Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Our Lying President and His Lying Press Secretary

White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

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White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

I use the word lie advisedly but, I believe, correctly. Here’s why.

In an exchange yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Mr. Earnest continues to peddle the fiction that President Obama did not have ISIS/ISIL in mind when he referred to it in an interview in the New Yorker as a “jayvee team.” Several weeks ago I showed why that claim is false, and so have many others, including Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker for the Washington Post.

It’s simply not plausible to believe the White House press secretary is unwittingly mistaken on this matter. By now he has to know what the truth is. He has to know full well that Mr. Obama had ISIS in mind when he referred to it as a “jayvee team.” So, by the way, does Mr. Obama, who is also deceiving Americans about this matter.

I understand why the president and his press secretary would rather not admit to having mocked ISIS now that it is the largest, richest, most well armed, and most formidable terrorist group on the planet. But Mr. Obama did, and being duplicitous about the fact that he did isn’t going to help anyone. It will, in fact, further erode the president’s credibility.

It is bad enough for this administration to be so inept; it’s worse for them to be so obviously dishonest as well.

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Obama’s Mistakes Come Back to Haunt Him

President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

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President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

The headline-grabbing statement was the president blaming the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS and overestimating the capacity of the Iraqi army. And it’s true that Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, did recently tell David Ignatius, “We underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army” although he also said that “his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its ‘prowess and capability,’ as well as the ‘deficiencies’ of the Iraqi military.” So the president can take refuge in asserting that he was simply claiming Clapper’s own self-critique.

But I doubt that will seem very convincing to intelligence community personnel who will feel that the president is throwing them under the bus–hiding policy errors behind a front of supposed intelligence failures. Indeed, the New York Times today quotes one “senior American intelligence official” as saying: “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The reality is that it didn’t require any specialized intelligence apparatus to know that the threat from jihadists like ISIS would grow or that the capabilities of the Iraqi army would decline if we left Iraq and Syria alone, as we have largely done since 2011. I and many other analysts were noting at the time that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq was a “tragedy” that would leave Iraqis ill-prepared to defend themselves and that the U.S. failure to help the moderate Syrian opposition would cede ground to “Sunnis extremists such as al Qaeda.” That Obama chose to ignore such warnings was not the fault of his intelligence personnel; it was his own fault for believing what he wanted to believe–namely that the U.S. could retreat from the Middle East without increasing the danger of our enemies gaining ground.

Such a belief was fantastic enough in 2011; it became utterly preposterous when in January of this year Fallujah and Ramadi fell to ISIS. Yet even then Obama did nothing for another nine months. It took the fall of Mosul in June to shake him out of his complacency–although not to get him off the golf course–and at last try to come up with some strategy to stop ISIS. Again, this isn’t the intelligence community’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault, and he would enhance his own credibility if he would accept some of the blame for this failure.

Instead he is once again pointing fingers, not only at the intelligence agencies but also at former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course,” Obama said. “And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country.”

True enough, but this analysis ignores the important role of Obama’s own administration in helping Maliki to win a second term in 2010 when he actually won fewer parliamentary seats than Ayad Allawi. It is also ignores the fact that those of us who were in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (and that includes senior U.S. military commanders on the ground) believed it was essentially in no small part to allow the U.S. to continue exerting pressure on Maliki to stay non-sectarian. That Maliki would unleash his inner sectarian as soon as we left was also utterly predictable and cannot be blamed on any intelligence failure.

Of course Obama won’t accept responsibility for pulling out of Iraq either–he blames that too on the Iraqis for failing to agree to grant U.S. troops legal immunity in a status of forces agreed ratified by their parliament. Yet it turns out this was a bogus issue all along. How do I know? Because Obama has now sent 1,600, and counting, U.S. troops to Iraq without any legal immunity or any Status of Forces Agreement ratified by parliament. If he’s doing it now, why couldn’t he do it in 2012? Simply because he didn’t want to–Iraqi leaders almost certainly would have acceded if Obama had shown the will to remain past 2011.

Rather than accepting blame for his own misjudgments, Obama stubbornly continues to defend his mistakes such as failing to arm moderate Syrian fighters in 2011-2012 as most of his security cabinet was urging him to do. “For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But we also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria,” Obama said.

Yet Obama’s own officials, including Robert Ford, his former ambassador to Damascus, have said that the U.S. has had the information for years that it needs to figure out who’s who among the Syrian rebels. It’s just that Obama refused to act on that information precisely because he refused to accept a “more significant role inside of Syria” even if such a role could have stopped the growth of ISIS.

If Obama is going to rebuild shattered confidence in his foreign policy, he needs to accept blame for what he did wrong before and act to correct those mistakes now instead of scapegoating others and taking refuge in half-measures such as his current air strikes without boots on the ground, which he characterized on 60 Minutes as a “counterterrorism operation” rather than “the sort of occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghan war.”

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Oklahoma Beheading: Nothing to See Here

The beheading last week of a 54-year-old woman and the attempted beheading of a second by a radicalized Muslim convert in Oklahoma is certainly an outrage. But as so often happens with such cases, the event itself has quickly become obscured by a secondary outrage as the authorities display an almost compulsive need to push a farcical politically correct line about what really happened. The suspected killer’s background and the nature of the incident itself should be enough to convince anyone of the role that a particularly warped and extremist strain of Islam played in this murder. And yet, as we have seen on previous occasions, the powers that be will have none of it.

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The beheading last week of a 54-year-old woman and the attempted beheading of a second by a radicalized Muslim convert in Oklahoma is certainly an outrage. But as so often happens with such cases, the event itself has quickly become obscured by a secondary outrage as the authorities display an almost compulsive need to push a farcical politically correct line about what really happened. The suspected killer’s background and the nature of the incident itself should be enough to convince anyone of the role that a particularly warped and extremist strain of Islam played in this murder. And yet, as we have seen on previous occasions, the powers that be will have none of it.

First, there has been the question of whether or not the Oklahoma attack was an act of terrorism. Governor Rick Perry has been particularly vocal about the need for the White House to come out and address the killing as what it “appears to many people that it is—and that is an act of violence that is associated with terrorism.” The word “associated” here is probably the most accurate one. The suspect, Alton Nolen, apparently carried out the murder shortly after having been fired, and indeed the victims he targeted were his co-workers at the Vaughan Foods Plant. So this does not appear to be a standard premeditated terror attack—although that is not to say that Nolen wasn’t planning to eventually carry out a beheading of this kind anyway; his postings on social media show that he was more than a little enamored with the subject.

