Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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The Sydney Siege and the Lone-Wolf Copout

The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

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The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

Iranian immigrant Man Haron Monis took a Sydney café full of customers hostage for about sixteen hours; Monis and two of the hostages were killed before the café was cleared. Monis reportedly had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and professed his desire to hang an ISIS flag during the siege (he displayed a more generic Islamic flag while demanding to be brought an ISIS flag). He holds extremist views and has what appears to be a violent history.

And yet, the narrative forming is one of failed antiterror legislation. As the New York Times reports:

The laws, which passed the Australian Parliament with wide support, made it an offense to advocate terrorism, even on social media; banned Australians from going to fight overseas; allowed the authorities to confiscate and cancel passports; and provided for the sharing of information between security services and defense personnel. The government also deployed hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country.

None of these measures prevented a man known to both the police and leaders of Muslim organizations as deeply troubled and with a long history of run-ins with the law from laying siege to a popular downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, this week and holding hostages for 16 hours. The attacker, Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, and two of the 17 hostages were killed early Tuesday amid the chaos of a police raid. …

The case, like recent lone-wolf jihadist attacks in Brussels, Ottawa and New York, raises troubling questions about the ability of governments to monitor homegrown, radicalized would-be jihadists and prevent them from doing harm.

That’s true as far as it goes … but it doesn’t go very far. There was, in fact, plenty that could have been done and the authorities knew it. As the Times notes, Monis was charged last year as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife (she was apparently stabbed and then burned alive). He was out on bail. Then in April he was charged in an older sexual assault case. And here’s the kicker: “Forty more counts of sexual assault relating to six other women were later added to that case.”

So here’s what we have: a Muslim extremist whose current charge sheet includes accessory to murder and more than forty counts of sexual assault who was granted bail. He was free until trial, despite all this. So here’s one obvious measure the authorities could have taken: deny him bail, or even rescind bail once the assault charges started getting counted by the dozen. You shouldn’t have to wave the ISIS flag to get attention; murder and sexual assault over a period of more than a decade should be enough.

According to the L.A. Times, Australia’s bail laws were amended to make such action easier, but not in time to stop Monis. That may or may not be a dodge, but it certainly makes clear that there is something that could have been done to keep Monis off the streets. Throwing up your hands and sighing “lone wolf” is just a copout.

What else can governments learn about domestic extremists from the case? Here’s one more clue, from the New York Times:

In Australia, the government even had information that the Islamic State sought to recruit just such an attacker to carry out a bold attack in Sydney. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott warned Parliament in September.

Mr. Monis, who was reported to be armed with a gun, did not appear to have put a great deal of planning into his attack at the Lindt Cafe. Lacking an Islamic State banner, he demanded one in exchange for several hostages, local news media reported.

ISIS and groups like them are thus a domestic threat in two ways. First, the obvious: they can plan attacks on the homeland and try to attract jihadists to a war zone who have Western passports. They can provide training and contacts for someone looking to go back home and cause trouble.

And second, they can plan terrorist attacks from abroad without ever having to enter the target country and without the domestic attacker ever having to leave. This is the intersection of foreign policy and domestic security. If ISIS is seeking to turn disaffected radicals into one-man sleeper agents then the “lone wolf” tag isn’t very edifying–or accurate. And it points to a lesson about the futility of shortcuts: There is no substitute for actually defeating the enemy.

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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No, Iran Isn’t Protector of the Shi’ites

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

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Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

With all due respect to Mr. Kerry, his comments reflect ignorance of Iranian behavior, Iraqi Shi‘ites, and religious freedom. That the Islamic Republic is the only protector of Shi‘ites around the globe has long been a staple of Iranian propaganda. But the concept of clerical rule imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini (and subsequently by his stepchild, Hezbollah in Lebanon) has long been an outlier among traditional Shi‘ites because it violates the separation of mosque and state at the heart of traditional Shi‘ism.

In short, ordinary Shi‘ites believe that the religious authority to follow is an individual, personal decision and not a state decision. Theologically, mainstream Shi‘ism teaches that only with the re-emergence of the Mahdi, Shi‘ism’s messianic figure, will there be perfect, incorruptible, Islamic government on earth. Therefore, until his return, government is by definition imperfect, corrupt, and un-Islamic, whatever the claims of the politicians who lead it. Khomeini turned this on its head, effectively arguing that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t separate religion and state, so neither would he and that Shi‘ite religious figures could act as the Mahdi’s deputy. Most Shi‘ite religious leaders don’t accept Khomeini and Khamenei’s view, however, nor do most individuals, either in Iran or outside it.

Independent Shi‘ism is, more than political reformism or anything emerging from the amorphous Green Movement, the true Achilles’ heel for the Iranian regime. It created militias like the Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi not simply to fight Americans, but rather to impose through force of arms and intimidation what is not in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqi Shi‘ites. Here’s the basic problem for the Iranian leadership. As supreme leader, Ali Khamenei claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on Earth. Khamenei’s religious credentials are greatly exaggerated, however, and every time he has sought to put himself forward as the chief source of emulation for the Islamic world, for example after the death of Grand Ayatollah Araki in 1994, he has been laughed off the stage, and subsequently withdrew his name to save face.

