Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

The Ambivalent Commander in Chief

On Friday, President Obama conducted a rare press conference at the White House. The leading topic of the day was his effort to defend the government’s efforts to defend the country from terrorism. With the closing of numerous embassies and consulates last week, due to terrorist threats as well as the controversy driven by the leaking of National Security Agency procedures by Edward Snowden, the president had an opportunity to make a full-throated appeal to Americans to reject the efforts of isolationists to dismantle our intelligence efforts and to put away the paranoid suspicions that they have helped fuel.

But while it was good to see the president making any case for the NSA’s necessary monitoring programs, however belated, it was unfortunate that the tone of his remarks was so ambivalent and lacking in the passion he showed when he bragged (once again) about his personal role in killing Osama bin Laden in response to a question about Benghazi, attacked Republicans for their opposition to ObamaCare, or skewered Russian President Vladimir Putin as having the posture of a “bored kid sitting in the back of a classroom.”

Though he agreed, after prompting from NBC’s Chuck Todd, that Snowden was no patriot, his decision to try to appease critics of the NSA via the creation of new review boards, a transparency website, or to amend the Patriot Act betrayed a lack of confidence in the rectitude of his administration’s actions. Indeed, the president’s attempt to dance around the core issues at stake here and to play both ends against the middle—as if he were both the commander in chief and the left-wing community activist opposing the government—undermined his purpose. Suffice it to say that when he said he, too, would be upset about the NSA’s actions, “if I wasn’t inside the government,”—which is to say that the only thing that validates the measures is the magic of his own personality—that wasn’t the strongest argument to be made for a vital national security program.

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On Friday, President Obama conducted a rare press conference at the White House. The leading topic of the day was his effort to defend the government’s efforts to defend the country from terrorism. With the closing of numerous embassies and consulates last week, due to terrorist threats as well as the controversy driven by the leaking of National Security Agency procedures by Edward Snowden, the president had an opportunity to make a full-throated appeal to Americans to reject the efforts of isolationists to dismantle our intelligence efforts and to put away the paranoid suspicions that they have helped fuel.

But while it was good to see the president making any case for the NSA’s necessary monitoring programs, however belated, it was unfortunate that the tone of his remarks was so ambivalent and lacking in the passion he showed when he bragged (once again) about his personal role in killing Osama bin Laden in response to a question about Benghazi, attacked Republicans for their opposition to ObamaCare, or skewered Russian President Vladimir Putin as having the posture of a “bored kid sitting in the back of a classroom.”

Though he agreed, after prompting from NBC’s Chuck Todd, that Snowden was no patriot, his decision to try to appease critics of the NSA via the creation of new review boards, a transparency website, or to amend the Patriot Act betrayed a lack of confidence in the rectitude of his administration’s actions. Indeed, the president’s attempt to dance around the core issues at stake here and to play both ends against the middle—as if he were both the commander in chief and the left-wing community activist opposing the government—undermined his purpose. Suffice it to say that when he said he, too, would be upset about the NSA’s actions, “if I wasn’t inside the government,”—which is to say that the only thing that validates the measures is the magic of his own personality—that wasn’t the strongest argument to be made for a vital national security program.

While any government program deserves scrutiny from Congress and the courts, the president could have done the country some service by not sounding so defensive about NSA activities that have already been subjected to that treatment. Given that he spoke during a week when the terrorist threat had been heightened and NSA intercepts were vital elements in the effort to prevent al-Qaeda affiliates from committing new atrocities, the time was ripe for the commander in chief to remind the country that those who would turn the page back to a September 10th mentality are playing right into the hands of America’s enemies.

The problem is that the president bears a great deal of the responsibility for the fact that polls show that large numbers of Americans are more afraid of government snooping than they are of the al-Qaeda. Obama spent most of 2012 claiming that al-Qaeda was as dead as bin Laden, so why shouldn’t the public that reelected him believe that the war against Islamist terrorism was over too? Of course, the president knows that his reelection campaign’s claims on this issue were largely fraudulent, so he must now tap dance between upholding the government’s ability to defend the public while also maintaining his stance as a critic of the war on terror. If Americans aren’t buying it, it’s not because the threat isn’t real or the NSA programs aren’t necessary, but because they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the man in the White House.

True leadership on national security issues requires more than electioneering slogans, especially when it turns out that, contrary to his assertions last year, Detroit is dead and al-Qaeda is very much alive. I’ve no problem with the president beating his chest a bit about killing terrorists, though it would be in better taste if he didn’t continually refer to the killing of bin Laden in the first person—“I didn’t get him in 11 months”—rather than give credit to the Navy SEALs. But what we need during this phase of the war against Islamism is for Obama to stop sounding ambivalent about doing his duty when it comes to the everyday work of monitoring our enemies. So long as he keeps trying to have it both ways, support for these measures won’t follow.

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Snowden, Amash, and the Isolationist Peril

Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

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Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

The reaction to the NSA programs has been largely the function of complacency about terrorism borne of the successful American intelligence operations in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the notion that we can treat the war against Islamist terrorism as having already been won is a myth that both Obama and his libertarian opponents have helped foster. Paul and Amash represent a worldview that sees American counter-terror efforts, whether in terms of drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets or intelligence gathering, as happening in a vacuum that ignores the reality of ongoing efforts to attack the West. That is why they have sought to whip up hysteria about hypothetical drone attacks on Americans sitting in Starbucks, as Paul has done, and to treat a legal program conducted under judicial review and congressional oversight as the arrival of Big Brother totalitarianism.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of President Obama and his belief in untrammeled government power. But to the extent that he has continued many, if not most, of his predecessor’s efforts to defend Americans against terrorism, he deserves the support of conservatives who backed Bush for the same measures.