The problem is that FBI investigators have outright rejected even an association with Islamist terrorism. As the Washington Post reported, having labelled Thursday’s attack as simply a standard incident of “workplace violence” an FBI official stuck to the line that “there was also no indication that Nolen was copying the beheadings of journalists in Syria by the Islamic State.” But that just isn’t at all credible. Not only is murdering one’s co-workers hardly the standard reaction to losing one’s job, but beheading is also far from the preferred method for most would-be killers in this country today. Besides, it’s not as if the FBI are unaware of Nolen’s extremist background and his armchair support for ISIS.

On Facebook, where Nolen goes by the name Jah’keem Yisrael, there is a trail of incriminating postings that glorify Islamist violence against America. Nolen uploaded photographs of Osama bin Laden and pictures of the World Trade Center in flames. He posted a picture of a woman receiving a Sharia-mandated flogging and added the caption “Islam will dominate the world. Freedom can go to hell.” In another post he simply wrote “Jihad. Jihad. Jihad.” But if all of this isn’t explicit enough for the FBI, still apparently convinced that Nolen was in no way seeking to imitate ISIS, then perhaps they might consider reviewing a picture that Nolen posted to his Facebook page back in March; it is none other than a picture showing an ISIS-style beheading. But then, the FBI has already confirmed that Nolen had been watching Islamist beheading videos online.

This macabre interest clearly derived from Nolen’s newly found Islamic extremism. Along with the image of the beheading uploaded by Nolen came the attempt to justify such acts with the inclusion of the Koranic quotation: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers; smite ye about their necks.” As Michael Rubin explained here recently, this verse has been seized upon by those Islamic extremists following a hardline Wahhabi literalism, and as such has come to be associated with the recent resurgence of beheadings among Islamists.

For the FBI to continue to insist that this was a standard act of workplace violence, with no terrorist association, is simply absurd. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked incredulously, “and who exactly are they afraid of offending? ISIS?” After all, as Scarborough alluded, to suggest that the Islam connection here must be hushed up for fear of offending moderate Muslims would be pretty appalling. Presumably any genuinely moderate Muslim would be as eager as the rest of us to have this kind of extremism exposed and stamped out.

Yet we’ve been here before. This is the same perverse attempt to distort reality that we witnessed following the 2009 Fort Hood massacre. There, when the base’s resident psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage, murdering 13, the PC line pushed by the liberal media was that the assailant had suffered from “compassion fatigue.” Apparently Nidal Hasan had been so moved by the heartrending war stories of his patients returning from Afghanistan that eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and ended up murdering the people he just felt too much compassion for.

The fact that Hasan carried a business card that declared his occupation as “Soldier of Allah” apparently had nothing to do with it. Just as the FBI would have us believe that Alton Nolen posting pictures of ISIS fighters and beheadings online has nothing to do with the events in Oklahoma on Thursday. As Scarborough so eloquently put it, “How stupid does the FBI really think we are?”

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Some Terrorists More Equal Than Others

Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

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Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

That Netanyahu wouldn’t persuade a UN General Assembly that has repeatedly voted to demonize Israeli acts of self-defense against Palestinian terrorism was a given. But the real tragedy is not the indifference of a world body that is tainted by the same virus of anti-Semitism that is gaining strength around the world. It is that those who are supposed to represent the Palestinians are still so cowed by the Islamists that they refuse to understand that the Islamists are as much if not a greater threat to them than they are to Israel. Though much of the Arab and Muslim world is belatedly coming to grips with the fact that ISIS must be destroyed (a task they hope will be largely accomplished by the United States with minimal aid from local forces), if they are to avoid being swept away by a sea of murderous fanaticism, so-called moderate Palestinians must understand that Hamas poses the same threat to their survival.

Instead, when PA leader Abbas had his turn last week at the UN podium, he devoted his remarks to some of the usual calumnies against Israel. He spoke of “war criminals” and genocidal crimes against the Palestinian people having been committed during the 50-day war launched by Hamas this past summer. The problem with this speech wasn’t just that, in stark contrast to Netanyahu who spoke repeatedly of his desire for peace and willingness to compromise to attain an agreement, Abbas talked only about conflict.

More to the point, Abbas refused to point out that the only party that committed war crimes against the Palestinian people was Hamas, his erstwhile partner in the PA government following the signing of a unity pact last spring. It was Hamas, as Netanyahu rightly pointed out, which used Palestinian civilians as human shields behind which it launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. It was Hamas that sought to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties so as to create more anti-Israel talking points, not a Jewish state that was reluctantly dragged into the conflict and did its best to minimize the impact its counter-attack hand on the people of Gaza.

Abbas has repeatedly demonstrated that he is willing neither to make peace with Israel nor to confront Hamas. Instead, he wishes only to avoid an agreement while continuing to milk the international community for aid that keeps his corrupt government and the soulless oligarchy that runs it afloat. This is a tragedy for the Palestinians who have been abused by their leaders and so-called allies in the Arab and Muslim world for the past 70 years.

It is easy to understand why most of the world refuses to accept Netanyahu’s analogy between ISIS and Hamas. Though, as the prime minister pointed out, the two have common ultimate goals in terms of establishing Islamist rule over the region and the world as well as speaking a common language of terror and using many of the same tactics, the international community sees ISIS as threatening other Muslims and Westerners while clinging to the belief that all Hamas wants to do is to kill Jews. The former is rightly held to be unacceptable while the latter, when cloaked in the language of anti-Zionism, is somehow rendered palatable since denying Jews the same right to sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense that others are routinely granted is considered debatable if not completely reasonable.

But the Palestinians are the big losers here. So long as Abbas won’t fight Hamas, the Palestinian people will not be forced to choose between peace and coexistence with their Jewish neighbors and a never-ending war that Hamas and much of his own Fatah Party desires. It is the people of Gaza who live under the despotic Islamist rule of Hamas and the people of the West Bank who may well do the same if Israel does not continue to protect Abbas from a coup who suffer most from the pass Hamas gets from the international community. The same is true of those who live under the thumb of the other Islamist terrorist regime that Netanyahu mentioned in his speech: the people of Iran.

UN delegates may mock Netanyahu and his use of audio-visual aids during his UN speech (this year’s device was an enlarged photo of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields) or the American pop culture references in his speech (this year’s favorite was his contention that pretending that Iran didn’t employ terrorism was as crazy as saying Derek Jeter didn’t play shortstop). But the people of Israel sent him to New York to tell the truth about the calumnies hurled at the Jewish state. It is the Palestinians who lack a leader who is similarly interested in telling the truth. Until they do, they will continue to wait for a solution to the conflict and be forced to live with the prospect of being ruled by their own Islamist killers.

