Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Government at Work

The great comic writer Robert Benchley once wrote a short story in which his friend, Mr. McGregor, says that he has lost a locomotive. “How do you lose a locomotive?” Benchley, not unreasonably, asks. Mr. McGregor hasn’t the faintest idea. He just can’t remember where he put it. As they’re discussing how to lose a locomotive, the phone rings and when Benchley hangs up he says, “What were we talking about?” Mr. McGregor can’t remember and they change the subject.

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The great comic writer Robert Benchley once wrote a short story in which his friend, Mr. McGregor, says that he has lost a locomotive. “How do you lose a locomotive?” Benchley, not unreasonably, asks. Mr. McGregor hasn’t the faintest idea. He just can’t remember where he put it. As they’re discussing how to lose a locomotive, the phone rings and when Benchley hangs up he says, “What were we talking about?” Mr. McGregor can’t remember and they change the subject.

Well the Pentagon has, apparently, lost $6.6 billion in $100 bills, according to the American Spectator. That’s about one percent of the total supply of American currency, more than $20 for each man, woman, and child in the American population:

It’s little wonder the money disappeared. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration flooded the country with cash for reconstruction and other projects. It was a cash delivery that made the post-World War II Marshall Plan pale by comparison.

Pentagon officials determined that one giant C-130 Hercules cargo plane could carry $2.4 billion in shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. They sent an initial full planeload of cash, followed by 20 other flights to Iraq by May 2004 in a $12 billion haul that U.S. officials believe to be the biggest international cash airlift of all time. The handling of the cash was haphazard at best, and totally lacking in financial controls.

Banks keep careful cash controls for both tellers, responsible for their draws, and head tellers, responsible for the whole branch. If more than a few dollars goes missing, someone gets fired. Apparently this vast hoard of cash was kept in the vault of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. (One wonders what Saddam Hussein’s reaction would have been to that much money going missing—it wouldn’t have been pretty.)

After numerous audits, the Pentagon just stopped looking for it:

Astonishingly, in June 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government closed the books on the program that handled the disappeared $6.6 billion in cold, hard cash. They just gave up. But before shutting the program down, federal auditors admitted that that some or all of the cash may have been stolen, not just misplaced in an accounting error. Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an office created by Congress, said the missing $6.6 billion may be “the largest theft of funds in national history.”

Seeing as the Pentagon needed a C-130 to move just one-third of that much money, that’s a pretty safe bet. Eat your heart out, Willy Sutton.

And liberals wonder why conservatives don’t trust government to run the nation’s health-care industry.

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What to Do About ISIS

It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

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It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

In this just-released Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum, I outline my view of what a real strategy designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS would look like. As you will see, I call for not only increasing the military effort but also doing more to train and mobilize Sunni tribes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, while extending our fight to the Assad regime in order to convince Sunnis to join the anti-ISIS campaign.

I also argue for preparing now to build a postwar order in both Syria and Iraq, unpalatable as the thought of “nation building” might be for some. It is hard to over-stress the importance of the latter point, because only by sketching out a hopeful future will the U.S. convince Syrians and Iraqis to risk their lives to fight ISIS. Declaring a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria would be an important first step in this regard because it would allow the Free Syrian Army to train and a free Syrian government to organize.

Sadly there is little sign so far that President Obama is willing to mount such a serious effort. But it is just possible that continuing outrage over ISIS beheading Americans could force his hand.

And for those who think that ISIS is deliberately trying to lure U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria: At the moment the desultory U.S. campaign is playing into their hands by allowing them to tell their followers that they have stood up to the Great Satan. A more effective U.S.-led campaign would not be so welcome to ISIS if it resulted in its dismemberment and defeat as previously happened to its forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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Training Free Syrians in Turkey Is a Bad Idea

In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

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In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

Fast forward 17 years. What Pakistan once represented vis-à-vis the Taliban, today Turkey represents vis-à-vis many of the most extreme factions among the Syrian rebels. President Obama has made the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels a central pillar of his strategy to take on ISIS inside Syria and a way to diminish the need for ground combat forces which he is loath to deploy back to Iraq and Syria.