Earlier this year, my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph based on travel and interviews which surveyed all the Shi‘ite communities surrounding Iran, and examining the nuanced and diverse strategies each of these communities embraced to maintain their own independence from Iranian attempts to speak and act on their behalf (and AEI produced a short video for its launch, here). Iraqi Shi‘ites have struggled to preserve and protect the religious independence of both Najaf and Karbala from those in Tehran who would seek to speak on their behalf. The Iranian government surely pressures Iraq to do its bidding, a job made all the easier by the American withdrawal. But Iraqi Shi‘ites don’t want to be Iranian puppets, and never have. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Shi‘ites did most of the fighting; they didn’t defect en masse just because Khomeini claimed to be the voice of the Shi‘ites. In 2013, the governor of Basra inaugurated a new bridge (built with U.S. money) over the Shatt al-Arab. It was no coincidence that he chose to inaugurate it with a fireworks display on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. The implication was clear: even Iraqi Shi’ites celebrate on a day when the Islamic Republic officially mourns.

Iran may want to defeat the Islamic State, but they do nothing altruistically. Once they enter Iraq, they will not leave simply because they cannot afford to have any Iraqi ayatollah resident in Najaf or Karbala contradict the word of the supreme leader. How ironic it is that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry defer so much more to the Iranians than even Iraqi Shi‘ites do. And how sad it is that the United States continues to treat religious freedom in the Middle East, whether practiced by Jews, Christians, or Shi‘ite Muslims, so cavalierly. Make no mistake: the Iranian regime isn’t the protector of the Shi‘ites; it is among their chief oppressors.

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Why Is Military Morale Dropping?

One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

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One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

Back in 2009, when an average of 50,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and 135,000 in Iraq, 91 percent of troops surveyed said their quality of life was good or excellent. Today only 56 percent say that and 70 percent believe their quality of life will decline in coming years. Some other findings: “73 percent of troops would recommend a military career to others, down from 85 percent in 2009. And troops reported a significant decline in their desire to re-enlist, with 63 percent citing an intention to do so, compared with 72 percent a few years ago.”

Troops are less willing to reenlist now than in the days when they were much more likely to be wounded or even killed in the line of duty? How could this be? Why aren’t troops embracing the Obamian paradise of unilateral withdrawal from war?

Part of the answer is provided by political scientist Peter Feaver, who is quoted pointing out “that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”

Few civilians can realize how deeply dispiriting it is for troops who fought for cities such as Fallujah and Al Qaim to see them fall to black-clad jihadist fanatics. Once troops served with a purpose–to avenge 9/11 and to defeat our nation’s enemies. Now, however, with an administration that makes withdrawal the highest priority, the military’s sense of mission and purpose is waning–with deleterious effects on morale. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they had become more pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan in recent years. Nearly 60 percent felt the war in Iraq was somewhat unsuccessful or not at all successful.”

This problem is aggravated by the severe budget cuts that the White House and Congress have collaborated to enact. The Military Times has a telling anecdote: “A Navy aviation machinist’s mate first class based in El Centro, California, said operational budget cuts left him and fellow sailors cannibalizing working parts from other aircraft entering phased maintenance so they could repair higher-priority broken jets. Even uniforms are in short supply, he said, as the Navy embarks on what could be a decade of scrimping under sequestration. ‘We are on the bare necessities and sometimes not even that. For example, I need new boots but they’ll ask me, ‘How long can you stretch that?’ ‘ he said.”

Another telling line: “A Navy fire controlman chief with 10 deployments said budget fears are contributing to a feeling of distrust and abandonment. ‘If sailors are worried about not getting paid, how am I supposed to do my job?’ he said. ‘I’m not an effective warfighter if I don’t have the backing of my government at home’.”

The U.S. military, to be sure, remains the most professional and capable force in the world. But it is suffering real damage and it would be nice if we had a president who recognized that was the case and sought to do something about it. Even a better secretary of defense, which Ash Carter promises to be, will have limited leverage to reverse crippling budget cuts or to implement plans for Afghanistan and Iraq that make military sense. Alas, the U.S. military appears to be in big trouble and help is still a couple years away at best.

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Does ISIS Threaten Israel?

Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

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Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

The most brazen attempt by ISIS-linked militants to attack Israeli targets came last month when an Islamist group from the Sinai hijacked four Egyptian vessels and made off into the southern Mediterranean with the apparent intent to target either Israeli gas installations or Israeli ships further up the coast. That attempt, which took place November 12 and was ultimately foiled by the Egyptian navy, involved an al-Qaeda linked group which now appears to have shifted its allegiances to ISIS. The name of the terror cell in question, “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” is itself a direct reference to Jerusalem and the land of Israel: “Bait al-Maqdis.” This is one of many Islamist groups operating in the Sinai, several of which are al-Qaeda affiliated and may be inclined to recognize the authority of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the legitimate caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. ISIS itself was after all in part an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, for Israel the influence of ISIS also strikes far closer to home. It is well known that a number of Israel’s Arab and Bedouin citizens have already left to fight with ISIS. So far the numbers in question have been small; Shin Bet is aware of perhaps just thirty such individuals. But more recently there have been reports of ISIS using social media in an attempt to woo Israeli-Arabs with medical expertise to come to ISIS’s assistance. The concern of course is that at some point these battle-hardened individuals will attempt to return to Israel, or that they will simply seek to form cells in Israel itself.

