Commentary Magazine


Topic: Libya

The Missile Threat Goes Beyond Ukraine

The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

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The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

Several thousand surface-to-air missiles went missing in Libya in part because the White House chose to lead from behind and so did not work to secure Libya’s substantial arms caches. While airlines scramble to avoid Ukrainian airspace, they still fly over other contested regions. Less than two weeks ago, I flew on an American carrier from Washington to Dubai: we traversed Turkey and avoided Syria, but then appeared to fly over portions of Iraq which were newly seized by the Islamic State.

Terrorists with weaponry that can blow planes out of the sky may increasingly become the new normal. The question for policymakers is what to do about it. Only Israel equips its civilian jets with measures to counter missile threats. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli charter flight leaving Mombasa. The missiles failed to hit their target, in part because of Israeli countermeasures.

The U.S. government is infamous for always defending against the last terrorist attack. TSA agents continue to pat down grandmothers in order to confiscate hidden water bottles. That may be all well and good, but increasingly it provides security theater rather than real security. If the growing threat is from below, the question the White House and airline industry should answer is what steps are they taking to defeat a surface-to-air missile aimed at a civilian jetliner, or whether they will simply wait to act until terrorists down an American-flagged aircraft.

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Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney”: How Buyer’s Remorse Works

Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

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Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

Henry begins by spelling out the challenge of losing a presidential election and then not only winning the nomination again but winning the general election as well. (The model is Nixon.) Henry breaks down the case for Romney into three categories:

  • Romney is re-emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
  • There is no natural 2016 GOP nominee and the field is highly fractured.
  • All failed nominees other than Romney were career politicians.

Does Romney qualify as someone who isn’t a “career politician”? I can see both sides of this debate. The other two claims seem to me arguments against Romney, if anything. His “re-emergence” as the de facto leader of the party is really his re-emergence as a respected figure of the establishment–an establishment which so happens to be locked in a rather nasty public battle with the party’s conservative grassroots.

In that context, a Romney nomination is unthinkable. Romney was really the last of the “next in liners” with regard to the party’s nominating process. His loss was the end of turn taking and the beginning of the party’s turn to its next generation.

And that brings us to the second point. The field is “highly fractured” not out of weakness but strength. The field of possible 2016 candidates is far more dynamic and in line with the party’s emerging identity than the 2012 field. Romney was preferable even to many conservatives over Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. It’s doubtful the same would be said for Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, or Bobby Jindal.

There are times when an elder statesman is the appropriate candidate. There’s a much stronger case for a Romney candidacy without the Romney, however. The case for Romney is really about buyer’s remorse–it would be the GOP telling the electorate “we told you so.” But as Henry himself intimates, the electorate doesn’t actually need to be told that. The buyer’s remorse is real, and it’s because they realize now that voting for the birth-control-and-Big-Bird candidate was a fairly irresponsible thing to do.

Barack Obama tends to run extremely shallow campaigns. Manufactured war on women controversies and episodes of messianic self-love are usually all you get. But the electorate seems to have assumed that the ideas would come later–that, at some point, Obama would think seriously about the issues of the day, end the perpetual campaign, and start governing. What they got instead was grade-school name calling. On foreign policy, his dithering and disastrous “leading from behind” led to chaos and disintegrating borders. The response of the international community to this was predictable. No one takes Obama seriously, and his diplomatic endeavors have mostly been laughed out of the room.

What they reasonably hoped was that this would stop after Obama’s reelection, when he had no more elections ahead of him. They have learned the hard way the president had no such intentions. Thus their buyer’s remorse is pretty strong, but also much less relevant to 2016. Just because they wish someone else had won in 2012 doesn’t mean they would prefer Romney to someone who isn’t Obama in a future election. Buyer’s remorse doesn’t really work that way.

But they do have an understanding of the consequences of the president’s world view, and it happens not to be too different from the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She was, after all, the president’s secretary of state, who managed the Russian “reset,” ignored some allies while haranguing others, and presided over the light-footprint model of state intervention that resulted in the death of an American ambassador in Libya.

It turned out that Romney was right about a whole lot, both on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. Perhaps that’s the road map future candidates will follow: not to mimic all of Romney’s policy prescriptions, but to concentrate on where and why he was right and how polling shows these areas to be weaknesses for the current ruling Democrats. That doesn’t mean they’d need to run Mitt Romney in order to make those arguments, but does explain why we’re having this conversation to begin with.

