Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Muslims Fight for ISIS But Not Palestine

For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

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For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

This certainly isn’t a problem of access. The thousands of Western Muslims now fighting in Iraq and Syria could easily and legally have reached the West Bank via either Israel or Jordan; so could those from Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. They simply never cared enough to do so.

And until last year, when Egypt cracked down on the cross-border smuggling tunnels, Gaza was accessible even to nationals of Muslim countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel: They could enter Egypt legally and cross to Gaza via the tunnels. Hamas would surely have welcomed reinforcements, but they never cared enough to come.

In short, no matter how often Westerners like Secretary of State John Kerry say the Palestinian issue is a major source of the “street anger and agitation … humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” that helps jihadi groups recruit foreign Muslims, Muslims themselves are saying the opposite with their feet: There are causes they are willing to travel across the world to fight and die for, including the dream of an Islamic caliphate and the sectarian Sunni fight against Shi’ite- and Alawite-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria. But “Palestine” isn’t one of them.

The foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria also undermine another common canard: that Israel is a “racist” or “apartheid” state. After all, a “racist, apartheid state” by definition subjects its minorities to far more “humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” than non-racist, non-apartheid Europe does, so if Israel were really such a state, one would expect its Arab citizens to head the pack of foreign recruits to ISIS and company.

Yet in fact, as journalist Yossi Melman noted yesterday, only about 30 of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens have gone to fight for ISIS, a “much, much smaller” percentage than the “hundreds of French or British Muslims” who have done so. Based on his figures, a mere 0.002% of Israel’s Arab population is fighting abroad. Exact numbers for either the size of European countries’ Muslim populations or the number of fighters they have in Iraq and Syria are hard to find, but based on estimates gleaned from various press reports, my own rough calculation is that the proportion of British and French Muslims fighting abroad is at least three or four times higher.

And this isn’t because Israeli Arabs are flocking to the Palestinian fight instead: Few Israeli Arabs get involved in Palestinian terror, either.

This data reinforces a point I’ve made many times before: While Jewish-Arab relations in Israel aren’t perfect, overall, Israeli Arabs are reasonably well integrated and steadily becoming more so. Thus few have any desire to go off and join a glorious jihad.

The John Kerrys of the world rarely let facts disturb their theories. But for anyone who does care about facts, the foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria offer a good clue as to what issues really inflame the Muslim world. And neither Israel nor the Palestinians are high on the list.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

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My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

This does not mean creating three new states. That won’t work for many reasons including the fact that cities like Baghdad and Mosul contain a mixed population, that the Sunni areas of Iraq lack much oil revenue, and Sunnis have an emotional attachment to Baghdad and the Iraqi state. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that Iraq can be put together as a strongly centralized state without a larger commitment of U.S. troops than is likely in the future.

The Kurdish region is already de facto autonomous; in fact it’s almost an independent country but one that still has representation in Baghdad and gets a share of the country’s oil revenues. We need to think strongly about whether opposing de jure Kurdish independence is even in our interest anymore–would it be so bad if the Kurds realized their age-old dream to have their own state? In theory a new Kurdistan could emerge as America’s second-strongest ally in the region (after Israel with which the Kurds would likely establish ties), one that would be happy to host U.S. troops and aircraft.

Whatever happens with the Kurds, I think that it now makes sense to offer Sunnis an autonomous region of their own in return for fighting against ISIS. Indeed it may be the only way to get them to take up arms since they have no desire to be subordinate to Shiite sectarians in Baghdad who still control the government even if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. (The appointment of a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia, as interior minister is evidence of that.)

But while important, federalism is not by itself the solution to Iraq’s woes. Whether the Sunnis have autonomy or not, they will still need to be trained and armed and motivated to fight against ISIS–and that won’t be easy to do no matter what political arrangements are promised since they have felt betrayed in the past by the U.S. and the Baghdad government. So the onus is still on the Obama administration to ramp up its anti-ISIS efforts which, despite some recent gains in Kobani, seem on the whole to be rather anemic. But the incentive of federalism can be one of the carrots dangled before Sunnis to get them to participate in a larger counterinsurgency campaign should one ever develop.

