Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

At War with the English Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Pentagon:

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

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

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

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Ted Cruz, IDC, and the Politics of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tell Turkey: Counterterror Goes Both Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Repudiates His Own Past Strategy and Statements

My sense is that last night’s primetime address by President Obama was primarily a political damage-control operation. During the last month the president has been all over the lot on the issue of ISIS, and so the White House viewed this speech as a do-over. Forget what Mr. Obama has said in the past, the White House seemed to be saying; what the president laid out yesterday is really and truly what he believes.

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My sense is that last night’s primetime address by President Obama was primarily a political damage-control operation. During the last month the president has been all over the lot on the issue of ISIS, and so the White House viewed this speech as a do-over. Forget what Mr. Obama has said in the past, the White House seemed to be saying; what the president laid out yesterday is really and truly what he believes.

Here’s one problem with that. Last night the president said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” If Yemen and Somalia are the models, then we’re not going to defeat ISIS. The situations are quite different in important respects, with ISIS a far more formidable, well-armed foe than what we see in either Yemen and Somalia; and, in any event, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula remains a lethal threat. Our strategy in Yemen and Somalia hasn’t altered the facts on the ground in either country.

Beyond that, though, is that I can’t shake the fact that even yesterday, Mr. Obama appeared to be a reluctant commander in chief. His strategy is filled with qualifiers, including his chronic and peculiar habit of declaring in advance all the things he won’t do. One can just sense that he hates being pulled into this conflict–and that having been forced to engage because of events, and now by American public opinion, the effort will be mostly restricted to air power. Air power can help, but it can’t get the job done.

One other thought: Last night’s speech was a thorough repudiation of President Obama’s previous approach and statements, from calling ISIS a “jayvee team” to ridiculing the Syrian opposition as being “made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” to having to send troops back to Iraq after the president so proudly hailed the fact that he had withdrawn every last American from Iraq. This is not what a receding tide of war is supposed to look like. Even the Washington Post today, in a front-page story, said this:

Senior advisers have repeatedly said that the unexpected course of the Arab Spring greatly limited their ability to shape events in countries such as Syria. But whatever the source of unrest, it is clear that Obama was either naive to promise a new chapter in post-9/11 foreign policy, or simply failed to deliver on that vision.

President Obama’s entire approach to this point has been misguided, fraught with one mistake in judgment after another. Last night’s speech more or less conceded as much, even as the president himself pretended otherwise.

My fear is that Mr. Obama hasn’t had a change in heart; that he still doesn’t understand on a fundamental level what he got wrong and what needs to be done to succeed. He’s still lost in a fog, and we’re once again learning that community organizers don’t make very good commanders in chief.

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Obama Has the Right Goal on ISIS; Does He Have the Strategy to Attain It?

President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

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President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

There are ample grounds for concern that, however good the president is at describing the threat, his actions are not sufficient to overcome it. Listening to the president’s remarks, in particular, I wonder if the president’s strategy will only be sufficient to degrade–not to destroy–ISIS.

There is, for example, the salient fact that Obama stressed over and over–that his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” It is a mystery why the president would want to telegraph at the opening of a military campaign what the U.S. will not do, which can only raise doubts among friends and foes alike of our resolve in this struggle. Although no one is seriously suggesting sending large ground-combat formations to Iraq or Syria, there is a pressing need for a substantial force of trainers, air controllers, intelligence experts, and Special Operations Forces to direct air strikes and augment the very limited capabilities of our local allies–namely the Kurdish pesh merga, the Sunni tribes, the Free Syrian Army, and vetted units of the Iraqi Security Forces. I and various other commentators have suggested something on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 personnel will be required, but Obama said he was only sending 475 more personnel to Iraq, bringing our troop total to around 1,500. That’s better than zero but it’s probably not where we need to be if we are to actually assist in the destruction of ISIS.

There is no indication, in particular, that Obama will allow the Joint Special Operations Command to do the kind of highly precise network-targeting that, in combination with a larger counterinsurgency strategy, did so much damage in the past to al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor. This would require sending small numbers of Americans into combat, albeit on highly favorable terms. Simply deploying JSOC to bases in and around Iraq and Syria would require a deployment of probably 2,000 personnel–far more than Obama has so far ordered.

The president’s analogy to Somalia and Yemen is not an encouraging one. Obama may be one of the few people around who thinks that the U.S. has achieved so much success in those countries that it is a model worth emulating. Al Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has withstood offensives by Kenyan, Ethiopian, and African Union troops. As Obama’s own National Counterterrorism Center notes, although “degraded,” Al Shabaab “has continued its violent insurgency in southern and central Somalia. The group has exerted temporary and, at times, sustained control over strategic locations in those areas by recruiting, sometimes forcibly, regional sub-clans and their militias, using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics.”

Al Shabaab also has shown distressing ability to mount terrorist strikes outside Somalia, for example the attack on a Nairobi mall in 2013. And it is doubtful that the recent American air strike, which killed its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, will defeat the group any more than did a previous airstrike in 2008 which killed the previous leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.

As for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, it too has shown a lot of staying power notwithstanding American air strikes that have killed leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki. It may have been overshadowed by grimmer news on the ISIS front, but on August 8, AQAP murdered 14 captured Yemeni soldiers. A memo from the AEI Critical Threats Project warned that this “may presage the emergence of a renewed threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that the U.S and Yemen are ill-prepared to handle.”

