Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

How Sweden Ended Up Proving Israel Right

The diplomatic fallout from Sweden’s vote to recognize the state of Palestine continues. Israel recalled its ambassador to Sweden along with an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. It followed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s criticism of the Swedish recognition, in which he included a not-so-diplomatic dig at IKEA. Yet both responses from Israel to the Palestine recognition were not only defensible, but appropriate, especially if you follow Sweden’s own official statements about the matter.

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The diplomatic fallout from Sweden’s vote to recognize the state of Palestine continues. Israel recalled its ambassador to Sweden along with an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. It followed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s criticism of the Swedish recognition, in which he included a not-so-diplomatic dig at IKEA. Yet both responses from Israel to the Palestine recognition were not only defensible, but appropriate, especially if you follow Sweden’s own official statements about the matter.

One of the aspects of Lieberman’s rise through Israeli politics is that he drives non-Israelis, especially leftist American Jews, insane. What they don’t understand about Israeli politics could fill a bookshelf, but what they don’t understand about Lieberman is basically this: he’s among the most politically savvy figures in Israel, perhaps even topping the list. And he’s also, therefore, something of a realist. He supports the two-state solution and land swaps, and he’s used his knowledge of Eurasia (he’s Moldovan) to expand Israel’s alliances–a strategy that looks increasingly wise as the Obama administration throws temper tantrums at the Israeli leadership (and public) and downgrades the U.S.-Israel military alliance.

Here was Lieberman’s initial response to the Swedish recognition:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the recognition “unfortunate” and said in a statement that it would only serve to strengthen the Palestinians’ “unrealistic demands.”

“The Swedish government needs to understand that the Middle East is more complicated than self-assembly furniture from Ikea and to act on the issue responsibly and with sensitivity,” he said, getting in a dig at the Sweden-based retail giant.

So there are two elements to this response: first, that it will essentially reward Palestinian intransigence, and second, that it oversimplifies what real peace requires. Lieberman, then, is quite obviously correct on both counts. The Swedes did not take kindly to the IKEA dig, and responded thus:

To which the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström replied, “I will be happy to send him a flat pack of IKEA furniture and he will also see that what you need to put it together is, first of all, a partner. And you also need to cooperate and you need a good manual and I think we have most of those elements,” the Times of Israel reported.

This was intended as a rebuttal; instead, however, it proved Lieberman’s point better than even Lieberman could. Wallström says to put together the furniture you need a partner. Lieberman would agree, and the lack of a true Palestinian partner (Mahmoud Abbas sparked what may turn into the third intifada in Jerusalem this week) is a good reason why Swedish recognition now was a terrible idea and also explains why the lack of a two-state solution thus far is not Israel’s fault.

Wallström then says you need cooperation. This is correct, and demonstrates the foolishness of recognizing Palestine, since unilateral moves have long been considered obstacles to negotiations. In this case, Sweden has supported unilateral moves in direct contravention of the concept of cooperation.

Wallström concludes by saying “you need a good manual.” Perhaps. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has now produced two such manuals, though it’s arguable how “good” they are: the Oslo Accords and the Roadmap. Both of these manuals impose certain requirements on each side, but the central theme is that a peace agreement will come about through negotiations and that intransigence and violence should not be rewarded by each side being encouraged to go its own way and do what it pleases. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine violates this as well.

Wallström might have been better off researching what we in the West refer to as a “sense of humor,” and not responded so seriously to an obvious joke. Not only does Wallström look humorless, but her response perfectly illustrated why Sweden was wrong–according to Sweden! (Or at least according to its Foreign Ministry.)

Western liberals are probably getting accustomed to being outsmarted by Avigdor Lieberman, though I don’t imagine it reduces the sting all that much. As for recalling the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, that too is at least understandable. Israel is facing a bit of a European fad of late to recognize Palestine, though it’s usually symbolic. Israel can be expected to try to prevent the spread of this gesture by showing that it at least is not without repercussions.

Additionally, Israel is currently facing down the possibility of another intifada. Even if it doesn’t arrive–Jerusalem’s stability seems to thankfully be holding for the moment, which is a very good sign–there has been a spate of violence in Jerusalem against Jewish civilians and continued threats from Iranian Palestinian proxies. To reward Palestinian behavior such as this, and at this precise time, is to signal to the Palestinians that violence against Jews is the way to impress the international community and get what they want. Such behavior will be the death of peace, no matter how many states European politicians feel like recognizing.

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Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Sinai Terror Shows the Danger of Ungoverned Places

Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

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Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

When Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of the peace agreement signed with Egypt in 1979, it had good reason to believe that the territory was being transferred to a nation state that was at least relatively stable and that could secure the border. But what we have witnessed across the region more recently is that it is in those geographic areas where states have failed or have become weak to the point of absence that terrorist groups have best been able to flourish. The story has been played out repeatedly from Afghanistan to Yemen, Libya to Somalia, and from southern Lebanon to Syria and northern Iraq. And today large parts of the Sinai have become just such an ungoverned vacuum where al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups have dug themselves in and established strongholds. There, jihadist groups have carried out a spate of attacks against Egyptian police and military personnel, and have repeatedly targeted the Arab Gas Pipeline, disrupting the supply between al-Arish, Jordan, Syria, and the wider region.