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The Issue is Kerry’s Incompetence, Not Israeli Manners

On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

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On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

On September 24, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Obama said the following:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long; it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace.

Leaving aside Obama’s willingness to blame Israel for not working for peace when, in fact, all they are reacting to is the consistent refusal of their supposed Palestinian peace partners to accept repeated offers of independence and peace, this statement represented genuine progress in the president’s thinking. Obama had in the past repeatedly embraced the notion that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict would solve all the problems in the region but the rise of ISIS had sobered him up a bit. The willingness of many Arab regimes to make common cause with Israel against both ISIS and radical Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood illustrated the obvious fact that conflict within the Arab world is a function of the division among Muslims, not discontent about Israel’s existence or the failure of peace negotiations.

This was a remarkable departure for a president who had spoken of Western and Israeli guilt for Muslim grievances in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, seemingly having finally woken up to the fact that no amount of apologizing or engagement will make radical Islam go away. But for some reason Kerry is still sticking to the old playbook in which Israelis can be scapegoated for the existence of bloody conflicts in which Jews play no part.

Kerry was, no doubt, playing to his audience of Muslims when he told a State Department ceremony honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that resentment about the Arab-Israeli conflict was fueling recruitment for ISIS. Since Kerry has consistently and wrongly blamed Israel for the collapse of his peace initiative, it didn’t take much imagination to see that what he was doing was blaming the Jewish state for the fact that ISIS terrorists have overrun much of Syria and Iraq while beheading Westerners. But while the Arab leaders he cited may pay lip service to anti-Israel sentiment by referencing the alleged “humiliation and denial and lack of human dignity” suffered by the Palestinians, ISIS’s popularity is based on promoting hatred of all Westerners and non-Muslims, not just Israelis. Which is to say that Bennett wasn’t off target or taking things out of context when he said, “When a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew.”

Yet while Obama called on Muslims to unite against ISIS and to recognize their responsibility to combat radical Islamists, Kerry is still using the same tired clichés about Israel and the Palestinians that even many Arabs are shelving and then looking to pick a fight with Israelis over their umbrage about his lack of perspective.

Israel’s government is probably better off not making much of an issue about Kerry’s latest vile assertion, but there should be no illusions about the attitudes his comments illustrated. If even after the outbreak of a war in Syria in which Muslims have slaughtered Muslims without a mention of Israelis Kerry is capable of sticking to the notion that the grievances of Palestinians who have repeatedly refused to make peace is the reason for ISIS, then his intellectual bankruptcy could not be more obvious.

The point here isn’t that Kerry is foolishly picking quarrels with Israel but that he has demonstrated his unfitness for office at a time when the United States is once again engaging in a conflict with a dangerous Islamist foe. President Obama has allowed Kerry to embark on a futile effort to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process thinking that there would be few consequences for another failure. But Kerry’s incapacity to focus on the ISIS threat presents a bigger problem for the president. If he is truly serious about building a coalition against ISIS, the president needs to stop letting his administration pick pointless fights with Israel. Kerry needs to be fired.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

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“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

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“After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

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“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

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“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

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“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

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“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

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“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

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“We don’t do stupid [stuff]” – President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

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Turkey, Kobani, and American Excuses

American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

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American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

Why isn’t he doing more? Partly it’s because he doesn’t want to collaborate with the Syrian version of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group which has battled the Turkish state for years. But partly it’s also because he doesn’t think there is any point in intervening against ISIS as long as President Obama isn’t willing to attack the root cause of the Syrian civil war–the Bashar Assad regime.

Erdogan deserves all the opprobrium he is getting for his inaction but, as the Washington Post editorialists astutely note, the U.S. doesn’t have the high moral ground here. The U.S., they write, “is poorly placed to pass judgment, having stood aside for more than three years while 200,000 Syrians died, most at the hands of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Another 3 million have become refugees, including 1 million who have alighted in Turkey — which, adjusting for population, would be the equivalent for the United States of more than 4 million Mexicans streaming across the border.”

Moreover, the Obama administration is still refusing to create a no-fly zone over Syria as Erdogan and the moderate Syrian opposition are urging. This American failure is allowing Assad to take advantage of the anti-ISIS campaign the U.S. is conducting to focus his attacks on western parts of Syria which are held by the moderate opposition.

