Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

Israel’s Critics Say Nothing as Hamas Rebuilds Tunnels With International Aid

Five months ago Hamas rained down rockets on Israeli cities and attempted to use a tunnel network to infiltrate into the Jewish state and kidnap and kill as many Jews as they could. But predictably most of the world’s attention was focused on Israeli counter-attacks to suppress the missile fire and take out the tunnels and it came under severe criticism, even from its American ally, for the toll of civilian deaths that were caused by Hamas using the population of Gaza as human shields. But those who deplored the 50-day war as a tragedy for the Palestinian people now need to ask themselves whether they are really interested in watching another such round of fighting in the future. The same international community that blasted Israel for having the temerity to defend itself now needs to address the fact that the aid that is pouring into the strip for the purpose of rebuilding homes destroyed in the fighting, is actually being used to rebuild the terror tunnels. If they don’t, they’ll have no right to criticize Israel when it is once again forced to act to defend itself.

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Five months ago Hamas rained down rockets on Israeli cities and attempted to use a tunnel network to infiltrate into the Jewish state and kidnap and kill as many Jews as they could. But predictably most of the world’s attention was focused on Israeli counter-attacks to suppress the missile fire and take out the tunnels and it came under severe criticism, even from its American ally, for the toll of civilian deaths that were caused by Hamas using the population of Gaza as human shields. But those who deplored the 50-day war as a tragedy for the Palestinian people now need to ask themselves whether they are really interested in watching another such round of fighting in the future. The same international community that blasted Israel for having the temerity to defend itself now needs to address the fact that the aid that is pouring into the strip for the purpose of rebuilding homes destroyed in the fighting, is actually being used to rebuild the terror tunnels. If they don’t, they’ll have no right to criticize Israel when it is once again forced to act to defend itself.

As the Times of Israel writes, the Israel media is reporting that:

Some of the cement and other materials being delivered to the coastal Palestinian territory, as part of an international rebuilding effort, has been diverted to the tunnels.

The story goes on to detail some things that can’t come as a surprise. Even as it rebuilds its terror tunnels, Hamas is replenishing its supply of missiles and rockets. Given that the group has just kissed and made up with Iran, the flow of money and munitions into the strip by one means or another is bound to increase.

Though expected, this does increase Hamas’s leverage over the Palestinian Authority, which isn’t interested in making peace with Israel but will certainly never do so while it remains under threat from its erstwhile unity partner. Though many in Israel and elsewhere assumed Hamas would emerge weakened from a war in which Gaza was flattened and little material damage was done to the Jewish state, it is more popular than ever (especially in the West Bank which did not suffer much from the terror group’s murderous policies) and may soon be as much of a threat to Israel as it was before the fighting started. Indeed, if, as reports indicate, Hamas is working on ways to defeat Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system succeed, the danger will be far worse the next time the terrorists decide they wish to try their luck.

That is a daunting prospect for Israelis and poses difficult questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu who is now criticized for his handling of the war even if most of his critics would not have supported a bloody campaign to evict Hamas from Gaza and thus eliminate the threat for the future.

But it should also pose serious questions for those countries like the United States and its European allies that were so quick to bash Israel for its efforts to silence the missile fire and demolish the tunnels.

This week, both American and European diplomats wasted their time negotiating over the text of a United Nations Security Council resolution that would recognize Palestinian independence proposed by the PA. The proposal was a non-starter that in the end even the Obama administration had to oppose, but the talk about Palestinian independence ignored the fact that there is already an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza that is using its autonomy to continue its never-ending war to destroy Israel.

By acquiescing to a situation in which a criminal terrorist group not only continues to rule over a captive population and threaten war against a neighboring sovereign state but also standing by silently as Hamas creates the conditions for another terror war, the West is demonstrating its moral bankruptcy on the Middle East. Those who talk about helping the Palestinians cannot ignore the fact that what Hamas is doing is preparing to set in motion a chain of events that will lead to more bloodshed and suffering. By their silence and, even worse, refusal to halt the flow of material that is being used by Hamas to prepare for another war, they are morally responsible for every drop of Arab or Israeli blood that will be shed.

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Jihadists Using Liberalism Against Itself

While the West’s enemies become ever more unrestrained in the barbaric nature of their attacks, Islamist militants are increasingly pursuing tactics aimed at limiting what the West can do in its own defense. As a recent case in Britain has demonstrated, jihadists and their supporters are more than happy to fabricate the most outlandish allegations in an often successful attempt to hinder the fight against them. This is the kind of thing that Israel has been having to deal with for decades, and at some point other Western states need to comprehend that they are all up against the same enemy, one which is willing to employ the same underhanded tactics against all of us.

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While the West’s enemies become ever more unrestrained in the barbaric nature of their attacks, Islamist militants are increasingly pursuing tactics aimed at limiting what the West can do in its own defense. As a recent case in Britain has demonstrated, jihadists and their supporters are more than happy to fabricate the most outlandish allegations in an often successful attempt to hinder the fight against them. This is the kind of thing that Israel has been having to deal with for decades, and at some point other Western states need to comprehend that they are all up against the same enemy, one which is willing to employ the same underhanded tactics against all of us.

In May 2004, British troops became embroiled in a three-hour gun battle with insurgents of the Mahdi Army at Al Amara, Iraq. Following the battle it was alleged that British soldiers tortured, executed, and then mutilated the bodies of twenty Iraqi detainees. These accusations have dragged on for a decade now and in response the UK government commissioned the al-Sweady Inquiry, an investigation which has cost the British taxpayer almost $49 million, with the accusers having been able to claim financial assistance from the British state to fund their case against it.

And what did the tribunal discover? The al-Sweady Inquiry has stated unequivocally that the allegations made against the British soldiers are “without foundation,” and that those making these accusations had given evidence that was “unprincipled in the extreme” and “wholly without regard for the truth.”

So after years of investigation, and tens of millions in public money spent (much of it having been used to assist those bringing claims against the British army), the soldiers have at long last had their names cleared while the jihadi militants have been exposed as liars. Hardly surprising; it’s simply delusional to imagine that those who are so unprincipled as to use terrorism to achieve their aims would suddenly become upstanding and honest witnesses once stood before a war-crimes investigation. What these people are, however, is mendacious and calculating, and regardless of what al-Sweady may have concluded, by using public money to advance these outrageous allegations the jihadists have won by hijacking the West’s liberalism and respect for the rule of law for their own advantage.

Quite apart from the tremendous financial cost that this investigation and many more like it have carried, the decade that these allegations circulated for have been an outstanding public-relations victory for the insurgents. The media–large parts of which were eager to see Western forces fail in Iraq and Afghanistan–were all too ready to believe the stories spun by the militants and to think the worst of our soldiers. By parroting these lies ad nauseam, the Western media assisted the militants in undermining public morale at home, eroding belief in the rightness of the cause we were fighting for and convincing many that intervention overseas is rarely a defensible or admirable undertaking. In Europe particularly, these tales provide the recruiting fodder that radicalizes young Muslims into believing that their host societies are evil and that they too must join the war against the West. If nothing else, the constant fear of these damaging war crimes allegations persuade Western governments and militaries to be still more restrained in the tactics that they feel able to use in the increasingly muted attempt to counter our enemies.

