Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama administration

Where’s the Outrage Over CIA Outing?

The White House had egg on its face today. The news about the accidental outing of the name of the CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan seemed to be just one more instance in a long list of incompetent episodes in a second term that is proving to be as problematic as even President Obama’s sternest critics predicted. But the story of how the name of the station chief—which is, obviously, classified material, and was sent out in an email to thousands of journalists as one of a number of people briefing the president during his Memorial Day weekend trip to Afghanistan—should not be dismissed as merely the latest episode of the real life situation comedy that is Obama’s second-term West Wing staff.

Coming as it did from an administration and a political party that has often sought to successfully criminalize the leaking of such information in the recent past, we have a right to ask where’s the outrage about this colossal error? But more than that, this absurd tale also speaks volumes about the hypocrisy and selective prosecution policies pursued by the same people now telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see.

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The White House had egg on its face today. The news about the accidental outing of the name of the CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan seemed to be just one more instance in a long list of incompetent episodes in a second term that is proving to be as problematic as even President Obama’s sternest critics predicted. But the story of how the name of the station chief—which is, obviously, classified material, and was sent out in an email to thousands of journalists as one of a number of people briefing the president during his Memorial Day weekend trip to Afghanistan—should not be dismissed as merely the latest episode of the real life situation comedy that is Obama’s second-term West Wing staff.

Coming as it did from an administration and a political party that has often sought to successfully criminalize the leaking of such information in the recent past, we have a right to ask where’s the outrage about this colossal error? But more than that, this absurd tale also speaks volumes about the hypocrisy and selective prosecution policies pursued by the same people now telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see.

It should be remembered that it was only a few years ago that the same Democratic Party that currently runs the White House was up in arms because the name of a CIA official was leaked to the press. While initially thought to be an act of political revenge by a Bush administration seeking to get even with officials who opposed their Iraq policies, it turned out that the person who actually gave up the now famous name of Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak was Richard Armitage, a State Department official who was just as hostile to the White House as much of the press. But the outrage about Plame’s outing in the liberal mainstream press was universal and white-hot. An angry Washington press corps helped manufacture a crisis that forced President Bush to appoint a special prosecutor to look into an act that was proclaimed to be nothing short of treason. The prosecutor—Patrick Fitzgerald—spent millions of taxpayer dollars largely on trying to pin the leak on Bush political advisor Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney. Even after he learned that it was Armitage who had done the deed and that there was no ill intent or crime to be prosecuted, Fitzgerald didn’t let up and wound up successfully prosecuting Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby for perjury over something he said to a grand jury about the case. Libby was innocent in Plame’s outing as well as of the perjury charge, but that didn’t stop the press from crucifying him. Even today, many Americans still think it was Libby who outed Plame and that in doing so he had endangered her life even though both assertions are false.

Libby’s ruin was the result of partisan politics but once Bush’s Democratic opponents took over in January 2009, they began their own campaign to make leakers pay. In one prominent example, another CIA official, John Kiriakou was sent to prison for leaking the name of another CIA officer who had conducted the waterboarding of al-Qaeda terror suspects.

But when it comes to their own incompetence, this White House isn’t so up in arms about leaks whatever their causes.

Let’s remember that what occurred this past week was far worse than anything that happened to Plame. Plame was, after all, serving in an office in Virginia and, while classified, was no secret. By contrast, the CIA station chief whose name was released is in peril every day in Kabul. He is serving on the front lines of a shooting war and the release of his name in this indiscriminate manner may well have compromised his effectiveness if not his safety.

No matter what the cause of this leak, the person who did it should be punished. If not, those throughout the security establishment who have been harshly treated by an administration that is paranoid about leaks have a right to complain. So does Libby. In the past, high-ranking Democrats such as Clinton administration National Security Advisor Sandy Berger have often gotten a pass or a slap on the wrist for security breaches that were considered serious offenses when committed by Republicans. If the press lets Obama get away with this blunder, it will be just one more example of the refusal of the national press to hold this administration to the same standards that it judges the president’s opponents.

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The Dud at DOD: Hagel Proves Critics Right

The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

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The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

That Hagel would be a “paper tiger”—as the headline of the Politico piece calls him—comes as no surprise. While his military service is admirable, it takes more than a war record to run an enterprise as vast as the DOD. Moreover, even when pleading his case before the Senate, he didn’t really promise us anything different. At the time, even his defenders were puzzled by his argument that he would not be the person setting policy but just a manager implementing the president’s wishes. But, with rare exceptions, that’s exactly what he has been. On all the crucial issues involving the use of the military, he hasn’t been MIA, keeping quiet even when his boss in the Oval Office wished him to speak up, such as at the hearing about putative plans for striking Syria. The president chose him in part because he shared Hagel’s “realist” views about appeasing Iran and downgrading the alliance with Israel. But he was primarily interested in having the brash former enlisted man do his bidding when it came to downsizing the defense establishment and putting generals in their place. Yet he has largely failed to do that and, in the first stirrings of independence, seems more intent on backing up the generals than in shutting them up.

Even on issues that should have been political slam-dunks for him, Hagel has faltered. Politico describes him as serving as Obama’s “human shield” on the increasingly important question of sexual assaults in the military. Rather than going along with prominent Democrats like New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made this her signature issue, Hagel has backed up the brass when it comes to removing investigations from the normal military chain of command, prompting her to describe him as neither showing leadership nor living up to his promises.

Though he has been of little use in helping to bridge the gap between the parties on the budget standoff, Hagel is right when he protests about the way the sequester has negatively impacted readiness and overall the ability of the military to do its job or defend the nation. And, if Politico’s sources are to be believed, he may have been a rare voice of sanity in the administration on Egypt policy and may have slightly ameliorated the damage done by both Obama and Kerry for their embrace of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. But his overall performance has been lackluster at best. Obama was told that Hagel was not ready for the job and those warnings have proven accurate.

In one sense, Hagel is a classic example of the way second-term presidents wind up with untalented also-rans after their initial appointees either leave or burn out. Though he has largely flown under the radar since his confirmation, he is the perfect symbol for Obama’s fifth year in office during which he has lost the confidence of the public and demonstrated his inability to govern effectively on a host of issues. But he is more than a symbol. What the president needed was more than a steadier hand and tougher presence at Defense than Hagel. He needed someone of the stature of former secretary Robert Gates who, whatever his mistakes and failings, gave both Presidents Bush and Obama an alternative view to what many top advisers were whispering in their ears. Such a figure would have been invaluable this fall as Obama and Kerry rushed headlong into the arms of the Iranians in pursuit of their effort to create a new détente with the Islamist regime and to throw Israel under the bus. If Obama’s staffers now realize that Hagel is an empty suit that can’t advance their political agenda, it is the country that has lost even more by having an Obama yes-man at the Pentagon.

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A New Front in the War on Journalists?

