Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Popularity, Leadership, and War Weariness

It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

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It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

A new Fox News poll continues the steady drumbeat of negative opinion surveys for the president. Though Americans approved of his decision to authorize air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq by an overwhelming 62-25 percent margin, the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance on virtually every foreign-policy category matches or even exceeds its disapproval of his domestic performance. On Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, and foreign policy in general a majority of Americans gave the president a thumbs down.

While one should be cautious in extrapolating approval for a larger intervention in the Iraq crisis, these numbers ought to sober up many on the left who still seem to think the public is incapable of re-evaluating U.S. policy on even as contentious an issue as the Iraq war. Though it’s doubtful many Americans are eager to revisit the low points of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the assumption that Obama can simply ignore the mess he helped create in the Middle East because Americans are war weary may be incorrect.

Of course, for some in the media it will always be 2006 as far as Iraq is concerned. The New York Times’s publication of a highly offensive “op-art” cartoon by R.O. Blechman mocked the plight of starving Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain while fleeing ISIS murderers illustrated the imbecilic nature of much of what passes for commentary in the liberal mainstream media. Like the way most Americans ignored the plight of the boat people forced to flee South Vietnam after the U.S. abandoned that country to its Communist conquerors, apparently the collateral damage from Obama’s decision to bail on Iraq doesn’t prick the conscience of the Times opinion page editors.

The same spirit was manifested on MSNBC yesterday in an interesting exchange between Rep. Peter King and MSNBC personality Thomas Roberts on the network’s Morning Joe program. The New York Republican was discussing his view that the U.S. needs to be doing more to stop the advance of ISIS terrorists in Iraq when the left-leaning station’s Roberts challenged him, claiming that the American people approved of the president’s bugout from Iraq and that to reverse that verdict in any way merely because of King’s views about the current situation there amounted to anti-democratic activity comparable to that of ISIS.

This is the sort of argument that is so stupid as to be almost not worth refuting, though King did so gallantly despite Roberts’ attempts to shout him down by rightly asserting that if popularity on an issue must dictate policy then Winston Churchill should not have warned Britons of the consequences of popular appeasement stands by their government.

But the problem with the new isolationism that is supposedly sweeping the nation and deterring the administration from taking decisive action to save Kurdistan ad the rest of Iraq from the clutches of ISIS is that to stick to that line you’ve got to ignore the pictures of those starving Yazidis on the mountaintop that the Times dismissed as a bunch of “Arabs” (sic) who had seized on a good tactic to get U.S. assistance.

Americans may not want to pay the full price of involvement in that war but they are also, as the poll numbers indicate, profoundly uncomfortable with the policies of a president who remains bent on facilitating a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

As King correctly said, leadership is not always doing what is popular. Staying out of wars is rarely the sort of thing that gets a politician in trouble. But to assume that standing by impotently as a nation that thousands of Americans died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and to keep out of the clutches of al-Qaeda terrorists is now lost to the same band of Islamist cutthroats is not as smart as the Times and MSNBC may think.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, allowing the so-called “caliphate” established in Syria and Iraq to remain in place unmolested (as opposed to merely saving the Kurds and Yazidis from further incursions) constitutes a profound threat to U.S. security comparable to the re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan as they were prior to 9/11.

Americans are always weary of, or wary of, war until they are attacked. Historians will debate the merits of the original decision to go into Iraq but even if we were to concede it was a mistake, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The focus of much of the post-9/11 U.S. security policy has been to ensure that the U.S. homeland remains safe. One needn’t be a neoconservative booster of a new Iraq war to understand that in this case apathy about the situation in that country is comparable to complicity in the creation of a new terror base. Preventing that from happening requires leadership. Which is to say that a president who is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom about Iraq or the need to resist a nuclear Iran is necessary to avert a catastrophe.

President Obama was reelected on a platform that asserted that it was OK to back off from the world stage because Osama bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda was defeated. As the Benghazi attack and current events in Syria and Iraq prove, that was a false assumption and increasingly Americans realize they were duped. A few opinion polls won’t reverse a decade-long trend but those who take it as a given that non-intervention in Iraq is synonymous with the will of the American people may be misinterpreting a natural reluctance a to re-engage in a difficult conflict. What they want is presidential leadership that will help keep them and the world safe, and that is exactly what they are not getting from President Obama.