This of course is the war that Israel has been fighting for years, ever since its creation in fact. Most recently there have been feverish blood libels about the IDF harvesting Palestinian organs, of summary executions during the 2010 flotilla incident, and of a supposed massacre and mass graves in Jenin during the Second Intifada. With all of these accusations Israel is obliged to investigate the conduct of its military, and so it does. That was what was so outrageous about the UN’s Goldstone investigation and indeed the subsequent attempt to have a Goldstone II following the war in Gaza this summer. Such international inquiries are only supposed to be mandated where a state has failed to adequately investigate itself first–but in Israel’s case the international community simply steps in and puts on its own investigation regardless, usually with the conclusion having been written at the outset.

Israel, like Britain and America, does undertake costly and time-consuming investigations where there are allegations of war crimes. But as we have seen so many times before, within hours the international media will have beamed the most tarnishing accusations against Israel around the world several times over. Months later when investigators have established the allegations as baseless, no one is listening anymore and the damage is done.

The debacle of the al-Sweady Inquiry has naturally caused some outrage in Britain, and so one hopes that some lessons will have been learned. But if observers have been reminded that jihadists are readily prepared to use war crimes accusations as a second front in the war against the West, they should also recognize the same tactic when they see it being deployed against Israel. The problem is that while many of them may now realize that the Islamists their armies encounter are unreasonable fanatics, they are equally convinced that the Islamists Israel faces have a legitimate grievance and a just cause.

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Exonerating Hamas and Europe’s Moral Bankruptcy

Considering the amount of time that European Union politicians and diplomats channel into obsessing about Israel, one would assume that Europe has no problems of its own. After all, today, in addition to the European Parliament voting in favor of Palestinian statehood there have been reports that the Europeans and Palestinians have now agreed upon a joint resolution to take to the UN Security Council. But perhaps the most glaringly reprehensible decision to have come out of the EU today is the ruling by the union’s General Court that Hamas must be struck from Brussels’s terror blacklist.

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Considering the amount of time that European Union politicians and diplomats channel into obsessing about Israel, one would assume that Europe has no problems of its own. After all, today, in addition to the European Parliament voting in favor of Palestinian statehood there have been reports that the Europeans and Palestinians have now agreed upon a joint resolution to take to the UN Security Council. But perhaps the most glaringly reprehensible decision to have come out of the EU today is the ruling by the union’s General Court that Hamas must be struck from Brussels’s terror blacklist.

The EU’s foreign ministry has reportedly asked the Israeli government not to cause a storm over this ruling and at the moment the official line from Brussels is that they will be appealing the court’s decision. And yet given that at the time of the signing of the short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity deal the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the move, or the huge amount of funding that the EU channels into Hamas-controlled Gaza, one wonders where exactly EU officials really stand on condemning Hamas. After all, during Israel’s war with the terror group this summer, the EU was particularly vocal in its support for imposing a ceasefire that would leave Hamas in control of Gaza and grant many of Hamas’s key demands in return for more paper promises about ending the rocket fire.

The timing of this ruling also seems more than a little coincidental. Not only is there the expectation of an imminent Palestinian UN statehood bid, but it also coincides with today’s Geneva Convention conference, which among other things is expected to cover issues of international law and alleged war crimes in Gaza. Removing Hamas from the terror list at this time only gives added weight to the arguments of those looking to exonerate Gaza’s Islamist rulers while wishing to have Israel indicted as the key aggressor. And of course, Hamas and its supporters worldwide are hailing the decision as a great breakthrough and victory.

But if there is no politics at work here then it is still far from clear why this ruling came about now, or indeed at all. After all, Europe’s classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization has been good since to 2001. Apparently, the change in designation only comes after a petition to the European Court of Human Rights regarding the designation of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers as terrorists. It seems that the case of the Tamil militants has then been used to springboard this subsequent ruling on Hamas. Indeed, the court’s reasons for annulling the Council of the European Union’s 2001 decision appears incredibly feeble. The court’s grounds for suddenly ruling that the initial classification was invalid simply rests on the claim that the earlier decision was based on evidence that had come from “the press and Internet” and as such must now be deemed insufficient.

Given everything that happened this summer, Hamas’s terrorist credentials should hardly be in doubt. Indeed, both the court and the EU foreign ministry have insisted that the decision was technical and not political. But as anyone who knows how the EU elites function will attest, this is a world in which the technical is consistently manipulated to suit the political. As Daniel Hannan describes in his excellent book How We Invented Freedom, unlike in the English speaking democracies (and indeed the Jewish tradition), within the EU the rule of law is routinely subordinated in favor of political whims and interests. As Hannan points out, the recent economic bailouts of several European states were illegal under the EU’s own laws, but those inconvenient laws were then simply dismissed when they started getting in the way of the greater quest for European federalism. And when the British press noted this hypocrisy the eurocrats mocked what they saw as “Anglo-Saxon literal-mindedness.”

The reality is that European lawmakers are notorious for manipulating the procedures and language of legality to suit political ends. It is simply not conceivable that those who made this ruling were not to some degree swayed by their own slanted view of Hamas, a group which all too many Europeans regard as oppressed freedom fighters. The EU now has just three months to appeal the court ruling, and if it fails to put together a successful case in that time then presumably the existing legislation that prohibits the funding of Hamas and Hamas activities within Europe will become null and void. Although the UK has at least confirmed that it will unilaterally keep Hamas blacklisted anyway.

And so on the same day that the European Parliament voted in favor of Palestinian statehood and Switzerland convened the signatories of the Geneva Convention to pass judgment on Israel’s activities in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, let it also be remembered that the General Court of the European Union ruled that Hamas should be removed from the union’s terror list. Europe’s moral bankruptcy has never been clearer.

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Pakistan: Incubator of Evil

Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

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Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that in both cases the perpetrators of these horrifying outrages were killing in the name of Islam. That is not because Islam is a religion uniquely conducive to this sort of evil. Recall that in the 17th century massacres every bit as vile were routinely carried out in Germany in the name of Christianity during the Thirty Years War. In more recent years Serb Orthodox extremists murdered Muslim Bosnians in similar fashion during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s. And of course the most costly conflict of modern times, the civil war in Congo, has nothing to do with Islam–it is, rather, all about tribal antagonisms.

But there is no doubt that Islamism–not Islam, per se, but the extremist variant practiced by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS–has become the most important animating philosophy for terrorism today and Pakistan has established itself as one of the centers of this violent faith. For this development Pakistani leaders have no one to blame but themselves: They have been promoting violent Islamism as a state policy since the early 1980s when then-President Zia al Huq was supporting the most extreme elements of the Afghan mujahideen.