To refer to Snowden, who dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism intelligence, as a “whistle-blower” is to treat the war on Islamist terror as either fake or no longer being fought. In doing so, Amash has demonstrated how some on the right have, as Paul’s father often did, made common cause with left-wingers who think the world would be better off if America were booted off the global stage and retreated behind our borders. As I’ve noted previously, the left thinks America is always up to no good while their right-wing counterparts tend to act as if the country will only be safe if it seals itself off from the rest of the world. But as a practical matter, the two positions amount to the same thing.

This ought to have embarrassed Amash, but whether it did or not, it illustrates not only the problems that such an attitude creates for U.S. policy but the political implications of a Republican drift toward isolationism. If the GOP abandons its traditional posture as advocates for a strong defense and America maintaining its stature as a global power, then it renders itself vulnerable to the tides of war that may give the lie to both Obama’s boasts and Amash’s ostrich-like posture. This past weekend should give Republicans a glimpse of just how disastrous that would be.

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Al-Qaeda’s Reality Check

During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and “on the path to defeat.” That makes it a little curious that the State Department is now forced to close temporarily its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa and to issue a global travel alert to U.S. citizens warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda.

News of al-Qaeda’s imminent demise was, it seems, greatly exaggerated. In fact, while the terrorist network has suffered substantial losses, including of course the loss of its co-founder, Osama bin Laden, it has displayed dismaying resilience. Far from going out of business, al-Qaeda has spread, via its regional affiliates, to North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Persian Gulf region (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Iraq and Syria (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

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During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and “on the path to defeat.” That makes it a little curious that the State Department is now forced to close temporarily its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa and to issue a global travel alert to U.S. citizens warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda.

News of al-Qaeda’s imminent demise was, it seems, greatly exaggerated. In fact, while the terrorist network has suffered substantial losses, including of course the loss of its co-founder, Osama bin Laden, it has displayed dismaying resilience. Far from going out of business, al-Qaeda has spread, via its regional affiliates, to North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Persian Gulf region (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Iraq and Syria (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The North African affiliate was behind the temporary takeover of northern Mali and, in all likelihood, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya; the Arabian affiliate has plotted attacks on the American homeland and American interests abroad and made substantial inroads in Yemen; and the Iraq/Syria branch has set off more bombs in Iraq than at any time since 2008 and freed hundreds of its confederates from Abu Ghraib prison, while also emerging as the strongest single force within the Syrian rebel movement.

This is not a threat that is going away; it is actually growing. The turbulence of the Arab Spring is creating fresh opportunities for al-Qaeda to make mischief and, as the travel advisory makes clear, the U.S. and its citizens remain in its crosshairs. That makes it all the more imperative to continue the kind of surveillance programs that Edward Snowden has exposed and many in Congress have turned against.

The latest terror warning about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been prompted by NSA intercepts of communications among al-Qaeda leaders. The fact that these intercepts leaked is disturbing, but the fact that the intercepts are taking place is heartening. The NSA is not a Big Brother in waiting. It is our first line of defense against a threat that is not going away. Unfortunately, the president’s own happy talk about al-Qaeda’s supposed demise undermines his standing to make the case for continued efforts to fight this menace.

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Iraq’s Newest Insurgency

The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

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The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.

While the prison breakout was the headline event, Reuters notes, almost in passing, “In the city of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives behind a military convoy in the eastern Kokchali district, killing at least 22 soldiers and three passers-by.” That is another significant attack–what it signifies is that a full-blown Sunni insurgency is growing in northern Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Shiite extremist groups are beginning to fight back, just as they did in the dark days of 2006-2007 when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. As Kim Kagan notes in the Weekly Standard, “Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah…. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad.” “Some of the militia activity,” she notes, “is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints,” which suggests that the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, “is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation.”

Maliki is responsible for this spiraling violence in other ways, as well, principally with his heavyhanded attempts to marginalize and prosecute Sunni politicians which is increasingly driving Sunnis to oppose the government via force of arms. A turning point, as Kagan notes, was “the January killing of several protesters in Fallujah and a deliberate military maneuver on the protest camp in Hawijah in April that left 200 casualties.”

The U.S., which has expended so much blood and treasure in Iraq, has been little more than a hand-wringing bystander to this worsening situation, our leverage severely limited by President Obama’s failure to reach an agreement that could have kept U.S. forces there past 2011. The U.S. can, as Kagan suggests, condition our arms deliveries on Maliki taking constructive steps to reach out to political adversaries, but Iraq is now rich enough–it is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, behind only Saudi Arabia–that it can always replace U.S. weapons with others bought on the open market.

The fate of Iraq is not yet sealed, but its future does not look good. That is a precedent the administration should keep in mind as it openly flirts with the “zero-option” in Afghanistan–i.e., the removal of all U.S. forces after 2014. As the Iraq precedent should show, such a step would not “end” the war but worsen it.

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Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer?

It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

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It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said. …

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.

Hezbollah is our enemy–but so are al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also friends of our friends, and enemies of our enemies, inside Syria. Al-Qaeda has also been known to cooperate with Hezbollah, which would make them the friend of our enemy. Context is everything, I suppose.