As I noted earlier today, the government’s treatment of Fox News reporter James Rosen betrayed the Obama administration’s unhinged obsession with targeting journalists. But as troubling as that is, the problem goes deeper than the attempt by the Department of Justice to eviscerate the First Amendment. The news that one of the reporters who had been aggressively covering the Benghazi scandal had her computer tampered with should alarm more than just her fellow scribes. So, too, should the increasingly shrill attacks from the president’s cheering section on other journalists who have been following the stories about government misconduct.

As Politico reports:

Sharyl Attkisson, the Emmy-award winning CBS News investigative reporter, says that her personal and work computers have been compromised and are under investigation.

“I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter,” Attkisson told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.”

In an earlier interview with WPHT Philadelphia, Attkisson said that though she did not know the full details of the intrusion, “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen].”

Like the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, this incident illustrates the old line that said just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. After what happened to the Associated Press and Rosen, no one should be dismissing out of hand the notion that what’s going on with Attkisson is a matter of foul play.

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As I noted earlier today, the government’s treatment of Fox News reporter James Rosen betrayed the Obama administration’s unhinged obsession with targeting journalists. But as troubling as that is, the problem goes deeper than the attempt by the Department of Justice to eviscerate the First Amendment. The news that one of the reporters who had been aggressively covering the Benghazi scandal had her computer tampered with should alarm more than just her fellow scribes. So, too, should the increasingly shrill attacks from the president’s cheering section on other journalists who have been following the stories about government misconduct.

As Politico reports:

Sharyl Attkisson, the Emmy-award winning CBS News investigative reporter, says that her personal and work computers have been compromised and are under investigation.

“I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter,” Attkisson told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.”

In an earlier interview with WPHT Philadelphia, Attkisson said that though she did not know the full details of the intrusion, “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen].”

Like the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, this incident illustrates the old line that said just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. After what happened to the Associated Press and Rosen, no one should be dismissing out of hand the notion that what’s going on with Attkisson is a matter of foul play.

While that doesn’t allow us to jump to conclusions, let’s also understand what we’ve been witnessing in the last week as the president’s supporters reeled in the face of a deluge of scandals that they are trying desperately to minimize or dismiss as the figment of conservative imaginations. The widespread sliming of ABC News’s Jonathan Karl—who followed up the reporting of the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes on the Benghazi emails—by the left is part of this equation. In particular, the misleading and vicious attacks by the left-wing groups Media Matters and FAIR on Karl tells us a lot about the way the president’s supporters view the stakes in this debate. They aren’t interested in winning a debate. They want to silence opposing views.

Liberals mocked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claims over the weekend that the president and his staff have instilled “a culture of intimidation” throughout the government that can be linked to the IRS scandal. But the connection isn’t just to the outrageous behavior of the IRS, for which we’ve yet to receive an answer to the question of who ordered the targeting and why they did it. The blithe manner with which the Department of Justice has spied on journalists and the willingness to smear anyone who calls out the White House on any of these manners is a symptom of what really is a latter-day version of Nixonian tactics.

Some may consider it self-serving that even the liberal mainstream press is undergoing what Jonah Goldberg wittily referred to as their own version of the “Arab Spring,” as so many have finally awoken to the fact that the Obama administration is ensnared in a web of deceptions. The out-of-control nature of the president’s belief in big government isn’t just about taking over health care, it’s also about expanding the reach of the federal leviathan into every aspect of public life in ways that chill the practice of journalism and undermine our freedoms. Make fun of these newly-minted Obama skeptics all you want. The attack on the free press represents a fundamental threat to our democracy. 

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Did Intelligence Tell WH There Were Protests in Benghazi?

The White House has clarified Vice President Biden’s comment that he wasn’t aware of security requests, saying he was speaking for himself and President Obama, not the State Department. But they still haven’t explained Biden’s even more troubling claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters outside the Benghazi embassy:

MS. RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on for weeks?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Because that’s exactly what we were told —

MS. RADDATZ: By who?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: — by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

When the Obama administration rolled out its initial “blame the video” storyline in the days after the attack, they strongly implied that there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate, but usually avoided stating it explicitly. If you listen to Jay Carney, Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, they tended to use vague words like “spontaneous reaction” and “unrest.” When they did use the word “protests,” it was usually in reference to the demonstrations across the Muslim world, not Benghazi specifically.

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The White House has clarified Vice President Biden’s comment that he wasn’t aware of security requests, saying he was speaking for himself and President Obama, not the State Department. But they still haven’t explained Biden’s even more troubling claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters outside the Benghazi embassy:

MS. RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on for weeks?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Because that’s exactly what we were told —

MS. RADDATZ: By who?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: — by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

When the Obama administration rolled out its initial “blame the video” storyline in the days after the attack, they strongly implied that there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate, but usually avoided stating it explicitly. If you listen to Jay Carney, Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, they tended to use vague words like “spontaneous reaction” and “unrest.” When they did use the word “protests,” it was usually in reference to the demonstrations across the Muslim world, not Benghazi specifically.

This is because the CIA intelligence at the time didn’t support the idea that there was a protest outside the consulate. By cherry-picking the initial intelligence report, the administration could provide some flimsy cover for its claim that the terrorist attack was a “spontaneous reaction” to the Cairo demonstrations over the video. But no amount of intelligence manipulation can create a protest where none existed.

Biden’s unequivocal claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters is simply not credible, and, worse, it glues the administration to its failed initial narrative. White House spokesperson Jay Carney had spent weeks slowly backing away from the protest story, and Biden has now made that impossible.

There are also risks to scapegoating the intelligence community, as FP’s Peter Feaver writes:

Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.

So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat. Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security — and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.

Benghazi was reportedly teeming with CIA operatives; a top State Department official has testified that she monitored the entire attack in real time; and there were survivors who were able to piece together a tick-tock of the attack for the media. The CIA should would have easily known if there was or a protest outside or not, so Biden’s comment is a blatant accusation of incompetence.

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WH Won’t Comment on Prior Security Requests From Consulate

Did the Obama administration reject requests for increased security from the U.S. consulate in Benghazi prior to the 9/11/12 attack, as whistle blowers have reportedly claimed? The White House won’t say. Spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment when asked about the security request during a press briefing today:

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on an assertion by the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that requests from diplomats in Libya for added security prior to the September 11, 2012 attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, were denied.

“I’m not going to get into a situation under review by the State Department and the FBI,” Carney said. …

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Did the Obama administration reject requests for increased security from the U.S. consulate in Benghazi prior to the 9/11/12 attack, as whistle blowers have reportedly claimed? The White House won’t say. Spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment when asked about the security request during a press briefing today:

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on an assertion by the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that requests from diplomats in Libya for added security prior to the September 11, 2012 attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, were denied.

“I’m not going to get into a situation under review by the State Department and the FBI,” Carney said. …

The press secretary said that “from the moment our facility was attacked” the president has been focused on providing security to all diplomatic posts “and bringing the killers to justice.”

About the list of security issues, Carney said it was a “known fact that Libya is in transition” and that in the eastern part of Libya in particular there are militant groups and “a great number of armed individuals and militias.”