More recently Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has emerged as one of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism in the world (the other being the Iranian Quds Force). It is directly responsible for a long string of atrocities carried out in Afghanistan and India by ISI proxies such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In short, the Pakistani state has a lot of blood on its hands–not only Indian and Afghan blood but a lot of American blood too, because a lot of Americans have died in Pakistani-sponsored attacks in Afghanistan. And not just in Afghanistan: There is also good cause to think the ISI consciously gave Osama bin Laden shelter in Pakistan after he had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.

Unfortunately for Pakistan it cannot control where extremists strike. The old adage holds that if you keep snakes in your backyard you can expect to be bitten. Pakistan proves how true that is–and now it has been bitten especially hard by monsters who deliberately set out to kill children. True, these particular monsters are from the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) which is not exactly the same group as the Afghan Taliban. But the two in fact share an ideology, among other things. Both, for instance, acknowledge Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader.

Sooner or later the Pakistani army must learn that it cannot fight some Islamist extremists while making common cause with others. My fear is that after decades of cooperation with these fanatics, the army itself may be so sympathetic to this extremist ideology that significant elements of it have essentially gone over to the enemy. Aside from an Iranian nuke, it is hard to imagine a scarier scenario in the world today than these Pakistani extremists-in-uniform getting access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

For too long America has tended to look away from the problem or pretended that Pakistan is really our friend. I don’t know what the solution is to this enormous menace, but at a minimum we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize Pakistan for what it is: an incubator of evil.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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The Sydney Siege and the Lone-Wolf Copout

The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

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The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

Iranian immigrant Man Haron Monis took a Sydney café full of customers hostage for about sixteen hours; Monis and two of the hostages were killed before the café was cleared. Monis reportedly had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and professed his desire to hang an ISIS flag during the siege (he displayed a more generic Islamic flag while demanding to be brought an ISIS flag). He holds extremist views and has what appears to be a violent history.

And yet, the narrative forming is one of failed antiterror legislation. As the New York Times reports:

The laws, which passed the Australian Parliament with wide support, made it an offense to advocate terrorism, even on social media; banned Australians from going to fight overseas; allowed the authorities to confiscate and cancel passports; and provided for the sharing of information between security services and defense personnel. The government also deployed hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country.

None of these measures prevented a man known to both the police and leaders of Muslim organizations as deeply troubled and with a long history of run-ins with the law from laying siege to a popular downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, this week and holding hostages for 16 hours. The attacker, Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, and two of the 17 hostages were killed early Tuesday amid the chaos of a police raid. …

The case, like recent lone-wolf jihadist attacks in Brussels, Ottawa and New York, raises troubling questions about the ability of governments to monitor homegrown, radicalized would-be jihadists and prevent them from doing harm.

That’s true as far as it goes … but it doesn’t go very far. There was, in fact, plenty that could have been done and the authorities knew it. As the Times notes, Monis was charged last year as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife (she was apparently stabbed and then burned alive). He was out on bail. Then in April he was charged in an older sexual assault case. And here’s the kicker: “Forty more counts of sexual assault relating to six other women were later added to that case.”

So here’s what we have: a Muslim extremist whose current charge sheet includes accessory to murder and more than forty counts of sexual assault who was granted bail. He was free until trial, despite all this. So here’s one obvious measure the authorities could have taken: deny him bail, or even rescind bail once the assault charges started getting counted by the dozen. You shouldn’t have to wave the ISIS flag to get attention; murder and sexual assault over a period of more than a decade should be enough.

According to the L.A. Times, Australia’s bail laws were amended to make such action easier, but not in time to stop Monis. That may or may not be a dodge, but it certainly makes clear that there is something that could have been done to keep Monis off the streets. Throwing up your hands and sighing “lone wolf” is just a copout.

What else can governments learn about domestic extremists from the case? Here’s one more clue, from the New York Times:

In Australia, the government even had information that the Islamic State sought to recruit just such an attacker to carry out a bold attack in Sydney. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott warned Parliament in September.

Mr. Monis, who was reported to be armed with a gun, did not appear to have put a great deal of planning into his attack at the Lindt Cafe. Lacking an Islamic State banner, he demanded one in exchange for several hostages, local news media reported.

ISIS and groups like them are thus a domestic threat in two ways. First, the obvious: they can plan attacks on the homeland and try to attract jihadists to a war zone who have Western passports. They can provide training and contacts for someone looking to go back home and cause trouble.

And second, they can plan terrorist attacks from abroad without ever having to enter the target country and without the domestic attacker ever having to leave. This is the intersection of foreign policy and domestic security. If ISIS is seeking to turn disaffected radicals into one-man sleeper agents then the “lone wolf” tag isn’t very edifying–or accurate. And it points to a lesson about the futility of shortcuts: There is no substitute for actually defeating the enemy.

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Cheney’s Critics and Moral Clarity in War

As far as America’s political left is concerned, Dick Cheney isn’t merely a wrong-headed Republican; he’s the spawn of the devil. The liberal mainstream media always treated Cheney as George W. Bush’s whipping boy during his administration and this week he’s been continuing that tradition by being willing to get out in front of the cameras after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. Cheney’s unrepentant and unapologetic defense of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques during his appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, where he was closely questioned by host Chuck Todd, has sent his detractors over the cliff into heights of rhetorical excess and rage that make this debate take on the appearance of a Medieval theological disputation. But while Cheney may be accused of sounding insensitive about some of the very nasty things that were done to al-Qaeda prisoners, he nevertheless seems to posses a degree of moral clarity that few of his critics seem to have.

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As far as America’s political left is concerned, Dick Cheney isn’t merely a wrong-headed Republican; he’s the spawn of the devil. The liberal mainstream media always treated Cheney as George W. Bush’s whipping boy during his administration and this week he’s been continuing that tradition by being willing to get out in front of the cameras after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. Cheney’s unrepentant and unapologetic defense of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques during his appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, where he was closely questioned by host Chuck Todd, has sent his detractors over the cliff into heights of rhetorical excess and rage that make this debate take on the appearance of a Medieval theological disputation. But while Cheney may be accused of sounding insensitive about some of the very nasty things that were done to al-Qaeda prisoners, he nevertheless seems to posses a degree of moral clarity that few of his critics seem to have.

The discussion about torture reminds us of the qualities that always annoyed his opponents most about Cheney. It’s not just that he does things they hate, it’s his air of defiance in which he doesn’t even accept the premise of the questions posed to him that makes them think he is evil. One example comes from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait who commented on an earlier appearance by the former vice president on Fox News during which he wouldn’t budge from his stance even when asked about some particularly brutal conditions imposed on the terror suspects:

The host, Bret Baier, asked Cheney about Bush’s reported discomfort when told of a detainee’s having been chained to a dungeon ceiling, clothed only in a diaper, and forced to urinate and defecate on himself. “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘Please, please, tell us what you know’?” Cheney said. “Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts.”