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A Welcome Win for Obama and the U.S.

I have been quite critical recently of the Obama administration foreign policy that has been associated with one disaster after another in, among other places, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. As Bret Stephens writes, “Like geese, Americans are being forced to swallow foreign-policy fiascoes at a rate faster than we can possibly chew, much less digest.”

So it is only fit and proper to give credit where it’s due—in this case for the apprehension by Special Operations Forces of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the reported ringleader of the terrorist cell which attacked the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and killed the US ambassador to Libya. This has been a while coming but it is fitting justice nevertheless.

Republicans who seek to criticize this coup are, I believe, off-base. There are two grounds for criticism: First that the president reportedly sat on this intelligence for fear that a raid would destabilize the government of Libya and second that Khattala is being remanded for trial in a federal district court, not sent to Guantanamo for trial by a special terrorist tribunal. Neither criticism stands up to much scrutiny.

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I have been quite critical recently of the Obama administration foreign policy that has been associated with one disaster after another in, among other places, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. As Bret Stephens writes, “Like geese, Americans are being forced to swallow foreign-policy fiascoes at a rate faster than we can possibly chew, much less digest.”

So it is only fit and proper to give credit where it’s due—in this case for the apprehension by Special Operations Forces of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the reported ringleader of the terrorist cell which attacked the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and killed the US ambassador to Libya. This has been a while coming but it is fitting justice nevertheless.

Republicans who seek to criticize this coup are, I believe, off-base. There are two grounds for criticism: First that the president reportedly sat on this intelligence for fear that a raid would destabilize the government of Libya and second that Khattala is being remanded for trial in a federal district court, not sent to Guantanamo for trial by a special terrorist tribunal. Neither criticism stands up to much scrutiny.

In the first place, it is perfectly legitimate to balance the benefits of a Special Operations raid against the political costs of action. Presumably Obama finally determined that Libya is so chaotic and the government so powerless that this raid would do nothing further to destabilize the situation. That is itself a sad indictment of U.S. policy (or lack thereof) in Libya but it is that policy that should be subject to criticism, not the raid itself.

As for trying Khattala in a civilian court: This should not be a matter of dogmatism. Many top terrorists have been tried and convicted in civilian courts in the past. The point of Gitmo and the special terrorist tribunals is that they offer a separate venue for handling terrorists who are judged dangerous by the intelligence community but whom prosecutors are unable to convict in a civilian court. In the case of Khattala, the Justice Department is apparently confident of winning a conviction in district court, so there is no reason not to go ahead with a prosecution. Khattala is actually more likely to remain locked up if he is sent to a super-max prison than if he goes to Gitmo where far too many dangerous detainees have been released.

It goes without saying that the capture of Khattala, however welcome, hardly reverses by itself the tide of disasters that has swept over U.S. foreign policy in recent months. But for an administration that has not had a lot (or any) victories lately, it is a welcome win—and one that Republicans should welcome for signaling a willingness to use force against America’s enemies.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Unsecured Libyan Weapons Went to Boko Haram

Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram's] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

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Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram's] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

Let this be a miserable lesson in the dangers of foreign-policy ambivalence. The Obama administration was dragged kicking and screaming into Libya and refused to take the necessary steps to secure the regime’s weapons after Gaddafi was gone. This “light footprint” approach was praised by many as a low-risk “new model” for American military action. But in reality it was just world-policing on the cheap. The results speak for themselves. We can either fight terrorism or we can watch it advance and offer our remorse after the fact.

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When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

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The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

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Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden put a direct question to Vladimir Putin during a live televised question-and-answer session Thursday, asking Russia’s president about Moscow’s use of mass surveillance on its citizens.

Speaking via a video link, Snowden asked: “I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin replied by stating Russia did not carry out mass surveillance on its population, and that its intelligence operations were strictly regulated by court orders.

“Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so…you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person.

“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

He added: “Of course, we know that terrorists and criminals use technology so we have to use means to respond to these, but we don’t have uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

Edward Snowden: esteemed public servant by day, craven Putin propagandist … also by day. It’s a long day.

Much of Putin’s telethon, to judge by the translations offered by Putin’s more experienced propagandists at RT, was a mix of threats and spin. According to RT, Putin was asked if Russia would invade other parts of Ukraine to claim territory for Russia, as was done in Crimea. His response was a barely-veiled warning that he would be happy to take by intimidation rather than force. “The point is that with the understanding how important the force is, the states could develop and strengthen reasonable behavior rules in the international arena,” he responded.