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Obama, the Anti-Truman

There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

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There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

Then there is the classic Obama-is-disappointed-in-America-yet-again framing, which is not flattering to Obama but better than the truth. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post went this route. Here’s the Times: “President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group.” And the Post: “The United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said during an interview.”

If you’ve followed the events of the past year, you’ll notice that neither of those spin cycles is true and so there must be a third option. There is: the truth, which is that Barack Obama underestimated ISIS despite the intel community trying desperately to explain it to him since day one. And thus, tired of getting thrown under the bus, the intel community has pointed out to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast that what the president said is completely divorced from reality:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Is the president reading his intelligence reports? He must be. The more likely explanation of the two is that Obama knows exactly what happened–he messed up, royally–and is blaming others because it’s unpalatable for him to admit that six years into his presidency, he’s older but no wiser.

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

Right. Though “any misjudgment he may have made” actually refers to this particular misjudgment, which he’s blaming on others, that we know for sure he made.

Just as interesting is why he made that egregious mistake. Part of it, surely, is his utter lack of knowledge of world history and politics. But that’s not enough of a reason, especially considering the fact that the U.S. intel community has been trying to remedy that by laying it all out there for him. Knowledge has been accumulated and summarily dismissed by Obama as distinctly unimportant. What matters to him is his cloistered worldview and fealty to ideology.

Later in the interview, Obama said:

Now the good news is that the new [Iraqi] prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

One hopes the president isn’t holding his breath. Obama returns to this trope time and again: it’s a political solution that’s needed, not a military solution. But security, as always, must precede any political solution. And that doesn’t come about by telling the warring parties to “Think about what tolerance means.”

Here, for example, is the lede of the New York Times story on a truly momentous occasion out of Afghanistan: “Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat and prominent intellectual, on Monday became the first modern leader of Afghanistan to take office in a peaceful transfer of power.”

It was far from inevitable. The election Ghani won produced a bitter accusation of fraud and a threat to plunge the country into what would essentially be a new civil war. What made the difference? As our Max Boot has written, the crucial distinction between Afghanistan and other such conflicts in which the U.S. played a role is the fact that when John Kerry flew in to broker a solution to the crisis, there were tens of thousands of American troops in the country. “That,” Max wrote, “gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.”

President Obama doesn’t like to face up to the fact that his obsession with getting out of Iraq played a role in undermining the very “political solution” he hoped for. Now ISIS is collapsing borders and beheading Westerners, and they surely can’t be expected to “Think about what tolerance means.” The president made policy based on what he wanted to be true, in all likelihood knowing full well it wasn’t. He continues to be the anti-Truman, passing blame around when he deserves the lion’s share of it.

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Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

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For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

The contrast between Obama’s speech today and previous statements, such as his June 2009 address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo, Egypt was stark. Rather than placing the blame for conflicts on the West and, in particular, the United States, Obama seems finally to have woken up to the fact that engagement won’t make radical Islam go away. In its place, the president spoke up forcefully in recognition of the fact that there is no alternative to the use of force against radical Islamists such as the al-Qaeda affiliates and the ISIS group running amok in Syria and Iraq:

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.

Even more importantly, he recognized that the foundation of any effort to deal with these terrorists must come from recognition by Muslims and Arabs to clean up their own house:

It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

That is exactly right. While in Cairo he pretended that there was no real conflict, now he seems to understand that while this needn’t be a clash of civilizations between the West and the East, the rhetoric of his predecessor about nations having to choose whether they were with the U.S. or not is closer to the mark than the platitudes he used to spout. Having come into office acting as if the commitment of President George W. Bush to fight a war against Islamist terror was a historical mistake that could be redressed by conciliatory speeches and withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama now seems to have learned the error of his ways. The delusion that the U.S. could bug out of the war in Iraq and ignore the crisis in Syria without cost has been exposed by the rise of ISIS. Though he continues to insist that American ground troops won’t take part in this latest round of a war that began long before he took office, there can at least be no mistaking that the U.S. is back in the fight and understands that this time there can be no premature withdrawals or foolish decisions to opt out of the conflict.

Such tough-minded and more realistic positions also characterized the president’s attitude toward other, not entirely unrelated issues.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stuck to his belief in a two-state solution and his commitment to making it a reality. But he also finally acknowledged a major truth:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

While relations remain frosty between Washington and Jerusalem, at long last, with this speech, the administration seems to have rid itself of the delusion that pressuring Israel into territorial concessions would solve all the problems of the Middle East.

Also to his credit, the new hard line from Obama was not limited to the Middle East. His rhetoric about Russian aggression against Ukraine was equally tough and left no room for doubt that the United States supports Kiev against the Putin regime’s provocations and will stand by its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

And though the president has repeatedly weakened the West’s position in negotiations over the threat from Iran’s nuclear program, here, too, he was at least ready to again demand that Tehran commit to a process that will make the realization of their ambitions impossible.

Leaving aside recriminations about all the mistakes that preceded this moment, it must be acknowledged that the president has gone a long way toward correcting some, though not all, of his most egregious foreign-policy errors. But the problem is that it will take more than rhetoric to address these challenges.

Without adequate resources, American military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bound to fail. Nor can we, if we really believe that ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates are a genuine threat to U.S. security, rely entirely on local Arab forces to do a job they have proved unable to do for years. As our Max Boot wrote earlier today, America can’t bomb its way out of this problem.

Nor can the challenges from Iran and its terrorist allies waging war against Israel be met with only words. The same is true for the effort to halt Russia’s campaign to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires. Without military aid to Ukraine and similar efforts to bolster the Baltic states and Poland, Vladimir Putin will dismiss the president’s speech as empty bombast.

By giving a speech that included major elements that often sounded like those given by his predecessor, the president turned a corner today in a speech that seemed to embody his transformation from a man lost in his own delusions and ego to one who knew he was the leader of a nation embroiled in a generations-long war not of its own choosing. But in the coming weeks and months and the last two years of his presidency, he will have to match his actions to the fine rhetoric we heard today. Based on his past history, it is impossible to be optimistic about Obama’s ability to meet that challenge. Throughout his address, the president seemed to be drowning in multilateral platitudes and the kind of liberal patent nostrums that have helped bring us to this terrible moment in history. But at least for a few minutes on the UN podium, the president gave us the impression that he understands the large gap between the illusions that helped elect him president and the harsh reality in which the nation now finds itself.

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What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

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For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

This news comes as we learned over the weekend that ISIS attacked an Iraqi army base, killing upwards of 300-500 Iraqi soldiers. “If the survivors’ accounts are correct,” the Washington Post reports, “it would make Sunday the most disastrous day for the Iraqi army since several divisions collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul amid its cross-country sweep in June.”

