Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Do Americans Favor Appeasing Iran?

One of the foundations of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran is the assumption that Americans have had enough of conflicts in the Middle East. By seeking to strike a deal with Tehran on its nuclear-weapons program, the administration hopes to eliminate the chance of a confrontation with the Islamist regime on the issue. In order to defeat a campaign for tougher sanctions on Iran last year, Obama labeled critics of his weak interim deal with Iran as “warmongers,” an epithet that is considered to be an all-purpose argument winner in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But are those assumptions correct? According to pollster Frank Luntz, Americans are far more wary of appeasing Iran or allowing it to become a threshold nuclear power than the president and his supporters think.

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One of the foundations of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran is the assumption that Americans have had enough of conflicts in the Middle East. By seeking to strike a deal with Tehran on its nuclear-weapons program, the administration hopes to eliminate the chance of a confrontation with the Islamist regime on the issue. In order to defeat a campaign for tougher sanctions on Iran last year, Obama labeled critics of his weak interim deal with Iran as “warmongers,” an epithet that is considered to be an all-purpose argument winner in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But are those assumptions correct? According to pollster Frank Luntz, Americans are far more wary of appeasing Iran or allowing it to become a threshold nuclear power than the president and his supporters think.

According to a story in the Times of Israel, the veteran analyst claims a new poll shows that 69 percent of Americans oppose a deal with Iran leaving it with nuclear capabilities. This is significant, because even if we assume that Iran will eventually sign a new nuclear pact rather than just continuing to run out the clock by stalling Western negotiators as they have done for the last year, such a deal in which the Iranians keep their program is exactly what Secretary of State John Kerry is likely to bring home from the talks.

Just as important, the survey showed that huge majorities of Americans believe Iran is not negotiating in good faith and can’t be trusted to abide by any agreement it might sign. The poll also shows that 62 percent believe Iran is an enemy of the U.S.

These numbers should embolden Congress to act now to pass new sanctions that would both strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks as well as to make it clear that a return to a policy of pressure rather than appeasement is the only way to halt the nuclear threat short of using force.

It is true that even if we take these poll numbers into account, there probably isn’t much appetite for a new confrontation with Iran or even much interest in the issue, especially when compared with domestic issues. But the free ride that the president has been enjoying during the last two years as he fecklessly pursued détente with the ayatollahs may not last forever. Rather than going to sleep on foreign policy, the American people are genuinely alarmed about the way the president’s policy of retreat in the Middle East—of which his Iran engagement has been a central plank—has created new crises, facilitated the rise of ISIS, and made the world less safe. Indeed, Luntz’s poll shows that Americans think the world is more dangerous than it was under George W. Bush, a startling result considering that Obama rode into the White House by riding a tide of anger about the Iraq war.

These numbers don’t show that Americans want war with Iran. Nobody and certainly not those calling for tougher sanctions on Iran want that. But it does mean that the belief that the administration can sell any sort of nuclear deal with Iran to the public is misplaced. Americans rightly fear Iran and know that any deal that allows them to become a threshold nuclear power is not something that is compatible with the defense of U.S. security. After the rise of ISIS and the collapse of confidence in Obama’s foreign policy, the administration will have to do more than merely label critics of its Iran policy as warmongers if they wish to prevail.

The debate on Iran is only just beginning. Those who think that it can be squelched have not taken into account the fact that most Americans rightly fear the ayatollahs and don’t want their government to turn a blind eye to a nuclear program that threatens to destabilize the region and plunge the Middle East into even worse turmoil.

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The Isolationist Declares War

Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

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Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

In one way, Paul’s proposal makes a great deal of sense. For decades presidents have carried out military campaigns without a declaration of war, creating an imperial presidency that gives the executive more power than the Founders would have liked. A declaration would create, at least in theory, more accountability as well as restoring some needed constitutional balance to the way foreign and defense policy is carried out.

But as much as this makes some superficial sense, Paul’s intentions have more to do with both restricting the scope of the war against radical Islamist terrorist and posing as a responsible would-be commander in chief than it does with actually winning the war against ISIS and its allies in Iraq and Syria.