So far rumours of such ISIS linked cells have remained just that. At the time of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers this summer, a West Bank group claiming to represent ISIS attempted to take responsibility for the kidnapping. In recent days there have been online postings by a group claiming to be “ISIS–Gaza Province.” Naturally Hamas has denied the existence of an ISIS branch in Gaza, but Hamas has had its own struggle with Salafist splinter groups in Gaza and it is conceivable that some of these would identify with ISIS. The number of Palestinians sympathetic to ISIS is impossible to judge right now, but when images appeared of the ISIS flag being displayed on the Temple Mount, this certainly gave Israelis legitimate cause for concern.

Beyond Israel’s own borders ISIS is still being kept at some distance. ISIS is of course strong in Syria, but more to the eastern region of the country. Along Israel’s Golan border there are other extremely hostile Islamist groups, most notably al-Nusra. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan and for the moment secure from ISIS. That said, the Hashemite monarchy has looked particularly weak in recent years and the influx of some 630,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan—a country where a quarter of the population is thought to be sympathetic to Salafism—has hardly been a stabilizing factor. Ironically, the border most secure from ISIS is probably the northern border, on account of the strength of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, ISIS has launched assaults on Lebanese towns along the Syrian border and there is a risk of more intense fighting spreading to that front.

Perhaps the clearest indication of all that ISIS has designs on Israel can be found in the group’s very name. Before rebranding as simply the Islamic State, ISIS went by the Arabic acronym Daesh: al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to the entirety of the Levant, including Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. It is for this reason that some incarnations of pan-Arabism have viewed Palestine as simply being Southern Syria. But for ISIS, the reference to al-Sham makes very clear the full extent of the group’s ambitions.

Over the summer ISIS’s media wing al-Battar released a series of images and statements depicting the Dome of the Rock and threatening the Jews that ISIS is on its way. The Israeli left knows a security sensitive Israeli public will be all the more averse to territorial concessions and so it is natural it should wish to play down the threat from ISIS. That threat may not be immediate, but Israelis should have no illusions about ISIS’s intentions, or indeed the draw ISIS’s ideology may have for some Palestinian militants.

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How Iran Prevents a Real Solution to ISIS

There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

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There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

But it would be an exaggeration to claim, as does some of the news coverage, that this deal is a big step forward in the battle against ISIS. The reality is that the Kurds and the Iraqi central government would fight ISIS whether they had reached a deal on oil revenues or not because it is in their self-interest to do so.

The real question is, Will Sunnis fight ISIS? To mobilize Sunni opposition against these Sunni jihadists, the central government will have to strike a deal with Sunni tribal leaders that will guarantee they will not be persecuted and abused as they were under Maliki’s sectarian rule. That is a much more important and also a much harder objective to achieve than a Baghdad-Erbil oil deal.

All the more so because of Iran’s growing prominence on the pro-government side. The latest evidence of that is news that Iranian F-4 jets attacked ISIS targets inside Iraq’s Diyala province, which Tehran claims as part of a 25-mile “buffer zone” which extends into Iraq. The strikes were apparently directed by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s terrorist-sponsoring Quds Force, who has become increasingly visible in Iraq in recent months.

It is unclear if the Iranian strikes were done with the agreement of the Iraqi government. If not, they were an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty; if they were done with the Abadi government’s permission, that is one more sign of the sway that Tehran continues to hold in Baghdad. Either way this is bad news. Because the more visible that Iran appears in the anti-ISIS coalition, the less likelihood there is that Sunnis will rally to the anti-ISIS cause because many of them are more afraid of Iranian domination than of ISIS domination.

Sadly, the White House is probably happy about the growing Iranian involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. It shouldn’t be. A basic fact that President Obama can’t seem to grasp as he continues his ill-advised outreach to Tehran is that the more that the U.S. draws closer to Iran, the less chance we have of winning the confidence of Sunni tribes that are the real key to defeating ISIS. Instead of quietly acquiescing in Iran’s growing role, the U.S. should be preparing a plan to checkmate and rollback Iran’s growing influence.

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Should Assad Stay or Should He Go? Obama Can’t Decide

The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

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The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

The bad news: President Obama won’t agree to a “far more extensive no-fly zone across one-third of northern Syria.” “That idea,” according to the Wall Street Journal, was “a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which told Ankara that something so invasive would constitute an act of war against the Assad regime.”

Would this be the same Assad regime that has killed some 200,000 of its own people? The same one that President Obama has said must leave office? Yup. That would be the one. So why on earth isn’t the U.S. willing to take actions that would constitute an “act of war” against this regime?

According to the Journal, the problem is that: “For the U.S., the risk in creating even a small de facto no-fly zone would be the possibility of a challenge by the Assad regime. The U.S. passed messages to the Assad regime not to contest coalition aircraft at the start of the airstrikes in Syria in September. So far, the regime hasn’t challenged U.S. aircraft, according to U.S. officials.”

It is hard, however, to accept this explanation with a straight face. Is the administration seriously pretending that the air defense network of the Assad regime—similar to that of the Saddam Hussein regime that the U.S. dismantled with virtually no losses on two occasions—would be a difficult, even insurmountable, challenge for the most sophisticated military in the world? Recall that this is the same air-defense network that Israeli aircraft have no trouble spoofing anytime they want to bomb a nuclear installation or Hezbollah arms shipment. Yet we are supposedly not willing to risk action against Assad?

