Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

The Problem with Obama and His Generals

One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

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One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

The president repeated his vow that American troops would not fight the terrorists on the ground today when he spoke to an audience of soldiers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. While trying, not always successfully, to sound appropriately belligerent, the president made it abundantly clear that that his vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is conditional on finding local proxies to fight the war he has been dragged into by circumstance and the shifting tides of public opinion. The purpose of the speech and, indeed, a rare all-out lobbying push in Congress by a normally diffident White House, was to convince the country of the need to fund American participation in the conflict. But the contrast between the recommendations he has reportedly been getting from his military advisors and his adamant refusal to even leave the door open to U.S. action on the ground makes it hard to believe that he is really serious about winning this war.

As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report today in the Daily Beast, Dempsey’s statement is not the only instance of military men urging the president to keep an open mind about how best to win the war. Other advisers, including General John Allen, who has been appointed to lead the anti-ISIS effort, not only criticized the administration for its foolish decision to abandon Iraq that gave ISIS the opening it needed but has been calling for a “robust” effort against ISIS for months.

Some may interpret this disconnect as a standoff between trigger-happy generals and a thoughtful president who thinks carefully before acting (Obama’s cherished self-evaluation of his leadership style that he never tires of extolling). But that is both inaccurate as well as misleading. Generals and admirals are always the last ones to wish to see their cherished institutions and infrastructure hauled into a fight whose outcome is always uncertain. Rather, it is the fact that having found themselves tasked with the winning of a war against a terrorist threat that the American people now rightly think essential, the military understands that this requires a war-winning strategy.

The president embarrassed himself earlier this month when he said that he was still searching for a strategy to defeat ISIS, a position he reversed last week when he announced his order for the campaign. But by setting absolute limits on the willingness of the United States to actually fight and win the conflict, he sent ISIS a signal that he was not as committed to battle as they were.

The point here isn’t necessarily to advocate that the use of American troops in Iraq or Syria is a good or necessary thing. It is to note, as General Dempsey did in a rare moment of complete candor in congressional testimony, that it is not possible to rule their use out if the U.S. actually wants to win rather than merely manage the conflict. You don’t have to be another Lincoln, let alone a Napoleon or Alexander, to understand that when a political leader telegraphs the enemy that his country won’t commit to fighting them on the ground, it will encourage that foe to hang on. If the fight with ISIS is as vital to U.S. security as Obama now says it is—and he’s right about that—it’s fair to ask why he isn’t willing to keep all options on the table.

Pretending that the U.S. can beat ISIS by leading from behind with foreign proxies doing the hard slog on the ground is a formula for stalemate at best and possibly defeat. U.S. air power can influence the outcome of the battle and even do serious damage to ISIS. But such wars are won with troops on the ground pursuing counterinsurgency tactics.

President Obama is burdened with serious political constraints in a war-weary country and untrustworthy and often unsavory allies who are also opposed to ISIS. But even as we make allowances for the handicaps that he is laboring under, there is no disguising his lack of enthusiasm for the task as well as his lack of commitment to victory. What America lacks is not a strategy but a president who is ready to lead the country to victory. That will have to change if U.S. forces are to have any hope of success.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interventionism Was Hiding in Plain Sight

A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

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A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

As the New York Times reports, the troops will help with the construction of medical treatment facilities, distribution of aid, and will take the reins in coordinating a regional response. The administration expects to deploy as many as 3,000 to Africa in the effort. Some health experts are calling for an even greater response from the U.S., saying the focus on Liberia is not enough; Sierra Leone and Guinea are also in dire need.

If the crisis worsens, so will disorder, border chaos, and perhaps even a refugee crisis of sorts, not to mention the need to protect all these treatment centers and medical storage facilities. This is not an overnight mission, nor a relatively quiet one like sending forces to help track down African warlords, as we have also been doing.

So that’s one kind of military intervention–to fight a disease epidemic across the ocean. The other major story today was on the administration’s shaky attempts to wrangle support for military intervention in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

The plan is to use airpower to hit ISIS from above. But there are a couple of ways this could escalate. First is the possibility that since the U.S. is not coordinating attacks in Syria with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Assad’s forces could target U.S. aircraft. As the AP reported, “The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.”

Another complication is the fact that no one seems to believe airstrikes alone would be enough to accomplish the mission–though the mission itself isn’t quite clear enough for some of the members of Congress on the fence about the plan. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about mission creep and said success may, in fact, require boots on the ground in Iraq. “My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

We should also not forget that on his recent trip to Estonia attempting to counter Russian aggression, “Obama also announced the US would send more air force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia’s Amari air base an ideal location to base those forces.” The U.S. has since repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting NATO allies in the region, but it hasn’t stopped Russia from sending veiled threats it may test that promise.

So to sum up: we’re sending troops to one, and possibly three or more, African countries to deal with Ebola; we’re sending the Air Force to the Baltics, with promises to confront Russia with more troops if need be; and we’re contemplating the possibility of sending troops to Iraq while striking at one, possibly two sides in a three-way Syrian civil war while arming the third side, which may or may not have agreed to a truce with one of the sides we’re bombing.

How is it that the American public can be war-weary and also quite clearly interventionist at the same time? The answer is: piece by piece. Americans are tired, in an abstract way, of “policing” the world and fighting open-ended military campaigns. But the individual issues here scramble that message.

According to Rasmussen, half the country is worried about Ebola. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, most are concerned about ISIS, and thus by clear majorities support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. That same Post/ABC poll finds more than 40 percent think Obama has been “too cautious” on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That might be because, according to Pew, Americans see Russia as the country’s top looming threat.

In other words, when Americans’ retrenchment instincts clash with real-world crises, their concern for the latter tends to win out. And that’s also why we suddenly see a diverse coalition of hawks, at least on the right. Those who prefer less intervention may be learning from the Obama administration’s bungled retreat from the world stage that there is such a thing as a power vacuum, and nature does indeed abhor it.

A stable world order promoted by American power can in many cases make later military intervention unnecessary. Intervention is sometimes the most rational response from noninterventionists.

And as the Ted Cruz-IDC dustup has shown, Americans tend to be a diverse country full of people who strongly believe the United States has a responsibility to protect various at-risk populations around the globe. Here, for example, is the closing sentence of Ross Douthat’s column on the controversy from Sunday:

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

This is, I find, a strong argument for intervention. It’s also an argument, however unintended, for intervention that never materialized in Darfur, and perhaps the consideration of such in Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims might very well be the target of such a campaign. And it’s an argument for intervention in a broad array of crises. It is, in fact, a neat summation of Samantha Power’s foreign-policy philosophy. Douthat sounds about as much a realist here as John McCain is.

And Douthat’s not wrong about the need to save the besieged Christians of the Middle East! That’s the point. There are times when the United States is treaty-bound to intervene on behalf of allies. And there are times when the United States must intervene out of strategic interest. And there are times when the United States seems obligated to intervene out of sheer moral responsibility.

It all adds up to an active, interventionist American role in the world. And the support for that foreign policy goes on periodic hiatus, but it always returns.

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Why Scots Leader Compares Israel to ISIS

It might have been assumed that among Scottish nationalists, there would be a certain sympathy for Israel. Perhaps they would see some parallel between Zionism and their own efforts to regain sovereignty after many centuries without it, to revive an almost unspoken language long after most people in Scotland had lost the ability to so much as string together a sentence of Scots Gaelic. But, as a matter of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Scottish nationalism appears to have aligned itself with a radically anti-Israel impulse, one that enjoys substantial popularity with the wider public. And if there was any doubt about just how extreme that reflexive hostility toward Israel really is, we need only observe Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, comparing Israel to ISIS.