The argument that can and has been made is that the U.S. is nervous about the spillover from Syria and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Fair enough. But the McClatchy report (if correct) notes that the CIA not only sent warnings to Hezbollah but also “other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria.” Wouldn’t that include, quite prominently, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t that Hezbollah’s most notable ally in Syria?

Additionally, when the president initially chose to aid the rebels in Syria, the administration did so through Qatari and Saudi intermediaries, who then empowered the more radical Islamist elements. What does it say about the attempt to help the anti-Assad forces that it ended up empowering figures we now consider to be worse than Hezbollah? Entrusting Qatar turned out to have been something of a bad bet. At this point, it very well might be too late to help the moderates take control of rebel forces. But according to Sunday’s New York Times, intelligence officials aren’t so sure:

The comments by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the United States and its allies had so far been lacking.

Mr. Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.

He did not say how it could be accomplished most likely because no one has any idea how it could be accomplished. “Directly confront more radical Islamist elements” is euphemistic language. What it means is: defeat the more radical Islamist elements. A sustained effort to do so inside Syria would probably have us simultaneously supporting the “good” rebels while fighting the “bad” rebels who are fighting against our other enemy, the Assad regime, and a third enemy, Hezbollah.

We would then be protecting Hezbollah from the “bad” rebels while trying to protect other groups, especially in Lebanon, from Hezbollah, all the while working in Europe to blacklist Hezbollah, whom we’re protecting from the friends of our friends in Syria. I admire the optimism, if not the good sense, of anyone who thinks this sounds like something the Obama foreign policy triumvirate of John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel can pull off.

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Karzai’s Conundrum and the “Zero Option”

Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

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Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

The latest excuse for this pull-out talk, ironically, is something eminently reasonable that Karzai has done. I am no defender of the Afghan president who is mercurial, often impossible to deal with, and complicit in massive corruption. But Karzai was justified to pull out of nascent “peace talks” with the Taliban, who have given every indication that they have little interest in peace and much interest in enhancing their international legitimacy by opening a quasi-embassy in Qatar. But Obama has his heart set on “peace talks” with the Taliban to provide cover for an American pullout, and he is said to be furious at Karzai for throwing sand into the gears of his grand scheme.

Karzai simply can’t win here: Either he agrees to talks that legitimate a faster American pullout–or he refuses to engage in this charade, thereby angering Obama, and spurring, you guessed it, a faster American pullout.

It is Obama’s right as commander in chief to decide he wants nothing more to do with Afghanistan. But if that is in fact the decision he has reached–or at least seriously mulling–perhaps he should explain first to himself and then to the American people, and specifically to the troops that he sent to fight and bleed there, why he once considered it a “necessary” war. Why did he more than triple America’s troop presence, knowing that a certain percentage of those he deployed would not come home unharmed and that some would not come home at all, and why did he pressure America’s allies to similarly step up their commitment–why did he do all this if he decides, in the end, to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban?

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why he is seriously contemplating aborting a war effort that still has a reasonable chance of success, and thereby making worthless the sacrifices of so many American service personnel and their Afghan allies. But pique at Karzai’s refusal to sit down with the Taliban–who are committed to reimposing their totalitarian rule and have given no indication of any interest in suing for peace or giving up their alliance with al-Qaeda–won’t cut it.

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Arming Syrian Rebels Is Strategic Suicide

There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

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There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

Obama seems to be blind to the strategic implications of Bashar al-Assad’s downfall. The Syrian regime is a long-time terror sponsor responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans. Wrong are those who say Bashar al-Assad and his father brought quiet to the border with Israel: The Syria-Israel border was quiet, but only because the Assads used Lebanon as their proxy battleground. Syria also provides the crucial link between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The fall of the Syrian regime would roll back Iranian influence away from the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean.

That said, arming the Syrian rebels is wrong and would gravely undercut U.S. national security. I travel to Iraq a couple times each year—without the sponsorship, let alone knowledge, of the State Department or Pentagon—and have been in Iraq for the past two weeks or so. I began my trip in Basra and worked my way north through Baghdad to Kirkuk as well as areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Syria was a topic of frequent conversation, both among ordinary Iraqis and government officials. The evolution of Iraqi attitudes toward Syria has been interesting. In 2007, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regularly condemned the Syrian regime for its role facilitating the infiltration of suicide bombers into Iraq. However, when I visited Iraq last October, many Iraqi Shi’ites warned against any support for the Syrian opposition, claiming they were more radical than the Americans realized. Such complaints from Iraqi Shi’ites might be easy to dismiss. After all, sectarianism overshadows the Middle East. Assad’s Alawis represent an offshoot of Shi’ism while the majority of the Syrian opposition is Sunni.

This trip, however, has been a wake-up call: Not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Kurds, and even many Iraqi Sunnis oppose American provision of arms to the Syrian rebels on the grounds that the Syrian rebels are either more radical than the Americans realize, or that nothing will prevent the so-called moderates whom the United States arms from selling or losing the weaponry to the radicals. There is a real sense of urgency, here, as Iraqis believe they will be the first victims of Sunni radicalism in neighboring Syria. Indeed, while here in Iraq, I have been within earshot of two car bombings, and Iraq has moved past its deadliest month in years. Regardless of ethnicity and sectarian preference, a consensus is emerging in Iraq about the character of the Syrian opposition. With all due respect to congressmen and some advocates for arming the Syrian rebels, those in the region are better able to vet Syrian rebels than U.S. officials 6,000 miles away. As tempting as it may be to think otherwise, and just as it remains with the Mujahedin al-Khalq and the Islamic Republic, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend.

