Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sydney Siege and the Lone-Wolf Copout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sydney Siege and Monitoring Extremists

In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

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In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

Both trends are evident in Australia which saw a 16-hour siege of a cafe in Sydney carried out by a 50-year-old Iranian immigrant calling himself Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheikh who has preached an extremist gospel and recently converted from Shiite to Sunni Islam. His own lawyer calls him a “damaged goods individual” who was apparently on bail in two different criminal cases–he is charged “with being an accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, who was stabbed and set on fire” and with “the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney.” In yet another case, he “pleaded guilty in 2013 to 12 charges related to the sending of poison-pen letters to the families of Australian servicemen who were killed overseas.”

What a charmer. A marginal, criminal character, Monis was apparently spurred into taking hostages because he was exercised about Australian military actions, in cooperation with the U.S. and other allies, against ISIS.

There is little that anyone can do to anticipate such random attacks but there is more that can be done to monitor known extremists such as Monis. Unfortunately standing in the way is a misconceived reading of the freedom of religion which is a bedrock of any free society.

It’s absolutely true that anyone should have the freedom to practice any religion–as long as it doesn’t involve advocating or carrying out acts of violence. Extremists should not be able to hide in a mosque any more than in a synagogue or church. That is why it is deeply unfortunate that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down a New York Police Department program that sent plainclothes officers to mosques, among other locations, to look for signs of terrorist plotting.

Shutting down this surveillance is a politically correct gesture that arises from the same mindset that had Australians tweeting “#IllRideWithYou” after the Sydney siege started to make clear they would accept taxi rides from drivers in traditional Muslim garb–as if the real problem that Australia faces is “Islamophobia” rather than Islamist terrorism. But while silly, the Sydney tweet campaign was also a harmless gesture. De Blasio’s actions are far more significant. They make New Yorkers less safe from the kind of lone wolf attack that just hit Sydney.

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel Still Doing U.S. Dirty Work in Syria

Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

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Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

For years the U.S. has stood by and watched as the Russians have supplied arms to Assad to slaughter his own people. Even worse, as President Obama dithered about taking action to halt the killing of more than 200,000 persons, the crisis there worsened as, with the help of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, atrocities escalated and moderate alternatives to Assad were marginalized by radical groups including ISIS.

The result is that by the time the U.S. belatedly recognized the necessity of acting against ISIS, there were few good options left for resisting Assad and his allies. More to the point, much as was the case when I wrote about Israeli strikes on Syria in both January and May of 2013, it is Israel that has been forced to step into the vacuum created by the administration’s feckless policies.

Like those strikes, this past weekend’s attacks were primarily directed by Israel’s own security imperatives. Allowing Russia to transfer arms to terrorists, whether serving as mercenaries fighting to preserve a regime that is allied with the Shi’a group’s Iranian masters or deployed near Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah presents a dramatic and potent threat to Israel. But by acting decisively to keep Hezbollah from acquiring even more dangerous weapons than the ones it already possesses, Israel is also helping to keep the situation in Syria from becoming even more unmanageable.

The U.S. strikes on ISIS inside Syria have had some impact on the ability of the terror group to expand its control of much of that country as well as Iraq. But it is too weak a response to even begin the task of rolling back the extent of the so-called caliphate. The net effect of the administration’s effort both there and in Iraq is to expand Iran’s influence and to, in effect, allow Assad and his allied forces a free pass to go on committing atrocities.

Even as President Obama, who was once quite vocal about the necessity for Bashar Assad’s ouster, mulls sanctions against Israel while appeasing Iran and allowing it to run out the clock in nuclear talks, the Jewish state is guarding both its interests as well as those of the West by acting to restrain arms transfers in Syria. While the U.S. concentrates on an insufficient air offensive aimed at ISIS, Israel is effectively restraining any Syrian and/or Iranian adventurism in the region. Keeping Assad and Hezbollah in check is a vital American interest as the rest of the region looks on with horror as the Syrian regime and its friends continue to destabilize the region. Though it continues to be the Obama administration’s favorite whipping boy, Israel’s actions are once again proving the value of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Hillary’s Not-So-Smart Power Empathy

The mainstream media hasn’t devoted any attention to it yet, but the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe in which she calls upon Americans to show “empathy” for ISIS will soon become another one of her greatest hits alongside lines about dodging non-existent bullets in the Balkans, “what difference does it make” about the Benghazi attack, being “broke” after leaving the White House, and corporations not creating jobs. Her defenders will respond to the drumbeat of conservative mockery over this line by saying, not without reason, that it was taken out context and that the former secretary of state did not literally mean for us to show sympathy for terrorists. But even if it’s a cheap shot, the beating Clinton will take over her poor choice of words is one more illustration of a basic truth that contradicts Democratic optimism about 2016: their all-but-certain presidential nominee is just not a very good politician.

