Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

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For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

The contrast between Obama’s speech today and previous statements, such as his June 2009 address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo, Egypt was stark. Rather than placing the blame for conflicts on the West and, in particular, the United States, Obama seems finally to have woken up to the fact that engagement won’t make radical Islam go away. In its place, the president spoke up forcefully in recognition of the fact that there is no alternative to the use of force against radical Islamists such as the al-Qaeda affiliates and the ISIS group running amok in Syria and Iraq:

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.

Even more importantly, he recognized that the foundation of any effort to deal with these terrorists must come from recognition by Muslims and Arabs to clean up their own house:

It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

That is exactly right. While in Cairo he pretended that there was no real conflict, now he seems to understand that while this needn’t be a clash of civilizations between the West and the East, the rhetoric of his predecessor about nations having to choose whether they were with the U.S. or not is closer to the mark than the platitudes he used to spout. Having come into office acting as if the commitment of President George W. Bush to fight a war against Islamist terror was a historical mistake that could be redressed by conciliatory speeches and withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama now seems to have learned the error of his ways. The delusion that the U.S. could bug out of the war in Iraq and ignore the crisis in Syria without cost has been exposed by the rise of ISIS. Though he continues to insist that American ground troops won’t take part in this latest round of a war that began long before he took office, there can at least be no mistaking that the U.S. is back in the fight and understands that this time there can be no premature withdrawals or foolish decisions to opt out of the conflict.

Such tough-minded and more realistic positions also characterized the president’s attitude toward other, not entirely unrelated issues.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stuck to his belief in a two-state solution and his commitment to making it a reality. But he also finally acknowledged a major truth:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

While relations remain frosty between Washington and Jerusalem, at long last, with this speech, the administration seems to have rid itself of the delusion that pressuring Israel into territorial concessions would solve all the problems of the Middle East.

Also to his credit, the new hard line from Obama was not limited to the Middle East. His rhetoric about Russian aggression against Ukraine was equally tough and left no room for doubt that the United States supports Kiev against the Putin regime’s provocations and will stand by its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

And though the president has repeatedly weakened the West’s position in negotiations over the threat from Iran’s nuclear program, here, too, he was at least ready to again demand that Tehran commit to a process that will make the realization of their ambitions impossible.

Leaving aside recriminations about all the mistakes that preceded this moment, it must be acknowledged that the president has gone a long way toward correcting some, though not all, of his most egregious foreign-policy errors. But the problem is that it will take more than rhetoric to address these challenges.

Without adequate resources, American military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bound to fail. Nor can we, if we really believe that ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates are a genuine threat to U.S. security, rely entirely on local Arab forces to do a job they have proved unable to do for years. As our Max Boot wrote earlier today, America can’t bomb its way out of this problem.

Nor can the challenges from Iran and its terrorist allies waging war against Israel be met with only words. The same is true for the effort to halt Russia’s campaign to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires. Without military aid to Ukraine and similar efforts to bolster the Baltic states and Poland, Vladimir Putin will dismiss the president’s speech as empty bombast.

By giving a speech that included major elements that often sounded like those given by his predecessor, the president turned a corner today in a speech that seemed to embody his transformation from a man lost in his own delusions and ego to one who knew he was the leader of a nation embroiled in a generations-long war not of its own choosing. But in the coming weeks and months and the last two years of his presidency, he will have to match his actions to the fine rhetoric we heard today. Based on his past history, it is impossible to be optimistic about Obama’s ability to meet that challenge. Throughout his address, the president seemed to be drowning in multilateral platitudes and the kind of liberal patent nostrums that have helped bring us to this terrible moment in history. But at least for a few minutes on the UN podium, the president gave us the impression that he understands the large gap between the illusions that helped elect him president and the harsh reality in which the nation now finds itself.

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What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

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For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

This news comes as we learned over the weekend that ISIS attacked an Iraqi army base, killing upwards of 300-500 Iraqi soldiers. “If the survivors’ accounts are correct,” the Washington Post reports, “it would make Sunday the most disastrous day for the Iraqi army since several divisions collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul amid its cross-country sweep in June.”

So while in Iraq we’ve been pounding ISIS from the air for a month and a half, we haven’t begun to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground.

Now keep this in mind: the situation in Iraq, while certainly challenging, is many times less complicated for us than the situation in Syria, which is (a) ruled by an enemy of America; (b) a client state of Iran; and (c) engaged in a ferocious, multi-sided civil war involving forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, in Iraq there are Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga who are willing to fight ISIS, albeit imperfectly. (Both have suffered serious military reversal this past summer.) Success in Iraq depends on working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which happened during the counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08.