The real explanation, one surmises, is that the Obama administration has quietly changed its policy on Assad without telling anyone: From calling for Assad to go, Obama has now decided that Assad must stay. And why? Part of the explanation is undoubtedly Obama’s desire to strike a deal with Assad’s patrons in Moscow. The other part of the explanation is probably Obama’s fear of the power vacuum that would occur after Assad’s downfall and the possibility that it would be filled by al-Qaeda-style jihadists.

The latter worry, at least, is a legitimate one but it is hardly a reason to allow Assad to go on using his air force to slaughter innocent civilians as well as the fighters of the Free Syrian Army that Obama is counting on to help fight ISIS and the Nusra Front. Yet it is perfectly possible, indeed morally and strategically necessary, to ground Assad’s air force without ousting Assad from power just yet while working feverishly with international powers to try to engineer a postwar settlement in Syria similar to the one in postwar Yugoslavia.

But Obama is doing none of this. Instead he is simply acquiescing in Assad’s continuing mass murder. This is a policy that is worse than immoral. It is stupid.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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What Neoconservatives Know

Despite a reputation for bluster, neoconservatives take their lumps better than most. As has been acknowledged repeatedly, we overestimated the contact infectiousness of democracy in Iraq. Similarly, we underestimated the task of its implementation. A willingness to acknowledge mistakes was behind neoconservative support for the strategy change in Iraq known as the Surge. But once the Surge happened, neoconservatives overestimated the American political will to secure our gains in the long term.

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Despite a reputation for bluster, neoconservatives take their lumps better than most. As has been acknowledged repeatedly, we overestimated the contact infectiousness of democracy in Iraq. Similarly, we underestimated the task of its implementation. A willingness to acknowledge mistakes was behind neoconservative support for the strategy change in Iraq known as the Surge. But once the Surge happened, neoconservatives overestimated the American political will to secure our gains in the long term.

If critics won’t hear our confession, so be it.

But they should still listen to our warnings. For if we’ve been too optimistic about freedom’s allies, we’ve been depressingly accurate about its enemies. Neoconservatives warned that if Barack Obama pulled out of Iraq according to his timeline, the country would fall into dangerous hands. Obama did so and ISIS gained a state. For years, while realists and liberals swore that Bashar al-Assad was a reasonable target for U.S. engagement, neoconservatives pegged him as an unflippable servant of both Baathist and Shiite terror. When the Arab Spring came to Syria, Assad devoted himself to mass atrocity and became the main engine of instability in the Middle East. Once the Syrian civil war began, we warned that jihadists would exert control over the rebels unless the United States assisted the non-radicals among them. Washington choked while ISIS and the Nusra Front took the lead in the fight against Assad.

Neoconservatives warned against placing faith in Vladimir Putin (even as George W. Bush claimed to see the good in Putin’s soul). We said Obama’s attempted reset policy was a fool’s errand and Putin was an aggressor by nature. That policy is now in a shambles and Putin, like a modern-day Catherine the Great, has seized Crimea and put the region on notice. Neoconservatives warned that the Palestinian leadership had no interest in peace with Israel. The Obama administration doggedly pursued peace talks that tottered on up until and even through the point that Hamas launched a new round of violence and murder, sparking a war. Neoconservatives have long warned that a premature U.S. exit from Afghanistan will invite an unmanageable Taliban resurgence. On this point, Obama seems to be relenting, having recently approved plans to broaden the role of American forces in that country after 2014.

Then there’s Iran. Elite opinion has invented a new position in the Iranian government: the Office of The Moderate. If you think I’m exaggerating, do a Google search for “the moderate Hassan Rouhani.” Describing Iran’s president thus, you’ll get 113,000 hits. Then search “the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei,” the descriptive title of the real Iranian leader. You’ll get a meager 32,800 hits. Iran’s elections may be fixed but there’s no rigging the global court of elite wisdom. President Obama is the most consequential proponent of the notion that Iran is becoming a moderate power open to diplomatic negotiations on its nuclear program. The administration has entered into its second extension of the P5+1 talks with Tehran ostensibly aimed at denying the mullahs a bomb.

Now, the neoconservative warning: The Islamic Republic of Iran is founded on a delusional theocratic hatred for the West. A nuclear weapon is the longstanding desideratum of a regime that has made “Death to America” a plank of national self-affirmation. For Ali Khamenei, the idea of being defanged by the Great Satan lies somewhere between impossible and unthinkable. Rouhani is a false moderate with false authority. All told, Iran’s leaders are more dangerous and more implacable than any of those mentioned above, and the consequences of taking them lightly are almost too grave to countenance.

Nothing about the Obama administration’s recent dealings with Iran suggests this characterization is wrong. From the few reports that have leaked out, Tehran has been unwilling to budge on any major aspect of a deal to halt its march toward a nuclear weapon. Last week, in the wake of the extension announcement, the New York Times reported, “In the Iranian Parliament, lawmakers erupted in their usual chants of ‘Death to America’ after a lawmaker commenting on the deadline extension spoke of ‘the U.S.’s sabotaging efforts and its unreliability.’” Yesterday, Khamenei called for an arms buildup. “Peacetime offers great opportunities for our armed forces to … build up on preemptive capacities,” he said.

It would be nice if the neocons got this one wrong.

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Where’s America’s Anti-ISIS Media Strategy?

Before the 2003 Iraq War, almost everyone across the Bush administration recognized the need for a media strategy and media outlet to carry the message of the United States and free Iraqis into Iraq. And there began an inter-agency food fight with cooks spoiling the broth many times over, enabled by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s somewhat disorganized stewardship, that continued until after the war had begun. Meanwhile, the Iranian government formed their Al-Alam radio and television to shape hearts and minds weeks in the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion and before the United States had any mechanism with which to respond.

