Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

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The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Almost a decade ago, while I was editing the Middle East Quarterly, I published an insightful article by Timothy Furnish entitled, “Beheading in the Name of Islam.” While some more radical Islamic advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) bend over backwards to obfuscate the links between such acts of violence and religion, the truth lies in the interpretation of religious texts espoused by more radical elements.

Furnish explains, “Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah (verse): ‘When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.’” He then explains the history of the exegesis:

The famous Iranian historian and Qur’an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that “striking at the necks” is simply God’s sanction of ferocious opposition to non-Muslims. Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription to “strike at the necks” commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to confirm death and not simply wound…

Literalism with regard to the interpretation of this passage was re-introduced in relatively recent times:

In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued… Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war. Mawdudi argued, “Under no circumstances should the Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely crushed.”

What is striking to me with regard to the evolution of interpretation is how it has hardened with time. For that, the world has no one to blame but Saudi Arabia which has, for decades, done everything possible to distribute the Yusuf ‘Ali interpretation of the Koran which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s generous subsidies, remains perhaps the most widely-available version of the Koran not only in the English-speaking world, but across the Sunni world as well.

Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once made the following analogy:

The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them. Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

What we are seeing now is not the natural evolution of Islam, but rather the result of decades of Saudi-fueled hatred. Many Saudi officials may have recognized that their financing of radical Islam has gone too far and may seek a more productive role—especially vis-à-vis unrepentant Qatar—but it is important to recognize that interpretations have changed over time to allow the murders within ISIS to justify their cruelty and crimes in Islam.

The question which both Muslims and non-Muslims must then answer is: How can decades of well-funded radicalism be undone? It’s not going to happen with Oval Office pronouncements, art therapy, or snake-oil de-radicalization programs. It will happen with a concerted, decades-long, well-financed operation to change hearts and minds. That investment, alas, must come from within the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its money where it mouth is and, regardless, no country other than perhaps Morocco appears ready to give the promotion of moderation beyond its borders a serious try.

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Obama’s Been Pickpocketed By Reality

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

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A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

And over the weekend Democrats tried desperately to convince him he’s been mugged. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s being “too cautious” on ISIS. That’s her way of saying that she’s privy to enough intel to wonder what Obama sees when he looks at the same information. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Obama needs to be doing more to fend off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–and yes, by the way, he used the word “invasion” rather than participate in the administration’s Orwellian word games to deny reality and make excuses for abandoning American allies.

And the Washington Post editorial board laid into Obama’s swirling confusion over the complexity of the world:

This argument with his own administration is alarming on three levels.

The first has to do with simple competence. One can only imagine the whiplash that foreign leaders must be suffering…

Similarly, his senior advisers uniformly have warned of the unprecedented threat to America and Americans represented by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. But Mr. Obama didn’t seem to agree…

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One can almost imagine the Post’s editors intended the editorial to be read aloud, slowly and with exaggerated elocution, as if speaking to a child. And so the president hasn’t really been mugged by reality, because he doesn’t seem to know he’s been hit.

The Post editorial was right to call attention to the bewilderment America’s allies around the world must be experiencing. But it’s worth dwelling on the same confusion America’s enemies must be feeling. Their actions have resulted in a propaganda windfall because they surely expected the American president not to parrot their talking points or shrug off their murderous intent.

When it was revealed in August that President Obama had downgraded American security cooperation with Israel and was withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a column headlined “US livid with Israel? Hamas can’t believe its luck.” Indeed, Hamas probably expects at best empty words from Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself, but it’s doubtful they ever imagined they would start a war with Israel only to have the American president withhold military support from Israel during that war and then fume that the U.S.-Israel military relationship is such that both sides assume America will have Israel’s back, at least during wartime. Obama wants Israel to make no such assumptions.

Similarly, could Vladimir Putin have expected the Obama administration to help him obfuscate the fact that he has invaded Ukraine–again? Administration officials “have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine,” the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey wrote late last week. “They just don’t want to say the word out loud.” Putin must be giddy.

And when video surfaced revealing that, in the words of CNN, “Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones protested the coverage of an event the symbolism of which was impossible to ignore. It was not true that those ransacking the compound were ransacking the compound, she claimed; they were, um, guarding it. We are truly in the best of hands.

What is most troublesome about this, and what might be responsible for bringing Democrats out of the woodwork to denounce Obama’s foreign-policy silliness, is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be anything that can get the president to confront reality. It’s always been assumed that at some point Obama will wake up; Democrats are no longer convinced that’s the case, and have gone public to try to assure friends and foes alike that not everyone in the U.S. government is so steeped in comforting delusions while the world burns.

