What happened since “several years ago” that have made the US less safe? The outgoing chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) doesn’t specify his starting point, but Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s message underscores the fact that the world has gotten significantly more dangerous over the last few years. Flynn warns that the US had better “reorganize” to meet the emerging threats, too:
The United States is now less safe than it was years ago, in part because a brutal terrorist group has been able to gain power in Iraq after the post-war government there “blew it,” a top U.S. intelligence official said Saturday.
The frank words came from Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado, where over several days top current and former counterterrorism officials warned of several simultaneous threats to the United States emanating from the Middle East and Africa.
Asked if the United States is generally now safer than it was two or even 10 years ago, Flynn said, “My quick answer is we’re not.”
But at least “core al-Qaeda is on the run,” right? Wrong:
Flynn also took a different view over whether “core al Qaeda” is on the run, as many U.S. officials have claimed. Flynn said he believes “core al Qaeda” is the ideology, not any individuals associated with it, and that is “not on the run.”
“That ideology … sadly feels like it’s exponentially grown,” he said.
If Flynn took aim at the messaging from the White House, he appeared to give them a little more room on the crisis in Iraq and Syria. Flynn blamed the rise of ISIS on the government in Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki. The US knew that ISIS was gaining momentum, but had no idea how badly the Iraqi military would respond to their aggression. Like many in the West, Flynn put the blame for that collapse on the sectarian policies of Maliki and his Iranian-leaning Shi’ite coalition, saying that “they blew it.”
That’s a fair interpretation, but it’s incomplete. Maliki and his coalition had wanted at least some continuing US engagement in Iraq, if for nothing more than logistical support. The Sunnis who threw in with Maliki and the US in the Anbar Awakening wanted the US to stay to guarantee their access to political power and to lean on Maliki. The Kurds wanted the US to stay to keep a civil war from opening up between the other two factions. Instead, Barack Obama decided not to seriously pursue a continuing US military presence in Iraq, which then allowed Maliki to tilt decisively toward Tehran and freeze out the Sunnis and the Kurds.
One could also blame this on the decision to invade in 2003. Certainly the Christians of Nineveh — excuse me, formerly of Nineveh — put the blame on George W. Bush, and others still argue that this was the proximate cause of the vacuum that opened up in Syria and Iraq. However, we would have had to disengage from Iraq at some point and allow Saddam Hussein to re-emerge as a bloodthirsty tyrant and destabilizer in his own regard. The US and UK had tens of thousands of forces tied to a crumbling no-fly zone and embargo on Hussein, one being undermined by some of the same countries who opposed a resolution of the 12-year standoff, and one that had made Hussein much more wealthy and powerful than before it started.
Even if the decision in 2003 was a bad one, though, the abandonment of Iraq only looks worse because of it. If we broke Iraq that badly, then it was incumbent on the US to stay long enough to allow the country to reunite, and to pressure the Maliki government to deliver on its promises to the Sunni tribal chiefs from the Awakening that ended the civil war in 2007-8. The vacuum left by our departure ended up accelerating the exact same conflicts that drove the 2006-7 civil war, only this time with a vacuum in Syria left from the West’s feckless Arab Spring policies of undermining dictators without boots on the ground to shape outcomes. It turned Libya and Syria into failed states, and nearly created a radical Islamist state in Egypt until the military seized control again.
That’s why Flynn’s interpretation is incomplete. If it was just Iraq, then his criticism of Maliki as the prime driver of the collapse would make sense. The wreckage of Syria and Libya and near-miss with Egypt shows that the issue goes beyond Maliki. The seeming surprise of US-EU leadership to Russian aggression under Putin and the debacle of Ukraine and Crimea shows that the issue isn’t limited to the Middle East. We’re less safe because, as Flynn notes by refuting the risible “core al-Qaeda is on the run” slogan, the US and EU refuse to recognize the extent and scope of the threats, and would rather tell fairy stories about the world than deal with reality.
Update: Fred Hiatt has a pretty good idea of what “several years” means:
We have witnessed as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.
Obama openly and deliberately adopted a strategy, not of isolationism, but of gradual withdrawal, especially from Europe and the Middle East. He argued that America should concentrate on “nation-building here at home.” He espoused a pivot to Asia, on the grounds that the Pacific region was the world’s most dynamic and deserving of U.S. military and diplomatic attention. …
Obama’s determination to gear down in Europe and the Middle East, regardless of circumstances, guaranteed that the United States would not respond strategically to new opportunities (the Arab Spring) or dangers (Putin’s determination to redraw the map of Europe). …
To be sure, there are no true laboratory experiments in international relations. Even with different U.S. policies, the Arab Spring might have fizzled and the Iraqi army might have crumbled. No one can say for sure what would have happened if the United States had not signaled its exhaustion with foreign affairs, downgraded its interest in Europe and the Middle East, abandoned Iraq and stayed aloof from Syria.
But we can see what followed each of those strategic choices. Obama thought he could engineer a cautious, modulated retreat from U.S. leadership. What we have gotten is a far more dangerous world.