At best, U.S. air strikes in Yemen and Somalia have disrupted these terrorist groups without defeating them. The only case that I am aware of where air strikes, without effective ground action, have had a more substantial impact on a terrorist group is in Pakistan where continued U.S. drone attacks over the course of more than a decade have done serious damage to core al-Qaeda, albeit without destroying it. But that’s only possible because core al-Qaeda is such a small organization with a few dozen operatives. ISIS is much, much larger with more than 10,000 fighters and control of a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is in fact more than a terrorist group–it is also a guerrilla group that is trying to create a conventional army. And in terms of money and weaponry it has access to resources that far exceed those of Al Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or core al-Qaeda.

It is not, in short, a threat that will be eradicated by a few dozen or even a few hundred American air strikes. What is required is a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign enabled by a substantial force of advisers and Special Operators that would be able to dramatically increase the capabilities of our local allies. If we don’t put at least some “boots on the ground,” we risk bombing blind which could have the opposite of the intended effect. It could, in fact, drive more Sunnis into ISIS’s camp and wind up inadvertently helping extremist Shiite militias, which are present in large numbers, under the direction of Iran’s Quds Force, in both Iraq and Syria.

I have said it before and will say it again: If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. As Napoleon said, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Don’t take a few villages outside Vienna.

I very much doubt that most Americans care whether we have 1,500 or 15,000 troops in Iraq. They are mad about ISIS and worried about its threat and they want it to be destroyed. Obama should commit the resources to achieve that objective rather than trying to send the smallest force possible so that he can say he is not repeating George W. Bush’s mistakes in Iraq. In reality, alas, there are eerie parallels between Bush’s failure to adequately resource the Iraq mission between 2003 and 2007 and Obama’s failure to do so today. Perhaps we can defeat ISIS on the cheap, but I doubt it.

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Poll Driven War May Not Scare ISIS

President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

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President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

Whatever may have brought him to this moment, let’s first specify that to the extent that the president is speaking plain truth about the threat from ISIS and willing to commit U.S. forces to its destruction, he deserves the support of the American people. This is a fight that the United States cannot ignore or pretend will go away merely because we wish to avert our eyes. As he rightly noted, the group presents a clear threat to the security of the people of the region and, if not stopped now, a very serious one to that of the United States. If the coalition which the United States is attempting to put together to deal with ISIS succeeds, it will be a singular success for an administration that can, despite the president’s boasts, point to a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that is remarkable for its brevity./

In going forward with this campaign, whatever direction it takes or for however long it goes on, the president can count on the support of the American people and even most of the Congress that he has not seen fit to ask for a vote authorizing the effort. He will have leeway to order attacks on ISIS targets as he and his commanders see fit without too much second-guessing outside of the precincts of the far right and the far left. Nor will Americans have to worry much about the kind of scrutiny other armed forces face when similarly targeting terrorists who often hide among civilians. There will be no United Nations investigations or media meltdowns about any civilians who will without question be hurt when U.S. bombers take out ISIS fighters or instillations as Israel must face when it fights another brand of Islamist terror in Hamas.

But the question that should be troubling Americans and others who are hoping that tonight’s speech marks a turning point in this troubled presidency is not so much about the goals that Obama stated tonight but the commitment of the commander-in-chief to this struggle and his ability to think clearly about the mistakes that led to the crisis that made this speech necessary.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the president’s remarks is that this speech, like the policy that it sought to explain, is largely a poll-driven affair. After all, the president could have made the same decision several months ago when he was deriding ISIS as the “JV” of terror even as they were taking the city of Fallujah that American troops had won so dearly during his predecessor’s watch. Or at any other time since then as the situation in Syria and Iraq went from a crisis to a near catastrophe as ISIS overran vast amounts of territory and committed many of the unspeakable atrocities that the president mentioned in his remarks. The decision was necessitated not by the severity of the challenge but by the fear generated by the videos showing ISIS’s barbaric murder of two American journalists.

More to the point, the president’s decision is a silent acknowledgement that much of his past policies were not only wrong but also directly responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq and Syria. It was Obama who spent three years ridiculing the very policies on Syria that he is now embracing as warmongering. And it was also Obama who chose to squander the victory he had inherited from the Bush administration by fleeing the conflict and assuming that if he said the war there was over that would mean that this must be so.

The president’s defenders will say that this is mere backbiting and irrelevant to the current dilemma. But as much as it does the country little good for the president’s critics to be saying “I told you so,” it must also be said that it might be easier to have confidence in this administration if its leader were man enough to admit his errors.

Instead, the president reinforced the impression that this was a speech written with focus groups in mind by insisting—in contrast to polls that show that Americans feel less safe today than at any moment since 9/11—that he has made the country more secure. In addition to the rote repetition of his reelection campaign boasts about killing bin Laden, he took credit for pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq even though that is exactly what led to the current debacle.

Just as important was his insistence that this would not be a war like Afghanistan or Iraq because no U.S. ground troops would be deployed. Americans prefer wars where they can merely bomb their enemies without coming to grips with them on the ground. But the president also admitted that the success of the effort would depend on other nations, principally Iraq, that would supply the ground troops. But if you’re ISIS you may not be shaking in your boots. If ISIS is really the scary threat to the U.S. that Obama makes it out to be—and it is—then the terrorists must be asking themselves why no Americans will fight. If this is a battle for our values as well as our security why will it only be Iraqis or Kurds who will be asked to fight for them? As important as Obama’s talk about destroying ISIS may be, his refusal to say that America will do whatever it takes to beat it must be encouraging the terrorists.

We don’t need mea culpas from the president as much as an indication that he comprehends what went wrong and how to fix it. That was a test that his predecessor George W. Bush passed when he switched defense secretaries and war fighting strategies in Iraq in 2007. But while the president strove at times to copy Bush’s moral clarity about the fight (a position that Obama didn’t support at the time), he lacks his humility or his ability to admit his errors.