The problems in the Sinai have been dramatically compounded by the peninsula’s proximity to another area of unstable statelessness: Gaza. When Israel withdrew in 2005, Gaza was theoretically handed into the care of the Palestinian Authority, but as some on Israel’s right had already predicted, it did not take long before the power vacuum created by the absence of the IDF was replaced by the militiamen of Hamas. The same, of course, had already happened after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, as the non-state actor Hezbollah entrenched its position in the area, turning it into a kind of Iranian backed fiefdom.

Militant groups in the Sinai, and the relative weakness of the Egyptian state in this large sparsely populated area, would ultimately prove to be of huge strategic significance for Hamas, with smuggling along the Sinai-Gaza border providing Gaza’s Islamist rulers with their primary source of weaponry, which otherwise would have been kept out by the Israeli blockade. At the same time jihadist groups in Gaza provided training and assistance to militants in the Sinai, while they in turn would periodically fire missiles toward Eilat and Israel’s Negev border communities.

The Sisi government, however, with its fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, finds itself squarely at odds with the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot Hamas. Since the overthrow of President Morsi, the Egyptians have pursued a sustained and serious policy of eradicating the hundreds of smuggling tunnels around Rafah, and during this summer’s war in Gaza Egypt intensified its operations against militants operating close to that border. Indeed, it would appear that under Sisi there has been a concerted effort to reassert the power of the Egyptian state throughout the peninsula. Now, with the Egyptians convinced of the Gaza connection to this latest deadly attack on their troops, the authorities have closed the Rafah border crossing and advanced plans for the construction of deep water-filled trenches to block any restoration of terror tunnels.

Most importantly, the Gaza-Sinai experience must be instructive for both Israel and the wider region. Israelis already look to the turmoil in Syria and consider their good fortune given the failure of both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in their misguided efforts to hand over Israel’s Golan Heights buffer to Assad. Similarly, as the wider region becomes more tumultuous and not less, Israelis must be all the more wary of gambling their national security on further territorial withdrawals in the West Bank, not least at a time when the PA has already proved so ineffective at maintaining order in the few localities it is currently entrusted with. And given the weak position of the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, it would not be difficult to imagine ISIS rapidly spreading from northern Iraq to the West Bank hilltops overlooking Tel Aviv.

Desperate to appear as if it has any clout on the world stage, the EU will continue to push for Israeli concessions in the West Bank. Equally desperate to distract from its multiple failings throughout the region, the Obama administration will also increase its pressure on Israel to give ground. But as the Gaza-Sinai experience shows, creating another area of ungoverned lawlessness and instability on their doorstep is not an option Israelis can afford.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

UPDATE: The “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” has published a response to the original Turkish article in Sözcü Gazetesi whose report was cited in this blog post in which Ilim Yayma Vakfı deny any links between the foundation and the ISIS website. I will take them at their word. What is striking, however, is that the religious foundation founded by Islamist luminaries including now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushed to demand Sözcü Gazetesi take down its article, but the Turkish government which Erdoğan dominates and which has assumed the power to shut down websites refuses to touch the website of “Takva Haber” which continues to publish al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda. So is Erdoğan serious about countering ISIS? I’d submit Turkey is as serious about shutting down the ISIS as Pakistan is about shutting down the Taliban.

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Why Does the State Department Endorse Palestinian Fight to Exclude Jews?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made headlines around the world again today with his assertion in the Knesset that he will defend the right of Jews to live in any part of his country’s capital. The statement and the expedited plans to build 1,000 new apartments in Jerusalem is drawing the usual condemnations from the international community as both an unnecessary provocation and a new obstacle to Middle East peace. But what Israel’s critics are missing is that the threats and actual violence coming from Palestinians about Jewish homes, is the best indicator that the sort of mutual coexistence that is essential to peace is currently not in the cards.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made headlines around the world again today with his assertion in the Knesset that he will defend the right of Jews to live in any part of his country’s capital. The statement and the expedited plans to build 1,000 new apartments in Jerusalem is drawing the usual condemnations from the international community as both an unnecessary provocation and a new obstacle to Middle East peace. But what Israel’s critics are missing is that the threats and actual violence coming from Palestinians about Jewish homes, is the best indicator that the sort of mutual coexistence that is essential to peace is currently not in the cards.

As the New York Times reports:

“If Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in a briefing. “Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”

The Israeli move is being blasted as yet another example of Netanyahu worsening the already tense relationship between Israel and the United States. But Psaki’s willingness to jump on Netanyahu after repeatedly refusing in the last week to condemn statements from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which he openly incited violence against Israelis, the State Department stand could easily be interpreted as an implicit approval of the PA position.

If so, then it should be understood that what the United States is doing here is saying that Palestinians are in the right when they demand that Jews be kept out of certain parts of Jerusalem. But far from disturbing the peace, the idea of building new apartments in existing Jewish neighborhoods in the city or moving into mixed or Arab majority areas not only repudiates the formula of territorial swaps that President Obama has repeatedly endorsed but also reinforces the notion that the Palestinian state that the State Department envisions will be one in which no Jew is allowed to live. That means the U.S. is backing a vision of a Palestinian apartheid state that is itself incompatible with any notion of peace and rationalizing the recent wave of Arab violence against Jewish targets in Jerusalem.

Just this last week, another terrorist incident in Jerusalem took the lives of two persons including an infant. Others were injured in incidents in which Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails — gasoline firebombs — at soldiers and police seeking to restore order after violent protests about Jews moving into the Silwan section of the city. One such bomb thrower — a 14-year-old Palestinian who was born in New Orleans — was killed by Israeli troops while in the process of trying to incinerate them or motorists on a highway. But the State Department didn’t acknowledge that the deceased was killed while committing what would be considered an act of terrorism were the target Americans. Instead, it merely extended condolences to the family of the teenager and to demand explanations from Israel about his death. In doing so, it seems insensible to the fact that by continuing to back up Abbas’ complaints, it is helping to incite the violence that is taking lives on both sides and making the prospects of peace even more remote.

