Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

Not All Peshmerga Are the Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IDF Saves Irish Troops from Jihadists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, Obama Was Talking About ISIS

There they go again.

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There they go again.

The Obama White House, first in the person of press secretary Josh Earnest and now in the person of the president himself, is perpetrating a falsehood of some significance on the American people. It has to do with the denial by Messrs. Earnest and Obama that when the president used the dismissive phrase “jayvee team” in his interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, he didn’t have ISIS in mind.

Here’s the exchange that took place in his interview on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD: Long way, long way from when you described them [ISIS] as a JV team.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I–

CHUCK TODD: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Keep– keep– keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to [ISIS]. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11.

But as I laid out in a fair amount of detail two weeks ago, there’s simply no question that the president was referring to ISIS. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post weighed in a week later, making essentially the same case, and awarding the White House four Pinocchios for their dishonesty on this matter.

This is no small matter. Mr. Obama’s misjudgment on ISIS was extraordinarily costly. It was a complete misreading of the situation, long after others were warning about the nature of the ISIS threat. This mistake ranks among the worst errors of the Obama presidency, which is saying quite a lot. President Obama knows this, which is why he’s frantically trying to pretend he didn’t say what he so clearly said.

The problem is in this whole process the president of the United States is distorting the truth. He’s doing so willfully. But this deception will not only fail; it will further undermine his credibility, which is already at a low ebb. As Mr. Obama said in 2008, “I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”

Mr. Obama is at war with reality, and reality is winning.

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Any ISIS Strategy Has to Starve its Finances

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s ISIS Policy: Committed to Victory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abbas’s Rigged Peace Plan

Over the weekend Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Cairo at the Arab League conference. Precisely what Abbas said to the foreign ministers of the other Arab countries remains unclear, as his keynote address was declared a closed session at the last minute. However, during his stay in Cairo Abbas was meeting with Egyptian President Sisi and others in an effort to drum up regional support for his new peace initiative. Indeed, the head of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, has hailed Abbas as being ready to negotiate a final settlement.

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Over the weekend Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Cairo at the Arab League conference. Precisely what Abbas said to the foreign ministers of the other Arab countries remains unclear, as his keynote address was declared a closed session at the last minute. However, during his stay in Cairo Abbas was meeting with Egyptian President Sisi and others in an effort to drum up regional support for his new peace initiative. Indeed, the head of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, has hailed Abbas as being ready to negotiate a final settlement.

Washington is noticeably less confident. After Abbas dispatched his chief negotiators to meet with Secretary Kerry, U.S. officials have criticized the plan as “unilateral” and even hinted that there would be an American veto should Abbas seek to pursue his plan at the United Nations and in the Security Council.

This chilly response from the administration, usually so impetuous about racing ahead with the peace process, should certainly send some alarm bells ringing. After all, given that Abbas all but shut down the last round of peace negotiations, finally fleeing them just at the moment at which a decision had to be made about their extension, one has to wonder why he is suddenly so eager to resume the talks. And why now exactly? Having apparently been only too pleased to escape the negotiation table, why is Abbas suddenly so determined to be seen as reengaging?

After all, Abbas had every opportunity to continue with the U.S. sponsored negotiations that the Palestinian Authority had been participating in until May of this year. Yet Abbas had refused to extend the talks unless his extensive list of demands were met in advance, insisting that the Palestinians would instead pursue membership of several key international bodies. The Israelis had agreed to a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian terror prisoners that they would release provided that Abbas agreed to press on with negotiations and stay away from the international bodies. Abbas chose to forgo both the additional prisoner releases and an extension of the talks. Now he insists he is ready to get back to talking peace with Israel.

One reason for Abbas’s sudden turnaround stems from his own Fatah faction’s standing in the wake of the recent war in Gaza. It might be assumed that after the death and destruction that Hamas’s war wrought on the people of Gaza, that terror group would have fallen permanently out of favor. Yet perversely the bloodletting has apparently only endeared Hamas to the Palestinian public. Recent polling shows that in both Gaza and the West Bank Hamas enjoys unprecedented levels of approval, with 74 percent expressing a desire to see Hamas’s terror tactics extended to the West Bank. Unlike Fatah, Hamas is seen as engaging in real “resistance.” And because both the Obama administration and the Europeans put such considerable pressure on Israel to reward Hamas’s terror war by granting far-reaching concessions, the message was received loud and clear on the Palestinian street: terrorism gets things done.

