Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar al-Assad

Treaty Cheating: The New START Precedent

Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

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Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

The Obama administration recently acknowledged having concerns that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, though it has yet to formally accuse Moscow of any violation. The apparent source of concern is Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile, dating back to 2008. The agreement prohibits Russia and the United States from producing, stockpiling or testing any cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

In their letter, Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) demanded to know whether McKeon was aware of the alleged treaty breach at the time when he was acting as a key White House representative on Capitol Hill during the push to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty, according to the news publication.

“Based on your role as Vice President [Joe] Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF treaty and what information was shared with the Senate,” the two senators said.

Wicker and Ayotte also want answers on why it took the Obama administration so many years to update Congress on its concerns about possible treaty transgressions by Moscow.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” states the letter, which was viewed by the Daily Beast.

New START was, from the beginning, a puzzling distraction from much more important nonproliferation issues. But the Obama administration, true to form, was substituting public relations for public policy. The president wanted to show that the two countries were resetting relations, and the deal, while otherwise useless, served the administration’s purposes.

New START looks even less promising in the rearview mirror, once the “reset” had completely crumbled and Vladimir Putin had thoroughly humiliated the president on the world stage. But even at the time it was both shallow and a foolish expenditure of political capital. But the legacy of New START changes in important ways if the president can’t claim to have been naively duped by Putin and if, instead, a top American negotiator pushed the treaty through with the knowledge that the Russians were simultaneously violating past arms agreements and therefore unlikely to comply with this one.

McKeon’s nomination aside, the issue goes to the heart of the concern over far more important agreements, like the Syria chemical-weapons deal and above all the Iranian nuclear deal. The hope has been that while Obama is being desperately out-negotiated by rogue regimes, if they don’t comply with those deals the White House will acknowledge so and act accordingly. That goes not just for Iran but for companies who enable Iran to violate sanctions. “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama threatened recently.

But history shows that the president is, at times, more concerned with signing deals than with ensuring the intended outcome of those deals. The questions surrounding Brian McKeon and New START raise the possibility that the president’s critics are more on-target than even they thought.

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It’s Not Just Regime vs. Al-Qaeda in Syria

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

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A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Other changes provide new opportunities not recognized in a policy debate that seems stuck on repeat. Last month, I spent several days in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, home to Syria’s Kurdish minority, thousands of Syriac Christians, and many Arabs as well. While the United States refuses to deal with the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian administration set up in this region largely out of deference to Turkey, which does not like the idea of another federal Kurdish region on its borders, the Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of Rojava have done a remarkable job ousting al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and other radicals, and putting in place a functioning administration. I described some of this in a Wall Street Journal piece last Friday.

It seems remarkable that with the disaster that is Syria today, the White House would not jump at a chance to support a stable, secular, and secure region that is relative pro-American. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to do. The residents of Hasakah, or Rojava as Kurds call the region, don’t ask for much: just an end to the blockade imposed not only by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose president, Masud Barzani, sees Rojava as potential political competition) so that they can received donated medicine and rice. The region’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) and their Syriac Christian and Arab corollaries have successfully neutralized the regime and pushed by radical Islamist elements without international assistance. Should the West decide to support Syria’s secular elements even further, they might stabilize portions of Syria under a federal model, much like in Iraq. That isn’t a magic formula but, as in Iraq, perhaps embracing stability in some provinces can be a useful first step if achieving stability in all provinces is not immediately possible. Rather than simply regurgitate three-year-old talking points about arming the opposition, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the current situation on the ground and support Rojava.

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The Predictable Consequences of Retreat

It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

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It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

Although the Saudis claim to be providing these weapons only to secular elements of the Free Syrian Army, it’s hard to have much confidence in their track record. Recall how they armed the most extreme jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Even if the missiles in question go only to “moderate” rebel fighters, the danger that they will fall into the wrong hands goes up. And that could be a catastrophe in the making, given what an enticing target civil airliners, such as those that land at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, are for terrorists armed with manpads.

That is why the Obama administration has been warning against supplying these portable and deadly missiles to the rebels. But if it had really wanted to stop the arms flow, the U.S. should have offered an alternative method of taking down Assad’s airpower–most likely in the form of a no-fly zone enforced by the U.S. and its allies. Failing that, the Saudis are taking matters into their own hands–yet another reason to be concerned about the consequences of American retreat.