Does this mean we should abandon hopes for regime change in Syria? Absolutely not. The United States does maintain strategic interests in Syria: Eliminating WMD stores; preventing smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah; preventing al-Qaeda groups from utilizing the Syrian vacuum to plan attacks against the West; and preventing both Assad and his opponents from destabilizing neighboring states. An Assad victory would embolden both Tehran and Moscow and ensure the spread of conflict to areas far more important to the United States. Perhaps the safest way to support Assad’s removal, however, is not to give weaponry to the Syrian rebels—a move that would make the “Fast and Furious” scandal seem positively benevolent—but rather to use American air power to prevent any aspect of the conflict perpetrated by either side which could undercut American security.

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Neither Assad nor the Jihadists

After two years of assuming that while “Assad must go” there is no need for Western powers to do anything much to facilitate that outcome, recent events in Syria are bringing into focus the possibility that the opposite result may be in reach. Assad, after all, might stay until the Creator summons him to judgment. That might be a long time, since the man is young and appears to be healthy.

Part of Western reluctance to intervene was predicated upon the distaste for Assad’s alternative–a ragtag coalition of rebels fueled mainly by foreign jihadis and foreign money streaming in to support the ideological preference of those paying–Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

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After two years of assuming that while “Assad must go” there is no need for Western powers to do anything much to facilitate that outcome, recent events in Syria are bringing into focus the possibility that the opposite result may be in reach. Assad, after all, might stay until the Creator summons him to judgment. That might be a long time, since the man is young and appears to be healthy.

Part of Western reluctance to intervene was predicated upon the distaste for Assad’s alternative–a ragtag coalition of rebels fueled mainly by foreign jihadis and foreign money streaming in to support the ideological preference of those paying–Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

That Western powers–now gathering in haste in Washington to charter a new course in light of Assad’s gains–would find themselves out of the game for fear of having to choose between bad and worse is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. By subcontracting rebel support to three Islamist governments the West ensured that the alternative to Assad would be the least preferred outcome Western governments could hope for.

That leaves policymakers in a pickle, but it adds a sense of urgency on the issue of chemical weapons. For if it is true that ultimately this war is a choice between Iranian proxies and Sunni jihadis that include al-Qaeda proxies, who do we prefer to have chemical weapons in their arsenal when the dust settles? The Syrian regime, whose brutality has been proven to know no bounds? Or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, who, by gaining control of those deadly weapons, could in time supply their transnational Islamist brethren with them?

Now more than ever in the last two years is the time for Western policymakers to realize that, whatever else the calculus may be on who wins and who loses in Syria’s civil war, eliminating Syria’s WMD arsenal with surgical strikes is an urgent imperative. If it is operationally possible, that should be the first order of priority for the U.S. and its allies.

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Boko Haram’s Spirit Comes to London

Details are still emerging about the life and habits of Michael Adebolajo, the Islamist butcher who displayed the blood-drenched palms of his hands to a passing cameraman just moments after he and an accomplice murdered 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a soldier in the British Army’s Royal Fusiliers regiment, on a south London street this week.

As is common with any terrorism investigation, the focus is upon who Adebolajo was mixing with and which organizations he approached. A much-tweeted photo shows a stony-faced Adebolajo standing behind Anjem Choudary, a founder of the now banned Islamist organization Al Muhajiroun, at rally in London. It was Choudary who, in 2010, led a ceremony in which he and other supporters of al-Qaeda burned the poppies which many Britons pin to their lapels every November in commemoration of the British and Allied soldiers who fell in two world wars. And it was the same Choudary who justified Adebolajo’s barbarous act by citing “the presence of British forces in Muslim countries and the atrocities they’ve committed.”

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Details are still emerging about the life and habits of Michael Adebolajo, the Islamist butcher who displayed the blood-drenched palms of his hands to a passing cameraman just moments after he and an accomplice murdered 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a soldier in the British Army’s Royal Fusiliers regiment, on a south London street this week.

As is common with any terrorism investigation, the focus is upon who Adebolajo was mixing with and which organizations he approached. A much-tweeted photo shows a stony-faced Adebolajo standing behind Anjem Choudary, a founder of the now banned Islamist organization Al Muhajiroun, at rally in London. It was Choudary who, in 2010, led a ceremony in which he and other supporters of al-Qaeda burned the poppies which many Britons pin to their lapels every November in commemoration of the British and Allied soldiers who fell in two world wars. And it was the same Choudary who justified Adebolajo’s barbarous act by citing “the presence of British forces in Muslim countries and the atrocities they’ve committed.”

When it comes to contacts with Islamist groups outside the United Kingdom, some press reports have mentioned that Adebolajo traveled to Somalia in the last year to join Al Shabab, a particularly brutal al-Qaeda offshoot in east Africa, and may have even been arrested along the way. No solid evidence has, as yet, emerged to tie Adebolajo–a British citizen of Nigerian descent–with Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror organization that has instigated church bombings, pogroms and similar atrocities against the west African country’s beleaguered Christian population.

The prospect of a link with Boko Haram is of interest because Adebolajo was born into a Christian family who were regular attendees at a church in Romford, just outside London. Given the loathing with which Boko Haram regards Christians and Christianity, manifested in the more than 1,500 people killed during the group’s attacks over the last three years, the very idea of a Nigerian Christian joining their ranks is as shocking as the hypothetical (so far, at least) example of a Jew who converts to Islam, joins Hamas and becomes a suicide bomber.