From the point of the view of Netanyahu’s detractors, today’s announcement and the refusal of Israeli authorities to stop Jews from moving into properties that they have legally purchased in East Jerusalem is upsetting the status quo in the city. This is not just a function of the ongoing U.S. refusal to recognize that it is neither possible nor desirable to return to the status quo on June 4, 1967 when half of the city was under illegal Jordanian occupation. The U.S. position also seems to accept the idea that Palestinians have a right to be angry over Jews moving into both Jewish majority neighborhoods and Arab majority neighborhoods in parts of Jerusalem. But both positions are problematic.

On the one hand, the U.S treating more apartments going up in areas that, dating back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. has acknowledged would be retained by Israel in the event of a peace agreement, as either provocative or an obstacle to peace makes no sense. Why should the Palestinians be encouraged to make an issue out of Jews living in places that no one thinks will ever part of a Palestinian state? In doing so, Washington is inciting Abbas to use the existence of places where hundreds of thousands of Jews currently live as an excuse not to negotiate with Israel or even to countenance more acts of terror.

Just as mistaken is the idea that Jews moving into Arab neighborhoods is a good reason for Palestinians to get riled up. If Abbas had accepted any of the peace deals that Israel has previously offered, those places would even now be part of the Palestinian state that he professes to want but refuses to do anything to make it a reality. Had he done so then or even if he were willing to do so now as part of a deal in which the Palestinians agreed to end the conflict for all time and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside them no matter where its borders are drawn, then it wouldn’t matter if there were a few Jews living in Silwan or anywhere else. Since Arabs are currently allowed to live in West Jerusalem as equal citizens under Israeli law why shouldn’t the Palestinians extend the same offer to the so-called settlers who have moved into apartments in the shadow of the Old City walls?

The reason is that their goal is to create a Jew free state whose purpose will be to perpetuate the conflict against Israel, not end it. The state they envision will be, as I wrote last week, the true apartheid state in the Middle East in which parts of Jerusalem will become legal no go zones for Jews in much the same way, white South Africans made it illegal for blacks to live in parts of their own country. It is exactly for this perverted vision that Palestinians are taking to the streets to lob lethal weapons at Jews while the State Department treats the perpetrators as innocent victims and the actual victims as aggressors.

That is the racism that the U.S. is endorsing by making an issue of Jews building in Jerusalem. Peace doesn’t have a chance until the Palestinians stop being offended by Jews living in the holy city or thinking they are justified in fighting for an apartheid vision in which they are excluded.

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Islamism’s Appeal to the Discontented

There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

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There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.

One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.

But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.

History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.

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Something Is Rotten at Foggy Bottom

After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

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After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

That has always been the silver lining, and it’s always annoyed much of the American left: other American governmental institutions, such as Congress and the military, are consistently pro-Israel and can thus keep the relationship strong when a president tries to weaken it. And it’s also why it should be of great concern now that another American governmental institution that is usually far less pro-Israel is becoming, under Secretary of State John Kerry, even more antagonistic toward Jerusalem than usual: the U.S. State Department.

Much has been made about the unimaginably incompetent and incoherent management of Foggy Bottom’s communications under spokeswomen Marie Harf and Jen Psaki. But it’s too easy–and not totally accurate–to dismiss Harf and Psaki as misplaced campaign attack hacks. They are out of place at State, but they are there for a reason. And the culture of the diplomatic corps more broadly also resembles the same spiteful ignorance routinely displayed by the president and his secretary of state. The latest example is the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem’s memo to employees referring to Wednesday’s terror attack, in which a Palestinian murdered a Jewish baby, as a “traffic incident.”

After that terror attack, Harf had initially told both sides to exercise restraint. At yesterday’s briefing, Jen Psaki was asked about one of the major sources of gasoline being poured on this fire: the incitement to violence coming from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Here is the exchange:

QUESTION: I’m not making any relation, but there’s been some concern over the last week or two about comments by President Abbas that believe to have incurred incitement. And are you concerned about that? You haven’t really spoken out about that. Do you in any way feel that this is inciting Palestinians to take actions into their own hands?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Elise, one, I mean, we obviously believe that the act last night warrants condemnation evidence (sic) by the statement we released last night. I’m not going to characterize the comments made or not made by President – Prime Minister Netanyahu or the response from President Abbas.

QUESTION: Well, if you haven’t really received a condemnation from President Abbas, then don’t you think you should offer one?

MS. PSAKI: I think our view of it is clear by – evidenced by our statement last night. I would point you to him on any comments that they would like to make.

QUESTION: But what about his comments, like, over the past – I mean, there has just been several comments that people have remarked about that seem to be incurring incitement. Is that not concerning?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t think that’s – as you know, President Abbas has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states. I don’t have any other analysis for you to offer.

That’s right, all Psaki would say is that Abbas “has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution”–an obviously false statement–along with the strident insistence that she doesn’t “have any other analysis for you to offer.”

It’s worth pointing out that in the very same press briefing Psaki confirmed that the victim of the Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem was an American citizen. So even Americans not totally inclined to defend Israel from terrorism would, theoretically, be fairly embarrassed by Psaki’s pusillanimous, kowtowing claptrap.

