Shadow Government

Showing two faces to terrorism

Ed. note: As we approach the end of another year, the Shadow Government team is resuming our tradition of evaluating the Obama Administration's foreign policy over the past year. Our contributors will be offering their assessments on one thing the White House got right, and one thing the White House got wrong.  Here is the first installment from Dov Zakheim.

Give the President credit: once Osama Bin Laden had been located, Barack Obama had several options for capturing or killing him and he chose the one that involved the greatest risk but yielded the most satisfying outcome. The President and his advisors all were aware of the disaster that was the Carter Administration's attempt to free the Embassy hostages in Tehran. Desert One was a spectacular failure that helped to doom Carter's re-election hopes.

Obama, knowing that his political opponents often compared him to the man who many reckon to be among the least effective president of the twentieth century, needed a lot of gumption to order the Seals into Pakistan to capture or kill the terrorist icon. He knew that the mission might not succeed, and that he too could go down in history as a failed one-term chief executive. He knew, as well, that a raid on Abbottabad would provoke Pakistani ire to the point where relations between Washington and Islamabad might be damaged beyond repair. The President went ahead anyway, and Bin Laden is dead.

On the other hand, the Obama Administration should hang its head in shame over the release of a terrorist who personally masterminded the killing of five American soldiers. Ali Musa Daqduq is Lebanese national and a high level Hezbollah operative. Like so many other Hezbollah leaders, he has ties to the worst elements of the Iranian regime: he has trained members of the notorious Iranian Revolutionary Guard Kuds force, which is closely aligned with Tehran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. That alone should have prevented Washington from turning Daqduq over to the Sh'ia-led Iraqi government, with its more than cordial ties to Iran. But it was his masterminding the ambush, kidnapping and murder of five American soldiers that should have prompted the Administration to make the "no-brainer" decision to transfer him to an American military detention facility (how about Guantanamo?).

What will the Maliki government do about Daqduq?  Since Iraq, clearly at the behest of Tehran, joined Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon in not even voting with its fellow Arab League states to suspend Syria from membership, the answer is clear. Now that American troops have departed Iraq, it is only a matter of time before Baghdad orders the release of Hezbollah's hero.

Hopefully, Daqduq will no longer be in a position to kill more Americans. But given both the likelihood that he will soon be able to roam around the Middle East, and the extent of his terrorist contacts, we can never be sure. It is therefore truly a shame that, having showed so much courage in its successful effort to eliminate one master terrorist, the Obama Administration showed an equal amount of pusillanimity in its treatment of another. The price of that fateful decision may yet be paid.


Shadow Government

Can Obama take credit for ending the Iraq War without taking blame for what happens next?

Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq - as I do often - and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this:

President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq.  The departure this month of the last major military units marked a heroic turn in the war -- heroic not for the troops, perhaps, but for the policymakers who had the foresight to end U.S. involvement in a foolish war of choice.  Well, not end U.S. involvement, since the largest State Department footprint in the world remains in Iraq, to be guarded by the largest private security force the State Department has ever attempted to manage.  But still the war is ending and for this "campaign promise kept" President Obama has earned the admiration of his boosters.

If you point out the rapid unraveling in Iraq, and ask whether a slower withdrawal that left behind residual forces might have preserved more stability in Iraq, the Obama boosters rapidly shift their reasoning.  Obama had no choice but to take out all U.S. troops, they will say.  The Iraqis did not want U.S. troops to remain and the American people were adamant that the war should end (before the 2012 campaign really gets going, is the silent coda).  This was not an exit of choice, this was an exit of necessity.

Besides, it is Bush's fault, the bitter-ender Obamaphiles say, because he saddled Obama with the 2008 framework agreement that  set the 2012 troop exit deadline.  Of course, to cling to this view requires ignoring that both sides, U.S. and Iraqi, viewed the 2008 agreement as an interim step, one that would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections to allow for a longer-term U.S. presence.  More problematically, it requires ignoring the lengthy but ultimately failed negotiations by Obama-appointed representatives to accomplish just such an extension.

So the Obama spin involves a remarkable double twist.  Anything favorable that happens in Iraq is due to Obama's courageous decision to end U.S. involvement.  Anything unfavorable that happens cannot be blamed on Obama because he had no choice but to do what he did.  I have encountered Obama supporters who flip back and forth between these two lines multiple times in one conversation.

When really pressed, some decry all attempts to ascertain whether President Obama bears any responsibility for what has transpired in Iraq on his watch as a "stab-in-the-back" exercise - an odious reductio ad hitlerum that seems designed to silence critics without having to do the hard work of engaging their arguments.

For now, the American people appear to be satisfied with this line of thinking.  There is an undeniable Iraq fatigue and there are plenty of other challenges at home and abroad competing for the public's attention.  But if Iraq unravels further, this particular spin may not wear as well.  And there may even come a day of reckoning when Americans will want a more candid and forthright debate over the choices President Obama has made.

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