Instead of pointing fingers at Erdogan, American policymakers would be better advised to act on his advice to stop Assad as well as ISIS.

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Trouble on Israel’s Northern Border

During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

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During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

The explosions and incursions into Israeli territory that occurred on the Lebanese border last weeks are a reminder that this ongoing threat could all too easily escalate. With Hezbollah’s Iranian paymasters always looking for distractions from their illegal nuclear program, the recent war in Gaza, like the rise of ISIS, provided just such a distraction. As there is now the possibility of renewed pressure on Iran over its nuclear program–particularly once the congressional midterms are over–the Iranians are no doubt weighing the benefits of diverting the world’s attention through another proxy war with Israel.

Considering the reality of this wider geopolitical context it is extraordinary that parts of the international media have attempted to construe the recent incidents on the Lebanese border as in some way deriving from a land dispute over the so-called Sheba Farms. That was the line taken by the Agence France-Presse recently. It is true that the Lebanese state claims this splinter of the Golan Heights as part of Lebanon, despite the fact that the United Nations has made quite clear that Israel withdrew from all Lebanese territory in 2000. But to imagine that the leaders of a radical Shia group like Hezbollah genuinely lose sleep over whether or not the Lebanese state has sovereignty over the Sheba farms is completely implausible. Yet, during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war even then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was prepared to entertain the notion that Hezbollah might be appeased by an Israeli withdrawal from the Sheba farms.

The idea that Hezbollah’s belligerence toward Israel is on account of a minor territorial dispute is as foolish as the belief that Hamas went to war this summer over Gaza’s lack of an international seaport. Islamist groups such as these do not take to the warpath over these kinds of single-issue grievances. If such disputes were the real cause of their underlying conflict with Israel then peace would have been secured long ago. Rather, these factions initiate hostilities when their ongoing desire to destroy the Jewish state aligns with a geopolitical moment that encourages them to believe that a renewal of the violence could be advantageous.

Israel, however, will also be aware that the volatility along the northern border is yet another manifestation of the turmoil raging throughout the region as Iranian backed Shia forces continue to slug it out with radical Sunni groups. Along with the threat of ISIS infiltrating into Lebanon from Syria, there has also been the ongoing effort by Hezbollah to transfer Assad’s weapons stockpiles to their strongholds in Lebanon. Recalling that southern Lebanon is another territory from which Israel withdrew its military, Israelis will surely be drawing similar lessons to the ones they drew this summer from the war in Gaza. Given those rocket and tunnel attacks, the threat growing along the Golan Heights, the attacks that have come from the border with Sinai, the very real threat of Jordan also becoming engulfed by ISIS, and now the renewed hostilities on the Lebanese border, Israelis will surely be all the more wary about bringing the threat still closer to their population centers by pulling out of strategically vital West Bank areas such as the Jordan Valley.

So while European governments and the Obama administration continue to push the line that there is an urgent need to press on with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, nothing could be further from the truth. The critically fragile situation on the Lebanese border, so intrinsically linked as it is to the present situation in Syria and the ongoing Iranian quest for regional hegemony, should persuade observers that the matter of Israeli territorial concessions is one issue on which the parties should sit tight. With so many parts of the jigsaw on the move, Western leaders ought to be eager to preserve those few areas where relative stability is still being maintained. Finally, in the event that Hezbollah does seek to provoke a further conflagration on the northern border, they should know which forces are really behind it. And its not the Israeli presence in the Sheba farms.

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The Unresolved Problem with Boots on the Ground

A growing chorus of analysts, generals, and even cabinet secretaries who served under President Obama suggest that Obama’s stated goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is not going to occur by means of air power alone. That might be true, although it’s also true that Obama hasn’t used airpower to its full effect. To read a Pentagon press release is to read reports of five, six, or seven airstrikes. Given that an aircraft carrier can launch planes every 30 to 40 seconds, this suggests that the Obama administration is effectively committing the equivalent of three or four minutes of dedicated aircraft carrier time to achieve its goals. And even then, many of the strikes Obama has ordered (and the president has said that he approves every strike carried out inside Syria) attack empty buildings or equipment far away from the fronts of the fight.