Abbas is desperate to be seen to be regaining the initiative. Yet given his past record, it would be mistaken to imagine that he has suddenly become serious about ending the conflict with Israel. Abbas has had multiple opportunities to achieve Palestinian statehood but has shirked the responsibility every time, knowing full well that an Israeli withdrawal would mean his inevitable overthrow by Hamas. Rather, as becomes apparent when one looks more closely at what is being put forward by Abbas, the focus is less on achieving peace and more on establishing a series of penalties against Israel for when the talks fail to bear fruit, as Abbas knows will be the case. This isn’t about reconciliation, this is about demonstrating to the Palestinian public that diplomacy is still an effective way of waging warfare by other means.

From what we know about the plan–from Abbas’s own words to Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog and from what has been leaked by former PA minister Mahmoud al-Habash–the plan is booby-trapped against Israel at every turn. The plan allows for negotiations to take place for a maximum of nine months, with that period being broken down into a timetable for reaching agreement on the key issues of Abbas’s choosing, with borders clearly featuring as his highest priority. If at any point this process doesn’t go according to plan and Abbas’s timetable isn’t kept to then Abbas is threatening to drag Israel before the International Criminal Court, to end cooperation on security in the West Bank and to resume efforts to achieve statehood via the UN.

There were many reasons to suspect that the last round of U.S. sponsored negotiations were unfavorable to the Israeli position, but even that playing field wasn’t uneven enough for Abbas. The only negotiations Abbas is interested in are ones that are fixed in his favor–fixed to ensure he gets what he wants, and more importantly, fixed to punish Israel if he doesn’t. For the moment even John Kerry appears nervous about backing so outrageous a proposal as this one. But with Abbas expected to announce his initiative later this month at the UN General Assembly meeting, we’ll see if the administration’s opposition holds out.

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The Ignorance Driving Coverage of Israel and American Policy

I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

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I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

The point of the article is that a group of journalists met with an Israeli intelligence official to get Israel’s side of the story. On the one hand, I suppose the media can be commended for at least recognizing that there’s a side other than that churned out by Hamas flacks. On the other hand, the war is over. Perhaps, I don’t know, during the war would have been a good time to figure out that there are two sides to the story? Just a thought. Additionally, isn’t the fact that basic information about Hamas fighters and weaponry is considered a major scoop a massive indictment of the press?

Here’s another question: should the Jerusalem bureau chief of a major American newspaper show his surprise at finding out information he should have known long before? The tone of the report, then, doesn’t help either. For example:

The intelligence chief said it is not important how lethal the rockets were. He said the aim was to instill terror, to force a million Israelis to run into shelters.

So Hamas succeeded, in part.

Of the 4,500 rockets fired by Hamas and allies, 875 fell inside Gaza. Many were lobbed at Israeli soldiers during the ground offensive, but others were duds or misfires that landed short, meaning Hamas dropped explosives on its own people.

It is even possible, the intelligence chief said, that some of that fire was intentional.

Yes, some of the damage to Gaza was inflicted directly by Hamas. If you have the resources of the Washington Post behind you and you need this pointed out to you after the war, you might want to consider it not a revelation but a piece of constructive professional criticism.

What we discovered–or, rather, confirmed yet again–during this latest war was that the Palestinian leadership, and especially Hamas, relies on the ignorance of the Western press. The lack of knowledge about Palestinian politics is crucial to Hamas’s strategy and it should be a source of agitation for newspapers providing the resources to cover the conflict and getting this lump of coal in return.

But it’s not just ignorance of Palestinian politics; it’s ignorance of Israeli politics too–far less justifiable since English is so broadly spoken there and the country allows freedom of the press. And that ignorance is not just on the part of the press; it’s also from national governments, including the current occupants of the White House.

