Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

Britain Pushes Back on Snowden

Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

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Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, and they’ve put our operations at risk,” said John Sawers, the head of the foreign intelligence service, MI6. “It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al Qaeda is lapping it up.”

Iain Lobban, the director of the eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, said terrorist groups in Afghanistan, South Asia and the Middle East “and closer to home” have discussed the Snowden revelations. They have assessed “the communications packages they use now and the communication packages they wish to move to,” he said, “to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.”

Mr. Lobban called that “a direct consequence” of the leaks, adding: “Yes, I can say that explicitly. The cumulative effect of global media coverage will make our job far, far harder for years to come.”

Naturally Snowden and his acolytes will dispute such claims as being self-serving propaganda from unaccountable spy chiefs. And really there is no way to prove the damage Snowden has done. Even if terrorist plots are carried out in the future and innocents die, there is no assurance they would have been disrupted if Snowden had not come forward to inform the whole world of the NSA’s capabilities.

But at the very least let us not compound the damage that this arrogant traitor–who takes upon himself the role of determining which intelligence operations are legitimate and which are not–has done by curbing or shutting down the NSA’s surveillance. As they used to say after 9/11: that would be allowing the terrorists to win.

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Iraq’s Violence: What Can Be Done?

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

To be sure, not all is awful in Iraq today. One of the few bright spots is surging oil production, which has increased 50 percent since 2005. Iraqi Kurdistan, almost a separate country by now, is also flourishing. But the overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Feeling cornered, the Sunnis have fought back the only way they know how—with car bombs targeted against Shiites. This is the deadly strategy perfected by al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and it is risking a repeat of what happened in those dark days when Shiite death squads retaliated by torturing and killing innocent Sunnis.

Problem is, while it’s easy to see the toxic trend, it’s hard to reverse it. The administration, never particularly interested in Iraq in the first place, lost most of its leverage when it pulled U.S. troops out at the end of 2011. Maliki is now hoping to buy high-end American hardware including F-16 fighters and attack helicopters, and that gives us a bit of leverage–but only a bit. Iraq is rich enough to buy from Russia or China or, for that matter, France if the U.S. decides not to sell it weaponry. 

There are, however, certain capabilities that the U.S. has that no other nation can match, and it is those that should be used to try to affect Iraqi behavior. As the Edward Snowden revelations have made plain, the U.S. has unrivaled intelligence capabilities, especially in the sphere of electronic snooping, which could be shared with the Iraqis. So, too, we have drones and Special Operations Forces that once helped to unravel al-Qaeda in Iraq’s networks. If sent back into Iraq, they could probably do it again.

Obama should offer Maliki the use of these forces and capabilities, but only on certain conditions: namely that Maliki start accommodating and stop persecuting the Sunnis. Specifically, he should re-start the Sons of Iraq program, which between 2007 and 2008 enrolled some 100,000 Sunni men to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. This pro-government militia was critical to the success of “the surge” in Iraq, and it could help to catalyze a new, smaller surge—one that would not involve any conventional American ground troops but that would send more Special Operations and intelligence personnel to work with their Iraqi counterparts. 

Re-establishing relationships which once existed between the U.S. and Iraqi military could pay further dividends by giving the U.S. side greater “situational awareness” of events in Iraq. This would allow American personnel to help their Iraqi partners in the security forces to resist Maliki’s attempts to misuse them for political purposes. 

It would also give the U.S. greater insight into Iranian machinations in Iraq: Iran has been gaining power ever since the departure of U.S. troops. Not having the U.S. support to fall back on, Maliki has turned to the Iranians for advice and support in fighting back against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Iranians are Shiite hardliners whose involvement only further radicalizes the Sunnis and makes the situation more toxic.

Greater U.S. involvement in Iraq is necessary to counter the Iranians, but it is unlikely to happen because it conflicts with Obama’s desire to pull out of the Middle East at all costs. The cocksure president is also unlikely to take any action which suggests that his 2011 troop pullout was a mistake—which it was. That, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that Iraq will continue to drown in a sea of blood.