The same transcript also gives readers a glimpse at the whiny, aggrieved brat lurking inside the ostentatious tough-guy façade (italics in the original):

Referring to the 2009 “Reset” in relations, Putin said the agreement ended after the US and NATO intervened in Libya and plunged the country into chaos.

“We believe this is not our fault. This double-standard approach always disappoints us. Behaving like the US did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is allowed, but Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” said Putin. He added that Russia was not trying to sour its relations with the EU and hopes this feeling is reciprocated.

The idea that all was well in U.S.-Russian relations until the spring of 2011 is utterly ridiculous, but this is standard fare from Putin. In fact, however, Putin’s own statement (if the translation is correct) refutes itself. It wasn’t really the intervention in Libya that ended the reset, Putin hints, because NATO has intervened before. It’s that, according to Putin, “Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” despite NATO’s actions. What Putin wants is to be able to invade his neighbors at will. If he can’t do that, well then the reset is off. Which is why it was never really extant in the first place.

This agenda, of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, is what Snowden is propagandizing in service of. And Putin’s lies about domestic surveillance are what Snowden, who supposedly stormed off to China and Russia over his need to protest such actions at home, are what Snowden is helping to feed the Russian public. The real public service Snowden has done, then, is to make it clear just how much of a hypocrite and an authoritarian tool he really is.

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Re-Open the Lockerbie Case? Not If It Means Facing the Truth About Iran.

Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

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Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

But the problem isn’t Mesbahi’s credibility or even the embarrassment that a finding that debunked previous Western intelligence work on Lockerbie would cause in Washington and London. Rather, it’s the fact that the defector is pointing the finger at a government that the West wants very much to rehabilitate these days.

The United States and its European allies are deeply invested in the notion that Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux election last year marked a genuine change in the country’s political culture. Justifying a weak interim nuclear deal that granted Iran both significant sanctions relief and a tacit recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium was made possible not only by the arguments about Iran’s supposed desire for a new start with the West but also by a determination by the administration that it wanted to step away from confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

The president is so worried about hurting the delicate feelings of the anti-Semitic government in Tehran that he is willing to veto new sanctions legislation that would have strengthened his hand in the talks. This policy is difficult enough to justify in the face of Iran’s continued support for terrorism, its genocidal threats against Israel (which make its possession of nuclear weapons more than a theoretical security problem), and its long record of diplomatic deception. The last thing the president and Secretary of State Kerry want is to have the Lockerbie case disinterred and for the regime—many of whose leading players were active in the security apparatus at the time—indicted for mass murder of innocent Americans.

So don’t expect anyone in Washington to take the new evidence about Lockerbie seriously or even to pay lip service to the notion of re-opening the case. Horovitz is right that Al Jazeera’s report ought to justify a new investigation that will fearlessly follow the evidence to the guilty parties. But as long as making nice with Iran is one of the diplomatic priorities of the United States, the truth about Lockerbie is likely to be ignored.

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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

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Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.

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The Real Benghazi Scandal

On the list of scandals that plagued the Obama administration this past year, Benghazi has been the one the White House, Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media dismissed with the greatest of ease. Unlike the IRS scandal, which though it has faded from the news had obvious constitutional and political implications, or the various spying scandals involving news organizations and the National Security Agency, which outraged large numbers of ordinary Americans, Benghazi was put down as a manufactured story that had little traction. Part of it was due to the obsessive, though understandable, focus of Republicans on the lies about the 9/11/12 terror attack by members of the administration in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The claim that it was merely a spontaneous demonstration of movie critics that ran amok was outrageous and almost certainly motivated by the administration’s fears that the attack would hurt the president’s reelection campaign. But it didn’t speak to specific wrongdoing that led to the deaths of four Americans or how similar problems might be avoided in the future.

But 15 months after those four Americans died while waiting in vain for rescue that never came, there is a real Benghazi scandal that calls for more than lip service from the White House or quotes like former Secretary of State Clinton’s infamous “What difference does it make?” As the Washington Post reports today:

U.S. officials say efforts have stalled to capture about a dozen people secretly charged in the 2012 attack on the American compound in Benghazi that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The individuals have been charged in sealed criminal complaints filed in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. They include one of the suspected ringleaders of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader with ties to ­al-Qaeda,­ said several U.S officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

So far, none have been brought to trial and the lack of progress in capturing Khattala has frustrated U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers who want to see him and the others prosecuted. One official said that Khattala continues to operate in eastern Libya with impunity.