The degree to which this administration will go to avenge perceived slights would make a middle-schooler uncomfortable. While Psaki has nothing to say about deadly anti-Semitic incitement from Abbas even when it’s followed by the murder of an American baby, the State Department reserves its outrage for Israeli officials who disagree on the record with Kerry.

And sometimes the administration goes further. Not only did officials hit back at Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon for criticizing Kerry during the peace negotiations, but they’ve continued to hold a grudge. Yaalon, in Washington to meet with Chuck Hagel, was reportedly denied permission to meet with Kerry, Vice President Biden, or Susan Rice:

On the diplomatic front, Ya’alon met with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, the only other key official to sit down with the Israeli defense minister aside from Hagel. But he received little respite from the sour reception, as Power emphasized her grievance with settlement construction beyond the Green Line.

They didn’t want him meeting with most of the important officials, but they were happy to have Samantha Power yell at him. The choice of Samantha Power, rather than someone with real influence or broad knowledge of the Middle East and world affairs, is telling. But it’s not altogether out of the ordinary.

The Obama administration’s public temper tantrums are at this point a regular feature of the president’s second term. That they’re directed at allies is becoming commonplace but still disturbing. That the State Department seems to prioritize retribution against Israel over holding those who kill American citizens accountable unfortunately encapsulates American diplomacy in the age of Obama and Kerry.

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Terror in Jerusalem: Nir Barkat’s Moment of Truth

Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

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Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

The Palestinians answered by not only continuing to riot but actually stepping up their targeting of young children, attacking a Jewish kindergarten. Barkat responded by touring the area and promising a crackdown:

“We must restore quiet to Jerusalem,” Barkat declared. “I have been saying for months that the situation here is intolerable, and we must act decisively to stop the violence. It is clearer than ever that we must place police inside Arab neighborhoods to prevent unrest, with a large presence and well-equipped forces, acting to restore order to the city.

Jerusalem’s stability is in some ways quite an achievement. Considering its religious significance, the disputed claims on its sovereignty, its ethnic diversity, its high profile, and its history, governing Jerusalem requires a deft touch. That’s more or less how former Jerusalem mayor (and later prime minister) Ehud Olmert described it in a 2002 interview with the Houston Chronicle that is worth re-reading now, especially since it took place just as the Jerusalem light rail was about to be constructed and during the second intifada. Here’s Olmert on the challenge of being mayor of Jerusalem:

Q: Is it stressful being the mayor of Jerusalem right now?

A: Oh, it’s a very pleasant job. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. Sometimes you ask yourself, what am I going to do next?

I’m kidding. This is a difficult job. Very difficult, but humanly possible. You just have to know how to work with people and to understand their needs and their sensitivities and their fears and pains. That, I think, was my main job in the past couple of years — to understand the fears and pains of people in the community. Both Jews and Palestinians, by the way.

That question ends the interview. Earlier he had been asked about the fact that on top of everything, he had to deal with union strikes during an intifada and at a time when the city’s already suffering financially. He was asked how he managed to make budget. His answer is–well, it’s pretty Olmertian:

Q: Has terrorism affected sales tax and other local tax revenue?

A: I have losses. And I don’t quite make up for all of them. That’s part of the reason I say we have a going crisis, because I can’t make up all of them. What I try to do is to get revenues from the (national) government. I think over the years I’ve developed some techniques for how to pull in a lot of money from the government, without the government knowing it sometimes.

I’m one of very few mayors in Israel’s history who was first in the national government. I was a Cabinet minister, I was a member of Parliament for many, many years before I became mayor, so I know all the ins and outs.

It’s an improvisational job. But the most interesting part of the interview is about the light rail. Amidst all the unrest, Olmert was pushing to better integrate the city’s Arab population. It was a logical approach to the tension and alienation in Israel’s capital, and it was also a gracious note to strike while the city seemed to be boiling over:

Q: I understand you are about to construct light rail in Jerusalem. Has it been controversial?

A: No, I must say that from day one we have put enormous emphasis on building up relationships with the communities in order to go one step ahead by sharing with them the constraints, the difficulties, (but also) the possible ramifications if a serious, comprehensive answer to transportation will not be provided.

Q: No one thinks it’s too much more expensive than running buses?

A: No. Everyone knows that the main street in Jerusalem, the Jaffa Road, you have — sometimes during the rush hour — 250 buses in one hour. If you understand what it means in terms of the traffic jam and the impact on the environment, you’d understand why so many people are looking with hope that light rail will make a big difference.

This is one of the most discouraging aspects of the current strife in Jerusalem. The light rail, with its stops throughout the city, was–or should have been–a symbol of coexistence. Instead it’s been the target of repeated Palestinian attacks.

It’s important not to exaggerate the significance, of course. Transportation hubs are always going to be targets, so the lesson here is less about judging the light rail to be a failure of some sort (it’s clearly not) than the echoes of past violence. Mahmoud Abbas was famously opposed to Yasser Arafat’s decision to launch the second intifada, but there are real questions as to how much Abbas can control. If he does have control, then what’s happening now is truly ominous. He can’t have it both ways.

Of course, one thing Abbas does have control over is his own rhetoric, not to mention that of the PA’s media organs. As he has counseled violence, Palestinians have listened. As he has sought to outlaw coexistence with Jews, Palestinians have listened. And as his government’s media outlets have dehumanized Jews, Palestinians have listened. Maybe Abbas can prevent a new intifada, maybe not. But he almost certainly can start one. And Barkat appears to be taking no chances.