Obama’s conclusion in which he extolled America’s greatness was nice to hear. But I doubt that ISIS, which despises all this country stands for, was interested. They were listening for signals that Obama was so committed to their defeat that he would not let anyone or anything get in the way of that goal, including his desire to be seen as the man who ends wars, not the guy who starts them.

Listening to polls or employing half measures that minimize casualties so as to protect leaders from critical comments does not win wars. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama can rise above his hubris and arrogant unwillingness to admit mistakes in order to beat ISIS. But judging by this speech, it is doubtful that members of the terror group are thinking they can’t outlast a president who leads from behind his allies and his own people.

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Ignore Poll Numbers Showing Support for Military Action

Ahead of President Obama’s speech tonight, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a clear majority of the American public support military action against ISIS. Let us hope that conservatives, progressives, and those supportive of such military action don’t cite these poll numbers to justify their position.

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Ahead of President Obama’s speech tonight, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a clear majority of the American public support military action against ISIS. Let us hope that conservatives, progressives, and those supportive of such military action don’t cite these poll numbers to justify their position.

One of the more self-defeating political phenomena of recent decades is the tendency of presidents to base American national-security policy on polls, as they might any other issue. In this case, the public might be right about the need to defeat an organization which has sworn to defeat us, but to make the polls any part of a reason to conduct military action simply justifies their use—for better or worse—in the future. The public elects its president in part because of their trust that he will make the right call about national security. This was why Hillary Clinton’s campaign released its “3 a.m. phone call” commercial. But while military strategies play out in months or years, the American public can be fickle. Public opinion is too often subject to the whims of the media. It is a betrayal of our men and women in uniform to waffle constantly on their mission once they are in harm’s way. When it comes to ISIS, no politician should read polls and gleefully declare, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [in funding for U.S. forces in Iraq] before I voted against it.”

Real leadership requires making tough calls about national security regardless of the poll of the day. Any visitor to Harry S. Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West, Florida, has seen its collection of political cartoons criticizing Truman’s management of the war and his supposedly aimless objectives. Thankfully, Truman ignored the public’s turn, continued the U.S. commitment, and secured the Republic of Korea. The media lambasted Ronald Reagan for pursuing “Star Wars” and deploying intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe. But Reagan had a strategic vision and shrugged off his detractors. When George W. Bush announced the surge, polls showed a majority of Americans opposing Bush’s plan to augment the troop presence in Iraq. Bush ignored his detractors and did what he thought was best given the importance he placed on stabilizing Iraq.

Sometimes public-opinion polling will support decisive, military action and sometimes it won’t. But to justify any action with a poll simply gives credence to those who would undercut that action later with similar polls. National security shouldn’t be a political football.

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Why Is Obama Only Transparent with Enemies?

President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

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President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

But whatever transparency Obama lacks on domestic issues and in his dealings with Congress, he has absolutely become the most transparent president in our nation’s history in telegraphing to America’s sworn enemies what we are and are not willing to do.

When George W. Bush announced the surge in Iraq, he spoke about “victory” and didn’t enunciate publicly a timeline, even if he knew his timeline all along. When Obama announced his surge in Afghanistan, discussion of victory was conspicuously absent but talk of a timeline to end the surge was emphasized. Now the White House is suggesting that Obama will announce a three-year plan in his speech tonight. Obama considers himself a great orator. Perhaps he may want to take a hint from other presidents, however, who faced down enemies. Did Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciate a timeline in his Pearl Harbor Address? No. And here is Harry S. Truman explaining the need to enter war footing in Korea. Again, no timeline. Operation Desert Storm? No timeline. In all cases, however, there was a commitment to victory. Why issue an arbitrary timeline? Why let the enemy know that there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Ditto the question of whether or not to involve ground forces. Whether or not one supports the insertion of Special Forces or other troops on the ground, why enunciate that? The United States can gain much more with strategic ambiguity. Likewise, why unnecessarily constrain U.S. forces in the future should the situation change significantly?

Every time Obama speaks on military strategy, he omits talk of victory but peppers his speech with caveats and assurances of what the United States will not do. Rather than create a culture of opacity at home and transparency for our enemies, perhaps it’s time for Obama to do the opposite.

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Obama Still Leading From Behind

After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

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After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

Though belated, the administration’s decision to act is commendable. But what is remarkable about this radical shift in policy is that it seems to be as much a response to the change in public opinion about the situation in the Middle East as it is a realization on the president’s part that his past decisions to stay out of Syria and to bug out of Iraq were mistaken.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the president has spent much of his time in office mocking those who urged him to stop standing on the sidelines as the Middle East fell apart as warmongers. At other times, he engaged in puzzling maneuvers, such as his embarrassing back and forth decisions on Syria last year, that amounted to a gigantic head fake that encouraged America’s foes while puzzling and isolating friends.

But, as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals, not only do Americans no longer have any confidence in the president’s foreign policy, they actually feel less safe than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. The poll also shows that a large majority of Americans support air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a substantial minority also willing to deploy ground troops to deal with the threat.

In theory, that ought to make the president’s job of selling the country and the world on the need for the U.S. to go on offense against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists. But the spectacle of the last several weeks during which it appeared that the president was being dragged kicking and screaming toward a decision makes it a bit harder for both friends and foes to take Obama seriously. More to the point, if the orchestrated leaks about the president’s speech are accurate, the cribbed nature of his plan for action in which he will take the possibility of a U.S. presence on the ground off the table and set firm time limits on the campaign will undermine the effort from the start.

Why are Americans so upset and fearful?