Paul’s proposed declaration, like some of the other potential new authorizations of force circulating in Congress, would preclude the use of ground troops against ISIS except in highly restricted circumstances. That actually dovetails nicely with President Obama’s stance on the war that has been carried out in a half-hearted way that makes it hard to envision the kind of rollback of ISIS gains in both Iraq and Syria that will be required for victory against the group.

Like Obama, Paul’s objective here is not military victory—the object of any real declaration of war—but giving the country the impression that the U.S. is doing something about a problem that has rightly scared the American public without actually fighting a war.

But unlike Obama, Paul’s goal is also to convince the majority of Republicans that he is not an isolationist. Since Paul began his planning for a presidential campaign after the conclusion of the 2012 campaign, the Kentucky senator’s goal has been to rebrand himself as an old-fashioned foreign-policy realist instead of being seen as the son of the leader of a rabid band of extremist libertarians. Rand is a smarter, slicker, and cooler version of his father Ron, a fire-breathing radical who lamented on Twitter the victory of his son’s party in the midterm elections because he envisaged that it would lead to “neocon wars” with “boots on the ground.”

The senator’s approach to foreign and defense policy doesn’t have the same feel as that of his father. Unlike Ron, Rand does not use rhetoric—or at least not anymore—that makes him seem to the left of Barack Obama and liberal Democrats on foreign policy. In that sense, a declaration of war is a twofer for Rand in that it enables him to look like someone serious about fighting terrorists that the public fears while also sounding some of the Constitutional arguments about presidential overreach that endeared him to conservatives last year when his drone filibuster galvanized the nation.

But the declaration is more a matter of posturing than a genuine foreign-policy alternative. In the unlikely event that it passed, it would serve to limit not just presidential abuses of power but take away the leeway that any president needs to defend the nation in an age where threats and enemies are very different from the ones Franklin Roosevelt’s America faced in 1941.

That’s why Senator James Inhofe’s idea of a new resolution authorizing force that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to use against ISIS while requiring the White House to regularly report to Congress on the war makes far more sense than Paul’s declaration in terms of what is needed to actually win the conflict.

Thanks to ISIS and Obama’s disastrous Middle East policies, the libertarian moment that convulsed American politics in 2013 is over. In seeking to position himself as someone willing to fight wars, Paul has made progress toward becoming more of a mainstream political figure, something that is necessary if he is to have a chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But what this discussion illustrates is that the real problem is not whether Congress passes a declaration of war or a new resolution authorizing the use of force but what kind of a commander in chief the country is saddled with. With an Obama or a Rand Paul, America will have someone who doesn’t want to be seen as weak but who is not interested in a serious effort to defeat threats to the country’s security. That is something Republicans who rightly take a dim view of the president’s policies should think about before they buy into Paul’s proposal or his bid for the nomination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Simply Complain About Qasem Soleimani in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Britain Faces ISIS on the Home Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Iran Talks Hamper Fight Against ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Will Reintegrate Iraq’s Shi’ite Volunteers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What to Do About ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wealthy Terrorists Don’t Need Foreign Aid

Last month, a group of international donors including the United States gathered in Cairo to make pledges to give financial aid to help rebuild Gaza in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas this past summer. The amount pledged totaled $5.4 billion with the U.S. kicking in a few hundred million. The bulk of the money will go to aid organizations with the Palestinian Authority also getting a share. But while the world was told that all the money would be used for civilian purposes and to help those who lost their homes in the fighting, there was little doubt that the Hamas rulers of the strip would wind up getting their hands on a good deal of it. But the most curious thing about this exercise in international philanthropy was that no one thought to ask Hamas to pay for at least some of the damage they caused by igniting a bloody war. That’s the question that comes to mind today when you read that the Islamists have been named the world’s second-richest terrorist group.