Someone’s at the wheel, in other words, just not the president. And now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to believe the spin coming out of Washington, instead of hoping American officials don’t believe the spin coming in.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

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When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

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That’s Some Jayvee Team, Mr. President

Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

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Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

Do you still recall when the president promised he would punish Syria if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons? When we were assured that the “tide of war is receding”? And how ISIS was the “jayvee team” of terrorist groups?

That was then. Let me (via Foreign Policy magazine) tell you about now. Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria, we’re told, are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. According to the story:

The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.

“The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states

… the longer the caliphate exists, the more likely it is that members with a science background will come up with something horrible. The documents found on the laptop of the Tunisian jihadist, meanwhile, leave no room for doubt about the group’s deadly ambitions.

“Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. “Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”

That’s some jayvee team. Some new beginning. Some receding tide.

You’d think that the commander-in-chief might develop a strategy to combat what he himself calls a “cancer.” But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama just yesterday admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. He might consider getting one. Because ISIS clearly has one. It’s to kill as many Americans as possible.

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Spin Can’t Explain Obama Failure to Lead

From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

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From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

The official explanation for the president’s statement has several parts.

One is that the president meant only that there was no strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria but that he did have one that applied to Iraq. But this is nonsensical. As much as the situations in the two countries are different, ISIS doesn’t recognize the border. To pretend that one can fight it in Iraq while leaving its Syrian base unmolested is both illogical and a demonstration of the administration’s incoherence.

A second is that the president is waiting on getting options for action from the Pentagon. If so, one has to ask whether it is possible that the Department of Defense had not prepared contingency plans for the current situation. But that can’t be true. The military has been studying American options on Syria for years, something that was again confirmed today during the Pentagon press briefing. The problem isn’t the lack of options for the president to consider. It’s that the president can’t or won’t decide on one.

The third explanation is that the president is determined that if there is to be action taken against ISIS it must be in concert with other nations in the Middle East and our Western allies. That makes sense. But the question here is why hasn’t the administration already firmed up plans for joint action? It’s not as if Arab nations that are concerned about the rise of ISIS aren’t eager to cooperate with the U.S. about this threat. It’s that the administration can’t make up its mind.

Finally, the explanation put forward by some, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, to the effect that the president is playing possum with ISIS by not revealing his strategy is even dumber than the White House spin. No one is saying that the administration should telegraph its moves to the enemy. But there is a difference between saying we know what we will do but won’t say what it is yet and admitting you don’t have a strategy. The former gives the terrorists something to worry about. The latter makes clear they have little to worry about.

So what is really going on?

The first and most obvious message being sent by President Obama was to his own foreign and defense policy teams. After days of administration officials signaling that action against ISIS in Syria was imminent, the president felt he needed throw some cold water on those expecting a decision, let alone, orders to strike at the Islamists’ bases. As with past deliberations about Syria, there are clearly a lot of people inside the Obama tent who realize that the years of dithering over the crisis there is damaging U.S. credibility as well as allowing the threat to metastasize. But the president may be far more worried about being pressured to act by both members of his own administration as well as political critics than he is about ISIS.

More important and far more dangerous is the message that this statement sent to ISIS.

It is true that the U.S. is already striking ISIS targets in Iraq, a move that has helped stabilize a situation that was quickly getting out of control. The president deserves credit for this. Nor should one underestimate the efforts that U.S. intelligence services are making to address any possible ISIS threats against U.S. targets outside of Syria and Iraq or to try to rescue Americans still being held by these terrorists.

But there is little doubt that ISIS could not help but be encouraged by the president’s obvious reluctance to commit to action.

Even the president’s defenders must acknowledge that the ISIS problem is a direct result of years of administration dithering on Syria. Instead of intervening decisively early in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents when American help could have been decisive the president chose to wait and merely called for Assad’s fall. The vacuum created by American and Western indecision made ISIS’s growth possible.

Just as important, Obama’s disastrous failure to follow through on his threat to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” undermined any notion that the West was prepared to enforce its own standards. Critics are right to note that is more than ironic that the president’s indecision about hitting Assad last year and is now behaving similarly when it comes to dealing with the threat that comes from the other side in that civil war. But the main takeaway from this disastrous day of White House messaging is that once again this president is primarily articulating his lack of comfort with a position of international leadership. This president came into office primarily determined to end U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to somehow put a period on the war on terror pursued by his predecessor. He has since learned that merely bugging out of a conflict does not end wars or the threat to U.S. interests and security emanating from Islamist terrorists. But even after his decisions and reluctance to deal decisively with the resurgence of a terrorist movement he pretended was beaten has blown up in his face, the president is still more worried about being pressured to act than anything else.

