Pentagon Official: Obama Conducting Foreign Policy Based On Polling — Not US Safety

Joseph Miller Contributor
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Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.

The Syrian civil war, which is about to enter its fourth year, has presented the Obama administration with one of its most difficult national security challenges to date. A political solution seems impossible if it means dictator Bashir al-Assad has to go. And meanwhile, as al-Qaida has grown in strength — including the potential to gain chemical weapons — the White House has crafted a foreign policy more closely based on domestic opinion polling than U.S. strategic interest, placing this country and its citizens at risk.

What began as protests against the brutal regime of al-Assad quickly escalated into a civil war resulting in well over 100,000 civilian casualties. Some humanitarian organizations put that number at over 150,000. To make matters worse, nearly all of the parties to the conflict are sworn enemies of the United States.

On one side you have al-Assad, a known war criminal suspected of having used chemical weapons against his own people, and his external state sponsors and supporters — Russia, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran.

On the other side you have a coalition of rebel forces — an estimated 50 percent of whom have links to al-Qaida or have a similar ideology — and a large number of foreign fighters and terrorists. One terrorist rebel group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has been so extreme and barbaric in its actions and ideology that al-Qaida senior leadership took the unprecedented step of kicking ISIL out of al-Qaida’s terrorist umbrella network. Just imagine how bad you have to be to get kicked out of al-Qaida, a group known for decapitating Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, throwing acid in the face of school girls and the 9/11 attacks.

With what appears to be all of America’s worst enemies fighting one another in a place far from America’s homeland, it’s no wonder that many Americans find themselves saying, “Good, let them all kill each other.” While that sounds nice in theory, the reality is that this protracted conflict has created the perfect environment for al-Qaida to thrive and begin plotting its next attack against the U.S.

Just last month, al-Qaida in Syria released a video threatening to conduct terrorist attacks against the West. This is no longer speculation: The group is now actively threatening to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States, but the administration is doing very little — if anything — to stop them.

The U.S. has been engaged in an open proxy war with the Assad regime, and therefore does not enjoy a level of cooperation with his government to effectively go after al-Qaida from afar. The lack of cooperation with the Assad regime and the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus has left the U.S. nearly deaf and blind. For now, al-Qaida in Syria remains beyond the reach of the U.S. and the Assad regime while it plans and trains for terrorist attacks.

From what is known, the current situation on the ground in Syria is as dangerous as it is dismaying. After three years of almost constant fighting, Syria runs the risk of becoming a failed state. Entire cities have been leveled and basic services are almost non-existent in many conflict areas. Recent images of the city of Homs depict just how brutal the fighting has been and what happens when a state uses heavy weaponry and fighter aircraft in urban areas.

It is in this environment, however, that al-Qaida thrives, and as a result, Syria is looking more like pre-9/11 Afghanistan than Iraq or the tribal areas of Pakistan ever have. One eerie similarity to pre-9/11 Afghanistan is that al-Qaida terrorists fighting in Syria feel so safe there that they have even moved their families to training camps they’ve set up. Additionally, al-Qaida members in Syria are accused of murdering regime soldiers in cold blood and beheading innocent civilians. The group is displaying the same barbarism in Syria for which is has become so infamous for around the world.

The Assad regime has been just as — and more — brutal than al-Qaida during the conflict. Bashir al-Assad and his regime are alleged to have ordered the Syrian military to drop barrel bombs from helicopters on innocent civilians, and to have launched chemical weapons against rebel neighborhoods.

A United Nations team investigating the allegation of chemical weapons attacks determined that chemical weapons were in fact used, though the report stopped short of blaming the regime. However, given the fact that only the Syria military was in possession of chemical weapons at the time, it is highly unlikely that anyone else could have been responsible for the attacks. Those attacks killed thousands of innocent civilians and wounded many more.

Vladimir Putin suggested at the time that it was illogical that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons against its own people, as the regime was winning. Putin instead suggested that rebels may have used the chemical weapons on themselves in order to draw the West into the conflict. Putin’s point about Assad winning is actually what scared the West the most, but not because there was any credibility to Putin’s claim about the rebels gassing themselves: Assad was winning, as Putin correctly proclaimed, and yet he still chose to use chemical weapons on his own people.