Part of the answer lies in the power of the disgusting videos released by ISIS that showed American journalists being brutally murdered. While one can argue that Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program may provide as much, if not more of a challenge to U.S. security as this terror group, the images in the videos were visceral and easily understood. Moreover, if the NBC/Journal poll is accurate, more than 94 percent of Americans saw it. Theoretical threats are one thing. Arrogant Islamists beheading Americans and taunting us (and President Obama) about it are quite another. The public seems to have understood long before the president that this is something that has to stop and that there is no negotiating with or maneuvering around a terror threat that, despite Obama’s reelection boasts, is very much alive.

Does it matter that negative poll numbers about the president are driving the anti-ISIS effort more than it is being pushed by his vision of defending both the U.S. and our allies against a clear and present danger?

One could argue that the motivation for U.S. action isn’t important so long as the president follows through on his plans and lets the U.S. military operate effectively to defeat ISIS. But the long-range success of those efforts will depend as much on the confidence of the people of the region that America can be counted on to stay the course in a conflict that won’t provide quick or easy victories. That will require more than a poll-driven speech that provides as many caveats about what the U.S. won’t do than anything else.

In any conflict, there is no substitute for leadership that not only can articulate policies that people want but also is prepared to tell them that there are some things that must be done that are not so popular. Not every wartime leader must be Winston Churchill, but one that is primarily concerned with “not doing stupid stuff” and who takes weeks to make up his mind to do what Americans wanted already done is setting both himself and the country up for failure.

What we need from the president tonight is a signal that his period of irresolute dithering is over and that he will spend the time that is left to him in the White House fighting to win against Islamist terrorists rather than managing the threat. Both doubtful American allies and a worried Congress are waiting to hear from a leader who will get out in front of this problem. More leading from behind will not only fail but also conclusively tarnish his legacy forever.

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Obama Tripped Up By His Own False Choice

So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

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So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

It would have been even better if the president had unleashed American air power, in conjunction with aid to the Free Syrian Army, much earlier in the conflict–all the way back in 2011 as some of us urged at the time. By waiting so long Obama now has to grapple with a much tougher situation not only in Syria but also regionally. In December 2011, for example, I wrote: “If parts of Syria slip outside anyone’s control (as occurred in Iraq from 2003 to 2007), they could become havens for Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda.” Sadly that prediction has been vindicated–not only in Syria but also in Iraq.

The point of recalling what I and others said at the time isn’t to engage in a game of “I told you so.” Like every other foreign-policy analyst out there, I have made my share of mistakes that others can second-guess. No one gets it right every time and Obama had legitimate concerns that led him to avoid getting more deeply involved in Syria in 2011.

But there is a broader point here that is well worth keeping in mind. When I or others advocated robust action in Syria (stopping short of using U.S. ground troops), many noninterventionists including the president himself implicitly or explicitly accused us of being warmongers. As recently as late May at West Point, Obama was defending his conduct of foreign policy by attacking supposed hawks: “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” he said. And: “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

In that speech Obama set up a false dichotomy by suggesting that the only choices confronting a U.S. president are isolationism or extreme interventionism–by which he meant of course waging the Iraq War as George W. Bush did. The reality, however, is that in many circumstances a willingness to use a little force early on can avert the need for a bigger, messier involvement with lower chances of success later on. That is exactly the situation we face today in Syria and Iraq where it is much harder to make progress now than it was in 2011 when no one had ever heard of ISIS. Let us hope that President Obama and others who share his noninterventionist inclinations learn a lesson about the costs of inaction–just as those of us who favor a tougher approach to foreign policy should have learned some lessons about the cost of interventionism in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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Iraq Looks Ahead

Yesterday was a momentous day in Iraq. It was the day that a new government was announced that was not led by Nouri al-Maliki. It was not so long ago that conventional wisdom in both Iraq and the United States was that there was no way to remove Maliki from office. But with concerted will–on the part of other political factions and the United States government–the task was accomplished. Iran might have played the spoiler, given Maliki’s role as a close ally of Tehran, but the Iranian government put a premium on Shiite unity over preserving Maliki’s rule. And that was that.

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Yesterday was a momentous day in Iraq. It was the day that a new government was announced that was not led by Nouri al-Maliki. It was not so long ago that conventional wisdom in both Iraq and the United States was that there was no way to remove Maliki from office. But with concerted will–on the part of other political factions and the United States government–the task was accomplished. Iran might have played the spoiler, given Maliki’s role as a close ally of Tehran, but the Iranian government put a premium on Shiite unity over preserving Maliki’s rule. And that was that.

Thus the announcement of a new government led by Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi, who has been striking a more conciliatory tone than Maliki did. But we should not kid ourselves that a change of prime minister will magically solve all–or any–of Iraq’s problems. This is not a cabinet of supremely skilled bureaucrats but mainly of the same partisan hacks who have presided over Iraq’s descent into chaos. For example, Ibrahim Jaafari, briefly prime minister under the U.S. occupation, was appointed foreign minister, while Adel Abdul Mahdi, a former vice president and member of an Islamist Shiite party, was appointed the oil minister.

Most worrying of all were the ministerial jobs not filled–Interior and Defense, which happen to be the two most important jobs in a country facing security challenges as grave as those in Iraq. Abadi had been ready to appoint Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Brigades, an Iranian-backed militia, as head of the Interior Ministry and a Sunni as head of the Defense Ministry. But last minute objections, apparently from the U.S., scuttled the deal–and thank goodness: Pretty much the last person who should head the powerful Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq’s police, is an Iranian-backed sectarian thug. Now the challenge will be to find more neutral appointees who will be acceptable to the various factions in parliament.

Beyond that, Abadi has to show that he is serious about outreach–he will have to convince the Sunni tribes that he will be a reliable ally against ISIS. Only then will it be possible to make significant progress against the terrorists who masquerade as defenders of the Sunni community against Shiite aggression.

