TIME foreign affairs

On Iraq, It Is Amazing What This White House Does Not Know

Clashes in Mosul
People fled Mosul, seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Obama's foreign policy team was caught totally clueless about the insurgency in Iraq.

There is a big harvest of bad news from the country formerly known as Iraq this June 12. The country’s armed forces have collapsed in the north and ISIS fighters are streaming south from Mosul. A vicious band of terrorists and thugs whose leaders were too bloodthirsty and unscrupulous for al-Qaeda now controls a significant swath of territory from the middle of Syria through the center of Iraq. The Kurds meanwhile have seized the moment to take Kirkuk, and they are unlikely to leave it voluntarily. A dramatically weakened government in Baghdad will now be more dependent than ever on Iran, and Jordan is now exposed to attacks from radicals along its long and poorly guarded eastern frontier. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in terror for their lives, and gruesome executions and attacks are already being reported from the cities that have fallen to the terrorists. The foreign fighters with them, including, apparently, many Westerners, are acquiring expertise that will make them significantly more dangerous when they return to their home countries.

All over the world, radical jihadis now feel the wind in their sails; aimless young men will be more easily recruited into these networks, funders will be inspired to increase their support, and those already wrapped up in the movement will be “inspired” by this victory to make greater efforts in the cause. Meanwhile, huge stocks of weapons and hoards of cash have fallen into the hands of the victors; ISIS is now the richest as well as the most successful terror group in the world. It is unlikely that these victories will make its leaders more moderate in their aims or gentler in their methods.

Yet none of that, grim as it is, is the worst news in the papers today. The worst news about Iraq comes from Washington, where we learn in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that senior White House officials acknowledge that these events have surprised them. They apparently had no idea that the Iraqi army was a hollow shell, that ISIS was planning something, and that the sectarian war was about to take a dramatic lurch for the worse.

It is amazing what this White House does not know. It did not know that Putin was planning to take over Ukraine; indeed, it thought that its policy of a reset with Russia was paying off and that Russia was becoming a partner for peace. It did not know that Saudi Arabia was preparing to help the Egyptian army oust a democratically elected government the United States was determined to support.

One wonders what else the wizards now running American foreign policy don’t know. Do they understand what Iran’s Supreme Leader is thinking? Do they know what Beijing thinks of their intelligence and resolution, and what plans it may be forming in response?

One is not sure whether this morning’s harvest of news from Iraq is what President Obama would call a “single” or a “double” in what he describes as his dogged attempt to make the world a better and safer place by avoiding “stupid stuff.” For a generation of policy wonks who believe that foreign policy can essentially be boiled down to the rule “don’t invade Iraq,” it is crystal clear what America should do in response to these latest Iraq catastrophes: Blame George W. Bush and stand aside.

Bush certainly deserves some blame here, both for the mess in the Middle East and for the impact on a generation of American policy thinkers whose strategic instincts have been thrown off kilter by their emotional reactions to his poorly judged and poorly executed Middle East policies. But no time machines exist that can take us back to 2003, and the problems of today demand something more than reflexive rejection of the policies of a man now living quietly in Texas. One can only hope that the Obama White House will at long last step out of George Bush’s shadow and begin to see clearly, plan carefully, and act wisely in a region that remains vital to American and world security.

Walter Russell Mead is a professor of foreign policy and humanities at Bard College and the editor at large at the American Interest. A version of this article originally appeared in the American Interest. The views expressed are solely his own.

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