If Assad was willing to use chemical weapons then, what happens when he starts to lose the war? After all, the U.S. and other allies made no secret of their continued material support to the rebel forces. For this reason, many people in the U.S. government, including members of the president’s cabinet, favored taking military action to take chemical weapons out of the equation. That seemed like it was going to happen when the president ordered U.S. Navy combat ships into the region. Ultimately, the president decided not to take military action despite repeatedly warning Assad not to use weapons of mass destruction.

It has been well publicized that President Barack Obama backed off his “red line” position after he took a long walk with Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, during which the two men reportedly discussed the impact on the president’s legacy.

The president announced his decision in a confusing speech from the White House Rose Garden that left nearly everyone in the national security apparatus shaking their heads in disbelief. That decision may well have been the lowest moment of Obama’s presidency in terms of his credibility with allies and foes overseas, and for the nation’s security.

Many were quick to criticize President George W. Bush for going to war in Iraq when it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction there, and rightfully so. However, the problem was not going to war over possessing weapons of mass destruction, since many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, voted in favor of military action in Iraq. The problem was that the weapons of mass destruction were never found because, as Saddam Hussein later admitted to his FBI interrogator, Iraq had been attempting to deceive the Iranians about its WMD program as a form of strategic deterrence — a deception we — and Hussein — fell victim to as well.

However, in the case of Syria, not only did Assad admit to having chemical weapons in violation of international law, he actually used them, and against innocent civilians no less. Despite this, Obama decided not to take meaningful action.

The decision not to bomb Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles was bad enough from a strategy standpoint. What made the decision worse was when the administration simultaneously decided to increase support for the rebels. And, despite John Kerry’s accidental blunder that led to the partial turnover of Syria’s chemical weapons, a significant number of chemical weapons remain on the battlefield.

In the event that the regime collapses, the Syrian military will likely abandon its posts, as has happened in the past in Libya and Iraq. If that occurs, the first-responding rebel unit to Syrian military bases or storage sites possessing chemical weapons will end up seizing control of the weapons. Again, up to 50 percent of these rebel forces are either members of al-Qaida or hold similar ideologies. That means that there is at least a 50 percent chance that an al-Qaida branch with stated intentions to attack the United States could end up in possession of weapons of mass destruction if the regime falls. If this situation were to occur, it would almost certainly result in the need for the immediate employment of U.S. ground forces to render safe — and recover — these weapons of mass destruction.

The number that would be required to accomplish this mission is not small.

The U.S. is supporting the rebels to try and quell domestic political concerns about our seeming lack of involvement in what has been a very bloody civil war. After all, the primary reason the administration cited for getting involved in the Libyan civil war just a few years ago was the number of civilian casualties caused by the state, so one would think the same policy position would apply to Syria.

That is not case, even though there were far fewer civilian casualties in Libya and Moammar Gadhafi did not use weapons of mass destruction against his own people. Accordingly, the White House has suffered no shortage of criticism from the news media and senior senators like John McCain over its flip flops and lack of foreign-policy consistency.

In response, the administration has initiated covert support for the rebels, which it then leaked to give the president political cover. So, it’s not really covert anymore, which is why I have described the U.S. has being engaged in an open proxy war. What’s worse is that the aid provided to the rebels is insufficient to allow them to win — but just enough to keep the conflict going indefinitely without any political end in sight.

Syria is another example of the Obama administration creating foreign policy on the fly in response to domestic opinion polling with no clear objective in mind, rather than taking into account the nation’s long-term national security.

The president’s handlers seem more concerned about his imagine and legacy than they are with the security of the U.S. At this point, no one knows how or when the Syrian conflict will end; only that Kerry’s attempts at a diplomatic resolution to the conflict have not gotten any traction.

So if the U.S. doesn’t want the Assad regime or the al-Qaida-linked rebels to win, but it is providing support to the rebel forces, which is protracting the conflict, and peace talks are not producing any tangible results, then what, exactly, is the United States’ policy objective in Syria?

The answer is seemingly that no one in the administration knows. The policy the administration has put into action in Syria reflects the lack of an objective and has helped to create a situation in which Syria is turning into a failed state, allowing al-Qaida to thrive, increasing their opportunity to get weapons of mass destruction, and allowing more innocent civilians to die.

The Obama administration needs to determine what its policy objective is in Syria. At some point, the president and his national security team are going to have to take decisive action to end the conflict and prevent Syria from being used as a staging platform for the next 9/11.

Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.