In atomized, hellish Syria we have no such advantages. Which is why if President Obama persists in refusing to allow U.S. “boots on the ground”–if he doesn’t allow American troops to coordinate on the front lines with forces opposing ISIS–we can’t defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean we can’t inflict damage on it, of course; but inflicting damage is one thing, defeating ISIS is quite another.

The president, in ordering air strikes in Syria, has dramatically escalated our involvement in this war. But one cannot shake the haunting feeling that he’s simply going through the motions; that Mr. Obama is stunned to find himself in this predicament, that his heart and will are not in this war, and that he’s not really committed to winning it.

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Abbas’s Fake Civil-Rights Struggle

In New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas went to Cooper Union to give a speech comparing his own efforts to those of the American civil-rights movement. Abbas is struggling for relevance at home and for attention abroad at a time when focus has shifted from the conflict in Gaza to the far bloodier and more dangerous one in Syria and Iraq. But the falsehoods and distortions the Palestinian uttered at the school’s venerable Great Hall deserve to be debunked if only because so many in the international community that have descended on the city never question them.

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In New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas went to Cooper Union to give a speech comparing his own efforts to those of the American civil-rights movement. Abbas is struggling for relevance at home and for attention abroad at a time when focus has shifted from the conflict in Gaza to the far bloodier and more dangerous one in Syria and Iraq. But the falsehoods and distortions the Palestinian uttered at the school’s venerable Great Hall deserve to be debunked if only because so many in the international community that have descended on the city never question them.

The attempt to compare the Palestinians to African-Americans during the American civil-rights struggle is not new. This specious thesis has been trotted out before by Palestinians and even endorsed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is predicated on the notion that Palestinians are merely struggling for freedom and independence while being repressed by wicked Israelis who covet their land and deprive them of their rights in the same manner as those who enforced Jim Crow laws in the American south prior to the enforcement of federal civil-rights acts. The choice of the venue for Abbas’ address underlines that ploy since it has been the site of many memorable speeches by Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, and, most memorably, Abraham Lincoln.

That the Palestinians would seek to continue to portray themselves in this manner is understandable since it is a meme designed to generate sympathy and support for efforts to persuade the UN to vote for measures designed to give them a state without first having made peace with Israel. But while this tired act may work at a General Assembly with a built-in majority that will support any attack on the Jewish state, those who have been paying attention to recent events in the Middle East weren’t impressed.

The purpose of Abbas’s efforts was to split the U.S.-Israel alliance and persuade Americans to support efforts to impose a solution to the conflict on the Israelis. But his calls for Americans to rise up and demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “end the occupation” might have been a bit more credible if he had been upfront about both the history of negotiations and the realities of Palestinian politics.

Let’s start with the fact that the Palestinians were offered exactly what they say they want in 2000, 2001, and 2008 and said no. The last such time it was Abbas, rather than his predecessor Yasir Arafat, who fled the talks rather than be put in the position of once again turning down independence if it meant recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state next door. Since then, Abbas has refused to negotiate seriously with Netanyahu despite the fact that the latter endorsed a two-state solution. Instead of agreeing to keep talking with the Israelis as President Obama asked, Abbas made a deal with Hamas and blew up the talks so as to avoid being put in the delicate position of having to agree to something even his own supporters won’t countenance.

But the problem isn’t just that the Palestinians keep saying no. It’s that the struggle between the two sides was shown again this past summer to have nothing to do with “occupation” or the peaceful efforts of a people to govern themselves.

While Abbas mentioned the latest fighting in Gaza this year, he ignored the fact that it was set off by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent decision by his Hamas rivals to start launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. During the course of the 50-day war that followed, Hamas’s actions and the discovery of the network of terror tunnels along the border intended to facilitate mass murder and/or kidnapping of Israelis also put the purpose of their efforts — which were cheered by most Palestinians — into focus. When the Islamists talk about “resisting” the “occupation,” they are not talking about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or parts of Jerusalem (things the Israelis have repeatedly offered) or drawing a border that is more generous to the Palestinians than previous efforts. They are, instead, discussing the fulfillment of their goal of destroying Israel and slaughtering its Jewish population.

After all, Israel withdrew every last soldier, settlement, and settler from Gaza in 2005 and instead of an incubator for peace and development, what followed was the transformation of the strip into a large terror base. Gaza is today for all intents and purposes an independent state in all but name. That it is ruled by Hamas rather than Abbas not only underlines his irrelevance but is the reason why Israelis are today even more wary of empowering the leader of the Palestinians on the West Bank. If Israel were to grant Abbas’s wish—with or without his promise that this measure would end the conflict for all time—few doubt that Hamas could overthrow him and install a replica of their Gaza fiefdom in the far more strategically important and larger West Bank.