If there is one lesson that the last few years have taught us it is that we cannot count on the Iraqi factions to solve their own problems. The formation of this government is partly a tribute to the more active role played by the Obama administration in Iraq these past few months after years of shameful neglect. It is vitally important that the U.S. continue to nudge the prime minister and other political players to find common ground against the overwhelming threat that Iraq now faces. And the more that the U.S. is willing to do militarily to fight ISIS, the more leverage we will have to affect the Iraqi political process.

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Not All Peshmerga Are the Same

Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

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Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

The peshmerga—literally “those who face death”—have a vaunted reputation as agile guerrilla fighters who harassed Saddam Hussein’s forces and survived months if not years up in the mountains. One of my best memories of Kurdistan was in March 2001, accompanying a peshmerga veteran from the fight against Saddam in the 1980s to the mountain marking the southern boundary of Duhok city: He showed me Assyrian carvings that expats who have transited Duhok for years don’t know exist; afterwards, we gathered some of the greens and roots that peshmerga lived on when they could not make it down to a village to have for our dinner.

But in the years after the 1991 establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the peshmerga came down from the mountains; many demanded government positions to which they felt they were entitled, but scarcely qualified.

Kurdistan’s political factionalism made matters worse. The peshmerga were and, alas, still are organized more as party militias than as a professional military. Between 1994 and 1997, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga (supported by Iran) and Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga (supported, at times, by Saddam Hussein) fought it out because of revenue sharing disputes between the two main Kurdish parties. Kurds say that 3,000 prisoners remain missing from that time, presumably executed by the rival peshmerga forces.

While the Iraqi Kurds have, since around 2001, made efforts to “unify” the peshmerga, the peshmerga forces—like the corollary party intelligence services—are unified more on paper than in reality. Take, for example, recent fighting: It was the PUK peshmerga that seized Kirkuk, tying that city closer to Sulaymani, where the PUK and its offshoot Gorran predominate. The KDP peshmerga were those fighting to retake the Mosul dam after ISIS forces briefly took it.

While many Kurds sing the peshmerga’s praises, there is tension beneath the surface. ISIS may have caught the West by surprise, by the Yezidis living in and around Sinjar had been asking the KDP peshmerga for weaponry and reinforcements for weeks before ISIS took Sinjar and slaughtered hundreds of men and enslaved hundreds of women and girls. The KDP refused to send reinforcements, and most Yezidis—and many other Kurds—are bitter. The reasons given for why the KDP peshmerga refused reinforcements range from incompetent leadership to corruption (the resources had been embezzled or spent elsewhere) to more cynical desire to trade on the Yezidi suffering for weaponry. Regardless, Reuters last week published an account of a 14-year-old who escaped ISIS captivity; she had been given as a gift to fighters on the frontline. Her tale is tragic, but her redemption is important:

“When [the militants] left us I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I saw a bag full of cell phones and I called my brother,” Shaker told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a camp for internally displaced people in Iraq. On the phone, her brother Samir told her to go to a nearby house and ask for help and directions to reach the border where fighters from the Kurdistan State Workers Party (PKK) were battling Islamic State militants. He said the PKK would help her reach safety… The two girls set off toward the front lines. “I couldn’t walk straight, my legs were shaking and my heart was beating so fast. We ran and walked and we never looked back,” Shaker said. After two hours on the road they heard gunfire. As they got closer, they saw a group of PKK fighters and started running towards them. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” she said. “We were free.”

Too often when Americans talk about the peshmerga, they forget the Popular Protection Units (YPG) which have fought—and defeated both ISIS and the Syrian regime—long before the KDP and PUK peshmerga joined the fight. I had visited Syrian Kurdistan at the beginning of the year, and wrote about my observations here. More recently, Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou have written along similar lines in the New York Times.

It remains incredible to me that the United States continues to blockade and boycott the only section of Syria that is controlled by a secular group committed to both the destruction of ISIS and one which has given refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians (and now Iraqis) without reference to their religion or ethnicity. We do so because Turkey historically has demanded the United States consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, even as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched peace talks with the group. The United States should not be more Turkish than the Turks, nor deny the space to an effective secular group that otherwise would be controlled by ISIS.

Certainly, despite its democratic rhetoric, the PKK remains a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Then again, despite its democratic rhetoric, the KDP remains also a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around Masud Barzani, the son of its founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Just as the KDP once fought the PUK over resources, much of the antagonism fed to the West about the YPG today traces back to either Turkey or the KDP. In the latter case, it’s again about resources.

When the United States first became involved in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, various Iraqi political actors took advantage of the U.S. military’s lack of understanding of the political terrain in order to get the United States to target rivals and internal adversaries. When it comes to the ISIS threat today, the same pattern is repeating as Kurdish peshmerga seek U.S. help to empower them against not only ISIS but also their rivals. The United States should not get sucked into such a game: If the Pentagon plans to support the peshmerga, it should support all of them with an emphasis on providing the most support to those actually doing the bulk of the fighting. In such a case, it’s time to support the YPG without any further delay. It should also insist that the Kurds professionalize the peshmerga, unify the Iraqi peshmerga, and take them out of family hands. There is no reason to insist on a different standard of professionalism in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the rest of Iraq.

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IDF Saves Irish Troops from Jihadists

Ireland is one of the most consistently anti-Israel countries in Europe. So it was interesting to read in Ireland’s Sunday Independent yesterday that Israeli troops were instrumental in saving the lives of Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week. Citing “senior sources,” the newspaper reported that after the peacekeepers were attacked by a Syrian rebel group, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, “Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists if it wasn’t for the military intervention of the Israeli army … The Israeli assistance was described as ‘decisive’ in the success of the mission.”