Yes–there are a great number of armed individuals and militias. That’s exactly why you would expect the State Department to approve requests from the consulate for additional security. As for the situation being “under review,” the FBI still hasn’t even made it to Benghazi, and the latest reports suggest that they might not get there for several more days:

Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz said the prosecutor general had so far given only verbal approval for a joint investigation.

“We are getting ready for the FBI team to go to Benghazi and meet with our team and start joint investigations together and also visit the site,” he said.

“The FBI team is now in Tripoli. There are others who will come maybe soon to join the team … Hopefully in the coming days we will reach an agreement as to how the (U.S.) team will work with the Libyan team … We are now in the context of (awaiting) written permission.”

Didn’t U.S. officials previously blame the holdup on “security fears”? Now Libyan officials say it’s because the U.S. hasn’t received permission yet (or, to be clear, they haven’t received “written” permission — just “verbal”). It’s hard to believe that’s the cause for delay. Why would it take so long for the Libyan government to approve this? And who cares if the permission was written or verbal? Something doesn’t add up here.

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OMB: We’ll Reimburse Employers for WARN Act Fallout

The Office of Management and Budget is now promising to compensate defense contractors for any legal penalties that would stem from violating the WARN Act, a federal law that requires employers to warn employees at least 60 days in advance of mass layoffs. The Obama administration had already been urging contractors to ignore the WARN Act in the case of the looming sequestration cuts, since the 60-day-minimum would mean hundreds of thousands of employees could get notices of pending layoffs just days before the presidential election.

But it’s one thing for the Obama administration to tell contractors that they shouldn’t worry about the law. It’s quite another to promise that the cost of any resulting lawsuits will be covered by the government (read: the taxpayers):

But the Friday guidance from the Office of Management and Budget raised the stakes in the dispute, telling contractors that they would be compensated for legal costs if layoffs occur due to contract cancellations under sequestration — but only if the contractors follow the Labor guidance.

The guidance said that if plant closings or mass layoffs occur under sequestration, then “employee compensation costs for [Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification] WARN act liability as determined by a court” would be paid for covered by the contracting federal agency.

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The Office of Management and Budget is now promising to compensate defense contractors for any legal penalties that would stem from violating the WARN Act, a federal law that requires employers to warn employees at least 60 days in advance of mass layoffs. The Obama administration had already been urging contractors to ignore the WARN Act in the case of the looming sequestration cuts, since the 60-day-minimum would mean hundreds of thousands of employees could get notices of pending layoffs just days before the presidential election.

But it’s one thing for the Obama administration to tell contractors that they shouldn’t worry about the law. It’s quite another to promise that the cost of any resulting lawsuits will be covered by the government (read: the taxpayers):

But the Friday guidance from the Office of Management and Budget raised the stakes in the dispute, telling contractors that they would be compensated for legal costs if layoffs occur due to contract cancellations under sequestration — but only if the contractors follow the Labor guidance.

The guidance said that if plant closings or mass layoffs occur under sequestration, then “employee compensation costs for [Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification] WARN act liability as determined by a court” would be paid for covered by the contracting federal agency.

There’s also a catch: employers have to agree to play by the “Department of Labor’s guidance” if they want any potential legal costs covered. The DOL’s guidance asks them not to send out layoff notices before the election.

That seems to have satisfied defense contractors. Today, Lockheed Martin announced it would not issue layoff notices in advance of the sequestration cuts. Where is the campaign media on this? The Obama administration just told defense contractors that taxpayers would pay for any legal penalties for not complying with a law that would have complicated Obama’s reelection campaign. Does that not warrant some scrutiny, or do we need a billionth article on Romney’s “47 percent gaffe” instead?

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IAEA Evidence Shows Israel, Not Obama, Talking Sense About Iran

The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.

This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.

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The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.

This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.

President Obama has pledged to stop Iran from going nuclear, but his priority throughout the last year has been to stop Israel from acting on its own to deal with the problem. No serious observer has any confidence that the sanctions on Iran that were belatedly adopted (and loosely enforced) by Washington will force the ayatollahs to back off on their nuclear plans. The P5+1 talks led by the European Union’s Catherine Ashton got nowhere despite several tries. Any revival of these negotiations would only serve Iran’s purposes as they string Western diplomats along while their centrifuges keep spinning.

But despite the evidence of Iran’s progress, the administration is doing its best to downplay the crisis. An “administration official” speaking without attribution to the New York Times  — the White House’s favorite outlet for leaks — confirmed the latest intelligence gleaned from the IAEA report but pooh-poohed it as “not a game changer.” The argument from the source was that a “breakout” that could convert the existing Iranian stockpile to weapons grade could be rapidly accomplished. But the source said the U.S. would find out about it and still have time to deal with it. The upshot of this statement was that the world should ignore Israel’s fears and trust President Obama to deal with the problem in his own good time.

Yet how can the president be trusted on the issue if his whole focus seems to be on kicking the can down road until after the presidential election in November? It is one thing to accuse the Israelis of alarmism or of trying to exert pressure on Obama to pledge to act. But if the Iranians are able to compile enough refined uranium and store it in places that can’t be attacked, a U.S. policy rooted in a predisposition to delay action is a formula that is certain to fail.

Time is running out not only on the countdown to the day when Iran will be able to quickly assemble a bomb but until the point where it will no longer be possible to use force to prevent them from doing so. Four years of Obama policies toward Iran have shown the administration to be willing to do nothing but talk about the need to avert this danger. The latest information from the IAEA is more proof that despite the media campaign orchestrated from the White House intended to undermine Israel’s appeals, it is Jerusalem, and not Washington, that is talking sense about Iran.

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WH Relaxed Iran Sanctions Under Pressure

The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

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The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

Treasury officials and NIAC downplayed these worries:

Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.

There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.

“The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC,” Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands.”

Obviously that’s the hope, but what about the groups controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps?

For example, will American groups be able to send money to the Iranian Red Crescent — Iran’s most prominent “humanitarian relief” group? The Red Crescent isn’t on the Specially Designated Nationals list, but the group is reportedly controlled by the IRGC, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008.

While NIAC maintains that there’s precedent for the Obama administration’s decision, citing a similar sanctions waiver by President Bush after the 2003 earthquake in southern Iran that may not be the most assuring comparison. There have been allegations that much of the international aid was stolen at the time, as the New York Times reported yesterday:

Pouria, an office manager with broad shoulders, said he made a similar trip in 2003 to Bam, a southern city where a powerful earthquake killed 25,000 people, many of them buried in rubble. After the world gave money to help, Pouria said, he saw a lot of it disappear in the wrong pockets.

“Bam was a lesson for me,” Pouria said he had reminded his wife after news of this month’s earthquakes. “We normal people should take the initiative.”

His feeling was echoed in the doubts expressed by many Iranians, even senior leaders and lawmakers, about the ability of the official aid organizations. Members of Parliament representing the quake-stricken region complained to Iranian news agencies of shortages. Parliament called in the director of the Red Crescent for questioning.