The basic difference between the civil-rights movement and Palestinian nationalism is that the former laudably sought to gain the rights of blacks without prejudice to those of their white neighbors. The Palestinian drive for self-determination has, unfortunately, always been inextricably linked to the century-long campaign to eradicate the Jewish presence in the land. If Israelis now hesitate to replicate its Gaza experiment in the West Bank it is because Hamas has shown them what happens when withdrawals occur.

Instead of making false analogies about Israel, Abbas should be publicly denouncing the way Hamas used the population of Gaza as human shields and its commitment to terror, not to mention ensuring that the broadcast and print outlets he controls cease fomenting hatred and delegitimization of Israel and Jews.

If Israelis are no longer that interested in Abbas, it’s because the Gaza war proved his irrelevance. If he wants to persuade them to take him seriously, he needs to work for peace among his own people, not waste time smearing Israel when not even his foreign cheerleaders are particularly interested in him.

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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

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Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

There are also questions at play about the credibility of the U.N. Since Obama and the Arab countries involved acted without U.N. approval, some may again express doubts about the relevance of the global body, particularly when some countries with veto power are intent on blocking concerted action.

Right–on a fundamental level, it doesn’t much matter what happens to Obama’s UN diplomacy. The president will lead a Security Council session tomorrow intended to gain a broad commitment from countries to “stem the flow of foreign fighters to extremist groups” such as ISIS. And that’s not unimportant. Any commitment, especially from Western Europe or the Arab world, helps.

And that is what tells us that Obama’s decision to strike before the UN gathering, instead of after it, was a strategically smart call. Those who oppose the strikes altogether don’t much care about the timing, unless a delay allows for a congressional vote, of course. But if Obama was planning to go it alone anyway, the timing was shrewd.

After Obama balked on attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the dictator crossing Obama’s not-so-red line on chemical weapons, Obama’s defenders made a very silly attempt at spinning that foreign-policy disaster. They said it was the threat of military force from Obama that made Assad willing to strike a deal to turn over his chemical weapons.

Few bought it. And the deal was a joke: not all chemical weapons were listed, and Assad seems to have fooled Obama and cheated the deal anyway (as many assumed would be the case from the beginning). But now he can actually test the effect that a credible threat of force would have since he’ll have backed up his words with actions. Now when Obama says he might attack, he really might.

But what if his willingness to use force doesn’t rally the UN to America’s cause? That’s OK too, since having attacked without the UN in the first place shows that when he believes American interests are truly at stake, Obama will go around the UN. The lack of UN authorization should never be mistaken for a per se “unjust” war. But had he put the Syria strikes on hold until he could rally the UN, Obama would have left just such an impression, and it would have been more complicated to go it alone and more onerous to get the Arab states on board. Now the U.S. is quite clearly not hostage to the whims of the dictator protection racket that is the United Nations.

In other words, in choosing the timing of his Syria strikes wisely, Obama may have learned a lesson about strategic calculation that his critics, especially on the right, have been imploring him to learn. Obama has, thus far, learned this lesson through failure rather than success.

And it’s not just about largely discredited authoritarian creep mobs like the UN. Obama’s faddish fixation on retrenchment chic and Western Europe’s schizophrenic appetite for confrontation have left NATO countries in Russia’s neighborhood unsure their allies will fulfill their obligations of mutual defense. And so they’ve taken matters, however modestly, into their own hands. As Reuters reported last week:

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched a joint military force on Friday that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said could start its first exercises in the tense region in the next year.

The three countries and other states in the area have been on high alert since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March – and Western powers accused Moscow of sending troops to back rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish defense officials said the new joint unit could take part in peacekeeping operations, or form the basis of a NATO battle group if one was needed in the future.

NATO, being an alliance of democratic-minded free countries, is far more effective at its tasks than the UN generally is at its own, and there’s no comparison when the matter is the defense of the free world. But NATO isn’t exactly in its prime at the moment. Obama is ambivalent about the organization, democracy is in retreat in Western Europe, and Turkey has become an example of a country that could never be admitted to NATO in its current form were it not already in the alliance.

Going through international organizations can be a great way to give any coalition a sense of legitimacy. But countries have interests, and they protect those interests whether the UN approves or not. Barack Obama is going to address the UN with a simple message: he’s not bluffing. For once, they’ll believe him.