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New Benghazi Information, Same Story of Clinton’s Incompetence

Conservatives are basically of two minds regarding the report on the attack on the American mission in Benghazi aired by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night. On the one hand, it always was a legitimate story and it’s encouraging for any mainstream network to emerge even temporarily from the president’s tank and acknowledge reality. Indeed, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson put up with plenty of nonsense for her willingness to do great reporting on the attack.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice the timing. The media became collectively unmoored from the pretense of balanced journalism during the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney dared criticize President Obama’s incompetent handling of the event and the administration’s dishonesty thereafter. Who can forget CNN’s Candy Crowley diving into a debate she was “moderating” to shield Obama from criticism despite having her facts wrong? (Then again, who can blame members of the Obama administration’s farm team from playing for the name on the front of their jerseys?)

But while it may seem too late for the media to try and earn some of its credibility back on Benghazi, it’s worth pointing out that the straight reporting offered by CBS is still somewhat gutsy. After all, the tick-tock of the tragedy paints then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as staggeringly incompetent and irresponsible with power. And Clintonworld has already been working overtime to chill coverage of her ahead of her expected 2016 presidential candidacy.

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Conservatives are basically of two minds regarding the report on the attack on the American mission in Benghazi aired by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night. On the one hand, it always was a legitimate story and it’s encouraging for any mainstream network to emerge even temporarily from the president’s tank and acknowledge reality. Indeed, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson put up with plenty of nonsense for her willingness to do great reporting on the attack.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice the timing. The media became collectively unmoored from the pretense of balanced journalism during the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney dared criticize President Obama’s incompetent handling of the event and the administration’s dishonesty thereafter. Who can forget CNN’s Candy Crowley diving into a debate she was “moderating” to shield Obama from criticism despite having her facts wrong? (Then again, who can blame members of the Obama administration’s farm team from playing for the name on the front of their jerseys?)

But while it may seem too late for the media to try and earn some of its credibility back on Benghazi, it’s worth pointing out that the straight reporting offered by CBS is still somewhat gutsy. After all, the tick-tock of the tragedy paints then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as staggeringly incompetent and irresponsible with power. And Clintonworld has already been working overtime to chill coverage of her ahead of her expected 2016 presidential candidacy.

The Benghazi reporting has followed a pattern conservatives recognize a mile away. The press first does its best to ignore or downplay a story damaging to vulnerable Democrats. When the conservative media are able to drive the story into the open, the conservatives themselves become the story. (How dare conservative politicians politicize politics! Etc.) If a member of the mainstream media breaks ranks and eventually files a story on it after the initial storm has passed, the response from the left is that there’s really nothing new here anyway, so it’s not a game changer.

Now it’s true, of course, that last night’s report isn’t a game changer. But that should not be confused with something that is unimportant. CBS correspondent Lara Logan spoke with a security official in Benghazi now using the pseudonym Morgan Jones (he appeared on camera, as you can see at the initial link). Jones arrived in Benghazi several months before the attack and immediately noticed that “black flags of al-Qaeda” were flying over buildings in the city. He then arrived at the American compound to see a woefully inadequate band of security guards. His warnings went ignored, and then proved prophetic.

Logan also spoke with others who had previously testified on Benghazi, like Gregory Hicks. That all the increased reporting and testimony confirms, rather than upends, what we know about Benghazi should not be helpful to Clinton. The picture that emerged last year and has been confirmed time and again was that there were patterns that suggested the mission was in danger and then warnings that made the threat more explicit. Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists threatened various targets, including the American mission, and then followed through, and all the while Washington ignored the warnings they received on the ground and the intelligence that predicted the attack.

It is not uncommon for both left and right to look at the same set of facts and come to radically different conclusions as to their implications. But if CBS’s reporting, along with a slightly less defensive posture from the media, is any indication, Obama may be mostly in the clear–but Clinton cannot expect to join him there quite yet.

