He scoffed at the premise.
“By that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” he told the Associated Press. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea.”
Obama glossed over a crucial distinction. The slaughter in Congo wasn’t caused by our actions. The assumption behind the AP’s question — backed by countless experts — was that a withdrawal from Iraq at the time would almost certainly lead to slaughter. Obama’s remarkable answer was that even if you accepted the premise that leaving would ignite mass slaughter, it would still be right to bug out of Iraq.
Of course, as is his wont, Obama covered all of the rhetorical bases. He acknowledged that leaving prematurely would be bad.
“Nobody is proposing we leave precipitously. There are still going to be U.S. forces in the region that could intercede, with an international force, on an emergency basis,” he insisted. “There’s no doubt there are risks of increased bloodshed in Iraq without a continuing U.S. presence there.”
Then came the patented Obama take-back. “It is my assessment that those risks are even greater if we continue to occupy Iraq and serve as a magnet for not only terrorist activity but also irresponsible behavior by Iraqi factions,” he said.
As grotesque as Obama’s moral argument was, it was unknowable at the time whether his analysis was correct. It’s now pretty clear he was wrong on all counts.
When Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq, they were not serving as a magnet for terrorists; they were acting as a deterrent not only to terrorists but to “irresponsible” Iraqi factions.
(By the way, what is it with Obama and the word “irresponsible”? In Wednesday’s press conference, Obama said that by targeting civilians, Hamas was behaving “extraordinarily irresponsibly.” This is only slightly less condemnatory than “inadvisable” or “unproductive” — and far more conciliatory than the language he uses about Republicans daily.)
Admittedly, he couldn’t have predicted the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2007 any more than he could have predicted the debacle of his Syria policy and his vacillating “red line” rhetoric, which partly led to the rise of ISIS.
But as recently as last November, Obama dismissed ISIS and other al-Qaida affiliates as nothing more than a jayvee squad. While interviewing Obama, The New Yorker’s David Remnick noted that “the flag of al-Qaida is now flying in Fallujah, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria,” and that “al-Qaida has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.”
The president shot back: “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Now, that same junior varsity team controls more territory than any terrorist organization in history, has some 5,000 battle-hardened jihadists with Western passports, hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal, and is earning millions more every day by selling oil on the black market. It is slaughtering Shiites, Christians and other “infidels” with a medieval abandon that makes the alleged A-team of al-Qaida blanch with horror. At this moment it has cornered tens of thousands of Yazidi villagers on a mountaintop. ISIS presents them with a choice: convert to Islam at gunpoint or die of thirst.
On Thursday night, the president announced that he would offer humanitarian aid to the Yazidis and “allow” military strikes on forces that put American troops at risk, “if necessary.” It was clear how reluctant the president was to get involved at all, though we did indeed proceed with some bombing.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll stay involved beyond a news cycle or two, or once it becomes clear that ISIS won’t behave like a JV squad anymore.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.