Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Is ISIS Mainstreaming Hezbollah?

One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

Read More

One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

Iran and Hezbollah have much in common with ISIS in terms of hostility to the West, support for terror, and Islamist ambitions. But the Shia-Sunni religious schism makes them implacable foes as well as being on opposite sides of the ongoing wars for control of Iraq and Syria. This also places them, at least in theory, on the same side as the United States as it now haltingly attempts to fight ISIS. That awkward juxtaposition has convinced the Iranians that the West is no longer serious about stopping their drive for nuclear weapons. This conclusion is well supported by the latest pathetic rumblings from the Obama administration about a “face-saving” proposal to help conclude another weak nuclear deal. The bottom line there is that Iran has good reason to believe it can now either defy the West entirely and push on to fulfillment of its nuclear goal or sign a deal that can be easily evaded to the same end.

Hezbollah’s goals are more limited. The Lebanese terror group has been badly damaged by its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Acting on Tehran’s orders, Hezbollah has taken heavy losses and found itself embroiled in a conflict that it can’t win as Syrians revolted against Iran’s ally. But it, too, sees belated Western intervention against ISIS as a potential turning point in the conflict. As the Times notes, even though both Iran and Hezbollah agree that there will be no coordination with the United States—a position that the administration is adamant about—the reality on the ground may be different.

The Syrian civil war is a complex conflict in which the various sides–Assad’s forces and his Hezbollah allies, moderate Syrians, more radical anti-regime forces, and ISIS–are all at war with each other. Secretary of State John Kerry noted last week that Assad is “playing footsie” with ISIS as he seeks to strengthen them at the expense of more credible domestic foes.

This awful situation is largely the result of the West’s refusal to intervene in Syria years ago when it was possible to both topple Assad and prevent the emergence of ISIS. There are only bad choices left, of which allowing ISIS to continue to expand would be the worst. But even as the U.S. chooses among those unsavory options, Hezbollah is hoping the new alignment will solidify their position in Lebanon as well as normalizing them in the eyes of the world. This is something the U.S. must resist.

The decision of Hezbollah’s PR chief to give an interview to the Times’s Beirut bureau chief is a sign the group knows the time is ripe to bolster their international standing. But the resulting article, which includes comments from other pro-Hezbollah figures, seems to make the case that there is a wide gulf separating the group from ISIS. But this PR campaign should not go unanswered.

In the article, Hezbollah official Mohammed Afif claims the group warned the West about the danger from terrorism but nobody listened until ISIS began beheading Western captives. Another pro-Hezbollah voice is Kamel Wazne, who is given the last word in the Times piece. He says Hezbollah only presents a threat to Israel, not the U.S. and Europe. But that is a lie. Hezbollah has conducted terror operations at Iran’s behest in both Europe and South America over the years. Merely being an ISIS rival in the cutthroat world of Middle East conflict ought not give Hezbollah a Western seal of approval.

By going into a war with ISIS in a halfhearted manner, President Obama does not appear to have a strategy to actually “degrade,” let alone defeat, ISIS. But one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this lead-from-behind approach will be to further empower and validate Hezbollah’s own murderous efforts that have already contributed to the death toll in Syria.

The United States will have to do more than merely say it won’t cooperate with Iran and Hezbollah against ISIS. It must actively aid the efforts of those forces that are fighting against these outside meddlers who are in many respects similar to ISIS. The U.S. appears to be now heading toward a situation where it will not only fail to eradicate ISIS but will also strengthen those terrorists who are looking forward to operating in the future under the cover of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. That is a formula for more chaos. For an administration that considers “don’t do stupid stuff” to be its guiding principle, that’s pretty stupid.