“He’s as free as a bird,” the official said.

This is, to put it mildly, outrageous. And it is all the more outrageous since the suspects are apparently living large in a country that was supposedly no longer a safe haven for terror after the Western-backed overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. If the administration hasn’t allocated sufficient forces to deal with this situation, Congress and the American people have a right to ask why.

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On the list of scandals that plagued the Obama administration this past year, Benghazi has been the one the White House, Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media dismissed with the greatest of ease. Unlike the IRS scandal, which though it has faded from the news had obvious constitutional and political implications, or the various spying scandals involving news organizations and the National Security Agency, which outraged large numbers of ordinary Americans, Benghazi was put down as a manufactured story that had little traction. Part of it was due to the obsessive, though understandable, focus of Republicans on the lies about the 9/11/12 terror attack by members of the administration in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The claim that it was merely a spontaneous demonstration of movie critics that ran amok was outrageous and almost certainly motivated by the administration’s fears that the attack would hurt the president’s reelection campaign. But it didn’t speak to specific wrongdoing that led to the deaths of four Americans or how similar problems might be avoided in the future.

But 15 months after those four Americans died while waiting in vain for rescue that never came, there is a real Benghazi scandal that calls for more than lip service from the White House or quotes like former Secretary of State Clinton’s infamous “What difference does it make?” As the Washington Post reports today:

U.S. officials say efforts have stalled to capture about a dozen people secretly charged in the 2012 attack on the American compound in Benghazi that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The individuals have been charged in sealed criminal complaints filed in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. They include one of the suspected ringleaders of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader with ties to ­al-Qaeda,­ said several U.S officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

So far, none have been brought to trial and the lack of progress in capturing Khattala has frustrated U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers who want to see him and the others prosecuted. One official said that Khattala continues to operate in eastern Libya with impunity.

“He’s as free as a bird,” the official said.

This is, to put it mildly, outrageous. And it is all the more outrageous since the suspects are apparently living large in a country that was supposedly no longer a safe haven for terror after the Western-backed overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. If the administration hasn’t allocated sufficient forces to deal with this situation, Congress and the American people have a right to ask why.

The problem stems from the fact that, as with the prelude to the attack that was made possible by a lack of concern for the security of U.S. personnel on the part of the State Department, the investigation also seems to be a low priority. Moreover, rather than tasking U.S. military forces to deal with the problem of snatching or taking out these murderers, it has been treated as strictly a law-enforcement problem. The FBI may consider the Benghazi case a priority, but the bureau has found itself handicapped when operating under hostile conditions abroad as we learned when it was revealed that they were unable to adequately investigate the site of the attack for months.

That is not unrelated to the fact that, far from being proof of how administration policy has led to expanding U.S. influence and problems for terrorists, Libya is a mess. As the Post reports, attempts to capture some of the terrorists failed when the blowback from U.S. actions led to chaos including the kidnapping of the prime minister. Indeed, some have speculated that the administration has pulled back on the effort to capture the terrorists because of the fear that more U.S. actions would lead to the fall of the Libyan government.

The refusal of the State Department to adequately defend American personnel in Benghazi was a shocking failure. The lies told after the attack by administration figures were appalling. So, too, is the unwillingness of Hillary Clinton to truly take responsibility for what happened. But the administration’s seeming lack of interest in bringing those responsible to justice is a scandal of an altogether higher order. Unless the president orders sufficient personnel to Libya to get the job done, this is an issue that will continue to haunt his administration as well as the future presidential hopes of Mrs. Clinton.

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Sequestration and Combat Readiness

Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. can stand aloof from such messes simply because we desire to do so. If history shows anything, it is that the U.S. has a tendency to get sucked into distant conflicts, and that includes the dispatch of ground forces. Just look at the 1990s–the last period of major defense downsizing when we got involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, among other places.

Today if we show an inability to field substantial ground forces we are practically inviting our enemies to challenge us in this arena of warfare, whether through the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics or (more unlikely but not impossible) through conventional combat operations. Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so caught up in their political squabbles, with neither side being willing to address the fiscal danger of runaway entitlement spending, that they are oblivious to the impact their defense cuts are having on our military readiness in general and our ground-combat readiness in particular.