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Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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It’s the Obama Optics, Not the Golf

President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

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President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

As Lawrence Knutson writes today in Politico, the president is never entirely on vacation wherever he goes. The occupant of the White House lives, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “above the store” and even when they leave it for ranches, beaches, or other retreats, they bring the business with them in the form of armies of aides who are there to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly. Presidents have been leaving the seat of government to spend time at either their own homes or resorts since the time of George Washington. And their critics have never shied away from abusing them for doing so, even when such comments are transparently partisan in nature. Democrats pile on Republican presidents for taking breaks and the GOP returns the favor with both sides conveniently forgetting their lack of outrage when one of their one was the target.

But even if I agree that the routine carping about presidential vacations is hypocritical and off the point, there is something to the rumblings about the Obamas that goes above and beyond the normal grousing as well as the run-of-the-mill hysteria that he inspires in certain sectors of the political right.

The problem with the Obama vacation is both the habits of this particular president and bad timing.

While no one can say that Obama—or any president for that matter—doesn’t work hard, he has a habit of acting as if the normal rules of political behavior don’t apply to him. This president has spent more days golfing than any of his recent predecessors. While George W. Bush spent more days away from the White House—principally at his Texas ranch or at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, both of which functioned routinely as little White Houses—Obama has never shown he cares much about the optics of being seen recreating while terrible things are happening. Bush stopped playing golf in 2003 after the war in Iraq began principally because he believed it didn’t look right for the president to be strolling the links while Americans faced death abroad. Obama has no such compunctions.

The timing is also a problem. It can be argued that there is something bad happening somewhere on the globe every day of the year. But there is something particularly egregious about Obama loafing around while the successful outcome in the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush is transformed into a victory for Islamist terrorists.

As even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted this past weekend, the disaster in Iraq is a direct consequence of decisions that Obama has made. The rise and spread of the ISIS caliphate wouldn’t have been possible without Obama’s choice to bail on Iraq. For him to treat this catastrophe for both human rights and U.S. interests as not worth changing his schedule over—even as he ordered U.S. air crews into action to launch strikes against the terrorists—is simply bad optics.

It wouldn’t have cost him much to delay his trip, even for a day or two, to be seen consulting with military leaders and advisors over this issue. But like everything else about Obama, it appears that he believes his historic status means he doesn’t play by the same rules other politicians have to live by.

While, like all presidents, Obama is entitled to some vacation time, postponing the getaway would have demonstrated both sincerity and a willingness to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

Losing a round or two of golf just to show the world and an American people who have already begun to dismiss Obama as the lamest of lame ducks that he is on the job would not have been a tragedy for the president or his family. Moreover, given the cushy nature of presidential retirement, it’s not unfair to tell commanders-in-chief that they should postpone most of their time off to the period when they leave the White House and begin their permanent post-White House vacation. While the responsibilities they must shoulder are crushing, the perks of presidential life are such that no one need waste much sympathy on Obama giving up a bit of his free time to look like he cares about Iraq and the other international crises that is unable or unwilling to do much about.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Is It Over for Maliki?

It is hard to exaggerate the drama or the stakes of the leadership battle now playing out in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is desperately clinging to power, even summoning elite troops to the Green Zone where the government is based. Yet many in his own Dawa party are deserting him. Enough Shiite politicos have turned against Maliki that his own State of Law slate (a larger grouping of Shiite parties which includes Dawa along with others) has nominated another candidate–Haider al-Abadi–as prime minister. Iraq’s president has now asked Abadi to form a government, which he has 30 days to do.

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It is hard to exaggerate the drama or the stakes of the leadership battle now playing out in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is desperately clinging to power, even summoning elite troops to the Green Zone where the government is based. Yet many in his own Dawa party are deserting him. Enough Shiite politicos have turned against Maliki that his own State of Law slate (a larger grouping of Shiite parties which includes Dawa along with others) has nominated another candidate–Haider al-Abadi–as prime minister. Iraq’s president has now asked Abadi to form a government, which he has 30 days to do.

It appears that Maliki’s day may be done. There are rumors that even Iran, which in many ways is the strongest political actor in Iraq, at least on the Shiite side, is willing to see him leave office. If that’s the case then Maliki will find it impossible to mount a coup because the militias and sectarian military units he would need would be unlikely to march without the acquiescence of Iran. If, however, Maliki manages to cling to office somehow despite his rampant unpopularity, Iraq is unlikely to survive and all-out civil war becomes more likely. The Obama administration has been doing the right thing by pressing for Maliki’s departure and by standing behind the right of Iraq’s president to nominate a different prime minister.

Assuming that Maliki can be ushered out of office, this opens up a new opportunity for Iraq–and a new challenge for President Obama.

