Consistently Wrong

The president’s happy talk and sad results

By Max Boot

The Weekly Standard

August 10, 2015

President Obama is putting on the hard sell to market the nuclear deal he reached with Iran. On July 14, in announcing the agreement, he said: “This deal shows the real and meaningful change that American leadership and diplomacy can bring—change that makes our country and the world safer and more secure. We negotiated from a position of strength and principle—and the result is a nuclear deal that cuts off every pathway to a nuclear weapon.”

He promised that this agreement would put Iran and the entire region on a path away from “violence and rigid ideology,” a path towards “tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflicts,” a path that “leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.” In conclusion, he said, “This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it.”

Stirring words. But are they credible? Aside from the specifics of the Iran deal, it is possible to look back on the president’s litany of pronouncements about the Middle East to assess the reliability of his promises. Here are a few highlights.


In 2011, President Obama joined an international coalition of countries to drive Muammar Qaddafi out of power. On August 22, after Qaddafi’s ouster, he said: “A season of conflict must lead to one of peace. The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people. Going forward, the United States will continue to stay in close coordination with the TNC [Transitional National Council]. We will continue to insist that the basic rights of the Libyan people are respected. And we will continue to work with our allies and partners in the international community to protect the people of Libya, and to support a peaceful transition to democracy.”

A year later, on July 7, 2012, he said, “The United States is proud of the role that we played in supporting the Libyan revolution and protecting the Libyan people, and we look forward to working closely with the new Libya—including the elected Congress and Libya’s new leaders. We will engage as partners as the Libyan people work to build open and transparent institutions, establish security and the rule of law, advance opportunity, and promote unity and national reconciliation.”

In fact the United States did precious little to bolster the legitimacy of Libya’s nascent democratic regime. Partly as a result of that failure, Libya transitioned not to democracy but to anarchy—anarchy in which U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Now Libya has, in effect, no government, and the country is divided among warring militias, with the Islamic State playing an increasingly prominent role.


In 2011, President Obama made a halfhearted effort to win renewal of the Status of Forces Agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain in Iraq. When negotiations, which had begun in the middle of the year, bogged down, the president, rather than getting personally involved in the talks, instead announced that all U.S. troops were coming home. But don’t worry, he said. Their departure would not imperil Iraq’s future.

On October 21, 2011, he promised: “With our diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative, and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture, and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty. .  .  . Just as Iraqis have persevered through war, I’m confident that they can build a future worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization. .  .  . So to sum up, the United States is moving forward from a position of strength.”

A few weeks later, on December 12, 2011, he hosted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the White House. In a joint appearance, Obama said: “The prime minister leads Iraq’s most inclusive government yet. Iraqis are working to build institutions that are efficient and independent and transparent. .  .  . In the coming years, it’s estimated that Iraq’s economy will grow even faster than China’s or India’s. .  .  . People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny—a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.”

We now know Iraq’s economy has not been growing faster than China’s or India’s, its polity has not become known for inclusiveness, and no one in the Middle East or anywhere else looks to Iraq as a model of how people can peacefully resolve their differences. Instead, as soon as U.S. forces left, Maliki began victimizing the Sunni minority and undermining the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces by removing the most competent officers and replacing them with political hacks. This left the Sunnis feeling aggrieved. Many of them welcomed the Islamic State as a liberator from Shiite oppression, and when ISIS launched a major offensive in Iraq, the army fell apart.

Iraq is now in the throes of a full-blown civil war in which ISIS and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are dividing the country between them. Maliki was ousted from office with Washington’s help, but his replacement is unable to exercise much power in a country where ultimate authority is now wielded by Gen. Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Quds Force.


In 2011, an uprising started against the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad. On April 22 of that year, Obama proclaimed, “We strongly oppose the Syrian government’s treatment of its citizens, and we continue to oppose its continued destabilizing behavior more generally, including support for terrorism and terrorist groups. The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Syria and around the world.”

A few months later, on August 18, Obama went further. He said: “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

The United States, he continued, “cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” but “what the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.”

On February 4, 2012, he reiterated this call, declaring, “Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now. He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately.”