Dempsey and Amos might as well be talking to a brick wall for all the notice they are getting. We should be paying more attention because history shows that those in the past who have warned about the dangers of excessive defense drawdowns have inevitably been proven correct.

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Libyan Training Mission Long Overdue

I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

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I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

Item No. 1: “The deputy chief of Libya’s intelligence service was abducted from the parking lot of the airport in Tripoli on Sunday afternoon as a standoff between militias and a general strike against militia rule virtually shut down the city.”

Item No. 2: “At least 40 people were killed Friday in the deadliest violence in Libya’s capital since the end of the bloody 2011 revolution that ousted Moammar Gaddafi, state media reported. Nearly 400 others were injured, the Associated Press reported Saturday, citing Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani.”

And that’s just what is in the news today. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. This ongoing strife is cause for concern not just for Libyans but for Americans–a fact brought home by the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi more than a year ago which continues to go unpunished. Al-Qaeda and its ilk are taking advantage of this chaos to gain a foothold in a nation that otherwise should be oriented firmly toward the West.

It is simply shameful that the Obama administration, which helped to topple Gaddafi, has done so little to stabilize Libya in the last two years. The initiative to train security forces should have been launched in 2011–and yet it still has not passed beyond the discussion stage. It’s not as if Obama hasn’t seen what happens when the U.S. allows a power vacuum to develop after a dictator’s downfall. Yet for some bizarre reason he appears intent on duplicating in Libya the errors that his predecessor made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Syria’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

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When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

There is only one problem: President Obama’s decision not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime contradicts, rather than flows, from his claim. An American intervention would, if anything, help end the war. By contrast, American inaction will prolong Syria’s civil war, and it will potentially make its outcomes worse for American interests.

One such outcome–the jihadi nature of part of the rebel forces–was routinely cited by administration officials as a reason for caution. And yet, it is increasingly obvious that there is a direct correlation between Western inaction and the rise of jihadis among the rebels.

Today, the Washington Post reports that the flow of weapons to Syria’s opposition is going mostly to Islamist rebels–thanks to a renewed commitment from Gulf donors not to let the Sunni rebellion lose out after America threatened and then cancelled a military strike.

Clearly, if there is no Western support for moderate forces, fears that aid to the rebels may end up strengthening jihadi elements will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with far-reaching consequences. One will be that if Syria falls to the rebels, it will be a hub for jihadi activities. Another is that the more jihadi foreign fighters survive the war to return to their homes, the more jihadis will be ready for more action against the West in years to come. So much for defeating al-Qaeda and making it irrelevant, then–America’s choice of delegating a role in this conflict to regional powers will dilute American efforts to eradicate the al-Qaeda franchise from the region.

This is just one aspect of the Syria conundrum that clearly undermines the president’s rhetoric. It is not the only one, but it suffices to show that in fact, President Obama’s legacy will not be to end wars but only to ensure that America avoids them at all costs–whatever the long-term consequences for America and its vital interests.

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The Price of Vacillation

It is hard to exaggerate the damage to American standing and credibility in the world that President Obama did with his about-face on Syria: In the space of a few hours on Friday he went from signaling that military strikes on Syria were imminent after pro forma “consultations” with Congress to deciding that he would ask Congress to approve the strikes, even though he admitted that such authorization was not needed for him to act.

American allies and adversaries alike were baffled by the about-face. Don’t take my word for it. Just read some of their comments as reported by no less than the New York Times.

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It is hard to exaggerate the damage to American standing and credibility in the world that President Obama did with his about-face on Syria: In the space of a few hours on Friday he went from signaling that military strikes on Syria were imminent after pro forma “consultations” with Congress to deciding that he would ask Congress to approve the strikes, even though he admitted that such authorization was not needed for him to act.

American allies and adversaries alike were baffled by the about-face. Don’t take my word for it. Just read some of their comments as reported by no less than the New York Times.

From a state-run newspaper in Syria: This is “the start of the historic American retreat.” Obama had hesitated because of a “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies.”