Let’s put aside the fact that training such forces would take more than a year and that they would be inserted against an ISIS foe which is now battle-hardened and brutal. And let’s also put aside the fact that there haven’t been any serious lessons learned as to why the military training program implemented in Iraq by such military luminaries as David Petraeus and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has proven such an abject failure.

In order to implement their free Syrian training program, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry have apparently decided to work primarily through Turkey:

Military officials from the United States and Turkey have met at the Turkish General Staff’s headquarters in Ankara for a third time to discuss equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, and agreed on using the Hirfanlı military training center in Kırşehir for the training ground. Officials from both the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and high-ranking Turkish military officials agreed on a number of points about the training of Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, including Syrian Turkmens will be trained at the Hirfanlı gendarmerie training center in Kırşehir, sources told to the Hürriyet Daily News. U.S. officials will also take part in the training. The U.S. will primarily provide weapons and ammunition for the Syrian opposition, with the costs of the training also expected to be provided by Washington.

In other words, the United States will provide the money and the weapons, but defer to their Turkish counterparts the training. So, as Hagel seeks to implement Obama’s plan, he chooses to rely on a country that targets the secular, and promotes the radical. Rather than smother extremism inside Syria, such a plan will fan its flames.

When a similar plan was worked up before the Iraq war, Hungary stepped up to the plate. Whether or not that plan was effective—it was rushed by the time diplomats and lawyers hashed out its modalities—at least the Pentagon recognized that venues with a vested interest in Iraq and those which had a radically different vision from the United States should not be part of such sensitive missions. Training the Free Syrian Army at this point might be more symbolic than effective. But if that’s the path the Obama administration seeks to go down, let us hope that the end result would be better than Holzman’s plan to use Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s original underwriters, to “moderate” the Taliban.

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Veterans Day and Excessive Self-Criticism

November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

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November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Many veterans are understandably bewildered and angry and wondering if their sacrifices were worth it. Some even suggest that the dismal outcome in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan is an indictment of the armed forces that fought there. This is a point that retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, makes in this New York Times op-ed, which previews a book he has written. He argues that the “surge” in Iraq never really worked, that it was only a short-term palliative, and then issues a withering indictment of the U.S. Armed Forces:

We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to “clear/hold/build” even as the “hold” stage stretched for months, and then years, with decades beckoning. We backed ourselves season by season into a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq, then compounded it by doing likewise in Afghanistan. The American people had never signed up for that.

Self-criticism is always welcome and certainly to be preferred to generals who claim they never got anything wrong. But this self-criticism, I would argue, is excessive. It’s true that the U.S. military was not well prepared for the counterinsurgencies it encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan and that it went into those wars optimized for another Desert Storm. The U.S. military made countless blunders in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 which exacerbated the situation. But it’s also true that the U.S. military is a learning organization that improvised brilliantly under fire. Thanks to the acumen primarily of NCOs and junior officers–gradually followed by more senior officers–the U.S. military by now has become one of the most capable counterinsurgency forces in history.

And contrary to General Bolger’s assertions, the “surge” (which I’m told he opposed while working at Central Command for Adm. Fox Fallon) did work–it reduced violence by more than 90 percent. By 2009 both AQI and the Shiite militias such as the Mahdist Army had been decimated and Iraq was on the road to stability. No less than Vice President Biden publicly bragged in 2010 that a “stable” Iraq would be “one of the great achievements of this administration.” Then of course this administration pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, while doing nothing to stabilize Syria in the throes of its civil war. The result has been the rise of ISIS and the undoing of what U.S. troops fought to achieve.

That is demoralizing, to be sure, but Bolger is wrong to blame the military for this outcome. I agree with Bolger that the military can’t dodge blame for the disaster in Vietnam because Gen. William Westmoreland’s firepower-intensive approach did not defeat the Viet Cong and did exhaust American will. The U.S. military was on the verge of repeating the same mistake by 2006 but the surge really did rescue the operation even if it didn’t produce nirvana or magically solve all of Iraq’s underlying issues. No one–not even the most wild-eyed surge proponent–ever expected that it would.