So far the president has justified his minimalist strategy for Iraq–he only ordered warplanes into action last week when Yazidis were in danger of being massacred–on the grounds that the U.S. does not want to help a sectarian regime dominated by Iran. Fair enough. I think that the U.S. on balance should have been doing more militarily against ISIS in cooperation with the Kurdish pershmerga and Sunni tribes and certain units of the Iraqi Security Forces. But Obama’s stance is understandable and perhaps justifiable.

What, however, will the president do if we no longer have Maliki to kick around? That will be the moment of truth. Will we stick to a minimalist containment strategy designed to prevent ISIS from taking Erbil and murdering the Yazidis? Or will we implement a much more ambitious strategy to enable the defeat of ISIS?

I believe the U.S. must opt for the latter option. We cannot tolerate the indefinite existence of a terrorist state like the Islamic State stretching across the borders of Iraq and Syria. But to defeat ISIS would require a much more substantial commitment–of advisers, Special Operations Forces, and aircraft–than Obama has hitherto been willing to make. Will Obama finally own up to the challenge of fighting ISIS and commit the commensurate resources for the task–or will he persist with the minimalist, nibbling-around-the-edges approach that he inaugurated last week?

That is the dilemma he will no longer be able to avoid if and when Maliki is gone from the scene.

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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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Explain Failures or Abandon Training Missions

The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

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The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

From the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom until September 2012, the United States spent approximately $25 billion to train the Iraqi army. Some of the most prominent (and press hungry) American generals took the job and spoke of their success. Martin Dempsey, currently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq between 2005 and 2007. Bush administration officials often exaggerated the numbers of competent trained forces (full disclosure: I served briefly in the Bush administration’s Pentagon but not in a capacity that involved troop training) and generals did not clarify. Part of the reason for this, it seems, is that some generals have either become too sensitive to political winds thereby corrupting their willingness to assess honestly, or that they self-censor in order to make themselves look more successful. In a way, it’s a return to the U.S. Army’s Cold War-era “zero defects” policy which at times contributed to inaccurately positive assessments.

American special forces trained the Kurdish peshmerga as well. Unlike with the Iraqi or Afghan armies, the peshmerga’s recent failures cannot be written off as the result of ethnic or sectarian discord within the ranks. Perhaps the problem here is hagiography: Kurdish leaders and the peshmerga itself have built up such a (well-deserved, admittedly) mythology about their prowess as mountain guerrillas that they have no tolerance for anyone who points out that the peshmerga of the 1980s is not the same as the peshmerga of the 2010s. Almost 15 years ago, Col. Norvell B. De Atkine penned a seminal article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars” in which, bringing years of experience as a military trainer to bear, he identified Middle Eastern notions of shame as an impediment most regional militaries have yet to overcome: If any criticism is a slight against personal honor and dishonoring commanders is disallowed, then it is impossible to learn from mistakes. The peshmerga, of course, are not Arab but the same factors come into play.

So too does corruption as well as nepotism. For Kurdish President Masud Barzani’s son Mansour, how nice it must be to have become a general in your 30s and command the region’s Special Forces. When nepotism trumps competence and experience, any training is a waste. Throw corruption into the mix, and the result is a disaster: If Kurds had spent on arms and training what they spend on real estate in London and Washington D.C., they might not be begging for assistance right now. Indeed, the word from Erbil is that many rank-and-file peshmerga are quipping that the “ones who took the money” should fight, and that ordinary fighters should not die so that others can enjoy their siphoned-off cash. Perhaps a red flag should have gone up a decade ago when American forces first saw that Kurdish authorities prioritized family over professionalism in their military.

In Afghanistan, the situation is no better. Afghans have never lost a war; they simply defect to the winning side. Already, defection rates are high within the Afghan security forces, and will grow higher as Afghans see the West abandon them. It’s all well and good to have the competence to fight alongside and with the support of foreign partners, but if training focused more on fighting than on logistics and intelligence, then failure will be just as inevitable. If the basis of partnership is trust, then the Taliban could find no better strategy than the green-on-blue attacks in which they now engage. And, of course, let us not forget that while the Western media looks at green-on-blue violence, the rate of green-on-green attacks is three times has high.

Now, certainly, some elite units in Iraq and Afghanistan remain coherent and effective. But then the danger becomes that these become little more than militias serving warlords, and predatory rather than peaceful.

