Interventionists?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Democrats Begin to Embrace 'Regime Change' Again

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, Democrats appear unified on what should happen to the caliphate responsible for the carnage. It should be destroyed. 

But a schism has emerged in the party over who is to blame for this Islamic state's rise. The divide really is between those Democrats who believe the U.S. response to terrorism ends up causing more of it and those that don't.   

One side of the party, let's call them the Senator Barack Obama Democrats, says the Iraq War created the conditions for the formation of the Islamic State. The other faction, let's call them the President Barack Obama Democrats, says it's all a lot more complicated.

The first group is skeptical of President Obama's gradual escalation of the war in Iraq. As a candidate, Senator Obama made the case Iraq was a distraction from the long war against al-Qaeda, which used it as an opportunity to recruit more members. This countered a central claim of his Republican opponent, John McCain, who said the U.S. shouldn't leave Iraq unless al-Qaeda was defeated.

Today, Obama is a reluctant hawk in Iraq. Last year, he began to send special operations forces back into the country and to launch airstrikes to fight the 2.0 version of al-Qaeda's franchise there. Even before the massacres Friday in Paris, Obama had said the old, new war he once opposed will last beyond his presidency. 

Saturday night's debate on CBS illustrates this tension between the two sides of the party. Hillary Clinton, who regrets her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War, nonetheless made the case the Islamic State filled a vacuum after the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011. She didn't directly criticize that decision (she was secretary of state at the time), noting that Obama adhered to an agreement forged by President George W. Bush. But she was firm on the question of culpability.

"I don't think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility," she said. "I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself," referring to Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. In Clinton's telling, the Islamic State was able to gather strength because of the policies of Iraq's and Syria's leaders, as well as the reawakened war between Sunni and Shiite Islam. 

Her main rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders pounced. "I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely, and led to the rise of al-Qaeda and to ISIS," he said. He spoke about his own personal opposition to U.S. policies of "regime change," citing coups in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and ultimately the invasion of Iraq. "I am not a great fan of regime changes," Sanders quipped.

Most Democrats side with Sanders on this issue. It's easy to understand why. After all, it wasn't just Obama in 2008 who made the case that the Iraq intervention had strengthened al-Qaeda. Clinton herself said this. In a major speech on her plan to end the Iraq War more speedily than Obama, she said, "The reality is that this war has made the terrorists stronger."

And there is a lot of truth to this. While the leadership of al-Qaeda's new Iraq chapter had migrated to the country the year before the 2003 invasion, it was able to fill its ranks with many of the Baathist officers purged from the government that replaced Saddam Hussein. As al-Qaeda rose in Iraq, the Democrats like Obama who warned against the Iraq intervention were vindicated.

But missing from this view of recent history is what happened next. While Clinton and Obama were fierce opponents of Bush's counterinsurgency plan in 2007 and 2008, that strategy worked. According to the memoir of Obama's first-term defense secretary, Robert Gates, Clinton privately acknowledged this to him. Iraqi tribal leaders, with the help of U.S. airstrikes and soldiers, destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq. When Obama withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, he correctly said the organization was defeated. But after the withdrawal, as Iraq unraveled, the Islamic State was able to emerge from the chaos.

All of this history is important after the terror in Paris and Beirut. Obama tried his best after ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 to end his predecessor's war on terror. He insisted al-Qaeda was on the run and the Islamic State was the JV team. And in this period, between the end of 2011 and the summer of 2014, al-Qaeda in Iraq went from a band of terrorists on the ropes to quite literally, an Islamic State. 

It has been obvious for some time that this proto-state in Iraq and Syria cannot be contained or ignored. In the last two weeks, it has murdered scores of innocents in Beirut and Paris. Evidence suggests it bombed a civilian Russian aircraft over Egypt. This says nothing of its trade in child sex slaves and attempts to wipe out the region's remaining Yazidis.

None of this is to say the U.S. should invade the caliphate like it was Saddam's Iraq. But the aim of the new war should be regime change without compromise. And on this, the Senator Obama and President Obama Democrats appear to agree.

It's a point not even lost on the socialist senator from Vermont. In his opening remarks Saturday night Sanders said: "Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS." George W. Bush couldn't have said it better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net