Here, finally, was the brutal moral logic of Cheneyism on bright display. The insistence by his fellow partisans on averting their eyes from the horrible truth at least grows out of a human reaction. Cheney does not even understand why somebody would look away. His soul is a cold, black void.

Chait’s argument rests on the notion that even if you thought torture might be necessary, the decent thing to do is to act shocked or horrified by the ill treatment of even the bad guys of al-Qaeda. Cheney won’t play that game and that makes him not only infuriating to liberals but a poster child for the necessity of prosecuting Bush administration figures involved in the practice because, as the New York Times’s Juliet Lapidos wrote, he is “among those looking forward—to a time when, under a different administration, it might be possible to “do it again.” They believe his steely resolution that the right thing was done and lack of qualms about these admittedly tough measures show he lacks a soul that even people like Chait are willing to concede Bush might have possessed.

But while in private life the characteristics Cheney is exhibiting might seem egregious, they are also evidence of exactly what we need from wartime leaders.

What Cheney remembers and all of those who are carrying on about the one-sided and often misleading Senate report forget, is that the Bush administration’s primary responsibility after 9/11 was ensuring that another atrocity didn’t occur and that the U.S. didn’t lose the war that al-Qaeda was waging against it. Throughout the history of this republic, wartime leaders have always been forced to do some things that don’t look too good outside of the context of the time and the situation. As I wrote last week after the report was released, war is, at best, a morally ambiguous affair and always involves brutality and bloodshed even waged for moral causes.

When pressed about specifics about torture, Cheney stands his ground and answers that the real definition of torture is what happened to the victims of 9/11, not the temporary discomfort of their murderers. That can rightly be put down as sophistry. As Chait writes, there is a difference between mass murder and torture. But to those charged with the responsibility of defending America, the only real bottom line is whether the enemy is stopped and defeated. According to most of those in the know, the committee’s report is wrong to assert that the controversial interrogations did not provide useful intelligence. As long as that is true, Cheney won’t be squeamish or play the hypocrite. He believes it was the right thing to do and won’t avert his gaze from the behavior that helped achieve this result.

That may not strike most people as the sort of public attitude they want our leaders to display since Americans have always clung to the notion that they never had to stoop to the level of their enemies to win wars even if that was always a myth. But is Cheney’s attitude really any different from the defiant defense of drone attacks that we hear from the Obama administration? In the last several years, America has fought the war against Islamist terror mainly by waging remote-control war with bombs that kill civilians along with the bad guys. Everyone knows this, but somehow this preference for killing rather than capturing and then interrogating prisoners is somehow considered more moral.

Dick Cheney’s soul isn’t any less than that of Barack Obama because he was willing to unflinchingly defend torture to extract intelligence while the latter prefers to order strikes that kill rather than merely harm civilians along with terrorists.

This quality may not make Cheney likeable but it was the reason why he was the right man for the job at the time. It may not be easy for liberals to admit, but he helped keep us safe and ensured that al-Qaeda would be beaten. The tactics aren’t easy to look at, but as he can rightly assert, the only thing in war that counts in the long run is the results. That’s all the moral clarity history ever asks of wartime leaders.

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Sydney Siege and Monitoring Extremists

In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

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In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

Both trends are evident in Australia which saw a 16-hour siege of a cafe in Sydney carried out by a 50-year-old Iranian immigrant calling himself Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheikh who has preached an extremist gospel and recently converted from Shiite to Sunni Islam. His own lawyer calls him a “damaged goods individual” who was apparently on bail in two different criminal cases–he is charged “with being an accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, who was stabbed and set on fire” and with “the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney.” In yet another case, he “pleaded guilty in 2013 to 12 charges related to the sending of poison-pen letters to the families of Australian servicemen who were killed overseas.”

What a charmer. A marginal, criminal character, Monis was apparently spurred into taking hostages because he was exercised about Australian military actions, in cooperation with the U.S. and other allies, against ISIS.

There is little that anyone can do to anticipate such random attacks but there is more that can be done to monitor known extremists such as Monis. Unfortunately standing in the way is a misconceived reading of the freedom of religion which is a bedrock of any free society.

It’s absolutely true that anyone should have the freedom to practice any religion–as long as it doesn’t involve advocating or carrying out acts of violence. Extremists should not be able to hide in a mosque any more than in a synagogue or church. That is why it is deeply unfortunate that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down a New York Police Department program that sent plainclothes officers to mosques, among other locations, to look for signs of terrorist plotting.

Shutting down this surveillance is a politically correct gesture that arises from the same mindset that had Australians tweeting “#IllRideWithYou” after the Sydney siege started to make clear they would accept taxi rides from drivers in traditional Muslim garb–as if the real problem that Australia faces is “Islamophobia” rather than Islamist terrorism. But while silly, the Sydney tweet campaign was also a harmless gesture. De Blasio’s actions are far more significant. They make New Yorkers less safe from the kind of lone wolf attack that just hit Sydney.

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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Another Palestinian Sacrificed to Conflict

The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

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The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

The big picture about the peace process tends to get lost whenever the rights and wrongs of specific incidents become the issue. In this case, the truth is not complicated but is still open to interpretation.

The Palestinian position is that Abu Ein died as result of brutality inflicted on him during the demonstration. Abu Ein and the demonstrators he led into a line of armed soldiers clearly invited a forceful response. Whether he took a blow to the chest or was hit by a tear gas canister, there is no question that those involved in the scrum were likely roughed up. Israeli soldiers may have used too much force or it may be that Abu Ein simply expired because his heart disease made him vulnerable to collapse when he tried to break through a line of armed soldiers.

It should also be remembered that when we speak of him being a Cabinet minister, this was not some bureaucrat in charge of the Palestinian treasury or some other responsible officeholder. He was in fact the Cabinet member in charge of staging provocations against both settlements and checkpoints in the West Bank. A convicted terrorist who took part in a bomb plot that resulted in the murder of two Israeli teenagers, he was eventually released in a prisoner exchange before becoming a PA official. His goal was to create violent confrontations and to generate Palestinian casualties that could be paraded before the world as evidence of Israeli cruelty. The only difference between this and other such violent demonstrations is that Abu Ein was the statistic rather than some anonymous Palestinian.

But no matter what happened when he led the charge into a line of soldiers or what we might think of his job or his background, the real reason for Abu Ein’s death can be attributed to the core ideology of the Palestinian national movement that he served in various violent capacities during his life.

Four times in the last 15 years, the Palestinian Authority Abu Ein served was given a chance to negotiate a peace deal that might have given them independence and statehood. Twice under Yasir Arafat’s leadership they turned offers of sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, as well as Gaza down flat. Once Abbas fled the negotiations after receiving an even more generous offer. In the past year, Abbas stonewalled the negotiations and then blew them up so as to prevent getting even close to an agreement.