Perhaps I am too harsh in my assessments. Or perhaps I am wrong in the reasons for the multiple failures of the forces American officials have trained at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. But, with training security forces a cornerstone of American strategy in the region, and with the results of those efforts dubious at best, perhaps it is time for the Pentagon—and Congress—to have a serious discussion about whether this is a mission the United States should undertake. Addressing the problem is more important than preserving the reputation of officials who sought to paper it over. The answer may lie within the military. Or it may also be found outside: When America shows a lack of staying power and the president shows commitments to American allies to be ephemeral, perhaps no amount of training could compensate. Regardless of the reason, however, the failure of American training programs is no longer a problem the United States can afford to ignore.

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Action Against ISIS Still Needs a Strategy

The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

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The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

And his actions provide much-needed relief for the besieged Yazidis who were in danger of dying under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as for the Kurdish peshmerga which were reeling under ISIS assaults.

But Obama’s directives raise more questions than they answer. One obvious question is why the humanitarian imperative in Iraq is compelling enough to justify American military action but not in Syria, where at least 170,000 people have been killed since 2011 and where ISIS is just as oppressive and threatening as it is in Iraq? One suspects that the answer is that it is easier to drop food and water to 40,000 Yazidis stuck on one mountaintop than it is to alleviate the more monumental scale of suffering in Syria. Yet how can we justify turning our backs of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which is so much worse?

Even in Iraq the Yazidis are hardly the only victims of ISIS. This group of fundamentalist savages is terrorizing all of northern and western Iraq, and while minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are its targets so are Shiites and Kurds. Even Sunnis are being oppressed and murdered. Indeed all of northern Iraq could be in grave danger if ISIS were to blow the Mosul Dam, which it has just captured. Don’t Iraqis other than Yazidis deserve some relief from this monstrous threat too?

It is still unclear how far Obama is willing to go in fighting back against ISIS. He drew an implicit red line by suggesting, in essence, that the U.S. would not allow ISIS to take Erbil or Baghdad–a red line that, one hopes, he will do more to enforce than previous red lines in Syria. And today two US Navy F-18s did bomb an ISIS position near Erbil, which suggests that Obama’s words are not entirely empty. But what is the logic of telling ISIS to stay out of Erbil and Baghdad but implicitly allowing it to consolidate its hold on western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria? Is the president basically saying that the U.S. is OK with a terrorist state as it now exists as long as it does not expand any further? Surely that is not the message the White House wants to send, yet it is the message that, I fear, is being received in the Middle East.

What is needed now is more than a few symbolic air strikes or food drops. What is needed is a strategy to roll back ISIS. In congressional testimony on July 29, I offered a few thoughts about what such a strategy should look like. I suggested that we need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS–and that we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border. It is possible that the events of this week are a small step in this direction, but it is also quite possible, even likely, that President Obama will not go nearly as far.

The danger in what he is doing now is that a few symbolic air strikes could actually bolster ISIS’s standing in the Muslim world as a fighter against the Great Satan without doing it serious damage. In for a penny, in for a pound: If we’re going to attack ISIS, let’s do it right. Let’s do it as part of a comprehensive, adequately sourced strategy that has a decent chance of breaking the group’s grip.

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Back the Syrian Peshmerga

With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

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With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

Many suggest arming the Kurds. While there are merits and drawbacks to that proposal, the problem is that the image of the Kurdish peshmerga does not necessarily correlate to the reality of their capabilities. The peshmerga of a generation ago were adept at mountain fighting and gave Saddam a run for his money. Two decades of corrosive politics, however, have undercut the peshmerga as political loyalty trumped competence. Masud Barzani appointed his second son a general, even though he had little if any military experience to back that rank. Hagiography toward the peshmerga also distorts reality: it is hard for the peshmerga to correct its mistakes if any criticism is met with umbrage and a slight to honor.

The simple fact is that as ISIS advanced on Sinjar and other towns in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s peshmerga failed. Indeed, the peshmerga’s poor performance has shaken Erbil, which counts on the peshmerga’s image of strength to keep any Kurdish frustration at Barzani in check. It’s not clear that the peshmerga even need weaponry, nor is it certain that the KDP peshmerga have the skill to fight ISIS effectively. This is why I argue that it would be more effective for the United States to tackle the job themselves via forces hosted in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps in conjunction with a contingent based in southern Iraq. Kirkuk and Al-Tallil Airbases already have infrastructure to support U.S. forces, aircraft, and drones as need be. Bases need not be a dirty word, and returning jointly to both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq will bypass the sovereignty issue that Iraqis rightly brought up when I suggested a base in Kurdistan.

