Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Assad’s American Reinforcements and Obama’s Plunging Credibility

The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

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The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

And then John Kerry stumbled into revealing that, from the administration’s perspective, the “last resort” argument was false. Obama accepted the proposal to get rid of certain types of chemical weapons instead. Administration officials had gone, in a matter of minutes, from telling the American people why we must bomb Assad to telling the American people why we must partner with Assad. It became clear that when it came to matters of war and peace, Obama was winging it, overwhelmed by the complexity of the world.

And yet, partnering with Assad to get rid of certain chemical weapons, while an obvious scam that still snared the naïve American president, is conceptually quite different from what we’re about to do–and, according to AFP, what we’re already doing: partnering with Assad and acting as his air force. That’s a somewhat crude description, of course; we’re not allying ourselves with Assad’s Syria in the way we are allied with numerous non-monsters of the world. But we’re cooperating out of convenience:

The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

“The cooperation has already begun and the United States is giving Damascus information via Baghdad and Moscow,” one source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity.

The comments came a day after Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Syria was willing to work with the international community against the jihadist Islamic State group, and US officials said they were poised to carry out surveillance flights over Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said foreign drones had been seen over the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday.

Though it hasn’t been widely confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first such report of the U.S. sharing intel with Assad to appear in recent days. And of course, several news organizations reported in January that European intelligence officials were meeting with representatives of the Syrian regime to share information on Islamist groups:

Mekdad’s remarks followed a report in The Wall Street Journal claiming that European intelligence agencies have met covertly with Assad delegates to share information on European jihadists operating in Syria, in the first such meeting since withdrawing their ambassadors when the crisis began.

The report indicated that a retired official from the British MI6 made a trip to Damascus over the summer, and that the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies followed suit, making contact with regime officials in November and traveling to Syria from Lebanon to carry out their meeting.

President Obama appears to grasp just how silly this all sounds, but is prepared to match it with other silliness. In the New York Times’s report on Obama’s approval of surveillance drones over Syria, which seems to be a precursor to American strikes against ISIS targets there, the story mentions early on the fact that if the U.S. is to have any real effect on ISIS, it would also change the strategic equation in Syria.

In other words, it would benefit Assad. The Times explains that Obama has yet to accept that reality: “a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.” How could the U.S. help Assad win the war without helping Assad win the war? That’s a tough one.

Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility continues to plummet. The argument for staying out of Syria was that, well, we should stay out of Syria. Advocates of involvement in the Syrian war, especially early on when there appeared to be a window of opportunity, argued that staying neutral at the time might very well mean getting involved anyway at a later date, on someone else’s terms, with America’s strategic position weakened.

The idea that the U.S. could get dragged kicking and screaming into Syria was generally dismissed as warmongering. Yet now the conflict-averse president is doing just that. A year ago Obama began the preliminary process of building up to a strike on Syria. Now he is doing the same. The difference is that a year ago Assad was the target. Now he’s the beneficiary.

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ISIS and Hamas: Spot the Differences

It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

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It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

ISIS seeks a global caliphate, while Hamas just wants to end the Israeli “occupation.” Actually, Hamas also seeks a global caliphate, as its own interior minister, Fathi Hammad, reiterated on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV last November:

We shall liberate our Al-Aqsa Mosque, and our cities and villages, as a prelude to the establishment of the future Islamic Caliphate … we are at the threshold of a global Islamic civilization era. The fuel and spearhead of this era will be Gaza.”

Indeed, Hamas’s charter explicitly terms the movement a “universal” one and declares that Islam must ultimately regain “all lands conquered by Islam by force” in the past. It’s just that every global caliphate has to start somewhere, and Hamas started with Israel, whereas ISIS chose Syria and Iraq. This might prove the ISIS is shrewder; starting with a weaker enemy enabled it to progress much faster. But it doesn’t change the fact that the goal is the same.