What the United States lacks today is not a strategy for dealing with ISIS, a group that must be relentlessly attacked and destroyed. What it lacks is a president who has the will to deal with this problem and a belief in the need for America to lead.

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Congress’s Cynical Syria Game

The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

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The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

Conservatives have repeatedly accused President Obama of plotting to go around Congress and abusing executive authority. They are usually correct, most recently with the astoundingly amoral and economically illiterate plan to ignore the Senate on an international climate agreement, pay off authoritarians to keep their suffering citizens mired in poverty, and singlehandedly incentivize a whole new market in global corruption. But on the issue of the use of force in Syria, conservatives should hold their fire: if Obama goes around Congress on this, it’s because Congress wants him to.

There are three factors working against a full congressional vote on the authorization for the use of force against ISIS in Syria (it’s doubtful one would be needed either way in Iraq, since there is an extant authorization there). The first is that President Obama doesn’t want one, because he doesn’t want to lose such a vote.

If it were clear he’d get the authorization he wants, the president would probably go ahead with it. It’s not at all clear such authorization would even pass. Usually, this president is happy to find any reason not to go to war. But in the case of Syria, his credibility, already at a low ebb, would take an irreparable hit if he did a second one-eighty on attacking the country in as many years. He’s already authorized surveillance overflights and there are reports his administration is sharing intel with Bashar al-Assad’s regime–a fact not widely confirmed but not shocking either, considering Obama’s desire for pinpoint operations.

If he lost an authorization vote now, he would probably have to stand down, since asking for the authorization would publicly acknowledge he believes he needs it to proceed. He would like a consensus and bipartisan ownership of a new front in the war on terror. But he might not get it, and thus is unlikely to ask for it.

On why Congress doesn’t want to vote no matter the result–the second factor working against authorization–the Times hits the nail on the head:

Members of both parties have long been reluctant to cast votes on matters of war, and most showed little appetite this month to do so on the airstrikes in Iraq, with midterm elections just months away and Mr. Obama promising the mission would be limited.

Congress doesn’t want to toss a war vote into the chaos of the midterms. Congressional leaders tend to protect their caucus from taking risky votes, and there are few if any votes tougher than authorizing war.

Another issue is that it wouldn’t be easy for this divided Congress to even come to an agreement on what the authorization should say:

“It would be wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority for the president to confront that challenge,” said Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. At the same time, he said he could not imagine “in a million years” that would happen.

“There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is — it’s just not going to happen,” Mr. Smith said.

And the third factor working against a full vote is that members of Congress want to have their cake and eat it too. The Times hints at this, but I think jumps to the wrong conclusion:

But some lawmakers have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that hands-off approach, especially after ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley and released a video showing the execution. The White House announced last week that United States forces had tried and failed to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages this summer.

In other words, they want the U.S. to strike ISIS. The Times seems to suggest this would help momentum toward a full vote on authorization. I would imagine the opposite is true.

If the approval would be far from assured (and it’s possible it might even be a long shot, depending on who you ask), and that Congress would bicker endlessly over just what it is they were trying to authorize, what would a lawmaker who supports the use of force want to happen? They would prefer the president strike without Congress.

This is practical, because time is of the essence. But it is also cynical, because it enables them to get their way while someone else takes responsibility for it. That’s true for Democrats who want to press a left-wing challenger in 2016 and would love an issue that has more traction than inequality or global warming, and it’s certainly true above all else for Republicans, who can get a policy they support while a president of the other party takes the flak for it.

None of this is to argue against the authorization or to dismiss the importance of an honest public debate and full accountability for a decision as serious as the use of force. It’s just to note that an Obama strike without that authorization would hardly be an example of an imperial presidency. It would be carrying out the wishes, however opportunistic, of both parties’ congressional delegations.

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

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With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Assad’s American Reinforcements and Obama’s Plunging Credibility

The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

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The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

And then John Kerry stumbled into revealing that, from the administration’s perspective, the “last resort” argument was false. Obama accepted the proposal to get rid of certain types of chemical weapons instead. Administration officials had gone, in a matter of minutes, from telling the American people why we must bomb Assad to telling the American people why we must partner with Assad. It became clear that when it came to matters of war and peace, Obama was winging it, overwhelmed by the complexity of the world.