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Israel and the Unasked Question on Syria

The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

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The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

Accounts of the attacks on ISIS targets as well as those on the Khorasan group speak of strikes on bases, training camps, and checkpoints as well as command-and-control centers in four provinces and having been in the vicinity of several Syrian cities. Many terrorists may have been killed and severe damage done to the ability of both ISIS and the Khorasan group to conduct operations. The first videos of the aftermath of the bombings show members of the groups digging out the rubble and seeking survivors of the attacks. The surrounding area appears to be one of built-up structures. While some of these bases and command-and-control centers may well have been in isolated places, it is likely that many, if not most, were in the vicinity of civilian residences. All of which leads to the question that almost no one, at least in the American media, is asking today: what about civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure facilities that might severely impact the quality of life of those who live in these areas?

If we are being honest, the answer to such queries is clear: we don’t know. American forces conduct such operations under rules of engagement that seek to limit if not totally eliminate non-military casualties. But even under the strictest limits, civilians are killed in war. It is also to be hoped that all of the strikes were conducted with perfect accuracy, but that is the sort of thing that generally only happens in movies. In real life, war is conducted in an environment in which a host of factors make perfection as unattainable as it is in every other aspect of life. Which means it is almost certain that at least some Syrian civilians (a population that may include supporters of the terrorists and some who are essentially their hostages) were killed and wounded last night.

If anyone were thinking about that fact today, you wouldn’t know it from watching any of the cable news networks. The impact of the strikes on individuals in Syria or any potential damage to civilian infrastructure is of no interest to the commentators or the anchors. Instead, the conversation about the attacks on terror targets focuses solely on how effective the strikes have been, the role of U.S. allies, and whether these actions will be followed up with sufficient ground force actions that will make it possible to truly defeat ISIS or any al-Qaeda affiliates currently running riot in the region. The only criticisms being voiced are those about the president’s lack of a specific authorization from Congress for these actions, whether U.S. forces will have to fight on the ground there, or if the attacks have gone far enough.

All this is in stark contrast to the reaction to Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza this past summer.

Almost all of the targets struck by the Israelis were similar to those in Syria that were hit by the Americans. Moreover, unlike the case with ISIS and Khorasan, the Israeli efforts were not primarily preemptive in nature. After all, the U.S. is attacking ISIS in part because of its depredations in the region but also because of the very real likelihood that if they are left unmolested, they will eventually turn their barbaric attentions to attacks on the United States. Israel struck back at Hamas because the terror group doesn’t merely intend to destroy the State of Israel and slaughter its Jewish population but because it was launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns and seeking to use terror tunnels to kidnap and kill even more Jews.

But rather than give the Israelis the same benefit of the doubt about their good intentions and efforts to limit collateral damage, the international community denounced the Israeli counter-attacks. News coverage focused almost completely on civilian casualties and the impact of the war on ordinary Palestinians rather than, as is the case today with U.S. efforts, on the military question of how best Hamas might be defeated.

Why aren’t we talking about civilian casualties in Syria? There are a number of reasons.

The Western media has more or less ignored the horrific nature of the Syrian Civil War since its inception three years ago. Hundreds of thousands have already died but apparently the media sees little reason to start caring about it now just because Americans are involved.

Another is the lack of Western media on the ground in Syria. That is understandable given what has happened to some of the Western freelance journalists who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. By contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists welcomed Western journalists into Gaza and allowed them to do their jobs in safety provided, of course, that they concentrated their efforts on reinforcing the narrative about the conflict that told only of civilian casualties while largely ignoring the presence of armed fighters and their attacks on Israelis. That the entire Western press corps adhered to these restrictions is a testament to both the ability of Hamas to intimidate journalists and to the fact that many in the press were all too happy to follow these instructions since they were compatible with their own views of the conflict.

Let’s concede that the circumstances of these conflicts are not identical. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is more specific and related to the desire of the Arabs to refuse to share the region with a sovereign Jewish state rather than the more amorphous desire of the Syrian and Iraqi Islamists to set up a new caliphate. Hamas is also a bit more media savvy and has more experience in manipulating its message to appeal to Westerners who are willing to be fooled by terrorists.

But the real difference between the ways these two conflicts are covered has a lot more to do with the identity of the foes of the Islamists than to any of those distinctions. Muslims may slaughter Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, as they have done in Syria, without the world paying much notice. But if a fraction of that number are killed by Israeli Jews, even in a war of self-defense, that is considered intolerable by a world that has always judged Jews and their state by a double standard that has never been applied to anyone else, including the United States. Israelis, who have watched as their efforts to defend themselves have been answered by a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe, may be forgiven for no longer giving a damn about international opinion.

The media should continue to focus its coverage on Syria on the question of whether the president’s actions are effective, not whether some accidents or mistakes by U.S. personnel resulted in civilian losses. But you can bet that the same sources will revert to the same stances they took this past summer when Hamas resumes its fight against Israel, as it will sooner or later. When it does, don’t expect any admissions by journalists that they are applying different standards to Israel than they did to U.S. forces. But that is exactly what they will be doing. The term by which such prejudice is usually called is anti-Semitism.