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It might have been assumed that among Scottish nationalists, there would be a certain sympathy for Israel. Perhaps they would see some parallel between Zionism and their own efforts to regain sovereignty after many centuries without it, to revive an almost unspoken language long after most people in Scotland had lost the ability to so much as string together a sentence of Scots Gaelic. But, as a matter of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Scottish nationalism appears to have aligned itself with a radically anti-Israel impulse, one that enjoys substantial popularity with the wider public. And if there was any doubt about just how extreme that reflexive hostility toward Israel really is, we need only observe Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, comparing Israel to ISIS.

During a BBC television interview that took place yesterday, Alex Salmond was discussing the latest ISIS beheading, this time of a British national. Salmond pointed out that British Muslims shouldn’t be held responsible for ISIS. Well, leaving aside the fact that many British Muslim families have members off on jihad in Iraq and Syria, Salmond’s point stands. But what he went on to say reveals just how second nature negativity toward Israel has become among Scottish nationalists. For, having referred to ISIS’s actions as “unspeakable barbarism” for which British Muslim’s shouldn’t be blamed, the first minister went on to add: “I mean, just like a few weeks ago, the Jewish community of Scotland wasn’t responsible for the policies of the State of Israel.”

First of all, that will come as news to many in Britain. During the war in Gaza, British Jews experienced a tremendous rise in anti-Semitic attacks, many of which in some way referenced Israel, and Scotland was no exception in this. But the comparison was clear; two evils in the Middle East, and two religious minorities in Britain who are not to be blamed for those evils.

Breathtakingly, some in Britain’s Jewish leadership have actually defended Salmond’s remarks, arguing that he had not intended any direct comparison between ISIS and the Jewish state. Well, yes, no doubt if questioned Mr. Salmond would not maintain that Israel and ISIS are morally indistinguishable. Yet the casual throwaway categorization was entirely evident. Quite simply Salmond’s point was that ISIS’s actions are “unspeakable barbarism,” and so were Israel’s in Gaza. There was no hint that Israel’s war might have been justifiable; Salmond’s remark makes clear that that’s beyond question. But as an enlightened and tolerant man, he simply asks that Scotland’s Jews not be held responsible.

Such attitudes are the norm among Scottish nationalists. Salmond’s second in command–and prominent face in the campaign for independence–Nicola Sturgeon was recently the headline speaker at Glasgow’s “Women for Gaza” rally. Also on the line-up was Yvonne Ridley, a prominent convert to Islam who has often voiced her support for terrorist groups, Hezbollah among them. Ridley recently called for a “Zionist-free Scotland.” So with the leading lights of the Scottish nationalist movement sharing a platform with those advocating a Scotland free of “Zionists,” one has to wonder just how serious they really are about not extending their antipathy for the Jewish state to Jews in general.

Mercifully, Scotland’s devolved government has no authority over foreign policy. Yet during the recent war in Gaza, the nationalists, who dominate the Scottish parliament, released eight separate condemnations of Israel. Salmond’s government even called for an arms embargo against Israel as the Jewish state attempted to halt the barrage of rockets and maze of tunnels directed against its civilians. And such sentiments are shared by much of the Scottish public. During the referendum campaign nationalists have reminded Scots that if they left the union they could be free of David Cameron’s pro-Israel stance. It was, after all, with considerable public approval that Glasgow city hall recently flew the Palestinian flag as an act of solidarity with Scotland’s Palestinian cousins.

And that is how one senses Scottish nationalists view the Palestinians; as Arab cousins. The same attitude is visible in Ireland, and among Welsh nationalists—the founder of the Welsh nationalist party was said to have hated the Jews as much as the English and harbored sympathies for European fascism. But to understand why these parts of the United Kingdom have become particularly hostile to Israel, one should look to Belfast. There the Catholic and Republican neighborhoods fly the Palestinian flag, but the Protestant and Unionists are more likely to be flying the Israeli one. The Celtic parts of Britain, rather bizarrely, seem to have conceived of themselves through the lexicon of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with the English firmly framed as the Israelis. It’s only disappointing that the rest of England doesn’t identify accordingly.

On reflection, perhaps it’s not surprising Scottish nationalists couldn’t identify with Zionism, the national liberation movement of a people persecuted and destitute in the world. Scottish nationalism has in no small part sustained itself on a diet of anti-English rhetoric; they have done well out of the politics of jealousy and resentment. No wonder it’s the Palestinians that Salmond feels a certain kinship with.

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U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition

Last week a congressman asked me: Should I support President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy even though it is likely to fail? Good question. And it’s not only lawmakers who are asking themselves that question. So are actual or potential U.S. allies from Europe to the Middle East. The most important people to be asking themselves that question are Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria whose support is vital to defeat ISIS. But should they risk their lives in what could well be a losing cause?

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Last week a congressman asked me: Should I support President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy even though it is likely to fail? Good question. And it’s not only lawmakers who are asking themselves that question. So are actual or potential U.S. allies from Europe to the Middle East. The most important people to be asking themselves that question are Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria whose support is vital to defeat ISIS. But should they risk their lives in what could well be a losing cause?

That, unfortunately, is the issue that will confront retired General John Allen, who has been tasked with assembling an anti-ISIS coalition. American credibility reached a low point a year ago when Obama threatened air strikes against Syria but then lost his nerve. Obama’s credibility has never recovered either with American voters or American allies. As one analyst in the UAE (one of the countries Obama is relying upon for help), recently told the Washington Post, “We have reached a low point of trust in this administration. We think in a time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin.”

The president does nothing to enhance his own credibility when he overrules the best advice of his own military commanders by refusing to commit U.S. “boots on the ground” to help anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria became a more credible military force. Most serious military analysts believe a substantial force of American advisers and Special Operations Forces will be required. Kim and Fred Kagan, for example, argue for 25,000 personnel in Iraq and Syria. I have suggested a figure of 10,000 to 15,000. By limiting the entire U.S. presence to 1,600 personnel so far, and by refusing to let U.S. advisers operate with units in the field, Obama has made it much less likely that the U.S. could achieve the objectives he set out.

And those objectives are themselves problematic. Obama said he is out to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. If his objective is really to destroy the group, why include the word “degrade”? Did FDR commit the U.S. after Pearl Harbor to “degrade and ultimately destroy” German and Japanese power? No, he committed the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to achieve he unconditional surrender of the enemy–the “degrade” part was assumed as being necessary on the road to ultimate victory. Because, however, Obama makes clear that his immediate objective is only to “degrade” ISIS–and because Pentagon officials have been leaking that the administration envisions a multiyear effort that will be handed off to the next administration–he raises the suspicion that he is intent only on “degrading” not on “destroying” ISIS.

Secretary of State John Kerry does not help matters, either, when he denies that the U.S. is at war with ISIS–he says it’s simply a “major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” That kind of language hardly inspires men to risk their lives.Kerry had to backpeddle on Sunday, saying that, yes the U.S. is “at war” with ISIS but the damage had been done–it shouldn’t be a matter of debate whether the U.S. is or is not at war.

This exquisitely nuanced and cerebral president needs to understand that war is, above all, a matter of willpower–that, especially when you are engaged in a conflict against an adversary utilizing guerrilla or terrorist tactics, the winner is usually the side with the greatest will to win. Alas, the president is doing little to convince anyone that he has committed every fiber of his being to crush ISIS. And until allies are convinced of our seriousness they are not likely to hazard much to help us.

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Obama Was Right Not to Ransom Foley

In our era of a bifurcated media, it’s not every day that both the New York Times and Fox News take up the same cause with almost equal fervor. But that’s the case with the efforts of the family of slain hostage James Foley to castigate the Obama administration for their handling of the negotiations with ISIS over the captive’s fate. The natural sympathy felt by all Americans for the Foleys combined with a story of government indifference and hypocrisy makes an irresistible story for both liberal and conservative media. But as much as any parent can identify with the sorrow and frustration of the family, in this case criticism of the administration is not justified.