It is in that context that the discussions about settlements and the behavior of Israeli soldiers must be understood. The PA has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t want peace or a two-state solution. What it wants is to keep the conflict just hot enough to prevent Abbas from being cornered into agreeing to peace but not so hot as to stop the Israelis from protecting him against his Hamas rivals or to force the U.S. and the Europeans from cutting off the flow of cash that allows the PA kleptocracy to exist.

Like the Palestinian children who are encouraged to pick fights with soldiers by flinging gasoline bombs and rocks in the hope the army will fire back, Abu Ein was sacrificed on the altar of the unending Palestinian war against the existence of Israel. Instead of blaming the Israelis, Palestinians need to look inward and ponder the political culture they have created that makes it impossible for their leaders to consider peace on any terms but the destruction of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. Until that changes, there will never be an end to such confrontations and the inevitable casualties that follow from them.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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Putting Lipstick on the BDS Pig

The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

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The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

The group is a leftist organization called the Third Narrative, which seeks to replace the prevailing anti-Israel narrative on the left with their own anti-Israel narrative, which they consider morally superior. It’s as though one Illinois governor is claiming to be less corrupt than one of his predecessors. Fine, but let’s remember just how relative your morality is here.

The Third Narrative’s mission statement criticizes the overheated anti-Israel rhetoric of the left, but still wants the left to take aim at Israel:

The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative.

In theory, it sounds good. A less hateful left is still thoroughly intellectually dishonest, but still an improvement. (It’s a low bar.) Once fiercely opposed to BDS, the organization now seems to have been opposed to the form the mainstream BDS movement was taking, especially the anti-Semitic umbrella BDS organization. The Third Narrative apparently thinks there’s a third way between BDS and no BDS, as it explained in an open letter titled “A Time for Personal Sanctions”:

That response, we believe, should not take the form of generalized boycotts and other sanctions that indiscriminately target Israeli society and Israeli institutions. Such measures are both unjust and politically counterproductive. In particular, campaigns for boycotts and blacklists of Israeli academia attack the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.

Moreover, a response to Israel’s settlement and annexation policies should not suggest that Israel bears exclusive responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, or that, if pressured, Israel could solve it unilaterally. Achieving a just and durable negotiated solution requires constructive efforts by actors on all sides of the intertwined Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. However, if the door is to be held open to the possibility of a just, workable, and peaceful solution, one requirement is to prevent actions that would sabotage it. For this reason, we propose targeted sanctions to focus on political actors engaged in such sabotage.

Although they single out four Israeli figures to sanction, the point is really to attack Naftali Bennett, the first politician on their blacklist and a rising star in Israeli politics, on the eve of a national election. (Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin, and Zeev Hever are the others.)

Signatories to the letter include Michael Walzer (Princeton), Todd Gitlin (Columbia), Alan Wolfe (Boston College), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), and Gershon Shafir (UC San Diego) among others. As you can see from the names, they are not only academics but also writers. And as you might expect from American academics and left-wing journalists, they have no idea what they’re talking about. A read-through of their open letter shows them to be ignorant of basic international law and deceitful about Israeli actions.

They want to sanction Israelis whose opinions they disagree with, but since those Israelis are not professors at Tel Aviv University they can convince themselves they are better than those other BDSniks. This is their version of a kosher BDS. It is nothing of the sort.

Since their concern about political figures getting in the way of the two-state solution is surely genuine, I eagerly await the follow-up open letter detailing the Palestinian figures they’re also sanctioning: figures who support or encourage terrorism, those involved in Palestinian media who fuel incitement; etc.

And why stop there? As they must know, the political figures who do the most to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian peace sit in Tehran. Which Iranian government officials–obviously President Rouhani, but there must be others–will Third Narrative advocate personal sanctions for?

What’s dangerous about the Third Narrative’s supposedly kosher BDS is that it offers the legions of thought police throughout academia an outlet for their anti-Israel fervor that also flatters their unearned sense of academic integrity. But they can put all the lipstick they want on this pig, it won’t make it kosher.

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Putting the “Torture Report” In Historical and Moral Context

When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

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When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

I understand now, as I did then, the argument of those who on principle opposed EITs; and I’m open to the case that in retrospect we should have pursued a different path. (The early implementation of the program was certainly flawed.) I must say, though, that the refusal of many critics of EITs to place this debate in a broader context–to treat it as simplistic Manichean drama, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness–is discouraging and counterproductive.

For one thing, they ignore the context of the times. By that I mean that many of them fail to take into account not only the widespread fear and pervasive panic that characterized the months after the 9/11 attacks, but they fail to take into account that (as this op-ed points out) the evidence we had that al-Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.; that we knew Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons; that there were reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City; and that our intelligence agencies had hard evidence that al-Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax. In addition, we had very little information on al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to catch up, including not being sure of what we didn’t know. That needs to be taken into account.

So does the context of history. I know it’s fashionable to say that the EITs constitute a “dark chapter” for America. It’s therefore worth pointing out, perhaps, that our history is replete with actions during the “good war”–including the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed between 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians) and Dresden (estimates vary from 25,000 to 135,000), dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (estimates are that roughly 150,000 people died), and Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in World War II–that certainly raise more morally problematic issues than an enhanced interrogation program that involved 119 detainees held in secret prisons, of which three were subjected to waterboarding. That doesn’t by itself justify the EIP; but it does put things in a more reasonable setting.

Many critics of the CIA’s interrogation program also ignore the here-and-now. As other commentators have pointed out, President Obama has overseen an expansion of a Predatory Drone program that targets and kills suspected terrorists without a trial–and in the process hundreds of innocent children in Pakistan and elsewhere have died. They are “collateral damage” of a program proudly championed by a liberal president who has sermonized repeatedly about the immorality of waterboarding three known, high-value terrorists. Are targeted, lethal attacks that kill many more innocent people, including many more innocent children, really that much of a moral improvement from what came before it? And a decade from now, will some of those who now defend drone strikes turn into their fiercest critics, which is what happened to Senator Dianne Feinstein on EITs? (Ms. Feinstein, along with other members of Congress, were briefed by the CIA on our interrogation program. According to three former CIA directors and three former deputy CIA directors, “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection. The briefings held nothing back. The reactions from members of Congress ranged from approval to no objection.” And in 2002, Senator Feinstein said (my emphasis), “I have no question in my mind that had it not been for 9/11 — and I’d do anything if it hadn’t happened — that it would have been business as usual. It took that real attack, I think, to kind of shiver our timbers enough to let us know that the threat is profound, that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”)

It might elevate the public debate a bit if critics of enhanced interrogation techniques wrestled in an intellectually honest and fair-minded way with a set of questions they like to avoid, such as: If you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that could stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

“The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good,” our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, said. “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

That was true in the time of Lincoln, a man who struggled with the moral implications of his own actions as commander in chief. It’s true in our time, too. It would be a service to us all if, in the debate about the CIA’s interrogation programs from a decade ago, there was a little less moral preening and little more serious moral reflection.