There was always a widespread expectation among surge proponents that U.S. troops would have to stay for the long haul to guarantee Iraq’s stability just as they have stayed in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kosovo, and other places. It is quite possible that if U.S. troops had been pulled out of Europe after 1945 a disaster would have ensued similar to the one that ensued after the removal of U.S. troops in 1919. But that would not have been the fault of Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, and the other generals who won the war. Likewise it is not the fault of soldiers today that President Obama didn’t stay the course in Iraq and now threatens to also prematurely pull out of Afghanistan.

To be sure, the generals who failed to prepare the U.S. military for the demands of counterinsurgency before 2001 have much to answer for, as do the generals who implemented tragically misguided policies in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. But their blunders have been more than redeemed by the success that U.S. forces experienced in Iraq in 2007-2008 and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 (where troops were hobbled by Obama’s failure to send enough reinforcements and by his imposition of a counterproductive deadline for withdrawal).

Despite the dismal state of Iraq today and to a lesser extent of Afghanistan, America’s veterans can be proud of their achievements over the past 13 years. Not only did they fight bravely and for longer periods than any previous generation of soldiers, but they also adapted brilliantly to the demands of fighting the longest counterinsurgency campaigns in American history–a very different type of warfare than the one they trained for.

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The Hard Truths Obama Needs to Hear

“The four-star commander of war operations in Iraq and Syria said politics is the key to defeating the Islamic militants there — and more U.S. troops will not necessarily help resolve the complex sectarian conflict roiling the two nations.”

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“The four-star commander of war operations in Iraq and Syria said politics is the key to defeating the Islamic militants there — and more U.S. troops will not necessarily help resolve the complex sectarian conflict roiling the two nations.”

Except for the reference to Syria, this sounds like something that General George Casey would have said between 2004 and 2006 when he was the top U.S. commander in Iraq. In fact it is a comment made just last week by General Lloyd Austin, the commander of Central Command.

There is no doubt that Austin is right today, as Casey was once right, that Iraqi politics holds the solution to dealing with Iraqi problems. But what Casey didn’t grasp, as he steadfastly refused to ask for more troops, was that U.S. forces, if intelligently employed, could alter Iraqi politics in beneficial ways, whereas failure to send more forces would lead to greater chaos and increased polarization, making political progress impossible. In fact, the surge of 2007-2008, which Casey opposed, created a breakthrough that allowed Iraqi politics to begin functioning again.

That lesson applies today. As long as Iraq continues to be split between the forces of ISIS and the Quds Force, political progress will be impossible. But if the U.S. can foster greater progress in rolling back ISIS, the resulting sense of security could undermine the support that Iranian-backed militias have gained among Iraqi Shiites.

Such progress will not come about if the U.S. is standing on the lines, however. It will only happen if the U.S. does more to aid the creation of indigenous security forces–especially among the Sunni tribes–that can fight back effectively against ISIS. And that, in turn, is unlikely to happen when the Obama administration is willing to put no more than 3,000 troops on the ground and to prevent them from accompanying indigenous forces into combat where the American presence, however small, could be crucial to success. If the U.S. ramps up its involvement deploying, say, 15,000 advisers and Special Operations personnel and relaxes their rules of engagement, it will not only have a greater chance of achieving battlefield success against ISIS but also of boosting American influence to affect the Iraqi political process.

It is quite possible that the president will refuse to do more no matter what because he is politically and ideologically opposed to greater American involvement in Iraq or the Middle East more broadly. But as a first step it is important that the U.S. commander for the region–that would be Gen. Austin–speak bluntly and forthrightly to the president, telling him that the U.S. will never achieve his objective to “degrade and eventually defeat” ISIS unless it makes more of a commitment. Comments to the effect that it’s all on the Iraqis to make political progress–and that there is little we can do until then–don’t help.

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Obama’s Insufficient Small Steps On ISIS

President Obama is slowly moving in the right direction in Iraq. Sort of. On Friday afternoon–love that timing: normally used to bury announcements that the administration would like to see ignored–came word that he would authorize the dispatch of another 1,500 troops to Iraq in addition to the 1,400 already there. These troops will apparently be allowed to go beyond Baghdad and Erbil but still will not be allowed to go into combat.

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President Obama is slowly moving in the right direction in Iraq. Sort of. On Friday afternoon–love that timing: normally used to bury announcements that the administration would like to see ignored–came word that he would authorize the dispatch of another 1,500 troops to Iraq in addition to the 1,400 already there. These troops will apparently be allowed to go beyond Baghdad and Erbil but still will not be allowed to go into combat.

