Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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?

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.”

Read More

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.

Read Less

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:

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

Will Hostage Bring Cameron into the War?

Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

Read More

Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

There are of course those in Britain who would want to see Cameron pursue the same course of action as has been adopted by the countries of mainland Europe. French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Danish hostages were all held by militants in Iraq and Syria and are all now free after their ransoms were paid. But in surrendering to the terrorists’ demands Western governments are in a sense both funding terrorism and putting more of their citizens around the world at risk by incentivizing their kidnapping.

The French attitude to hostage taking makes the point pretty clearly. Despite the fact that the payment of ransoms for French hostages is generally undertaken through state owned companies rather than by the government directly–so as to permit French politicians to make the unconvincing claim that they are absolved from the whole sordid affair–the effect is still entirely the same. Indeed, it has been estimated that France has now paid over $57 million to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in return for the release of hostages. For their trouble France has succeeded in making its citizens the most desirable people in the world to kidnap and last year it is thought that more French nationals were taken hostage than those from any other country in the world.

Of course as well as funds, terrorists also often demand the release of prisoners. But by letting hardened terrorists go free, Western governments are essentially just returning combatants to the field and replenishing the ranks of terrorist groups. Furthermore, in countries where the most severe punishment on the books is imprisonment, the release of these prisoners renders terrorism a crime without penalty. During the 1970s the PLO and associated groups became particularly adept at using hostage taking for this very purpose. They knew that European countries were the weak link here and of the 204 terrorists convicted outside of the Middle East between 1968 and 1975, only three were still in prison by the end of that period.

So David Cameron’s refusal to follow his European counterparts down the ransom paying rabbit hole is indeed both sensible and admirable. Yet, if he is not going to free British hostages by negotiating with their captors then he must explain what he intends to do instead. Nor can he maintain the rhetoric of moral opprobrium against ISIS with any kind of credibility if he still refuses to take real action. If British government officials want to label ISIS as “evil” then that is fine–just so long as they know that doing so will quickly render their current policy morally indefensible.

Up until now, Britain has met the ISIS threat with what appears to have been a defense strategy devised by Quakers. A team is being put together to document ISIS war crimes so that these people might one day be put on trial, while the British air force recently took to the skies over mount Sinjar to drop bottles water to the sheltering Yazidis down below. Yet in the end it was only ever going to be the kind of airstrikes employed by the United States that would save the Yazidis from the ISIS militants seeking to perpetrate genocide against them. As it is, Obama’s strategy may well prove to be too little, too late. But as things stand, for all his tough talk, Cameron has only managed less than that.

With regard to freeing the British hostage, Cameron’s government now insists that all options are being considered. Yet under present circumstances a rescue operation looks unlikely. Cameron’s former secretary of defense, Liam Fox, has however very publicly called on Britain to join the U.S. in its airstrikes. There are the first tentative signs that the British government may be coming round to this idea. But for the moment, Cameron is stalling, talking about building a broad coalition, one which he insists must include non-Western nations as well–though with news about the existence of a British hostage now being made public, there are the first stirrings of popular pressure for “something to be done.”

Read Less

Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Read More

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Almost a decade ago, while I was editing the Middle East Quarterly, I published an insightful article by Timothy Furnish entitled, “Beheading in the Name of Islam.” While some more radical Islamic advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) bend over backwards to obfuscate the links between such acts of violence and religion, the truth lies in the interpretation of religious texts espoused by more radical elements.

Furnish explains, “Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah (verse): ‘When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.’” He then explains the history of the exegesis:

The famous Iranian historian and Qur’an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that “striking at the necks” is simply God’s sanction of ferocious opposition to non-Muslims. Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription to “strike at the necks” commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to confirm death and not simply wound…

Literalism with regard to the interpretation of this passage was re-introduced in relatively recent times:

In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued… Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war. Mawdudi argued, “Under no circumstances should the Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely crushed.”

What is striking to me with regard to the evolution of interpretation is how it has hardened with time. For that, the world has no one to blame but Saudi Arabia which has, for decades, done everything possible to distribute the Yusuf ‘Ali interpretation of the Koran which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s generous subsidies, remains perhaps the most widely-available version of the Koran not only in the English-speaking world, but across the Sunni world as well.

Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once made the following analogy:

The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them. Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

What we are seeing now is not the natural evolution of Islam, but rather the result of decades of Saudi-fueled hatred. Many Saudi officials may have recognized that their financing of radical Islam has gone too far and may seek a more productive role—especially vis-à-vis unrepentant Qatar—but it is important to recognize that interpretations have changed over time to allow the murders within ISIS to justify their cruelty and crimes in Islam.

The question which both Muslims and non-Muslims must then answer is: How can decades of well-funded radicalism be undone? It’s not going to happen with Oval Office pronouncements, art therapy, or snake-oil de-radicalization programs. It will happen with a concerted, decades-long, well-financed operation to change hearts and minds. That investment, alas, must come from within the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its money where it mouth is and, regardless, no country other than perhaps Morocco appears ready to give the promotion of moderation beyond its borders a serious try.

Read Less

Obama’s Been Pickpocketed By Reality

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

Read More

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

And over the weekend Democrats tried desperately to convince him he’s been mugged. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s being “too cautious” on ISIS. That’s her way of saying that she’s privy to enough intel to wonder what Obama sees when he looks at the same information. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Obama needs to be doing more to fend off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–and yes, by the way, he used the word “invasion” rather than participate in the administration’s Orwellian word games to deny reality and make excuses for abandoning American allies.

And the Washington Post editorial board laid into Obama’s swirling confusion over the complexity of the world:

This argument with his own administration is alarming on three levels.

The first has to do with simple competence. One can only imagine the whiplash that foreign leaders must be suffering…

Similarly, his senior advisers uniformly have warned of the unprecedented threat to America and Americans represented by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. But Mr. Obama didn’t seem to agree…

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One can almost imagine the Post’s editors intended the editorial to be read aloud, slowly and with exaggerated elocution, as if speaking to a child. And so the president hasn’t really been mugged by reality, because he doesn’t seem to know he’s been hit.

The Post editorial was right to call attention to the bewilderment America’s allies around the world must be experiencing. But it’s worth dwelling on the same confusion America’s enemies must be feeling. Their actions have resulted in a propaganda windfall because they surely expected the American president not to parrot their talking points or shrug off their murderous intent.

When it was revealed in August that President Obama had downgraded American security cooperation with Israel and was withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a column headlined “US livid with Israel? Hamas can’t believe its luck.” Indeed, Hamas probably expects at best empty words from Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself, but it’s doubtful they ever imagined they would start a war with Israel only to have the American president withhold military support from Israel during that war and then fume that the U.S.-Israel military relationship is such that both sides assume America will have Israel’s back, at least during wartime. Obama wants Israel to make no such assumptions.

Similarly, could Vladimir Putin have expected the Obama administration to help him obfuscate the fact that he has invaded Ukraine–again? Administration officials “have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine,” the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey wrote late last week. “They just don’t want to say the word out loud.” Putin must be giddy.

And when video surfaced revealing that, in the words of CNN, “Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones protested the coverage of an event the symbolism of which was impossible to ignore. It was not true that those ransacking the compound were ransacking the compound, she claimed; they were, um, guarding it. We are truly in the best of hands.

What is most troublesome about this, and what might be responsible for bringing Democrats out of the woodwork to denounce Obama’s foreign-policy silliness, is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be anything that can get the president to confront reality. It’s always been assumed that at some point Obama will wake up; Democrats are no longer convinced that’s the case, and have gone public to try to assure friends and foes alike that not everyone in the U.S. government is so steeped in comforting delusions while the world burns.

Someone’s at the wheel, in other words, just not the president. And now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to believe the spin coming out of Washington, instead of hoping American officials don’t believe the spin coming in.

Read Less

Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

Read More

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

Read Less

Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Read More

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

Read Less

That’s Some Jayvee Team, Mr. President

Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

Read More

Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

Do you still recall when the president promised he would punish Syria if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons? When we were assured that the “tide of war is receding”? And how ISIS was the “jayvee team” of terrorist groups?