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Is Geneva the Ghost of Negotiations Future?

Though Secretary of State John Kerry probably won’t heed the warnings, the disastrous Syrian peace negotiations are providing the service of at least demonstrating where the West’s current style of negotiating with rogue regimes leads. The talks are falling apart, as the New York Times reports today. But the process by which they are doing so has been nonetheless illuminating.

The Syrian peace track took a turn in September after the Obama administration began making the case for striking targets in Syria aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Kerry was asked how strikes could be avoided, and, seemingly caught off-guard, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Critics of the Syria deal initially said it would be used by Russia and Assad as a delaying tactic. The Obama administration didn’t much care, because the cause of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was deemed worth the time needed to accomplish it. But whatever the desirability of the goal here, the current form of the Syria peace process followed a familiar outline: it began with a delay considered reasonable, but soon expanded into various other demands to buy time. As the Times reports:

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Though Secretary of State John Kerry probably won’t heed the warnings, the disastrous Syrian peace negotiations are providing the service of at least demonstrating where the West’s current style of negotiating with rogue regimes leads. The talks are falling apart, as the New York Times reports today. But the process by which they are doing so has been nonetheless illuminating.

The Syrian peace track took a turn in September after the Obama administration began making the case for striking targets in Syria aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Kerry was asked how strikes could be avoided, and, seemingly caught off-guard, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Critics of the Syria deal initially said it would be used by Russia and Assad as a delaying tactic. The Obama administration didn’t much care, because the cause of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was deemed worth the time needed to accomplish it. But whatever the desirability of the goal here, the current form of the Syria peace process followed a familiar outline: it began with a delay considered reasonable, but soon expanded into various other demands to buy time. As the Times reports:

Russian officials accused the Syrian opposition’s Western backers on Friday of focusing solely on “regime change” and said the government would discuss political transition only if its opponents agreed on a joint fight against terrorism.

The declarations — unlikely to produce compromise because the government tends to define all its armed opponents, including those backed by the opposition delegation here, as terrorists — added to the state of suspense at peace talks that so far have produced no progress. The negotiations this week were the second round, and there is now uncertainty over whether there will be a third.

The statements came a day after a meeting of Russian, American and United Nations officials failed to produce a consensus on how to unblock the talks and push the parties toward substantive negotiations.

Theoretically, the drive to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons does not have to be linked in any way with the Geneva talks. But it’s undeniable that the chemical-weapons deal has altered the landscape of this particular peace process. Assad is in a stronger position by having elevated his Russian backers in the conflict and by his required cooperation–and therefore, effectively, his regime’s protection–with the West.

He is also more able to make demands, because the threat of force against his regime has been taken off the table for now. The West would be conducting these negotiations with or without the chemical-weapons deal, but the chemical-weapons deal has removed the most effective enforcement mechanism. Assad can play for time, and in fact the Times report shows him to be no longer even feigning interest in the process:

Mr. Brahimi, they said, complained that the Syrian delegation had refused to even touch, let alone read, a 24-point plan presented by the opposition on Wednesday on how to structure a political transition for Syria. Instead, they said, the government delegates left the paper on the table and walked away.

The opposition delegates have agreed to a compromise agenda that would simultaneously address their top priority — the formation of a fully empowered transitional governing body “by mutual consent” — and that of the government, which is to end violence and terrorism in Syria.

But the government delegates have so far refused, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday seemed to back them up, declaring that the opposition and its backers appeared solely focused on deposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Just as the chemical-weapons deal and the transition negotiations became inextricably linked by the precedent one set for the other, so the Obama administration may find that the Syrian conflict is not taking place in a vacuum. Kerry has two other peace processes on his plate at the moment: the nuclear deal with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Ostensibly, they are separate from each other and the Syrian track. But in practice it just isn’t the case. For example the Iranian government is involved, on some level or another, in all three. Syria is its patron and it is helping to prosecute the war by proxy. And its relationship with Palestinian terror groups enables it to cause trouble there as well.

Additionally, they are watching in Geneva just how far delaying tactics can be taken. Already there has been talk of extending the deadlines for both the Iran talks and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Ideally, Kerry would understand that Syria just may be the ghost of negotiations future. He seems determined, however, to find that out for himself the hard way.

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Are There Any Winners in Syria?

Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

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Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

A pair of stories in the UK Telegraph draw attention to the strategy gap. The paper reports that Bashar al-Assad accurately gauged the West’s (understandable) hesitation to do anything that could inadvertently empower Islamist terrorists in Syria:

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels and al-Qaeda defectors.

Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, intelligence sources have told The Daily Telegraph.

Rebels and defectors say the regime also deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including al-Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.

The allegations by Western intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are in part a public response to demands by Assad that the focus of peace talks due to begin in Switzerland tomorrow be switched from replacing his government to co-operating against al-Qaeda in the “war on terrorism”.

If true—and a follow-up story lends credence to it—Assad has very skillfully played the West. But the headline of that follow-up story might give the West too much credit, failing to learn the lesson of its own revelations: “Syria’s duplicity over al-Qaeda means West will not trust Assad.” Syria’s duplicity means the West should not trust Assad. But Western leaders, in agreeing to the Russian chemical-weapons proposal to partner with Assad, may not have given themselves much of a choice at this point.

Which means ultimately they—the West—will lose by being made to look feckless in pronouncing that Assad must go and also having Islamist terror networks thrive in place of moderate rebels partially because of—not in spite of—the West’s decision to sit this one out. Assad will lose too, because terrorist groups will not willingly give up lucrative real estate in Syria, instigating a war of attrition against Assad. If Assad ultimately loses, so does Russia. The moderate rebels will lose for all the obvious reasons, including that they basically already have lost. Come to think of it, perhaps there will be a winner after all: thus far, everything’s coming up al-Qaeda.

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Cooperating with Assad

Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

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Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

Yet the fact that the intelligence representatives of these countries, which have broken diplomatic relations with Damascus, are willing to meet with Assad’s thugs is very telling–and what it tells us is that they have basically accommodated themselves to the perpetual existence of the Assad regime. And why shouldn’t they, when the U.S., which would have to lead any coalition to oust Assad, refuses to do so?

President Obama has even discontinued providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition for fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Instead he has struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, which essentially makes the U.S. a partner of the Syrian regime.

It is only a small step from where we are today toward tacit toleration for Assad’s atrocities, much as the West provided tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Maybe there really is no other choice left in Syria–maybe the only alternative to Assad’s thuggery is the thuggery of al-Qaeda on the other side–but if so, that’s a pretty damning indictment of the moral and practical failure of Western (read: American) policy in Syria.

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The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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The Growing Acceptance of the Assad Regime’s Survival

On the last day of last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful indictment of President Obama’s Syria policy. No, it wasn’t an editorial or op-ed (although the Journal has run plenty of those too). Rather, this was a news article by Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, and the indictment was delivered not by the president’s political adversaries but by his own officials, particularly in the intelligence community.

The article explains that the intelligence agencies have retracted their previous assessments that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad fell–a staple of the president’s own rhetoric from the start of the full-blown uprising in 2011 until early 2013. No longer. In 2013 Iran and Hezbollah increased their commitment to Assad while the U.S. and its allies made no comparable commitment to the rebels, preferring instead to strike a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons–while he goes right on pulverizing the opposition and any civilians unlucky enough to be caught in his indiscriminate attacks. The result:

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On the last day of last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful indictment of President Obama’s Syria policy. No, it wasn’t an editorial or op-ed (although the Journal has run plenty of those too). Rather, this was a news article by Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, and the indictment was delivered not by the president’s political adversaries but by his own officials, particularly in the intelligence community.

The article explains that the intelligence agencies have retracted their previous assessments that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad fell–a staple of the president’s own rhetoric from the start of the full-blown uprising in 2011 until early 2013. No longer. In 2013 Iran and Hezbollah increased their commitment to Assad while the U.S. and its allies made no comparable commitment to the rebels, preferring instead to strike a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons–while he goes right on pulverizing the opposition and any civilians unlucky enough to be caught in his indiscriminate attacks. The result:

The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

There was nothing inevitable about this division of Syria between Shiite and Sunni extremists, as I have been arguing for some time. It came about because the Iranians went all-in and the U.S. didn’t. As the Journal notes: “Through it all, U.S. intelligence and military officers watched the evolution with alarm from the sidelines, at least one step behind developments on the ground.” Thanks to this American hesitancy and confusion, the article notes, quoting “a longtime American diplomat in the region,” it now looks “like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have ‘won’.”

