National Security

Iraq or Libya: Which Was Obama's 'Worst Mistake'?

Obama thinks it was Libya. 5,000 troops in Iraq may differ.

Michael Swartz · Apr. 15, 2016

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he inherited a situation in the Middle East that was relatively unique. We were fighting two unpopular wars, but each had produced some measure of success both in attempting to bring democracy to a part of the world that had a very small share of it, and, far more importantly, keeping the terrorist threat of radical Islam in check over there instead of here.

With re-election to win and a foolish first-campaign promise to keep despite the consequences, Obama declared his mission accomplished and pulled the vast majority of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the stabilizing security blanket of American forces gone, the vacuum was rapidly filled by the forces of the Taliban, al-Qaida, and the rump “caliphate” known as the Islamic State. At its peak, ISIL controlled hundreds of square miles of the desert frontier between Iraq and Syria, with its de facto Islamic State capital being the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria — a nation dealing with its own crisis of civil war.

By the time Obama entered his last year in office, though, he had flip-flopped. The craven political expedience that marked his first term had been utterly undone by the Islamic State. His dirty little secret: We have “boots on the ground” in Iraq, but they are special forces and not regular military. As many as 5,000 troops are in Iraq despite the fact Obama “pulled out” five years ago. Coupled with the Afghanistan drawdown being slower than he hoped, one must wonder if maybe, just maybe, George W. Bush had the right plan all along.

To hear Obama tell it, though, he’s mostly conducting a mop-up operation against a desperate and defeated Islamic State. It’s spin like this example: “ISIL still has managed to advance in some areas of Syria and Iraq, but it has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground there since last summer. So it’s been nearly a year since they were able to mount a major successful offensive operation.” Translation: They’re only advancing a little at a time rather than being pushed back. That’s reassuring.

(And the may be at our own border.)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is more honest, pointing out at a visit to the USS Blue Ridge, “We’re going to accelerate the military campaign [against the Islamic State] as fast as we can.” On the diplomatic side, Secretary of State John Kerry promised Iraq $155 million in aid, so America is definitely not going anywhere fast. It’s only a question of competent leadership.

Yet even with the rise of the Islamic State and the disaster of Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan policy — which even he is tacitly acknowledging — in a recent interview Obama said he considered the lack of planning for a post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya to be his “worst mistake.”

That’s funny, because Hillary Clinton just boasted of the success in Libya, saying we “didn’t lose a single person” there. Well, other than the four dead in Benghazi.

The truth is Obama and Clinton opened a can of worms in Libya. That was the first war Obama didn’t inherit, and his lack of planning runs in line with his mishandling of the achievements handed to him by his predecessor.

Yet the failure was surprising to Obama. He complained, “So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion — which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”

As Iraq veteran David French quips, “Who could imagine that bargain-basement war would leave America with few options?”

In short, Obama has largely placed the day of reckoning for his errors and lack of diligence squarely upon the shoulders of his successor. At a time when we need the adults to take charge, it’s bad news that the two leading contenders to succeed Obama are the woman who made a bad situation in Libya worse and a Republican whose attention span and lack of policy detail are comparable to Obama’s.

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