably failed policy does not sound policy make. Whether a President Trump supports Russia in Syria or not, Russia will remain there until its policy objectives—not America’s—are met. These include establishing an Iranian-Hezbollah axis as a force of regional stability, something Trump claims he is firmly against. (The real estate mogul has a tendency, shared by many Americans, to conflate Sunni with Shi’a, and as a result include Iran and Hezbollah in the same ideological cart as Saudi Arabia and ISIS.) This is the fundamental weakness of the Trump approach to defeating ISIS. Beyond pointing out the obvious (i.e., the Obama-Clinton policies have failed), all he offers as an alternative is some form of nebulous ideological warfare meshed together with a “bomb the shit out of them” approach that represents little more than doing what the Obama administration is already doing, but more so.
The fact that Donald Trump does not seem to know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, or have any grasp of the historical roots of the attraction to an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East that permeates much of the region’s population, means he is ill-positioned to lead, let alone prevail, in the ideologically based struggle he is proposing. While Trump claims to “love the Muslims,” he has not articulated any limits to his attack on the Islamic faith that might help constrain the hate and violence that ideological warfare creates.
There is every reason to be concerned about the spread of ISIS and its associated ideology, but the reality is neither ISIS nor its ideology pose an existential threat to the United States or its European allies. Realistic and sensible policy options—such as recognizing that the Assad regime in Syria constrains rather than promotes the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, and that Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, is better positioned to combat and contain Wahhabist-based fundamentalism of the sort espoused by ISIS—are needed to prevail in this struggle.
The policies of the Obama administration, and the policy positions postulated by Hillary Clinton, do not include such thinking, so a Clinton presidency is more likely than not to repeat of the failures of her predecessor. But Clinton is not espousing ideological warfare against Islam. She is not seeking to transform a regional problem into a global disaster. She does know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, even if her policies seem blind to that distinction. Her policies will be harmful to America, but they won’t destroy it. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump and his ideologically based war on ISIS-Islamic terrorism.
Former Marine intelligence officer Scott Ritter served on the staff of General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991–1998. He is the author of several books.