ISIS kills “anyone who gets in their way: Sunnis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Iraqis, Syrians,” while Hamas only kills Israelis. Actually, Hamas also kills anyone who gets in its way. That includes Palestinian civilians who dare to protest its decisions or belong to its main rival, Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party; its more memorable murder methods include throwing Fatah members off rooftops. It also includes Egyptians: According to Cairo, Hamas has cooperated with local terrorists on several attacks in Sinai; Egypt even sought to extradite three senior Hamas operatives for involvement in an August 2012 attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.

Granted, ISIS has greater opportunities: It controls a huge territory seized from two collapsed states, Iraq and Syria, whereas Hamas is boxed in by two functioning states, Israel and Egypt. But within the limits of its opportunities, Hamas has been no less enthusiastic about killing “anyone who gets in their way.”

ISIS is exceptionally brutal; witness the snuff film it disseminated after executing journalist James Foley. I particularly like this claim, given that Hamas promptly followed suit with its own snuff films showing the executions of no fewer than 25 fellow Palestinians, including two women. A few weeks earlier, Hamas executed over 30 fellow Palestinians. Of course, Hamas claims all were collaborators with Israel, but it offered no evidence. Thus as the pro-Palestinian Amira Hass delicately put it in Haaretz, these executions primarily appeared to be a warning to the Gazan public “to be careful in anything it says and does” that might upset Hamas, because “The definition of ‘informing’ and ‘collaboration’ can become very murky in times of war.”

But Hamas brutality doesn’t stop at executions. How depraved do you have to be, for instance, to shell a border crossing while your own wounded civilians are passing through it, as Hamas did on Sunday, hitting four Arabs waiting on the Israeli side to drive them to the hospital? Meshal risibly claimed on Saturday that if Hamas had more accurate weapons, it would aim them exclusively at military targets. But Hamas has deployed the extremely accurate smart bombs known as suicide bombers for years, and it used them almost exclusively to kill civilians–from elderly people at a Passover seder to buses full of schoolchildren.

In short, there’s only one significant difference between Hamas and ISIS: Hamas has infinitely less power than ISIS to wreak global havoc, because Israel has managed to keep its capabilities in check. And for that service, needless to say, Israel has reaped nothing but global condemnation.

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The White House Press Secretary Isn’t Telling the Truth. And I Can Prove It.

One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

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One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

The latest effort is in the White House’s attempt to have us believe that the president, in his now infamous “jayvee” analogy, didn’t have ISIS in mind. Here’s an exchange between NBC’s Peter Alexander and White House press secretary Josh Earnest that took place on Monday:

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC: Did the president underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit. The president said quote:

I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

So the president was not singling out ISIL [aka ISIS], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was let by Osama bin Laden.

That claim–“the president was not singling out ISIL”–is simply not true. And it’s demonstrably untrue. To prove this assertion, it’s helpful to cite the relevant portion of the January 27, 2014 story by David Remnick in the New Yorker:

At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I [Remnick] pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” [emphasis added]

So we’ve established beyond any doubt that the president’s answer, which Josh Earnest quoted, is in response to David Remnick’s comment about the al-Qaeda flag flying in Falluja. And whose al-Qaeda flag in particular happened to be flying over Falluja at the time of the interview? For that answer, let’s go to a January 3, 2014 story in the New York Times, which begins this way:

Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night. The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. [emphasis added]

What we’ve shown, then, is that several weeks before the New Yorker story was published, the al-Qaeda flag flying over Falluja belonged to ISIS/ISIL. The president knew it. There is therefore only one possible interpretation: the president had ISIS/ISIL in mind when he made his “jayvee” reference. And there’s only one possible conclusion about what Mr. Earnest said: It’s false. He’s distorting the truth in order to exonerate his boss, the president, from having made a statement that was deeply and dangerously misinformed.

The White House press corps should vigorously pursue this matter with the White House press secretary; and he in turn should admit what he said was false. If Mr. Earnest doesn’t do so in light of this evidence, then his claim will move from the category of being false to being a lie. That would trouble me; and I would think it would trouble them.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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Does Britain Feel No Shame at the Killing of James Foley?