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In our era of a bifurcated media, it’s not every day that both the New York Times and Fox News take up the same cause with almost equal fervor. But that’s the case with the efforts of the family of slain hostage James Foley to castigate the Obama administration for their handling of the negotiations with ISIS over the captive’s fate. The natural sympathy felt by all Americans for the Foleys combined with a story of government indifference and hypocrisy makes an irresistible story for both liberal and conservative media. But as much as any parent can identify with the sorrow and frustration of the family, in this case criticism of the administration is not justified.

The Foleys’ complaints revolve around both what they consider the duplicitous handling of the affair by the government as well its hypocrisy. When ISIS reached out to them with a ransom demand for their son, they contacted the FBI but what followed gave them little satisfaction and ended in tragedy. The Bureau not only informed them that paying ransoms was against U.S. policy. They also threatened them saying it was a crime to send money to terrorists even if the motivation was saving a hostage. What’s more, they also kept secret from them the fact that their governments were ransoming Europeans that were also held by ISIS. It was only after they learned that some of Foley’s fellow hostages were being freed after ransoms were paid that the family defied the government and began the process of raising money to gain their son’s release.

Yet the moment that convinced them that the administration had abandoned them was when news broke that the U.S. had obtained the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdhal from the Taliban in exchange for five Taliban members that were being held at Guantanamo Bay. Releasing terrorists under any circumstances is, at best, controversial, even if it means ensuring that no U.S. soldier is left behind. But given Bergdhal’s questionable conduct—there are allegations that he deserted his post and may have surrendered to the enemy voluntarily that have yet to be resolved—the exchange was widely criticized and left the Foleys and other hostage families believing they had no choice but to act on their own.

Even the government’s July 3 effort to rescue the hostages comes in for criticism from the Foleys. They believe its failure was due to lack of sufficient resources being devoted to surveillance of possible ISIS sites which caused delays that led to the victims being moved before U.S. forces arrived.

In the end, James Foley was murdered by ISIS to send a message to the U.S. about the price of intervention against their efforts to overrun all of Syria and Iraq. That left the Foleys grief stricken but also angry with they way they were treated by the Obama administration. They were, they say, consistently ignored and believe their son’s death is the direct result of the callous indifference to his plight displayed by American officials from the top down.

Is their anger justified?

Let’s state upfront that the Foleys, and every other hostage family, deserve our complete sympathy. Even if one is inclined to view the behavior of anyone like Foley or the other hostages who ventured into Syria the past few years as reckless, that is not something for which his family need apologize. Any parent would seek to move heaven and earth to save their child. Just as important, any parent would damn any government official, no matter how principled their behavior, if they did not do everything in their power, including breaking every rule in the book, to save that child.

But this illustrates the difference between personal priorities and those of the nation. However much we may sympathize with the Foleys, the administration did exactly the right thing by refusing to pay ransom to ISIS whether it was the reported $130 million they demanded or a lower amount.

It should be understood that ISIS’s military success this year was largely funded by the ransoms paid by Europeans for their hostages. Paying that money merely ensured that more people would be kidnapped, thus endangering more lives as well as worsening an already terrible situation in the Middle East. If you want to stop the kidnapping as well as to stop the onslaught of bands of murdering fanatics, the only way to begin is to stop paying ransoms and to start making the terrorists pay a price for their crimes.

The Foleys are right to complain about the hypocrisy of the Bergdahl deal. But, as much as its terms were disgraceful, that soldier was in harm’s way as a result of his army service. Exchanging POWs—even when the price is too high—is not the same thing as paying ransoms to kidnappers. Foley was in Syria of his own accord and as much as we would all have liked to see him saved, his desire to pursue freelance journalism in a war zone with terrorists did not give him, or his parents, the right to alter U.S. foreign or defense policy in order to bail him out of trouble or to endanger other Americans who would then be even more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The dynamic of hostage families influencing governments to pay off terrorists is a familiar one. It led President Reagan to trade arms with Iran. And it has repeatedly caused Israeli governments to make decisions that would free thousands of terrorists—many of whom ultimately return to terrorist activity—to free a handful of captive Jews. But while these decisions are understandable and maybe even inevitable (especially in Israel where the question of captured soldiers transfixes the nation), they are not wise and almost always do more harm than good.

There is much in President Obama’s conduct and policies on Iraq and Syria that is worthy of condemnation and I have often written here to articulate those concerns. The current alarming situation there is largely due to the president’s poor decisions that led him to delay action on Syria and to bug out of Iraq. But when he upheld existing policy against paying ransom for hostages, he was right. And, though it did not succeed, the president did the right thing when he ordered a rescue mission.

So while Fox and the Times may be assisting the Foleys in their campaign to blame the president for their son’s death, this is not a cause the media should embrace. While we grieve with the Foleys for their son, the best way to ensure that other families will not suffer in the future is to defeat and wipe out ISIS, not to pay them off.

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Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

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Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

The same thing holds true with regard to foreign affairs. When the United States engages militarily, it is often quite direct. Bill Clinton did not send American troops into Somalia or Bosnia secretly, nor did he try to hide the fact that he had ordered a cruise missile strike on Sudan and Afghanistan in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings. George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism, which combined not only the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also deployments to the Philippines. Likewise, Barack Obama has announced the deployment of American forces to places as far afield as Uganda, Iraq, and Liberia.

Many other countries obfuscate when they send troops into harm’s way. Hence, Russia has consistently denied that its troops were fighting in Ukraine, even as Russian journalists uncovered graves in Pskov, home of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, of Russian special forces based there but whom the Ukrainian government had announced killed over the previous weeks in Ukraine.

Likewise, the Iranian government has long denied that its forces are actively fighting in Syria. When the Syrian opposition has captured Iranians inside Syria, Tehran has dismissed its culpability saying that the young, fit, military-age men were simply pilgrims. This, of course, is nonsense. Heading into the midst of war-torn Syria on religious pilgrimage is like going to Acapulco for the cross-country skiing.

It seems with the United States projecting weakness and with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their team willfully blind, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stopped hiding its direct involvement in the Syrian fighting, at least in Persian. Hence, this story in the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency today, which announces the death of one Hoseyn Tabesteh which it identifies as a member of the “10th of Moharrem” IRGC Unit. Qasem Malekdar, the head of the Martyrs Foundation of Semnan Province, told the news agency that Tabesteh would be buried today in Semnan’s Shahrud county with several parliamentarians and provincial officials in attendance.

It is absolutely necessary to counter ISIS, wherever it might be—in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon. At the same time, journalists and analysts are right to ask whether targeting ISIS inside Syria is simply going to empower Bashar al-Assad and his noxious regime. The answer, of course, is not necessarily: there are more than two forces fighting inside Syria. While I am dubious about the Free Syrian Army, its moderation, and its capabilities, the Syrian Kurds are a more capable force than their Iraqi counterparts and have a far better track record against both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The problem is, though, that the White House and Pentagon continue to see Syria as an isolated, contained problem. President Obama’s strategy assumes the United States will act, and that no one else will interfere in the sandbox.

But if this story from Iran’s conservative press is to be believed—and there is no reason why it should not—then the IRGC will do its darnedest to ensure that once U.S. strikes against ISIS begin in Syria, Iran will be in a position to seize maximum advantage for Assad. This is not a reason for inaction against ISIS; rather, it is long past time that the White House and the Pentagon make clear that the IRGC inside Syria cannot expect immunity from American action regardless of the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians may culturally be indirect, but America should not be. To ignore the reality of Iranian action and strategy will simply empower Iran to augment its strategic position on the back of U.S. force, again.