So while in Iraq we’ve been pounding ISIS from the air for a month and a half, we haven’t begun to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground.

Now keep this in mind: the situation in Iraq, while certainly challenging, is many times less complicated for us than the situation in Syria, which is (a) ruled by an enemy of America; (b) a client state of Iran; and (c) engaged in a ferocious, multi-sided civil war involving forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, in Iraq there are Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga who are willing to fight ISIS, albeit imperfectly. (Both have suffered serious military reversal this past summer.) Success in Iraq depends on working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which happened during the counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08.

In atomized, hellish Syria we have no such advantages. Which is why if President Obama persists in refusing to allow U.S. “boots on the ground”–if he doesn’t allow American troops to coordinate on the front lines with forces opposing ISIS–we can’t defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean we can’t inflict damage on it, of course; but inflicting damage is one thing, defeating ISIS is quite another.

The president, in ordering air strikes in Syria, has dramatically escalated our involvement in this war. But one cannot shake the haunting feeling that he’s simply going through the motions; that Mr. Obama is stunned to find himself in this predicament, that his heart and will are not in this war, and that he’s not really committed to winning it.

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

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Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

There are also questions at play about the credibility of the U.N. Since Obama and the Arab countries involved acted without U.N. approval, some may again express doubts about the relevance of the global body, particularly when some countries with veto power are intent on blocking concerted action.

Right–on a fundamental level, it doesn’t much matter what happens to Obama’s UN diplomacy. The president will lead a Security Council session tomorrow intended to gain a broad commitment from countries to “stem the flow of foreign fighters to extremist groups” such as ISIS. And that’s not unimportant. Any commitment, especially from Western Europe or the Arab world, helps.

And that is what tells us that Obama’s decision to strike before the UN gathering, instead of after it, was a strategically smart call. Those who oppose the strikes altogether don’t much care about the timing, unless a delay allows for a congressional vote, of course. But if Obama was planning to go it alone anyway, the timing was shrewd.

After Obama balked on attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the dictator crossing Obama’s not-so-red line on chemical weapons, Obama’s defenders made a very silly attempt at spinning that foreign-policy disaster. They said it was the threat of military force from Obama that made Assad willing to strike a deal to turn over his chemical weapons.

Few bought it. And the deal was a joke: not all chemical weapons were listed, and Assad seems to have fooled Obama and cheated the deal anyway (as many assumed would be the case from the beginning). But now he can actually test the effect that a credible threat of force would have since he’ll have backed up his words with actions. Now when Obama says he might attack, he really might.

But what if his willingness to use force doesn’t rally the UN to America’s cause? That’s OK too, since having attacked without the UN in the first place shows that when he believes American interests are truly at stake, Obama will go around the UN. The lack of UN authorization should never be mistaken for a per se “unjust” war. But had he put the Syria strikes on hold until he could rally the UN, Obama would have left just such an impression, and it would have been more complicated to go it alone and more onerous to get the Arab states on board. Now the U.S. is quite clearly not hostage to the whims of the dictator protection racket that is the United Nations.

In other words, in choosing the timing of his Syria strikes wisely, Obama may have learned a lesson about strategic calculation that his critics, especially on the right, have been imploring him to learn. Obama has, thus far, learned this lesson through failure rather than success.

And it’s not just about largely discredited authoritarian creep mobs like the UN. Obama’s faddish fixation on retrenchment chic and Western Europe’s schizophrenic appetite for confrontation have left NATO countries in Russia’s neighborhood unsure their allies will fulfill their obligations of mutual defense. And so they’ve taken matters, however modestly, into their own hands. As Reuters reported last week:

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched a joint military force on Friday that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said could start its first exercises in the tense region in the next year.

The three countries and other states in the area have been on high alert since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March – and Western powers accused Moscow of sending troops to back rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish defense officials said the new joint unit could take part in peacekeeping operations, or form the basis of a NATO battle group if one was needed in the future.

NATO, being an alliance of democratic-minded free countries, is far more effective at its tasks than the UN generally is at its own, and there’s no comparison when the matter is the defense of the free world. But NATO isn’t exactly in its prime at the moment. Obama is ambivalent about the organization, democracy is in retreat in Western Europe, and Turkey has become an example of a country that could never be admitted to NATO in its current form were it not already in the alliance.

Going through international organizations can be a great way to give any coalition a sense of legitimacy. But countries have interests, and they protect those interests whether the UN approves or not. Barack Obama is going to address the UN with a simple message: he’s not bluffing. For once, they’ll believe him.

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Israel and the Unasked Question on Syria

The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

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The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

Accounts of the attacks on ISIS targets as well as those on the Khorasan group speak of strikes on bases, training camps, and checkpoints as well as command-and-control centers in four provinces and having been in the vicinity of several Syrian cities. Many terrorists may have been killed and severe damage done to the ability of both ISIS and the Khorasan group to conduct operations. The first videos of the aftermath of the bombings show members of the groups digging out the rubble and seeking survivors of the attacks. The surrounding area appears to be one of built-up structures. While some of these bases and command-and-control centers may well have been in isolated places, it is likely that many, if not most, were in the vicinity of civilian residences. All of which leads to the question that almost no one, at least in the American media, is asking today: what about civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure facilities that might severely impact the quality of life of those who live in these areas?

If we are being honest, the answer to such queries is clear: we don’t know. American forces conduct such operations under rules of engagement that seek to limit if not totally eliminate non-military casualties. But even under the strictest limits, civilians are killed in war. It is also to be hoped that all of the strikes were conducted with perfect accuracy, but that is the sort of thing that generally only happens in movies. In real life, war is conducted in an environment in which a host of factors make perfection as unattainable as it is in every other aspect of life. Which means it is almost certain that at least some Syrian civilians (a population that may include supporters of the terrorists and some who are essentially their hostages) were killed and wounded last night.

If anyone were thinking about that fact today, you wouldn’t know it from watching any of the cable news networks. The impact of the strikes on individuals in Syria or any potential damage to civilian infrastructure is of no interest to the commentators or the anchors. Instead, the conversation about the attacks on terror targets focuses solely on how effective the strikes have been, the role of U.S. allies, and whether these actions will be followed up with sufficient ground force actions that will make it possible to truly defeat ISIS or any al-Qaeda affiliates currently running riot in the region. The only criticisms being voiced are those about the president’s lack of a specific authorization from Congress for these actions, whether U.S. forces will have to fight on the ground there, or if the attacks have gone far enough.

All this is in stark contrast to the reaction to Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza this past summer.