What exactly are the safeguards to ensure that won’t happen again?

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Will Turkey Lose its Fight to the PKK?

A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.

I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:

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A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.

I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:

  • The Turkish government has legitimized the PKK both by negotiating with it and also by embracing Hamas, a group which likewise justifies terrorism in rhetoric of resistance and national liberation.
  • While the PKK could never defeat Turkey in a head-on fight and so the Turkish Army will never formally lose, the PKK seeks only a stalemate. Insurgencies prioritize asymmetric warfare.
  • The Turkish military is a shell of its former self. Largely for political reasons, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the military his public enemy number one. One-in-five generals now sit in prison, even though no court has found them guilty. Because the Turkish conscripts do most of the dying in the fight against the PKK, their morale is also low.
  • Even with Predators, Turkish intelligence is poor. It has failed to head-off recent profile attacks against Turkish border posts, and often fails to differentiate between PKK fighters and ordinary villagers.
  • In recent weeks, the PKK has grown so bold as to establish shadow governors not only in isolated mountain districts, but also for Van, a major city in eastern Turkey.
  • Whereas the fight between the PKK and the Turkish Army was isolated to southeastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish destruction of villages during this period led to a massive flight of Kurds into major cities in central and Western Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Today, the PKK strikes with impunity in the West as well.
  • De facto autonomy in largely Kurdish eastern Syria also gives the Kurds momentum and space to organize. According to private conversations with Kurdish journalists, Iraqi Kurdish residents, and European NGO workers, up to 90 percent of Syrian Kurds support the PKK’s local front group.
  • With their oil gains, Iraqi Kurds have greater resources than ever before, and don’t hesitate to fund Kurdish movements in neighboring states, even as they reach out to Turkey.

American policy is famously reactive. A de facto Kurdistan, however, is unfolding before us. Washington will never abandon Ankara. Still, there is no reason why the United States should fight Turkey’s PKK battle if the Turks themselves legitimize the group, and seem unwilling to apply the same definition of terrorism abroad which they seek to at home. Perhaps a starting point would be to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to encourage greater transparency and commitment to democracy. Kurdish nationalism and good governance should not be mutually exclusive.

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Karzai Purges the Moderates

Afghan President Hamid Karzai acquiesced to the impeachment of both Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi. The Washington Post and New York Times dutifully reported the parliamentary allegations of corruption and passivity in the face of Pakistani provocations.

The reality is different. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, the “Afghan ministers’ impeachment is not a move against corruption; it’s a political game by some in the presidential palace.” Had the parliament been serious about corruption, then Karzai and many of his close allies, not to mention many of the parliamentarians voting for impeachment, would have been first on the chopping block.

The fact is that Wardak was probably the toughest, most independent, and competent minister in the cabinet. He was a close ally in the fight against the Taliban, and paid little heed to attempts by the Iranians and Pakistanis to buy him off. He was not a proponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to talk to the Taliban, but then again, hardly anyone is outside the White House and State Department.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai acquiesced to the impeachment of both Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi. The Washington Post and New York Times dutifully reported the parliamentary allegations of corruption and passivity in the face of Pakistani provocations.

The reality is different. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, the “Afghan ministers’ impeachment is not a move against corruption; it’s a political game by some in the presidential palace.” Had the parliament been serious about corruption, then Karzai and many of his close allies, not to mention many of the parliamentarians voting for impeachment, would have been first on the chopping block.

The fact is that Wardak was probably the toughest, most independent, and competent minister in the cabinet. He was a close ally in the fight against the Taliban, and paid little heed to attempts by the Iranians and Pakistanis to buy him off. He was not a proponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to talk to the Taliban, but then again, hardly anyone is outside the White House and State Department.

The two ministers sacked represent the two most important portfolios as President Obama prepares for the draw down of U.S. forces and transition to full Afghan control. Much is now up-for-grabs. Karzai is not interested in democracy or Afghanistan’s future; he is interested in Karzai. If he chooses to appoint political flunkies to the post, any gains ISAF has made in recent months can come crashing down.

What we have just witnessed was not a triumph of democracy or accountability; rather, it was Karzai’s equivalent of the Saturday Night Massacre.

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Al-Qaeda Is Not Defeated

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin unveiled the State Department’s latest “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report. Benjamin declared that al-Qaeda was “on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” and explained:

We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaeda’s incendiary world view. This upended the group’s long-standing claim that change in this region would only come through violence… These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.

First, it’s important to give credit where credit is due: President Obama deserves credit for the death of bin Laden, and numerous other terror masters. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to take an aspirin and then claim to have cured the common cold. An election may be coming up, but predicting al-Qaeda to be both down and out is woefully premature.

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Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin unveiled the State Department’s latest “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report. Benjamin declared that al-Qaeda was “on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” and explained:

We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaeda’s incendiary world view. This upended the group’s long-standing claim that change in this region would only come through violence… These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.

First, it’s important to give credit where credit is due: President Obama deserves credit for the death of bin Laden, and numerous other terror masters. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to take an aspirin and then claim to have cured the common cold. An election may be coming up, but predicting al-Qaeda to be both down and out is woefully premature.

The hit on bin Laden was bold and wielded an intelligence bonanza. However, the second bin Laden’s death was announced, that intelligence was stamped with an expiration date. In subsequent days and weeks, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency utilized the bin Laden cache to roll up terrorists globally.

What Benjamin seems to misunderstand though is the idea that al-Qaeda is motivated not by grievance but by ideology. They seek not democratization or government accountability, but rather blind obedience to their own totalitarian belief set. They’d certainly be willing to win that through elections—but no serious candidate advocates such a platform—so they’ll take what they can get by any means necessary. If al- Qaeda is really satisfied with the Egyptian and Libyan elections, then that is a sign of just how bad things have become–Obama’s public statements notwithstanding.

By leading from behind or by standing on the sidelines, Obama has set the conditions for al-Qaeda to resurrect itself. Terrorists love a vacuum, and that is what Obama has done his darnedest to create in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, not to mention Mali and Somalia. Add into the mix Syria’s chemical weapons and Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, and al-Qaeda may soon have new lethality. The fact that the bin Laden intelligence haul is now more relevant to historians than counter-terrorism action officers means the veil of opacity has once again descended.

The Obama team can celebrate in its 2011 report but, when it comes to al-Qaeda, what we’re seeing may very well be the calm before the storm.

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AQI Comeback Is Not Indictment of Surge

The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

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The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

I find that conclusion to be squarely in line with the facts as I discovered them for myself during my trips to Iraq in 2007-2008. Neither the surge nor the Sunni Awakening would have succeeded by itself; together they turned the tide and decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq. The fact that AQI has now made a comeback is no indictment of the surge; it is, rather, an indictment of Prime Minister Maliki’s recent leadership and of the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to extend the mandate of U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011.