And yet, partnering with Assad to get rid of certain chemical weapons, while an obvious scam that still snared the naïve American president, is conceptually quite different from what we’re about to do–and, according to AFP, what we’re already doing: partnering with Assad and acting as his air force. That’s a somewhat crude description, of course; we’re not allying ourselves with Assad’s Syria in the way we are allied with numerous non-monsters of the world. But we’re cooperating out of convenience:

The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

“The cooperation has already begun and the United States is giving Damascus information via Baghdad and Moscow,” one source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity.

The comments came a day after Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Syria was willing to work with the international community against the jihadist Islamic State group, and US officials said they were poised to carry out surveillance flights over Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said foreign drones had been seen over the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday.

Though it hasn’t been widely confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first such report of the U.S. sharing intel with Assad to appear in recent days. And of course, several news organizations reported in January that European intelligence officials were meeting with representatives of the Syrian regime to share information on Islamist groups:

Mekdad’s remarks followed a report in The Wall Street Journal claiming that European intelligence agencies have met covertly with Assad delegates to share information on European jihadists operating in Syria, in the first such meeting since withdrawing their ambassadors when the crisis began.

The report indicated that a retired official from the British MI6 made a trip to Damascus over the summer, and that the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies followed suit, making contact with regime officials in November and traveling to Syria from Lebanon to carry out their meeting.

President Obama appears to grasp just how silly this all sounds, but is prepared to match it with other silliness. In the New York Times’s report on Obama’s approval of surveillance drones over Syria, which seems to be a precursor to American strikes against ISIS targets there, the story mentions early on the fact that if the U.S. is to have any real effect on ISIS, it would also change the strategic equation in Syria.

In other words, it would benefit Assad. The Times explains that Obama has yet to accept that reality: “a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.” How could the U.S. help Assad win the war without helping Assad win the war? That’s a tough one.

Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility continues to plummet. The argument for staying out of Syria was that, well, we should stay out of Syria. Advocates of involvement in the Syrian war, especially early on when there appeared to be a window of opportunity, argued that staying neutral at the time might very well mean getting involved anyway at a later date, on someone else’s terms, with America’s strategic position weakened.

The idea that the U.S. could get dragged kicking and screaming into Syria was generally dismissed as warmongering. Yet now the conflict-averse president is doing just that. A year ago Obama began the preliminary process of building up to a strike on Syria. Now he is doing the same. The difference is that a year ago Assad was the target. Now he’s the beneficiary.

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ISIS and Hamas: Spot the Differences

It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

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It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

ISIS seeks a global caliphate, while Hamas just wants to end the Israeli “occupation.” Actually, Hamas also seeks a global caliphate, as its own interior minister, Fathi Hammad, reiterated on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV last November:

We shall liberate our Al-Aqsa Mosque, and our cities and villages, as a prelude to the establishment of the future Islamic Caliphate … we are at the threshold of a global Islamic civilization era. The fuel and spearhead of this era will be Gaza.”

Indeed, Hamas’s charter explicitly terms the movement a “universal” one and declares that Islam must ultimately regain “all lands conquered by Islam by force” in the past. It’s just that every global caliphate has to start somewhere, and Hamas started with Israel, whereas ISIS chose Syria and Iraq. This might prove the ISIS is shrewder; starting with a weaker enemy enabled it to progress much faster. But it doesn’t change the fact that the goal is the same.

ISIS kills “anyone who gets in their way: Sunnis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Iraqis, Syrians,” while Hamas only kills Israelis. Actually, Hamas also kills anyone who gets in its way. That includes Palestinian civilians who dare to protest its decisions or belong to its main rival, Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party; its more memorable murder methods include throwing Fatah members off rooftops. It also includes Egyptians: According to Cairo, Hamas has cooperated with local terrorists on several attacks in Sinai; Egypt even sought to extradite three senior Hamas operatives for involvement in an August 2012 attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.

Granted, ISIS has greater opportunities: It controls a huge territory seized from two collapsed states, Iraq and Syria, whereas Hamas is boxed in by two functioning states, Israel and Egypt. But within the limits of its opportunities, Hamas has been no less enthusiastic about killing “anyone who gets in their way.”