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Before the 2003 Iraq War, almost everyone across the Bush administration recognized the need for a media strategy and media outlet to carry the message of the United States and free Iraqis into Iraq. And there began an inter-agency food fight with cooks spoiling the broth many times over, enabled by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s somewhat disorganized stewardship, that continued until after the war had begun. Meanwhile, the Iranian government formed their Al-Alam radio and television to shape hearts and minds weeks in the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion and before the United States had any mechanism with which to respond.

Iraqi Shi’ites are not naturally anti-American. But with the Islamic Republic fanning the flames of incitement, and the United States incapable of any response, it was the Iranian government and not the United States which wrote the first draft of history with regard to Operation Iraqi Freedom, transforming liberation into occupation.

More than a decade later, it seems the United States remains just as ham-fisted when it comes to the importance of media outreach to conflict zones. While there has been a lot of attention toward ISIS’s use of the Internet and social media, the Open Source Center has some excellent new analysis examining ISIS’s television and media reach. Among its findings:

  • ISIS television and radio could reach nearly half of Syria’s population and 71 percent of Iraq’s population outside of the areas ISIS already controls in those countries. At this point in time, ISIS does not appear to be television broadcasting, but its radio studios are active in both Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria.
  • AM and FM radio from within ISIS-controlled territory can reach over 100 miles into Turkey, 60 miles into Iran, and over 50 miles into Jordan.

While ISIS has been checked recently in Kobane, Syria, and defeated in Beiji, Iraq, it continues to consolidate control over a huge swath of territory. In recent weeks, it has announced a new currency, and it has enthusiastically taken over the region’s schools. That it would include media among the trappings of the state it seeks is logical.

As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation renews focus on the military strategy against ISIS, and as diplomats discuss Iraqi Kurdish and Turkish oil trading with ISIS, perhaps it is time for Congress to engage on the American media strategy geared specifically to those living under ISIS’s tyranny. Ceding the media field to ISIS will only help it recruit and expand; it’s time to instead take the fight over airwaves to those areas under ISIS control.

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Don’t Simply Complain About Qasem Soleimani in Iraq

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

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Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

Certainly, Iran wants to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). It’s not simply propaganda to suggest that ISIS also threatens Iran. The Islamic Republic might officially be a Shi’ite state, but about ten percent of Iranians are Sunni. They are often bitter, discriminated against both on ethnic and sectarian grounds. In June, Iranian security announced the arrest of several dozen ISIS members operating inside Iran.

But just because Iran and the United States both have an interest in what happens to ISIS does not make Tehran and Washington natural allies. After all, arsonists and firefighters are both interested in what happens to fires, but they are clearly not on the same side.

The U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 designated the Qods Force as a terrorist group “for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.” While a bill formally labeling the Qods Force as a terrorist entity died in congressional committee (perhaps President Obama can consider executive action), the government of Canada was not so easily distracted, and two years ago labeled Qasem Soleimani’s unit to be terrorists.

Normally, the head of a shadowy organization like the Qods Force would avoid the limelight, but by taking such a public presence in Iraq, Soleimani is convincing Iraqis that it is Iran which has its back while simultaneously depicting the United States as at best hapless, and at worst complicit with ISIS. After all, Soleimani is among the Pentagon’s most wanted, and yet he runs around Iraq thumbing his nose at the United States. And, of course, he and the Iranian regime he serves are, alongside Russia, behind the rumors that the United States created and supported ISIS, never mind that it was the Assad regime supported by Soleimani that refused for years to use the Syrian air force to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria; Soleimani and Assad preferred instead to target Syrian civilians. When it comes to killing ISIS, the United States does far more than Iran.

The idea that anyone in the United States would simply complain about Soleimani’s antics, however, is absurd. It’s about as effective as a kid complaining to an elementary school teacher that a bully is making faces at him.

If the United States is serious about the Qods Force and wishes to hold Qasem Soleimani to account for the deaths of Americans, it has two options: First, it can try to grab him in Iraq. There is precedent. The United States has previously snatched Iranian operatives in Iraq, but ultimately released them. There are rumors that the real goal of the raid was to catch Soleimani himself. Earlier efforts to grab Soleimani may have been betrayed when senior officials within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leaked word to him of impending action.

Then again, if Obama doesn’t have the stomach to grab Soleimani, it might simply try to kill him. Airstrikes might target all terrorists and extremists, not simply those from one sect. Soleimani is probably right to suspect that he has a free pass from Obama, so long as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to dangle a legacy-revising agreement in front of American negotiators.

Under such circumstances, then, Soleimani probably has another two years to flaunt himself in front of the cameras in Iraq without fear of consequence. Let us hope, however, that come January 20, 2017, any new president will understand no terrorists deserve a free pass and that it is never wise or sophisticated to allow them to humiliate the United States on the world stage. Credibility matters.

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Britain Faces ISIS on the Home Front

The British were reminded of just what a serious and determined aggressor Islamist terror in their country has once again become when reports surfaced earlier this month of a terror plot targeting the nation’s Remembrance Day ceremony. That plot also came with the possible intent to assassinate royal family members during the commemorations. Back in August the terror threat level had been raised from “substantial” to “severe” and now Britain’s Home Secretary has said that the terror threat there may be higher than it has ever been. As such a range of new anti-terror proposals are being put forward to help the situation. Yet ultimately, with much of the current threat stemming from the prospect of  jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, this is a lesson in how ignoring conflicts overseas can have dangerous consequences for Western states at home.