ISIS, however, is not just an Iraqi problem and the Iraqi Kurds are not the only community to have a peshmerga. Indeed, if the KDP peshmerga have disappointed, the opposite is true for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) formed in Rojava, as Syrian Kurds call the region they have carved out in northeastern Syria. The YPG has been the only group in Syria which has been consistently victorious against ISIS and the Nusra Front inside Syria. It has not fought over just a town or so, but has waged pitched battles against incredible odds and won. Their victory has come at a high cost—when I was in Syrian Kurdistan earlier this year, YPG graves were both fresh and numerous, and family members regularly visited shrines set up in towns like Qamishli to commemorate loved ones killed in battle.

If the Iraqi Kurdish government was so short on resources, the son of Masoud Barzani would not have purchased a $10 million residence in northern Virginia. There is both more need and fewer resources available in Syrian Kurdistan. Perhaps a better strategy would be not only to take advantage of Masud Barzani’s longstanding offer of a base in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to utilize weaponry Kurdish peshmerga are untrained to use and untrusted to possess, but also to provide more basic weaponry and ammunition to the YPG, effectively rewarding that group’s success.

Indeed, the YPG break the conundrum American policymakers currently face in Syria: the opposition with which we deal diplomatically has little sway on the ground, while the opposition on the ground are far from moderate. The YPG is not only moderate, but controls significant territory. The YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey should be immaterial. After all, the PKK poses no threat to the United States, is secular, and has reached a truce with the Turkish government. Regardless, American interests should trump Turkey’s obsession. It’s time to start arming the Syrian peshmerga. If the YPG—properly armed—can cut ISIS supply routes into Iraq, then they should be rewarded with recognition of Syrian Kurdistan’s federal status, recognition which is already long overdue.

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Iraqi Sunnis Too Clever by Half

Last month, in the wake of the Sunni uprising in Iraq, I had the opportunity to meet with tribal representatives and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military for several hours. They were not upset with the unrest: ISIS could kill Shi‘ite policemen, force government officials out, and expunge Mosul and surrounding areas of outsiders. Once that was complete, they said, they were confident that the tribes and former regime elements would hold the territory as ISIS moved on. When the time was ripe, they would turn on any remaining ISIS members and run their territory themselves or use their control and leverage to negotiate a new compact with a central government they despise and whose legitimacy they question.

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Last month, in the wake of the Sunni uprising in Iraq, I had the opportunity to meet with tribal representatives and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military for several hours. They were not upset with the unrest: ISIS could kill Shi‘ite policemen, force government officials out, and expunge Mosul and surrounding areas of outsiders. Once that was complete, they said, they were confident that the tribes and former regime elements would hold the territory as ISIS moved on. When the time was ripe, they would turn on any remaining ISIS members and run their territory themselves or use their control and leverage to negotiate a new compact with a central government they despise and whose legitimacy they question.

Their strategy was analogous to releasing Ebola in a crowded room and assuming that they themselves would be immune. ISIS may be a lot of things, but it is not stupid: The group was not going to allow the tribes to turn on them as they did during the surge. Now, with their advance toward Baghdad checked, ISIS has set about consolidating its control. The destruction of the tomb of Nabi Yunus was the shot across the bow showing ISIS to be in control, and the Baathists and tribal elements to be in retreat. The former regime officials and Baathists might have flirted with Islamism, but they were more ethnic and sectarian chauvinists than iconoclastic, and had no desire to see the shrines and churches of their territory razed.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be flawed and he may have lost any mandate for a third term, but the Baathist and Sunni tribes’ flirtation with ISIS in the run-up to the uprising affirms that Maliki’s paranoia was not without some basis. The problem with negotiating with nihilists is they are happy to pocket any concessions made or forced, but then simply continue to pursue their goal which is to overthrow the constitutional order. Some in Washington—especially in military circles—lose all dispassion when Maliki’s name is raised. They blame him for unwillingness to meet the expectations of some Sunni Islamists and Baathists whose expectations were raised by the appeasement inherent in the surge. But even if Maliki was not a forward-looking, progressive leader, it should not be Maliki who bears primary responsibility for the situation in which Iraq now finds itself, but rather the former regime elements and tribal figures who believed they could gain through force what they could not at the ballot box, and who were willing to flirt with the worst elements in society to achieve their aims.

Unfortunately, the ISIS contagion is spreading out of control. The group is motivated by ideology, not grievance–unless, of course, the grievance is the existence of any dissenting opinion or belief. It is essential that ISIS be quarantined, rolled back, and eradicated and it may take outside help to do so. But whenever that is done, let us hope policymakers do not misunderstand the genesis of the current problem. It was less Baghdad’s sectarianism than blowback from a shortsighted strategy among his sectarian opponents.