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It’s Not About What ISIS “Wants”

ISIS continues to behead its hostages. The latest victim of its brutality was British aid worker David Haines, whose execution video was released over the weekend. Pretty much the entire world has united in condemnation of these evil actions, which have raised so much outrage in the U.S. that most Americans now support military action in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. But, some analysts suggest that this is precisely what ISIS wants–that the beheadings are simply a plot to draw us into a guerrilla war we cannot win. Can this be? Is it possible that we are playing into their hands by taking action against them?

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ISIS continues to behead its hostages. The latest victim of its brutality was British aid worker David Haines, whose execution video was released over the weekend. Pretty much the entire world has united in condemnation of these evil actions, which have raised so much outrage in the U.S. that most Americans now support military action in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. But, some analysts suggest that this is precisely what ISIS wants–that the beheadings are simply a plot to draw us into a guerrilla war we cannot win. Can this be? Is it possible that we are playing into their hands by taking action against them?

A similar suggestion was made about 9/11–some suggested that al-Qaeda struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon to ensnare the U.S., like the Soviet Union before it, into a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. So too it was sometimes suggested that the Iraqi army folded during the conventional U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003 so that Saddam Hussein could pursue guerrilla warfare against our troops. There is not, however, much evidence, much less proof, that this was ever our enemies’ intentions; even if the upshot of their actions was indeed to draw us into military expeditions in the Muslim world, that was probably not their intent.

If al-Qaeda had been expecting a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, it would have been better prepared. Instead its cadres, including Osama bin Laden, had to scatter willy-nilly. Many of them were caught or killed by U.S. forces; others went into hiding. The Taliban were also caught off guard and it took them years to launch an insurgency, which they could not have done without Pakistan’s help. There is not much evidence of premeditation here. In all likelihood bin Laden was expecting the kind of response al-Qaeda had seen earlier, when Bill Clinton had lobbed a few cruise missiles at them. Neither bin Laden nor his ally Mullah Omar was prepared for an American-enabled offensive by the Northern Alliance that drove al-Qaeda and its ilk out of power and into hiding.

What about Saddam? Although he had prepared some Saddam Fedayan irregular fighters, who shocked the U.S. invasion force with their fanatical and suicidal resistance, and although some of his henchmen became instrumental in launching an insurgency against the U.S., there is not much evidence that he expected to lose the war or that he was prepared to wage guerrilla warfare if he did so. Saddam, too, would have been better prepared for defeat if he had expected it–instead he went on the run and was pulled out of his spider hole by U.S. troops at the end of 2003. The bulk of the evidence points to the conclusion that the insurgency developed as a result of circumstances–such as the dissolution of the Iraqi security forces and the excessive de-Baathification campaign–that could not have been foreseen in advance.

I doubt that ISIS can foretell the consequences of its actions any better than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden could. In fact the group’s brutality has backfired before, by sparking the Anbar Awakening in 2006-2007. Ayman al Zawahiri, then the deputy head of al-Qaeda, now its head, even armed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, then the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS), against excessive brutality such as videotaped beheadings of hostages and mass murder of Shiites. All of this, Zawahiri said, would turn public opinion against AQI. But Zarqawi was so fanatical he ignored this good advice. So too now Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is indulging his blood lust and trying to instill respect for his group the only way he knows how–by lopping off heads. He probably imagines that this will frighten and cow his enemies. Instead it is having the opposite effect, by galvanizing opposition.

But let’s say I’m wrong and the beheadings are actually a diabolical plot to draw the U.S. into the wars in Iraq and Syria. What should our response be then? Should we simply ignore ISIS’s brutality if it actually wants us to intervene? Hardly. Because ISIS would win a victory–in fact it is winning today–as long as the U.S. does little to resist its evil designs.

At the end of the day, whether ISIS wants us to intervene or not is irrelevant. As President Obama recognizes, we have to intervene whether we like it or not–but we must ensure that our intervention is so successful that even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually wanted to draw us in, he will come to regret his decision.

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John Kerry’s Stupid Condescension

There is a certain kind of personality that not only can’t admit an error, but becomes stupidly condescending when they are asked to explain their error. Barack Obama is one such person; Secretary of State John Kerry is another.

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There is a certain kind of personality that not only can’t admit an error, but becomes stupidly condescending when they are asked to explain their error. Barack Obama is one such person; Secretary of State John Kerry is another.

Let me explain what I mean. Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer asked Secretary Kerry to clarify whether or not the United States is at war with ISIS (also known as ISIL). The reason the clarification is necessary is because the Obama administration, in the course of a few days, has had high-ranking officials say we’re both at war and we’re not at war with ISIS. Kerry himself said on Thursday that our mission was not a war but a counter-terrorism operation. By yesterday, in his interview with Schieffer, Kerry said we were at war with ISIS. In other words, Kerry was saying we aren’t at war with ISIS before he was saying we are.

When asked about all this, Kerry didn’t admit he was wrong. Here’s what he said instead:

Well, Bob, I think there’s, frankly, a kind of tortured debate going on about terminology. What I’m focused on obviously is getting done what we need to get done to ISIL. But if people need to find a place to land in terms of what we did in Iraq: Originally, this is not a war. This is not combat troops on the ground. It’s not hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not that kind of mobilization. But in terms of al Qaeda, which we have used the word war with, yeah, we went — we’re at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. And in same context, if you want to use it, yes, we’re at war with ISIL in that sense. But I think it’s a waste of time to focus on that. Frankly, let’s consider what we have to do to degrade and defeat ISIL. And that’s what I’m frankly much more focused on.

Memo to Secretary Kerry: the reason there’s a “tortured debate going on about terminology” is because the administration you work for is sending out not just different, but contradictory, messages about the nature of the conflict we have with ISIS. And while you may think it’s a “waste of time” to focus on whether we’re at war or not, it actually matters. The citizens of this nation deserve to know whether or not we’re at war; and one might expect a minimally competent administration to be saying the same thing rather than conflicting things. To dismiss these matters by saying he’ll answer the question “if people need to find a place to land” is quite patronizing, which raises this question: What exactly has Mr. Kerry ever achieved to make him believe he’s above the rest of us? He’s been wrong on virtually every major foreign-policy matter since the 1970s.

Beyond that, the semantics are important because they reveal the cast of mind of those in the administration. If the president and his top advisors are conflicted about whether even to call this a war, you can bet they don’t have the determination and strength of purpose to actually wage and win one. And oh-by-the-way: If Messrs. Obama and Kerry believe we can defeat ISIS without prosecuting a war–if they think a counterinsurgency operation is enough–they are living in a fantasy world.

The Obama administration increasingly resembles a clown act. If they were in charge of a circus, that would be one thing. But the fact that they are in charge of American foreign policy is quite another. The damage being inflicted on America’s national interests and the international world order by the ineptness of Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, Susan Rice & Co. is beyond immense. It now qualifies as incalculable. Those are not grounds for being haughty and supercilious.

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Teaching U.S. Officials About Radical Islam

When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

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When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

But while deploying troops must sit through countless hours of cultural awareness training to learn about the region in which they will soon live and fight, many with whom I have talked over the years voice a common criticism about the programs: They are subject to basic, politically correct descriptions of Islam that seem detached from the reality of their missions. U.S. troops who have fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan are fighting not peaceful Muslims who abide by the most benevolent Koranic interpretations, but rather radical jihadis who seek to disfigure and murder in the name of religion.

The same is too often true with Department of Justice training. After having been criticized by Islamist advocacy groups for focusing too much on radicalism, the Justice Department has largely sanitized its training. It avoids controversy by allowing groups like the Council on American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)–which embrace or apologize for some of the worst groups–to help set the bounds of permissible interpretation. Letting CAIR determine what can and cannot be taught about Islamist terrorism is like letting the Taliban have final say on the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manuals. To have ISNA have sway on how Muslim military chaplains are credentialed suggests a lack of seriousness about combating radicalism.