But there is another, perhaps more important, observation to make here. The experience of Nigeria, which Christian rights activists say is now the most dangerous place on earth for Christians, illustrates the flaw of concentrating too narrowly on Islamist organizations, at the expense of the wider influence which Islamist ideas enjoy among the unaffiliated. As Ann Buwalda and Emmanuel Ogebe point out in a compelling study of Boko Haram and its anti-Christian fixations:

While Boko Haram’s bloody terrorist tactics certainly merit serious concern, the focus on this group has overshadowed a pattern of systemic religious violence in Nigeria. It obfuscates the pervasive history of the killing of Christians by Muslims in northern Nigeria going back over a quarter century.

Buwalda and Ogebe argue that Islamist activity in Nigeria has to be understood in the context of three concentric circles: sect (which incorporates Boko Haram), state, and street. Too much attention is paid to the sect circle, they say, and not enough to state policy or public sentiment. For example, the wave of anti-Christian violence that followed the 2011 elections in Nigeria was not orchestrated by Boko Haram, but “was an act of ordinary Muslims across most northern states.” That particular carnage resulted in more than 200 Christians being killed, more than 700 churches destroyed, and more than 3,000 Christian families being driven from their homes.

One can similarly make the case that it doesn’t matter whether or not Michael Adebolajo engaged in direct contact with Boko Haram; like the young Muslims who rampaged against Christians in Nigeria two years ago, he is one of their number in spirit. And now that the killing methods of Boko Haram have come to the streets of London, perhaps Western leaders will pay serious attention to the fact that, alongside Zionism, Judaism and secularism, Christianity has been designated by the Islamists as a transcendental force of darkness–and that Christians across the Muslim world have to live with the consequences of that every day.

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Rhetorical vs. Substantive Change in Obama’s Security Policy

With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

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With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

Obama was particularly effective and hard-nosed in explaining why he authorized the strike that killed an American citizen, Anwar Awlaki: “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America … his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.” Take that, Rand Paul.

There really was not much new in Obama’s speech; even his desire to close Guantanamo and transfer its detainees to prisons on the mainland has been often been expressed before—and is no closer to realization because of bipartisan opposition in Congress. He noted the difficulty of dealing with detainees who remain dangerous but cannot be convicted in a court of law—without offering any solution. All he said was: “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” He also genuflected toward greater accountability for drone strikes but did not endorse any particular idea such as the creation of special courts; he simply said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight.”

There are some real changes associated with Obama’s speech, it seems, but, like much else in the war on terror, they remain classified, murky, and imperfectly understood by those of us who are not cleared to know the inner details. The Washington Post reports, for example, that Obama has issued a new directive limiting the use of drone strikes to targets that “pose a ‘continuing and imminent threat’ to the United States” and then only in instances where there is “near certainty” of no civilian casualties. His guidance apparently also includes a “preference” for the Department of Defense to play the lead role in drone strikes rather than the CIA. It’s not clear exactly what these changes portend, since, as Fred Kaplan has previously noted, the government’s definition of “imminent threat” is wide enough to include just about any al-Qaeda operative, whether he or she is actually about to attack the U.S. or not.

My own view is that drone strikes should not decrease while the threat from “al-Qaeda and Associated Movements” (to borrow the Obama administration’s parlance) remains as high as it is today—the threat coming no longer primarily from al-Qaeda Central but, as Obama noted, from its affiliates and from lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric. But at the same time, while I believe it is dangerous to reduce drone strikes, it is also misguided to believe that they can be the sum of our counter-terrorism efforts. We need to address, as Obama said, “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” That doesn’t mean ending poverty, as his remarks implied, but rather effectively countering extremist propaganda and political organizing by helping moderate forces throughout the Muslim world to fight back. Unfortunately, this is an area where Obama, like Bush, has conspicuously fallen short.

Obama blandly noted that “unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria,” while conspicuously failing to note that it is his own administration’s lack of support for moderate forces—in the government of Libya and among the rebel factions of Syria—that has allowed extremists to come to the fore. Obama eloquently and rightly defended the need for foreign aid spending, but he announced no new steps to help embattled, pro-democratic forces in Libya or Syria.

Bush at least made rhetorical bows toward criticizing dictators and supporting democrats in the Middle East. Obama, in thrall to “realist” dogma, has been much less inclined to try to spread freedom abroad. Ironically, he seems to have adopted the “hard power” part of the Bush legacy while eschewing the emphasis on “soft power”—i.e., democracy promotion. That is his primary shortcoming—not, as the mainstream media narrative would have it, his support for supposedly excessive drone strikes but rather his failure to embed the drone strikes in a wider plan to promote better governance in the Middle East.

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Play with Terrorism; Get Burned

There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

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There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

Turkey may very well be the latest country to figure out that channeling al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers has a very high price at home. A car bomb in a Turkish border town has killed upwards of 40 people. While the Turks may point the finger at forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—a charge the Syrians deny—some Turks suggest that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, a group which some in the Turkish government have supported, may be responsible and might have conducted the attack to try to frame Assad and goad the Turks into greater involvement. A gag order issued by a court in Hatay forbidding many journalists from reporting regarding alleged—though unconfirmed—Nusra Front claims of responsibility has exacerbated the rumors.