From Israel: An analysis in Haaretz said “that Mr. Obama’s postponement of a military strike against Syria suggested that he would be less likely to confront Iran on its nuclear program going forward, and that in the Arab world, he would now be ‘seen as weak, hesitant and vacillating.’ ”

From China: “ ‘He doesn’t want to fight; he doesn’t know the outcome,’ said Mr. Yin [Gang], of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ‘He’s afraid, very afraid.’ ”

This may be an unfair perception, but it is one that is taking root in the rest of the world, and it is not to hard to see why: There is no good explanation for the volte-face that President Obama did after he and his aides, especially Secretary of State John Kerry, spent the previous week breathing fire and brimstone about how retribution for Syria was nigh.

It is perfectly appropriate to debate whether U.S. military action is justified; there are strong arguments against (especially against the kind of tepid and symbolic cruise missile strike that Obama seems to be contemplating). But the time to have that debate is before the president and secretary of state tell the entire world that the U.S. is about to strike.

By failing to strike, and by kicking the decision over to Congress, President Obama is not signaling respect for the constitutional process, since, as he has repeatedly reminded us, he has the power to launch air strikes without formal authorization from Congress–and in fact he did just that in Libya. Instead, he is signaling hesitancy and doubt which is discouraging our allies and undoubtedly encouraging our enemies from Pyongyang to Tehran.

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Latest Assad Atrocity Demands Response

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

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On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

The question is what, if anything, the administration plans to do about the latest transgression of its vaunted red line. Previous evidence of chemical weapons use wrung out of a visibly reluctant Obama a pledge in June to provide arms to vetted factions of the Syrian rebels. But those arms still have not arrived, apparently, and now Assad is upping the ante–employing chemical weapons again even as a UN team is visiting Damascus to investigate the previous use of chemical weapons.

Assad is flaunting his disregard for the United States and indeed for the international community. France has understandably said that force is needed in response, but there is no indication that Obama will go along. His chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, appears to be dead-set against greater intervention, thus providing an excuse for Obama to do nothing, even though it would be easy for the U.S. and its allies to launch air strikes on regime targets. It would not even require sending Western aircraft over Syria; Israel has proved how easy it is to launch missiles from outside of Syrian airspace. That could be accomplished by both Western aircraft and Western ships. Of course taking down the remnants of Assad’s air defense network, which no doubt has been degraded by military defections and loss of territory, would not be all that difficult either for the world’s most advanced air force.

A failure to act now will expose the U.S. to ridicule as an ineffectual laughing-stock, a superpower that can be defied with impunity–an impression already created by the U.S. failure to shape events from Libya (where the death of our ambassador remains unavenged) to Egypt (where the military junta defies American advice not to slaughter protesters).

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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NATO Libya Follow-up Long Overdue

The Wall Street Journal has a rather startling report today about Libya: NATO is considering sending a training mission there to improve the quality of Libya’s security forces. The need for such a mission is obvious: not only is Libya at the mercy of various militias but it is so ungoverned that its distant deserts in the southwest have become a refuge for al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the French offensive in Mali. So why is this report so startling? Because the need for such a step is so long overdue.

Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in October 2011 by Libyan rebels assisted by NATO airpower. Many of us were warning even before Gaddafi fell that there would be a need for international help to reestablish lawful authority after the revolution’s success. Nearly a year and eight months have passed since then, and the need for outside security assistance has become all the more clear and urgent. The murder of the U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of last year should have made that evident. Yet the Obama administration has not stepped in to fill the need. Neither have our allies. The result: yet another ungoverned space where al-Qaeda militants can operate.

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The Wall Street Journal has a rather startling report today about Libya: NATO is considering sending a training mission there to improve the quality of Libya’s security forces. The need for such a mission is obvious: not only is Libya at the mercy of various militias but it is so ungoverned that its distant deserts in the southwest have become a refuge for al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the French offensive in Mali. So why is this report so startling? Because the need for such a step is so long overdue.

Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in October 2011 by Libyan rebels assisted by NATO airpower. Many of us were warning even before Gaddafi fell that there would be a need for international help to reestablish lawful authority after the revolution’s success. Nearly a year and eight months have passed since then, and the need for outside security assistance has become all the more clear and urgent. The murder of the U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of last year should have made that evident. Yet the Obama administration has not stepped in to fill the need. Neither have our allies. The result: yet another ungoverned space where al-Qaeda militants can operate.

This is a tragedy that was clearly foreseen and still ongoing, yet the very crew that came to office criticizing President Bush for lack of preparation after Saddam Hussein’s downfall has been blithely repeating the same mistake in Libya. And no one seems to be talking about it. Instead, all of the discussion about Libya is over the “talking points” issued after the September 11 attack by the administration.