While no religion has a monopoly on terrorism, cultural equivalence also rings hollow: There is a far greater problem right now with Islamist terrorists operating across the globe and who use theological exegesis to motivate and justify their actions than with groups which root themselves in Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. To teach counter-terror analysts only about the “Five pillars of Islam,” commonalities between the Koran and the Old and New Testaments, and explain only the most sanitized interpretations of the Koran is simply policy malpractice made worse when questions regarding radicalism go unanswered.

Basic theology is not hard to understand. But if U.S. military officers and Department of Justice officials are truly going to understand the environments in which they serve and the adversary against whom they seek to protect the United States and all Americans, then it becomes essential that U.S. officials are able to understand and explain not only what the five pillars of Islam are, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, or what the 21st century definitions of Greater and Lesser Jihad are, but rather be able to discuss:

  • The passages of the Koran which extremists use to justify suicide bombing and precise theological arguments moderate clergy might use to refute those (beyond simply saying Islam forbids suicide).
  • The evolution of Islamic interpretation of the Koranic passages which promote beheading of prisoners.
  • They should also learn that, contrary to common rhetoric, the Koran is not always the same, either historically or in translation and interpretation.
  • All religions evolve. Few Christians would advocate publicly burning at the stake women who might publicly recite the Bible. After all, this is no longer the 14th century. Likewise, while it is important to understand contemporary interpretations of jihad, it is likewise important to recognize that the concept of jihad has evolved over time. That said, when militant groups seek to build a society based on their notion of how Islamic states might have acted 1,350 years ago, it behooves analysts to understand what theological interpretations predominated then.
  • The theology that Osama Bin Laden embraced and expounded, and that advanced by Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abubakr al-Baghdadi. If these men preach something un-Islamic, then an official with understanding should be able to explain why–not simply ignore their theology.

Teaching about radicalism is not Islamophobic nor should those who wish to protect or even advocate for Islam agitate against it. After all, the chief victims of radical Islamism are the moderates.

President Obama may have sought to project seriousness when he outlined a strategy to combat ISIS on September 10. But until the U.S. government—whether the Defense Department focused abroad or the Justice Department at home—refines its curriculum to address rather than avoid tough questions of theological interpretations, any officer or official participating in the fight will not only be entering it blind but, more damningly, will be entering it blind based on the political desire of their leadership. It’s time to equip those manning our front lines with real cultural awareness, not the religious equivalent of My Little Pony.

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Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

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When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

There were the beginnings of a similar moment when terrorists from Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group, abducted hundreds of school girls, most of whom remain missing. Even al-Qaeda criticized Boko Haram’s action as destructive to the overall cause which al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists embrace.

Alas, it seems that the public—and Islamists—are becoming accustomed to such brutality and are no longer willing to condemn it on such a broad scale. Cases in point are the capture and enslavement of Yezidi girls and the systematic execution of journalists and aid workers by proponents of ISIS. Now certainly, these have been subject to the usual rote condemnations by governments and by groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that have taken Saudi and Qatari money and often associate with more radical Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, when push comes to shove, many Islamists and the groups and countries which support them are not putting their money where their mouth is. Arab countries—the same countries whose citizens often donated to ISIS and associated charities—have been reluctant to help. Turkey’s excuse—that it is afraid for hostages held in Mosul—does not pass the smell test given that Turkey has not hesitated to wage war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even when that group has held Turks hostage. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to label ISIS as terrorists simply reinforces the issue.

It’s all well and good to dismiss ISIS actions as “un-Islamic” as CAIR has done or, for that matter, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have done. But the truth is that to millions of Muslims, they are very Islamic. To deny the religious component of “Jihad John” or ISIS’s actions is to deny that there is an exegesis within Islamic thought that not only allows but blesses such actions. It is to deny that there is a battle of interpretation which must be won. Nor is it logical to embrace a politically correct and scrubbed 21st century definition of jihad when ISIS reaches back to interpretations of a millennium and more ago when jihad was understood by Islamic theologians to mean an often offensive holy war.

The fact that the visceral outrage which confronted the Beslan murders has now been replaced by pro-forma but ultimately meaningless condemnations of Islamic terror by Muslim majority states and Islamic advocacy organizations suggests that far from rising up with righteous outrage against the actions of the latest Islamist group, the broader Islamic world has become inured to such actions conducted in its name and unwilling to recoil and shame its proponents and supporters in the same way.

Indeed, the thousands of foreign terrorists which now flock to Syria and Iraq did not radicalize in the last two months, nor did they embrace the most radical interpretations of Islam simply because they disliked former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, they were instructed in hundreds of mosques scattered across Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. They were taught the Koran and its meaning by thousands of teachers and imams funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. These mosques were protected from criticism by so-called Islamic civil-rights and advocacy groups who conflated any criticism of radical Islamist ideology with Islamophobia. If only the same organizations instead began to name and publicly shame the extremists who preach in American, European, or Middle Eastern mosques.

Press releases won’t cut it, nor diplomatic handshakes and symbolic press conferences. The problem lies deeper, and ultimately boils down to the tolerance for extremism in so many European, American, and Middle Eastern mosques upon which ISIS recruiters rely.

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Beheading Shows Just How Bad U.S. Intelligence Has Become

The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

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The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

Still, as the United States prepares military action, if President Obama is to be believed, the beheading of Haines reinforces just how bad American intelligence has become in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The terrorist murdering Haines refers to British pledges to support the Kurdish peshmerga against ISIS as well as bombing of the Haditha dam a week ago. This suggests that Haines was not killed at the time of previous ISIS videos, but rather in the last couple days.

This suggests that neither the United States nor United Kingdom has much of an idea about where its citizens are being held hostage. Given the importance to ISIS of its propaganda campaign, this means in turn that the United States and United Kingdom likely have little to no idea about where high-value ISIS targets are. (Turkey may have some idea. When I was in Syria earlier this year, almost everyone—opposition and regime—used Turkish cell phone signals which mysteriously penetrated deep into Syria. That those are not monitored beggars belief; that Turkey would not share its intelligence with Western democracies does not.)

In effect, while air power can strike at some ISIS hardware or permanent encampments, the United States is fighting blind.

Time may resolve this. Intelligence insight increases with greater and contiguous presence. The longer the United States remains committed, the better our intelligence penetration should be.

Let us hope that future presidents learn a lesson: The United States based its withdrawal from Iraq and its coming retreat from Afghanistan on two pillars: That armies we trained could control ground and that the United States could provide “over-the-horizon” security from naval aircraft or from bases outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Both assumptions were false: The training of the Iraq army, Afghan army, and Kurdish peshmerga were a multi-billion dollar fiasco, and the United States has been able to do very little from over-the-horizon, largely because we blinded ourselves with our withdrawal.

By withdrawing completely, however, and severing so much of the military-to-military and intelligence relationships, the United States blinded ourselves to events just as surely as we had shoved a hot poker into our eyes. Our human intelligence slowed to a drip, and then dried up completely. Once hard-won capabilities are forfeited, they cannot be restored with a wave of a magic wand or presidential rhetoric.

Perhaps had we not packed up and gone home but left the residual force which the Iraqis expected, we would not have been so blind as to ISIS’s rise and the whereabouts of its assets and our captured citizens.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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At War with the English Language

The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

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The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

That’s the takeaway from this interview Rice did on CNN. Apparently, whether or not we call this a war is up to you, the public. The administration isn’t really sure, so they’re going to crowdsource it, Wikipedia-style. Here’s Rice telling Wolf Blitzer that what’s important is not whether you call a war a war but that you just follow your heart, man:

I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign. I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war. So I think this is very different from that. But nonetheless, we’ll be dealing with the significant threat to this region, to American personnel in the region and potentially also to Europe and the United States. And we’ll be doing it with partners. We’ll not be fighting ourselves on the ground but using American air power as we have been over the last several weeks as necessary.