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Iron Dome and the Latest Peace Fantasy

Those who want Israel to strike a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians cannot decide if Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense is a help or a hindrance. Each time Israel fights a war with Hamas, the occasional column appears claiming that Iron Dome impedes peace because Israelis are, in effect, too safe for their own good. But there is the other side of the coin for the peace camp. And that is the belief that Israel’s missile defense will make Israeli military counteroffensives unnecessary and counterproductive.

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Those who want Israel to strike a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians cannot decide if Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense is a help or a hindrance. Each time Israel fights a war with Hamas, the occasional column appears claiming that Iron Dome impedes peace because Israelis are, in effect, too safe for their own good. But there is the other side of the coin for the peace camp. And that is the belief that Israel’s missile defense will make Israeli military counteroffensives unnecessary and counterproductive.

This argument, offered in today’s Washington Post by American University associate professor Boaz Atzili, suggests a two-track process: Israelis should negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians while hiding under their desks until peace arrives. Iron Dome, should its accuracy be maintained and eventually improved, would thus give Israelis the cover they need to hold their fire. There are serious flaws here, even under current, realistic best-case scenarios. These flaws become clear when Atzili gets around to scripting out such a defensive posture in practice:

So what might a defensive Israeli campaign look like? In response to a massive launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel would respond by mobilizing its truly defensive capabilities: People in the targeted area would remain in bomb shelters and fortified rooms, the Iron Dome would target missiles aimed at large population centers, and the IDF would augment its forces to guard the borders and try to intercept Hamas attempts to infiltrate by sea or tunnels. There could be casualties on the Israeli side, but these are likely to be fewer than in the last few rounds of war.

As opposed to these recent bouts of violence, Hamas is likely to face strong international pressure to stop launching rockets, which it would not be able to deflect as retaliation for Israel’s action. Internally, as well, Hamas would not enjoy the same support it has received from the residents of Gaza if it cannot portray its action as defensive. In all likelihood, these pressures would result in a much more speedy cessation of the firing from the Gaza Strip. And there would be no pictures of devastation on the Palestinian side. Israel, for once, would appear in the eyes of the world (and not only in its own eyes) as the just side, and would be able to reap the diplomatic rewards.

I’m sorry, have you met Hamas–or the international community?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think everything in that scenario is wrong. Let’s take the second part first. What “internal pressure” would Hamas face if Gazans aren’t affected by Hamas’s actions? It’s unclear how or why they would push back on Hamas if the terror group were getting free shots at the Jews next door. The obvious answer is: they wouldn’t. There is no evidence to support the assertion that Gazan Palestinians would feel bad about rocketing Israeli population centers and thus pressure their terrorist leaders to take it easy and sue for peace. It does not make any sense, it is not consistent with the history of the conflict, and it would be irresponsible for Israeli officials to put their citizens’ lives on the line while they chase this unicorn.

But it’s not just the strange faith in Palestinian sympathy toward Israel that makes this plan unfeasible. It’s also the expectation that Israel could afford–psychologically or financially–to wait out Hamas’s unchallenged rocket barrage. Six civilians were killed in this summer’s war, and there’s no reason to think the toll wouldn’t have been higher during that same time period had Hamas been given free rein and all the time in the world to set up its attacks.

And since the idea that a Hamas rocket offensive would conclude in less time without an Israeli military campaign is absurd, the civilian death toll would no doubt be higher. That would lead to greater calls for a counteroffensive, which the IDF would undertake. The alternative, to abandon civilians to live under terror, would be indefensible. And let’s remember that Israel was able to neutralize those tunnels because of the ground incursion. Without that, the tunnels survive the war.

Economically, here are the figures from Ynet on the Gaza war’s toll on Israel:

Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 claims for damage have been submitted to the Israel Tax Authority, which has so far paid some $20 million for direct damages and another $21 million for missed work days and other indirect damage. …

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reports that tourism for July dropped by 26 percent from the same period last year. The sector, comprising about 7 percent of the Israeli economy, has lost at least $566 million, according to the figures.

Israel’s Manufacturers Association estimated the total economic impact on Israeli manufacturers for the first round of the conflict at about 1.2 billion shekels, with factories in the south accounting for 40 percent of this figure, and facilities in Haifa and the center of the country incurring half the losses.

Morally and economically, Israel cannot abandon its citizens to their enemies. Iron Dome is a major defense breakthrough and it no doubt saves lives. But it still entails Israelis running to bomb shelters when rockets are launched at or near population centers. The country can’t live underground, and it can’t live in perpetual, paralyzing fear every moment of every day. Iron Dome cannot be Israel’s only line of defense.