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Last month, a group of international donors including the United States gathered in Cairo to make pledges to give financial aid to help rebuild Gaza in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas this past summer. The amount pledged totaled $5.4 billion with the U.S. kicking in a few hundred million. The bulk of the money will go to aid organizations with the Palestinian Authority also getting a share. But while the world was told that all the money would be used for civilian purposes and to help those who lost their homes in the fighting, there was little doubt that the Hamas rulers of the strip would wind up getting their hands on a good deal of it. But the most curious thing about this exercise in international philanthropy was that no one thought to ask Hamas to pay for at least some of the damage they caused by igniting a bloody war. That’s the question that comes to mind today when you read that the Islamists have been named the world’s second-richest terrorist group.

According to Forbes Israel, Hamas is the runner-up to ISIS in the competition for the title of wealthiest terror organization. ISIS has $2 billion in assets while Hamas has only $1 billion. The former’s advantage is that it is now in control of some of Iraq’s oil flow and pulls in up to $3 million a day in revenue from that lucrative business. ISIS also was able to loot hundreds of millions from Mosul’s main bank when it seized that city. It also profits from the brisk trade in hostage ransoms with European nations anteing up large sums to save its citizens in ISIS’s hands. To its credit, the Obama administration has refused to play along, a principled policy that has led to the brutal murders of American captives.

Hamas has no oil fields or banks at its disposal. But it has something almost as good: An overpopulated strip of land where more than a million people live at their misery. Though Hamas long maintained an image as an efficient provider of social services to the people of Gaza, the reality is that it is—like its Fatah rivals in the West Bank—more akin to a mafia family than a government and rakes in money extorted or taxed from Gazans hand over fist. Hamas also profited handsomely from control of the smuggling tunnels that used to link Gaza to Egypt and also rakes in huge amounts of aid from its Gulf State patrons like Qatar.

Since Fatah now masquerades as a legitimate government and even a peace partner in the West Bank, it was not listed. But if it were, it’s likely that the considerable assets of this supposedly reformed terror group would also be considerable, considering the amount of money it and its leaders have looted from the billions in international aid that have poured into them since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

But the minutiae about which of these groups has the most cash ignores the more pertinent question about Gaza. While the West has committed itself to waging a half-hearted war to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS” in President Obama’s words, it has chosen to tolerate Hamas and let it remain in control of Gaza, even if it meant condemning a large civilian population to be used as human shields for its terror operations. And it has been allowed to save or re-invest its considerable fortune in rearming its cadres and rebuilding its defenses in the aftermath of the terrorist war it launched this year.

The world looks at the ruined homes of Gaza and rightly expresses its sympathy and its desire to help its people. But the problem with the international aid process is not merely that it is not likely to keep all of the billions coming in out of the clutches of Hamas. It is that so long as we are prepared to tolerate Hamas’s continued sovereignty over the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, more war and bloodshed is likely to ensue. The threat from ISIS as it seeks to overrun all of Iraq and Syria is one that the U.S. and its allies needed to address. But the danger of allowing terrorist groups to become rulers of populations is not limited to those places with oil. In the absence of a commitment to overthrow Hamas, money donated to Gaza is an investment in future war, not peace or humanitarian values. Its place on the list of wealthiest terror group mocks the West as much as it does the Palestinians who suffer under their rule.

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Can Rand Paul Win Without Father’s Fans?

Of all the potential serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, only one isn’t playing it coy about their ambition. Senator Rand Paul is bypassing the traditional pretense of indecision prior to announcing and is leaving no doubt that he is planning on running in 2016. The Kentucky senator convened a meeting of advisors to plan the start of his campaign today in Washington but, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there was one important person missing from the conclave: Ron Paul, the former House member and perennial libertarian presidential candidate who also happens to be Rand’s father. But while this absence is in one sense a very good thing for his son’s ambitions, the growing gap between Rand and his father raises the question of whether he can win without his father’s supporters.

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Of all the potential serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, only one isn’t playing it coy about their ambition. Senator Rand Paul is bypassing the traditional pretense of indecision prior to announcing and is leaving no doubt that he is planning on running in 2016. The Kentucky senator convened a meeting of advisors to plan the start of his campaign today in Washington but, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there was one important person missing from the conclave: Ron Paul, the former House member and perennial libertarian presidential candidate who also happens to be Rand’s father. But while this absence is in one sense a very good thing for his son’s ambitions, the growing gap between Rand and his father raises the question of whether he can win without his father’s supporters.