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R2P Is MIA for the Besieged Yezidis of Iraq

Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

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Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, then the UN ambassador, gave an impassioned address in 2009 in which she said: “The Responsibility to Protect—or, as it has come to be known, R2P—represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict.” This principle formed an important justification for the U.S. intervention along with NATO allies in Libya in 2011 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering opponents of his regime. In 2012 Obama even created an Atrocities Prevention Board to carry out this humanitarian doctrine.

But in practice R2P has been MIA in this White House. Since 2011 more than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria–one ongoing atrocity after another–and the result has been a shrug from the White House which seems more concerned with stopping Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists. Now there is an even more urgent example of precisely the kind of atrocity that should motivate the U.S. and other powers into action. I am referring to the plight of the Yazidis–members of a small religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism–who have been in the gunsights of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as its black-clad fighters have rolled over northern Iraq.

Last week ISIS took the Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives. Many took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they have been meeting an appalling fate–devoid of food and water, they are slowly dying yet are afraid to come down from the mountain for fear that they will be slaughtered by ISIS if they do so. As many as 40,000 people remain trapped and they are desperate for help. The Washington Post quotes a UNICEF official saying: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Tens of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq are also on the run, knowing they face death at the hands of ISIS. Yet so wary is the Obama administration of any involvement in Iraq that it is not even willing to send U.S. cargo aircraft to drop food and water to the trapped Yazidis–much less to call in air strikes that would break the siege of Mount Sinjar.

The president’s chief foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes grandly proclaims that Obama is busy positioning “the U.S. to lead for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.” His gaze firmly fixed decades in the future, Obama seems to be missing the preventable atrocities–which not only violate the R2P doctrine but also threaten vital American national security interests–that are occurring in the here and now.

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It’s Time for a Base in Kurdistan

Max Boot is absolutely right that the West cannot afford to dither while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash) expands its territory through north-central Iraq. Should the group seize the Mosul Dam, as was prematurely reported earlier this week, it could put millions at risk. And recent Islamic State victories show not that their fighters are that good, but rather than the reputation of both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga was and is much too inflated.

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Max Boot is absolutely right that the West cannot afford to dither while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash) expands its territory through north-central Iraq. Should the group seize the Mosul Dam, as was prematurely reported earlier this week, it could put millions at risk. And recent Islamic State victories show not that their fighters are that good, but rather than the reputation of both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga was and is much too inflated.

For all the lionization of the peshmerga, many of those in its ranks are there because of political patronage. Kurdish authorities have long inflated peshmerga numbers as well in order to attract greater subsidies and, perhaps in some cases, skim salaries of ghost employees. Political division also hampers the peshmerga: despite all the talk about unity, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan still distrust each other and act more as party militias than as a unified force.

So how should the United States respond, assuming President Obama recognizes the threat and realizes that doing nothing will only cause the Islamic State problem to metathesize? Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurds might sound good on paper, but might not have the effect which the United States seeks.

There’s a huge discrepancy between Kurdish statements and Iraqi Kurdish public opinion on one hand, and the actions of the Kurdish leadership on the other when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kurds may like the United States, but Kurdish authorities recognize that Iran is their neighbor. Qods Force leader Qassem Suleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have as much influence (if not more) over the Kurds as they do with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and among the Shi‘ites in southern Iraq. Here, for example, is a recent report which, if accurate, suggests that the IRGC is actively intervening in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurdish government, therefore, is as replete with risks as giving weaponry to the Iraqi government: They could lose it in battle or through corruption and could share U.S.-provided intelligence with Iranian authorities, potentially exposing American capabilities or undercutting and burning American assets.

One of the reasons why Kurdish authorities have become so deferential to Iranian authorities is because the U.S. withdrawal forced Kurdish realists to accommodate Iranian interests. However, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani has repeatedly invited American authorities to establish a base in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps it’s time the White House and Pentagon take him up on his offer. Sometimes when faced with a security threat, the best option is to take matters into our own hands. Not only might a base be used to run drones or manned aircraft to combat the Islamic State and its advance in the region, but figuratively planting the flag would give Kurds reason to balance their outreach to Iran.

The biggest difference between left and right with regard to national security in the United States is that the left automatically demonizes power while the right understands that it can be used for good or bad. The Obama administration is distrustful of force projection, but sometimes projecting force is the best defense. Cutbacks or not, a base in Iraqi Kurdistan would be an important investment, one which would pay dividends far beyond its cost.