It often takes decades to solidify the gains won on any battlefield. If U.S. troops had left Europe in 1945–as they did in 1919–it is fair to speculate that World War II would not be seen as the “good war”; it might even be seen, like World  War I, as a military victory undone by political defeat afterward. So too, if the U.S. had left South Korea after the end of fighting in 1953. It took decades of commitment to harvest the gains won on the battlefield by our soldiers. We have not made that commitment in Iraq, and so the result is to allow a once-defeated terrorist group to stage a comeback. The same thing happened in Afghanistan in the past decade: the Taliban were truly defeated, if not totally annihilated, in 2001, but our inattention and unwillingness to make a commitment to building a durable post-Taliban state allowed them to stage a comeback.

In war victory is seldom final; it is almost always conditional and provisional. President Obama has lost sight of that truth in Iraq, as President Bush lost sight of it in Afghanistan, and the result is needless fighting. But that in no way slights the achievements of either the soldiers and spies who brought down the Taliban in the fall of 2001 or those who routed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008.

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Reid, WH Work to Weaken Iran Sanctions

The Obama administration has been bragging about the strength of the international coalition it has assembled against Iran and the “crippling sanctions” it has imposed on the Islamist regime. But the dirty little secret about the sanctions is they are riddled with loopholes. Not only has the Treasury Department issued thousands of exemptions to companies that wish to do business with Iran, but President Obama has also specifically granted permission to China and India to go on importing oil from it. Though the sanctions have caused pain to the ordinary Iranian, the government is still raking in more cash from oil sales than it did a decade ago before the sanctions took effect.

This gives some important context to the debate going on in Congress right now about the imposition of a new sanctions bill that takes aim at insurance companies that underwrite Iranian investments. The legislation is vital if a major loophole is to be closed that will make it even more difficult for Iran to conduct commerce. But lobbying from insurance companies that don’t wish to have their businesses impeded are working against the bill. Even more seriously, as the Washington Free Beacon reports, they’ve got Majority Leader Harry Reid on their side.

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The Obama administration has been bragging about the strength of the international coalition it has assembled against Iran and the “crippling sanctions” it has imposed on the Islamist regime. But the dirty little secret about the sanctions is they are riddled with loopholes. Not only has the Treasury Department issued thousands of exemptions to companies that wish to do business with Iran, but President Obama has also specifically granted permission to China and India to go on importing oil from it. Though the sanctions have caused pain to the ordinary Iranian, the government is still raking in more cash from oil sales than it did a decade ago before the sanctions took effect.

This gives some important context to the debate going on in Congress right now about the imposition of a new sanctions bill that takes aim at insurance companies that underwrite Iranian investments. The legislation is vital if a major loophole is to be closed that will make it even more difficult for Iran to conduct commerce. But lobbying from insurance companies that don’t wish to have their businesses impeded are working against the bill. Even more seriously, as the Washington Free Beacon reports, they’ve got Majority Leader Harry Reid on their side.

Though the sanctions legislation is working its way through the House of Representatives, Reid and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) are doing their best to weaken the bill to please insurance companies that are major donors to their campaigns. Combined with the continued reluctance of the Obama administration — which fought the sanctions that they now boast of to supporters of Israel — the odds of the legislation getting through both houses without being completely watered down are not good.

While previous sanctions bills that limited the ability of Iran’s national bank to do business abroad were able to overcome the administration’s efforts to stop it, the additional burden of having to deal with the influence of the insurance industry may be too much to beat. Reid and Johnson have actually already stopped a previous sanctions bill from including insurance companies. As the WFB’s Adam Kredo notes, insurance lobbyists may even be able to count on some House Republicans to strip the bill of its teeth despite the support of the GOP leadership for the legislation.

Insurance companies are able to work on the sympathy of members of Congress not only because of their campaign donations but because they can claim they and their employees and investors will be hurt by the sanctions. That may be true, but if the embargo on Iran is not airtight, the attempt to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is hopeless. It may already be too late for sanctions to work, but isolating the terrorist-sponsoring Islamist state is a vital U.S. national interest. For the White House and leading members of the Senate to sabotage this measure while still claiming they are serious about Iran is not just hypocritical. It’s a sign the Democrats are talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue.

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High-Level Attention Needed on Iraq

Yesterday, I noted the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in no small part because of the U.S. troop pullout after the Obama administration failed to get Iraqi agreement on a status of forces agreement. Today, the question I want to consider is: What, if anything, can the U.S. still do to prevent Iraq from going totally off the rails?

Sadly, with the loss of our troop presence and with it much of our intelligence-gathering capacity, our options are vastly diminished. If we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in the country–and we don’t, having lost much of our situational awareness at the end of last year–it is hard to figure out how to shape developments. Heck, we can’t even be sure of the number of Iraqis killed in terrorist attacks; the U.S. military no longer compiles independent figures, and it’s hard to fully trust the numbers produced in Baghdad.

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Yesterday, I noted the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in no small part because of the U.S. troop pullout after the Obama administration failed to get Iraqi agreement on a status of forces agreement. Today, the question I want to consider is: What, if anything, can the U.S. still do to prevent Iraq from going totally off the rails?

Sadly, with the loss of our troop presence and with it much of our intelligence-gathering capacity, our options are vastly diminished. If we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in the country–and we don’t, having lost much of our situational awareness at the end of last year–it is hard to figure out how to shape developments. Heck, we can’t even be sure of the number of Iraqis killed in terrorist attacks; the U.S. military no longer compiles independent figures, and it’s hard to fully trust the numbers produced in Baghdad.

But there are still things we can do to try to prevent Prime Minister Maliki from alienating Sunnis even more than he already has. The fact that the Iraqis are counting on major weapons sales from the U.S. (the Pentagon has just placed an initial order for 16 F-16s) gives us a certain amount of leverage, albeit limited leverage–the Iraqis are rich enough to buy weapons elsewhere if we refuse to sell them. But we can at least try to condition our weapons deliveries on continued Iraqi progress on governance and human rights.

To do that effectively, however, we need high-level attention focused on Iraq. That has been totally lacking in the Obama White House, which has handed off the Iraq portfolio to Vice President Biden–only he has a multitude of other responsibilities and doesn’t seem to be particularly focused on Iraq. The president, meanwhile, appears to be totally disengaged, treating Iraq as if it were his predecessor’s problem, not his. This helps to explain why we couldn’t get the status of forces agreement and why we are not able to exert much leverage at the moment to counteract strong Iranian and sectarian influence in Baghdad.

Shockingly, we don’t even have an ambassador in Baghdad at the moment. Jim Jeffrey has left and his designated successor–Brett McGurk–had to withdraw his nomination under fire. The White House has recently announced new ambassadors to Kabul and Islamabad but not to Baghdad. Even with an influential and knowledgeable ambassador in place (there are several top-drawer Arabists at the State Department who would be excellent choices for the job), we would have a tough time changing Iraq’s trajectory. Without an ambassador–and without high-level attention in Washington–it’s hopeless. So we will be left sitting on the sidelines as al-Qaeda in Iraq continues to gain strength and potentially undo the gains of the 2007-2008 surge.