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Torture and the Moral Ambiguity of War

The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

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The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss, and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes explain in their piece how the controversial interrogations provided information that disrupted terrorist plotting that made it difficult if not impossible for attacks to be planned or executed as well as leading to the capture of important terrorists. They also provided invaluable knowledge about how al-Qaeda worked.

How could the Democrats on the committee and their staff claim that the intelligence gleaned from these sessions was of no use?

First, they adopted a narrow definition of their utility by saying that they did not directly prevent a ticking bomb from going off. That may be true but there is more to a war against a brutal enemy that such an instance. The task the CIA was handed on September 12, 2001 was not merely to prevent a last-minute intervention against the next attack on the American homeland but to wage a campaign that would ensure that we never again came close to such a disaster. Their efforts largely ensured that there was never another 9/11.

Most critics of the report have rightly complained about the lack of context in these condemnations of tough treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. Intelligence officers could not operate with the knowledge we may have now about the ultimate outcome of the battle with the group but only with what they knew at the time. However, as much as all those who are revolted by the details of the torture report should not judge these agents with hindsight, we also should judge them in terms of ultimate results. The conflict with al-Qaeda wasn’t a police investigation of a local, if horrific, crime but a war in which a crafty enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

What we ought never to forget when discussing how the war on al-Qaeda was fought is that the ultimate judgment that the CIA worried about in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was not second-guessing by congressional partisans or moral preening by the New York Times editorial board. Rather, it was the possibility that they would fail, as they had failed prior to 9/11 and that al-Qaeda would not merely pull off another attack but that the group would be able to further entrench itself in the Middle East as a permanent factor destabilizing the region as well as using it as a base for future atrocities against the West. In short, once you realize that the methods were not ineffective, the talk about lies is exposed as partisan bunk.

We can’t know for certain exactly how much the torture of prisoners aided efforts to prevent that from happening but the assertion that it was of no utility is pure ideology, not derived from the facts. The spirit that permeates the Senate report is the notion that because torture is a wrong thing about which no one should feel happy or comfortable, it must perforce also be ineffective. To understand that it can be, at one and the same time, both immoral as well as effective and, in the context of a war for the survival of the West and democracy, essential, is to embrace a moral complexity that those writing the report or penning impassioned anti-CIA editorials are incapable of comprehending.

Just as important, the intelligence and operational failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past few years gives the lie to bold assertions about it being safe enough now for Americans to think they don’t need human intelligence or to play rough with terrorists. The rise of ISIS, which now has achieved more on the ground in Iraq and Syria than its al-Qaeda rivals ever dreamed of, is impossible to imagine outside of the context of an American retreat from the region that is rooted in part by an unwillingness to go on fighting hard against the Islamist enemy.

Seen not only in the perspective of time but also from the understanding that talk of lies is sophistry, the report is particularly regrettable. Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein’s desire for score settling with a CIA that had repeatedly clashed with her is obvious. So, too, is the political left’s passion to demonize the George W. Bush administration and to retroactively delegitimize the successful war it waged on al-Qaeda. But whatever one may think about torture, it is important to remember that there was no real political divide about what to do about al-Qaeda on 9/12/01. It may be that the general moral revulsion against torture is such that even those who understand, as even President Obama does, that the CIA was reacting to the needs of the moment, will insist that it never again be used. But those who think they can erase the moral ambiguity of war with a phrase or a self-righteous editorial are wrong. While we can pray that we never again find ourselves in such a situation, wise observers understand that if we do, the CIA will not be able to pretend that it can defeat the enemy with strictly moral methods.

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Another Myth About Israel Debunked; Will Media Acknowledge the Truth?

“Israeli security forces revived a controversial antiterrorism policy,” the New York Times reported in November, “demolishing the East Jerusalem home of a Palestinian man who plowed his car into pedestrians last month, killing a baby and a young woman.” Anyone who follows the conflict knew precisely what they were going read, without a doubt, at some point in the article. And sure enough, Times reporter Jodi Rudoren gets there eventually: Israel halted “the widespread practice in 2005, when a commission found that it rarely worked as a deterrent.” For a decade, this claim has been used against Israel. And now we know it’s false.

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“Israeli security forces revived a controversial antiterrorism policy,” the New York Times reported in November, “demolishing the East Jerusalem home of a Palestinian man who plowed his car into pedestrians last month, killing a baby and a young woman.” Anyone who follows the conflict knew precisely what they were going read, without a doubt, at some point in the article. And sure enough, Times reporter Jodi Rudoren gets there eventually: Israel halted “the widespread practice in 2005, when a commission found that it rarely worked as a deterrent.” For a decade, this claim has been used against Israel. And now we know it’s false.

In an important piece on the issue on Monday, Yishai Schwartz explained how this narrative took hold:

The problem is, the commission conducted no serious study of the demolitions’ effects, and the latest evidence actually points in the opposite direction. The 2005 Times article on which much of the subsequent coverage seems to have been based is itself an overstatement of a contemporaneous account in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. But Haaretz made no claims about conclusive findings, simply stating that the military committee recommended ending the program and referencing a general, preliminary “study of the first 1000 days of the conflict” from 2003 that merely stated, “as of today, there is no proof” of effective deterrence from the demolitions.

The ineffectiveness trope was just simple enough for the media to understand. Schwartz explains that the Israeli leadership was looking for a justification to end the practice of demolishing the homes of terrorists. Violence from the intifada had been waning, and Israeli leaders wanted a return to normalcy of sorts.

The problem is that if home demolitions worked, how could they justify ending them? The commission’s report was not based on a real study of the practice and was never intended to be the last word on the topic. It was simply to give the political class cover. Yet the media absorbed the spin all too well, and it became conventional wisdom.

Now that conventional wisdom is about to be upended. Schwartz writes of a forthcoming study by Israeli academics (who personally weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the practice), which comes to a very different conclusion:

In fact, they found two separate correlations. Precautionary demolitions resulted in a significant increase in suicide attacks, a “48.7 percent increase in the number of suicide terrorists from an average district,” according to the study. By contrast, punitive demolitions led to a significant decrease in terror attacks, between 11.7 and 14.9 percent, in the months immediately following the demolition. The study suggests that, at least in the aggregate, terrorists can be understood as “rational actors”: “The results support the view that selective violence is an effective tool to combat terrorist groups and that indiscriminate violence backfires.”

This will not be the last word on the debate over home demolitions, nor should it be. It’s only one study, a snapshot of one (albeit important) time period. Additionally, you can separate the moral implications of the policy from its efficacy, to some degree.