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Is Iraq’s Present Afghanistan’s Future?

Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

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Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan? It’s too soon to say, but there is cause for concern when one reads articles like this one in the New York Times today reporting that “NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American.” That translates into 5,300 to 8,000 U.S. troops, considerably below the 13,600 that Gen. Jim Mattis, former commander of Central Command, estimated to be necessary–and that itself was a low-ball estimate in the judgment of many military experts.

At some point there is a real risk of Afghan politicos, like their Iraqi counterparts, deciding there is no point in having their sovereignty violated and being exposed to anti-American criticism in return for a token force that can accomplish little. If that were to happen, the future of Afghanistan isn’t hard to imagine. Just look at Iraq today–only Afghanistan will probably be worse off because it faces a more malignant insurgency with more entrenched cross-border bases and its government and security forces are weaker than their Iraqi counterparts.

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The Temptation of Relying on Anti-Terror Raids

The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

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The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

That is a much-needed message to send, and it helps in a small way to begin undoing some of the damage from Obama’s vacillation over Syria, which signaled American confusion and retreat. But, while important and welcome, Special Operations raids and drone strikes will not by themselves win the war on terror. That is why, even as these surgical strikes have proliferated in recent years, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have spread their reach further than ever. To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own.

The U.S. track record in this regard is mixed. Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya. Libya has not been nearly as successful, because the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.  

The situation is even worse in Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq has managed to revive itself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Violence rates have soared back to 2008 levels, while al-Qaeda in Iraq has also exported its operations to neighboring Syria, where the U.S. seems to have no strategy for rolling back gains being made by both Shiite and Sunni extremists.

The picture in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is mixed: The U.S. has made a massive troop commitment to bolster the government in Kabul, but it is not clear if the U.S. will maintain any forces after 2014 to build on the gains that have been made. The latest news reports indicate that the White House is once again threatening to pull all U.S. troops if an impasse over the terms of their deployment is not resolved. If the “zero option” does come to pass, it risks undoing everything that U.S. troops have fought for.

So by all means send out the special operators to collar or kill the bad guys. That is risky but necessary. But also remember that this is only one “line of operation” in a larger strategy that we desperately need to counter the continuing growth of Islamist extremism.

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Mission Impractical

The Washington Post today provides fresh details about the anemic CIA program to train moderate Syrian rebels. Reporter Greg Miller writes that “the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that the CIA is providing so little support is not accidental, nor is it due to logistical constraints. It’s due to the mission statement given to the covert operators by their political masters in the White House. Writes the Post: “The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Now there’s an inspiring battle cry: Go out and risk your lives for a stalemate. One can only imagine what morale must be like among not only the Syrian rebels who are expected to risk their necks but also among the CIA handlers who are expected to prepare them for this pointless mission. Indeed the Post story suggests the CIA is already in CYA mode: “Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong. ‘What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East.”

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The Washington Post today provides fresh details about the anemic CIA program to train moderate Syrian rebels. Reporter Greg Miller writes that “the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that the CIA is providing so little support is not accidental, nor is it due to logistical constraints. It’s due to the mission statement given to the covert operators by their political masters in the White House. Writes the Post: “The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Now there’s an inspiring battle cry: Go out and risk your lives for a stalemate. One can only imagine what morale must be like among not only the Syrian rebels who are expected to risk their necks but also among the CIA handlers who are expected to prepare them for this pointless mission. Indeed the Post story suggests the CIA is already in CYA mode: “Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong. ‘What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East.”

History shows that covert operations, like standard military campaigns, are only likely to produce results if they are designed to produce victory–as in the case of the program to arm Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Aiming for stalemate is a prescription for failure.

Why would the Obama administration make this their goal? Their de facto policy–not their declared policy but their real policy–appears to be a variation of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip that it was a shame that both sides couldn’t lose in the Iran-Iraq War. Likewise in Syria it’s hard to choose between Hezbollah and the Quds Force on one side and, on the other, al-Qaeda affiliates such as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the al-Nusra Front, even if the latter make up only a minority of rebel fighters. (The Post cites intelligence estimates that jihadists comprise 20 percent of the 100,000 rebel fighters.)