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The British were reminded of just what a serious and determined aggressor Islamist terror in their country has once again become when reports surfaced earlier this month of a terror plot targeting the nation’s Remembrance Day ceremony. That plot also came with the possible intent to assassinate royal family members during the commemorations. Back in August the terror threat level had been raised from “substantial” to “severe” and now Britain’s Home Secretary has said that the terror threat there may be higher than it has ever been. As such a range of new anti-terror proposals are being put forward to help the situation. Yet ultimately, with much of the current threat stemming from the prospect of  jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, this is a lesson in how ignoring conflicts overseas can have dangerous consequences for Western states at home.

The ongoing terror threat in Britain is certainly not something to be easily brushed aside. Since the 7/7 bombings on London’s subway system in 2005, Britain’s security and intelligence services have foiled some forty major terror plots. With the threat continuing to rise in light of the proliferation of ISIS and the significant number of Islamic extremists in Britain who identify with the cause of the Islamic State, it is understandable that the British are now seeking tougher legislation to combat the domestic terror threat.

Among the newly proposed measures are such provisions as an obligation on schools and universities to prevent radicalization by turning away extremist speakers. There would be new powers to confiscate the passports of those suspected of attempting to leave the country to join jihadist groups as well as the means to temporarily prevent the return of British citizens who have been fighting with terror groups. Furthermore, this legislation would make it illegal for insurance companies to cover the ransoms of those kidnapped by terrorists. There are also plans to increase online surveillance so as to better assist with the tracking of those accessing extremist material on the Internet.

Of course, some of these proposals will meet with considerable opposition from civil liberties groups and some in the Islamic community who have expressed concern that these measures are in some way singling out Muslims specifically. Liberal voices are already arguing for the adoption of a Danish model for deradicalization efforts. Such initiatives may eventually prove to have some long-term benefit, but clearly Britain today faces an immediate threat that has to be addressed.

Battening down the hatches like this should go some way in defending against Islamist attacks. But such measures and the kind of enhanced monitoring proposed can only go so far. As mentioned, the British authorities were able to act in time to arrest those planning attacks like the possible Remembrance Day plot, yet this strategy is by no means certain to succeed every time. Intelligence gathering was not enough in May of last year when two radicals known to the authorities beheaded a British soldier in broad daylight on a London street.

When the authorities raised the terror threat level in August it was with the threat from ISIS in mind–there are estimated to be between 500 and 2,000 British Islamists fighting with ISIS, many likely to attempt to return eventually, some having already done so. Similarly, when Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May announced this new anti-terror legislation she justified these laws as necessary by claiming that ISIS is now one of the greatest threats to the security of the United Kingdom. That may well be true, but if so why isn’t Britain doing more to combat ISIS in its entirety?

After all, even if Western countries like Britain can find a way to prevent ISIS-trained fighters from returning, it is clear that Islamic extremists who remain in the West are still being encouraged and inspired by the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The stronger ISIS becomes, the more territory it captures, the longer its war goes on for, and the more intense the fighting becomes, the more of a draw this group will have over those being radicalized in the West.

Defeating ISIS definitively is then logically a very necessary part of ensuring security at home. Yet Britain’s parliament decisively struck down proposals for military intervention in Syria, and while the UK continues to give some support to the limited U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, reservations about mission creep are likely to prevent any serious action. And so in doing little to seriously combat the proliferation of ISIS in the Middle East, Britain and other Western countries will continue to experience blowback at home and will be forced to implement increased firefighting legislation on the counter terror front.

Large parts of the British public were staunchly opposed to intervention in Iraq and that war is regularly referenced to advocate for a policy of disengagement and isolationism. But given how ISIS has grown out of the horrors of the Syrian civil war, something that the West couldn’t bring itself to intervene in even at the early stages when there was still the chance of a better outcome, it turns out that non-intervention has consequences too. The reality is that when it comes to security, tinkering with domestic terror legislation will only get you so far.

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How Iran Talks Hamper Fight Against ISIS

So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

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So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

The most visible cost is the $700 million a month in sanctions relief that Iran receives while the negotiations continue. That is a lifeline to the regime of an extra $4.9 billion over seven months on top of the $7 billion it has already received: money that can be used to prop up a dictatorship and extend its influence to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other nearby states. And those are conservative estimates from the administration; the actual benefits to Iran are probably greater.

But there is also a hidden cost to the ongoing talks that may be even more significant. Because as long as the U.S. is trying to reach a deal with Tehran, there is scant chance that President Obama will do anything to topple Iran’s ally in Damascus, Bashar Assad. Obama won’t even interfere with Assad’s reign of terror that has already claimed some 200,000 lives.

Although U.S. warplanes episodically bomb ISIS, they leave Assad and his forces alone. As a result Assad is free to continue the terror bombing of areas held by the Free Syrian Army even though Obama is counting on that force to fight ISIS. In reality there is scant chance of Sunnis in significant numbers taking up arms against ISIS as long as the alternative appears to be domination by Iranian proxies whether in Iraq or Syria.