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Is Assad’s Regime Really Falling?

The events of  recent weeks in Syria have finally made some of the optimistic predictions about the fall of the Assad regime coming out of the Obama administration a bit more believable. The terrorist attack that decapitated the defense establishment as well as the defections of prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has contributed to the idea that his government must soon collapse. The conventional wisdom of the day is that it is only a matter of time until he will be forced out, ase his bloody efforts to eradicate domestic opponents has failed to destroy a movement that began as peaceful protests in the spring of 2011 and has now evolved into an armed and potent insurgency.

But the problem with this faith in his imminent departure is that we’ve been hearing this talk for more than a year and yet the murderous ophthalmologist is still on his throne, albeit with a far shakier hold on it. Even though things look bad for Assad, Americans who assume that he can’t go on killing people in this manner and retain legitimacy don’t understand him or the political culture that created his regime. The variables in Syria are many, but the iron rule of history about despotism remains that tyrants lose power when they lose their taste for shedding blood. Assad’s willingness to commit atrocities seems intact. Just as important, the descent of the country into chaos with fighting in the streets of the capital and thousands of refugees fleeing the country is also putting President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy into question. Those who assume Assad is doomed believe that by staying out of the maelstrom, the United States will succeed in avoiding responsibility for the Syrian mess. But if Assad has far more staying power than Washington thinks, the result will be even messier than President Obama imagines, and he will bear much of the blame.

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The events of  recent weeks in Syria have finally made some of the optimistic predictions about the fall of the Assad regime coming out of the Obama administration a bit more believable. The terrorist attack that decapitated the defense establishment as well as the defections of prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has contributed to the idea that his government must soon collapse. The conventional wisdom of the day is that it is only a matter of time until he will be forced out, ase his bloody efforts to eradicate domestic opponents has failed to destroy a movement that began as peaceful protests in the spring of 2011 and has now evolved into an armed and potent insurgency.

But the problem with this faith in his imminent departure is that we’ve been hearing this talk for more than a year and yet the murderous ophthalmologist is still on his throne, albeit with a far shakier hold on it. Even though things look bad for Assad, Americans who assume that he can’t go on killing people in this manner and retain legitimacy don’t understand him or the political culture that created his regime. The variables in Syria are many, but the iron rule of history about despotism remains that tyrants lose power when they lose their taste for shedding blood. Assad’s willingness to commit atrocities seems intact. Just as important, the descent of the country into chaos with fighting in the streets of the capital and thousands of refugees fleeing the country is also putting President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy into question. Those who assume Assad is doomed believe that by staying out of the maelstrom, the United States will succeed in avoiding responsibility for the Syrian mess. But if Assad has far more staying power than Washington thinks, the result will be even messier than President Obama imagines, and he will bear much of the blame.

The Obama administration’s assumption is that sooner or later Assad will get the message from the international community and his disgruntled people and head for the exits. But Assad and the rest of the Alawite sect that rules the roost in Damascus understand all too well that the only real alternatives for them is to win or to die. There is little future in Syria for Alawites once Assad is gone. What’s more, the Syrian leader knows there will be no safe haven for him anywhere even if he agrees to step down. The precedent for prosecutions of deposed despots has already been established. He knows that he will either end his days in his palace or eventually wind up in a courtroom in The Hague. That has concentrated his mind wonderfully on the task of slaughtering as many of his compatriots as needed to ensure the latter is not the case.

He must be shaken by the ability of his foes to snuff out members of his inner circle. But even more than the support of Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries, the willingness of the Russians to both fend off Western diplomatic initiatives and to keep his forces well-armed is giving Assad the confidence to go on resisting. The presence of armed Russian forces in their armed enclave in the port of Tartus also provides the regime with a fall back point from which it could go on fending off the rebels even if Damascus was lost. Tony Karon of TIME speculates this could lead to a Yugoslavia-style breakup of Syria into Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish sections. That is far from certain, but what all this does mean is the fighting could go on indefinitely rather than coming to a swift conclusion, as was the case when Muammar Qaddafi was toppled.

The one scenario that could bring the fighting to an end would be a Western intervention, but given President Obama’s reluctance to get the country involved in another conflict during his re-election campaign, that is highly unlikely. But absent such a move, the chances are increasing that not only will the fighting get worse and casualties increase, but that the region will be destabilized as the Syrian army comes apart and their chemical weapons become a spoil of war in which Islamist rebels will compete for them with Assad loyalists.

The point is, as the fighting in the streets of Damascus this week showed, Assad’s demise may not only not be imminent, but the entire country and the region could wind up bathed in blood long before his final chapter is written. In this case, the president’s “leading from behind” is being proven again to be no leadership at all.

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Ahmadinejad Brags, U.S. Rationalizes

The day after the terror attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, a senior U.S. official admitted to the New York Times that what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said publicly yesterday was true: Hezbollah did it at the behest of its Iranian sugar daddy. This was, according to the Times, confirmed by two other U.S. government figures who also declined to speak on the record. But if you don’t want to take the word of these anonymous Americans, all you have to do is listen to what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said about it on Iranian television yesterday.

As the Times of Israel reports, when speaking of the bombing in Bulgaria, Ahmadinejad said the following:

“The bitter enemies of the Iranian people and the Islamic Revolution have recruited most of their forces in order to harm us,” he said in a speech reported by Israel’s Channel 2 TV. “They have indeed succeeded in inflicting blows upon us more than once, but have been rewarded with a far stronger response.”

He added: “The enemy believes it can achieve its aims in a long, persistent struggle against the Iranian people, but in the end it will not. We are working to ensure that.”

His bragging about the slaughter of five Israeli tourists (including a pregnant woman) and a Bulgarian bus driver contradicted the indignant official denials that were issued yesterday by the Iranian government in the wake of Netanyahu’s accusations. Yet one thing said by the senior U.S. official was almost as bad as Ahmadinejad’s appalling candor. The official described the atrocity as a case of “tit for tat,” meaning that the United States merely considered the slaughter as merely retaliation for Western and/or Israeli efforts to halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. By rationalizing the terrorist attack in this manner, the official, who was clearly speaking on behalf of the administration (and to the newspaper which has served as the primary outlet for a series of leaks about policy and secret operations concerning Iran), demonstrated President Obama and his foreign and defense policy team don’t really understand the nature of the Iranian regime. Just as dangerously, the statement betrays a certain annoyance with Israel’s concerns about a genocidal terror-sponsor obtaining nuclear weapons.

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The day after the terror attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, a senior U.S. official admitted to the New York Times that what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said publicly yesterday was true: Hezbollah did it at the behest of its Iranian sugar daddy. This was, according to the Times, confirmed by two other U.S. government figures who also declined to speak on the record. But if you don’t want to take the word of these anonymous Americans, all you have to do is listen to what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said about it on Iranian television yesterday.