That’s a step in the right direction but only a small step. Most credible estimates suggest that he will need to dispatch at least 15,000 personnel and that they need to be given the freedom to accompany indigenous units into battle so as to improve their combat capability and more accurately call in air strikes. Moreover US troops need to be sent to make direct contact with Sunni tribes in Anbar Province instead of working exclusively through Iraqi Security Forces that are compromised by Iranian infiltration. Obama also needs to order an increase in the bombing campaign which so far has been desultory and far short of the kind of sustained air campaigns the U.S. waged in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001).

And that is to say nothing of Syria where current plans call for training all of 1,500 Free Syrian Army soldiers next year–a ludicrously small number given that ISIS alone is estimated to have some 30,000 fighters and the Nusra Front and the Assad regime have substantial forces of their own. But then it’s increasingly obvious that Obama has no intention of going after Assad–as he reassured Ayatollah Khameini in a letter proposing an Iran-US alliance against ISIS. That kind of talk, aside from raising hackles in Tehran, scares the willies out of Sunnis and makes it much more difficult to sign them up for an anti-ISIS alliance.

As usual Obama is a puzzling study in half-measures and equivocation. Remember when he ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan but sent fewer troops than needed and saddled them with an 18-month deadline that severely hampered their effectiveness? If he were going to take ownership of the Afghanistan War, Obama would have been well advised to do it right–to send enough forces to make victory likely. But that’s not what he did, apparently for fear of offending his electoral base–as if his hard-core voters would have bolted if he had sent 150,000 rather than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. The same impulse, alas, is visible today in Syria and Iraq where Obama continues to do just enough to say he is doing something–but not enough to win.

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Is Another “Awakening” Needed in Iraq?

If you want to feel optimistic about the state of the fight against ISIS, you can read this dispatch from Ben Hubbard of the New York Times in Baghdad. He claims that “the group’s momentum appears to be stalling.” The “nut graf” (as newspaper types call the core of the story):

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If you want to feel optimistic about the state of the fight against ISIS, you can read this dispatch from Ben Hubbard of the New York Times in Baghdad. He claims that “the group’s momentum appears to be stalling.” The “nut graf” (as newspaper types call the core of the story):

The international airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has clearly played a role in slowing the Sunni Muslim group’s advance. But analysts say other factors are having a major effect, including unfavorable sectarian and political demographics, pushback from overrun communities, damage to the group’s financial base in Syria and slight improvements by ground forces in Iraq.

There is something to this analysis, but not too much. Mainly what Hubbard is reporting on is the obvious fact that ISIS, as a Sunni jihadist group, can only take root in Sunni-majority areas. It is running out of new Sunni areas to conquer in Iraq largely because it has already taken control of most of the Sunni Triangle stretching from Fallujah to Mosul. That’s hardly great news, insofar as ISIS’s control over an area the size of the United Kingdom appears as strong as ever.

True, there are some signs of tribal revolts against ISIS, for example among the Jubouri tribe in Iraq, but ISIS is able to crush them with its typical ferocity. Meanwhile even the addition of Kurdish pesh merga fighters has not ended the ISIS offensive on Kobani, and while there are some slight improvements visible among anti-ISIS forces in Iraq, there is general acknowledgement that it will be a long time before Mosul or Fallujah can be liberated. To make matters worse, a lot of whatever success there has been in stalling ISIS’s momentum in Iraq comes from the actions of bloodthirsty, Iranian-backed militias under the direction of the Quds Force. Their growing power ensures that more Sunnis will continue to rally to ISIS for protection.

In many ways the situation feels, as the perspicacious Iraq analyst Joel Rayburn, a U.S. army colonel, has pointed out, like the dark days of 2005-2006 when there were scattered tribal revolts against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ISIS predecessor, that AQI was able to “defeat brutally in detail.” The only way to defeat ISIS is by catalyzing a larger Awakening-style tribal uprising among the Sunnis. But that will require more direct American military intervention in Iraq and Syria than President Obama has been willing to countenance.