ISIS is exceptionally brutal; witness the snuff film it disseminated after executing journalist James Foley. I particularly like this claim, given that Hamas promptly followed suit with its own snuff films showing the executions of no fewer than 25 fellow Palestinians, including two women. A few weeks earlier, Hamas executed over 30 fellow Palestinians. Of course, Hamas claims all were collaborators with Israel, but it offered no evidence. Thus as the pro-Palestinian Amira Hass delicately put it in Haaretz, these executions primarily appeared to be a warning to the Gazan public “to be careful in anything it says and does” that might upset Hamas, because “The definition of ‘informing’ and ‘collaboration’ can become very murky in times of war.”

But Hamas brutality doesn’t stop at executions. How depraved do you have to be, for instance, to shell a border crossing while your own wounded civilians are passing through it, as Hamas did on Sunday, hitting four Arabs waiting on the Israeli side to drive them to the hospital? Meshal risibly claimed on Saturday that if Hamas had more accurate weapons, it would aim them exclusively at military targets. But Hamas has deployed the extremely accurate smart bombs known as suicide bombers for years, and it used them almost exclusively to kill civilians–from elderly people at a Passover seder to buses full of schoolchildren.

In short, there’s only one significant difference between Hamas and ISIS: Hamas has infinitely less power than ISIS to wreak global havoc, because Israel has managed to keep its capabilities in check. And for that service, needless to say, Israel has reaped nothing but global condemnation.

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The White House Press Secretary Isn’t Telling the Truth. And I Can Prove It.

One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

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One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

The latest effort is in the White House’s attempt to have us believe that the president, in his now infamous “jayvee” analogy, didn’t have ISIS in mind. Here’s an exchange between NBC’s Peter Alexander and White House press secretary Josh Earnest that took place on Monday:

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC: Did the president underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit. The president said quote:

I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

So the president was not singling out ISIL [aka ISIS], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was let by Osama bin Laden.

That claim–“the president was not singling out ISIL”–is simply not true. And it’s demonstrably untrue. To prove this assertion, it’s helpful to cite the relevant portion of the January 27, 2014 story by David Remnick in the New Yorker:

At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I [Remnick] pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” [emphasis added]

So we’ve established beyond any doubt that the president’s answer, which Josh Earnest quoted, is in response to David Remnick’s comment about the al-Qaeda flag flying in Falluja. And whose al-Qaeda flag in particular happened to be flying over Falluja at the time of the interview? For that answer, let’s go to a January 3, 2014 story in the New York Times, which begins this way:

Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night. The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. [emphasis added]

What we’ve shown, then, is that several weeks before the New Yorker story was published, the al-Qaeda flag flying over Falluja belonged to ISIS/ISIL. The president knew it. There is therefore only one possible interpretation: the president had ISIS/ISIL in mind when he made his “jayvee” reference. And there’s only one possible conclusion about what Mr. Earnest said: It’s false. He’s distorting the truth in order to exonerate his boss, the president, from having made a statement that was deeply and dangerously misinformed.

The White House press corps should vigorously pursue this matter with the White House press secretary; and he in turn should admit what he said was false. If Mr. Earnest doesn’t do so in light of this evidence, then his claim will move from the category of being false to being a lie. That would trouble me; and I would think it would trouble them.

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Why Are We Letting Qatar Play This Game?

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, calls out Qatar in a New York Times op-ed today pointing out how that small, oil-rich sheikhdom has become a leading financier of extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:

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Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, calls out Qatar in a New York Times op-ed today pointing out how that small, oil-rich sheikhdom has become a leading financier of extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:

It harbors leading Islamist radicals like the spiritual leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who issued a religious fatwa endorsing suicide attacks, and the Doha-based history professor Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, whom the United States Department of Treasury has named as a “terrorist financier” for Al Qaeda. Qatar also funds a life of luxury for Khaled Meshal, the fugitive leader of Hamas.

And of course its Al Jazeera TV station regularly broadcasts in favor of extremist Islam.

Prosor, because of the position he holds in the Israeli government, can’t offer much of a solution to this problem beyond “isolating” Qatar, but retired General Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute are under no such restrictions. They have an excellent suggestion: “We have alternatives to our Combined Air and Operations Center in Doha, the al Udeid air base, other bases and prepositioned materiel. We should tell Qatar to end its support for terrorism or we leave.”

It is high time that the U.S. government delivered the ultimatum they suggest. For too long Qatar has gotten away with playing both sides of the street–supporting radical Islam while also hosting the U.S. military. One suspects its wily rulers think they are covering themselves no matter what happens in the region by ingratiating themselves both with the jihadists and the “Great Satan.” It’s understandable why Qatar would play this game. Less understandable is why the U.S. government would tolerate it.

