- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2016

The White House said Monday that President Obama learned lessons from his “worst mistake” — failing to prepare for the aftermath of ousting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — and said this has led to smarter military decisions in Syria’s civil war and against the Islamic State.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama’s decision not to order airstrikes against Syrian forces in 2013 over their use of chemical weapons was based partly on the president’s concern over “what would happen next in Syria after that military strike was taken.”

“Understanding the longer-term consequences of military action is important for the commander in chief to consider,” Mr. Earnest said. “It certainly guides the decision-making that President Obama has made in the context of responding to [the Islamic State], both in Iraq and in Syria.”

The president had warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons — Mr. Obama’s infamous “red line” from which he backed away. The U.S. instead accepted Russia’s help in brokering a deal to transfer chemical weapons out of Syria.

Mr. Obama told “Fox News Sunday” that the worst mistake of his presidency was failing to plan for a post-Gadhafi Libya after the U.S. and other countries carried out strikes to protect civilians during an uprising in 2011. After Gadhafi was killed, Libya plunged into chaos, four Americans were killed at a CIA compound in Benghazi in 2012, and the Islamic State gained a major foothold outside its Syria and Iraq base.

James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the president’s choice of Libya as his worst mistake is not even close.

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“You’re not going to start World War III in Libya,” Mr. Carafano said. “On the other hand, withdrawing [U.S. troops] out of Iraq [in 2011] has been extremely destabilizing to the entire Middle East and has given rise to a global Islamist insurgency. That, to me, is a bigger deal. Allowing Russia to threaten the peace and security of western Europe, that’s a bigger deal. Screwing up your relationship with China, the most significant power in Asia outside the United States, that’s a big deal.

“But Obama chooses not to focus on the things which are most harmful to us; he chooses to focus on the things which aren’t going to make a nice display case in his presidential library,” Mr. Carafano concluded.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden spoke by phone separately Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, “to reaffirm U.S. support for Iraq and the Iraqi people’s ongoing fight” against the Islamic State, the White House said.

The leaders “underscored the urgency of sustained progress in the fight and cooperation to liberate” the city of Mosul, which has been under the Islamist group’s control for two years.

The president’s comments about Libya also could pose problems for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. As secretary of state in 2011, she was a strong proponent of the military intervention in Libya.

Mrs. Clinton also has advocated for a more forceful U.S. military response in Syria’s civil war, including the enforcement of a no-fly zone, a step Mr. Obama has been unwilling to take.

Still, the president said that intervening in Libya was “the right thing to do.” He previously criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron for being “distracted” after the military action and failing to pay close attention to Libya’s deterioration.

Mr. Obama is preparing to travel to Britain and meet with the prime minister next week.

Mr. Earnest said that after the airstrikes against Gadhafi’s regime, there were no civil institutions to fill in the void, because the Libyan strongman had ruled for 42 years. He said the U.S. and “the rest of the international community did not have time and did not succeed in following through with a plan to compensate for the vacuum that was left behind.”

“The president has tried to apply this lesson in considering the use of military and other circumstances — asking the question about, what situation will prevail and what sort of commitments from the international community will be required after that military intervention has been ordered by the commander in chief,” Mr. Earnest said.

Currently, Libya appears to be on a path toward stabilizing its government through negotiations with the U.N., while Syria’s civil war is far from resolved and Mr. Assad is still in power. A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out thousands of airstrikes against the Islamic State militants in Syria and in Iraq, and working with local ground forces in Syria to combat the extremists.

“The president has understood that, at least in this case, it was important for him to order military action in order to protect the American people and in order to protect our interests around the world,” Mr. Earnest said.

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