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Yesterday’s Real News Out of Iraq and Syria

There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

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There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

Story No. 1: The U.S. Navy and Air Force, in cooperation with five Arab allies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) launched a series of air strikes and cruise missile strikes on ISIS targets in and around Raqaa, Syria. Separately, the U.S. launched air strikes against the Khorasan group, another jihadist terrorist organization in Syria, closely linked with the Nusra Front, which was said to be plotting attacks against Western targets.

Story No. 2: ISIS continued to attack the Kurdish area of north-central Syria, killing large numbers of people and pushing more than 130,000 refugees over the Turkish border.

Story No. 3: ISIS attackers in Anbar Province, Iraq, reportedly killed more than 300 Iraqi soldiers after a weeklong siege of Camp Saqlawiya where some 800 soldiers had been trapped. Few if any Sunni tribal fighters did anything to prevent yet another large Iraqi army formation from suffering annihilation. The Iraqi army showed itself unable to supply its soldiers or to fight effectively.

Judging from the news coverage, story No. 1 is the most important. But in reality I’d argue that No. 2 and especially No. 3 are more significant. No one doubts that the U.S. can launch air strikes on ISIS. The question is whether those attacks will be effective in degrading and eventually destroying this terrorist group. The answer is: not until there is an effective ground force able to take advantage of the disruption created by American bombs. Until that happens, ISIS will stay on the offensive.

We know, of course, that after three years of American neglect the Free Syrian Army is in no position to attack the heart of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. It is also disheartening to learn that after a similar three years of American neglect, the Iraqi army is in no position to effectively challenge ISIS either. Same goes for the Sunni tribes, which at the moment lack both the will and the means to fight ISIS effectively. The Kurdish peshmerga–the other proxy force we are counting on–are in only marginally better shape. They also need more equipment and training.

What this means is that, however welcome, the U.S. air strikes in Syria are of more symbolic importance than anything else. Their military significance is likely to be scant until the U.S. can do more to train and arm forces capable of mounting ground attacks on ISIS militants. Already six weeks of U.S. air strikes in Iraq have failed to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds; there is no reason to believe that six months of air strikes in isolation will work any better. As former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta have said, it will take “boots on the ground” from the United States to galvanize and train the potential anti-ISIS forces. But because President Obama is so far prohibiting U.S. troops from working alongside anti-ISIS fighters in the field, “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” of the current strategy succeeding–to quote the succinct summary of retired Gen. Jim Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps.

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The Media and Anti-Semitism

This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

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This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

“When (the media) cover something, it tends to attract more attention,” Bratton told reporters following a security briefing for the Jewish High Holy Days at police headquarters.

“But we have seen this before, that when there’s attention paid to an issue, that it brings this about,” Bratton continued. “And when there’s continued attention — and the issue in Gaza, where it stretched over several weeks — we could see a continuing increase.”

Hate crimes are up, according to the city. Bratton tried to downplay recent incidents as “lone wolf” events, though New York State homeland security commissioner Jerome Hauer countered that “Anti-Semitism is rising at a rate we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and I think it will continue to grow.”

Anyone who followed Western coverage of the war in Gaza won’t be too surprised. But Bratton’s comments weren’t ill-phrased off-the-cuff remarks; they were part of a clear message from the NYPD on the role of the press in the uptick in hate crimes. Deputy Chief Michael Osgood focused a bit more on the correlation:

“On July first, the Gaza Strip becomes a major news story and stays consistent in the media through July and August, every single day, every single morning, front page of the New York Times, front page of the Wall Street Journal,” he said.

Around this time, “the group ISIS becomes a major news story and they stay consistent in the news media, [and] that creates what I call an emotional surge.”

Since that time, there has been an average of 18 anti-Semitic cases a month.

“A person who would normally not offend, now offends,” Osgood said, describing the effect of the news. “He’s moved by the emotions.”

It’s a bit refreshing to hear this from the police. The role of the media in stimulating anti-Semitism, especially when it comes to Israel, is no secret. Sometimes this takes the form of outright falsifying events in Arab-Israeli wars–Pallywood on the part of videographers and fauxtography on the part of photojournalists–which are usually the deadlier brand of propaganda. Witness, most famously, the example of the al-Dura affair.

But it’s worth pointing out here that there are very different types of war coverage. As I wrote earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal’s coverage was textured, original, investigative, and informative. The “paper of record,” the New York Times, offered just the opposite: coverage that essentially followed Hamas’s PR strategy. European media had similar coverage with even more violent results: attempted pogroms broke out in Paris and anti-Semitic protests could be found all over Western Europe.