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While West Dithers, ISIS Creates Facts on the Ground

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

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“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

So wrote my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Janine Davidson on July 24. And that was before this weekend’s reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had routed Kurdish fighters from the town of Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border–one of the few border posts it did not already control–and that it may have taken control of the Mosul dam, which if blown up could flood much of northern Iraq with a 65-foot wave.

Other reports indicate that ISIS has taken control of a Syrian oil field near Homs. As the Washington Post notes in a very comprehensive round-up of depressing news: “Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.” Oh and ISIS also just staged an attack in yet another country–Lebanon.

In short, the news is about as bad as it could be. The question that remains is: What is the U.S. doing about it? So far President Obama has dispatched 825 military personnel to Iraq to make a survey of the situation and to conduct some liaison work with the Iraqis in two headquarters. That’s about it, aside from some fiery rhetoric from Washington denouncing ISIS excesses. One wonders if the president is once again assuming that denouncing something is the same thing as doing something about it.

There are no air strikes, no Special Operations raids, no attempts to rally Sunni tribesmen to resist their new overlords. Granted, one should not rush willy-nilly into action before gaining an accurate assessment of the situation and deploying the resources necessary to be successful. That is why, for example, the Bush administration did not start bombing Afghanistan until weeks after the 9/11 attacks. But one fears that this time around the U.S. is not preparing a devastating response–or any meaningful response at all–to the alarming expansion of Islamist terrorist control in Iraq and Syria.

One fears that Washington is busy analyzing while ISIS is altering facts on the ground. And that eventually we will hear about Iraq the same thing we have been hearing about Syria: that the situation is so grim that there is nothing we can do about it. That, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy–the less we do, the worse the situation gets, and the less likely we are to intervene in any form.

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On Casualty Figures in Gaza

The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

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The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

Sometimes, incompetence and negligence combine to lead to inaccuracy. In 1997, while working in Tajikistan, I met with the head of the Tajik Bureau of Statistics. Tajikistan was in the midst of a civil war and it was the poorest former Soviet republic by far. And yet the Tajikistan Bureau of Statistics was churning out complete datasets, information which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund incorporated into their reports, as would the international press should anything in Tajikistan become newsworthy. When I asked the chief how he managed to do it, he was uncharacteristically blunt. “I make them up,” he told me. But if the U.S. government would give him computers and fund his operation, he could try to be accurate. In the meantime, any report using Tajik statistics would be corrupted by the equivalent of “garbage-in, garbage-out.”

Sometimes, organizations simply don’t care if faulty statistics pollute their reports. The notion that sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children has become part of progressive folklore, a statistic often trotted out to excuse any sort of coercion against dictatorial, anti-American, or rogue regimes. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.

The idea that sanctions were killing innocent Iraqis was the central pillar of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s influence operations. He repeatedly claimed that United Nations sanctions had killed more than a million. There were many groups in the United States which latched onto such figures and amplified them. The U.S.-based International Action Coalition, for example, claimed that the economic embargo upon Iraq had killed 1.4 million people by 1997.

Thousands did die, but not the numbers bandied about in the press and simply because of sanctions: There was plenty of food available; Saddam just refused to allow it to be distributed to Shi‘ites and other populations he disliked. All the while, he exported UN-provided baby formula for profit.

While pundits accepted Saddam’s line and news agencies like CNN dutifully broadcast images of sick and dying children (all the while knowing the inaccuracy of their narrative), Iraq expert Amatzia Baram compared the country’s population growth rates across censuses and found Iraq’s growth rate between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent) and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent) proved that there had been no death on the scale Iraq claimed.

So how did the claim of more than a million sanctions-related deaths in Iraq persist? In 1999, UNICEF released a glossy report that found that sanctions had contributed to the deaths of one million Iraqis. The devil, however, was in the details—and in the UN’s capriciousness. Because the Iraqi government did not give UNICEF researchers free access, UNICEF decided to take statistics provided by Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Health, which it accepted uncritically. More on the whole episode, here. When Saddam Hussein fell, however, and the exaggeration and inaccuracies of the claims of more than one million sanctions-related deaths including 500,000 children was exposed as a fraud, no major outlet bothered to publish a retraction let alone question whether bad statistics were worse than no statistics.