The problem is that, while it’s possible for both groups of extremists to lose (which is what would happen if moderate rebel factions prevail), it is also possible for both sides to win–which is what would happen if today’s stalemate were to continue indefinitely. Under those circumstances, the current trend of the country being split between jihadist and Assadist areas will accelerate: the al-Qaeda groups will continue to exercise sway in the north while Iran’s allies control Damascus and the Alawite strongholds.

This is not a win for the United States. It’s actually our nightmare scenario. And President Obama’s half-hearted policy of not really supporting the moderate rebels–or only supporting them enough to perpetuate the stalemate–is helping to bring it about. Incidentally, American apathy is also enabling the war to rage on and to kill thousands more people every month. This is neither moral nor strategically smart.

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NY Times Suddenly Concerned About Leaks

It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

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It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

The “news report” in question, naming Zawahiri and Wuhayshi, appeared in McClatchy newspapers on Aug. 4. Two days earlier the Times itself had reported on the foiled terror plot, a victory which it attributed to the American interception of “electronic communications … among senior operatives of Al Qaeda.” The Times now reveals that it too knew the identity of the operatives in question but chose to withhold them on security grounds at the request of senior U.S. officials, at least until McClatchy came forth with its own, more specific revelations.

The Times would now have you believe that all of the resulting damage was due to the McClatchy leak, not to the Times leak, and moreover that the damage incurred was considerably more substantial than that caused by Snowden—whose latest revelations concerning NSA mining of metadata appeared on the Times front page as recently as Sunday. No wonder McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief finds the Times article an “odd” one.

There is certainly room to debate whether the Times, too, has caused damage to national security with its leaks not only of the Zawahiri-Wuhayshi intercepts but also of Snowden’s revelations more generally. As the Times’s own story today concedes: “Shortly after Mr. Snowden leaked documents about the secret N.S.A. surveillance programs, chat rooms and Web sites used by jihadis and prospective recruits advised users how to avoid N.S.A. detection, from telling them to avoid using Skype to recommending specific online software programs like MS2 to keep spies from tracking their computers’ physical locations.”

The article also quotes anonymously some “senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials” who say “that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the impact of the messages between the Qaeda leaders from Mr. Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline [in intercepts] is more likely a combination of the two.”

It is pretty rich of the Times, then, to be piling blame on a rival news organization when it has done as much as any media outlet to publish government secrets that can be of use to our enemies.

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Syria’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

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When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

There is only one problem: President Obama’s decision not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime contradicts, rather than flows, from his claim. An American intervention would, if anything, help end the war. By contrast, American inaction will prolong Syria’s civil war, and it will potentially make its outcomes worse for American interests.

One such outcome–the jihadi nature of part of the rebel forces–was routinely cited by administration officials as a reason for caution. And yet, it is increasingly obvious that there is a direct correlation between Western inaction and the rise of jihadis among the rebels.

Today, the Washington Post reports that the flow of weapons to Syria’s opposition is going mostly to Islamist rebels–thanks to a renewed commitment from Gulf donors not to let the Sunni rebellion lose out after America threatened and then cancelled a military strike.

Clearly, if there is no Western support for moderate forces, fears that aid to the rebels may end up strengthening jihadi elements will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with far-reaching consequences. One will be that if Syria falls to the rebels, it will be a hub for jihadi activities. Another is that the more jihadi foreign fighters survive the war to return to their homes, the more jihadis will be ready for more action against the West in years to come. So much for defeating al-Qaeda and making it irrelevant, then–America’s choice of delegating a role in this conflict to regional powers will dilute American efforts to eradicate the al-Qaeda franchise from the region.