That was then. Let me (via Foreign Policy magazine) tell you about now. Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria, we’re told, are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. According to the story:

The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.

“The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states

… the longer the caliphate exists, the more likely it is that members with a science background will come up with something horrible. The documents found on the laptop of the Tunisian jihadist, meanwhile, leave no room for doubt about the group’s deadly ambitions.

“Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. “Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”

That’s some jayvee team. Some new beginning. Some receding tide.

You’d think that the commander-in-chief might develop a strategy to combat what he himself calls a “cancer.” But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama just yesterday admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. He might consider getting one. Because ISIS clearly has one. It’s to kill as many Americans as possible.

Read Less

Spin Can’t Explain Obama Failure to Lead

From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

Read More

From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

The official explanation for the president’s statement has several parts.

One is that the president meant only that there was no strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria but that he did have one that applied to Iraq. But this is nonsensical. As much as the situations in the two countries are different, ISIS doesn’t recognize the border. To pretend that one can fight it in Iraq while leaving its Syrian base unmolested is both illogical and a demonstration of the administration’s incoherence.

A second is that the president is waiting on getting options for action from the Pentagon. If so, one has to ask whether it is possible that the Department of Defense had not prepared contingency plans for the current situation. But that can’t be true. The military has been studying American options on Syria for years, something that was again confirmed today during the Pentagon press briefing. The problem isn’t the lack of options for the president to consider. It’s that the president can’t or won’t decide on one.

The third explanation is that the president is determined that if there is to be action taken against ISIS it must be in concert with other nations in the Middle East and our Western allies. That makes sense. But the question here is why hasn’t the administration already firmed up plans for joint action? It’s not as if Arab nations that are concerned about the rise of ISIS aren’t eager to cooperate with the U.S. about this threat. It’s that the administration can’t make up its mind.

Finally, the explanation put forward by some, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, to the effect that the president is playing possum with ISIS by not revealing his strategy is even dumber than the White House spin. No one is saying that the administration should telegraph its moves to the enemy. But there is a difference between saying we know what we will do but won’t say what it is yet and admitting you don’t have a strategy. The former gives the terrorists something to worry about. The latter makes clear they have little to worry about.

So what is really going on?

The first and most obvious message being sent by President Obama was to his own foreign and defense policy teams. After days of administration officials signaling that action against ISIS in Syria was imminent, the president felt he needed throw some cold water on those expecting a decision, let alone, orders to strike at the Islamists’ bases. As with past deliberations about Syria, there are clearly a lot of people inside the Obama tent who realize that the years of dithering over the crisis there is damaging U.S. credibility as well as allowing the threat to metastasize. But the president may be far more worried about being pressured to act by both members of his own administration as well as political critics than he is about ISIS.

More important and far more dangerous is the message that this statement sent to ISIS.

It is true that the U.S. is already striking ISIS targets in Iraq, a move that has helped stabilize a situation that was quickly getting out of control. The president deserves credit for this. Nor should one underestimate the efforts that U.S. intelligence services are making to address any possible ISIS threats against U.S. targets outside of Syria and Iraq or to try to rescue Americans still being held by these terrorists.

But there is little doubt that ISIS could not help but be encouraged by the president’s obvious reluctance to commit to action.

Even the president’s defenders must acknowledge that the ISIS problem is a direct result of years of administration dithering on Syria. Instead of intervening decisively early in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents when American help could have been decisive the president chose to wait and merely called for Assad’s fall. The vacuum created by American and Western indecision made ISIS’s growth possible.

Just as important, Obama’s disastrous failure to follow through on his threat to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” undermined any notion that the West was prepared to enforce its own standards. Critics are right to note that is more than ironic that the president’s indecision about hitting Assad last year and is now behaving similarly when it comes to dealing with the threat that comes from the other side in that civil war. But the main takeaway from this disastrous day of White House messaging is that once again this president is primarily articulating his lack of comfort with a position of international leadership. This president came into office primarily determined to end U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to somehow put a period on the war on terror pursued by his predecessor. He has since learned that merely bugging out of a conflict does not end wars or the threat to U.S. interests and security emanating from Islamist terrorists. But even after his decisions and reluctance to deal decisively with the resurgence of a terrorist movement he pretended was beaten has blown up in his face, the president is still more worried about being pressured to act than anything else.