While the Turks will attribute responsibility to whichever group most merits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s animus of the moment, beyond the speedy accusations lurk three major suspects:

1)      The Nusra Front: The bomb was—despite Turkish denials—the work of the Nusra Front. This suggests that the devil’s bargain the Turks made, in which the Nusra Front would limit its attacks to Kurds and other enemies of the Turkish government, has broken down.

2)      The Syrian Regime: The same blowback theory, alas, also applies to the Syrian regime which up to just a couple years was courted and supported by Ankara. Indeed, Erdogan’s government supported Syria against Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution, and Erdogan famously invited the Assads to vacation with him along the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

3)      Internal radicals: The most recent reports suggest that the suspects rounded up by Turkish security forces are actually Turkish citizens, not Syrian refugees. Such a scenario suggests that the internal rot in our NATO ally is deeper than many American policymakers realize, both in terms of Turkey’s growing radicalism and in the weakness and incompetence of the Turkish security service in the wake Prime Minister Erdogan’s repeated purges.

Make no mistake: The terrorists targeting civilians are fully to blame; terrorism is never acceptable, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Perhaps, however, the Turkish government will reconsider its approach to counterterrorism, in which it now condemns all terrorism except that conducted for causes to which the prime minister is sympathetic. Every country engaging in such à la carte terror support sooner rather than later discovers that what goes around, comes around.

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The 2012 Election Is Over; the Benghazi Scandal Is Not

I have a somewhat different take than that of Seth Mandel, who says that Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi “is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information.”

My first reaction–which I spoke about on Friday during my appearance on the panel discussion on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier–was that the story is explosive, largely because Hayes’s story provides much in the way of new information.

It provides fresh evidence that, in the words of Hayes, “senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what had happened in the days following the assaults [on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi on September 11, 2012].” (Emphasis added).

We now know, for example, that the early talking points were accurate–and it was only after the State Department and the White House, among others, got done revising the talking points that the truth was transformed into a false account.

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I have a somewhat different take than that of Seth Mandel, who says that Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi “is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information.”

My first reaction–which I spoke about on Friday during my appearance on the panel discussion on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier–was that the story is explosive, largely because Hayes’s story provides much in the way of new information.

It provides fresh evidence that, in the words of Hayes, “senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what had happened in the days following the assaults [on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi on September 11, 2012].” (Emphasis added).

We now know, for example, that the early talking points were accurate–and it was only after the State Department and the White House, among others, got done revising the talking points that the truth was transformed into a false account.

To be specific: early (accurate) references to “Islamic extremists” were removed. Early (accurate) references to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.” And there was no mention of any YouTube video in any of the many drafts of the talking points–even though everyone from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the U.N. ambassador blamed the video for the attacks.

The Benghazi scandal has always been multi-layered. There was the near-criminal negligence before and during the assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, when pleas for more security prior to the attacks and assistance during the attacks were denied. And then there were the misleading accounts after the attacks.

It now seems clear, based on the reporting by Steve Hayes and the accounts of those who were key actors during the attacks, that the accounts of the attacks by the Obama administration were not simply wrong; they were knowingly and willfully wrong. Which turns a mistake into a lie.

For the president and his team, there was probably both ideology and self-interest at play. To take them in order: This is the latest example of the Obama administration living in a fantasy world of its own making, in which Islamic extremism barely exists and poses no real threat to America. We saw it in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood massacre, where a jihadist attack (by Major Nidal Hasan) was said to be an example of “workplace violence.” They refuse to call evil by its name. 

But it’s also obvious that the president and his administration wanted to advance a storyline that al-Qaeda was in retreat. The Benghazi attacks eviscerated that claim–and so the president and his team decided to disfigure the facts, to mislead the American people, to fit their story and advance their political interests. Barack Obama had an election to win–and so he had a scandal to hide.

That has worked until now, when the House will hold hearings later this week featuring whistleblowers who will, by all accounts, tell a story fundamentally at odds with the version the Obama administration has been peddling.

On Friday I referred to the Benghazi scandal as a time-release capsule, where a delay takes place before the full effects are felt. The Obama administration lied about an Islamic attack on an American outpost that killed an American ambassador and three others. They have been caught in the lie. We’re now in the process of seeing how deep, and how high, the corruption goes.

The election is over. This scandal is not.

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Karzai, Corruption, and CIA Bags of Cash

You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

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You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

The question in this case is whether the CIA has gotten value for its money. It is hard to know for sure because there is much we do not know about these payments, whose existence was first disclosed by the New York Times last week (while, coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Afghanistan).

But in general I share the disquiet expressed by veteran Afghanistan watcher Sarah Chayes in this article and this one.

She argues that the payoffs “may well have enabled Karzai’s frequent and theatrical outbursts against U.S. officials and policies, not to mention his collusion with some of his country’s most corrupt and abusive officials. Such payoffs signal to Karzai — or other leaders like him — that he enjoys the unwavering support of the CIA, no matter what he does or says, and embolden him to thumb his nose at the United States whenever he feels like it.”

Particularly troubling is that, as Chayes notes, “the CIA’s bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi,” the very same Karzai aide who “in July 2010 was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling,” before being released at Karzai’s insistence.

Whatever the CIA was buying with its money, the payments came at a heavy cost–namely, to undermine any hopes of curbing the rampant corruption which has done so much to dissipate confidence in the government and provide an opening to the Taliban. Like Chayes, I was part of a small group of outside advisers who urged General David Petraeus, when he was in Kabul, to make fighting corruption a bigger priority. Petraeus did put more resources into the effort, but it’s hard to escape the conviction that his efforts were undermined by the CIA which, pursuing its own foreign policy, has been paying off officials such as the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president who was a powerbroker in Kandahar, and the president himself.