Putting some distance between himself and his father has always been a prerequisite for Paul’s presidential hopes. While his father was able to count on a small but active segment of those who voted in Republican presidential primaries, his extreme libertarianism and foreign-policy views that put him to the left of President Obama ensured that Ron Paul never was going to be nominated by the GOP, let alone win the presidency.

Rand had a different plan. Much slicker and more attuned to mainstream opinion than his father, the senator’s goal was to hold on to the libertarian base that he presumed he would inherit from his father and add Tea Party Republicans who admired his principled stands against taxes and spending. Paul won the admiration of a wide range of conservatives last year with his filibuster against President Obama’s drone policies even if many didn’t agree with him on the issue. In an environment in which his neo-isolationist views, carefully parsed to avoid the label of extremism that stuck to his father, had become respectable, Paul was certain to be a first-tier primary candidate. Moreover, in what is expected to be a crowded field in which none of his potential rivals could count on a base as solid as his, there was a clear, if by no means certain, path to the nomination for him.

For those who have followed the senator for the last few years, his attempts to move into the mainstream on foreign-policy issues has been inextricably linked to his presidential ambitions. Though he was an ardent follower of his father when he began his political career, over the course of the last four years in the Senate he has carefully edged his way back into the mainstream. He eschewed his father’s extreme positions on foreign policy and tried to position himself as the avatar of a new generation of foreign-policy “realism.” That put him at odds with neo-conservatives and others in the party’s center on a whole range of issues but was a far cry from his father’s ranting about American imperialism and rationalizations of the behavior of Iran and other Islamist terror sponsors. He tried the same delicate dance on the issue of Israel in which he continued to oppose all foreign aid but also claimed to be a friend of the Jewish state and an opponent of those who would pressure it.

But the senator shocked some of his original libertarian fans recently when he realized that the isolationist moment had ended and endorsed air attacks against ISIS terrorists. In doing so he did what all people who have caught the presidential bug do when they think they have a reasonable chance of winning: abandoning their old positions in the vain support of those who would otherwise not vote for him. That makes Rand Paul a normal politician but it also brands him as a turncoat to his father’s libertarian true believers.

Moreover, in case anyone was in doubt as to what Ron Paul thought about this, they only had to follow him on Twitter where, on election night last week, he had this reaction to a Republican victory that his son was very publicly celebrating:

Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!

This statement changes the dynamic for his son’s presidential campaign. The more Ron Paul denounces the mainstream Republican Party and stays away from his son’s campaign, the easier it will be for his son to ignore those who will say he needs to be held responsible for his father’s extremism. Rather than being Rand’s Jeremiah Wright, Ron may well have no trouble denouncing his son’s apostasy from the libertarian true faith. That will help Rand get more centrist or conservative votes but there’s one element to this equation that doesn’t work in his favor.

It’s one thing for Rand to distance himself from his father’s beliefs but quite another for the Paulbots that energetically campaigned and voted for Ron to abandon him. The plan was, after all, for him to retain his father’s backers while adding mainstream Tea Party or mainstream Republicans who wanted no part of the senior Paul’s extremist views on foreign policy. But if they abandon him altogether, then he will be heading into the primaries without the core constituency that gives him such a strong profile.

The math of the Republican primaries is such that if the Paulbots don’t turn out for Rand it’s hard to see how he wins. Though his father’s following comprised only a minority of GOP voters, they were ardent and well organized, enabling them to win delegates for him in caucus states even though they didn’t represent the views of most Republicans. Added to his new more mainstream fans, they could provide the shock troops of a libertarian push to win the GOP for Rand. But in their absence (and most would stay home or return to their Democratic roots rather than embrace a man whom some would call sellout), Rand will be on an equal footing with other Republican candidates and that spells defeat for him.