I say “to some degree” because they are connected in one respect: the media can paint Israel as an irrationally violent actor if it can also declare that Israel knows the demolitions don’t have practical benefits. Of course, even if Israel believes it deters terrorism, that does not automatically give it a clean ethical bill of health. Lots of tactics would deter terrorism, many of them repellant. Israeli leaders must still grapple with the moral considerations of the policy.

There’s also a difference in how the policy is implemented. What’s interesting is that the clearly “more moral,” so to speak, use of the tactic is also more effective. Yet punitive demolitions, as Schwartz notes, can still be considered by critics to be a form of collective punishment. (Who else lives in the home? What was their involvement in the terrorist attack? These things matter a great deal.)

But there is far less ambiguity on the media’s role in all this. How this narrative formed actually belongs on the syllabus of a Media Bias 101 course (which Rudoren should take–or teach, depending on how you feel about media bias against Israel). There was a politicized commission used to produce a foregone conclusion to support a decision political leaders had already made. On top of this politicized intelligence/research, you had Haaretz report it–a sure sign of trouble ahead. When Haaretz reports something, despite its well-known truthfulness deficiency, the leftist media abroad picks it up. (Haaretz is not a newspaper for Israelis but rather for foreign correspondents.)

That means the New York Times will be among the first to broadcast it, especially if it’s critical of Israel’s security establishment, and regardless of its accuracy. That can (and will) persist even after initial stories get debunked, which is why the Western reporting on Israel is so unimaginably terrible. Will the Times stop referencing the now debunked narrative on housing demolition? Whether they do will indicate if there is still any room at all for the facts in the paper’s reporting on Israel.

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The CIA, Interrogation, and Feinstein’s Parting Shot

Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

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Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt. Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat

level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation….

I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and CIA was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.

The Intelligence Committee as well often pushes intelligence agencies to act quickly in response to threats and world events.

The author of those sentences is none other than Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (though for not much longer) who ordered the report in question compiled and released. Given the undoubted truth of these comments, offered by way of a preamble, it is hard to know why the senator nevertheless felt compelled to release for public consumption this report that will undoubtedly damage American credibility and standing in the world and could well diminish the effectiveness of the very agencies that we count on to protect us from today’s most pressing dangers.

The Senate Intelligence Committee action, taken over the opposition of the panel’s Republican members, recalls nothing so much as the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of 1976 which spilled the CIA’s “crown jewels” to the public. This was when the world learned of CIA involvement in assassination plots, even if the committees never produced any evidence that the CIA ever actually assassinated anyone (in part because of the CIA’s own ham-handedness), and of other covert operations such as the testing of LSD on unwitting subjects. Many of these activities were admittedly ill-advised but there was no evidence that the CIA had acted in contravention of executive orders; it was not a “rogue elephant” but rather an agency carrying out the wishes of successive presidents.

It was, therefore, unfair and harmful to demonize the CIA even while leaving alone the reputation of presidents such as John F. Kennedy who had ordered some of its most aggressive covert actions. The result of all this public condemnation, followed by the disastrous tenure of Jimmy Carter’s Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, was an agency in disarray. Many of the best CIA officers left and the nation was left with reduced capacity to detect and prevent catastrophes such as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We do not yet know the result of today’s revelations but it is likely that they will be equally deleterious to our intelligence capacities–and just as unfair. The Intelligence Committee report, after all, condemns the CIA for interrogative techniques, since discontinued, that were fully approved by the president and briefed–and tacitly approved–by congressional leaders such as Dianne Feinstein herself.

Her report claims that the CIA concealed certain information from the president, a charge heatedly denied by current CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, and all of his predecessors–as well as by George W. Bush and other officials of his administration. Perhaps there were in fact details that were not shared with the White House but it is clear that the president knew in broad brushstrokes what was happening, that it was judged to be legal by the White House and Justice Department, and that it was considered necessary to prevent another 9/11.

There is debate about whether the coercive interrogations produced information that led to counter-terrorist successes; Feinstein’s report denies it but numerous CIA executives, current and former, side with Director Brennan, who writes: “Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

As an outsider, I am not in a position to judge where the truth lies. I am also ambivalent about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques should have been used in the past and whether they should be totally prohibited in the future: It’s easy to denounce such brutal measures from the safety of an armchair, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a president who fears an imminent attack on the United States that may kill thousands, even millions, and therefore feels compelled to use every technique available, no matter how repugnant, to protect untold numbers of lives.

Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.

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Bennett Routs Indyk, In a Victory for Truth

Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

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Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

Bennett’s challenge was twofold. First, he had to exhibit restraint and treat Indyk as a legitimate interlocutor. Indyk, of course, has spent the past decade and a half representing Democratic U.S. governments in the peace process intent on undermining the sitting Israeli prime minister, subverting Israeli democracy, and poisoning the well by badmouthing Israeli officials to the press behind their backs. The current violent turmoil in and around Jerusalem is a hangover from the failed peace talks. And the failed peace talks were due in large part to Kerry’s team, led by Indyk.

The second part of Bennett’s challenge was to recognize that amid current or former Obama administration officials, he had a tough crowd. That was only exacerbated by the upcoming Israeli elections. Before the last elections liberal American journalists and commentators, whose opinions are considered fringe in Israel but who live in a bubble of unearned self-righteousness here in the States, engaged in a collective freakout over the prospect of Naftali Bennett succeeding. He was projected to win as many as fifteen seats; they projected the end of the world.

Both were wrong: Bennett fell to a late surge by Yair Lapid, and the earth didn’t open up and swallow humanity whole as punishment for the electoral success of religious Zionists. Now there is another Israeli election looming; Bennett is projected to fare rather well; and liberal American commentators and journalists are once again, like the late Harold Camping, marking their calendars for the reckoning.

It was into this atmosphere that Bennett sat down for his on-the-record discussion with Indyk, after which he took questions from the audience. The transcript is here, and I recommend the full discussion, but there are a couple of points worth highlighting.

Bennett’s strategy was to be a forceful defender of Israel without lapsing into humorlessness. He succeeded, and at no point in this discussion was that success more impressive than when Indyk–who took potshots at the Israeli government after the talks’ collapse and was later found to be rambling at a bar to all who would listen about Israel’s perfidy–accused Bennett of being disrespectful to the U.S. government. It was milestone in the annals of hypocrisy, a particular talent of Indyk’s that repeated failure has only sharpened.

But Bennett was unafraid to hit back. He repeatedly made an important point that generally goes ignored in the Western press: Israel’s citizens make their own decisions. He knew his audience, he just refused to kowtow to it. When Indyk kept badgering him about global opinion, Bennett said:

Now, it’s the people of Israel — I want to point something out. The audience here and, you know, these sort of conferences does not at all — if I put a poll here probably Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni number two. The only problem with Israel is that for some strange reason they put the polling booths all across Israel and they actually let the public speak up. And the public, which is a very healthy public, does not think that Jerusalem should be split. It does not think that our land is occupied. It does not want to commit suicide.