No doubt the CIA has had good arguments for its payments. I’m sure it could cite intelligence and services provided by the Karzais and other recipients of its largess; Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, ran a “strike force” of anti-Taliban fighters at the agency’s behest. But I am not sure that these benefits were ever adequately balanced against the heavy cost of, in effect, subsidizing corruption.

Such an accounting would be almost impossible to undertake because the CIA is so secretive about its efforts–I doubt that either the U.S. ambassador or the NATO commander in Kabul have ever been aware of the full range of its activities. The CIA station chief has always been a powerbroker in his own right, often the most important American in the country–at least from the perspective of senior Afghans who have become dependent on CIA subsidies.

In effect, the agency has been pursuing a cynical policy focused, as far as I can tell, on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, even at the potential cost of harming Afghanistan’s long-term future, which depends on maintaining popular support for the government. The problem is, unless Afghanistan has a stable and legitimate government, the country will never be strong enough to keep out extremists from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups barring a massive presence of U.S. troops, which will not last much longer. The tragedy here is that the CIA’s short-term mindset may be undermining our long-run odds of success in Afghanistan.

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An Important Warning on Iraq

Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.

He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”

In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.

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Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.

He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”

In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.

The only part of his article I disagree with is his ending: “Though the United States has withdrawn its troops from Iraq,” he writes, “it retains significant leverage there. Iraqi forces were equipped and trained by Americans, and the country’s leaders need and expect our help.”

Maybe so, but what I see is that our departure has opened the way for Iran to eclipse our influence–and to the extent that we still have influence we haven’t been doing enough to exercise it, because President Obama prefers to delegate all matters relating to Iraq to underlings, as if he couldn’t be sullied with dealing with the fallout of “George W. Bush’s war.”

As it happens, that war, after tragic early mistakes, was nearly won by the time Obama assumed office. If Iraq does indeed spin out of control, history will not look kindly on the almost casual manner in which Obama aborted negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement and turned his back on Iraq. The misguided fashion in which we “ended” the war (or, more accurately, ended our involvement in keeping the peace) may eventually be judged as serious a mistake as the misguided manner in which we began it.

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When Terrorists “Act Alone”

Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Even if no further links with al-Qaeda or related groups (such as the Caucasus Emirate) are discovered, it is still not correct to claim, as so many media outlets now do, that the brothers were “self-radicalized.” They were radicalized and trained by al-Qaeda–whether in cyberspace or outside of it. It is also likely, moreover, that older brother Tamerlan, the ring leader, came into contact with influential individuals in either Boston and/or Dagestan who guided his intellectual development toward becoming a jihadist. Whether those individuals formally belonged to a terrorist organization or not, they were doing its bidding as long as they were urging violence against the West.

In short, while we need to be worried about “lone wolf” terrorists, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are not entirely autonomous individuals. There is still a terrorist support structure that exists in Dagestan–and other places in the Muslim world such as Yemen and Pakistan–which is closely connected with acts of terror in the West and that needs to be dismantled.

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The Iran-Al-Qaeda Connection

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have arrested two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a train with “support from Al Qaeda elements located in Iran” has been met with widespread and ill-deserved incredulity. Typical is this BBC report, which claims: “It is difficult to believe that there is an operational alliance between Iran, a hard-line Shia Muslim state, and al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit.”

Actually it’s not that hard to believe at all. There is copious evidence of the links between Iran and al-Qaeda, as noted by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal: “In recent years, the US government has added several Iran-based al Qaeda leaders and operatives to its list of specially designated global terrorists, and even noted a ‘secret deal’ between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.”

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News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have arrested two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a train with “support from Al Qaeda elements located in Iran” has been met with widespread and ill-deserved incredulity. Typical is this BBC report, which claims: “It is difficult to believe that there is an operational alliance between Iran, a hard-line Shia Muslim state, and al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit.”

Actually it’s not that hard to believe at all. There is copious evidence of the links between Iran and al-Qaeda, as noted by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal: “In recent years, the US government has added several Iran-based al Qaeda leaders and operatives to its list of specially designated global terrorists, and even noted a ‘secret deal’ between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.”

Full details are available in Roggio’s invaluable post, which goes on to note that Iran also supports another Sunni extremist group: the Taliban: “Treasury has also noted Iran’s support for the Taliban, as in August 2010 it added two top Iranian Qods Force commanders to its list of specially designated global terrorists for directly providing support for the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.”

Roggio’s post is well worth reading for anyone who can’t imagine terrorists cooperating across confessional lines–presumably the same people who could never have believed that Nazis and Communists could possibly make an alliance as they did in 1939 or, for that matter, that democratic America and the Soviet Union could later have cooperated against Nazi Germany notwithstanding their considerable differences.

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More Consequences of Leading from Behind in Libya

The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

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The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

As soon as the Islamists established their authority in northern Mali, they set up training camps where militants from all over the region flocked. Now we are seeing the consequences in Nigeria. The Wall Street Journal reports that as many as several hundred Boko Haram members from Nigeria trained in Mali on the use of rocket-propelled grenades, which they are now employing for the first time in their homeland: “Militants used shoulder-fired grenades against soldiers in the mud-brick town of Baga on Friday night and Saturday, officials said, in fighting that was believed to mark the first major use of rocket-propelled grenades by the group, Boko Haram.”