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It’s Time for HRW’s Ken Roth to Go

Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

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Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

Here’s the problem: On October 22, a car driven by a known Hamas activist slammed into a light rail stop, injuring several Israelis and Americans, and killing a three-month-old girl. The driver of the car tried then to flee on foot, but was shot (and has since succumbed to his wounds). Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Seems pretty cut-and-dried. Not to Roth, who wasted no time casting doubt.

This is what Roth had to say on Twitter:

“Palestinian deadly crash into train stop. Israel calls it ‘terrorist attack…typical of Hamas’ http://trib.al/EIkJp01 

To call the attack in Jerusalem simply a car crash is like calling the 9/11 attacks a plane crash, or to call ISIS’s enslavement and rape of Yezidi women as mere groping. The contempt with which Roth holds Israel is legendary. Five years ago, its founding chairman even took to the New York Times to lament HRW’s bias and politicization under Roth.

Let us, for a moment, consider that maybe the cause of the crash was uncertain and that Hamas hadn’t claimed responsibility. Seth Mandel has addressed some of the shoddy press reporting of the incident. But a serious human-rights organization and its executive director should do more than regurgitate instant press headlines. Cognizant of its reputation and wanting its statements to carry moral weight, it should slowly and carefully gather evidence before speaking. It is this sense of process that Roth once may have understood but now eschews.

While Roth’s tweets and statements about Israel and the Palestinians often take a polemical if not unhinged tone, they are only the tip of the iceberg. In early September, I compared a series of Roth’s tweets to each other and to HRW’s reporting regarding a massacre in Egypt and came to the unfortunate conclusion that Roth appeared to simply make up numbers as the politics suited him. Roth’s tenure is also marked by an incident in which his employee Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use Saudi money donated to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” Take Roth’s inaction in that incident as an endorsement of her conspiratorial worldview. Under Roth, HRW also partnered with Al-Karama, a group whose founder ended up being designated an al-Qaeda financier. Rather than rescind, reinvestigate, and, if necessary, revise the reports in which Roth and HRW used the tainted information, Roth did nothing.

Directly because of Roth’s leadership, his statements, his decisions, and his tweets, HRW now is much less of a human-rights organization, and is instead a shrill and biased political advocacy group. This is a shame, because there is much human-rights work to be done. But so long as Roth tweets first and asks questions later and allows his Twitter feed to demonstrate a deep personal bias, then HRW cannot accomplish its mission. If Roth truly cares about the organization over which he has presided for 21 years, it is time for him to leave. If he does not have the grace to do so, then the onus is on HRW to let him go and start the hard work of rebuilding its reputation and instituting safeguards to ensure that never again will its employees’ political projects trump methodology and process.

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A Case Study in Media Bias: Today’s Jerusalem Terror Attack

I mentioned today’s Jerusalem terror attack in my earlier post, but I think it’s worth returning to in light of the information we now have as well as the bias-on-steroids we witnessed in the aftermath of the deadly attack. The only way to understand how major media outlets could behave so disreputably is to keep in mind a point I’ve made here before: the perseverance of the Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict depends entirely on the ignorance and dishonesty of the Western press.

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I mentioned today’s Jerusalem terror attack in my earlier post, but I think it’s worth returning to in light of the information we now have as well as the bias-on-steroids we witnessed in the aftermath of the deadly attack. The only way to understand how major media outlets could behave so disreputably is to keep in mind a point I’ve made here before: the perseverance of the Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict depends entirely on the ignorance and dishonesty of the Western press.

Here, briefly, is what happened:

A three-month-old girl was killed Wednesday afternoon and eight others were injured when a car crashed into a crowd at a light rail station in Jerusalem in what officials said was a likely terrorist attack.

A suspect, identified by an Israeli official as a member of terror group Hamas, attempted to flee the scene on foot and was shot by police, a police spokesperson said.

And here, also via the Times of Israel, is the aftermath:

Major clashes took place Wednesday evening between Palestinians and Israeli police forces in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Issawiya, following a suspected terrorist attack in which a three-month-old Israeli girl was killed.

Dozens of masked Palestinians set tires and dumpsters ablaze and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police officers in Silwan and Issawiya, police said in a statement.

If you want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, those two stories are a good introduction. The Israeli government built rail access to Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to better integrate them into Israeli society. Arab Jerusalemites have made the very instruments of Israeli outreach and integration into targets of sporadic violence. That violence resulted, today, in a member of a Palestinian terror group carrying out an attack and murdering a baby. In response, the Palestinians rioted. Welcome to Jerusalem 2014.

But that’s not the end of the lesson. The media’s reaction to the murder was stomach turning–and, unfortunately, not atypical.

The Associated Press got plenty of attention for its initial headline of the story: “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.” As CAMERA noted, “there were clearly enough details available at the time, even with the news still in the hazy ‘breaking’ stage, that the inappropriate and misleading headline should never have appeared on the story. The story opened by noting that a driver ‘slammed into a crowded train stop’ and was thought to be a ‘terror attack.’”

Indeed. CAMERA went on to note that about an hour later, the AP re-released the story with the following headline: “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” You’ll notice that this, too, is repellant behavior by the AP. Many others noticed as well, and said so. To say getting the truth from the AP on Israel is like pulling teeth would be an understatement. But finally, the truth appeared; the headline currently on the story is: “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.”