What the United States lacks today is not a strategy for dealing with ISIS, a group that must be relentlessly attacked and destroyed. What it lacks is a president who has the will to deal with this problem and a belief in the need for America to lead.

Read Less

Congress’s Cynical Syria Game

The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

Read More

The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

Conservatives have repeatedly accused President Obama of plotting to go around Congress and abusing executive authority. They are usually correct, most recently with the astoundingly amoral and economically illiterate plan to ignore the Senate on an international climate agreement, pay off authoritarians to keep their suffering citizens mired in poverty, and singlehandedly incentivize a whole new market in global corruption. But on the issue of the use of force in Syria, conservatives should hold their fire: if Obama goes around Congress on this, it’s because Congress wants him to.

There are three factors working against a full congressional vote on the authorization for the use of force against ISIS in Syria (it’s doubtful one would be needed either way in Iraq, since there is an extant authorization there). The first is that President Obama doesn’t want one, because he doesn’t want to lose such a vote.

If it were clear he’d get the authorization he wants, the president would probably go ahead with it. It’s not at all clear such authorization would even pass. Usually, this president is happy to find any reason not to go to war. But in the case of Syria, his credibility, already at a low ebb, would take an irreparable hit if he did a second one-eighty on attacking the country in as many years. He’s already authorized surveillance overflights and there are reports his administration is sharing intel with Bashar al-Assad’s regime–a fact not widely confirmed but not shocking either, considering Obama’s desire for pinpoint operations.

If he lost an authorization vote now, he would probably have to stand down, since asking for the authorization would publicly acknowledge he believes he needs it to proceed. He would like a consensus and bipartisan ownership of a new front in the war on terror. But he might not get it, and thus is unlikely to ask for it.

On why Congress doesn’t want to vote no matter the result–the second factor working against authorization–the Times hits the nail on the head:

Members of both parties have long been reluctant to cast votes on matters of war, and most showed little appetite this month to do so on the airstrikes in Iraq, with midterm elections just months away and Mr. Obama promising the mission would be limited.

Congress doesn’t want to toss a war vote into the chaos of the midterms. Congressional leaders tend to protect their caucus from taking risky votes, and there are few if any votes tougher than authorizing war.

Another issue is that it wouldn’t be easy for this divided Congress to even come to an agreement on what the authorization should say:

“It would be wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority for the president to confront that challenge,” said Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. At the same time, he said he could not imagine “in a million years” that would happen.

“There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is — it’s just not going to happen,” Mr. Smith said.

And the third factor working against a full vote is that members of Congress want to have their cake and eat it too. The Times hints at this, but I think jumps to the wrong conclusion:

But some lawmakers have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that hands-off approach, especially after ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley and released a video showing the execution. The White House announced last week that United States forces had tried and failed to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages this summer.

In other words, they want the U.S. to strike ISIS. The Times seems to suggest this would help momentum toward a full vote on authorization. I would imagine the opposite is true.

If the approval would be far from assured (and it’s possible it might even be a long shot, depending on who you ask), and that Congress would bicker endlessly over just what it is they were trying to authorize, what would a lawmaker who supports the use of force want to happen? They would prefer the president strike without Congress.

This is practical, because time is of the essence. But it is also cynical, because it enables them to get their way while someone else takes responsibility for it. That’s true for Democrats who want to press a left-wing challenger in 2016 and would love an issue that has more traction than inequality or global warming, and it’s certainly true above all else for Republicans, who can get a policy they support while a president of the other party takes the flak for it.

None of this is to argue against the authorization or to dismiss the importance of an honest public debate and full accountability for a decision as serious as the use of force. It’s just to note that an Obama strike without that authorization would hardly be an example of an imperial presidency. It would be carrying out the wishes, however opportunistic, of both parties’ congressional delegations.

Read Less

Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

Read More

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”

Read Less




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

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

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

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

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