As the Times of Israel reports, when speaking of the bombing in Bulgaria, Ahmadinejad said the following:

“The bitter enemies of the Iranian people and the Islamic Revolution have recruited most of their forces in order to harm us,” he said in a speech reported by Israel’s Channel 2 TV. “They have indeed succeeded in inflicting blows upon us more than once, but have been rewarded with a far stronger response.”

He added: “The enemy believes it can achieve its aims in a long, persistent struggle against the Iranian people, but in the end it will not. We are working to ensure that.”

His bragging about the slaughter of five Israeli tourists (including a pregnant woman) and a Bulgarian bus driver contradicted the indignant official denials that were issued yesterday by the Iranian government in the wake of Netanyahu’s accusations. Yet one thing said by the senior U.S. official was almost as bad as Ahmadinejad’s appalling candor. The official described the atrocity as a case of “tit for tat,” meaning that the United States merely considered the slaughter as merely retaliation for Western and/or Israeli efforts to halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. By rationalizing the terrorist attack in this manner, the official, who was clearly speaking on behalf of the administration (and to the newspaper which has served as the primary outlet for a series of leaks about policy and secret operations concerning Iran), demonstrated President Obama and his foreign and defense policy team don’t really understand the nature of the Iranian regime. Just as dangerously, the statement betrays a certain annoyance with Israel’s concerns about a genocidal terror-sponsor obtaining nuclear weapons.

This “tit for tat” comment will help feed the mainstream media narrative that the Jews murdered by Iran/Hezbollah had it coming, because Israel has been accused of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. But it ignores the fact that Iran and its loyal Lebanese Hezbollah auxiliaries have been in the business of killing Jews — and Americans — for decades whenever they had the opportunity. Does the Obama administration think Israel’s concerns about Iranian nuclear weapons inspired Iran to commission terrorists to blow up a Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 18 years ago this week? Tehran makes no secret of the official embrace of vile anti-Semitism of the Islamist regime that has ruled there for 33 years. Iran has also been listed a state sponsor of terror for decades and with good reason, as it has targeted Americans as well as Israelis.

Just as bad is the way the comment reflects a certain degree of American impatience with the sense of urgency about the Iranian nuclear threat that is clearly not shared by the Obama administration. Though the president has often pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the administration waited three years to enact tough sanctions on the regime. Today, it continues to insist diplomacy is the only way to approach the problem even though the P5+1 talks it sponsored have failed. The Iranians have taken the measure of President Obama and believe he isn’t serious about stopping them but is, instead, more concerned — as are they — with averting an Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities.

Far from being a responsible actor that merely strikes out in retaliation for Israeli attacks and which can be trusted to keep its word about confining nuclear research to civilian purposes, Iran is a terrorist state, infused with Jew-hatred and determined to achieve its nuclear goal. Until the administration starts talking — and acting — as if it understands this, its Iran policy will remain a muddle of half-hearted and ineffective measures.

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U.S. Must Act Now in Syria for Leverage

No question, the bombing that killed three top members of the Assad regime has accelerated that regime’s downfall. Now, with reports of fighting in Damascus and of the president’s family being evacuated from the capital, the whole governing clique might be gone far faster than anyone would have predicted even a few days ago.

That might be seen as vindication of the Obama administration’s go-slow approach which has consisted of providing some communications and intelligence support to the rebels—but no arms—all the while hoping against hope that Russia might allow the UN Security Council to endorse a more vigorous intervention. That strategy was dealt another blow yesterday when Russia and China vetoed a resolution piling more sanctions on Syria. But does any of that matter if the Assad regime is doomed to fall soon anyway? I believe it does, because, without greater U.S. involvement now, our ability to shape the post-Assad country will be severely limited and the odds of sheer chaos or an extremist takeover go up.

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No question, the bombing that killed three top members of the Assad regime has accelerated that regime’s downfall. Now, with reports of fighting in Damascus and of the president’s family being evacuated from the capital, the whole governing clique might be gone far faster than anyone would have predicted even a few days ago.

That might be seen as vindication of the Obama administration’s go-slow approach which has consisted of providing some communications and intelligence support to the rebels—but no arms—all the while hoping against hope that Russia might allow the UN Security Council to endorse a more vigorous intervention. That strategy was dealt another blow yesterday when Russia and China vetoed a resolution piling more sanctions on Syria. But does any of that matter if the Assad regime is doomed to fall soon anyway? I believe it does, because, without greater U.S. involvement now, our ability to shape the post-Assad country will be severely limited and the odds of sheer chaos or an extremist takeover go up.

As always when dealing with the issue of regime change, the biggest challenge is not how to get rid of the old dictator but how to replace him with a stable, reasonably democratic regime. That is, of course, what we have struggled to achieve at great cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, today, continues to struggle with that very issue, although the fact that the international community actively intervened there gave a major boost to the secular, pro-Western forces that won the recent legislative elections. It helped too, that under cover of NATO airpower, the Libyan rebels were able to try their hand at governing in Benghazi before they had to take over the entire country.

A similar scenario could have played out in Syria if the U.S. had pushed Turkey to establish safe zones inside Syria, where the rebels could have created a government-in-waiting. That hasn’t happened, and now the odds are going up that the Assad regime will fall before the badly splintered opposition has coalesced to form a government of its own. Moreover, the rebels will know they did not get much support from the U.S., so they will not be as pro-American as the Libyan rebels—or their Kosovar predecessors.

This has the makings of a very dangerous situation, especially because the Assad regime has chemical weapons which could conceivably fall into the wrong hands. In Libya, there was at least the chance that NATO and the Arab League would agree on the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force—something I advocated at the time and still think would have been a good idea because it would have allowed the disarmament of the militias. There is even less chance of such a peacekeeping force being dispatched to a post-Assad Syria than to the post-Qaddafi Libya; few outside powers, and certainly not the U.S., want to risk ground troops in such a volatile situation.

Thus, my concern is the Syrians will be on their own once Assad falls. The U.S. and our allies should certainly plan now so that we can assist Syria with this difficult transition, but keep in mind—the more we do now, while Assad is still in power, the greater our leverage after he is gone.

 

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Iraq Sends Condolences to Bashar’s Sister

The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq certainly has taken a toll in terms of influence. A day after a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the hated Assef Shawkat, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has sent his condolences (google translation here) to Bushra Assad, Bashar Assad’s sister. That’s right: After years of terror sponsorship—including helping orchestrate an underground railroad for suicide bombers into Iraq, Assad and his inner circle now orchestrate a campaign of massacres and sectarian cleansing. After the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, a bomb kills one of the chief perpetrators. And Talabani sends condolences on the death of the man who competes to have the most blood on his hands.