This was brought to light again by another excellent piece debunking settlement myths by Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot, who have returned to this topic again to address the manifold falsities inspired by the recent land designation, which we covered on the blog here and here. Not only were the press and foreign leaders wrong about this particular land, but Abrams and Sadot also point out it’s part of a larger misunderstanding about Israel’s broader settlement policy under Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister continues to rein in settlement growth. For that, he is denounced by the settler movement for restricting settlements and by Western governments for expanding settlements. Only one of those is right–and it’s not the Western governments:

It’s a lose-lose situation for Bibi, as nasty attacks from settler leaders coincide with those from prime ministers, foreign ministers, and presidents across the globe. The Israeli prime minister deserves credit, under these circumstances, for sticking to what he has said and appears to believe: Israel must build where it will stay, in Jerusalem and the major blocks, and it is foolish to waste resources in West Bank areas it will someday leave.

At this point, the mindless refrain on settlement construction seems to have assumed a life of its own. But anyone who’s serious about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should ignore the speeches and the rote condemnations, and study the numbers. The vast expansion of Israeli settlements in the future Palestinian state is simply not happening.

Newspapers may have resources, but nobody has the resources of the American government. And yet, the Obama administration’s pronouncements on Israeli politics and policy reveal a stunning, all-encompassing ignorance. Even worse, that ignorance is voluntary: it is very easy to get the real story. The president and his Cabinet don’t seem to want the real story. It’s no wonder their policies toward the conflict are so destructive and their diplomacy so thoughtlessly harmful.

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Whose Victory Is Amerli?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Hostage Bring Cameron into the War?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Terrorists and the Mantle of Human Rights

Many analysts and scholars have pointed out the strange bedfellows that some self-described progressive organizations make with radical terrorist groups or autocratic regimes. The American Friends Service Committee, for example, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, subsequently aligned itself with and defended the Khmer Rouge until the full horror of that communist organization’s genocidal campaigns became clear. Lynne Stewart, a prominent lawyer famous for defending left-of-center clients, once told the New York Times that she supported violence “directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism and sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions, and accompanied by popular support.”

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Many analysts and scholars have pointed out the strange bedfellows that some self-described progressive organizations make with radical terrorist groups or autocratic regimes. The American Friends Service Committee, for example, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, subsequently aligned itself with and defended the Khmer Rouge until the full horror of that communist organization’s genocidal campaigns became clear. Lynne Stewart, a prominent lawyer famous for defending left-of-center clients, once told the New York Times that she supported violence “directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism and sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions, and accompanied by popular support.”

That may have been morally obtuse enough, but she eventually found herself in prison for supporting terrorists who promoted the most extreme forms of racism and sexism. This past January, I highlighted an incident in which Human Rights Watch (HRW) partnered with an organization run by a man subsequently designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as an Al Qaeda financier; HRW never bothered to review its reports and the information which it apparently accepted blindly from al-Karama, the partner in question.

Now, information is surfacing about the United Kingdom-based CAGE (sometimes called CAGEPrisoners) which has led a campaign on behalf of Mahmoud al-Jaidah, a Qatari national arrested and sentenced in the United Arab Emirates for helping al-Islah, the UAE’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which last year sought to overthrow the government violently.

Here’s the problem: Last February, British police arrested CAGE Outreach Director Moazzam Begg on suspicion of “facilitating terrorism overseas,” and subsequently charged him with “providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas” in relation to Syria. This should not have been a surprise. Begg was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had confessed to training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Despite Begg’s arrest, CAGE continues to promote extremists in the name of human rights. For example, on July 17, 2014, it held a fundraiser to discuss “the ethnical, political, and legal consequences of caring for the oppressed.” Nothing wrong with that, but the event listed Israfil Yilmaz as one of the guest speakers. Yilmaz is a Dutch citizen identified by security officials as a jihadist training Islamist extremists inside Syria. We’re not talking about the so-called moderate opposition. By Yilmaz’s own admission, he said he was with Katiba Muhajireen, a group that in 2013 merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Not surprisingly, British authorities intervened. Begg defended Yilmaz, however, as someone he “knew well in Syria.”