There are two obvious lessons to be drawn: First, we need to do more to stabilize countries such as Libya after a transfer of power. Second, we can’t afford to ignore Islamist attempts to take over territory in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. If successful, they will surely export terrorism elsewhere.

This is a particularly important lesson to keep in mind as the administration debates how many troops to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. Those who argue for minimal or no commitment at all suggest we have nothing to fear from a Taliban takeover because it will have no impact beyond Afghanistan itself. The history of 9/11–and, more recently, the experience of Libya and Mali–suggests otherwise.

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Rewarding Terror Against Israel While Denouncing It Elsewhere

As Boston was mourning its victims of terror yesterday, a Parisian suburb was planning a gala fete for terrorists. Among those slated to be honored at tonight’s ceremony in St. Denis are Allam Kaabi, convicted of assassinating Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001, and Salah Hamouri, convicted of plotting to assassinate Israel’s former Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. Both are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who were released in 2011 as part of the exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

Though sponsored by a private organization, the ceremony is to be held in a building owned by the municipality, thus lending the town’s imprimatur to it. And, adding insult to injury, it’s slated to be graced by a representative of Amnesty International: Evidently, this self-styled human rights organization has no problem with targeted killings of Israeli civilians, though it objects vociferously to targeted killings of terrorists.

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As Boston was mourning its victims of terror yesterday, a Parisian suburb was planning a gala fete for terrorists. Among those slated to be honored at tonight’s ceremony in St. Denis are Allam Kaabi, convicted of assassinating Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001, and Salah Hamouri, convicted of plotting to assassinate Israel’s former Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. Both are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who were released in 2011 as part of the exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

Though sponsored by a private organization, the ceremony is to be held in a building owned by the municipality, thus lending the town’s imprimatur to it. And, adding insult to injury, it’s slated to be graced by a representative of Amnesty International: Evidently, this self-styled human rights organization has no problem with targeted killings of Israeli civilians, though it objects vociferously to targeted killings of terrorists.

I can’t conceive of any Western city lending its aegis to a ceremony honoring, say, al-Qaeda terrorists–at least, not without sparking a major outcry from its countrymen. But as this ceremony once again demonstrates, even people who find terrorism against anyone else beyond the pale are often willing to make an exception when the victims are Israelis. And that holds true far beyond France.

Indeed, nobody better demonstrates this truth than the great lady who was buried in London today. Eulogies for Margaret Thatcher justly lauded her as a friend to the Jewish people, a friend to Israel (she was the first British premier ever to make an official visit there), and an uncompromising opponent of terror. Yet despite all this, she had no qualms about making an exception for terrorists who targeted Israelis: In 1980, Thatcher abandoned her previous insistence that the PLO renounce terror and signed onto the EEC’s Venice Declaration, which called for involving the PLO in any Israeli-Arab peace process. Thereafter, her government maintained official contact with the PLO.

This was eight years before Yasir Arafat officially renounced terror in 1988 (that he was lying, as the post-Oslo carnage later proved, is a different story). Indeed, the PLO routinely shelled communities in northern Israel from its Lebanese strongholds throughout the early 1980s, which is why Israel went to war to oust it from Lebanon in 1982; and in 1985, Palestinians hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murdered a wheelchair-bound American just because he was Jewish. Yet none of this caused Thatcher to change her mind: In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, she justified engaging with a terrorist organization on the grounds that the PLO was “an important factor in the area.”

It’s hard to find a rational explanation for why so many people tolerate terror against Israelis even as they excoriate it against anyone else. But by so doing, they are undermining both the battle against terror and the universality of the most fundamental human right of all–the right to life. Because if it’s OK to murder Israelis for the sake of a cause, then it’s okay to murder anyone. All that’s left to argue about is the validity of the cause in question.

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The Constitution Project’s Dangerous Complacency on Terror

It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

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It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters.

Nowhere does the report offer any credit to those same officials for preventing more attacks on the American homeland. Nor does the report seriously entertain the possibility–which I think a probability–that the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.

This is a sign, in my view, of the dangerous triumphalism and complacency which has taken control of the public discourse because there were no more 9/11s and because the architects of those attacks have been either captured or killed. Perhaps the Boston Marathon bombing will instill some renewed urgency into the public debate about countering terrorism, but I doubt it–bad as the Boston bombing was, it was not deadly enough to change our mindset in the way that 9/11 did.

We are feeling secure now, and in our security we are seeing a tendency, exemplified by the Constitution Project, to turn on those who were responsible for fighting al-Qaeda at a time when it appeared to be a far more potent threat than it is today.

The project’s report seeks to undo many of the steps taken to fight al-Qaeda, with a majority of its members urging that the U.S. declare formal hostilities with al-Qaeda to be over at the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan–a step that would necessitate closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing or transferring its detainees. If only we could elicit a binding commitment from al-Qaeda to stop fighting us after 2014!

This measure was opposed by a minority of the panel (presumably the Republicans), but the entire group signed on to say “that the United States has violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances”–otherwise known as the “rendition” of terrorist suspects begun under the Clinton administration. By calling the capture of these suspected terrorists “enforced disappearances” the panel seems to be suggesting that U.S. actions are similar to those of the Argentinean junta during its “Dirty War” which left tens of thousands of Argentineans dead.

This is only a small sampling of the problems with the Constitution Project report, which seems to be written as if the terrorist threat is over and we are now in a postwar period. The Boston bombing shows otherwise. I only hope we do not experience even more convincing refutations of our complacency anytime soon.

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