As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

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As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

Observers have warned that the British fighters for the Islamic State are among the most vicious and brutal, and yet there is no sense of shame or culpability gnawing away at the British soul, despite the havoc and terror that British jihadists are causing in Iraq and Syria. The news reporting is procedural, the politicians sound tired, apathy permeates the conversation every time the subject is raised. The only time that any flicker of alarm or interest can be detected is when it is pointed out that these people, hardened by battle and radical Islam, might return to Britain to continue their fight from the streets of British cities.

Even then, those in power plead powerlessness, running through a list of excuses as to why it won’t be so easy to prevent the jihadists from coming home to roost. Yet given that these individuals have joined an enemy fighting force, it is not at all clear why Western countries won’t simply strip these individuals of their citizenship in absentia. After all, with the shootings at the Jewish school in Toulouse and the Jewish museum in Brussels, we have already seen just how dangerous European Islamists returning from jihad can be.

There was of course serious public outrage in 2013 when two British Muslims murdered the soldier Lee Rigby on a south London sidewalk one quiet afternoon in May. Even then, however, the national debate was rapidly reoriented from discussing the culture and community that the killers had emerged from to instead initiating a wave of handwringing and finger pointing about whether the backlash to the murder had been Islamophobic.

Not only did the British public stand accused of having reacted with hatred to Rigby’s murder, but for many left-wing commentators, they also stood accused of having caused the murder through their Islamophobia. And once again, inasmuch as anyone is undertaking any soul searching at all over what British born Muslims are perpetrating in Iraq and Syria, there are those who are attempting to suggest British society has driven these young men to jihadism by alienating and discriminating against them.

So far this accusation has not stuck. But Britain must recognize that it does indeed bear culpability for the fact that British bred jihadists have murdered an American journalist in Iraq. Britain has alienated its young Muslims, but not through bigotry and Isamophobia. For decades Muslim immigrants experienced no more hostility than the many others who made their way to Britain from the former colonies.

The reality is that ever since the early 1990s, British authorities embraced an ethos of multiculturalism that told immigrant groups that they should not integrate into the British way of life. The message was either that there was no such thing as British culture, just a conglomeration of other cultures, or that British culture was backward and not of any value. From schools, to local government, to social workers, the message was parroted that immigrant groups should embrace and reinforce their own cultures.

The fruits of this flawed policy of wilful alienation was the milieu from which Britain’s jihad export industry would eventually emerge. Britain must take responsibility for this, and for the fact that for years it has been the most conservative and hardline Muslim groups that the British government has empowered with the mantle of communal leadership, often misguidedly embracing these people as the chief representatives of the entire Islamic population in Britain. Indeed, even today politicians praise Muslim community leaders for allegedly working tirelessly to combat radicalization among their youth. And yet, with more British Muslims off on jihad than serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, one wonders just how much praise is really in order.

Following the news of the murder of James Foley a woman named Kadijah Dare took to the Internet to declare her intention to become the first female to behead a westerner in Syria. Ms. Dare hails from Lewisham in east London. Britain should feel a deep sense of shame that this is what it is exporting to the world. And along with shame it is about time that the British public expressed the kind of outrage that will force noticeable and substantial action against the subculture that is generating this horror.

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From Jayvee to Juggernaut: What Terrorists Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

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The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

After making the “jayvee” comment–which Remnick called “an uncharacteristically flip analogy”–Obama expanded on his thinking. He said: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The major folly here was not, therefore, Obama underestimating one particular terrorist group or another. And it was not in the president’s naïve assumption that jihadists in particular hotspots don’t have global ambitions. Those are mistakes, surely. But the worst part was really in Obama’s complete lack of understanding in how individual terrorists operate.

Obama has always tried to draw lines between al-Qaeda and other groups because he wants to limit American action. But those lines were and are arbitrary. And because of that, Obama has tended to think of “new” terrorist groups as freshmen starting out at the bottom of the food chain. In fact, not only do they blur lines between groups and switch allegiances, but all terrorist groups benefit from the transnational architecture built over decades by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other trailblazers.