The flip side of a victory for Assad and his patrons in Hezbollah and Tehran is that the U.S. has lost. Obama’s defeat in Syria hasn’t been nearly as costly, at least so far, in American blood or treasure as President Bush’s temporary defeat in Iraq, from 2003 to 2007–but it is likely to prove more enduring and more damaging to American interests in the region because there is no “surge” on the horizon to save the day. In Syria the situation is likely to go from grim to grimmer, and drag down fragile neighboring states, notably Iraq and Lebanon, along with it into the vortex of sectarian bloodletting.

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Kerry’s Self-Defeat Ahead of Syria Conference

Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

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Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Salih Muslim, is Kurdish and runs its own autonomous government in and around Qamishli, the largest town in northeastern Syria. In its effectively autonomous zone, children attend school, businesses remain open, and women can go shopping or walk in the street without fear of kidnapping, rape, or murder. The PYD’s sin, it seems, is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which once waged an insurgency against the Turkish army and which the United States continues to designate a terrorist group, less on its merits and more out of deference to Turkey. Herein is the irony: the Turkish political leadership has for years engaged with the PKK, and the two sides have negotiated a ceasefire. The PYD is to Syria what the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are to Iraq. Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged with the KDP and PUK; they recognized it was in the United States’s interest to do so.

How sad it is that terror sponsors receive the enthusiastic embrace of the Obama administration, but those groups which not only talk about peace and stability, but also achieve it are given the cold shoulder. The PYD’s sin seems to be its neutrality: It has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is too radical, a position for which the United States has sought to punish it, even as most in Congress come to recognize the truth of that position. The State Department also claims that the PYD is pro-Assad. This is a misreading: The PYD has sought to be neutral in the conflict; that neutrality has meant keeping lines open to Assad, which is exactly what Kerry is doing at Geneva II. That Kerry and crew seek to ban the PYD and undo its success demonstrates once again the administration’s skewed values and strategic incompetence. It’s time to give the PYD a seat at the table.

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Assad’s Ploy

So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

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So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

Whether Assad has fully complied or not with his disarmament obligations remains to be seen, but there is real cause for concern that the Obama administration has such a major stake in the success of this accord–and no clear alternative, because Congress made clear it will not authorize military action–that it is in effect locked in a partnership with Assad and dare not accuse him too loudly of noncompliance.

Assad certainly seems to have gotten that message, because he is trying to leverage the chemical-weapons accord for all it is worth to enhance his own authority. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports: “President Bashar al-Assad’s government has presented the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Assad’s ploy is transparent–to get the West to give him more military materiel to aid the supposed process of chemical disarmament so that he can then turn around and used this enhanced capacity against the rebels. Beyond the actual war-making capacity such equipment will give Assad, the moral effect is even more important, because, if granted, his request would represent another example of the West supporting this Iranian-backed tyrant who makes war on his own people.

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Barack Obama, Unilateralist

Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

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Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

This is billed by Rice as “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.” In fact it’s a more high-handed and unilateralist approach. How so? Because it rests on the assumption that the administration can choose to get involved only in the issues it has pre-determined beforehand are of interest, and that it can pursue a predetermined approach to those issues even if it flies in the face of reality and what our allies advocate.

This is a natural continuation of the president’s conceit that he can “end” wars by pulling U.S. troops out; in fact in Iraq he has re-started a war by pulling U.S. troops out. But it is part and parcel of Obama’s overweening self-regard that he imagines that his actions, and his actions alone, will determine what happens in far-off regions.

It hardly works that way. The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East–to take but one example–will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it. Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.

If President Obama were actually listening to what U.S. allies in the Middle East want, he would be focusing on toppling Bashar Assad and doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program rather than engaging with the Iranian regime. Nor would he be loudly proclaiming his desire to disengage from the Middle East and never again to use force. Like his ill-considered timeline in Afghanistan, those are signals that encourage aggressors and discourage our friends. Which may be why both the Saudis and Israelis, different as they are, both are signaling their disenchantment with the administration’s policies.

Meanwhile Obama has been alienating France, Germany, Brazil, and other countries over alleged NSA spying. The U.S. may have a strong case for what it is doing, but even those of us who defend NSA actions have to admit they’re–yup–unilateralist. So who’s the unilateralist now, President Obama?

