How U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders Continue to Haunt Us Today

After the latest attack in Brussels, commentary on Da’esh has flooded the Internet. Some have already outlined how it established its so-called caliphate and are instead focusing on how best to neutralize the threat. Many have already drawn the connection between Da’esh and the aftermath of the Iraq War. The absence (oddly enough) of criticism against the United States, however, is deafening. Most have simply shrugged their shoulders and ignored the American contribution to Da’esh’s ascendance.

The Iraq War damaged American credibility abroad and resulted in thousands of lost lives. Not only that, it was based on intelligence that turned out to be dubious at best. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserved no sympathy, but the United States failed to provide a stable democracy for the Iraqi people. After spending over $1 trillion and suffering thousands of casualties, the American people grew understandably impatient and demanded an end to our Iraqi quagmire. President Obama ran on a platform that would pull American forces out of Iraq and redirect them to Afghanistan. Since then, however, the United States has failed to sustain its commitment to Iraq’s development. To be fair, President Obama inherited the Iraqi problem and wanted to shift his priorities elsewhere. This decision, however, allowed sectarian conflict to persist, which in turn prevented the creation of an efficacious Iraqi government.

Further complicating matters, the United States decided to disband the Iraqi military after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a result, an entirely new army needed to be trained to fight the insurgency. The new Iraqi army also needed to combat internal sectarian conflicts that sowed mistrust and stymied its military effectiveness. It came as no surprise then, when Iraqi forces fled from Mosul during an attack by Da’esh in 2014. Not only that, Da’esh collected American weapons that were dropped by Iraqi forces during the attack. Emboldened by their victory in Mosul, Da’esh continued to expand and consolidate its territory.

But the Iraq War is not the only American contribution to the rise of Da’esh. In 2011, the Syrian people took to the streets demanding political and economic reform. The Syrian government responded by brutally massacring its own citizens. Many in the Syrian military abandoned the Assad regime for its extreme responses and formed the early foundation of the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad. As the conflict became more bloody and protracted, the world did little to stem the bloodshed, despite using airstrikes to help topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. The use of chemical weapons in 2013 brought the world’s focus back to Syria and prompted President Obama’s infamous “red-line” proclamation. He eventually withdrew from his “red-line” remark but successfully procured an agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

By this point, however, Da’esh had already established a wide swath of territory, spanning from Iraq to Syria. President Obama’s refusal to address the Syrian crisis resulted in a flood of refugees into Europe, the loss of countless lives, and a breeding ground for extremist groups like Da’esh in Syria. Meanwhile, his authorization of force in Libya to topple Gaddaffi’s regime also created enough instability to allow Da’esh to seize a sizable amount of territory. In both situations, meaningful action was painfully absent, albeit in different ways.

In Syria, President Obama failed to appreciate the consequences of his inaction. The Syrian rebels repeatedly suffered significant casualties from Assad’s air force. At the very least, a no-fly zone would have reduced the body count and created an opportunity for rebel groups to seize decisive military victories that could have brought Assad to the bargaining table. Instead, Assad continued to stall rebel advancements long enough to reject multiple cease-fire agreements. By the time the United States realized that no clear victor was going to emerge, Da’esh had already embedded itself into the conflict, further complicating the peace process. Moreover, American inaction allowed Russia to prop up Assad’s regime and further stall efforts at a diplomatic solution.

In Libya, the United States toppled Gaddaffi’s regime and subsequently washed its hands of the situation. The United States was not wrong to respect Libyan autonomy and self-determination, but the sudden power vacuum created by the death of an autocrat necessitated close monitoring. If nothing else, the Iraq War should have provided some lessons here.

From the Iraq War, to Syria and Libya, the United States repeatedly failed to exercise discretion and foresight. The world should not give us a free pass for our shortsighted foreign policy. The United States, and the world, should learn from this decade’s mistakes so that future leaders do not repeat them. Da’esh is only one example of the consequences of our failures to address instability and extremism around the world. Let us not forget Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, or the Taliban — extremists who want to disrupt the peace and safety of others for their own twisted ends — lest we suffer similar consequences for our shortsightedness.