It’s about time President Obama borrowed a page from his predecessor and told Qatar (as George W. Bush never did): “You’re either with us or against us.”

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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Why Back a Group Committed to Murder?

In the wake of the horrifying filmed murder of journalist James Foley, the international community seems to be united behind efforts, however disjointed and perhaps insufficient, to stop ISIS. Yet at the same time, many of the same voices as well as much of the Western diplomatic corps seems intent on saving another terror group in Hamas which revolves as much around murder as does ISIS.

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In the wake of the horrifying filmed murder of journalist James Foley, the international community seems to be united behind efforts, however disjointed and perhaps insufficient, to stop ISIS. Yet at the same time, many of the same voices as well as much of the Western diplomatic corps seems intent on saving another terror group in Hamas which revolves as much around murder as does ISIS.

It must be conceded that a lot of the protests and the diplomatic efforts aimed at propping up Hamas are generated by sympathy for the people of Gaza. The residents of the strip ruled by the Islamist group have suffered terribly as a result of the war that Hamas launched this summer and still refuses to end as they reject and violate each cease-fire deal offered them.

But the agitation to “Free Gaza” being heard on the streets of Western cities and in the media isn’t focused on freeing Gaza from Hamas but in support of the group’s demands that the international blockade of the strip ends. While that might make it a little easier for humanitarian assistance to reach the Palestinians (though it is often forgotten that Israel has sent convoys with such aid across the border and evacuated the wounded from Gaza every day during the conflict), everyone knows the main impact of easing the restrictions on the strip would be to help Hamas replenish its arsenal and to rebuild its command centers, bunkers, and terror tunnels.

Thus, the American initiative to re-start the stalled cease-fire talks in Gaza by involving Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar can have only one possible outcome: a new deal that would allow the terror group to exact concessions from Israel and Egypt. Those pressuring Israel to cease defending its people against the incessant rocket fire on its cities from Gaza aren’t so much helping the Palestinian people as they are empowering Hamas to go on shooting and killing.

This is a key point for those expressing anger at Israeli counter-attacks on Hamas should remember. Hamas’s goal isn’t to force Israel to leave the West Bank or to negotiate a peace deal offering the Palestinians an independent state. Israel has already offered the Palestinians such deals a number of times only to have the more moderate Fatah and the Palestinian Authority turn them down.

Rather, as recent events have made clear, Hamas’s only strategy now is to kill as many Jews as possible.

What else can explain rocket and mortar fire aimed at Israeli civilians every day? The death of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman—killed by a mortar hit on his parents’ car on Friday—and the hundreds of missiles that have continued to rain down on Israel this past week are sending a message to the world, if only it will listen.

This weekend, Hamas’s so-called political leader, Khaled Meshaal, informed the world from his Qatar hideout that members of his group were, in fact, responsible for the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that set in motion hostilities this summer. This lust for murder was underlined by the group’s decision to follow up on the kidnapping by launching a war of attrition that has sent thousands of rockets down on Israel as well as the attacks launched from their terror tunnels.

These actions were not related to or motivated by specific Israeli policies or settlements but by a desire to fulfill Hamas’s genocidal covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel and the massacre and/or eviction of its Jewish population. Those are cold hard facts that those seeking to support “Free Gaza” on the streets and in the media should think about. Those facts should also lead the Obama administration and its European allies to think twice about concocting a diplomatic escape hatch for Hamas. Like ISIS, Hamas is all about terror and murder. As is generally recognized with ISIS, the only rational response to such a group is to eradicate them and to free Palestinians and Israelis from their reign of terror.

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The Consequences of Obama’s Arrogance

On Wednesday, President Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS terrorists with comments that seemed unusually angry for a president that is normally most comfortable playing the comedian-in-chief while flaying his political opponents. But, as even the New York Times noted in a surprisingly critical front-page article this morning, his decision to follow this moment of national grief by heading straight to the golf course, where he allowed himself to be photographed laughing and having a good time with his cronies, has rubbed even partisan Democrats the wrong way.

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On Wednesday, President Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS terrorists with comments that seemed unusually angry for a president that is normally most comfortable playing the comedian-in-chief while flaying his political opponents. But, as even the New York Times noted in a surprisingly critical front-page article this morning, his decision to follow this moment of national grief by heading straight to the golf course, where he allowed himself to be photographed laughing and having a good time with his cronies, has rubbed even partisan Democrats the wrong way.