The anti-Semitism is blamed on Israel’s actions, which the rioters see through the prism of the media. An excellent example of this vicious cycle is Human Rights Watch’s director Ken Roth. Jonathan Foreman wrote about Roth’s obsessively anti-Israel Twitter feed for the current issue of COMMENTARY. But even more noxious is the group’s role in pushing an anti-Israel narrative that supposedly comes with the credibility of a “human-rights” group.

It goes like this: HRW researchers get quoted by the New York Times accusing Israel of indiscriminate violence and targeting noncombatants–information that is crucial, in the Times’s own acknowledgement, in forming “the characterization of the conflict.” Then the Times tries to boost HRW’s flagging credibility–lest more people notice the group can’t be trusted–by crediting HRW as a key source in understanding “the Damage and Destruction in Gaza.” Along the way, HRW will be cited in a Times opinion piece on how American support for Israel is unethical.

When Jews the world over suffer at the hands of angry anti-Semites, Ken Roth will come to their aid, blaming Israel in part for violent anti-Semitism in the West. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted, Roth tweeted the following, with a link to an article about it: “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.” Goldberg commented: “Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse.” He added that “It is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice.” Roth defended his comments. On Twitter, he responded that, hey, he was just getting his news from the New York Times.

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War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Barack’s World

President Obama has declared his strategy is to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. Yet he’s hoping to do so by relying on a plan that is ludicrously insufficient. It’s worth noting that the criticism of his approach isn’t being led by Republicans as much as by U.S. military leaders (as this Washington Post story makes clear), by retired generals, and by former Obama defense secretaries like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

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President Obama has declared his strategy is to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. Yet he’s hoping to do so by relying on a plan that is ludicrously insufficient. It’s worth noting that the criticism of his approach isn’t being led by Republicans as much as by U.S. military leaders (as this Washington Post story makes clear), by retired generals, and by former Obama defense secretaries like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

Secretary Panetta told CBS News that ISIS emerged as a threat because the United States pulled out of Iraq too soon and became involved in Syria too late, while Secretary Gates said this:

The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.

Yet the president, when he spoke at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida last week, once again declared that American troops will not undertake a combat mission in Iraq. “I want to be clear,” Mr. Obama said. “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

The president doesn’t understand that to will the end you also have to will the means to the end. Mr. Obama would like the richest, best armed, and most formidable terrorist group ever–one that now controls large portions of two nations–to be defeated. Yet he can’t succeed simply by relying on air strikes and Iraqi and Kurdish forces and the Syrian opposition. (Just a month ago the president said the notion that arming Syrian rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy” and mocked the opposition as being “made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”) That’s clear to just about every person who has seriously examined this matter. (I commend to you this report by the Institute for the Study of War, which lays out just how formidable our task is if we hope to defeat ISIS.) Yet Mr. Obama persists in living in a world of make believe.

We can see what’s occurring. The president has a theological-like devotion to not using American combat missions to fight ISIS. This makes his commitment to defeat ISIS impossible to achieve. Yet rather than admit that to us or to himself, the president has invented assumptions that affirm what he wants to believe. This requires him to operate in a realm free of facts. To step through the looking glass. To live in Barack’s World.

Barack’s World is a place this president retreats to when the world becomes too complicated and unaccommodating. Where the wish is father to the thought. Where he can disassociate from reality. Where, when reality collides with ideology, reality loses.

While the president increasingly finds refuge in Barack’s World, the rest of us have to deal with the shattered pieces that are being left in his wake. Barack Obama is a careless man, to paraphrase a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He has smashed up things and retreats back into his own world, letting other people clean up the mess he has made. And what a mess it is.

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Gaza Residents: Hamas Kept Us from Fleeing Israeli Attacks

Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian-Jordanian now living in Britain, has collected and published some truly shocking testimony from Gaza residents about Hamas’s behavior during this summer’s war with Israel. All his interviewees insisted on remaining anonymous, and it’s easy to understand why: They accuse Hamas of deliberately creating hundreds of civilian casualties by forcing civilians to stay in places Israel had warned it was going to bomb.

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Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian-Jordanian now living in Britain, has collected and published some truly shocking testimony from Gaza residents about Hamas’s behavior during this summer’s war with Israel. All his interviewees insisted on remaining anonymous, and it’s easy to understand why: They accuse Hamas of deliberately creating hundreds of civilian casualties by forcing civilians to stay in places Israel had warned it was going to bomb.