Later, Bennett pressed Indyk on the fact that the peace process was supposed to bring, you know, peace. And yet, everyone wants to continue without learning from those failures. When Indyk told Bennett “I just think you live in another reality,” Bennett responded:

How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion? You know, the Oslo process took more than a thousand lives in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and I didn’t hear anyone say, you know what, I made a mistake. When are you going to wake up? When is Tzipi Livni going to wake up?

This will not endear him to his critics on the left, especially in America. But it will be seen as a breath of fresh air to the reality-based community. And when Indyk foolishly propagated the long-debunked myth of the so-called root causes of terrorism that put the blame on Israel, Bennett shot back: “Right, because that’s why ISIS is cutting off heads because of Judea and Samaria. Come on, give me a break.”

One of the most important comments Bennett made was an otherwise unremarkable line about Israel’s reputation. In response to Indyk’s warning of Israel’s isolation, Bennett said that Israel’s government has to learn to change the conversation and challenge the false accusations leveled against its democracy: “if something is false and it’s repeated enough times, it becomes sort of common wisdom. We have to undo that.”

And in this Bennett was also revealing something else: one reason for the rise of Bennett and others on the right is the fact that the international community–including now the Obama administration–pulls the conversation so far to the left that Israel must defend itself. The more the world delegitimizes Israel’s rights, the more Israel will need to put those like Naftali Bennett front and center, to pull the conversation back closer to sanity. It’s ironic that the Martin Indyks of the world lament the rise of people like Naftali Bennett, when they do so much to bring it about.

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Rescue or Ransom? Obama Made Right Call.

This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

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This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

This is not the first time that U.S. policy has been called into question by the outcome of a terrorist kidnapping. Back in September, the family of James Foley, an American who was murdered by his ISIS captors after the U.S. refused to ransom him, criticized the government for not only not saving their son but also for their attempts to prevent them from negotiating a ransom. As far as the Foleys were concerned, the Obama administration had sacrificed their loved one in order to make a political point. The fact that earlier in the year, the same government had negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. solider who had been captured under suspicious circumstances, added hypocrisy to the charges.

But as much as the anguish of the Foleys and the Korkie family is understandable, the president’s decision to choose rescue rather than ransom was entirely correct.

Rather than approach this sad outcome as a human-interest story in which an uncaring government let innocents die to prove a point, our focus should remain on the fact that the West is engaged in a war with Islamist terrorists. Kidnapping is a major source of income for both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. These groups profit handsomely from trades for Western hostages and use the funds they acquire to not only kidnap more victims but to strengthen their ability to threaten vital Western interests. Simply put, without the sums they have extracted from European governments in exchange for their citizens, ISIS would not currently be in possession of much of Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

The war against Islamist terrorism has dragged on for more than a decade and no end is in sight. Part of the reason for that lies in the inherent difficulties in fighting a movement that can be an elusive if deadly target. Part of it also stems from foolish decisions by the Obama administration that weakened America’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But those problems notwithstanding, the president and his foreign-policy team cannot be credibly accused of indifference to the lives of Western hostages. Though the administration’s desire to abandon the Middle East and to move to détente with dangerous Iran is a colossal blunder, their commitment to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda is clear. Those who will blame the president for the deaths of Somers and Korkie need to remember that it is the terrorists who bear all of the responsibility for what happened, not an administration that did the right thing and refused to pay ransoms.

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Does ISIS Threaten Israel?

Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

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Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

The most brazen attempt by ISIS-linked militants to attack Israeli targets came last month when an Islamist group from the Sinai hijacked four Egyptian vessels and made off into the southern Mediterranean with the apparent intent to target either Israeli gas installations or Israeli ships further up the coast. That attempt, which took place November 12 and was ultimately foiled by the Egyptian navy, involved an al-Qaeda linked group which now appears to have shifted its allegiances to ISIS. The name of the terror cell in question, “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” is itself a direct reference to Jerusalem and the land of Israel: “Bait al-Maqdis.” This is one of many Islamist groups operating in the Sinai, several of which are al-Qaeda affiliated and may be inclined to recognize the authority of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the legitimate caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. ISIS itself was after all in part an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, for Israel the influence of ISIS also strikes far closer to home. It is well known that a number of Israel’s Arab and Bedouin citizens have already left to fight with ISIS. So far the numbers in question have been small; Shin Bet is aware of perhaps just thirty such individuals. But more recently there have been reports of ISIS using social media in an attempt to woo Israeli-Arabs with medical expertise to come to ISIS’s assistance. The concern of course is that at some point these battle-hardened individuals will attempt to return to Israel, or that they will simply seek to form cells in Israel itself.

So far rumours of such ISIS linked cells have remained just that. At the time of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers this summer, a West Bank group claiming to represent ISIS attempted to take responsibility for the kidnapping. In recent days there have been online postings by a group claiming to be “ISIS–Gaza Province.” Naturally Hamas has denied the existence of an ISIS branch in Gaza, but Hamas has had its own struggle with Salafist splinter groups in Gaza and it is conceivable that some of these would identify with ISIS. The number of Palestinians sympathetic to ISIS is impossible to judge right now, but when images appeared of the ISIS flag being displayed on the Temple Mount, this certainly gave Israelis legitimate cause for concern.

Beyond Israel’s own borders ISIS is still being kept at some distance. ISIS is of course strong in Syria, but more to the eastern region of the country. Along Israel’s Golan border there are other extremely hostile Islamist groups, most notably al-Nusra. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan and for the moment secure from ISIS. That said, the Hashemite monarchy has looked particularly weak in recent years and the influx of some 630,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan—a country where a quarter of the population is thought to be sympathetic to Salafism—has hardly been a stabilizing factor. Ironically, the border most secure from ISIS is probably the northern border, on account of the strength of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, ISIS has launched assaults on Lebanese towns along the Syrian border and there is a risk of more intense fighting spreading to that front.

Perhaps the clearest indication of all that ISIS has designs on Israel can be found in the group’s very name. Before rebranding as simply the Islamic State, ISIS went by the Arabic acronym Daesh: al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to the entirety of the Levant, including Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. It is for this reason that some incarnations of pan-Arabism have viewed Palestine as simply being Southern Syria. But for ISIS, the reference to al-Sham makes very clear the full extent of the group’s ambitions.

Over the summer ISIS’s media wing al-Battar released a series of images and statements depicting the Dome of the Rock and threatening the Jews that ISIS is on its way. The Israeli left knows a security sensitive Israeli public will be all the more averse to territorial concessions and so it is natural it should wish to play down the threat from ISIS. That threat may not be immediate, but Israelis should have no illusions about ISIS’s intentions, or indeed the draw ISIS’s ideology may have for some Palestinian militants.

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