This illustrates how difficult it is for an outlier to become a mainstream candidate. Though many libertarians would stick with Paul, if enough don’t, he will wind up falling very short of his goal. Though his father provided the inspiration for his political career, it may be that he will also help end it.

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Turkish Islamists Train Snipers in Syria

That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

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That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

So what to make from this? Firstly, it’s an open secret that Turkey passively if not actively supports radical Islamist factions inside Syria, up to and including ISIS, whose members it has allowed to transit Turkish territory. Secondly, Erdoğan has assumed the power to shut down websites and Twitter feeds without so much as a court order. And yet, sites depicting the training of terrorist snipers inside Syria by Turks remain up. But should an environmentalist condemn the cutting down of trees in an urban park, Erdoğan labels him a terrorist and demands stiff jail terms.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that for Erdoğan, the problem isn’t Twitter any more than the problem is newspapers or television stations. Rather, the issue is whether or not such technology adheres to Erdoğan’s agenda. And by nature of his silence on these tweets, it is clear once again that Erdoğan does not consider ISIS, Jebhat al-Nusra, or the İnsani Yardım Vakfı to be terrorist groups or feeders, but rather honorable organizations to allow to operate unmolested.

Welcome to the reality of the new Turkey, same as the old Saudi Arabia.

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Veterans Day and Excessive Self-Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hard Truths Obama Needs to Hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Insufficient Small Steps On ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons for ISIS from the Khmer Rouge

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia, killing between one and two million people before its murderous regime was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. While Cambodia is far from Iraq and Syria, there are a number of parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Islamic State (ISIS) that might inform the policy debate today.

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Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia, killing between one and two million people before its murderous regime was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. While Cambodia is far from Iraq and Syria, there are a number of parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Islamic State (ISIS) that might inform the policy debate today.

First, both are deeply ideological movements, even if the roots of those ideologies draw upon very different sources. Then, the Khmer Rouge arose from the vacuum that resulted after the precipitous departure of American forces from the region, just as the Islamic State seized advantage from the departure of American troops. Just as some analysts and academics—not without reason—suggest that it was America’s initial military involvement in Iraq which open Pandora’s Box and led to the cascade of events which culminated in the Islamic State’s rise, so too did analysts and academics in the 1970s seek to shift blame from the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities to the United States on the logic that had the United States not involved itself in Vietnam and bombed Cambodia, none of the subsequent history would have occurred.

According to the academic work of Yale Professor Ben Kiernan, the Khmer Rouge was not an equal opportunity offender: Cambodia was a diverse place, and while the Khmer Rouge killed ethnic Khmers and the urban elite, it sought out and targeted Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese with special enthusiasm. In this way, the Khmer Rouge is like ISIS for whom Iraq’s Shi’ites and religious minorities is the true target, even as they slaughter ordinary Sunnis.

Conducting an average of seven airstrikes a day would never have stopped the Khmer Rouge, and at any rate, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter never tried such a thing. Likewise, training a rag tag group of moderate communists would never have unseated the Khmer Rouge any more than training a rag tag group of moderate Islamists would now. The time to stop the Khmer Rouge was before it arose, but once it sunk its roots into Cambodia’s soil, the only way to end it and its unassuageable appetite for murder was a full-scale invasion.

If the parallel holds, then, the question for policymakers is which country will be the Islamic State’s “Vietnam.” Symbolic bombing will not do the trick, nor will training a militia or even a small deployment of boots on the ground. Certainly, it will not be the United States who occupies Iraq and Syria to drive out the Islamic State. Perhaps Iran or Turkey will one day do the dirty work, although both would simply trade one evil for another. Then again, the Khmer Rouge had four years before someone stepped up to the plate. The question analysts must now consider is that if such a parallel holds, how much more damage can the Islamic State do now to Syrians and Iraqis and the broader region in general, than the Khmer Rouge did in Southeast Asia 35 years ago.

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Is Another “Awakening” Needed in Iraq?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rand Paul’s Utopian Realism and 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Foreign Policy After the Midterms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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