Obama seems to be blind to this crippling problem at the heart of his ISIS strategy. Instead of trying to contest Iranian power, he is seeking an accommodation with Iran. He reportedly even sent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a letter proposing cooperation between the U.S. and Iran to fight ISIS. Ironically this not only scares Sunnis–it also scares the ayatollahs because they cannot afford to be seen as compromising with the Grand Satan for fear of losing their revolutionary credibility.

This is a regime, after all, where the chant “Death to America” serves much the same purpose as “Heil Hitler” once did for Nazi Germany. Khamenei obviously has little interest in reaching a modus vivendi with us; indeed, after the latest failure of the nuclear talks, he crowed that “America and the colonial European countries to together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not do so–and they will not be able to do so.”

Far from trying to bring Iran to its knees, Obama is trying to reorient U.S. policy in a pro-Iranian direction. The attempt will fail, but as long as it continues it will also doom to failure the anti-ISIS campaign.

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Who Will Reintegrate Iraq’s Shi’ite Volunteers?

Within Iraq, the presence of paramilitaries and militias has long had a corrosive impact on security. My major criticism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, was not that he sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for running death squads—Hashemi was most certainly guilty—but rather that the prosecution was selective: Maliki should have gone after some of the same Shi‘ite groups with the same zeal, his willingness to have once done so in Basra notwithstanding.

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Within Iraq, the presence of paramilitaries and militias has long had a corrosive impact on security. My major criticism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, was not that he sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for running death squads—Hashemi was most certainly guilty—but rather that the prosecution was selective: Maliki should have gone after some of the same Shi‘ite groups with the same zeal, his willingness to have once done so in Basra notwithstanding.

With the explosion of the Islamic State (ISIS) onto the scene—and the seeming disintegration of large parts of the Iraqi army—Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a call for volunteers to defend Iraq and the holy Shi’ite shrines. While the reason for the weakness of the Iraqi military deserves serious consideration by Iraqi politicians and American trainers alike, these volunteers buttressed the Iraqi army at a time of great need. Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, and the shrine city of Karbala are only 70 miles apart. With ISIS assurgent, Karbalais had real fear that the group too radical even for al-Qaeda might seek to attack their city and loot and destroy its holy shrines, as Saddam, the Ottomans, and the Saudis did at various times through history.

Staying in Karbala this past week, I stayed in the same compound as some volunteers training to fight ISIS also resided. I saw several, fresh off the bus, ranging from teens to grey beards. One morning, awaiting my ride to the Shrine of Imam Hussein, I saw several groups of more seasoned volunteers march in formation as they went to eat in the same communal dining hall from which I had just emerged. They did not seem like zealots, but rather as those who felt they needed to answer the call to defend their families and communities. I certainly wish them the best of luck in their fight against ISIS.

What I worry about, however, and what many locals inside Karbala also seem concerned about is what will happen when the fight ends and the volunteers return. Already, Shi’ite militias pose a real challenge to Iraq. Groups like the Shi’ite Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which recently reiterated its fealty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and not Iraq’s elected government, represent as much a threat to Iraq’s recovery as does the underground Baath Party, if not the ISIS itself.

It is one thing if volunteers quietly return from the towns and villages from where they came, and resume whatever job—if any—they were doing before they answer the call. The likelihood of this, however, is low. Many will expect reward for their sacrifice, and seek to transform their efforts into power.

There are many examples of this through recent history. In Iran, those who joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps refused to return to their barracks upon the end of the Iran-Iraq War. They moved into the civilian economy and increasingly flexed their muscles to pressure the Iranian government and remain autonomous.

Likewise, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga who fought against Saddam Hussein expected to be rewarded with jobs and patronage when the Iraqi government withdrew from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. The characteristics that made a good mountain warrior and those that made a good manager are two very different things. Much of the government dysfunction and corruption that has blighted Iraqi Kurdistan in the more than two decades since the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government has roots in this problem. Indeed, younger, capable officials like Barham Salih have long faced obstacles to their career simply because they did not fight in the mountains.

Back to Karbala and, by extension, southern Iraq: By all accounts, Haider al-Abadi is off to a good start in Baghdad, though the problems he and Iraq face are daunting. The fight against ISIS might be the most immediate challenge Iraqis face, but it is not too late to start planning for the next one: not only the reconstruction of those areas scarred by battle and the reintegration of Sunnis into the Iraqi government, but also the status of the Shi’ite volunteers once the fight is over.

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Karbala, the New Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

I visit Iraq three or four times per year, going to different areas each time. Earlier this year, for example, I have visited Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani in Iraqi Kurdistan; Tikrit, Beiji, and Mosul in Iraq’s Sunni Arab belt; and, of course, Baghdad. This was my first time flying into Najaf, and the longest I’ve spent in nearby Karbala and Hindiya in a decade.

Karbala is booming. Certainly, there are signs of the ongoing fighting in Iraq: Billboards dot roads and traffic circles urging Iraqis to fight ISIS together. Displaced persons from areas of fighting also abound. Here, however, the Western news media has failed by omission: there are numerous press reports about Iraqi Kurdistan’s admirable work to house and feed those displaced by ISIS, efforts for which the Kurdistan Regional Government seeks money. But Karbala is now home to more than 11,000 displaced families—between 40,000 and 50,000 people. For all Americans picture Iraq as polarized among ethnic and sectarian factions, it is telling that so many Sunnis from Fallujah and Ramadi find safety in Karbala and Najaf. The many Hosseiniyehs [Shi’ite congregation halls] and mosques along the road between Najaf and Karbala now house refugees, with the religious authorities of both cities each taking responsibility for the food and shelter for half. The story of southern Iraq’s outreach toward those displaced by ISIS is seldom heard in the West simply because Western journalists seldom visit; that is unfortunate, and undercuts broader understandings with the sin of omission.