On August 31, 2013, he condemned Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which, he said, “is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

That last statement was widely believed to signal that the United States was about to unleash air attacks on Assad’s regime. Instead, in a remarkable volte-face, Obama agreed to a Russian-brokered deal under which Assad promised to turn over all his chemical weapons for destruction. On May 14, 2015, Obama boasted of success: “We positioned ourselves to be willing to take military action,” he said. “The reason we did not was because Assad gave up his chemical weapons. That’s not speculation on our part. That, in fact, has been confirmed by the organization internationally that is charged with eliminating chemical weapons.”

The agreement did result in the removal of most of Assad’s chemical weapons—but not all. Assad continues to drop chlorine bombs on his populace along with even more destructive conventional ordnance. On July 23, 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the regime didn’t give up all of the chemical weapons it was supposed to.”

In the meantime, there has been precious little standing up for “democracy” and “human rights”—so little, in fact, that during the past year the Department of Defense has trained just 60 fighters from the Free Syrian Army. There is no sign that the United States is doing anything to create a Syria that is “democratic, just, and inclusive.” Instead, Obama has shifted from calling for Assad’s removal to acquiescing in his continuance in power, while concluding a deal with Iran that all but ensures an enlargement of the substantial subsidy that Tehran pays to underwrite this brutal regime.

Al Qaeda / ISIS

Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden, Obama has been boasting that al Qaeda, often specifying “core al Qaeda,” is “on the path to defeat.” On January 24, 2012, for example, he said in the State of the Union address: “Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.” In fact, while “core al Qaeda” in Pakistan has been relatively quiet, the organization’s affiliates and fellow travelers are blossoming in Yemen (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), Syria (the Nusra Front), Libya (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and Somalia (Al Shabab), among other countries, rendering his boasts hollow.

And thanks in no small part to Obama’s failure to keep troops in Iraq and to intervene more actively when the Syrian civil war broke out, a vacuum of power developed in Iraq and Syria that was soon filled by a fearsome new terrorist group—the Islamic State. On January 7, 2014, in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker just days after the fall of Fallujah, Obama dismissed the threat: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” In short, ISIS was no al Qaeda.

As it turned out, the “junior varsity team” soon controlled far more territory than al Qaeda ever had—stretching from Raqqa in Syria to Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq. ISIS has withstood more than a year of American bombing while expanding its domain. Recently the violent Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon changed its name to the Islamic State West Africa. And FBI director James Comey now acknowledges the obvious, namely that ISIS poses a bigger threat to the American homeland than al Qaeda did.

Arab Spring

Obama welcomed the Arab Spring—the revolutions that swept the Middle East in 2011-2012. On May 19, 2011, he said, “For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. .  .  . The events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world—a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. And so a new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied. .  .  . Through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.”

It is true that the Arab Spring did portend a major change—but hardly a shift toward freedom and away from terrorism. Instead the Arab Spring led to bloody civil wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq that are still going on. In Egypt the “Arab Spring” led to the overthrow of a military regime, its replacement by a Muslim Brotherhood regime that after winning an election began to squelch dissent, and its overthrow by the same military that had been ousted from power temporarily. In only one country—Tunisia—did the Arab Spring actually produce the kind of change that Obama envisioned, and there are now widespread fears that an elected government made up of old regime loyalists may be starting to roll back that country’s hard-won freedom, in part to combat a wave of Islamist terrorism that has been exacerbated by the chaos in next-door Libya.

Let us stipulate that no one ever gets it entirely right in analyzing a region as complex as the Middle East, and all presidents try to accentuate the positive in selling their policies. But Obama is more wrong than most. He has compiled a breathtakingly consistent record of pursuing policies that he claimed would produce terrific results, including the creation of democracy in Iraq and Libya and Syria and elsewhere, but that instead resulted in more violence and chaos.

It is worth keeping all of this in mind when assessing Obama’s airy assurances about Iran and the wonderful future he foresees for the Middle East after the implementation of his nuclear deal. The president may be right that things will work out as well as he envisions, but if so, that will be a first.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day. Harry Oppenheimer, a research associate at the council, provided assistance on this article.