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Kerry’s Syria Conference Is Falling Apart

The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

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The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry’s top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

Here is a helpful hint for Kerry: if the State Department thinks a conference is useless, it’s probably useless. As the article notes, this isn’t Kerry’s fault: the splintering of the Syrian rebel factions has made it nearly impossible to provide realistic representation for the rebels at such a conference.

Even if the interests of those rebels could be represented, they would likely choose not to participate. That’s because they want Bashar al-Assad to facilitate a transitional government and then step aside. Assad won’t do that, so the rebels are being realistic: if Assad won’t give up power, what could possibly be accomplished at a conference intended to get him to voluntarily agree to give up power?

Additionally, recent events have only encouraged Assad to hold on. The American threat of force was exposed as empty: President Obama’s one-eighty on striking Syria revealed a president desperate for a way out of his own bluff. It also put Assad in control and enabled him to buy time by making the bloodthirsty tyrant a partner in ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

The rebels, then, can be forgiven for thinking the U.S. is only exacerbating their disadvantage by making Assad suddenly indispensable–or close to it. Hence the rebels’ increasing support for making a commitment to Assad’s departure a precondition for talks. If the West isn’t committed to removing Assad, what hope could the rebels possibly have for Kerry’s negotiations? It was hoped by some in the administration that Obama’s threat of force would better enable a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But his hasty retreat from that threat had the opposite effect:

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough.

Kerry’s best hope is that when presented with only one option, the rebels will take it. Officials at the State Department are being surprisingly clear-eyed about the chances the rebels will grasp at that straw, even if Kerry isn’t.

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Obama Advisors Try to Salvage Their Reputations

Some of the headaches of a president’s second term stem from the “don’t blame me” stories in which administration officials seek to use the press to wipe their fingerprints off of their boss’s policy failures. It’s their way of updating their resumes; unlike the president, they’ll need a job in the near future. Sometimes that means trying to bury old hatchets, and sometimes that means anonymously leaking details of their unheeded prophecies to the New York Times, as “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” did for today’s deep dive into the administration’s feckless and confused Syria policy.

One of the more recent additions to President Obama’s Cabinet, Samantha Power, has turned this into an art form. While working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” But now she realizes that the Democrats want to hand Clinton the next presidential nomination, and feels the need to tell NBC that she has “regretted it pretty much every day since,” and that the incident “just completely broke my heart that there is a fair amount of negativity heaped upon her that I find massively unfair, and the idea that I could have contributed in some way to that narrative, it was terrible.” And oh by the way, Power wants Hillary to know that she thinks Clinton is “a total rock star–she’s changed the world in a thousand ways.”

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Some of the headaches of a president’s second term stem from the “don’t blame me” stories in which administration officials seek to use the press to wipe their fingerprints off of their boss’s policy failures. It’s their way of updating their resumes; unlike the president, they’ll need a job in the near future. Sometimes that means trying to bury old hatchets, and sometimes that means anonymously leaking details of their unheeded prophecies to the New York Times, as “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” did for today’s deep dive into the administration’s feckless and confused Syria policy.

One of the more recent additions to President Obama’s Cabinet, Samantha Power, has turned this into an art form. While working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” But now she realizes that the Democrats want to hand Clinton the next presidential nomination, and feels the need to tell NBC that she has “regretted it pretty much every day since,” and that the incident “just completely broke my heart that there is a fair amount of negativity heaped upon her that I find massively unfair, and the idea that I could have contributed in some way to that narrative, it was terrible.” And oh by the way, Power wants Hillary to know that she thinks Clinton is “a total rock star–she’s changed the world in a thousand ways.”

Vicious comments aimed at a rival in the heat of a presidential campaign are not unheard of, however. More difficult for Power to shake might be the fact that she spent her career naming and shaming Clinton administration officials she deemed bystanders to the atrocities in Rwanda and then she joined a presidential administration intensely focused on being bystanders to the atrocities in Syria. Because of Power’s career as a proponent of humanitarian intervention, the Obama White House gains much-needed credibility for sitting on the sidelines because the administration can point to Power’s presence in the Cabinet. For her silence, Power gets to live it up in the ambassador’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

But she seems aware that history may not look kindly on her career trajectory. She’ll likely be asked, as the Bouncing Souls sang, “How high was your price, and was it worth it?” Thus, Power appears in the Times article waging a noble but losing battle to intervene with the president’s chief of staff:

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.

Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.

“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.

“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.

It’s tempting to write this off as realism defeating idealism and present it as the theme of the Obama presidency. But as the Times article makes clear, the president didn’t seem to think or care enough about the mess in Syria to formulate anything resembling a coherent ideological or theoretical analysis. The Times’s sources stop just shy of accusing the president of playing Angry Birds during Syria briefings:

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

I’m not sure why it’s relevant that the president chewed gum other than for these sources to present the commander in chief in a disquietingly condescending manner–petty enough to remind the reader that many of these sources are grinding axes. Which brings us back to Power. The expected defense of her lavish, taxpayer-funded acquiescence to inaction seems to be that she wanted to intervene but cannot exactly force the president of the United States to heed her advice.

But what did she expect? She well knew the president’s outlook on foreign intervention, the Arab Spring, and on Syria specifically. Obama made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to get involved and didn’t intend to do anything about ridding the Middle East of Bashar al-Assad. She cannot pretend to be some frustrated idealist stuck trying to change the system from the inside. The president’s policy of inaction on Syria was clear and close to unshakeable, and she accepted the president’s offer to sit in the Waldorf and not make trouble while this policy continued to be carried out.

And she’s not the only one. So while all these sources may have a point about Obama’s ambivalence on Syria, their self-serving revisionism should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

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Kofi Annan’s Ludicrous Syria Spin

The National Journal story today seeking to blame President Obama for missing an opportunity to end the bloodshed in Syria in 2012 is getting a lot of attention, but it does not deliver on its promise. The conceit of the piece is that the initial Geneva conference last summer, brokered by Kofi Annan (the reader’s first warning to have several grains of salt nearby), was close to a deal that would have ushered Bashar al-Assad out of power.

But the presidential election season was heating up and Obama felt cornered by Mitt Romney’s accusations that the president was not tough enough on the international stage. This, according to the sources for the story, prompted the Obama administration to call for Assad’s ouster publicly and keep military action on the table as a last resort. This angered Annan, who had somehow convinced himself he was more than a pawn in Assad’s play for time, and he quit. In an attempt to salvage their boss’s reputation, Annan’s former staffers give National Journal Annan’s version of events:

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The National Journal story today seeking to blame President Obama for missing an opportunity to end the bloodshed in Syria in 2012 is getting a lot of attention, but it does not deliver on its promise. The conceit of the piece is that the initial Geneva conference last summer, brokered by Kofi Annan (the reader’s first warning to have several grains of salt nearby), was close to a deal that would have ushered Bashar al-Assad out of power.

But the presidential election season was heating up and Obama felt cornered by Mitt Romney’s accusations that the president was not tough enough on the international stage. This, according to the sources for the story, prompted the Obama administration to call for Assad’s ouster publicly and keep military action on the table as a last resort. This angered Annan, who had somehow convinced himself he was more than a pawn in Assad’s play for time, and he quit. In an attempt to salvage their boss’s reputation, Annan’s former staffers give National Journal Annan’s version of events:

Former members of Annan’s negotiating team say that after then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on June 30, 2012, jointly signed a communique drafted by Annan, which called for a political “transition” in Syria, there was as much momentum for a deal then as Kerry achieved a year later on chemical weapons. Afterward, Annan flew from Geneva to Moscow and gained what he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent to begin to quietly push Assad out. But suddenly both the U.S. and Britain issued public calls for Assad’s ouster, and Annan felt blindsided. Immediately afterward, against his advice, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” resolution opening the door to force against Assad, which Annan felt was premature.

Annan resigned a month later.

The story refers to a joint communiqué signed on June 30, 2012 but as Laura Rozen reported on June 29, Annan had personally drafted a “non-paper” a couple days earlier that was to serve as a proposal for that political transition in Syria. And Annan’s own proposal excluded Bashar al-Assad from the new government that this diplomatic process would seek to establish. As Rozen wrote:

The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of [sic] the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.

All the relevant parties clearly understood that at the time. Indeed, it was that demand that Assad personally be excluded from any “national unity government” after the “transition” that made the Russians hesitant to keep cooperating. Rozen followed up with a report on July 1:

Russia continued to oppose language in the statement calling for a political transition under which Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power. But [Hillary] Clinton insisted the edits agreed on at the meeting convened by UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan Saturday did not alter that key demand.