While there is legitimate cause for investigation into the administration’s response to the attack which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, the far more urgent and important issue is the fate of Libya, which remains up for grabs. Yet both Democrats and Republicans seem to be so opposed to any hint of “nation building” that they instead appear to be content to watch Libya’s continuing collapse into chaos.

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The Democrats’ Iraq Syndrome: Defeatists and Demagogues Call the Shots

The Washington Post has an interesting story today on the absence of the “liberal hawks” in the debate over intervention in the Syrian civil war. As the story goes on to acknowledge, they aren’t actually “silent”–as the Post calls them initially–but merely quiet and outnumbered on the left. There are prominent liberal voices quite explicitly calling for more military involvement in Syria–Vali Nasr, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Leon Wieseltier, Bill Keller. The rest are chastened by Iraq, according to this analysis.

The Post actually downplays the volume of liberal drum beating in the run-up to Iraq, saying they “provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.” In fact, after the first Gulf war it seemed Democrats in Congress were a step away from having to be physically restrained from going after Saddam Hussein themselves, war or no war. Nonetheless, the Post account isn’t wrong, merely incomplete. The rest of the post-Iraq political landscape makes it easier to understand how liberal interventionists lost the Democratic Party’s intramural contest so thoroughly.

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The Washington Post has an interesting story today on the absence of the “liberal hawks” in the debate over intervention in the Syrian civil war. As the story goes on to acknowledge, they aren’t actually “silent”–as the Post calls them initially–but merely quiet and outnumbered on the left. There are prominent liberal voices quite explicitly calling for more military involvement in Syria–Vali Nasr, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Leon Wieseltier, Bill Keller. The rest are chastened by Iraq, according to this analysis.

The Post actually downplays the volume of liberal drum beating in the run-up to Iraq, saying they “provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.” In fact, after the first Gulf war it seemed Democrats in Congress were a step away from having to be physically restrained from going after Saddam Hussein themselves, war or no war. Nonetheless, the Post account isn’t wrong, merely incomplete. The rest of the post-Iraq political landscape makes it easier to understand how liberal interventionists lost the Democratic Party’s intramural contest so thoroughly.

To be fair, kernels of the complete picture are sprinkled throughout the piece. One comes in the middle of the story and describes the reaction Keller received when broaching the topic of intervention:

The few prominent liberal hawks have taken their case to high-profile platforms. Bill Keller, a former editor of the New York Times, recently acknowledged his wariness but added that “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” He was immediately attacked with echoes of the “Bush’s Useful Idiots” critique.

Those who follow the second link will get a reminder of just how intellectually unmoored the left came during the Iraq war. Readers are shown a 2006 London Review of Books essay by the late Tony Judt, and his description of the term and its applicability is worth quoting in full:

It is particularly ironic that the ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’, in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same ‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.

The moral equivalence between American interventionists and those who conspired against their own country for the sake of foreign despots is revolting. Or at least it should be, but it wasn’t during the Bush administration, and that itself is a scandal. And it makes it much more difficult for anyone on the left to speak up in favor of intervention. If Bill Keller is going to be compared to apologists for the father of 20th-century mass murder and totalitarian terror simply for saying inaction in Syria was making him uncomfortable, then what on earth will the suffocating ideologues of the left permit liberals to say? Not much, and the rank and file have mostly complied, hence the Post story on their quiet contemplation.

Another telling detail from the Post story is an early description of the dominant line of thinking in the Obama White House: “In their absence, the military-intervention-will-only-make-things-worse school of foreign policy subscribed to by key national security figures in the West Wing continues to hold sway.” It is one thing to believe that intervention sometimes helps and sometimes hurts, depending on how it is carried out and the conditions on the ground. That there is a “school of foreign policy” known as “military-intervention-will-only-make-things-worse” is troubling enough, because another word for that attitude is “isolationism,” and still another is “defeatism.” It is troubling as well that such a school would “hold sway” in a White House that prides itself on being more thoughtful than dogmatic.

Perhaps the Post is being careless with its terminology; it should be noted that the administration is considering a no-fly zone in Syria, which would qualify as intervention and would certainly not be consistent with isolationism. (Elsewhere the Post describes the attitude not as isolationism but as “realism,” which is absolutely and inexcusably incorrect. It may be the nonsense that has become neorealism, but if self-identified realists consider this to be consistent with their perspective, then there is no longer such a thing as realism.)