Talabani’s actions are par for the course but, alas, it is a course that Obama and his top Middle East advisers do not understand. It does not matter how pro-American someone says they are, nor does it matter how pro-American they may be in their hearts. If the United States indicates that it is weak, it does not have staying power, or that it is afraid to stand up to evil, then everyone who lives in the region will begin to make their accommodation with evil simply because they will do what they need to do to survive. Obama washes his hands of Iraq? Then it is only natural Talabani will do what it takes to stay on the good side of Iran and Assad.

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The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq certainly has taken a toll in terms of influence. A day after a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the hated Assef Shawkat, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has sent his condolences (google translation here) to Bushra Assad, Bashar Assad’s sister. That’s right: After years of terror sponsorship—including helping orchestrate an underground railroad for suicide bombers into Iraq, Assad and his inner circle now orchestrate a campaign of massacres and sectarian cleansing. After the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, a bomb kills one of the chief perpetrators. And Talabani sends condolences on the death of the man who competes to have the most blood on his hands.

Talabani’s actions are par for the course but, alas, it is a course that Obama and his top Middle East advisers do not understand. It does not matter how pro-American someone says they are, nor does it matter how pro-American they may be in their hearts. If the United States indicates that it is weak, it does not have staying power, or that it is afraid to stand up to evil, then everyone who lives in the region will begin to make their accommodation with evil simply because they will do what they need to do to survive. Obama washes his hands of Iraq? Then it is only natural Talabani will do what it takes to stay on the good side of Iran and Assad.

Let us hope that we do not sacrifice Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, and Bahrain to the same short-sightedness that now permeates the White House and State Department.

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Will Turkey Expose NATO Secrets to China?

Turkey is currently considering bids to upgrade its air defense system. While a member of NATO since 1952, the Islamist leadership in Turkey has made clear it no longer sees itself bound by the responsibility to protect NATO secrets nor the Turkish leadership factor into its decisions NATO’s security requirements.

Should Turkey decide to go with the Russian S-300 or Chinese HQ-9 it will have two choices: either have its air defense system disconnected from systems involved in NATO, or perhaps betray NATO secrets. If Turkey will not commit to protect sensitive information impacting U.S. defense, it remains curious why the Obama administration seems intent to go ahead with a sale of the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey. Alas, as always, the Congressional Turkey Caucus remains silent.

Turkey is currently considering bids to upgrade its air defense system. While a member of NATO since 1952, the Islamist leadership in Turkey has made clear it no longer sees itself bound by the responsibility to protect NATO secrets nor the Turkish leadership factor into its decisions NATO’s security requirements.

Should Turkey decide to go with the Russian S-300 or Chinese HQ-9 it will have two choices: either have its air defense system disconnected from systems involved in NATO, or perhaps betray NATO secrets. If Turkey will not commit to protect sensitive information impacting U.S. defense, it remains curious why the Obama administration seems intent to go ahead with a sale of the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey. Alas, as always, the Congressional Turkey Caucus remains silent.

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Stop Syria’s Descent into Barbarism

For five grim years, from approximately 2003 to 2008, Iraq faced the greatest onslaught of terrorism in the history of any state. Many of the worst attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers, often driving vehicles packed with explosives. By mid-2008, suicide bombers had killed at least 10,000 Iraqis. A disproportionate share of those suicide bombers were foreign Sunnis who arrived in Iraq via Syria. The U.S. government remonstrated with the Assad regime to stop the flow of the fanatics, but Bashar al-Assad consistently played dumb. If the U.S. could not control its border with Mexico, the Syrians disingenuously argued, how could they control their border with Iraq? This ignored the rather major difference that Syria is a police state. The networks that recruited, organized, and passed on the suicide bombers could not have operated without the knowledge of the regime’s all-pervasive secret police. Assad and his cronies were not jihadist fanatics, but they were willing to make use of jihadist fanatics to inflict harm on American interests in Iraq–even if the overwhelming majority of victims were Iraqis, not Americans.

Fast forward to today. Now comes news that Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Military Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat (who is also the president’s brother-in-law) have been slain by a suicide bomber in the heart of Damascus. The interior minister–the man in charge of the notorious secret police–was also wounded but is said to be alive. Quite possibly the bomber, who was rumored to be a bodyguard, was connected to the very organization that Syria once did so much to help–al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice here: what goes around comes around, ye reap what ye sow, if you play with fire, and all that. It is certainly a sign the Assad regime is getting ever more embattled, and the civil war many had warned would come if the U.S. provided arms to the rebel fighters has arrived anyway.

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For five grim years, from approximately 2003 to 2008, Iraq faced the greatest onslaught of terrorism in the history of any state. Many of the worst attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers, often driving vehicles packed with explosives. By mid-2008, suicide bombers had killed at least 10,000 Iraqis. A disproportionate share of those suicide bombers were foreign Sunnis who arrived in Iraq via Syria. The U.S. government remonstrated with the Assad regime to stop the flow of the fanatics, but Bashar al-Assad consistently played dumb. If the U.S. could not control its border with Mexico, the Syrians disingenuously argued, how could they control their border with Iraq? This ignored the rather major difference that Syria is a police state. The networks that recruited, organized, and passed on the suicide bombers could not have operated without the knowledge of the regime’s all-pervasive secret police. Assad and his cronies were not jihadist fanatics, but they were willing to make use of jihadist fanatics to inflict harm on American interests in Iraq–even if the overwhelming majority of victims were Iraqis, not Americans.

Fast forward to today. Now comes news that Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Military Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat (who is also the president’s brother-in-law) have been slain by a suicide bomber in the heart of Damascus. The interior minister–the man in charge of the notorious secret police–was also wounded but is said to be alive. Quite possibly the bomber, who was rumored to be a bodyguard, was connected to the very organization that Syria once did so much to help–al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice here: what goes around comes around, ye reap what ye sow, if you play with fire, and all that. It is certainly a sign the Assad regime is getting ever more embattled, and the civil war many had warned would come if the U.S. provided arms to the rebel fighters has arrived anyway.

But while the victims–the men who directed the military forces that have killed upwards of 17,000 Syrians since the start of the fighting–undoubtedly deserved their fate, it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate. As a terrorist tactic it was occasionally utilized by the Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organization in early 20th-century Russia but really came into its own with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, before being picked up by al-Qaeda and its offshoots. While the willingness of ordinary soldiers to sacrifice their lives to win a battle is universally respected (think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) that is a very different thing from deliberately setting out to kill one’s self and take as many of the enemy with you as possible. Americans were appalled at the kamikaze tactics employed by the Japanese at the end of Word War II and rightly so: fighting in this way bespeaks a fanaticism that does not bode well for the future unless it is rooted out.

So now in Syria there is a great danger that America’s hesitancy to get involved on the rebel side has ceded the momentum to jihadist suicide bombers. They by no means represent the mainstream of Syrian opposition. But they will increasingly gain the upper hand, quite possibly with Saudi and Qatari help, unless the U.S. does more to help the secularists and moderates. And that, in turn, means the Obama administration will have to stop waiting for the blessing of the UN and Moscow before getting more involved. Only greater American-led intervention can end the fighting and stop Syria’s descent into greater barbarism.

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