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Rand Paul’s Utopian Realism and 2016

Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

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Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

At Bloomberg View, Lanhee Chen (a top advisor to Mitt Romney) writes that foreign policy helped Republicans win over Asian-American voters on Tuesday. Chen looks at the exit polls, and notes that while “one should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a sample of just 129 Asian respondents, the marked emphasis on foreign policy among these voters is still noteworthy – and outside the margin of error for the poll.”

And at the Daily Beast Eli Lake goes into detail on how the Republican wave, and specifically its takeover of the Senate majority, could impact American foreign policy going forward. Republicans elected young, promising hawks like Tom Cotton in Arkansas, and more importantly the GOP will take the chairmanships of the foreign-policy related Senate committees. “You could call it the neoconservatives’ revenge or the year of the hawks,” Lake writes. “But it has produced an interesting moment in Washington, where even the dovish side of the Republican Party now acknowledges the midterms were a win for their party’s American exceptionalists.”

One person who wasn’t happy was Ron Paul, who tweeted his wild apocalyptic take on the election. And one person who could not have been happy about that tweet was Paul’s son, Rand, who plans to run for president and therefore would benefit from his father declining to set his hair on fire in public every time a Republican says something nice about America’s role in the world.

More substantively, however, it raises the question of whether the midterms produced a wave Paul can ride to his party’s nomination or one that washed him out of contention. Paul has noticed that what appeared to be a noninterventionist moment in the GOP has not solidified into a major shift in conservative foreign-policy circles. And so it was Paul who has shifted.

At first that shift was mainly one of tone, and I am sympathetic to those who felt that this shift was being exaggerated by hawks who wanted to portray Paul as someone who decided that he couldn’t beat them so he joined them. But with Paul’s speech to the annual dinner of the Center for the National Interest, it’s clear Paul wants to be seen as shifting more than his tone. The key part of the speech was this:

The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.

President Obama claims that al Qaeda is decimated.  But a recent report by the RAND Corporation tracked a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups.

To contain and ultimately defeat radical Islam, America must have confidence in our constitutional republic, our leadership, and our values.

To defend our country we must understand that a hatred of our values exists, and acknowledge that interventions in foreign countries may well exacerbate this hatred, but that ultimately, we must be willing and able to defend our country and our interests.

Prosecuting the war on terror is far more consequential than standing athwart hypothetical ground invasions. The war on terror is far more relevant to America’s day-to-day security maintenance because it involves the prevention of the multitude of threats to the American homeland. It’s also significant because of the noninterventionists’ much-feared renewed land war in the Middle East.

The possibility of putting “boots on the ground”–or additional boots on the ground, depending on how you look at it–in Iraq and elsewhere is not because America is interested in toppling the Iraqi government but in preserving it. The entity threatening to bring down allied governments is the network of Islamist terrorists, in this case specifically ISIS. The global war on terror, then, can be just as much about preventing additional land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Rand Paul seems to understand this, if his speech is any indication. His supporters, especially his libertarian supporters who are once again looking to Gary Johnson, won’t like it. Others will, as James Poulos seeks to over at the Federalist, reimagine Paul’s limited policy aims as a broad and grand and ocean-deep set of assumptions about human nature. Aside from the unfortunate (but common) false characterizations about neoconservatives, Poulos interprets Rand Paul’s foreign policy as no less a utopian scheme than the strains of conservative foreign policy Poulos says Paul rejects. Elsewhere, Poulos credits Paul with ideas that neoconservatives have long been championing, such as the underestimated role of corruption in global affairs.

Suddenly, Paul’s unique approach to American foreign policy relies on nuance to even tell it apart from the status quo. That’s because Paul can read the polls, and he’s been watching the electorate he hopes to lead. One wonders, then, whether what will ultimately undo Paul is that he will have convinced his once-ardent supporters that he’s left their camp while failing to convince those who doubted him all along.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy After the Midterms

In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

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In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

He should, especially in national security which I am convinced was as important a factor in this election as it was in the 2006 midterm when, in the midst of Iraq War debacles, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. The president did himself incalculable damage when he set a “red line” for Syria last year but failed to enforce it. That created an image of weakness and indecision which has only gotten worse with the rise of ISIS and Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.

