Last month the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition went to the White House. Ahmad Jarba and the Syrian rebels want American weapons, in particular the shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that might neutralize Bashar al-Assad’s air force and stop it from dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters. What Jarba got instead was a handshake and platitudes.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice hosted the meeting and Obama arranged to drop in later, a sure sign that the guest is, at best, of secondary importance. There was no photo of Jarba meeting the president. The administration doesn’t want to give the rebels the missiles they seek, and it certainly doesn’t want to give a platform to anyone with evidence of the regime’s continued use of chemical weapons. After all, if Assad is still using his unconventional arsenal, then the White House’s vaunted diplomatic initiative with Russia to rid the regime of chemical weapons is simply another foreign policy failure in a long series stretching back to Obama’s first days in office.
While the administration’s handling of Benghazi and Crimea leads the news these days, it’s worth remembering some of Obama’s early miscues. The White House beat up on Israel right out of the gate and still failed at the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that the president believed, wrongly, was key to Middle East stability. In failing to support the Green Movement in the wake of Iran’s likely fraudulent June 2009 elections, Obama missed an opportunity to destabilize the clerical regime in Tehran. In the fall of 2009, the administration cashiered a missile defense agreement with NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic, lest Moscow spurn Obama’s desire for a reset with Russia. Obama promised Putin more “flexibility” after his 2012 reelection, and the former KGB officer and judo expert took him at his word and tied him up like a pretzel: In the face of the administration’s feeble complaints, Putin continued to back Assad, gave refuge to the treacherous Edward Snowden, and ran roughshod over the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors.
Given Obama’s record, it’s no wonder that Congress is wary of the White House’s talks with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Last week, Republican senator Bob Corker pushed for legislation that would give Congress some say in any final deal the administration makes with the clerical regime. Democrats nixed Corker’s effort, but it seems they’re on the wrong side of public opinion. According to a new poll released by the Israel Project, a nonpartisan educational organization, 69 percent of likely voters support congressional oversight of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom pushed by the Obama administration and its press surrogates, American voters care about the U.S. role in the world and how we are perceived abroad, by our allies as well as by our adversaries. According to the Israel Project poll, 58 percent of likely voters believe that foreign policy is either the top priority, or among the top. The number is even higher among Tea Party supporters, often labeled isolationists, at 65 percent. The issue is that the White House seems not to have a foreign policy in the traditional sense, a worldview that prioritizes strategic threats, like the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Instead, as former State Department senior adviser and expert on jihadist movements William McCants said recently, “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”
In other words, for the White House the big problem, practically the only problem, is transnational terrorist organizations. What’s most worrisome about the Syrian conflict, wrote White House sounding-board David Ignatius, isn’t the tens of thousands of Iranian allies and assets, from Hezbollah to Iraqi Shiite militias, fighting on behalf of Assad, but rather the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Ignatius, “One veteran U.S. official views the terrorist threat coming out of Syria and Iraq as potentially the most worrying development in the Middle East since the late 1970s.”
And this, says the administration, is what Ahmad Jarba and the Syrian opposition should be focusing on—not Assad and his Iranian allies, but Sunni radicals. The White House released a statement after the meeting with Jarba explaining that they “discussed the risks posed by growing extremism in Syria and agreed on the need to counter terrorist groups on all sides of the conflict.” There is no doubt that ISIS, as well as al Qaeda affiliates, is trouble for a post-Assad Syria, and may come to pose a threat to U.S. national security. However, it’s useful to put that threat in context. After all, “the most worrying development” in the region from three and a half decades ago is still around, and likely a soon-to-be nuclear state sponsor of terror—the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Indeed, it may be that characterizing the White House’s policy as a focus on counterterrorism is altogether too generous. Obama has made it clear he’ll do nothing to topple Assad, himself a state sponsor of terror. Perhaps even more telling is that throughout the Levant, the administration has waged its counterterrorism campaign alongside terrorist groups that have American blood on their hands. In Lebanon, the U.S. intelligence community has worked with Hezbollah to fight Sunni extremists, and in Iraq it is aligned with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose allies include groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, sponsored by Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, in his battle with a Sunni insurgency.
Both Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are fighting in Syria, but for the White House the only real terrorists are Sunni. That’s an eccentric view, one that just happens to be shared by the Shiite regime ruling in Tehran. A policy that makes common cause with Iranian-backed terrorist groups that have killed Americans does not really deserve to be termed a counterterrorism policy. It’s a policy designed not to discomfit but to satisfy Tehran. It’s no wonder Americans want their elected representatives to monitor the White House’s negotiations with Iran.