Now, it should be noted that Rice’s opinion is consistent with some but not all such statements by current American officials, because a coherent vision has not and will not be forthcoming from the White House. Here’s John Kerry, saying it’s not a war:

The U.S. is not at war with ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted today, describing the military campaign outlined by President Obama as “a counterterrorism operation of a significant order.”

And yet at today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest changed tune:

And the Pentagon:

How the administration sees this war is important not only for the constitutional implications, which are serious enough. It’s also because the way officials are describing it gives us an indication of their overarching strategy. There’s no question ISIS is a terrorist group, and thus the administration certainly isn’t wrong in saying that combating ISIS will require elements of counterterrorism.

But ISIS is also more than just a terrorist group. It may not be a state, as the president said in his speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s without state-like characteristics, and that matters for how the U.S. military will approach rolling it back and ultimately defeating it.

As I wrote last week, ISIS’s declarations of statehood may just be bluster, but they indicate something else: that ISIS is operating as if Iraq, Syria, and its other targets are not states either. Most of the terrorist groups the West has fought in the global war on terror were either state-like and static–think the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas–or fluid and less interested in collapsing existing states and declaring their own, like the al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that try to hit American and Western targets.

With ISIS, although there is concern they could try to attack the homeland, the primary threat does not appear to be random suicide bombers or even training grounds for wannabe jihadis. (Though the number of European passport holders flocking to ISIS territory raises that threat as well.) What ISIS has done is essentially put together a kind of standing army that seeks to capture and hold strategic territory. As the terrorism scholar William McCants told the site ThinkProgress earlier this week with regard to an influential 2004 jihadist manifesto and its similarities with ISIS tactics:

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

There’s an actual strategy here, and it’s not just about causing mayhem and it’s not just about targeting symbols of the West. Principles of counterterrorism can be very helpful in fighting ISIS, but an army on the march demands more than that. Which is why the language from the commander in chief on down is so important.

Perhaps they’re getting it right. Today’s briefings seem to mark a shift toward admitting we’re at war. But that will also require dropping the silly word games meant to deride ISIS, as if taunting them will bring victory or minimizing the threat will attract more global support for the war. The president needs to get the terminology right, and then get the strategy right. At the moment, officials are giving off the impression that they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten us into.

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Ted Cruz, IDC, and the Politics of Solidarity

Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

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Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

My instinctive response was based on the fact that Jews really don’t love being the reason Christians are angry with each other. And that remains true. But the fact that the Jewish state was in the middle of this has revealed some common ground that usually flies under the radar, and deserves more attention.

First, there is the issue of Cruz telling the crowd, which was there to support the oppressed Christians of the Middle East, that Israel was their best friend. Over at the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway takes issue with Cruz’s focus on Israel and David Harsanyi defends it, noting that Israel is the one country in the region where Christians can live safely and practice their faith, and are therefore thriving.

I would only add to Harsanyi’s point that not only is Israel a safe destination for Christians, but Israel is currently actively involved in saving Christians in the region. It is simply a fact that for the oppressed Christians of ISIS strongholds like Syria, Israel is their ally–in practice, not only in theory. It’s not particularly well known, thanks to the tangled politics of Christian Arab groups being supported by Israel. But it’s quite clear now that since this controversy broached the subject, it must be pointed out that Cruz was not merely engaging in hyperbole.

Second, while this issue has become extremely divisive, there might be a silver lining in terms of common ground between Christians and Jews. I have no desire–and more importantly, nothing approaching the knowledge level–to get involved in the intramural theological disputes here. (Though it’s clear that many of those understandably defending their fellow Christians are quite plainly unfamiliar with IDC.)

But one reason Jews have been such steadfast allies to the beleaguered Christians is that they understand exactly what Syrian, Iraqi, and other Christians are going through. And they also understand the need for interfaith help. To Jews, the concept of hakarat hatov is important; the term represents the need to display proper gratitude. And so earlier in the week, the Jerusalem Post reported on the wealthy Canadian Jewish philanthropist who has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler.” His name is Yank Barry, and he “last week surpassed his goal of helping 1,200 Middle Eastern refugees, Muslim, Christian and Yazidi, from war-torn and oppressive countries, helping them rebuild their lives in Bulgaria.”

He took the number 1,200 from the number of Jews Oskar Schindler saved during the Holocaust. Think of this as the Jewish version of “Lafayette, we are here!” Jews don’t forget those who helped them, of whatever faith. And we have been commanded “you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Don’t forget where you come from or what you’ve been through, in other words.

And there is also something encouraging in the way Christians (on the right, anyway) have responded in fellowship and solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sisters elsewhere, with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry even calling on American Christians to rethink casting a vote for Cruz. Many of these Christian thinkers and writers are reliably pro-Israel and certainly consistent in their philosophical, political, and ideological outlook. (Gobry is a contributor to COMMENTARY.)

But for some of them this is far more interesting. One clearinghouse of pro-IDC anti-Cruz reaction has been the American Conservative magazine’s website. That’s appropriate, and it’s been quite heartening to watch the magazine’s writers call for putting Christian unity above American politics and to prioritize the fate of Christians in the Middle East.

I say it’s heartening because the magazine’s website has also been an easy place to find accusations of dual loyalty against Jews who express their displeasure with an American politician because of that politician’s perceived lack of understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the Middle East. Here is the charge leveled against Sheldon Adelson, for example, with the added bonus of saying he purchased Newt Gingrich’s candidacy to turn the Republican presidential candidate into an agent of the Israelis. Here is the site speculating about whether Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, lost his election because he was “Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman.” And of course, the magazine’s founder, Pat Buchanan, is famously of the opinion that pro-Israel Jewish Americans are an Israeli “Fifth Column” in America.

So the discovery that faithful solidarity and American loyalty are not mutually exclusive is a revelation (no pun intended) of common ground to some writers. The controversy surrounding Cruz’s speech might be divisive, but it’s also a reminder that Christian Americans and Jewish Americans are on the same side here.

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Tell Turkey: Counterterror Goes Both Ways

The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

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The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

Some Turks may be held hostage, although if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were truly worried about ISIS terrorism, they likely would not have forbidden the Turkish press from reporting on it nor would they have encouraged ISIS in the first place nor would they have opened their borders to provide medical treatment for ISIS leaders.

The problem with American diplomacy today is, when it comes to important issues, there is no consequence for those who would thumb their nose at American priorities. In the wake of Hagel’s visit to Ankara, Hürriyet Daily News interviewed Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary for defense. Despite the Turkish refusal, Chollet’s talk was full of the usual platitudes:

  • “The U.S. and Turkey see very much the same threats in this region and have a shared perspective.” (Really? So we share Turkey’s views on Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and al-Qaeda?)
  • “Secretary Hagel wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States on many challenges we face in the world, whether it be the threat from ISIL or broader regional issues happening in the Middle East.” (Never mind that Turkey just slapped the United States down on ISIS.)
  • “One of the conversations we had was about how we can work together to help strengthen border security. That’s not a unique conversation between the U.S. and Turkey at all; it’s something we have talked about with many partners around the world.” (Yet it is a unique problem when it comes to Turkey, as the Turkish border is the main mechanism of ingress for foreign jihadis joining ISIS.)

His last one was the real whopper, however. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

Another concern that Turkey has is that weapons to be provided to the groups fighting ISIL may end up in the wrong hands, such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Chollet said this worry was also being taken seriously “because it is the last thing we want.”

