President Obama is deepening U.S. engagement in Iraq under the shadow of Syria, where he resisted similar calls to intervene — inaction that analysts and even his former top diplomat say may have sown the seeds of the Iraqi conflict.
Although she backed off some Tuesday, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the latest to slam the White House’s handling of Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State group, which has captured key areas of Iraq and plunged the nation back into chaos.
Mrs. Clinton, Republicans, many foreign policy analysts and other critics say Mr. Obama failed to contain in Syria the Islamist groups that morphed into the Islamic State and inadvertently helped the militants co-opt the larger rebel movement against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The organization gained strength, recruited members in Syria and started spreading its brand of violence and Islamic law into Iraq.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in between — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview with The Atlantic.
However Mrs. Clinton, who served Mr. Obama as his first-term secretary of state, called the president Tuesday to tell him that she does not intend to attack him and, according to an adviser, looks forward to “hugging it out” with the president at a party Wednesday.
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The White House has carefully dodged the question of whether it wants to destroy the morphing Islamic State, which also has been called ISIL and ISIS.
This position has frustrated Republican leaders and others who want the U.S. to target the Islamic State group, wherever it can be found, the same way al Qaeda has been in America’s crosshairs for more than a decade.
The president last week authorized airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and humanitarian airdrops to provide food and supplies to Iraqi civilians surrounded by the terrorist group.
Mr. Obama said he greenlighted those missions only after it became clear that the Islamic State was poised to unleash genocide against religious minorities and posed a serious threat to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
Such military action, critics say, may have been averted were it not for a flawed policy on Syria.
“I have to say the decision not to use force in Syria a year ago — one of the consequences of that is that the Islamic State became a major player. As Assad took out more moderate factions, it was the hard-line factions that emerged,” said Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Until May 2013, Mr. Brannen served at the Pentagon as special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
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The president declined to use military force last year against the Assad regime, even after it launched chemical weapons attacks against rebel forces and rebel-held civilian areas, something the White House had labeled a “line in the sand.”
Instead, the White House secured an agreement with Mr. Assad in which the Syrian leader would give up his chemical weapons stockpiles.
The U.S. and international partners have provided humanitarian aid and some weapons to “moderate” rebel forces, but analysts say the Islamic State has seized control of the rebel movement. That outcome could have been avoided if the U.S. had acted against Mr. Assad and made a stronger commitment to moderate rebel elements much sooner, critics and some analysts say.
The comments from Mrs. Clinton, who is considering a 2016 presidential run and is clearly distancing herself from the administration’s foreign policy blunders, underscore the heated criticism of the president’s policy in regard to Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Obama has indicated that the U.S. will not make a broader commitment to take out the Islamic State.
Instead, based on the president’s words, American forces will act on humanitarian grounds or when terrorists directly threaten U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Responsibility to defeat the Islamic State apparently will lie primarily with the new Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional authority, which the U.S. and Britain are now arming directly.
“These have been difficult days in Iraq, a country that’s faced so many challenges in its recent history. And I’m sure that there will be difficult days ahead. But just as the United States will remain vigilant against the threat posed to our people by ISIL, we stand ready to partner with Iraq in its fight against these terrorist forces,” Mr. Obama said Monday, addressing the Iraq crisis while on a two-week vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
Prominent Republicans have called on Mr. Obama to partner with Iraq and to launch a sustained campaign against the Islamic State.
“It is far past time for President Obama to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat the threat posed by ISIS. While the humanitarian aid efforts undertaken by the administration are an important first step, they should be accompanied by additional steps to degrade ISIS’s capabilities, including U.S. air strikes against ISIS positions in both Iraq and Syria and the immediate provision of military assistance to our partners who are fighting against ISIS,” Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement Tuesday.