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A growing chorus of analysts, generals, and even cabinet secretaries who served under President Obama suggest that Obama’s stated goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is not going to occur by means of air power alone. That might be true, although it’s also true that Obama hasn’t used airpower to its full effect. To read a Pentagon press release is to read reports of five, six, or seven airstrikes. Given that an aircraft carrier can launch planes every 30 to 40 seconds, this suggests that the Obama administration is effectively committing the equivalent of three or four minutes of dedicated aircraft carrier time to achieve its goals. And even then, many of the strikes Obama has ordered (and the president has said that he approves every strike carried out inside Syria) attack empty buildings or equipment far away from the fronts of the fight.

But even if boots on the ground are necessary with an augmented air campaign, there is one problem that is unsolvable, and that is the personality and lack of commitment of the commander-in-chief. President Obama has the strategic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Despite his September 10 speech, it’s unclear whether he is truly committed to destroying ISIS or was simply reacting to the spike in public outrage following the murder of James Foley.

Now make no mistake: I personally feel that the defeat of ISIS is an overwhelming national interest, and that the goal should not simply be “deradicalization” for its fighters, but rather their death. That said, there is nothing more dangerous to any potential ground troops than to be inserted into a warzone without broad public consensus about their mission and to have a commander-in-chief who has consistently met the requests of forces in the field with indecision and a failure to deliver what ground commanders consider their minimum basic needs.

What can be done? Unfortunately, there’s no good answer with such lackluster leadership in the White House and Congress. But those serving in uniform and placing themselves in harm’s way should not be a political football. At present, however, that is exactly how the president and some members of both parties treat them and the ISIS problem. Until there is focus and responsibility in both the White House and Congress, and recognition that military action cannot be governed by polls or political timelines, it is foolhardy to insert ground forces.  Regardless of how they might be needed and how determined ISIS is to strike the United States, ground troops without serious leadership would be unwise. Never again should there be a deployment of ground forces without political consensus, broad public support. If these are lacking and we have to pay the consequence, then that will be a “teachable moment” for the public about the importance of freedom and the nature of the evil that the United State must confront.

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Obama’s Strategy May Turn the Islamic State into the “Strong Horse”

Those who early on said that President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State — the words and aims are Mr. Obama’s — was ludicrously insufficient are finding those concerns being borne out.

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Those who early on said that President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State — the words and aims are Mr. Obama’s — was ludicrously insufficient are finding those concerns being borne out.

On the front page of Wednesday’s USA Today is a picture with this caption: “ISIL close to seizing strategic Syrian town: Smoke rises from Kobani, Syria, as seen from the Turkish side of the border. Despite U.S.-led airstrikes, Islamic State militants are still encroaching, indicating President Obama’s no-ground-troops strategy may not be working.”

Reporting on the same event, the New York Times puts things this way:

A Kurdish official in Kobani, Assi Abdullah, said that despite the bombing, Islamic State fighters had managed to enter new areas of the town and move north, closer to the border.

That development, along with what could be seen of the fighting from across the border, suggested that two days of intensive airstrikes had failed to turn back the militants. Kurdish fighters, as well as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have said that airstrikes alone will not stop the attackers.

These reports should be combined with this one, a Wall Street Journal story that reports, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

“The strikes are useless so far,” said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.”

(On Saturday Islamic State fighters seized the Iraqi town of Kubaisa, located in western Anbar province, “its latest conquest in the desert region where it has chalked up a string of victories, a military official and people fleeing the scene said.” This comes two days after the fall of Hit and as the Islamic State sought to consolidate control in towns west of Ramadi.)

What’s happening was easy to predict when the president announced his plan to defeat the Islamic State without “boots on the ground”; it’s now being confirmed by facts on the ground.

Mr. Obama is waging this war in a slapdash fashion. (He is reluctant even to refer to this conflict as a war.) His approach is de minimis, a trifling, “defined mainly by its limitations,” according to the Washington Post. Unless he fundamentally alters his approach, the president has no chance to achieve his stated goal. The result may be the Islamic State, having withstood our strikes, will be seen as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. America, thanks to Mr. Obama, will be seen as the “weak horse.” And we know what that led to last time. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” So said Osama bin Laden shortly after 9/11.

Has Barack Obama learned nothing since then?