A Washington Post story from earlier this month offered a good example of this:

U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

The movements are seen by U.S. ­counterterrorism analysts as a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of a group known as the Islamic State that has overwhelmed military forces in the region and may now see itself in direct conflict with the United States.

“Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”

The influx has strengthened an organization already regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by launching assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces caught in the group’s path have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.

Nobody defects to the jayvee team. And it’s been fascinating to watch the Obama administration come to terms with that realization, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly. Every time the administration is confronted with the fact that the global war on terror was not a made-up construct in a fit of warmongering pique but a logical reaction to the fluid, metastasizing threat of global jihadist groups, it struggles to explain its own meaningless distinctions.

So our enemy was al-Qaeda, not terrorism or terrorists more broadly. That, of course, was completely and recklessly false. So now that we have a non-al-Qaeda threat, how does the administration justify its uncompromising fury toward just one group? Here’s Hagel:

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

But that’s not really true either. They’re sophisticated, ideological, militarily advanced, and “tremendously well-funded.” But does Hagel think that doesn’t describe any terror groups that preceded them? Would he not have said that about al-Qaeda? Would he not say that has been true of Hezbollah for decades now? You could even argue it described the Taliban once upon a time.

The point is not to split hairs. The point is that the administration made a grave and dangerous error in its attitude toward al-Qaeda, claiming the fight could be limited to card-carrying and dues-paying members of that one club. Obama is simply repeating that mistake again with ISIS. Who will be the next jayvee team that turns into a juggernaut? Whoever it is, they will almost certainly take Obama by surprise.

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Why the Passive Voice on Confronting ISIS?

There is something to be said for having an aloof, unemotional intellectual as commander in chief. He is more likely to avoid the kind of trap that Ronald Reagan fell into when, deeply distressed by the fate of American hostages seized in Lebanon, he authorized what became known as an “arms for hostages” swap with Iran. (In fairness, Reagan probably convinced himself that’s not what he was doing–that he was actually undertaking a broader opening to Iran.) This deal did get a few hostages out of captivity, but Iran’s proxies in Lebanon promptly seized more hostages, thus showing for neither the first time nor the last time why it doesn’t make sense to deal with terrorists.

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There is something to be said for having an aloof, unemotional intellectual as commander in chief. He is more likely to avoid the kind of trap that Ronald Reagan fell into when, deeply distressed by the fate of American hostages seized in Lebanon, he authorized what became known as an “arms for hostages” swap with Iran. (In fairness, Reagan probably convinced himself that’s not what he was doing–that he was actually undertaking a broader opening to Iran.) This deal did get a few hostages out of captivity, but Iran’s proxies in Lebanon promptly seized more hostages, thus showing for neither the first time nor the last time why it doesn’t make sense to deal with terrorists.

President Obama was not able to resist the temptation to make a deal in return for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but he was right to do so–notwithstanding the tragic consequences–in the case of kidnapped American journalist James Foley. It is now emerging that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria wanted a ransom of more than $100 million for his release. European states routinely make such deals, turning them into al-Qaeda’s biggest financial supporters. (By one estimate Europeans have paid $125 million in ransom to al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2008.) The problem is that while paying ransom may succeed in freeing one hostage or one group of hostages, it is almost certainly consigning more innocents to hellish captivity. The fact that the Obama administration refuses to pay up is to its credit; that Europeans are willing to deal with terrorists is to their ever-lasting shame.

And not only did Obama refuse to pay up, he ordered Delta Force to undertake a high-risk mission to free the hostages from a location in Syria deep in ISIS-controlled territory. That, too, was the right call. It shows, once again, that this is a president who is willing to pull the trigger on Special Operations missions that past presidents might have decided were too risky to authorize. Unfortunately that mission failed and James Foley wound up being barbarically murdered.