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Ireland is one of the most consistently anti-Israel countries in Europe. So it was interesting to read in Ireland’s Sunday Independent yesterday that Israeli troops were instrumental in saving the lives of Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week. Citing “senior sources,” the newspaper reported that after the peacekeepers were attacked by a Syrian rebel group, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, “Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists if it wasn’t for the military intervention of the Israeli army … The Israeli assistance was described as ‘decisive’ in the success of the mission.”

Specifically, the Israel Defense Forces used its precise intelligence about the area to guide the troops to safety along a route that avoided Nusra fighters. Additionally, there were “unconfirmed reports that the Israelis directed fire at the Islamists to stop them from attacking the Filipino and Irish soldiers.”

There’s nothing surprising about the IDF’s intervention. After all, Israel has consistently intervened to save Syrian lives even though it’s formally at war with Syria, providing food and other humanitarian assistance to besieged Syrian villages and offering medical care to everyone from wounded fighters to mothers in labor. (Safed’s Rebecca Sieff Hospital delivered its seventh Syrian baby earlier this month.) So intervening to save the nationals of a country it’s not at war with is a no-brainer.

What is surprising, however, is what this says about Ireland, and by extension, about Europe as a whole. For here you have the difference between Israel and its enemies in the starkest form: on one hand, radical jihadists who sought to kill or kidnap Irish soldiers; on the other, a stable country that intervened to save their lives. The choice between the two would seem self-evident. But in fact, Ireland has consistently chosen the jihadists.

Last year, for instance, Ireland led the opposition within the European Union to blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization. This is the same Hezbollah that kidnapped European nationals for years; that murdered innocent tourists on European soil in 2012; and that’s currently helping the Assad regime in Syria slaughter its own citizens. True, Hezbollah is Shi’ite and the Nusra Front is Sunni, but beyond that, there isn’t much to choose between them.

Ireland also looks out for Hamas’s interests. It vociferously opposes Israel’s partial blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, despite the obvious fact that lifting the blockade would let Hamas import vast quantities of arms without hindrance, and it even denies Israel’s right to intercept blockade-running flotillas–a right a UN inquiry commission upheld in 2011.

In contrast, Dublin is always at the head of the pack in attacking Israel. Before assuming the EU’s rotating presidency in 2013, for instance, it announced that it supports an EU-wide ban on imports from Israeli settlements, but had regretfully concluded it was unachievable, since too many other EU members were opposed.

Yet Ireland is merely an extreme case of a pan-European phenomenon: Rather than seeking to empower Israel against the jihadists, the EU consistently seeks to empower the jihadists against Israel. Indeed, the EU often appears obsessed with making Israel give up strategic territory along its borders, despite the fact that every previous Israeli withdrawal has merely further empowered jihadist groups (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza), and that additional withdrawals are all too likely to do the same.

Not coincidentally, the Golan is included in the list of “Israeli-occupied territories” that the EU wants Israel to quit. One wonders whether Dublin appreciates the irony that had Israel complied with this demand, IDF troops wouldn’t have been on hand last week to rescue its peacekeepers.

But that, of course, is precisely the problem with seeking to empower your enemies rather than your allies: If you succeed, your allies will no longer be able to help you when you need them.

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Any ISIS Strategy Has to Starve its Finances

Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

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Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

Nevertheless, the Iraq Energy Institute estimates ISIS currently produces about 30,000 barrels per day in Iraq and 50,000 in Syria. At the black market price of $40 a barrel, this equates to $3.2 million a day, or $100 million each month. ISIS militants, however, are hardly specialists in oil production. Even if ISIS managed to take over the Baiji refinery, they would need to hire technical staff or coerce its existing workers. The ISIS oil distribution network is primitive: a coordinated system of 210 trucks carrying oil along ISIS-controlled smuggling routes. Transporting oil via trucks may be far less efficient than using pipelines, but it’s also much harder to track and it still turns a profit.

ISIS cannot export its oil without the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, or perhaps Jordan. Jordan, of course, was the biggest buster of Saddam-era sanctions, largely because it wanted Iraqi oil regardless of the price. Queen Rania has a reputation as a profligate spender whose needs sometimes trump responsible governance and, in this case, diplomacy. When it comes to ISIS, however, Iraqi Kurds are potential middlemen. Kurds have seldom hesitated to do business with anyone, even their sworn enemies. When I sat down with former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani more than a decade ago for a Middle East Quarterly interview, he admitted readily the Kurds’ economic relations with Saddam Hussein, who just 13 years previous had used chemical weapons against a village loyal to Talabani. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam, they found numerous photos and videos of current Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani meeting and discussing business with Saddam Hussein or his young sons. Turkey, of course, can’t even bring itself to call ISIS a terrorist group.

ISIS is a problem that has steadily metastasized. And while President Obama will on Wednesday outline a military strategy to address the ISIS problem, it’s important to recognize that the military component should only be one part of a broader strategy. No end to pressure should be brought to bear on Turkey, which has allowed ISIS free movement across its borders. Turkey’s double game on ISIS and terrorism in general has quickly transformed the putative U.S. ally into “Pakistan on the Med.” And naming and shaming any country buying or selling ISIS oil should also be a no-brainer. There should be no end of efforts to starve ISIS of all oxygen which it requires to exist.

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The Media’s Mindless Iraq War Comparison

There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

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There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

Stelter used yesterday’s show to ask if the media are replaying Iraq by cheerleading for war against ISIS. But after claiming that media personalities are letting themselves be governed not by the facts on ISIS and terrorism but by “their ideological agendas,” Stelter then seemingly demonstrated what he was criticizing by allowing his show to descend into an ideological echo chamber.