But the AP wasn’t alone. Scanning the BBC, I had noticed their initial headline (since changed as well): “Nine hurt as car hits pedestrians at Jerusalem station.” As the Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman pointed out, the headline on the version he saw, and took a screenshot of, was “Car hits people at Jerusalem station.” Either the BBC was deliberately downplaying the story, or the editor in charge thought he was posting a story about an evil car magically becoming sentient only to lash out, like Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, at the humans around him.

Later in the day, after executives at the BBC located a shred of integrity hidden somewhere in the sofa cushions, that was changed as well. It now reads: “Jerusalem car ‘attack’ kills baby at rail station.” I say “a shred of integrity” because the BBC still saw fit to wrap “attack” in scare quotes. What are the options, here? Was it a car “love tap”? It was a terrorist attack, perpetrated by a member of a terrorist organization.

After the attack and the Jerusalem mayor’s declaration that the murdered baby was an American citizen, the bright shining star at the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf, apparently could only muster the following, as reported by the Times of Israel: “The Israelis are currently looking into the incident. We are in touch with them and we’ll see what more information we can get, also urge all sides to exercise restraint and maintain calm.” I suppose if the driver of the car had said something mean about John Kerry, she’d really let him have it.

In any event, all sides are not exercising restraint and maintaining calm. Only the Israeli side is. The Palestinians are agitating for more, relying on an international press to obfuscate and deploy scare quotes as needed.

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Europe Pretends Palestinians Don’t Exist

A recurring obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the West’s refusal to grant Palestinians agency. The desire to blame Israel or “the occupation” (a term which itself has begun colonizing Israeli land to the point of meaninglessness) for every Palestinian crime treats the Palestinians as if they have no self-control and are incapable of independent thinking. Such an attitude will necessarily prevent them from realizing statehood because it withholds the very independence their Western advocates claim to support. The latest story out of Europe is a remarkable escalation of this behavior.

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A recurring obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the West’s refusal to grant Palestinians agency. The desire to blame Israel or “the occupation” (a term which itself has begun colonizing Israeli land to the point of meaninglessness) for every Palestinian crime treats the Palestinians as if they have no self-control and are incapable of independent thinking. Such an attitude will necessarily prevent them from realizing statehood because it withholds the very independence their Western advocates claim to support. The latest story out of Europe is a remarkable escalation of this behavior.

Haaretz reports that the European Union is considering essentially removing the Palestinians from the process while also advocating religious and ethnic apartheid against Jews in Jerusalem. The paper has obtained an internal EU document that purports to suggest opening negotiations with Israel over reducing Jewish rights in the Jewish state. I wrote nearly two years ago that the emergence of the EU’s “red lines” are incompatible with Israel’s red lines, and thus the relationship between Israel and the increasingly antidemocratic EU would only continue to deteriorate. The Haaretz report is late to this notion, but confirms the prediction:

The two-page document defines several of the EU’s “red lines” regarding Israeli actions in the West Bank:

1. Construction in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. …

2. Construction in the E1 area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. …

3. Further construction in the Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem, beyond the Green Line.

4. Israeli plans to relocate 12,000 Bedouin without their consent in a new town in the Jordan Valley, expelling them from lands in the West Bank, including E1. …

5. Harming the status-quo at the Temple Mount: The document said that attempts to challenge the status-quo have led to instability in East Jerusalem and increased tensions.

The clearest implication from this document is that according to the Europeans, the Palestinians simply don’t exist–not in any meaningful way outside of an abstract collection of non-Jews the Europeans intend to use as tools to further box in the Jews of the Middle East.

In 2011, Newt Gingrich found himself in hot water with the liberal press for saying the Palestinians were an “invented” people. His critics misunderstood the point he was trying to make, which is that Palestinian Arab nationalism as a unifying ideology is a recent phenomenon. He said as much not to disenfranchise the Palestinians but to defend the Jews of Israel from such disenfranchisement, in which the international community buys into Arab lies about Israel in order to delegitimize the Jewish state.

But Gingrich’s comments pale in comparison to the European Union’s new posture. To Gingrich, a century ago the Palestinians didn’t exist. To the Europeans, the Palestinians don’t currently exist. They do not want a true peace process, which would require good-faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They want some clumsy 21st century neocolonialist glory in pretending that Brussels isn’t a global joke but rather a crusading imperial bureaucracy on the march dictating the boundaries of a changing Middle East. It isn’t enough that Europe has made its Jews feel unwelcome enough to flee the continent; they must also evict Jews thousands of miles away.

Of course, Europe’s track record of manufacturing countries and borders in the Middle East is about as good as one would expect when the goal was to divide the region against itself: the record is terrible. So now that those European-imposed or inspired borders are collapsing in a regional societal disintegration, it’s doubtful anyone is silly enough to take Europe’s advice on what the new boundaries should be once the dust settles, if it settles.

But the more pressing concern is that Europe’s latest antics will only serve to encourage and justify more violence against Jews. If Europe is going to back the Palestinian position on not rocking the boat on the Temple Mount, Brussels might want to remember that Mahmoud Abbas recently counseled violence, if necessary, to stop Jews from visiting their holy site. More terror struck Jerusalem today, and I imagine Israelis would appreciate Europe not pouring more gasoline on the fire.

It also demonstrates the absurdity of the European idea of negotiations. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Brussels seems to want a European-Israeli peace process. Europe’s peculiar take on this, however, is less like true negotiations and more like an advance warning. Wanting to “discuss” unspecified retribution against Israel if it doesn’t do as Europe says is not really a discussion at all, but a weasel-worded string of threats.