The question now is whether the president will overcome his initial denials and squarely face the message that the voters were trying to send: He needs to change course. I will leave it to others to spell out what such a course change will mean in domestic policy, but when it comes to national-security policy he would do well to take all or some of the following steps:

  • Save the defense budget from the mindless cuts of sequestration, which are already hurting readiness and, if left unabated, risk another “hollow” military.
  • Impose tougher sanctions on Russia, freezing Russian companies entirely out of dollar-denominated transactions, while sending arms and trainers to Kiev and putting at least a Brigade Combat Team into each of the Baltic republics and Poland to signal that no more aggression from Putin will be tolerated.
  • Repeal the 2016 deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and announce that any drawdown will be conditions based.
  • Increase the tempo of airstrikes against ISIS, and send a lot more troops to Iraq and Syria to work with indigenous groups–we need at least 15,000 personnel, not the 1,400 sent so far. This isn’t a call for U.S. ground combat troops, but we do need a lot more trainers, Special Operators, and support personnel, and they need to be free to work with forces in the field rather than being limited to working with brigade and division staffs in large bases far from the front lines.
  • Make clear that any deal with Iran will require the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities–not just a freeze that will leave it just short of nuclear weapons status.
  • End the rapprochement with Iran that has scared our closest allies in the Middle East, and make clear that the U.S. will continue its traditional, post-1979 role of containing Iranian power and siding with the likes of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE over Tehran. A good sign of such a commitment would be launching airstrikes on Iran’s proxy, Bashar al-Assad.
  • Get “fast track” authority from Congress and finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.

Sadly, the odds are that Obama won’t do any of this except for TPP. That will leave a Republican Congress seething in frustration but its ability to compel presidential actions in foreign policy will be highly limited–even with the addition of knowledgeable lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and with Senator John McCain, the GOP’s leading foreign-policy voice, taking over the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers can demand that Obama submit any deal with Iran for Senate approval as a treaty and, if he refuses, they can vote to keep sanctions in place that Obama will try to suspend unilaterally–but in practice achieving this outcome will be very difficult because it will require veto-proof majorities in both houses. Democrats are happy to talk tough about Iran, but will they vote against their own president on an issue where he is sure to lobby hard? Lawmakers can also push for increases in the defense budget but this will undoubtedly require a deal with the White House in which the GOP would have to swallow higher domestic spending and/or tax increases that will be a hard sell on the right.

In the end Obama will retain tremendous discretion as commander-in-chief. We can only hope he will use his authority to stop the dissipation of American power and prestige that has occurred in recent years. He would do well to borrow a page from Jimmy Carter who became a born-again hawk after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But given Obama’s history of stubborn adherence to ideology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Effects of U.S.-Iran Détente Appear in Syria

The news from Syria remains grim. Over the weekend the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, made substantial gains against fighters of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib Province, west of Aleppo. Nusra is now threatening to seize control of one of the last remaining border crossings between Turkey and Syria, at Bab al-Hawa, that remains in FSA hands.

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The news from Syria remains grim. Over the weekend the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, made substantial gains against fighters of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib Province, west of Aleppo. Nusra is now threatening to seize control of one of the last remaining border crossings between Turkey and Syria, at Bab al-Hawa, that remains in FSA hands.

Apparently Nusra, which in the past has operated in de facto alliance with the FSA, has decided to turn on its sometime partners because the U.S., the FSA’s major patron, has been bombing some Nusra personnel–and because Nusra is competing with ISIS for control of areas not held by the Assad regime. Sadly, the Obama administration has not given any aid to the FSA fighters under siege even though they are supposedly our best hope of toppling Bashar al-Assad and replacing him with a non-jihadist regime.

Meanwhile, we learn, courtesy of Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy, that the State Department is eliminating a $500,000-a-year grant to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an NGO investigating and documenting the Assad regime’s war crimes for possible prosecution in the future. Lynch quotes a State Department official saying, “As far as State Department funding for justice and accountability in Syria, there has been no change. The bottom line is that we remain 100 percent committed to collecting this kind of information.”