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The mainstream media hasn’t devoted any attention to it yet, but the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe in which she calls upon Americans to show “empathy” for ISIS will soon become another one of her greatest hits alongside lines about dodging non-existent bullets in the Balkans, “what difference does it make” about the Benghazi attack, being “broke” after leaving the White House, and corporations not creating jobs. Her defenders will respond to the drumbeat of conservative mockery over this line by saying, not without reason, that it was taken out context and that the former secretary of state did not literally mean for us to show sympathy for terrorists. But even if it’s a cheap shot, the beating Clinton will take over her poor choice of words is one more illustration of a basic truth that contradicts Democratic optimism about 2016: their all-but-certain presidential nominee is just not a very good politician.

Clinton’s call for “empathy” came during a speech last week at Georgetown University in which she repeated one of the talking points that highlighted her term as secretary of state: the use of “smart power.” In theory, the term refers to the use of a combination of military strength, alliances, and partnerships to enhance American influence. Originally meant as a rebuke to George W. Bush’s alleged cowboy diplomacy and unilateralism, in practice it became more cliché than reality as on Hillary’s watch, the Obama administration’s abuse of allies (Israel, moderate Arab states, and Eastern European democracies) and failed attempts to ingratiate enemies (Iran, Russia) rendered it neither smart nor powerful. But having repeated the mantra often enough, Clinton is still convinced that her cipher-like reign at the State Department was a shining example of its use.

But her explanation of how “smart” people approach a confrontation with the enemy didn’t come out sounding quite as smart as she thought. As Fox News reported:

Touting an approach she calls “smart power,” Clinton urged America to use “every possible tool and partner” to advance peace.

This, she said, includes “leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”

Of course, a smart commander does respect their opponents and seeks to understand them by getting inside their heads to see what motivates them. But for a would-be president to talk about empathy for ISIS’s perspective and point of view is the sort of thing that is not easily explained especially when the person trying to sound smart by employing this has never demonstrated much in the way of strategic insight except when discussing her political foes among the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

The point is, even if we concede that Hillary didn’t really mean to say she wants American to empathize with terrorists, this is not the sort of statement a politician who knows what they’re doing will find themselves uttering. Like her characterization of what any non-billionaire would consider a healthy financial situation or her idiotic attempt to channel Elizabeth Warren-style left-wing populism about job creation, the ISIS empathy line is the product of a woman who has no natural feel for politics or genuine convictions. Though Clinton is desperate to show us how smart and in command of the situation she is, what often comes out of her mouth sounds ill considered or intellectually vapid. Even worse, these gaffes are not solely the product of a tendency to go off script but also rooted in her lack of a filter that would enable the would-be president to avoid saying scripted lines that a smart speaker would drop rather than merely read.

In other words, Clinton is a well-oiled gaffe machine who is never going to be able to stop saying things that will either be rightly considered stupid or are just poorly phrased in such a way as to make them sound outrageous even when they aren’t that bad.

Barring a decision by Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton, I can’t imagine any gaffe being enough to derail her path to the Democratic nomination. But if she is matched up with a strong Republican candidate, this basic weakness will be crucial. Those who say she can’t be stopped should remember that eight years ago we were saying the same thing. Democrats would do well to ponder that precedent before nominating a gaffe machine for the presidency.

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Rescue or Ransom? Obama Made Right Call.

This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

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This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

This is not the first time that U.S. policy has been called into question by the outcome of a terrorist kidnapping. Back in September, the family of James Foley, an American who was murdered by his ISIS captors after the U.S. refused to ransom him, criticized the government for not only not saving their son but also for their attempts to prevent them from negotiating a ransom. As far as the Foleys were concerned, the Obama administration had sacrificed their loved one in order to make a political point. The fact that earlier in the year, the same government had negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. solider who had been captured under suspicious circumstances, added hypocrisy to the charges.