Almost all of the targets struck by the Israelis were similar to those in Syria that were hit by the Americans. Moreover, unlike the case with ISIS and Khorasan, the Israeli efforts were not primarily preemptive in nature. After all, the U.S. is attacking ISIS in part because of its depredations in the region but also because of the very real likelihood that if they are left unmolested, they will eventually turn their barbaric attentions to attacks on the United States. Israel struck back at Hamas because the terror group doesn’t merely intend to destroy the State of Israel and slaughter its Jewish population but because it was launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns and seeking to use terror tunnels to kidnap and kill even more Jews.

But rather than give the Israelis the same benefit of the doubt about their good intentions and efforts to limit collateral damage, the international community denounced the Israeli counter-attacks. News coverage focused almost completely on civilian casualties and the impact of the war on ordinary Palestinians rather than, as is the case today with U.S. efforts, on the military question of how best Hamas might be defeated.

Why aren’t we talking about civilian casualties in Syria? There are a number of reasons.

The Western media has more or less ignored the horrific nature of the Syrian Civil War since its inception three years ago. Hundreds of thousands have already died but apparently the media sees little reason to start caring about it now just because Americans are involved.

Another is the lack of Western media on the ground in Syria. That is understandable given what has happened to some of the Western freelance journalists who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. By contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists welcomed Western journalists into Gaza and allowed them to do their jobs in safety provided, of course, that they concentrated their efforts on reinforcing the narrative about the conflict that told only of civilian casualties while largely ignoring the presence of armed fighters and their attacks on Israelis. That the entire Western press corps adhered to these restrictions is a testament to both the ability of Hamas to intimidate journalists and to the fact that many in the press were all too happy to follow these instructions since they were compatible with their own views of the conflict.

Let’s concede that the circumstances of these conflicts are not identical. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is more specific and related to the desire of the Arabs to refuse to share the region with a sovereign Jewish state rather than the more amorphous desire of the Syrian and Iraqi Islamists to set up a new caliphate. Hamas is also a bit more media savvy and has more experience in manipulating its message to appeal to Westerners who are willing to be fooled by terrorists.

But the real difference between the ways these two conflicts are covered has a lot more to do with the identity of the foes of the Islamists than to any of those distinctions. Muslims may slaughter Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, as they have done in Syria, without the world paying much notice. But if a fraction of that number are killed by Israeli Jews, even in a war of self-defense, that is considered intolerable by a world that has always judged Jews and their state by a double standard that has never been applied to anyone else, including the United States. Israelis, who have watched as their efforts to defend themselves have been answered by a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe, may be forgiven for no longer giving a damn about international opinion.

The media should continue to focus its coverage on Syria on the question of whether the president’s actions are effective, not whether some accidents or mistakes by U.S. personnel resulted in civilian losses. But you can bet that the same sources will revert to the same stances they took this past summer when Hamas resumes its fight against Israel, as it will sooner or later. When it does, don’t expect any admissions by journalists that they are applying different standards to Israel than they did to U.S. forces. But that is exactly what they will be doing. The term by which such prejudice is usually called is anti-Semitism.

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Yesterday’s Real News Out of Iraq and Syria

There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

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There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

Story No. 1: The U.S. Navy and Air Force, in cooperation with five Arab allies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) launched a series of air strikes and cruise missile strikes on ISIS targets in and around Raqaa, Syria. Separately, the U.S. launched air strikes against the Khorasan group, another jihadist terrorist organization in Syria, closely linked with the Nusra Front, which was said to be plotting attacks against Western targets.

Story No. 2: ISIS continued to attack the Kurdish area of north-central Syria, killing large numbers of people and pushing more than 130,000 refugees over the Turkish border.

Story No. 3: ISIS attackers in Anbar Province, Iraq, reportedly killed more than 300 Iraqi soldiers after a weeklong siege of Camp Saqlawiya where some 800 soldiers had been trapped. Few if any Sunni tribal fighters did anything to prevent yet another large Iraqi army formation from suffering annihilation. The Iraqi army showed itself unable to supply its soldiers or to fight effectively.

Judging from the news coverage, story No. 1 is the most important. But in reality I’d argue that No. 2 and especially No. 3 are more significant. No one doubts that the U.S. can launch air strikes on ISIS. The question is whether those attacks will be effective in degrading and eventually destroying this terrorist group. The answer is: not until there is an effective ground force able to take advantage of the disruption created by American bombs. Until that happens, ISIS will stay on the offensive.

We know, of course, that after three years of American neglect the Free Syrian Army is in no position to attack the heart of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. It is also disheartening to learn that after a similar three years of American neglect, the Iraqi army is in no position to effectively challenge ISIS either. Same goes for the Sunni tribes, which at the moment lack both the will and the means to fight ISIS effectively. The Kurdish peshmerga–the other proxy force we are counting on–are in only marginally better shape. They also need more equipment and training.

What this means is that, however welcome, the U.S. air strikes in Syria are of more symbolic importance than anything else. Their military significance is likely to be scant until the U.S. can do more to train and arm forces capable of mounting ground attacks on ISIS militants. Already six weeks of U.S. air strikes in Iraq have failed to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds; there is no reason to believe that six months of air strikes in isolation will work any better. As former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta have said, it will take “boots on the ground” from the United States to galvanize and train the potential anti-ISIS forces. But because President Obama is so far prohibiting U.S. troops from working alongside anti-ISIS fighters in the field, “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” of the current strategy succeeding–to quote the succinct summary of retired Gen. Jim Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps.

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War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Defense Policy on Autopilot

President Obama has just sent 3,000 troops to Liberia to fight Ebola and 1,500–and counting–to Iraq to fight ISIS and hundreds, possibly thousands, more to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Earlier he sent more than 150 troops to Africa to fight Joseph Kony and he keeps sending troops to carry out various Special Operations missions from Libya to Somalia. Oh, and he has committed to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year.

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President Obama has just sent 3,000 troops to Liberia to fight Ebola and 1,500–and counting–to Iraq to fight ISIS and hundreds, possibly thousands, more to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Earlier he sent more than 150 troops to Africa to fight Joseph Kony and he keeps sending troops to carry out various Special Operations missions from Libya to Somalia. Oh, and he has committed to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year.

Everett Dirksen famously said: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” This line might be adapted to troop deployments: A thousand here, a thousand there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real commitments. While the absolute numbers committed in recent months are not great–and not as significant as they should be to accomplish their missions especially in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan–they are indicative of the continuing demand for U.S. military personnel around the world.

Yet what almost no one seems to be noticing is that even as the administration continues to deploy the military at a breakneck pace, funding for the armed forces is in precipitous decline. A series of budget cuts culminating in sequestration threaten to slice a trillion dollars in projected defense spending over the next decade, necessitating severe cutbacks in military strength–cutbacks which have already begun.