Because liberal advocates of intervention seem so outnumbered, the Post wonders “whether having [human rights advisor Samantha] Power in the administration is as useful as having her as a clear voice outside it.” But that seems misguided. If advocates of intervention are being ignored, then Power would be ignored too. As it is, having a liberal interventionist advising the National Security Council hardly seems less valuable than one more likeminded voice in academia.

And there is another angle that doesn’t get the treatment it deserves by the Post story: Libya. The Obama administration wanted to “lead from behind” in Libya, which meant intervention with a light footprint. It was, by any and every yardstick, a colossal failure. Indeed, those who think the Iraq intervention produced a result unworthy of its cost must be horrified by the situation in Libya, in which we facilitated the state’s transition into violent anarchy, which has spread beyond Libya’s borders like a virus.

And as much as President Obama must be thinking about his legacy, he must also be thinking about karma. Obama’s presidential run was built on demagoguing matters of war and peace to a shameful degree. His famous 2002 speech on the war, which demonstrated just how unimpressive Obama could be when he spoke on foreign affairs, accused Karl Rove of engineering the war to distract the country from troubles at home. It was truly a humiliating moment for American liberalism when the left embraced such conspiracy mongering instead of rejecting it out of hand.

Whether Obama regrets his earlier behavior or not, he must surely be haunted by his own ghost when it comes to military intervention. No one is more responsible for the Benghazi tragedy than Obama’s handpicked successor, Hillary Clinton, and few did more to engineer the dangerous anarchy that preceded the attack than Obama, with his predilection to lead from behind. If Obama were running for president in 2016, he knows how he would exploit Libya. Perhaps he is wondering if he is due to be on the ballot next time the way he insisted Bush was in 2008. He would surely resent it, but hopefully he could at least appreciate the irony.

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The Real Libya Scandal

The dramatic testimony of Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, has shone the media spotlight on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. Republican lawmakers and conservative journalists have managed to raise substantial and serious questions about the administration’s response to the attack, both as it was occurring and in the days that followed. The mainstream news media have been obliged to follow suit, putting White House spokesmen on the defensive, even if charges of a “cover up” remain far from proven.

But, oddly enough, almost no one is talking about what I regard as the real scandal here–the shameful failure of the Obama administration to extend state-building assistance to Libya’s pro-Western leaders after having helped them to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The inability of the Libyan government to control its own territory created the conditions that led to the 2012 attack–and those conditions have not changed since.

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The dramatic testimony of Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, has shone the media spotlight on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. Republican lawmakers and conservative journalists have managed to raise substantial and serious questions about the administration’s response to the attack, both as it was occurring and in the days that followed. The mainstream news media have been obliged to follow suit, putting White House spokesmen on the defensive, even if charges of a “cover up” remain far from proven.

But, oddly enough, almost no one is talking about what I regard as the real scandal here–the shameful failure of the Obama administration to extend state-building assistance to Libya’s pro-Western leaders after having helped them to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The inability of the Libyan government to control its own territory created the conditions that led to the 2012 attack–and those conditions have not changed since.

A recent Reuters dispatch from Tripoli notes: “More than 18 months after the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s new rulers have yet to impose a firm grip on a country awash with weapons. Rebel groups that helped to overthrow him are still refusing to disband, and remain more visible on the streets than the state security forces.”

Libya ostensibly has democratic institutions, but in reality it seems to be prey to mob rule. At the end of last month, for example, gunmen besieged the foreign and justice ministries, demanding the passage of a law to ban anyone who had held a senior position in the Gaddafi government. As Reuters further notes: “Parliament bowed to the demand and approved the legislation a week later, despite criticism from rights groups and diplomats who said it was sweeping, unfair and could cripple the government.”

The U.S. is being derelict in not doing more to help the elected government in Libya to establish its authority–and in the process we are allowing an opening for al-Qaeda and its ilk. Shouldn’t someone in a position of authority in Washington be talking about this? And, even better, doing something about it?

No doubt President Obama, in the full grip of Iraq Syndrome, regards any attempts to stabilize Libya as the first step toward getting involved in a “quagmire.” And no doubt, too, Republicans are loathe to criticize him on this front because “nation building” remains as anathema in their ranks as it does in the Obama administration. But in the process we are not doing nearly enough to address the critical threat in Libya, which could result in more attacks on U.S. personnel and interests in the future.

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