- - Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Is President Obama “dumb,” at least on foreign policy?

I do not mean to pose this question disrespectfully. To frame it like that leaves me, someone who was brought up to respect the office by respecting the president, uneasy. But it is based upon Mr. Obama’s own words on war and peace, first in opposition to the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, in defense of his own Libya policy. The answer to that question is not an obvious, slam-dunk “no.”

First, Iraq. Mr. Obama opposed the U.S. invasion in 2003, and I think he was right about that. He explained at an anti-war rally the year before that he might be an odd fit in the peacenik camp. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” then-State Sen. Obama intoned. The coming conflict, he warned, would be fought for highly “ideological” reasons and waged “irrespective of the costs in lives lost and hardships borne.”

Of Iraq’s strongman, Saddam Hussein, who at the time was frequently likened to Hitler, Mr. Obama said, “He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He argued for a strategy of containment and warned that “even a successful war against Iraq” would be followed by a long, costly and unpredictable occupation. It could “fan the flames of the Middle East” and boost al Qaeda. So “dumb wars” are very bad, got it?

Now, Libya. Mr. Obama recently said his biggest mistake as president was “probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thig to do, in intervening in Libya.” He explained: “That’s a lesson I now apply when we’re asked to intervene militarily. Do we have a plan for the day after?” In other words: Do we have a plan for the day after we disrupt the peace of nations?

Did he learn nothing from Iraq, after having foreseen so much? Shouldn’t Mr. Obama, as a self-styled thoughtful guy, have learned from the previous America action that devolved into armed chaos and led to a long occupation, including a return of U.S. forces for a political salvage mission? As retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it: You broke it, you bought it. The useful corollary for American presidents and diplomats ought to be: For God’s sake, don’t break it.

What happened in Libya was we broke it. The United States, in cooperation with European forces and armed rebels, worked to first limit and then oust and kill the nation’s strongman, Moammar Gadhafi. Like Saddam, Gadhafi had been a “bad guy” who had struck out at American targets in the past. Yet he was even less of a threat to America or his neighbors than Saddam. He had unilaterally scrapped his country’s nuclear weapons program and worked to restore his nation’s place in the world with better behavior, and largely succeeded.

It didn’t matter. When Gadhafi found himself in pitched battle with armed rebels, Mr. Obama and several European powers decided that he had overreacted, that he had struck back too fiercely and targeted too many people, and thus must forfeit his rule. With arms, they opposed him, ignoring all warnings that Gadhafi’s enemies might end up being our enemies as well, and then some, when the dust cleared. Gadhafi was cornered and killed, and then about a year later, so were four Americans at our consulate in Benghazi. Things went downhill fast from there. As predicted by critics of the intervention, Libya is currently fertile soil for al Qaeda jihadis, and the Islamic State as well.

And yet, Mr. Obama still maintains that intervention “was the right thing to do.” It was objectively the dumb thing to do and it calls into question the basic judgment of the person who made that call. Mr. Obama once campaigned against “dumb wars.” As president, he hasn’t proven much smarter.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation.

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