Obama was eloquent in denouncing this act of televised sadism, but he was unclear about what he will do in response. The most he would say was: “The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL, must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their communities. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.” Note how passive this paragraph is–Obama is deliberately putting the onus on Iraqis and Syrians to fight ISIS without committing the U.S. to that group’s destruction.

Secretary of State John Kerry also issued a strong statement of condemnation, which concluded: “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” Note again the curious sentence construction, which leaves unclear who exactly will “destroy” ISIS and who will hold Foley’s murderers “accountable.”

Unfortunately the president’s words and those of his aides don’t mean much in the world today–not after they have allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity from Syria to Ukraine. Strong action is needed and that action should be designed, as I have previously said, to annihilate ISIS.

General John Allen (USMC, ret.), Obama’s former commander in Afghanistan, gets it. He just wrote: “A comprehensive American and international response now — NOW — is vital to the destruction of this threat. The execution of James Foley is an act we should not forgive nor should we forget, it embodies and brings home to us all what this group represents. The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now, we will pay later.”

I agree with General Allen, but does President Obama? It’s hard to tell. Alas, the longer we wait the more chance ISIS has to go to ground and thus withstand American military action. Already there are credible reports of ISIS “emirs” fleeing Iraq for Syria. But why should they find haven there? The Iraq-Syria border barely exists anymore. The U.S., working closely with local allies (Kurds, Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi security forces, Free Syrian Army fighters) must pursue ISIS wherever it hides and destroy it. It is far from clear, however, that President Obama will order any such action. It is a paradox that this president, so decisive in ordering Special Operations strikes, appears to be so hesitant and hand-wringing when it comes to larger decisions. The time for bureaucratic deliberation is fast disappearing; it is time, as General Allen says, for action now.

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U.S. Commitment Needed in Iraq

Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

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Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

This raises the issue of why, if this tactic is effective in Iraq, it can’t also be utilized in Syria where the Free Syrian Army is also eager to attack ISIS as well as the Assad regime? ISIS cannot be beaten on one side of the border alone; we need a coordinated strategy to take it down in both Iraq and Syria.

And it is not just the Kurds and Free Syrian Army we should be helping. There are major limitations to how far the Kurds, in particular, can go in northern Iraq. If they try to dominate primarily Sunni areas, they will risk a pro-ISIS backlash from Sunnis. While the Kurds are great allies, we need allies among the Sunni tribes to really retake Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.

Two of the best observers of Iraq–Colonel Joel Rayburn of the U.S. Army and Ali Khedery, a former political adviser to various US ambassadors and commanders in Iraq–had op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times respectively this weekend pointing out how difficult this will be–how much Nouri al Maliki’s sectarianism has frayed the bonds of trust necessary to hold Iraq together. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will have his work cut out for him convincing the Sunnis that, if they take up arms against ISIS, they will not be betrayed as they were after the surge. The betrayal was not only on the part of Maliki; it was also on the part of the United States which promised to stand by the Sons of Iraq (as the Sunni militia was known) and then pulled all of our troops out, leaving them to the mercies of sectarian Shiites.

It is hard to imagine the Sunnis being mobilized again without a great deal of U.S. assistance–and perhaps not even then. Welcome as recent tactical advances are–and they do show what the U.S. can achieve with only a little commitment–they are a long, long way from where we need to be, which is to be destroying ISIS, an organization that Rayburn rightly likens to the Khmer Rouge in the Middle East.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Drawing Conclusions From the Myth of Middle East Moderates

In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

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In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

Zakaria is merely stating what has long been obvious to critics of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. In that toxic environment, “moderation” is political poison and extremism, especially of the Islamist variety has become mainstream. As Zakaria rightly notes, the dynamic that has brought ISIS to the brink of overrunning Iraq has been manifested throughout the Middle East over the last generation as Islamists have become more powerful and their so-called moderate opponents have become less moderate as well as unpopular.

The purpose of this Obama cheerleader’s detour into reality is not, however, to debunk the fantasy that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen their moderates. Nor is he seeking to pour cold water on those promoting the delusion that Iran’s leaders are becoming more moderate and that justifies American appeasement of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are two fallacies that Zakaria is perfectly happy to continue promoting in his writing and on the bully pulpit he occupies on CNN.