Here are the sources around which Stelter constructed his argument.

He began by quoting that most sober of publications, the Huffington Post home-page banner:

Here’s the banner headline on the “The Huffington Post” earlier this week — “Media War Frenzy Like 2003,” now that’s a frightening concept right there.

Frightening indeed. (Though not as frightening as a media critic using a HuffPo banner as the jumping-off point of his analysis.)

Then there’s this bit of overt partisanship and professional score-settling:

One big difference in 2003 is that we had red news on TV – we had Fox – but we didn’t have solidly blue news from MSNBC. It wasn’t a liberal news channel back then. But now it is. Here’s what Rachel Maddow reminded her viewers this week.

Does Stelter, who works for CNN, know CNN exists? It’s unclear. This one’s a two-fer though, as he first pretends broadcast news leaned right–during the Bush administration–and then tosses it over to Rachel Maddow for her take.

And then the closing flourish–here’s how he introduced the last segment on ISIS:

I myself am very concerned about the press provoking panic about ISIS. But I’m keeping an open mind. And earlier when I was in D.C., I asked Ron Fournier what he thought as well as Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the proudly liberal magazine “The Nation.” Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Stelter’s “keeping an open mind,” so he’d like to get some input on whether America is too warmongering from vanden Heuvel, the Kremlin’s American mouthpiece. Fournier, of National Journal, provided the only serious, levelheaded commentary of the show:

I don’t know – that’s a false choice. What’s bad, what’s wrong for journalists to do is at this early stage to conclude anything. To be able to say that we need to go to war now is irresponsible. To say that we can’t go to war now is irresponsible. Because the fact is – one thing Katrina’s right about is – we haven’t asked all the questions yet. And even the President I don’t think has all the answers yet. So, yes, media is clicked to revving (ph) right now, media sensationalize right now, media is – tends to hype any shiny object that comes along right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ISIS is not a threat.

Just because you’re tired of war doesn’t mean there aren’t threats. Stelter at least closed the segment with Fournier, so the show ended on a note of rationality. Otherwise, the segment was a fairly embarrassing display of life in a liberal media bubble.

But there’s another point worth making here about this debate. Stelter seems to think the main difference between today’s ISIS threat and the Iraq war is that now Americans have Rachel Maddow to not watch. But there’s another difference, aside from the mainstreaming of cable leftist thoughtlessness.

The run-up to the Iraq war was consumed by a debate over intelligence. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? What was the evidence? Was it enough to support launching a ground invasion? Of course there were other issues at play, including Saddam breaking the conditions of the original ceasefire and also the regular firing at American pilots patrolling the restricted airspace. But certainly the urgency of the case rested to a great degree on whether the intelligence had it right on WMD.

You could even make the case that that was a factor last year, the last time President Obama wanted to bomb Syria (albeit aiming at the other side). Although the case appeared fairly clear that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on the rebels, the evidence still had to be tallied and analyzed.

That’s not the case here. What media personalities are reacting to is not a hyped future threat but the fact that ISIS terrorists are beheading Americans and sending out the videos of the acts. And the response from commentators has been revulsion–entirely appropriate–not supposed water carrying for intel sources. The comparison is irresponsible and false. If anyone’s allowing their ideology to overtake their news judgment it’s those, like Stelter, brandishing the comparison to the Iraq war.

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Obama’s ISIS Policy: Committed to Victory?

We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

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We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

Start with the good news: Obama said on Meet the Press, “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.” To which one can only say: About time. The threat from ISIS has been growing dangerously for many months. Now that ISIS has conquered an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is high time for the administration to commit to its defeat.

My concerns relate primarily to whether Obama will commit the resources needed to achieve this objective. Defense Department sources are leaking that the president envisions a three-year campaign against ISIS. The timeline may or may not be right, but why, in any case, is it being leaked? Did Franklin Roosevelt announce on December 8, 1941, that our goal was to defeat Germany and Japan within three years? He never did that. In fact Roosevelt was quite clear that our objective was the unconditional surrender of the enemy, no matter how much time it took. That is the proper way to rally the nation to go to war. Even if you have internal estimates of how long the campaign will take, why announce them? It can only give hope to the enemy that they can wait you out and dispirit allies because they fear that you are not committed to doing whatever is necessary to prevail. But Obama has become used to rolling out deadlines for military action, such as his 18-month timeline for the Afghan surge or his commitment to stay in Afghanistan after this year but to pull out before he leaves office in 2017. This is counterproductive.

So too is Obama’s habit of short-changing commanders on their troop requests. In Afghanistan, for example, the middle option presented by General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 was for 40,000 troops. Instead Obama sent only 30,000 and he imposed a hard cap of 100,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, which forced commanders to juggle units in and out so as to adhere to an artificial deadline rooted in politics not geo-strategy. Commanders were never given the resources or time that they needed to mount a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign and in fact Obama never embraced the word “counterinsurgency” even though that was what his commanders were doing with his full knowledge.

In the case of Iraq today, Obama has already made clear that he will not put any “boots on the ground,” thereby creating an artificial limit on the ability of our forces to achieve his primary objective–to destroy ISIS. All options should be on the table even if no one today contemplates sending large numbers of U.S. ground troops. At the very least, however, we will need an augmented force of advisers and Special Operations troops which, to be effective, would probably need to number at least 10,000 personnel once all the support elements are included. Will Obama sign up for such a commitment or will he try to achieve his objectives on the cheap by utilizing air power alone?