Alas, for CAGE, such an embrace of radicals seems more the rule than the exception. In 2009, for example, the group held a fundraising dinner at Kensington Town Hall in London. CAGE announced that the event was to include an “exclusive video message” from Anwar al-Awlaki, the senior Al Qaeda cleric who encouraged the Fort Hood shooting. British authorities ultimately prevented CAGE from playing the message. It’s the intent that counts, though.

The United Arab Emirates is by no means a human rights Utopia and it does not pretend to be a democracy, but it is a moderate country progressing in the right direction. Sometimes, however, a country’s enemies reveal a lot about a country. When Al Qaeda, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood are lining up against the United Arab Emirates, it’s probably not because the Emirates are tolerating or promoting radical Islam. Nor do Al Qaeda affiliates and their defenders in the self-described human rights advocacy community, whether Human Rights Watch itself, al-Karama, or CAGE, seem to have the embrace of human rights at heart when they attack the United Arab Emirates or defend those who appear to support the most extreme forms of terrorism.

Until human rights groups stop interpreting human rights through a subjective political lens, and until they cease allowing themselves to be used knowingly or through their own naivety by hardcore Islamist groups, they will both advance an agenda anathema to freedom, liberty, and individual and they will also make a mockery of their declared and important mission to promote human rights.

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Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

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

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

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

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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Congress’s Cynical Syria Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi, Guerrilla Warfare, and Public Opinion

The Israeli public appears to be unhappy with the ceasefire agreement that Prime Minister Netanyahu has reached with Hamas. According to one poll, his public backing for the handling of the Gaza crisis has dropped from 82 percent at the height of the fighting to just 38 percent today. Meanwhile support for more hardline members of the cabinet such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has surged. The common cry of critics of the ceasefire is that Netanyahu is making a big mistake by not seeking “victory,” defined as the eradication of Hamas.

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The Israeli public appears to be unhappy with the ceasefire agreement that Prime Minister Netanyahu has reached with Hamas. According to one poll, his public backing for the handling of the Gaza crisis has dropped from 82 percent at the height of the fighting to just 38 percent today. Meanwhile support for more hardline members of the cabinet such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has surged. The common cry of critics of the ceasefire is that Netanyahu is making a big mistake by not seeking “victory,” defined as the eradication of Hamas.

But as Jonathan Tobin and other realists have pointed out, the cost of seeking victory is simply too high for the Israeli public to stomach. Sure, Israelis may want to wipe out Hamas; who doesn’t? But once they saw what it actually took to accomplish that objective, they would likely turn against the military operation just as they previously turned against the 1982 invasion of Lebanon which was designed to eradicate the PLO. Or as the American public turned against wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Haviv Rettig Gur argues in the Times of Israel, part of the problem is a mismatch between general Western, including Israeli, conceptions of what war should be like and what war is actually like most of the time. Quoting the great military historian Victor Davis Hanson, Gur notes “that for 2,500 years, democracies have held to a particular view of wars as brief, decisive, winner-takes-all confrontations between like-minded opponents.” Yet the IDF has been denied such a decisive battle with a regular enemy force since the end of the Yom Kippur War. “Defeated on those decisive battlefields,” Gur notes, “Arab opponents of Israel have turned to new arenas, to the very terror, guerrilla and irregular tactics that Israelis consider immoral and cowardly.”

Yet whatever the morality of guerrilla tactics, as a practical matter they are much harder to defeat than a conventional attack–as the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq and as Israel has learned in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, and as both the governments of Iraq and Syria are now learning. While it’s easy to say that the IDF should “defeat” or “destroy ” Hamas, actually accomplishing this task would involve a painful and protracted occupation of the Gaza Strip that few Israelis want to undertake. Gur writes: “The IDF believes it could take years to ‘pacify’ such a crowded, politically hostile territory, at the cost of hundreds of IDF dead and untold thousands of Palestinian dead, massive international opprobrium, and vast drains on the IDF’s manpower and financial resources that could limit its operational flexibility on other dangerous fronts, especially Syria-Lebanon and Iran.”