At any rate, I stayed across from Karbala University in Imam Hussein City, a multipurpose complex with apartments, a communal dining hall, mosque, medical clinic, and event hall, which is now both a transit point for hundreds of Sunni refugees and a dormitory and training complex for Shi‘ite volunteers undertaking a month-long regimen before heading off to fight ISIS. Every morning, I would see school kids—both boys and girls—from Ramadi, Fallujah, and even Tel Afar head off to school.

Meanwhile, Karbala is largely safe, about as secure as Iraqi Kurdistan. Back in 2007, it was the site of the kidnapping and murder of five U.S. servicemen with the connivance of Iran and the militias it supports. But the situation had changed a good deal in eight years. Certainly there remains an air of uncertainty regarding future stability, but the same is true in Iraqi Kurdistan, which recently suffered a tragic car bombing. I made my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan about 15 years ago, when few Americans visited there. As Americans laud the promise of Kurdistan today, they forget that back in 2000, it was unsafe to venture outside Duhok, Erbil, or Sulaymani at night because of fear of terrorist attacks in the villages or along the roads connecting the cities. Thankfully, no one in Washington wrote off Kurdistan the way so many seem prepared to write off southern Iraq.

Some may believe that Karbala is unsafe because of Iranian influence. Certainly Iran is the predominant influence. The Najaf airport is predominantly served by flights from Iran (though also from Qatar, Turkey, Dubai, Bahrain, and Syria) but this makes sense since Karbala is, alongside nearby Najaf, the major center for religious pilgrimage. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on this industry; indeed, it is contributes well to Karbala’s development since it supports a burgeoning service industry and keeps Karbala not solely dependent on the central government or oil. So too does competition. I came away from Karbala believing that being governor of Karbala would be the toughest job in Iraq. The reason is because the Atabat–the governance of the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala–is independent of government, organized, productive, and efficient in its sponsorship of economic development and civil projects.

Most provincial governments blame Baghdad for their own failings or simply take a slow path to development knowing that the are the only show in town. In Karbala, however, the government must constantly try to keep up; the Atabat can achieve things the the government cannot. Simply put, the government does not fare well in such comparisons. For what it’s worth, when I first started visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish intellectuals and even some politicians acknowledged that the silver lining to the internecine struggle between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is that both struggled to outdo the other and so provided more for their people. Competition is good, but too often lacks inside Iraq.

Regardless, justifying American neglect in supposed Iranian influence not only cedes ground to Iran, but it misunderstands both Iraqi Shi‘ites and Iraqi Kurds. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I outlined in our recent monograph about Shi‘ite communities outside Iran, the Iraqi Shi‘ite community remains quite distinct from Iran, and seeks to be engaged on its own merits rather than as a subject of Iran. And, as for Iraqi Kurdistan, the atmosphere may be less religious than in Iraq’s Shi‘ite south, but the Iranian presence and political influence remains just as strong in Sulaymani and Erbil as in Baghdad and Karbala.

Iraq has serious problems, economic, political, and military. But as tragic as recent events have been, there are also significant pockets of success—not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where much of the American press and NGOs operating in Iraq now sit—but also in southern Iraq: Basra, Najaf, and Karbala. After so much sacrifice, let us hope that the United States will not snatch defeat from the jaws of opportunity.

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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Forfeiting Hearts and Minds in Southern Iraq

I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

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I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

Needless to say, after Mecca, there is no place as important for Shi‘ite Muslims than Najaf and Karbala. It is a major center of pilgrimage. During the day and a half I spent in the Shrine of Imam Hussein itself, I saw delegations of pilgrims from Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Lebanon, and Syria. Many had saved up for years to visit the shrine, just as Christians might make a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Diaspora Jews a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Beyond the casket itself, inside the shrine is a small but very rich museum dedicated to the shrine and to Imam Hussein. It is accessible to all, unlike the trend begun by Salafis to deny access to holy sites, an unfortunate phenomenon that has spread outward from Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and increasingly across the Sunni world. People can say what they will about Shi‘ites, but I have never been denied access to a Shi‘ite mosque, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The museum was excellent: it had Islamic and cultural artifacts dating back centuries, as well as photos of Saddam’s 1991 looting of the shrine, and material recovered in its aftermath. One recent display listed all the invading armies that pillaged and looted Karbala: Ottomans, Saudis, Saddam. Importantly, the United States was not listed. Some American policymakers may believe that Iraqi Shi‘ites are fools for Iran’s anti-American vitriol, but they readily see through the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and recognize the 2003 invasion for what it was: liberation.

I spoke with the museum director. He mentioned that the British ambassador had visited—“the British understand such things”—but the Americans ambassador and, indeed, the embassy has been absent. Karbala is a safe, secure city. Politicians wring their hands that the United States spent blood and treasure in Iraq, and the Iraqis don’t fully appreciate it. But, when American diplomats remain too often behind the blast walls of the American embassy, when the Islamic Republic opens a consulate in Karbala but the United States avoids the symbolic center of the Shi‘ite world, then the United States doesn’t lose hearts and minds, it forfeits them.

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