They’re also nonsensical and unreasonable. The EU’s red lines, especially on issues like E-1, contradict both the Olmert peace plan and the Clinton peace parameters. Following the EU’s advice, in other words, will make an agreement with the Palestinians virtually impossible. Which perhaps explains why the Europeans have taken the Palestinians out of the equation.

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Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

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Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

Well, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent quip that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict motivated ISIS recruits, perhaps it’s about time to revise that slogan to “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Now, I don’t mean to actually call John Kerry stupid. Just as someone needs to be valedictorian of the summer school class, Kerry might just as well be considered the valedictorian of the Obama administration. If his competition is Chuck Hagel or Joe Biden or possibly even President Obama himself, Kerry might as well be a shining star.

But the notion Kerry embraces that terrorism is motivated by grievance rather than ideology is politically correct nonsense. One of the biggest academic proponents of this argument has been University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In recent years, he has doubled down on the argument that grievance rather than ideology (let alone religious ideology) motivates terror. The problem is that, as Martin Kramer has exposed, Pape shamelessly massaged and cherry picked his statistics to support a thesis which flies in the face of evidence. No wonder that Pape apparently worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group which apologizes for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has been an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism finance trial, in order to inflate his book sales. But, then again, let’s not condemn Pape for hiding such things: His career has been built on obfuscating motives.

The simple fact is that reality flies in the face of Kerry’s assertion and Pape’s theories. First off, let’s not forget that even the United States intelligence community recognized the threat posed by Islamist radicalism in the years before the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, nor does the radicalism of those attacking women and minorities in the suburbs of Paris, or targeting homosexuals on the streets of London, have anything to do with Israel.

Secondly, the most oft-cited grievances—poverty and lack of education—have no statistical link to terror. Suicide bombers tend not to be those with the least opportunities; rather, they tend to be those from educated, middle-class backgrounds. In the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, recruitment occurs in the schools. Nor do we see a rash of terrorists and murders arising from the ten poorest countries on earth. With tongue in cheek, if the United States were to base its counterterrorism policy solely on statistics, then its counterterrorism policy would seek to increase poverty and decrease education. At least we can be grateful, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t simply classified ISIS as perpetrators of “workplace violence.”

Thankfully, Katie Gorka through the Council on Global Security has now published a new white paper entitled, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Policy,” in which she provides both historical context to the cost of focusing on grievance as the motivator of terrorism and demonstrates how ignoring Islamist ideology costs lives. The whole report is worth reading. Obama and Kerry may be too set in their ways and more inclined to make excuses that question progressive doctrines, but let us hope that those who seek to take their place after the next election will read Gorka’s work. The cost of not doing so and continuing to tilt at politically correct windmills will be paid in lives.

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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Muslims Fight for ISIS But Not Palestine

For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

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For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

This certainly isn’t a problem of access. The thousands of Western Muslims now fighting in Iraq and Syria could easily and legally have reached the West Bank via either Israel or Jordan; so could those from Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. They simply never cared enough to do so.

And until last year, when Egypt cracked down on the cross-border smuggling tunnels, Gaza was accessible even to nationals of Muslim countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel: They could enter Egypt legally and cross to Gaza via the tunnels. Hamas would surely have welcomed reinforcements, but they never cared enough to come.

In short, no matter how often Westerners like Secretary of State John Kerry say the Palestinian issue is a major source of the “street anger and agitation … humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” that helps jihadi groups recruit foreign Muslims, Muslims themselves are saying the opposite with their feet: There are causes they are willing to travel across the world to fight and die for, including the dream of an Islamic caliphate and the sectarian Sunni fight against Shi’ite- and Alawite-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria. But “Palestine” isn’t one of them.

The foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria also undermine another common canard: that Israel is a “racist” or “apartheid” state. After all, a “racist, apartheid state” by definition subjects its minorities to far more “humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” than non-racist, non-apartheid Europe does, so if Israel were really such a state, one would expect its Arab citizens to head the pack of foreign recruits to ISIS and company.

Yet in fact, as journalist Yossi Melman noted yesterday, only about 30 of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens have gone to fight for ISIS, a “much, much smaller” percentage than the “hundreds of French or British Muslims” who have done so. Based on his figures, a mere 0.002% of Israel’s Arab population is fighting abroad. Exact numbers for either the size of European countries’ Muslim populations or the number of fighters they have in Iraq and Syria are hard to find, but based on estimates gleaned from various press reports, my own rough calculation is that the proportion of British and French Muslims fighting abroad is at least three or four times higher.

And this isn’t because Israeli Arabs are flocking to the Palestinian fight instead: Few Israeli Arabs get involved in Palestinian terror, either.

This data reinforces a point I’ve made many times before: While Jewish-Arab relations in Israel aren’t perfect, overall, Israeli Arabs are reasonably well integrated and steadily becoming more so. Thus few have any desire to go off and join a glorious jihad.

The John Kerrys of the world rarely let facts disturb their theories. But for anyone who does care about facts, the foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria offer a good clue as to what issues really inflame the Muslim world. And neither Israel nor the Palestinians are high on the list.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

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My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

This does not mean creating three new states. That won’t work for many reasons including the fact that cities like Baghdad and Mosul contain a mixed population, that the Sunni areas of Iraq lack much oil revenue, and Sunnis have an emotional attachment to Baghdad and the Iraqi state. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that Iraq can be put together as a strongly centralized state without a larger commitment of U.S. troops than is likely in the future.