No, the only reason that Zakaria is interesting in shooting down the idea of Arab moderation is because that is a convenient way to defend the Obama against the criticisms lodged against him by Hillary Clinton last week in her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton rightly noted that an early and vigorous Western intervention in Syria would have probably toppled the brutal Assad regime. But even more importantly, the chaos that stemmed from the protracted civil war there led to the rise of ISIS, a vicious Islamist terror group that has overrun parts of Syria and much of Iraq.

But Zakaria is determined to absolve Obama and therefore declares that there were never any real moderates in Syria and that any Western intervention would have been in vain. Like the president, whose alibi for a record of almost unbroken foreign policy failure during his time in office is that the world is a complicated and confusing place he can’t be expected to do much about, let alone fix, Zakaria’s response to Syria is to throw up his hands and to say that nothing could be done.

To be fair, the Syrian opposition was never very impressive and is now totally overshadowed by the extremists in the field against Assad. But to assert that inaction was the only reasonable option in Syria is to promote a different kind of myth. History is fluid, not set in stone. As uncertain as the situation in Syria was three years ago, there’s little doubt that Assad was on the ropes and, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, would have fallen if Obama (who kept predicting the demise of that regime) had acted. While it is possible the country would have descended to chaos as was the case in Libya where the president’s lead from behind style led to disaster, could it have been worse than what is happening now, with the country divided between Iran’s ally Assad and Islamists who are also threatening to take over Iraq?

But even if we leave the Syria out of the discussion, what’s most disappointing about Zakaria’s truth-telling about the missing Muslim and Arab moderates is that even as he tries to debunks Clinton’s criticisms of Obama, he refuses to connect the dots between his thesis and the president’s Middle East policies that he has supported.

Zakaria insists that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine moderate. But, if he was being consistent or had a shred of intellectual integrity, he would note that the same dynamic that has driven other moderate regimes to extremism has applied to Abbas as well. Abbas talks like a moderate at times when speaking to Westerners or left-wing Israelis. But his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to denounce Palestinian Islamists gives the lie to the talk about his moderation, although even the Israeli government regards him as a necessary evil these days.

Zakaria also distorts the truth when he says the reason why there have been no Palestinian elections in recent years (Abbas is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year presidential term) is that the Israelis and the West have postponed them. That is nonsense even though he’s right when he says there is good reason to believe the Hamas terrorists might win. The autocratic and utterly corrupt Fatah run by Abbas needs no prompting from the Israelis or the Americans to act to protect themselves from the trappings of democracy.

But the main failing of Zakaria’s piece is that he refuses to draw the proper conclusion from his correct diagnosis about the failure of Arab moderation. If it is a fantasy to imagine that there are no moderates who can make peace with the Jewish state and live with the West without resorting to terror or nuclear blackmail, then it behooves the U.S. to stop trying to hammer the Israelis into making dangerous concessions that will only strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would also be good reason for Obama to sober up about the prospects of détente with Iran and to realize that rather than loosening sanctions on Tehran, tougher ones along with a credible threat of force is the only way to avert the nuclear threat.

For Zakaria, Arab and Muslim moderation is a myth. But only a myth when it serves the purpose of absolving Obama from his responsibility to lead, not when it comes to pressuring Israel or appeasing Iran.

Update: This afternoon, The Washington Post responded to complaints such as the one I made about Zakaria’s wrongly blaming Israel for the failure to hold Palestinian elections. It reads as follows:

An earlier version of this column erred in stating, “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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“The Tide of War is Receding,” “We Don’t Do Stupid [Stuff],” and Other Myths  

Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

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Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

Think of this as an exercise in accountability, then; in holding Mr. Obama not to my standards but to his, to measure what he said he’d do against what he has actually done and what has come to pass.