As with his original decision to go ahead with his vacation last week despite the fact that Iraq was imploding, what is interesting about this controversy is not so much the time off during a crisis or the golf as the arrogance and contempt for public opinion that this president consistently demonstrates.

As the Times notes, he is not the first president that has been forced to try and strike a balance between his need for a break from the crushing responsibilities of the White House and the need to avoid demonstrating insensitivity to tragic events. But while his predecessors learned, after some mistakes, to steer clear of incongruous juxtapositions, this president doesn’t think he has to do so. As inconsequential as a flap over pictures of Obama cavorting on the links may seem, this may tell us more about the nature of this presidency and his legacy than his defenders or even some of his critics would care to admit.

As I wrote last week, it wouldn’t have killed Obama to postpone his vacation by a day or two to show the country that he was on the job in dealing with an implosion of Iraq that was largely caused by his own mistakes. Similarly, it must have occurred to someone on his staff that maybe heading straight from the Foley statement to the golf course was not only bad optics but also called into question the sincerity of the president’s comments about a subject that had to have touched him deeply.

But this episode is more than just a question of bad tactics. It tells us two important things about the way this president operates.

The first is that even if there was someone working in the vacation version of the West Wing who was smart enough to see this problem coming, we already know that the modus operandi of the Obama inner circle is that this is a president who clearly does not listen to his advisors or suffer to be told that his instincts or opinions are wrong. As much as he loves to preen about his willingness to hear all sides of an issue before he decides policy, this is not a man who brooks disagreement once he makes up his mind whether the issue is great or small.

Second, arrogance is not merely a personal quality of this president; it is a defining characteristic. When faced with a question of whether he should alter his behavior to conform to a sense of public decency or to go ahead and do what he wants, he always seems to prefer the latter.

There is an argument to be made that it is important that presidents not be held hostage to events or to be constantly altering their schedules to avoid the perception of giving offense. The ISIS terrorists who mentioned the president in their message concerning the Foley murder in which they said the fate of their other American hostage rests on whether the president ceases U.S. attacks on the group clearly would like to see him cowering. But it should also be pointed out that part of this president’s foreign-policy problem is that foes, such as Iran, Russia, and terror groups, have long since concluded that Obama is not a serious person, let alone a wartime leader. So long as that is true, the United States must expect that it will continue to be challenged and tested in a manner that might not happen were the president a man who was capable of learning from past mistakes. In this case, a mere matter of public perceptions stops being fodder for cable news political debates and becomes an invitation to mayhem on the part of irresponsible foreign actors who don’t believe Obama is capable of enforcing consequences upon them.

Given the fact that this president has not been gun shy about ordering hits on terrorists, that perception may be false. But the spectacle of Obama guffawing on the golf course right after issuing a statement of warning to ISIS was not one that is likely to deter other terrorists or nations seeking to test America’s will. Arrogance is a characteristic that can trump all others when one is in the public eye. But what all politicians—be they smart or not so intelligent—eventually learn, is that in public life, sooner or later style becomes substance. The fact that President Obama has yet learned this or is simply too stubborn and arrogant to adjust to the realities of his office tells us all we need to know about what a flawed leader he remains.

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Does Britain Feel No Shame at the Killing of James Foley?

As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

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As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

Observers have warned that the British fighters for the Islamic State are among the most vicious and brutal, and yet there is no sense of shame or culpability gnawing away at the British soul, despite the havoc and terror that British jihadists are causing in Iraq and Syria. The news reporting is procedural, the politicians sound tired, apathy permeates the conversation every time the subject is raised. The only time that any flicker of alarm or interest can be detected is when it is pointed out that these people, hardened by battle and radical Islam, might return to Britain to continue their fight from the streets of British cities.

Even then, those in power plead powerlessness, running through a list of excuses as to why it won’t be so easy to prevent the jihadists from coming home to roost. Yet given that these individuals have joined an enemy fighting force, it is not at all clear why Western countries won’t simply strip these individuals of their citizenship in absentia. After all, with the shootings at the Jewish school in Toulouse and the Jewish museum in Brussels, we have already seen just how dangerous European Islamists returning from jihad can be.

There was of course serious public outrage in 2013 when two British Muslims murdered the soldier Lee Rigby on a south London sidewalk one quiet afternoon in May. Even then, however, the national debate was rapidly reoriented from discussing the culture and community that the killers had emerged from to instead initiating a wave of handwringing and finger pointing about whether the backlash to the murder had been Islamophobic.