This is just one aspect of the Syria conundrum that clearly undermines the president’s rhetoric. It is not the only one, but it suffices to show that in fact, President Obama’s legacy will not be to end wars but only to ensure that America avoids them at all costs–whatever the long-term consequences for America and its vital interests.

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The Mistaken Focus on “Core Al-Qaeda”

President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

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President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

In Nairobi, a squad of gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabab have massacred at least 68 people in an upscale mall while holding others hostage–an attack reminiscent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, of the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008.

In Iraq, one suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30, while another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. These are the latest in a series of terrible attacks in Iraq, which, according to the Associated Press, have seen “more than 4,000 people … killed between April and August, a level of carnage not seen since 2006 to 2008, when Iraq was nearing civil war.”

Yet another suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church. This was presumably the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban.

Oh, and two Israeli soldiers were slain in the West Bank, one by a sniper, the other by a duplicitous Palestinian acquaintance.

All of these attacks do not suggest that Islamist groups are on their way to seizing power in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. Indeed, the Shabab attack was, in many ways, a sign of the group’s weakness in Somalia, where it has suffered defeats on the ground from Kenyan and African Union troops. Shabab is turning to terrorist attacks against soft targets in Uganda and Kenya to remain relevant.

But what these attacks show is that Islamist groups–some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, others not–are far from defeated. They still have considerable capacity to wreak carnage and, given the weakness of regimes that are fighting them across the Middle East and Africa, they can make substantial inroads into failed states.

President Obama and the American national security establishment have been too focused on “core” al-Qaeda while downplaying the menace from these other groups on the periphery, which continue to pose as big a threat as ever.

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Turkey’s Double-Speak on Al-Qaeda

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

  • Ahmet Kavas, like Tan a Turkish ambassador, raised eyebrows earlier this year when against the backdrop of al-Qaeda fighting in Mali, he declared, “Al-Qaeda is very different from terror” and that “The word ‘terror’ is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims.”
  • Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man for whom Tan works, has embraced and continues to support Yasin al-Qadi, designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be terror financier, having channeled money to al-Qaeda. After it came out that Cuneyt Zapsu, a top Erdoğan adviser, had donated money to Yasin al-Qadi, Erdoğan defended both his aide and Qadi himself. “I know Yasin, I believe in him as I do in myself. He is a charitable person who loves Turkey,” Erdogan told Turkish television.
  • Turkey has in recent years embraced Hamas, and Tan himself has gone above and beyond to defend the flotilla meant to support the terrorist group. The head of the flotilla that Tan defended? Apparently, he has also been involved in channeling money to al-Qaeda.

Tan likes to be all things to all people, but if he’s serious that Turkey stands against terrorism, perhaps he might want to explain the support he, his colleagues, and the government he represents provide toward terrorists.

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In Syria, Partition Is Not the Answer

The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

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The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

Friedman’s suggested course of action is unworkable more than it is unlikely. As I wrote in May, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are on pace to lose only parts of the country. Assad has enlisted the help of Hezbollah, and as a result will gain more control over land in Lebanon and be better able to entrench his loyalist power base. If the war ends in a stalemate, I wrote, the divided country would probably be a menacing presence from day one:

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Again, the watchword here is destabilization. Jordan thought it could host Palestinian militants while still ruling over them. It was wrong. The Palestinians even briefly declared themselves independent of the monarchy before their expulsion. Lebanon had the same experience with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah. If al-Qaeda prospers in some part of Syria, it will probably follow the same pattern, first by securing a state within a state and then expanding, destabilizing the entire country.

That’s why Friedman’s advice to accept partition would be a long-term mistake. Unless the U.S. installs a puppet regime it is willing to go to war for in the moderate rebel section of the postwar partitioned Syria, those moderate rebels won’t fare much better against the al-Qaeda affiliates just because the West fabricated a “border.” The impulse to want to bring an end to the bloodshed is understandable, but pretend sovereignty and pretend peace won’t make that happen.