The Kurdish region is already de facto autonomous; in fact it’s almost an independent country but one that still has representation in Baghdad and gets a share of the country’s oil revenues. We need to think strongly about whether opposing de jure Kurdish independence is even in our interest anymore–would it be so bad if the Kurds realized their age-old dream to have their own state? In theory a new Kurdistan could emerge as America’s second-strongest ally in the region (after Israel with which the Kurds would likely establish ties), one that would be happy to host U.S. troops and aircraft.

Whatever happens with the Kurds, I think that it now makes sense to offer Sunnis an autonomous region of their own in return for fighting against ISIS. Indeed it may be the only way to get them to take up arms since they have no desire to be subordinate to Shiite sectarians in Baghdad who still control the government even if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. (The appointment of a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia, as interior minister is evidence of that.)

But while important, federalism is not by itself the solution to Iraq’s woes. Whether the Sunnis have autonomy or not, they will still need to be trained and armed and motivated to fight against ISIS–and that won’t be easy to do no matter what political arrangements are promised since they have felt betrayed in the past by the U.S. and the Baghdad government. So the onus is still on the Obama administration to ramp up its anti-ISIS efforts which, despite some recent gains in Kobani, seem on the whole to be rather anemic. But the incentive of federalism can be one of the carrots dangled before Sunnis to get them to participate in a larger counterinsurgency campaign should one ever develop.

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The Western Enablers of Abbas’s Incitement

It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

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It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

And yet the revolting persona Abbas has adopted more publicly of late is an indictment of the international community as well. Here is a brief rundown of Abbas’s Jew hate over the weekend:

Abbas said it was not enough for Palestinians to say that “settlers” have come to the Temple Mount.

“We should all remain present at the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount],” he added.

“We must prevent them from entering the Noble Sanctuary in any way. This is our Al-Aksa and our church. They have no right to enter and desecrate them. We must confront them and defend our holy sites.”

Abbas said Palestinians must be united to defend Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has a special flavor and taste not only in our hearts, but also in the hearts of all Arabs and Muslims and Christians,” he said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian state and without it there will be no state.”

What Abbas wants is to enforce by terror and rioting a full-fledged ethnic and religious apartheid against Jews on the Jewish holy site. He won’t be the target of “apartheid weeks” the way Israel is on college campuses because most young leftists are ignorant hypocrites, and their defense of “human rights” in the Middle East has always had precisely zero to do with human rights. But Abbas would be a good candidate for such opprobrium, were the Western left to at any point develop a degree of intellectual integrity.

Avigdor Lieberman responded to Abbas:

Later on Saturday, Lieberman said that Abbas had again revealed his true face as a “Holocaust denier who speaks about a Palestinian state free of Jews.” The foreign minister added that Abbas was and remains an anti-Semite.

“Behind the suit and the pleasantries aimed at the international community, he is raising the level of incitement against Israel and the Jews and is calling for a religious war,” Lieberman said.

That is correct. And it continued: graffiti comparing the Jews to Nazis was painted at the Temple Mount. But the return of Abbas the Pogromist is not happening in a vacuum. The previous weekend, the Gaza reconstruction racket commenced in earnest, with a donor conference pledging billions in new cash for the terrorist-controlled Gaza Strip after Hamas’s war against Israel over the summer. The most risible, yet predictable, aspect of the AP’s story on that donor conference was this:

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, who co-chaired the one-day meeting with Egypt, said pledges of $5.4 billion have been made, but that only half of that money would be “dedicated” to the reconstruction of the coastal strip.

Brende did not say what the other half of the funds would be spent on. Other delegates have spoken of budgetary support, boosting economic activity, emergency relief and other projects.

It’s a toss-up as to which part is more ridiculous: the fact that they wouldn’t even say where half of the money goes or that they pretended half the cash would go toward reconstruction. In all likelihood, half will be earmarked for rockets and the other half for terror tunnels, though it’s always unclear how much money the terrorist funders of Qatar will seek to add to the pot above and beyond their conference pledge.

What does this have to do with Abbas’s incitement? Quite a bit, actually. The competition between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah/PA is generally a race to the bottom. Until there is a sea change in the culture of the Palestinian polity, appealing to the Palestinian public’s attraction to “resistance” against Israel will always be a key battleground between the two governing factions.

Hamas may have lost its summer war against Israel, but it scored a few key victories. Chief among those victories was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight ban imposed on Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. Ben-Gurion is the country’s gateway to the outside world, and banning flights to it isolates Israel physically from the international community (not to mention the global Jewish community). For that ban to have come from the United States was especially dispiriting.

And why was that ban enacted? Because of a Hamas rocket that escaped Israeli missile defense systems and landed about a mile outside of the airport. Hamas showed the Palestinians that all of Abbas’s bad-faith negotiating is basically a delaying tactic that enables the further deterioration of Israeli-European relations but amounts to a slow bleed of public opinion. Meanwhile Hamas, the resisters, can shut down the Israeli economy and its contact with the outside world with a few rockets.

Hamas gets results, in other words, though they may come at a high price. Abbas does not spill enough Jewish blood and he does not put enough fear into the hearts of Israeli civilians to compare favorably to the genocidal murderers of Hamas. Therefore, he has to step up his game. If the international community were to do the right thing and isolate Hamas while refusing to fund the next war on Israel, Abbas could plausibly have the space to do something other than incite holy war. But they won’t do the right thing, and Abbas predictably resorts to terror and incitement. I hope the humanitarians of Washington and Brussels are proud of themselves.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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