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Iraq critics pound Obama while ‘muddling through’

Jun 10,2015 - Last updated at Jun 10,2015

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's admission that he has an incomplete strategy to combat the Daesh terror group is politically toxic, but history shows many of his predecessors also decided that "muddling through" a crisis was the least-worst option.

They were seven small words that did not help the 44th president one little bit after a G-7 meeting in the clean air of the Bavarian Alps: "We don't yet have a complete strategy."

He may have been referring specifically to a spluttering US "train and equip" mission, but it has been 10 months since Obama started bombing the radical Islamist group and nine months since he first admitted to having no coherent strategy to fight them.

In the interim, the group has beheaded and subjugated its way through Iraq, Syria and Libya, destabilising the entire Middle East in the process.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has also attracted support from alienated European and American youths, who are already returning home and bringing a radical ideology with them.

In light of this national security threat, Obama's critics asked, how does he still not know what he is doing?

Veteran Republican Senator John McCain accused Obama of doing nothing to stop a Christian genocide.

"It is a failure of leadership," said Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate keen to display his foreign policy chops after a 2012 campaign in which he was painted as a neophyte to global affairs.

"If I were commander-in-chief, it would not take nine months to work with our military leaders to develop a complete strategy to destroy ISIS [Daesh] and protect American security interests and values," he said.

Not so, according to Michael Bohn, who may be in a good position to know.

No simple solutions 

 

During Republican president Ronald Reagan's second term, Bohn was director of the White House Situation Room, the secure basement complex where the most sensitive national security meetings take place.

A former naval intelligence officer, since then he has studied in detail 17 instances of presidential decision making — spanning the Truman and Obama administrations — and wrote up his findings in a book called "Presidents in Crisis".

Bohn says that every commander-in-chief walks into the White House wanting to take bold, decisive steps, but sooner or later learns the necessity of working in increments.

"Presidents when they are faced with just really tough situations, they rarely find simple easy solutions," he told AFP.

"Until you sit at the president's table in the Sit Room, you cannot know that there are never any win-win options in a crisis, only least bad alternatives."

He cites John F. Kennedy's actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis as one instance where incrementalism may have averted calamity.

After discovering Soviet nuclear missile sites were being built in Cuba and days of private deliberation, rather than launching strikes, Kennedy decided on a naval blockade to stop further supplies arriving.

Eventually, Kennedy reached a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, the sites would be dismantled in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba.

In a secret deal Kennedy also agreed to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey, a far cry from his inaugural promise to battle "iron tyranny".

"It's really just keeping your powder dry until a better option comes off, or it's not making the 'big error'," said Bohn.

"Take a little step, see if it works, because if you take the wrong first step you've got yourself a problem."

From Iraq to Ukraine to Syria, most of Obama's critics advocate a scaling up of existing programmes to arm and train allies rather than putting tens of thousands of boots on the ground.

That is something the Obama administration itself is considering, according to defence officials weighing the possibility of sending hundreds more troops to Iraq for training.

"It's very incremental," one official said.

 

That approach may be fodder to opponents and anathematic to Americans who like to see an imperial president who deals in certitudes, but history shows it may also prove be the prudent course of action.

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