As Michele Flournoy and Eric Edelman–senior former defense officials under President Obama and President George W. Bush, respectively–wrote just a few days ago: “The provisions of the Budget Control Act and sequestration have already precipitated a readiness crisis within our armed forces, with only a handful of Army brigades ready for crisis response, Air Force pilots unable to fly sufficient hours to keep up their skills and Navy ships unable to provide critical U.S. security presence in key regions. Although last year’s congressional budget deal has granted some temporary relief, the return to sequestration in fiscal 2015 and beyond would result in a hollow force reminiscent of the late 1970s.”

The Army is particularly threatened by these cuts which are likely to shrink the active duty force from 510,000 soldiers today down to 420,000 by the end of the decade. The Army chief, Gen. Ray Odierno, has warned that going below 450,000 active duty personnel will result in an Army unable to meet even its most minimal commitments. “We have to look when enough is enough, and it is time to have that debate,” he said last week.

Yet what is striking is that we are not having that debate. Even as the danger around the world grows, Washington seems to be on budget-cutting autopilot. Democrats are more concerned about protecting entitlement spending, Republicans about avoiding tax increases. Neither party seems particularly worried about the potentially cataclysmic erosion of our military strength. If the current crises from Ukraine to Iraq are not sufficient to wake us up to the need to maintain a strong military, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Barack’s World

President Obama has declared his strategy is to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. Yet he’s hoping to do so by relying on a plan that is ludicrously insufficient. It’s worth noting that the criticism of his approach isn’t being led by Republicans as much as by U.S. military leaders (as this Washington Post story makes clear), by retired generals, and by former Obama defense secretaries like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

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President Obama has declared his strategy is to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. Yet he’s hoping to do so by relying on a plan that is ludicrously insufficient. It’s worth noting that the criticism of his approach isn’t being led by Republicans as much as by U.S. military leaders (as this Washington Post story makes clear), by retired generals, and by former Obama defense secretaries like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

Secretary Panetta told CBS News that ISIS emerged as a threat because the United States pulled out of Iraq too soon and became involved in Syria too late, while Secretary Gates said this:

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

Yet the president, when he spoke at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida last week, once again declared that American troops will not undertake a combat mission in Iraq. “I want to be clear,” Mr. Obama said. “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

The president doesn’t understand that to will the end you also have to will the means to the end. Mr. Obama would like the richest, best armed, and most formidable terrorist group ever–one that now controls large portions of two nations–to be defeated. Yet he can’t succeed simply by relying on air strikes and Iraqi and Kurdish forces and the Syrian opposition. (Just a month ago the president said the notion that arming Syrian rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy” and mocked the opposition as being “made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”) That’s clear to just about every person who has seriously examined this matter. (I commend to you this report by the Institute for the Study of War, which lays out just how formidable our task is if we hope to defeat ISIS.) Yet Mr. Obama persists in living in a world of make believe.

We can see what’s occurring. The president has a theological-like devotion to not using American combat missions to fight ISIS. This makes his commitment to defeat ISIS impossible to achieve. Yet rather than admit that to us or to himself, the president has invented assumptions that affirm what he wants to believe. This requires him to operate in a realm free of facts. To step through the looking glass. To live in Barack’s World.

Barack’s World is a place this president retreats to when the world becomes too complicated and unaccommodating. Where the wish is father to the thought. Where he can disassociate from reality. Where, when reality collides with ideology, reality loses.

While the president increasingly finds refuge in Barack’s World, the rest of us have to deal with the shattered pieces that are being left in his wake. Barack Obama is a careless man, to paraphrase a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He has smashed up things and retreats back into his own world, letting other people clean up the mess he has made. And what a mess it is.

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With Pipe Proposal U.S. Waves White Flag on Iran Nukes

The Obama administration thinks it may have found a way to solve the nuclear standoff with Iran. But the leak of this proposal, which was clearly intended to give the impression that its foreign policy isn’t as clueless as it seems, isn’t likely to improve its public-relations problem or reduce the chances of the Iranians building a nuclear weapon. Instead, by placing a proposal which called for dismantling the pipes connecting Iran’s nuclear centrifuges while leaving their nuclear infrastructure intact, Washington is demonstrating just how desperate its position has become. That Iran isn’t biting on even this abject attempt at outreach by the administration illustrates how strong it has been allowed to become by Obama.

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The Obama administration thinks it may have found a way to solve the nuclear standoff with Iran. But the leak of this proposal, which was clearly intended to give the impression that its foreign policy isn’t as clueless as it seems, isn’t likely to improve its public-relations problem or reduce the chances of the Iranians building a nuclear weapon. Instead, by placing a proposal which called for dismantling the pipes connecting Iran’s nuclear centrifuges while leaving their nuclear infrastructure intact, Washington is demonstrating just how desperate its position has become. That Iran isn’t biting on even this abject attempt at outreach by the administration illustrates how strong it has been allowed to become by Obama.

There are two issues raised by yesterday’s New York Times story in which the idea of pipe removal was mooted as a “glimmer of hope” coming out of the negotiations that the U.S. and Iran have been holding in New York this past week during the prelude to the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. One is the way the Obama administration’s zeal for a deal has, piece by piece, dismantled its previous positions on stopping Iran to the point where there is almost nothing left of President Obama’s campaign promises about the Iranian nuclear threat. The second is the way this proposal demonstrates the strength of the Iranian position in which Tehran feels it doesn’t need to give an inch in talks with the West.

It should first be stated that the leak of the proposal to the New York Times, and in particular its chief Washington correspondent David Sanger, was utterly predictable. For the past six years, the Times has been the beneficiary of numerous leaks from administration sources as the White House and its leading press cheerleader were always ready to help each other out. But the practice has escalated since John Kerry became secretary of state and stories under Sanger’s byline became the place to go for scoops intended to bolster the image of President Obama’s foreign-policy team. But this latest example of how the information pipeline between Foggy Bottom and the Grey Lady works isn’t likely to do much to solve the administration’s public-relations problems.

The proposal is, on its face, a devastating indictment of how far the administration has retreated from President Obama’s avowal during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney in 2012 that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program. Last November, Kerry signed an interim agreement with Iran that weakened sanctions in exchange for both a tacit Western recognition of the Islamist regime’s “right” to refine uranium and a moratorium on weapons-level refinement that could be easily reversed. Since then negotiations on a final accord have stalled because the Iranians have stood their ground and refused to dismantle their nuclear infrastructure while also stonewalling United Nations inspectors eager to learn how far their advanced efforts into military application of their nuclear technology have gone.