Why should arms leaking to Syrian Kurdistan be “the last thing we want?” The Syrian Kurds are the only group to have defeated both the Syrian regime and ISIS. They have established a secular, autonomous region and given shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands regardless of their religion or ethnicity. When I went to “Rojava” earlier this year, girls walked to school unescorted and without fear of violence, municipalities collected trash on regular schedules, and women and men worked and shopped together in the markets. The weaponry of the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga, did not leak to Turkey.

The United States has long supported Turkey’s fight against the PKK. Whatever one’s views regarding the PKK and whether or not they are a terrorist group (here are three views, including my own, ranging across the spectrum arguing that the PKK should be de-listed as a terrorist group), it’s long past time the United States embrace reciprocity. Fighting terrorism is never easy. It’s always inconvenient, and there can always be complications. Rightly or wrongly, America (and Israel) bent over backwards to support the Turkish fight against the PKK because Turkey was an aspiring democracy and because it took terrorism seriously. But today Turkey does not reciprocate counter-terrorism assistance; indeed, more often than not, whether with regard to Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah, it undercuts it. There should be absolutely zero assistance to Turkey in what it perceives as its counter-terror fight until such a time that Turkey realizes that alliances go both ways.

Indeed, just as the United States should support India and Afghanistan without apology in their war against terrorism and ensure India, at least, receives a qualitative military edge over terror-sponsors like Pakistan, it would be just as wise to support actively Syrian Kurds and perhaps even the PKK so long as they continue to take their fight to ISIS. Turkey has chosen its side; let it face the consequence of its decision. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that, given Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s actions and position, Turkey was the past and, for the United States, Kurdistan is the future.

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Defining Islam and the Islamophobia Myth

President Obama was going down a well-worn path last night when in his speech about stopping ISIS, he claimed the terrorist group was “not Islamic.” Like his predecessor George W. Bush, the president feels impelled to define America’s Islamist terrorist foes as somehow unrelated to the Muslim religion. The motives for this effort are utilitarian as well as idealistic but it comes with a cost, both in terms of our ability to wage an effective war against this enemy and the way these statements help fuel myths about American attitudes toward Muslims.

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President Obama was going down a well-worn path last night when in his speech about stopping ISIS, he claimed the terrorist group was “not Islamic.” Like his predecessor George W. Bush, the president feels impelled to define America’s Islamist terrorist foes as somehow unrelated to the Muslim religion. The motives for this effort are utilitarian as well as idealistic but it comes with a cost, both in terms of our ability to wage an effective war against this enemy and the way these statements help fuel myths about American attitudes toward Muslims.

As our Michael Rubin noted earlier today, it is not any president’s job to define who is and who is not affiliated with a particular religion. ISIS may practice a form of Islam that we find repellent but to pretend that it has nothing to do with the Muslim religion or that its roots are not very much part of the Islamic tradition isn’t a serious statement. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has many variations. But unfortunately, the violent and intolerant brand of Islamism that is championed by ISIS is not only not as much of an outlier as many Americans would like to pretend; in some ways its views are not dissimilar to other more mainstream sects such as the Wahhabi sect that dominates America’s Saudi Arabian ally. The difference between the two lies mainly in Wahhabi clerics’ loyalty to the House of Saud and the radicals’ belief in overthrowing most Muslim regimes, not in any innate contrasts between their views of the non-Muslim world.

In order to understand the strength of ISIS and its ability to rally the support or at least the sympathy of so many Muslims, it is necessary to understand its ability to appeal to those who believe Islam should dominate the world, just as it tried to in its heyday when Christian Europe was holding on for its life against a resurgent Muslim military tide. The intolerance it foments has its origins in a worldview that holds that the world must bow to Muslim sensibilities, even to the point of censoring Western expression about their faith. If it is to be defeated, it will have to be understood in the context of the history of the region and not by treating it as an alien outburst.

Nevertheless, it is necessary for American leaders to be at pains to demonstrate that the U.S. has never and will never be at war with Islam, a faith that commands the allegiance of a billion people, most of whom are not interested in war with the West. It is also important for Americans not to consider the millions of loyal American Muslims as being somehow responsible for the behavior of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other Islamist terror group.

But though both Bush and Obama have bent over backwards to avoid portraying the war against Islamist terror as having anything fundamental to do with Islam, their willingness to do so has given credence to those who have claimed that the opposite is true. The notion of a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in America is a myth that has been repeatedly debunked, yet it continues to thrive and grow.

For example, in today’s Daily Beast, Dean Obeidallah claims “13 years after 9/11, anti-Muslim bigotry is worse than ever.” What proof does he offer for this? Not much. There is a poll sponsored by the Arab-American Institute that shows that less than half of those surveyed have positive views of American Muslims and 42 percent support the use of profiling by law-enforcement agencies that would focus on Arabs and Muslims.

These numbers may seem troubling. But the disconnect here is between what the poll rightly diagnoses as worries about homegrown terrorism committed by Muslims and in some cases supported by radical clerics and any actual evidence of discrimination or hate directed at Arabs or adherents of Islam.

As I have repeatedly noted here, FBI hate-crime statistics for every year since 9/11 have repeatedly demonstrated the emptiness of claims of a backlash against Muslims. In each of the last 12 years, hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered those directed at Muslims. And despite the poll Obeidallah cites, there has never been a single credible study that was able to establish a consistent pattern of discrimination or systematic violence against Muslims.

Even more incredibly, Obeidallah claims American popular culture has furthered the worst image of Muslims and refused to portray them positively. As anyone who has watched television or the movies in the last 13 years can attest, this is nonsense. Hollywood has gone out of its way in much the same way Bush and Obama have done to avoid stereotyping Arabs and Muslims. To the contrary, although some Muslims have been at war against the United States during these years, popular films that portray Arabs and Muslims as typical enemies are few and far between. This avoidance is virtually unprecedented in the history of warfare and culture.

Nor, despite Obeidallah’s attempt to portray a few stray politicians who are worried about the spread of sharia law as mainstream, has there ever been any attempt by the U.S. government to harass Muslims. Though in an era during which al-Qaeda and now ISIS are doing their best to strike Western targets it is simply common sense to pay more attention to Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, police departments around the country have eschewed profiling. The same is true of the Transportation Security Agency, whose airport personnel go out of their way to scrutinize elderly grandmothers so as to avoid the impression that they are keeping an eye on the same group that produced the 9/11 hijackers. In the same spirit, law enforcement personnel have often been more interested in establishing good relations with radical clerics than in monitoring their activities.

Discrimination against Muslims and Arabs is wrong. But those seeking to keep the myth of a backlash against them after 9/11 alive are pursuing an agenda that is not so much anti-bias as it is anti-awareness of the dangers of radical Islam.

Pretending ISIS isn’t Muslim won’t help us defeat them. But by acting as if Americans are barbarians who would resort to violence if they knew the truth about ISIS, the president is playing along with the same false narrative that seeks to establish American Muslims as the true victims of 9/11. That sort of thinking is not only offensive; it breeds a mindset that has often undermined our ability to act decisively against those advocating violent Islam and led some young American Muslims to join ISIS and other terror groups. So long as we keep ourselves in ignorance about both ISIS and its sympathizers we will not only never defeat them, we will also be fomenting a terrible lie about American society.

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Jeers for Cruz and the Reality of Jew Hatred

Yesterday, our former colleague Alana Goodman reported in the Washington Free Beacon that a roster of speakers with ties to Hezbollah, Iran, and anti-Israel extremists tainted a Washington conference that was supposed to promote awareness of persecution of Christians. But it turns out the speakers weren’t the only problem at the In Defense of Christians event. Senator Ted Cruz was booed off the stage at the conference last night when he expressed support for Israel. While some are unfairly speculating whether Cruz’s courageous stand was a calculated gesture, what happened highlights the insidious growth of anti-Semitism even in places where one might not have expected it.