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Al-Qaeda’s Willing Idiots in the Media

In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

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In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

It is the duty of the free press in our republic to hold the government accountable and to expose its doings to the light whenever possible. But there is a difference between press freedom and stripping the nation of its ability to defend itself. Whatever you may think about the Obama administration’s use of drones, they are part of an active American campaign to attack terrorists who are at war with the United States. Publishing material that directly relates to the ability of terrorists to block this campaign crosses the line that should exist between covering the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus and actively seeking to cripple their operations.

We live in an era in which groups like WikiLeaks and figures such as Snowden have taken upon themselves the job of waging war on the entire concept of American security. Their frame of reference is one that denies any need for secrecy even when it concerns the safety of active-service personnel or attacks against terrorist targets. You don’t need to support the idea of war in Syria or even approve of President Obama’s policies to understand this is a point of view that is incompatible with the nation’s ability to defend itself.

That major newspapers have in recent years adopted a stance toward the publication of classified material that is in many respects indistinguishable from that of WikiLeaks is shocking. Reports on drone vulnerabilities are, after all, not the moral equivalent of the Pentagon Papers—the landmark case about publication of classified reports—which was a historical document outlining American misadventures in Vietnam and labeled as classified only to spare the government embarrassment.

The Post story on drones is just the latest example of a trend in which it and other major publication such as the New York Times have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what the public may know about security stories. While no one should treat everything labeled as “secret” by the Pentagon or the CIA as sacrosanct, you don’t need a security clearance to understand that a public discussion of how to shoot down or jam a drone aimed at al-Qaeda has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining the government’s ability to defend the American people.

Past generations of journalists understood that loyalty to their country sometimes had to supersede their innate desire to get scoops. If they don’t understand the difference between a free press and being the willing idiots of al-Qaeda, it’s time for the Post, the Times, and other papers to rethink their approach to these issues and to step back from their cooperation with Snowden.

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Send the Right Signal to WMD Proliferators

It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

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It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

Admittedly, it would have been much better to start arming and building up the moderate opposition two years ago. But we have no choice but to try now, otherwise the victor is either going to be the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis or al-Qaeda and its ilk. Neither one speaks for the majority of Syrians and there is still an opportunity–albeit an opportunity much smaller today than two years ago–to buttress the more moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army. But in order to do that the Obama administration will have to provide heavier weapons to vetted rebel factions, especially anti-tank missiles that can stop Assad’s armored vehicles.

The rebels also require anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s aircraft. The administration is on more solid ground in refusing to grant this weapons request because of the danger that portable anti-aircraft systems such as the Stinger could fall into the wrong hands and wind up being used against civil aviation. As I have been arguing for a while, instead of providing anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, the U.S. and its allies should simply use their air and naval forces to ground Assad’s aircraft. That could be achieved from stand-off range by cratering runways and blowing up aircraft on the ground. It would be achieved even more surely by imposing a no-fly zone backed up by airstrikes; Assad’s anemic air defenses, weakened by defections and two years of fighting, would be no match for an American-led air assault.

Unfortunately there is little indication that, even if granted the power to act by Congress, Obama will take any of these steps. More likely are a few days of cruise missile strikes expressly designed not to topple the Assad regime–and not even to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal because of the threat that air strikes could simply disperse dangerous chemicals into the air. Of course Assad, because he reads the news too, knows all this. The New York Times quotes a former friend of his: “This is what Bashar Assad has told the top elite: that it will be a cosmetic attack. They believe it deeply.”

It is critically important to upset Assad’s expectations–to ensure that an American attack, if there is one, is not simply cosmetic. Congress cannot force Obama to act decisively, but with a lopsided vote for a strong resolution which gives the president full freedom of action, it can at least create the conditions for decisive action should administration hawks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, prevail in their internal deliberations.

The alternative–of not granting the administration authorization to act–is too dangerous to contemplate: It would be a green light to WMD proliferators from North Korea to Iran who will now know that the U.S. will do nothing to stop them. Thus, congressional skeptics have no choice but to hold their noses and vote “aye,” all the while hoping that the administration’s use of force will be less anemic than widely advertised.