Read Less

Defense Policy on Autopilot

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Barack’s World

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Obama vs. the Generals

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

The Problem with Obama and His Generals

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Obama Was Right Not to Ransom Foley

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

Is their anger justified?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

It’s Not About What ISIS “Wants”

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

John Kerry’s Stupid Condescension

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

End of an Era: UN Peacekeepers Stop Pretending to Keep Peace

The United Nations has come up with a strange follow-up to Israel’s credible accusations that UN facilities allowed themselves to be used essentially as human shields for Hamas in Gaza: the UN is now, apparently, using Israeli soldiers as human shields up north. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Israeli authorities had in mind when they protested the UN’s one-sided wartime behavior.

Read More

The United Nations has come up with a strange follow-up to Israel’s credible accusations that UN facilities allowed themselves to be used essentially as human shields for Hamas in Gaza: the UN is now, apparently, using Israeli soldiers as human shields up north. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Israeli authorities had in mind when they protested the UN’s one-sided wartime behavior.

What appears to have happened, and which has been confirmed by UN spokesmen, is that UN peacekeeping forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are in retreat. They have, in fact, left Syria. The phrase “peacekeeping forces” should have made them aware of the fact that they would not be supervising a game of hacky sack. A peacekeeping force, theoretically, would arrive during a period of temporary peace to ensure it becomes a permanent peace. The UN forces see it differently.

An AP story today very gently and generously breaks the news, and in doing so buries the lede a bit:

The United Nations said Monday it has withdrawn its peacekeepers from many positions on the Golan Heights because of escalating fighting in the war between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.

Which positions on the Golan Heights? Asked and answered:

The situation has deteriorated severely over the last few days and advances by armed groups posed “a direct threat to the safety and security of the U.N. peacekeepers” along the Syrian side of the border and in Camp Faouar where many troops are based, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. He said all troops in those areas have been relocated to the Israeli side of the border.

The Syrian side of the border! That’s seems pretty significant. Indeed, it’s the end of an era, as AP notes:

The 1,200-strong U.N. force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abduction of peacekeepers four times since March 2013, made troop contributors wary, and led several countries to withdraw their soldiers.

But all is not lost. It’s possible, says the UN–though they don’t know for sure–that someone affiliated with the UN is still in Syria, somewhere, keeping some kind of peace:

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told The Associated Press earlier that he doesn’t think every single post has been vacated.

Seems like an important detail. But never mind. The important thing is that the UN peacekeepers are safe, hiding behind Israelis.

I don’t want to make light of the danger of patrolling a war zone; UN troops have been abducted a few times and the conflict is not going anywhere. But at the same time, isn’t this what peacekeeping troops sign up for? And if not, what’s the point?

Additionally, what do they think they’ll accomplish on the Israeli side of the border? They will be utterly irrelevant. They obviously won’t command Israeli forces, and they clearly can’t be sent on any dangerous missions beyond their new base.

That’s not to say they won’t be doing anything constructive. Each time there is war on or near Israel’s border, UN forces put a thumb on the scales against Israel and in favor of the terrorists Israel is fighting. Whether it’s covering up terrorist abductions, revealing sensitive IDF troop movement information, or having their facilities used to hide weapons or facilitate attacks on Israel, the UN can be trusted to act as an adjunct of whoever is trying to destroy the Jewish state.

So having UN troops retreat from a war zone into the comforts of Israeli protection is helpful because it will at least prevent them from playing their usual, anti-Israel role in armed conflict. Looked at from that perspective, then, this retreat may be the best move UN forces have made in years.

More than anything, this is yet another reminder that the international community ought to be far more judicious in pressuring Israel to withdraw from territory and put their security in the hands of others. Peace plans tend to suggest that Israel pull back farther than Israeli military leaders are comfortable with, having their place taken by a coalition of international troops. It is clear–as it has been for a while–that this is rarely a feasible option.

The international community also likes the idea of considering the Golan Heights occupied Syrian territory. They should ask the UN peacekeeping forces if they’d like the land to which they’ve currently retreated to still be on the Syrian side of the border. They should ask that question, by the way, while there still is technically a country called Syria.

Read Less

Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

At War with the English Language

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Pentagon:

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

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

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

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.