Uh-huh. In reality considerable skepticism is in order. While cutting funding for an investigation of Assad’s war crimes, the State Department has just announced $1.6 million in grants to investigate ISIS war crimes. This conveys the clear impression that while Washington is interested in fighting ISIS (and possibly Nusra), it has little interest in fighting Assad. In fact, the U.S. appears to be making common cause with Assad and his Iranian patrons in both Iraq and Syria–a shift symbolized by the U.S. willingness to bomb ISIS but not Assad. This can be seen as part of a larger shift for Obama administration foreign policy toward an accommodation with Iran whose centerpiece is meant to be a nuclear accord later this month.

As I have argued before, this is a tragically misbegotten policy because by aligning ourselves with Assad and the Iranians, we are ensuring that ISIS and the Nusra Front will come to be seen as the only reliable defenders of Sunni interests. The Quds Force, Hezbollah, and other Shiite extremists on the one hand, and ISIS and other Sunni jihadists on the other, are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence: the more power one group of extremists grabs, the more power the other group of extremists will subsequently get because each postures as the defender of sectarian interests against the other. The only way to break this cycle of violence is to help relatively moderate forces such as the FSA and the Sunni tribes of both Syria and Iraq. While the Obama administration pays lip service to these goals, however, its actions on the ground convey a very different–and more troubling–impression.

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The Faltering Operation Inherent Resolve

If you want a laugh, go to the Central Command website and click on their press releases. Every day there is a new dispatch about the anti-ISIS air campaign in Iraq and Syria known incongruously as Operation Inherent Resolve. The latest release is from October 28: “U.S. military forces continued to attack ISIL terrorists in Syria Monday and today using attack and fighter aircraft to conduct four airstrikes.  Separately, U.S. and partner nation military forces conducted nine airstrikes in Iraq Monday and today using attack, fighter, and remotely piloted aircraft against ISIL terrorists.” What’s so funny here? The fact that Central Command is trumpeting a mere 13 airstrikes, which only highlights how anemic this whole air campaign remains.

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If you want a laugh, go to the Central Command website and click on their press releases. Every day there is a new dispatch about the anti-ISIS air campaign in Iraq and Syria known incongruously as Operation Inherent Resolve. The latest release is from October 28: “U.S. military forces continued to attack ISIL terrorists in Syria Monday and today using attack and fighter aircraft to conduct four airstrikes.  Separately, U.S. and partner nation military forces conducted nine airstrikes in Iraq Monday and today using attack, fighter, and remotely piloted aircraft against ISIL terrorists.” What’s so funny here? The fact that Central Command is trumpeting a mere 13 airstrikes, which only highlights how anemic this whole air campaign remains.

Between October 7, 2001, and December 23, 2001—a period of seventy-five days—U.S. aircraft fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan flew 6,500 strike sorties and dropped 17,500 munitions. By contrast, between August 8, 2014, and October 23, 2014—a period of seventy-six days—the United States conducted only 632 airstrikes and dropped only 1,700 munitions in Iraq and Syria.

What’s more, the U.S. has dispatched only 1,400 personnel to Iraq and prohibited them from embedding with units conducting combat operations, which greatly limits their ability to call in air strikes or provide effective advice.

Little wonder, then, that there might be grumbling in the military about micromanagement and insufficient commitment from the White House–both complaints aired in this Daily Beast article by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake. “One senior defense official” is quoted as saying: “We are getting a lot of micromanagement from the White House. Basic decisions that should take hours are taking days sometimes.”

Among the illogical constraints imposed by the president and his advisers is that the American general in charge of building up forces in Syria must “build a new rebel army from scratch but is not permitted to work with existing brigades, meaning he must find and vet new soldiers, mostly sourcing from Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. What’s more, the size of the program will produce only 5,000 fighters a year after the training begin, most of whom who will serve as ‘local defense forces’ and not actually go after ISIS, according to two officials briefed on the plan.”

No doubt White House spinmeisters will be able to quibble with this detail or that in this article, thus deflecting the criticism. But the complaints expressed here sound entirely credible and legitimate to me. This military operation would more aptly be named Operation Infinite Confusion.