* * * *

“The tide of war is receding.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s… In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

* * * *

“These long wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] will come to a responsible end.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.”–“Jihadists Rout Kurds in North and Seize Strategic Iraqi Dam”, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban have attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand Province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart… With a deepening political crisis in Kabul already casting the presidential election and long-term political stability into doubt, the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.”–“Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan”, New York Times, June 27, 2014

* * * *

“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIS], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”–Quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”–Janine Davidson, Council on Foreign Relations, July 24, 2014

* * * *

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”–Responding to a question about the fall of Falluja to ISIS, the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“U.S. expands airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.”–Washington Post headline, August 8, 2014

* * * *

“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision… the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left… So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were — a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.”–President Obama, asked by reporters if he had any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq, August 9, 2014

“After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”–Remarks to the press corps, October 21, 2011

“At one meeting, [Nouri al-] Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. ‘The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,’ Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.”–“What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

“Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. ‘There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,’ he said. ‘Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.’ But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.”– “What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

* * * *

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

“US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama”–the Guardian headline, August 31, 2013

“Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of [Deadly Chemical] Gas.”–New York Times headlines, September 16, 2013

* * * *

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“President Obama got angry at lawmakers who suggested in a private meeting that he should have armed the Syrian rebels, calling the criticism ‘horsesh*t.’”–“Obama Told Lawmakers Criticism of His Syria Policy is ‘Horsesh*t’”, Josh Rogan, the Daily Beast, August 11, 2014

“The White House … proposed a major program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, in a significant expansion of the U.S. role in a civil war that officials fear is bleeding into Iraq and across the region. The Obama administration requested $500 million—a larger amount than expected—to aid the Syrian opposition, reflecting growing U.S. alarm at the expanding strength of Islamist forces in Syria, who in recent weeks have asserted control of large parts of neighboring Iraq and now pose threats to U.S. allies in the region.”–“Obama Proposes $500 Million to Aid Syrian Rebels”Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2014

* * * *

“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free… Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”–Address to the United Nations, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighbouring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ a spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.”–“US closes embassy in Libya after militia battles in Tripoli”, the Guardian, July 26, 2014

* * * *

“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, quoted in The Huffington Post, May 21, 2014

“[Obama’s is] a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…”–Remarks at Cairo University, June 4, 2009

“In a number of strategically important Muslim nations, America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency. In fact, America’s already low 2008 ratings have slipped even further in Jordan and Pakistan… in the Middle East there is little enthusiasm for a second term – majorities in Egypt (76%), Jordan (73%) and Lebanon (62%) oppose Obama’s re-election… There is little support for Obama, however, in the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Fewer than three-in-ten express confidence in him in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. And … just 7% of Pakistanis have a positive view of Obama.”–“Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted”, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012

* * * *

 “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding… Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. ‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,’ the adviser said. ‘But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

President Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

President Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”–Exchange between President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, March 26, 2012

“Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West”–New York Times headline, March 18, 2014

* * * *

“The truth is that Mr. Putin acted out of weakness, not out of strength.”–President Obama in a radio interview (KNSD) speaking about the Russian invasion of Crimea, March 20, 2014

“Putin clearly indicated [in a March 18 speech to parliament] he believes that borders drawn even earlier — right after the revolution of 1917 — can and should be redrawn. In other words, he positions contemporary Russia as the heir to the Russian Empire as it was constituted under the czars.”–Masha Gessen, Russian American journalist and author, “After carving up Ukraine, where will Putin turn next?”, Washington Post, May 9, 2014

“The Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling center, has also found that Putin had a 72 percent approval rating, up 7 points from January and a recent record. To put that in context on a world stage, U.S. president Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to Gallup, while 79 percent of the French say they don’t approve of Francois Hollande’s presidency. Putin isn’t just popular, he’s extraordinarily popular.”–“We treat him like he’s mad, but Vladimir Putin’s popularity has just hit a 3-year high”, Adam Taylor, Washington Post, March 13, 2014

* * * *

“We don’t do stupid sh*t.”–President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014

“The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, August 10, 2014

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“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”–Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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