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Yesterday, our former colleague Alana Goodman reported in the Washington Free Beacon that a roster of speakers with ties to Hezbollah, Iran, and anti-Israel extremists tainted a Washington conference that was supposed to promote awareness of persecution of Christians. But it turns out the speakers weren’t the only problem at the In Defense of Christians event. Senator Ted Cruz was booed off the stage at the conference last night when he expressed support for Israel. While some are unfairly speculating whether Cruz’s courageous stand was a calculated gesture, what happened highlights the insidious growth of anti-Semitism even in places where one might not have expected it.

For the Cruz haters, the significant factor here is his presidential ambitions rather than the hate he faced. Over at Slate, Dave Weigel seems to imply that once Cruz figured out that he was attending an event that was sponsored by some fairly fishy characters, the Tea Party firebrand made a decision to distance himself from the group and dared them to boo him by making a strong pro-Israel statement. It was, the liberal pundit claimed, a “Pro-Israel Sister Souljah Moment” that will insulate the Texas senator against any claims that he made common cause with extremists.

If so, it was an extremely clever move by Cruz and his defiance of the crowd jeering him will long be remembered in the pro-Israel community:

Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target Jews for their faith, for the same reason. … If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews. Then I will not stand with you. Good night, and God bless.

But the idea that Cruz was worried about his pro-Israel credentials doesn’t wash. Cruz has made a lot of enemies on Capitol Hill with his take-no-prisoners approach to policy and an abrasive manner that has alienated colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But he’s also taken every possible opportunity to articulate strong support for Israel, often taking the administration to task for its predilection for picking fights with the Netanyahu government. While he certainly did himself some good by standing up to these haters, his statement was not out of character for a man who has often uttered these sentiments in other contexts.

It’s also not clear that this will give Cruz any material advantage in 2016. Other than Rand Paul, whose isolationist tendencies make him extremely problematic for supporters of the Jewish state or a strong U.S. foreign policy, all of the major and most of the minor GOP contenders have strong pro-Israel records. This is not an issue on which any of those contending for the nomination will be able to distance themselves from the pack.

But instead of speculating, as Weigel did, on the questionable notion that this was a political stunt by Cruz, the real issue here is the effort to mainstream anti-Semitism while operating under the banner of defense of persecuted Christians.

The issue of the oppression of Christians in the Middle East is an important one that has for too long flown under the radar. The rise of violent Islamist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have brought this issue more attention in recent months. But the willingness of some Middle East Christians to make common cause with Muslims when it comes to Israel undermines their cause. Jews and Christians have always suffered under Muslim rule as Dhimmi, persecuted minorities that are nonetheless protected from murder so long as they accede to their second-class citizen status. In the 20th century, some Christians sought to prove themselves by affirming their loyalty to a pan-Arab identity that placed them in the forefront of the war against Zionism and the Jews. But the idea that their opposition to Israel could protect them against Muslim extremism was a tragic mistake.

Today, Christians find themselves under tremendous pressure in a region where true freedom of religion only really exists in Israel. Yet some who claim to represent Christians are once again outspoken in their hate for Israel and even absurdly blaming the Jews for their plight at the hands of hostile Palestinian Islamists. Instead of making common cause with Jews who are also targeted because of their faith, some Christian groups have become among the most outspoken advocates of hate against Israel.

This unfortunate trend must seen in the same context as the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe that is now beginning to be exported to American college campuses. As with others who oppose Israel’s existence and its right to self-defense, these Christian groups—whether mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA or organizations with their roots in the Middle East as is the case with In Defense of Christians—are spreading hatred of Jews and must be called out for their hypocrisy as well as the libelous nature of the propaganda they spread.

Americans need to speak up now against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But groups that wish to divert Western anger from Islamist killers to besieged Israel should not fool them. No matter his possible future plans, Cruz deserves credit for denouncing a hate group masquerading as victims. Rather than snipe at him, decent people on all parts of the political spectrum should be joining him in standing up to anti-Semites, not ignoring them.

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The Constitution and the War on ISIS

When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

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When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

In his speech, the president brushed over the question of a congressional vote when he said:

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

While he’s right about the majority of Congress supporting action at this moment, many in the House and Senate believe they must be formally consulted. While agreeing with the president’s dubious assertion that the terrorists were not Islamic, Senator Rand Paul believes Congress needs to authorize any military action against the group. The libertarian called for “an up or down vote” on the use of force and said authorizing strikes without one was “unconstitutional.”

Is he right? The president’s position on this is precarious but it is not completely illogical.

Last year when the president flirted with taking action in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime after it crossed the “red line” he had enunciated on its use of chemical weapons, he deferred to Congress saying he could not take action on his own. Now he claims he has the authority to order the use of force that he didn’t have last year. The difference is that the administration believes a conflict with ISIS falls under the rubric of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda whereas a fight with Assad would not.

That makes some sense but ironies abound.

The first is that, as the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake writes today, fighting ISIS on the basis of a resolution against al-Qaeda makes no sense. The two groups are not the same thing and are actually in conflict with each other so how can a congressional resolution against one allow the president to fight the other?

Even more embarrassing for Obama is the recollection that, as Lake recalls, Obama specifically eschewed the right of the president to act in this manner in the absence of “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Though the president can assert, with some justice, that ISIS potentially does pose such a threat, given that he repeated his boasts about defeating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden in his speech, using the resolution from a war he has pretended to have won to fight a new one against a different group is absurd if not illegal, as Lake asserts.

The fact that in May 2013 the president also asked Congress to repeal this very same resolution and vowed never to sign laws to extend that mandate only adds another layer of hypocrisy to the discussion.

Yet even if we were to assume that the president is right that the 2001 law applies to the new conflict, his decision not to ask Congress for a vote is a mistake.

The reasons for his choice are obvious.

First of all, the president was burned last year when it was clear that he didn’t have support for a Syria resolution even though his initial inclination to strike Assad was correct. The president has always been uncomfortable working with Congress and after nearly six years in office has more or less given up on the idea. Even though the odds would be in his favor after the universal revulsion felt by Americans about ISIS atrocities, Obama simply hasn’t the patience or the ability to cajole the House and the Senate to back him.

Moreover, though many members of Congress are unsettled by this usurpation of authority, they are more than happy not to be asked to cast a difficult vote sending the nation to war in the weeks before the midterm elections. Outside of critical voices like Paul, few in either the House or the Senate are upset about being given a pass by the White House.

But both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are wrong.

The president would be immeasurably strengthened by a new vote, especially when you consider that he would be almost certain to win it. Having called the nation to take part in war, albeit on the cheap without ground troops, choosing to avoid a vote while weakly welcoming the legislative branch’s support smacks of the same cavalier attitude toward the Constitution that animates his stands on immigration and the environment. Avoiding the controversies that have embroiled the administration on those issues would lift this conflict out of the partisan squabbles that characterize virtually everything that happens in Washington these days.

Even more important is that such a vote would make it clear that the nation was united and ready to pay the price, be in treasure or blood, to defeat ISIS. Arming himself with that support would be what a true wartime president—one that was able not only to articulate the reasons for fighting but also prepared to stick out a long hard fight—would do.

But this risk-averse president who has been dragged kicking and screaming into this fight by an American people who are outraged and fearful about ISIS rather than his own judgment isn’t willing to do it. A call for a vote would be a sign of respect for the separation of powers in the Constitution as well as a unifying gesture as the U.S. embarks on a new chapter of a war on terror that began 13 years ago today on 9/11. But Obama appears as indifferent to the former as he is uninterested in the latter. While it is to be hoped that his half-hearted approach to this conflict will be successful, this is not a good start to a war that may prove more difficult than he thinks.

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