That’s when Clinton said Assad had to go–the remark that supposedly angered Annan enough to quit. But the language of the dispute gives it away: the Russians “continued to oppose” the Syria working group’s demand for Assad’s ouster, which means both Annan and the U.S. were working under the assumption Assad would have to leave office–and willing to say so.

That means that according to the documentation released at the time, Annan was taking a hard line on Assad and the Russians got cold feet–presumably because Assad had told his Russian patrons the deal was a nonstarter. Even the National Journal story alludes to this; the report quotes Frederic Hof saying that the process was an uphill battle in part because “Assad had no interest whatever in being ‘transitioned.’ He was able to read the text of the Geneva agreement quite accurately.”

What exactly was Annan’s end game here? That he would pass a resolution vague enough to trick Assad into leaving office without realizing it? What kind of fantasy world was he living in? The Syria diplomacy was not derailed by President Obama trying to look tough to voters–who, by the way, do not want to go to war in Syria. There were three major states driving this process: the U.S., Russia, and Syria. Annan does not seem to have understood the political atmosphere in any of the three states, so it’s no wonder his efforts failed to achieve anything. But that failure is his, and he should stop blaming others.

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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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Obama’s Confused Foreign Policy

If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

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If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

With his mishandling of Syria, Obama appears to have thrown away, at least for now, the foreign-policy advantage he had wrested away from Republicans largely with the SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

I have previously written that presidents must not make foreign-policy decisions based on public opinion polls, so simply because the public thinks the Obama administration’s foreign policy is wrong doesn’t necessarily make it so. But in this case I think the public is onto something. What the public perceives–the same thing that much of the world perceives–is that Obama is weak and vacillating, deliberative but indecisive.

Obama’s plan to launch cruise missiles against Syria may not have been particularly popular, but pretty much everyone is still dismayed to see a president lay down a “red line” and then not enforce it. Instead, the president has grabbed a face-saving but probably unenforceable deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons while making a de facto commitment to keep the murderous Bashar Assad regime in power.

Obama’s defenders claimed that his flexibility on Syria would encourage a deal with Iran, but he was stiffed at the UN where Hassan Rouhani delivered a hardline speech and then refused to attend a luncheon where he might have shaken Obama’s hand–a handshake that the White House fervently desired. Administration insiders pooh-poohed this small defeat, explaining that Rouhani has to cater to his own domestic opinion and can’t be seen as being too eager to reach out to the United States. But if that’s the case–if Rouhani can’t even risk a handshake with Obama–what makes Obama think he will sign off on some kind of grand bargain that will force Iran to renounce its long-held goal of acquiring nuclear weapons? The general public is actually more realistic than the White House on the prospect of better relations with Iran: “Fewer than 1 in 4 think they will get better in the next few years, while a third think they will get worse, and 4 in 10 think they will stay about the same.”

Ironically, in pursuit of chimerical results in the Middle East, Obama has abandoned his long-standing desire to “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group counted the number of time that in his UN speech Obama mentioned the following countries:

Iran 25
Syria 20
Israel 15
Palestine 11

Compare this with mentions of Asian countries:

China 1
Japan 0
India 0
Koreas 0

The focus on the Middle East isn’t wrong–I have long been skeptical of Obama’s professed desire to disengage from the region. But the fact that he is ignoring East Asia, something he attacked his predecessor for doing, is yet another sign of how confused his foreign policy has become. That’s something that Americans instinctively understand even if they don’t follow every nuance of foreign policy.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Video Shows Iranian Advisors in Syria

Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

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Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

That the Syrian regime is bad doesn’t make the alternative—two and a half years into the conflict—any better. If you put lipstick on the al-Qaeda, you’d get the Free Syrian Army. But it is useful to remember how involved the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is inside of Syria. Not only does it make the chance for Obama administration diplomacy between zero and nil, but it should also put to rest the myth out there that Iran has not acted aggressively toward any of its neighbors in the last two hundred years, as some pundits claim.

Any coherent strategy should include not only diplomacy, economic coercion, and military pressure, but also an informational component. This, alas, is too often lacking in American grand strategy which too often conflates information operations with propaganda. But such videos and evidence of Iranian malfeasance should be disseminated widely, including back into Iran where the ordinary populace may not fully recognize just how in-deep their government remains inside Syria.