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Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

UPDATE: The “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” has published a response to the original Turkish article in Sözcü Gazetesi whose report was cited in this blog post in which Ilim Yayma Vakfı deny any links between the foundation and the ISIS website. I will take them at their word. What is striking, however, is that the religious foundation founded by Islamist luminaries including now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushed to demand Sözcü Gazetesi take down its article, but the Turkish government which Erdoğan dominates and which has assumed the power to shut down websites refuses to touch the website of “Takva Haber” which continues to publish al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda. So is Erdoğan serious about countering ISIS? I’d submit Turkey is as serious about shutting down the ISIS as Pakistan is about shutting down the Taliban.

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Islamism’s Appeal to the Discontented

There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

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There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.

One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.

But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.

History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.

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Accountability for Military Contractors

That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

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That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

That is a step forward in holding contractors accountable for their conduct on the battlefield, but only a small step. After all, it took seven years to conclude this case–not that it’s concluded now since the defendants are likely to appeal. That is hardly the definition of expeditious justice. But it’s more than prosecutors have been able to accomplish in the past since only eight other individuals have been charged under statutes designed to hold contractors accountable for their battlefield conduct.

There is an imperative to do better because as the U.S. military continues its unfortunate downsizing it will have to remain reliant in the future on contractors–but their actions can detract from mission objectives if they alienate locals in the process of delivering goods or dignitaries from Point A to Point B. In the new issue of Foreign Affairs I suggest a possible reform as part of a larger look at “lessons learned” from twelve years of nonstop war:

One possible model is the way that U.S. commanders exercise authority over foreign troops. Just as the troops from contributing nations plug into a U.S.-led command structure, contractors could, too. In the future, the U.S. government should write its contracts differently. Security firms working for any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department and USAID, and operating on a battlefield where the U.S. military is present should fall under the operational control of a senior U.S. military officer who has the power to revoke their contracts and prosecute their employees in case of misdeeds.

I am open to other ideas. But clearly something needs to be done to ensure that contractors in the future are held to the same standards as U.S. soldiers because in the places where they operate, locals do not make fine distinctions between different types of armed Americans.

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Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

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Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

Well, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent quip that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict motivated ISIS recruits, perhaps it’s about time to revise that slogan to “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Now, I don’t mean to actually call John Kerry stupid. Just as someone needs to be valedictorian of the summer school class, Kerry might just as well be considered the valedictorian of the Obama administration. If his competition is Chuck Hagel or Joe Biden or possibly even President Obama himself, Kerry might as well be a shining star.

But the notion Kerry embraces that terrorism is motivated by grievance rather than ideology is politically correct nonsense. One of the biggest academic proponents of this argument has been University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In recent years, he has doubled down on the argument that grievance rather than ideology (let alone religious ideology) motivates terror. The problem is that, as Martin Kramer has exposed, Pape shamelessly massaged and cherry picked his statistics to support a thesis which flies in the face of evidence. No wonder that Pape apparently worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group which apologizes for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has been an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism finance trial, in order to inflate his book sales. But, then again, let’s not condemn Pape for hiding such things: His career has been built on obfuscating motives.

The simple fact is that reality flies in the face of Kerry’s assertion and Pape’s theories. First off, let’s not forget that even the United States intelligence community recognized the threat posed by Islamist radicalism in the years before the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, nor does the radicalism of those attacking women and minorities in the suburbs of Paris, or targeting homosexuals on the streets of London, have anything to do with Israel.

Secondly, the most oft-cited grievances—poverty and lack of education—have no statistical link to terror. Suicide bombers tend not to be those with the least opportunities; rather, they tend to be those from educated, middle-class backgrounds. In the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, recruitment occurs in the schools. Nor do we see a rash of terrorists and murders arising from the ten poorest countries on earth. With tongue in cheek, if the United States were to base its counterterrorism policy solely on statistics, then its counterterrorism policy would seek to increase poverty and decrease education. At least we can be grateful, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t simply classified ISIS as perpetrators of “workplace violence.”

Thankfully, Katie Gorka through the Council on Global Security has now published a new white paper entitled, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Policy,” in which she provides both historical context to the cost of focusing on grievance as the motivator of terrorism and demonstrates how ignoring Islamist ideology costs lives. The whole report is worth reading. Obama and Kerry may be too set in their ways and more inclined to make excuses that question progressive doctrines, but let us hope that those who seek to take their place after the next election will read Gorka’s work. The cost of not doing so and continuing to tilt at politically correct windmills will be paid in lives.

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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