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Why Kobani Might Fall

At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

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At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

RAND’s Benjamin Lambeth summed up the Afghan air campaign as follows: “[D]uring the 75 days of bombing between October 7, when Enduring Freedom began, and December 23, when the first phase of the war ended after the collapse of the Taliban, some 6,500 strike sorties were flown by CENTCOM forces altogether, out of which approximately 17,500 munitions were dropped on more than 120 fixes targets, 400 vehicles and artillery pieces, and a profusion of concentrations of Taliban and al Qaeda combatants.”

Now compare with the statistics on the current U.S. aerial bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. According to Central Command, in the 59 days between August 8, when the campaign started, and October 6, the U.S. has conducted 360 strikes utilizing 955 munitions.

That’s a big difference between dropping 17,500 munitions in Afghanistan and 955 in Iraq/Syria. So rare are U.S. strikes today that Centcom has actually taken to issuing press releases to announce the dropping of two 500-pound bombs.

The bare numbers understate the actual difference, moreover, because the U.S. was dropping heavier bombs from heavier aircraft such as the B-52 in Afghanistan which have so far not been utilized in Iraq/Syria. Moreover, the effect of strikes in Iraq/Syria is not as great because Obama has refused U.S. Special Operations personnel permission to go out into the field alongside indigenous forces to call in airstrikes as they did so effectively alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This is to say nothing of the fact that in neither Iraq nor Syria is there a ground force as effective and organized as the Northern Alliance capable of taking advantage of U.S. airstrikes to attack ISIS on the ground.

The lack of a ground force is a problem that will not be solved for a while because it will take time to train and organize fighters, although the process can be hastened by committing U.S. personnel as combat advisers. But even now there is nothing preventing the U.S. from mounting heavier air strikes as we did in Afghanistan. Nothing, that is, except the lack of will exhibited by the commander in chief who has claimed as his goal the eventual destruction of ISIS but refuses to commit the resources necessary to achieve that ambitious objective.

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Is Kobane 2014 Warsaw 1944?

This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

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This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

When the Polish partisans rose up, they expected the Red Army to sweep into the city and liberate it from the Nazis. Instead, the Red Army stayed put while the Nazis gained the upper hand, slaughtered the Polish nationalists, and then razed the city. While the United States embraced Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as an ally in the realpolitik world of World War II, too often whitewashing his racist and murderous proclivities, Stalin himself had a plan for post-World War II Europe, and strong Polish nationalism had no place in it. What I had not known until I had visited the museum was the multiple requests to the United States and its allies to provide air support or airdrop supplies to the partisans who were slowly being starved between Nazis and the Red Army. No air support was forthcoming; the allies did not want to irk Stalin. When it came to other supplies, what came was too little, and much too late.

Fast forward 70 years. The Islamic State (ISIS) is surrounding the majority Kurdish town of Kobane, an enclave which has also taken in thousands of displaced Christians and Arabs. The United States has for months ignored the advance, and only in recent days provided some aerial assistance. Those fighting in Kobane are wedged between ISIS and, just a kilometer away, the Turkish Army. The Turks refuse to provide assistance to the Kurdish defenders, even as they watch hundreds of thousands flee, and thousands killed or wounded.

Many Turkish citizens—both ethnic Turks and Kurds—recognize the cynicism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom outreach toward Kurds is consistently just a pre-election ploy. This is why, as the fall of Kobane to ISIS has neared, Kurds have taken to the streets inside Turkey to protest. In the last couple days, this has led to more than a dozen deaths inside Turkey and the Turkish government imposing curfew on six cities. The analysis and observations of “the radical democrat” are well worth reading.

The Kurdish resistance first toward sl-Qaeda and then toward ISIS started out strong. But, as ISIS has enriched itself through the seizure of equipment and a flow of foreign militants and, perhaps, some support for Turkey as well, it has grown strong. At the same time, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and ISIS have blockaded the Syrian Kurds. The State Department demand that the Syrian Kurds forfeit their claim to federalism and subordinate themselves both to the Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups of the official opposition who live in Istanbul and control nothing on the ground and to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who, because of corruption and the antics of their sons, are hugely unpopular is short-sighted and ridiculous. That Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to watch thousands slaughtered, raped, or enslaved in order to drive this point home is a poor reflection on what America stands for.