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Assessing the Facts on the Ground in Syria

In an earlier post I wrote that there’s a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, about whether an effective show of force against the Assad regime that would alter the balance of power would be worthwhile. I said this:

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to call attention to this op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and which was published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. O’Bagy has made numerous trips to Syria over the last year and she’s spent hundreds of hours with Syrian opposition groups ranging from Free Syrian Army affiliates to the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. She writes this:

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In an earlier post I wrote that there’s a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, about whether an effective show of force against the Assad regime that would alter the balance of power would be worthwhile. I said this:

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to call attention to this op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and which was published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. O’Bagy has made numerous trips to Syria over the last year and she’s spent hundreds of hours with Syrian opposition groups ranging from Free Syrian Army affiliates to the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. She writes this:

The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory….  Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country… Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.

Ms. O’Bagy goes on to add, “a punitive measure undertaken just to send a message would likely produce more harm than good.” She argues that the ultimate goal should be destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition with robust support, in order to change the balance of power in Syria. Otherwise the conflict will engulf the entire region.

I haven’t shifted in my view that Syria, thanks in part (but not in whole) to President Obama’s incompetence, is a very complicated challenge. But this much I do know: Thinking through what policy to pursue always has to begin with an honest assessment of the facts on the ground. And it seems to me that Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed is a very good place to start.

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Delaying Justice in Benghazi

President Obama has been getting unwarranted criticism for over-reacting to a terrorist threat by closing U.S. embassies across the Middle East last week (all but the embassy in Yemen have since reopened). Actually, if leaks are accurate about how the NSA intercepted a conference call among senior al-Qaeda leaders, the administration acted prudently to disrupt their plot. The administration also is right to step up drone strikes in Yemen to try to further degrade al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate organization that was allegedly going to carry out the attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East.

I’m more worried not about administration over-reaction but about its under-reaction to the last successful attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission–the one in Benghazi almost a year ago, resulting in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several of his colleagues. Justice still has not been done because of the administration’s puzzling insistence–lost amid all the controversy over the talking points about whether it was a terrorist attack or not–to treat this as a criminal offense, not what it was: an act of war. The New York Times reports today, buried deep in a long story:

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President Obama has been getting unwarranted criticism for over-reacting to a terrorist threat by closing U.S. embassies across the Middle East last week (all but the embassy in Yemen have since reopened). Actually, if leaks are accurate about how the NSA intercepted a conference call among senior al-Qaeda leaders, the administration acted prudently to disrupt their plot. The administration also is right to step up drone strikes in Yemen to try to further degrade al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate organization that was allegedly going to carry out the attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East.

I’m more worried not about administration over-reaction but about its under-reaction to the last successful attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission–the one in Benghazi almost a year ago, resulting in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several of his colleagues. Justice still has not been done because of the administration’s puzzling insistence–lost amid all the controversy over the talking points about whether it was a terrorist attack or not–to treat this as a criminal offense, not what it was: an act of war. The New York Times reports today, buried deep in a long story:

Investigators have made only halting progress on the case, leading some F.B.I. agents in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to voice frustration that there have been no arrests so far, the officials said. Capturing the suspects will most likely require significant negotiations between the State Department and the Libyan government over who will conduct any raids and where the suspects will be tried. The military’s Joint Special Operations Command has drafted plans to capture or kill the suspects, but for now that option has been set aside, Pentagon officials said.

This is repeating the same mistake the Reagan administration made after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and that the Clinton administration and Bush administrations made after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. There are always arguments for inaction, some of which look compelling at the time. But failing to retaliate effectively for attacks on U.S. targets overseas inevitably comes back to haunt us because it sends a message of American weakness. It is well past time for the administration to unleash JSOC to capture or kill the men responsible for killing an American ambassador and destroying an American diplomatic post.

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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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