Not only did the British public stand accused of having reacted with hatred to Rigby’s murder, but for many left-wing commentators, they also stood accused of having caused the murder through their Islamophobia. And once again, inasmuch as anyone is undertaking any soul searching at all over what British born Muslims are perpetrating in Iraq and Syria, there are those who are attempting to suggest British society has driven these young men to jihadism by alienating and discriminating against them.

So far this accusation has not stuck. But Britain must recognize that it does indeed bear culpability for the fact that British bred jihadists have murdered an American journalist in Iraq. Britain has alienated its young Muslims, but not through bigotry and Isamophobia. For decades Muslim immigrants experienced no more hostility than the many others who made their way to Britain from the former colonies.

The reality is that ever since the early 1990s, British authorities embraced an ethos of multiculturalism that told immigrant groups that they should not integrate into the British way of life. The message was either that there was no such thing as British culture, just a conglomeration of other cultures, or that British culture was backward and not of any value. From schools, to local government, to social workers, the message was parroted that immigrant groups should embrace and reinforce their own cultures.

The fruits of this flawed policy of wilful alienation was the milieu from which Britain’s jihad export industry would eventually emerge. Britain must take responsibility for this, and for the fact that for years it has been the most conservative and hardline Muslim groups that the British government has empowered with the mantle of communal leadership, often misguidedly embracing these people as the chief representatives of the entire Islamic population in Britain. Indeed, even today politicians praise Muslim community leaders for allegedly working tirelessly to combat radicalization among their youth. And yet, with more British Muslims off on jihad than serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, one wonders just how much praise is really in order.

Following the news of the murder of James Foley a woman named Kadijah Dare took to the Internet to declare her intention to become the first female to behead a westerner in Syria. Ms. Dare hails from Lewisham in east London. Britain should feel a deep sense of shame that this is what it is exporting to the world. And along with shame it is about time that the British public expressed the kind of outrage that will force noticeable and substantial action against the subculture that is generating this horror.

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From Jayvee to Juggernaut: What Terrorists Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

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The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

After making the “jayvee” comment–which Remnick called “an uncharacteristically flip analogy”–Obama expanded on his thinking. He said: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The major folly here was not, therefore, Obama underestimating one particular terrorist group or another. And it was not in the president’s naïve assumption that jihadists in particular hotspots don’t have global ambitions. Those are mistakes, surely. But the worst part was really in Obama’s complete lack of understanding in how individual terrorists operate.

Obama has always tried to draw lines between al-Qaeda and other groups because he wants to limit American action. But those lines were and are arbitrary. And because of that, Obama has tended to think of “new” terrorist groups as freshmen starting out at the bottom of the food chain. In fact, not only do they blur lines between groups and switch allegiances, but all terrorist groups benefit from the transnational architecture built over decades by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other trailblazers.

A Washington Post story from earlier this month offered a good example of this:

U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

The movements are seen by U.S. ­counterterrorism analysts as a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of a group known as the Islamic State that has overwhelmed military forces in the region and may now see itself in direct conflict with the United States.

“Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”

The influx has strengthened an organization already regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by launching assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces caught in the group’s path have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.

Nobody defects to the jayvee team. And it’s been fascinating to watch the Obama administration come to terms with that realization, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly. Every time the administration is confronted with the fact that the global war on terror was not a made-up construct in a fit of warmongering pique but a logical reaction to the fluid, metastasizing threat of global jihadist groups, it struggles to explain its own meaningless distinctions.

So our enemy was al-Qaeda, not terrorism or terrorists more broadly. That, of course, was completely and recklessly false. So now that we have a non-al-Qaeda threat, how does the administration justify its uncompromising fury toward just one group? Here’s Hagel:

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

But that’s not really true either. They’re sophisticated, ideological, militarily advanced, and “tremendously well-funded.” But does Hagel think that doesn’t describe any terror groups that preceded them? Would he not have said that about al-Qaeda? Would he not say that has been true of Hezbollah for decades now? You could even argue it described the Taliban once upon a time.

The point is not to split hairs. The point is that the administration made a grave and dangerous error in its attitude toward al-Qaeda, claiming the fight could be limited to card-carrying and dues-paying members of that one club. Obama is simply repeating that mistake again with ISIS. Who will be the next jayvee team that turns into a juggernaut? Whoever it is, they will almost certainly take Obama by surprise.

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