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Obama’s Syria Stumbles Don’t Get Congress Off the Hook

President Obama’s hesitancy and confusion has united pretty much all Republicans in scathing criticism of his lack of leadership over Syria. I have joined in those criticisms. But we should not let Republicans and the rest of the political class—to say nothing of the nonpolitical mass—off the hook either for the loss of American credibility that will ensue from events of recent weeks.

Paul Mirengoff over at Power Line has a powerful and thought-provoking post on this subject. He writes “that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.” Indeed, the failure of Congress to rally to President Obama’s side by supporting a military response to the use of chemical weapons effectively left the president little choice but to grasp the face-saving offer put forward by Russia that will supposedly remove Syria’s chemical weapons at the cost of keeping Bashar Assad in power indefinitely.

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President Obama’s hesitancy and confusion has united pretty much all Republicans in scathing criticism of his lack of leadership over Syria. I have joined in those criticisms. But we should not let Republicans and the rest of the political class—to say nothing of the nonpolitical mass—off the hook either for the loss of American credibility that will ensue from events of recent weeks.

Paul Mirengoff over at Power Line has a powerful and thought-provoking post on this subject. He writes “that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.” Indeed, the failure of Congress to rally to President Obama’s side by supporting a military response to the use of chemical weapons effectively left the president little choice but to grasp the face-saving offer put forward by Russia that will supposedly remove Syria’s chemical weapons at the cost of keeping Bashar Assad in power indefinitely.

Now, it can be argued that part of the failure of Congress to support the president is due to his own vacillations—his strong rhetoric combined with vows that any strike would be “incredibly small” and would not be designed to topple Assad left national-security hawks scratching their heads. Undoubtedly some strong-on-defense types would have supported a more robust American response, but had so little confidence in what Obama was proposing that they indicated they would vote no.

But I don’t believe this is the whole picture. If President Obama had signaled a tough response designed to use air strikes in conjunction with arming the opposition to topple Assad, he would have picked up support from some hawks but would have lost even more support among the large number of doves of both parties.

It now appears clear that there was little chance of an authorization for the use of force passing whatever Obama said or did. Which is a good reason Obama should never have asked for congressional authorization to begin with—something he did, the Wall Street Journal reveals today, without bothering to consult with leaders of Congress in advance and over the objections of his own senior staff.

But I’m with Mirengoff: The president’s stumbles don’t excuse the mood of isolationism—or, if you prefer, non-interventionism—which is taking root in both parties and which applies far beyond Syria. The American people, through polls and their elected representatives, have made clear they are war-weary, eager to curtail overseas commitments, and sick of dealing with the world’s problems. Yet another manifestation of the same trend is the imposition of sequestration—across-the-board cuts in the defense budget amounting to more than $500 billion over the next ten years. A year ago there was widespread hope that such cuts would never be imposed or that, if they were, they would soon be repealed. Now there is a mood of resignation in Washington, and a growing realization that sequestration is never going to be repealed.

Even in the Republican Party, which since at least the days of Theodore Roosevelt has been the party of international engagement and military leadership (with a brief detour into isolationism that began under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover and ended with Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination), there are few voices speaking up for a tough response to the world’s predators. John McCain stands virtually alone in this regard and he is widely seen in the party as an outsider.

The most vocal Republican voice on foreign policy is Rand Paul, a born-again isolationist who, if he succeeds, will consign the GOP to perpetual irrelevance. We need to hear more from the Chris Christies, Marco Rubios, Jeb Bushes, and others who support a Reaganite policy of global leadership but are being drowned out by Tea Party isolationists. So, too, in the Democratic Party we need to hear more from the liberal internationalists such as the Clintons to explain why we can’t simply turn our backs on war crimes.

Just because we choose to ignore the world’s problems doesn’t mean they will go away. Just the opposite: Without American leadership, problems such as the Syrian chemical-weapons program or Iran’s nuclear-weapons program will simply become more dangerous. Ultimately we will be drawn into dealing with the fallout, like it or not, and a failure to engage early on all but guarantees we will have to face higher costs down the road. If most Americans don’t understand that, it’s up to their leaders to educate them—as an earlier generation of leaders educated Americans to support the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the containment policy. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence of that kind of leadership today in either party.

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