How sad it is that history is repeating, with the Syrian Kurds playing the part of the Warsaw partisans and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan playing the part of Stalin. The Americans, alas, are once again recognizing pending tragedy but refusing out of cynicism, misplaced diplomacy, or simple incompetence to do anything about it. The freedom-seeking world should be better than it was in 1944, as the freedom fighters of Warsaw perished. Unfortunately, events are showing it is not.

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How Do You Fight a Hundred Years’ War?

Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

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Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

In Saturday’s Washington Post, historian and former soldier Andrew Bacevich wrote to say that it didn’t matter whether the battle with ISIS was won or not. By his count, the U.S. had invaded, occupied, or bombed 14 Islamic countries in the last 35 years and that this latest chapter of a long-running war wasn’t likely to end any more satisfactorily than any of the others. To summarize Bacevich’s thesis, he thinks each successive U.S. intervention has only made things worse than its predecessors and that the end result is as futile as American military efforts in Vietnam, a telling analogy as it betrays his frame of reference about these conflicts.

What does Bacevich advise to do instead of attacking ISIS? On that point, he’s a bit hazy other than to imply that staying out will be less messy than going in. Moreover, he believes that since the U.S. is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, there’s no real need to fuss about the future of the region, a point that also betrays his cynical and somewhat dated echo of the original discredited arguments about the reason the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003.

Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq, has a right to feel bitter about that conflict but though George Will praised his piece yesterday on Fox News Sunday, his plea for isolationism offers us little that is useful in untangling the current conflict or about the options the U.S. currently faces in Iraq and Syria.

Let’s start by noting that Bacevich’s list of 14 Islamic countries attacked by the U.S. is more than a bit misleading. Including Kosovo, a conflict in which NATO mercilessly bombed the Serbian Christian enemies of Kosovo Muslims, in this roster of invasions is absurd. The whole point of that effort was to defend Muslims and to ultimately aid their creation of another Muslim state at the expense of their neighbors who had themselves misbehaved. But he’s right that Americans have gotten little satisfaction out of any of our encounters in the other 13 nations.

Yet his idea that the U.S. is only making the problem worse is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

Radical Islamists do use American actions as a recruiting tool, but to claim that their atrocities or campaigns are primarily a reaction to the West rather than something that reflects the desperate state of their own political culture is fundamentally mistaken. Conflicts with Iran or Libya didn’t create the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Rather the growth of these radical movements is a reflection of the dire state of the Islamic world as it attempts to confront modernity and instead seeks a solution in the old formula of jihad and world domination.

It is comforting to think that the West can simply ignore the war being waged on it by a host of ever-changing Islamist groups whose names change but whose methods are consistently barbarous and whose goals are uncompromising. But every time we do, whether in the ’90s when al-Qaeda’s rise was considered insignificant or during an Obama administration that pretended it could take credit for “ending” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or staying out Syria, we end up paying a price.

Bacevich is right to note that the conflict against ISIS won’t be easy. Nor will we be able to conclude it with victory parades the way Americans prefer to end wars. Instead, it will require a long-term commitment that recognizes that our foes view this as a hundred years’ war and not a neat little battle that can be quickly won and then forgotten.

The Islamists aren’t looking to behead Westerners, take over Arab countries, and then extend their terror to Americans and our allies because we stumbled into Iraq or bombed Libya in the distant past. Nor is it about our supposed sins in Iran in the 1950s or any other oft-repeated tale of Islamic woe. Rather, it is a function of a basic conflict between Islamist belief and the West and those Muslims who prefer peace and coexistence to Sharia law and endless war.

The call to retreat from the Middle East is advice that President Obama and the American people would do well to ignore. Sooner or later, if we stay out of the conflict with ISIS, that group or those that ultimately replace it will bring their war to America. Contrary to Bacevich and Will, our choice is not whether or not to fight Islamists but where we will fight them. It is simply common sense to do so on their home turf and at a point when Western military superiority can be brought to bear on the group and their allies before they become even more dangerous. The outcome of each battle in this new hundred years’ war won’t be satisfying, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary to fight. The enemy will make sure to remind us that giving up isn’t an option.

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