In Gaza, it’s déjà vu all over again. CNN and other outlets cite statistics provided by the United Nations with regard to Palestinian casualties, never questioning where and how the UN was able to gather and confirm such numbers. In reality, the UN simply parroted the figures provided it by Palestinian authorities or Hamas-controlled organizations. While there is no doubt Palestinians have died in the current operations, it seems it’s the Jenin Massacre all over again. Remember that one? Palestinian officials duped the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Samantha Power, and countless European foreign ministries. Nor does the media ever stop and question the notion of civilians to Hamas. Hamas violates the Geneva Convention in that its members do not wear uniforms and it fires from civilian areas. Even Israeli human rights groups—B’Tselem, for example—embrace a restrictive definition of combatant which enables the classification of many Hamas activists as “civilian.” As far as Hamas is concerned, every person not in uniform is a civilian.

There’s a tendency among the media to engage in moral equivalency and promote the idea that the Hamas and Palestinian claims on one hand, and the Israeli narrative on the other are equally valid. This is nonsense, especially given the long history of Palestinian politicization of statistics. This article, for example, decisively shows how the Palestinian Authority manipulates—and in some cases has even recalled—demographic statistics in order to ensure they conform with a political narrative the Palestinian Authority finds expedient and to which American diplomats respond.

More Gazans have died in the ongoing conflict—one their elected government initiated with kidnapping attempts and missile launches—than Israelis, but count me dubious about the numbers of deaths reported in the Gaza Strip. When deaths of non-combatants do occur, that is tragic, but that is also war. To accept such statistics from a terrorist group either directly or laundered through organizations like the United Nations without the capacity for independent confirmation is foolish. It promotes not truth but propaganda. And given previous errors—from a half million dead Iraqi babies to hundreds dead in Jenin—it suggests the media simply does not care to learn from its previous mistakes.

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Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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How to Help the Anti-ISIS Backlash

Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

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Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

There is also understandable concern that ISIS isn’t making life better for the people–its specialty, after all, is suicide bombings, not municipal governance. The Times quotes one Mosul resident interviewed by phone: “There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now. If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”

This is a positive sign–it shows how unpopular Islamist fundamentalists are whenever they achieve power. But we should keep our euphoria about a potential anti-ISIS revolt firmly in check. The history of ISIS suggests that, however much Iraqis may resent their rule, they will successfully rise up only if they have strong outside support. Resentment of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS predecessor) did not boil over in Anbar Province until 2006 and even then it required American efforts during “the surge” to forge tribesmen into a 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq militia to fight against AQI. In prior years, nascent revolts in Anbar had been repressed with great brutality by AQI.

The question now is where can outside support come from to support an anti-ISIS revolt in western and northern Iraq? Probably not from the Iraqi government, which is identified with a Shiite sectarian agenda that only drives Sunnis further into ISIS’s arms and whose army has shown a depressing inability or unwillingness to fight hard under the political hacks appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is possible a change of leadership in Baghdad can revitalize the Iraqi army, lessen the government’s sectarian taint, and thereby allow effective partnering with the Sunni tribes. But don’t count on it. Even if a new prime minister is selected, there will still be deep-seated suspicion in the Sunni community, and understandably so. The only force the Sunnis would trust–despite our prior abandonment of them–is the United States.

But to become an effective catalyst for a Sunni revolt, the U.S. will have to send a lot more than 825 troops to Iraq–the current number. This week I testified before the House Armed Services Committee, presenting my own plan for rolling back ISIS gains. I suggested, in essence, a multi-pronged approach based on supporting relatively moderate factions in both Iraq and Syria–to wit, the Free Syrian Army, elements of the Iraqi security forces which have not been totally subordinated to the Iranian Quds Force, the Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish peshmerga.

I argued that we need to send at least 10,000 troops to act as advisers, intelligence gatherers, air controllers (to call in air strikes), and Special Operations raiders and that in Iraq these personnel need to be evenly distributed between the Iraqi army, the Sunni tribes, and the peshmerga. U.S. troops would not be on the frontlines of ground combat but they would be enabling proxies to fight far more effectively, as we have previously done in countries as disparate as Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should be done in conjunction with a political strategy focused on replacing Maliki with a more inclusive figure.

Alas there is no sign that the Obama administration is seriously rethinking its abandonment of Iraq or its misguided policy of arming the current sectarian regime in Baghdad without real American oversight over how the weapons we provide are employed. Unless the administration is willing to roll up its sleeves and get more involved in Iraq (admittedly a difficult political pill for the anti-interventionist president to swallow), anti-ISIS sentiment among Sunnis is unlikely to lead to a serious revolt and ISIS will continue to strengthen its terrorist caliphate.

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