But rather than stick to a principled insistence on ensuring that Iran could not retain the capability to build a bomb, the U.S. has been on a path of constant retreat. If the leak to the Times is accurate, this means that Obama and Kerry have abandoned even the pretense of trying to stop Iran. If Kerry’s interim deal that left Iran the option of reconstituting its stockpile of nuclear fuel at the whim of the ayatollahs was weak, this idea of merely disconnecting pipes is a joke.

The conceit of the proposal is that if the pipes were removed, that would mean a reconstruction of the connections would take so long that it would allow the West sufficient time to respond if there were signs that Iran was violating such an agreement. The possibility that disconnecting the pipes could be even more easily reversed than other ideas for delaying an Iranian “breakout” to a bomb is fairly obvious. But even if we assume this would be a serious obstacle, without a rigorous inspection system that isn’t on the table the notion that the West would really know what was going on in Iran’s nuclear plants isn’t credible. Nor is there any assurance that an Obama administration and its allies—who are even less enthusiastic about tough sanctions on Iran—would do anything after it had supposedly “solved” the problem. While the Times claimed the point of the proposal was to allow Iran to save face under Western pressure, it is far more likely to be aimed at saving Obama’s face as he abandons his pledge against stopping Iran.

But the mere airing of such a preposterous proposal illustrates above all the weakness of the Obama administration’s position vis-à-vis Iran. As even the Times story reports, the Iranians are on the offensive in New York, hyping their opposition to ISIS as bait to further entice Obama to, as Reuters reported today, exchange their support for a campaign against the terrorist group for Western acquiescence to their nuclear ambitions.

This is an astonishing reversal of fortune from a year ago when the Obama administration could boast, with some justice, of constructing a system of international sanctions that were beginning to hurt Iran. But Obama and Kerry discarded the enormous economic and military leverage they had over Tehran in last year’s interim agreement. Now, their dubious pursuit of détente with Iran is looking even more likely after the president’s dithering on Syria and abandonment of Iraq led to the rise of ISIS.

But as much as the West needs to clean up the mess Obama helped create in Iraq and Syria with his inaction, it cannot give Iran a pass to create an even more deadly nuclear threat. An Iranian bomb is, as the president has often said, a foreign-policy “game changer” that will, at best, undermine the same Arab regimes opposed by ISIS, threaten Israel with destruction and pose a genuine danger to the West.

The ridiculous pipe proposal is one more sign that the administration is in retreat mode on Iran. But an even more worrisome sign of Iran’s strength is the contempt with which it is treating this evidence of Western appeasement.

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Iran Has Obama Cornered on Nuclear Issue

They good news out of the White House is that President Obama has no plans at present to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. If such a meeting were being touted, it might signal an impeding agreement between the two nations that would likely do little to avert the Iranian nuclear threat. The bad news is that Iran’s open display of defiance heading into the talks that began this week in New York is a sign that American economic and military leverage over the Islamist regime is now so slight that the most likely outcome of this latest round of diplomatic futility is for the negotiations to continue to be strung out indefinitely, something that will lead inevitably to the Iranian bomb Obama has vowed to stop.

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They good news out of the White House is that President Obama has no plans at present to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. If such a meeting were being touted, it might signal an impeding agreement between the two nations that would likely do little to avert the Iranian nuclear threat. The bad news is that Iran’s open display of defiance heading into the talks that began this week in New York is a sign that American economic and military leverage over the Islamist regime is now so slight that the most likely outcome of this latest round of diplomatic futility is for the negotiations to continue to be strung out indefinitely, something that will lead inevitably to the Iranian bomb Obama has vowed to stop.

As I wrote earlier this week, the European Union has already signaled that it is preparing for yet another extension of the talks past November by appointing current foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to continue to represent the EU in negotiations with Tehran. These are, of course, the talks that were supposed to have a six-month time limit so as to prevent Iran from continuing its delaying tactics that have worked so well over the past decade. But that time limit — an integral part of the interim nuclear accord signed last November by the United States and its allies with Iran — was already extended once over the summer.

That ought to mean the current talks being held in New York ought to be make or break time for an administration that spiked Congress’s attempt to strengthen economic sanctions on Iran last winter by promising that diplomacy could work without the extra leverage tougher restrictions on doing business with Tehran would give it. But in the last year the administration’s diplomatic efforts have gone nowhere on the nuclear issue. The loosening of the sanctions in the interim accord removed the West’s ace in the hole against the ayatollahs and signaled the world that Iran would soon be open for business again.

Combined with the tension between Russia and the West after the invasion of Ukraine that provided Iran with a crucial friend and you have a formula that left Tehran feeling strong enough to resist President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s entreaties to make a deal and inaugurate a new era of U.S.-Iran détente. Throw in the fact that the U.S. and Iran are allegedly now on the same side in the struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (where Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad has survived and also, as Kerry said, “played footsie with ISIS”) and Iran has zero incentive to give an inch on nuclear issues.

With little hope of progress this week, Rouhani can go to New York and thumb his nose on the nuclear issue at the U.S. with impunity. That leaves President Obama’s promises about stopping Iran and letting diplomacy work without Congressional interference look hollow if not mendacious. The Iranians feel they have Obama right where they want him, knowing he has even less appetite for a confrontation with them than he does with ISIS. The terrorist group presents a clear and present danger to the nation that the administration is right to begin to address. But by neglecting the even more deadly peril from an Iranian nuke and allowing Tehran to think they have nothing to lose by stiffing the West in the talks, Obama is endangering U.S. security and setting himself up for a legacy of foreign policy catastrophe.

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Obama’s Not a Closer

The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

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The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

This is the way with our president. Always, there is the real-world task at hand (be it halting Iranian nuclear aspirations, stopping a revanchist Russia, or destroying an advancing army of jihadists) and then there is his eternal ideological challenge—how to institute the anti-Bush paradigm of non-aggression and national humility. Invariably, ideology wins out and the world is the worse for it.

Not only is our military wise to the pattern, but the rest of the planet knows the score as well.  No one quite understands who our partners are in the fight against ISIS or what these partners would actually do. The Hill reports: “[Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel listed a number of countries with which U.S. officials have held discussions, and said that some have pledged military support, but most of the contributors and what the contributions could be have not yet been made clear.”

Obama forms coalitions the same way he fights wars, ends wars, draws red lines, and seals deals. He pretends. He pretended that Libya was a brilliant example of the international community working in concert. Then anarchy bloomed, Americans were killed, and U.S. diplomats left altogether. He pretended that we staged a responsible exit from Iraq—before we were replaced by the greatest threat to the civilized world. He pretended that Bashar al-Assad would be punished for violating international norms and committing mass atrocities. The pretend punishment: guaranteed extension of Assad’s rule via a Russian-led WMD removal deal. He pretends there’s progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, while Ali Khamenei boasts that the West has come to heel before the Islamic Republic. If anyone bothered to ask Obama about closing Guantanamo Bay today he’d undoubtedly talk about the progress he’s making toward that goal too.

Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. In press conferences and on talk shows everything is forever moving steadily ahead, but in the unscripted realms beyond his dwindling support network things are palpably collapsing. And yet, Obama’s two-front war, against real threats and against George W. Bush, continues apace. In Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf writes, “Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented. It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.”

The damage that’s been done is not only broad, but also deep. This week Senator Marco Rubio gave an important speech on the future of American power and, in criticizing Obama, got to something vital: “Worst of all,” he said, “the president’s foreign policy has let down the American people. It has done more than leave them vulnerable – it has dented their faith in the promise and power of the American ideal. The pride they once took in our global leadership has withered into uncertainty.”

He’s right. Our national uncertainty is Barack Obama’s fundamental ambivalence writ large. America needs a closer.

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Obama vs. the Generals

I have been writing in recent days that President Obama’s halfhearted strategy to battle ISIS–authorizing only a few air strikes and ruling out “boots on the ground”–may degrade the group but will not destroy it. A more robust effort is needed, I believe, to confront this cancer growing in the Middle East.

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I have been writing in recent days that President Obama’s halfhearted strategy to battle ISIS–authorizing only a few air strikes and ruling out “boots on the ground”–may degrade the group but will not destroy it. A more robust effort is needed, I believe, to confront this cancer growing in the Middle East.

But don’t take my word for it. That’s also the view of retired Marine General Jim Mattis, a former commander of Central Command and one of the most respected generals of his generation. Mattis is known as a straight-talker and he certainly pulled no punches in his testimony on Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee. The whole thing is worth reading. Here are a couple of the highlights that, one hopes, will get Obama’s attention:

If this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure out enemies in advance that they will not see American “boots on the ground.” If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our marines could strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose. The U.S. military is not war weary, our military draws strength from confronting our enemies when clear policy objectives are set and we are fully resourced for the fight. …

Half‐hearted or tentative efforts, or air strikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foe’s credibility, reinforcing his recruiting efforts which are already strong. I do not necessarily advocate American ground forces at this point, but we should never reassure our enemy that our commander‐in‐chief would not commit them at the time and place of his choosing. When we act it should be unequivocal, designed to end the fight as swiftly as possible. While no one is more reluctant to see us again in combat than those of us who have signed letters to the next of kin of our fallen, if something is worth fighting for we must bring full strength to bear.

These views, I should add, are not Mattis’s alone. It is clear they are shared by his successor at Centcom, Gen. Lloyd Austin, as well as by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff. Once upon a time President Bush was widely castigated for ignoring what was supposedly the consensus of the military to send more troops to Iraq (in fact Gen. Tommy Franks was complicit in not sending enough, but that’s another story). Will President Obama now be held to account for ignoring the best military advice of our top generals?

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Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

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The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

That’s the quandary for Senator Marco Rubio, who stands second to none in the Senate as a critic of the president’s foreign policy. Rubio has rightly denounced the president’s failures in the Middle East and, in particular, his abandonment of Iraq and dithering on Syria that allowed ISIS to become a dominant force in both countries on Obama’s watch. Like other conservatives as well as a not insignificant number of liberal senators, he’s also rightly worried that the president’s plans for this conflict are woefully inadequate to the situation. More than that, along with many Republicans, he believes the president is wrong not to seek an explicit authorization from Congress to fight ISIS rather than to merely pretend, as the administration wrongly contends, that the 2001 vote granting President Bush the right to use troops against al-Qaeda also applies to the rival, and now more powerful, group.

But Rubio has indicated that he will vote yes for the authorization on Syria. The question now is whether this will haunt him or anyone else planning on running for higher office or reelection.

Rand Paul seemed to be saying as much when he said yesterday that members of Congress were petrified by a possible vote to authorize force. Senator Ted Cruz, whose views on foreign policy are a lot closer to those of Rubio than they are to Paul, seems to agree. Cruz said he would oppose arming the Syrian rebels because the administration doesn’t really have a clue as to which groups opposing the regime of Bashar Assad are “good guys” and which are “bad.”

It’s difficult to argue too strenuously with those qualms. The president’s adamant refusal to act on the growing catastrophe in Syria not only enabled ISIS to fill the void but also undermined the chances that genuine moderates might be able to replace the despotic Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Moreover, there are, as the New York Times noted today, ominous precedents for senators who swallow hard and vote to authorize the use of force but later have that decision thrown in their face by primary opponents. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Senate, found herself outflanked on the left by Barack Obama in 2008. The question facing Rubio and the rest of the Senate is one that juxtaposes the certainty that voting for an expanded conflict will be viewed by many voters as a mistake against the certainty that the failure to act will allow ISIS to prevail in the fighting.

As I noted yesterday, as the U.S. prepares to step up the fight against ISIS, the country’s main problem is not the lack of a strategy but the seeming inability of the president to play the part of a wartime leader. Supporting operations in the Middle East under such circumstances is a perilous undertaking. So, too, is any effort to finally aid those Syrian forces that are not linked to Islamists or Assad and the Iranians.

But Rubio is right to worry more about the danger of inaction than any possible political repercussions. Were the U.S. to stand aside in Syria, especially with the president foolishly taking the threat of a direct intervention on the ground off the table, the consequences would be grave. If, as most Americans rightly now understand, ISIS is a serious threat to U.S. security, any counterattack undertaken now, whether well led or not, is bound to improve the situation. More to the point, the failure to act would be a potential catastrophe and might make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a conflict in which U.S. success is not assured, notwithstanding the braggadocio being heard to that effect in Washington these days.

There is no way of knowing today whether votes on Syria or Iraq will be major liabilities in the winter or spring of 2016 or, indeed, if the ISIS threat will still be an issue at that time. The year and a half between now and the presidential primaries is a lifetime in politics. But Paul and Cruz are probably right in reckoning that any vote that can be construed as insufficiently anti-Obama is a safe bet and that those who vote yes are giving up a valuable hostage to fortune, whether or not they run for president.

Just as it is simple to second guess those who voted for war in Iraq without thinking what dangers would have resulted from doing nothing, it will be easy to take pot shots at those who vote yes today. But Rubio is still in the right here. The costs of doing nothing in war are usually higher than those of boldness. Even with an inadequate leader who is not prepared to do everything to achieve victory, the situation will be better off if the U.S. finally starts to do something to alter the correlation of forces in Syria and Iraq against both Assad and the terrorists. Voting no may eventually be popular, but it won’t be the right thing to do.

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The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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