If he relies on airpower alone (the lowest risk option, at least from a force protection standpoint), it will be much harder to increase the effectiveness of the Sunni tribes, Iraqi security forces, Kurdish pesh merga, and the Free Syrian Army–the proxies we must count on to wage ground warfare in conjunction with U.S. air strikes. Their combat prowess will vastly increase if some American advisers and special operators can work alongside of them–and if the elite commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command are allowed to do the kind of network targeting of ISIS that they previously did to its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Moreover, to fight an organization like ISIS that sprawls across Syria and Iraq, the administration will need to sign up for military action on both sides of the virtually nonexistent Syria-Iraq border. Will Obama do so or will he be paralyzed by concerns about violating Bashar Assad’s “sovereignty” even though we no longer recognize him as the rightful ruler of Syria?

These are all causes for concern that we must hope Obama will address and allay on Wednesday. But given his track record of half-hearted military commitments from Libya to Afghanistan, I am worried that once again there will be a major disconnect between ends and means.

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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Whose Victory Is Amerli?

The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

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The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

If you want to know more about Suleimani, who may be the most feared man in the Middle East, read this long profile by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker which notes that in addition to directing Syria’s deadly offensive against rebel forces, “Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”

This, in short, is not someone the U.S. should knowingly be cooperating with even if we share an interest in rolling back ISIS advances in Iraq. The problem, even leaving moral qualms aside, is that Suleimani’s way of war is to employ indiscriminate violence to try to cow rebel forces into submission. In Iraq, such a strategy is likely to backfire by driving Sunnis deeper into ISIS’s camp.

The way to win in Iraq–to “degrade and destroy” ISIS as President Obama claims to be doing–is not to drop bombs in support of Suleimani’s thugs. The only way to truly roll back ISIS–to chase them to “the gates of hell,” wherever those may be found, as Joe Biden theatrically vows to do–is to ally with Sunni tribes who are chafing under ISIS’s heavyhanded rule but will stick with the terrorist group as long as it credibly postures as the defender of Sunnis against the “Persians,” as Anbari tribesmen refer to all Shiites. Normally to call Shiites “Persians” is an insult implying they’re not real Iraqis–but in the case of Suleimani the label fits because he really is Iranian, not Iraqi. Thus the more that resistance to ISIS is identified with Iranian interests, the less traction it will gain in Sunni areas.

The U.S. needs to tread carefully, supporting the Kurdish pesh merga, non-sectarian elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (which may mean principally the Iraqi Special Operations Forces), and Sunni tribes–not the murderous Shiite militias armed and directed by Suleimani. But in order to do that the U.S. needs more of an on-the-ground presence than we currently have: it’s impossible to accurately employ U.S. airpower in more than dribs and drabs without having more eyes on the ground than we currently possess.

I have been arguing for sending 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to act as Special Operations Forces and as advisers to the Iraqis and the Free Syrian Army–a view endorsed by no less than retired Marine General Tony Zinni, a widely revered former commandeer of Central Command (and a skeptic of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq).

Zinni is quoted as saying: “My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world. This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” Good question–and one that President Obama still needs to answer.

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

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President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

The Times writes of a new video message released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he attempts to recruit fighters in the Indian subcontinent, “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.” The call to establish this branch of al-Qaeda was, according to the report, two years in the making, meaning even when al-Qaeda appeared to be splintering it was still expanding. The Times explains the relevance of al-Qaeda’s competitor, ISIS, to Zawahri’s message:

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks on Hindus. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of provoking conflict with this region’s huge Hindu population.

This summer, however, has seen recruiting of Indian Muslims by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni network that split rancorously from Al Qaeda last year and has rapidly expanded, threatening to eclipse its forerunner. Many analysts in India saw Al Qaeda’s announcement Wednesday as an effort by the older organization to confront a rising challenge to its leadership of the Islamic militancy in the region.

In his videotaped address, Mr. Zawahri does not make specific reference to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying “discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers.”

The idea that ISIS is a threat that can be contained to Syria and Iraq is thus false not only because ISIS is already attracting adherents outside those countries but also because ISIS is an element of a global Islamist terror threat whose success breeds expansion, competition, and imitation. If Islamist terrorists are seen to be on the run, as American officials like to believe, they are often on the run to other, stronger terror networks or on the run to scout new locations to expand their reach. This globalized, networked nature of the threat is something Obama has never understood, and it’s hampered American security policy on his watch.

It also undermines Obama’s “realist” desire to see America’s enemies, especially in Syria, destroy each other. What happens when competition fosters not bloody turf wars but competition for new markets? You have a sort of imperial rivalry superimposed on top of the existing world order.

Take the idea of the nation-state, for example, which has been the basis of the quest for a stable global order. Yesterday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote a smart post on how ISIS and its self-declared sovereignty complicate our preferred understanding of what a state is. Using a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about how ISIS controls its local economy and polices its territory as a jumping-off point, Carney writes:

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don’t want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

There is a lot to this, though I don’t think it undermines the case for the nation-state as the preferable currency of international order. My immediate reaction to Carney’s post is to ask the following question, however: if ISIS is a state, is Iraq? Both claim defined borders–but those borders conflict.

The same goes for Syria. The West recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime” almost two years ago. Now we’re contemplating airstrikes that would help Assad at the expense of the rebels because the rebels have been eclipsed by groups like ISIS. So who, or what, is Syria?

And this brings us back to the threat of global terrorism. The expansion not just of ISIS but of al-Qaeda and their competitors threatens to destabilize countries across the globe. If they are going to set up statelets–similar, I suppose, to what the Caucasus Emirate tried to do in Russia–they are not doing so on frontierland. They are doing so in existing states, erasing borders and collapsing authority. Yes, rogue states like Putin’s Russia are a prominent threat to the international regime of state sovereignty. But so is ISIS and its ilk, and it’s time to treat it as such.

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