As a practical matter, moreover, Israel would be hard-pressed to wage such a conflict over the opposition of President Obama who would surely try to punish Israel by denying its request for more armaments and possibly by refusing to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.

Such a war might still be well-advised if Hamas were an existential threat, but it’s not. Despite all of the rockets it rained on Israel, Hamas thankfully managed to kill few Israelis.

Netanyahu’s judgment clearly is that a ceasefire which restores the status quo ante bellum is the best Israel can do right now, and he is surely right. That is not satisfying for those who hunger for an idyllic version of war in which the bad guys surrender after being bombed for a few days, but it is line with the complex reality of irregular war as it has been waged over the centuries.

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Exposing the Facts Doesn’t Change the Media’s Anti-Israel Narrative

Anybody who has worked in an actual newsroom knows that mainstream media bias–most pungently against conservative cultural mores and the State of Israel–is real and pervasive. The question that crops up time and again is: Why? Where does the bias come from, why can’t it be corrected? Yesterday Matti Friedman, in an in-depth piece on media coverage and the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave an answer, at least with regard to media bias against Israel. He’s right. And much of the pro-Israel world wishes he weren’t.

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Anybody who has worked in an actual newsroom knows that mainstream media bias–most pungently against conservative cultural mores and the State of Israel–is real and pervasive. The question that crops up time and again is: Why? Where does the bias come from, why can’t it be corrected? Yesterday Matti Friedman, in an in-depth piece on media coverage and the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave an answer, at least with regard to media bias against Israel. He’s right. And much of the pro-Israel world wishes he weren’t.

Friedman worked for the Associated Press, and saw firsthand how the Western media operates when the subject turns to Israel. It’s an experience shared by all but the most liberal reporters, who don’t notice the bias because of their cloistered worldview. In fact, Friedman considers himself “a liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s policies.” It’s just that he has an affinity for the truth and a belief in the noble role the media can and should play in disseminating the facts.

As a prelude to a rundown of examples of how the AP and other major news organizations omit much of importance in service to their blame-Israel narrative, Friedman writes:

A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.

After listing much of what is missing from coverage of the conflict, he gives a particularly glaring example:

The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned. These lacunae are often not oversights but a matter of policy. In early 2009, for example, two colleagues of mine obtained information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story.

Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer—like delving too deeply into the subject of Hamas—would make that narrative look like nonsense. And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year and a half.

This decision taught me a lesson that should be clear to consumers of the Israel story: Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.

It was a big story (when it was finally revealed), and it really would have been quite a scoop. Many observers would be frankly shocked to learn about the proclivity of editors to lose out on an important scoop because the facts of the story aren’t anti-Israel enough. But that’s the reality of the international, especially Western, media.

And seemingly minor stories can also make a big difference. A good example came in late 2012 from New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, whose tenure thus far has been undeniably disastrous. Slanting a story is one thing, but Rudoren has taken to simply redrawing maps. She wrote a patently ridiculous story asserting that building in the E-1 corridor near Jerusalem would divide the West Bank in two. The article contained even more errors than that, and they were mistakes that could have been prevented by glancing at a map.

Does the Times have access to a map? Has anyone at the Times looked out a window while in Jerusalem? Of course. What’s happening is not a series of slip-ups–no one with any experience in the matter could possibly make Rudoren’s claims with a straight face. What’s happening is bias-as-policy, as Friedman points out.

Rudoren’s story is just one of many examples. But the point is that while defenders of the anti-Israel press tend to think Israel’s defenders read the coverage of the conflict in the hopes of finding bias wherever and whenever possible, the opposite is true. Israel and her defenders, in general, wish fervently that Friedman’s assessment is wrong.

That’s because if the unreliable reporting were simply a matter of inexperience and ignorance, it could be remedied. Israel has made far more effort in recent years to get its side of the story out. If the media were truly interested in getting the story right, this would make a difference. It isn’t, and so it hasn’t. That’s the bleak reality of the mainstream media’s coverage of Israel.

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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Assad’s American Reinforcements and Obama’s Plunging Credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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