But as much as the anguish of the Foleys and the Korkie family is understandable, the president’s decision to choose rescue rather than ransom was entirely correct.

Rather than approach this sad outcome as a human-interest story in which an uncaring government let innocents die to prove a point, our focus should remain on the fact that the West is engaged in a war with Islamist terrorists. Kidnapping is a major source of income for both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. These groups profit handsomely from trades for Western hostages and use the funds they acquire to not only kidnap more victims but to strengthen their ability to threaten vital Western interests. Simply put, without the sums they have extracted from European governments in exchange for their citizens, ISIS would not currently be in possession of much of Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

The war against Islamist terrorism has dragged on for more than a decade and no end is in sight. Part of the reason for that lies in the inherent difficulties in fighting a movement that can be an elusive if deadly target. Part of it also stems from foolish decisions by the Obama administration that weakened America’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But those problems notwithstanding, the president and his foreign-policy team cannot be credibly accused of indifference to the lives of Western hostages. Though the administration’s desire to abandon the Middle East and to move to détente with dangerous Iran is a colossal blunder, their commitment to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda is clear. Those who will blame the president for the deaths of Somers and Korkie need to remember that it is the terrorists who bear all of the responsibility for what happened, not an administration that did the right thing and refused to pay ransoms.

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Does ISIS Threaten Israel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Iran Prevents a Real Solution to ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arab Spring Illusions Are Dead. Good.

The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

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The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

The protests throughout the Arab world raised hopes in the West that at last, that region was about to undergo a necessary transformation from dominance by authoritarians to one in which democracy, or at least the founding of democratic institutions, might offer the hope of a new era of freedom. The Mubarak regime was a corrupt military dictatorship that was ripe for overthrow and both liberals and neo-conservatives hoped this would lead to better things for Egypt.

But we were all wrong. Rather than leading to a chance for genuine democracy, what followed was an election that brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood. Its goals had nothing to do with liberalization, let alone accountability on the part of the government. After a year of misery that would have led, if unchecked, to a far worse dictatorship than that of Mubarak, the people of Egypt took to the streets for mass protests that dwarfed those that ended the old regime.

That led to the current government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It has no interest in further investigations of the conduct of the Mubarak regime, especially its last days as protesters were murdered by the same troops that are now the bulwark of the new military regime. Indeed, Sisi’s government may already be guilty of far worse in its efforts to suppress the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

But while the Times and others who condemn the deplorable human-rights situation in Egypt are not wrong about the nature of the new regime, they are dead wrong on the question of whether the United States should be trying to do something to undermine Sisi, such as cutting U.S. aid to Cairo.

Whatever we may think of Sisi and the collapse of hopes for change in Egypt as well as the minimal success of other such efforts in the Arab and Muslim world, the last four years have shown that there are other, bigger problems to be dealt with first before Westerners should worry much about the absence of democracy in that region.

Unfortunately, there was never a real constituency of any size in Egypt for liberal democracy. The choices there were always going to be between a stable, if authoritarian military government and one run by Islamists. Had the latter prevailed, Egypt would not only have been less free than under the military but it would have helped further destabilize the region and aided the efforts of Islamist terror groups like Hamas, which was allied with the Brotherhood.

Sadly, the Obama administration’s inconsistent and ultimately feckless policies alienated both Sisi and the Egyptians who blame it for the rise of the Brotherhood. It will take a long time before the U.S. will win back their trust. But the key question facing the region is whether Islamist groups like ISIS will overrun regimes that while neither democratic nor free, at least represent a bulwark against the tide of extremism and violence. That makes it absolutely essential that the U.S. continue to support governments like that led by Sisi and to assist them in the general effort to combat the wave of Islamist extremism sweeping across the region.

Which also means that both liberals and neoconservatives alike must put aside their illusions as well as their hopes about democracy promotion in the Middle East. The war against Islamism must be fought and eventually won first before we will be able to return to that discussion about the Arab world, if then. Those who cannot grasp this reality are being obtuse, not principled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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