Here, for instance, is the testimony of S., a medical worker:

The Israeli army sends warnings to people [Gazans] to evacuate buildings before an attack. The Israelis either call or send a text message. Sometimes they call several times to make sure everyone has been evacuated. Hamas’s strict policy, though, was not to allow us to evacuate. Many people got killed, locked inside their homes by Hamas militants. Hamas’s official Al-Quds TV regularly issued warnings to Gazans not to evacuate their homes. Hamas militants would block the exits to the places residents were asked to evacuate. In the Shijaiya area, people received warnings from the Israelis and tried to evacuate the area, but Hamas militants blocked the exits and ordered people to return to their homes. Some of the people had no choice but to run towards the Israelis and ask for protection for their families. Hamas shot some of those people as they were running; the rest were forced to return to their homes and get bombed. This is how the Shijaiya massacre happened. More than 100 people were killed.

And here’s K., a graduate student at an Egyptian university who was visiting his family in Gaza this summer: “When people stopped listening to Hamas orders not to evacuate and began leaving their homes anyway, Hamas imposed a curfew: anyone walking out in the street was shot without being asked any questions. That way Hamas made sure people had to stay in their homes even if they were about to get bombed.”

And H., who lost his leg in an Israeli bombing: “My father received a text-message from the Israeli army warning him that our area was going to be bombed, and Hamas prevented us from leaving. They said there was a curfew. A curfew, can you believe that?”

T., a former (and evidently disenchanted) Hamas government official, explained the policy’s rationale:

Some people say Hamas wants civilians killed in order to gain global sympathy, but I believe this is not the main reason. I think the reason is that if all the people were allowed to evacuate their homes, they all would have ended up in a certain area in Gaza. If that happened, it would have made the rest of Gaza empty of civilians, and the Israelis would have been able to hit Hamas without worrying about civilians in all those empty areas. Hamas wanted civilians all over the place to confuse the Israelis and make their operations more difficult.

Nor is this the only crime of which Zahran’s interviewees accused Hamas. For instance, three different people–two aid workers and an imam–said Hamas stole humanitarian aid and either kept it for its own people or sold it to ordinary Gazans for exorbitant prices.

Altogether, Zahran interviewed more than 20 Gazans, all of whom had shocking things to say. That doesn’t guarantee that their stories are true. Palestinians frequently fabricate atrocity tales about Israel (see, for instance, the Jenin massacre that wasn’t, or the perennial favorite about Israel trying to turn Palestinians into drug addicts), so there’s no reason to think anti-Hamas Palestinians aren’t equally capable of fabricating atrocity tales about Hamas.

Moreover, the interviewees were clearly terrified of Hamas, so it wouldn’t be easy to get them to talk to the international media (which generally relies on either Hamas-approved fixers or local stringers), UN workers (many of whom are openly affiliated with Hamas), or human-rights organizations (which, like the media, generally rely on local investigators). Still, given how many crocodile tears the media, the UN, and human-rights groups have shed over alleged Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza, one would think they could spare some time and effort to investigate alleged Hamas war crimes against its own people.

That they haven’t merely confirms, once again, two basic truths: First, these self-proclaimed moral arbiters care very little about human rights unless Israel can be blamed. And second, they’re fundamentally lazy: They’ll always prefer the easy route of collecting “testimony” against Israel, which Gaza residents can give without fear of consequences, to the hard work of digging for information about the abuses of a terrorist government that tortures and kills anyone who dares speak against it.

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The ‘Klinghoffer’ Opera and the Mainstreaming of Jew Hatred

The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its annual opening night on Monday but most of the discussion about the 2014-15 season centers on a performance that won’t happen for another month. The debut of its production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer will not occur until Oct. 20, but the year-long debate about the Met’s questionable judgment in staging an opera that treats the victim and the perpetrators in a terrorist murder as morally equivalent is heating up with predicable and utterly unpersuasive arguments arrayed in favor of the decision to ignore critics and move ahead with the performance.

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The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its annual opening night on Monday but most of the discussion about the 2014-15 season centers on a performance that won’t happen for another month. The debut of its production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer will not occur until Oct. 20, but the year-long debate about the Met’s questionable judgment in staging an opera that treats the victim and the perpetrators in a terrorist murder as morally equivalent is heating up with predicable and utterly unpersuasive arguments arrayed in favor of the decision to ignore critics and move ahead with the performance.

It should be recalled that back in June, the Met attempted to compromise with those outraged by its plan to run Klinghoffer by cancelling the HD broadcast of the opera around the world in theaters and on radio. But it refused to back down on producing the opera. At the time, the New York Times criticized the Met for implicitly acknowledging that a broadcast of an opera that depicts and rationalizes both anti-Semitism and murder of Jews would be problematic at a time when Jew hatred is on the rise around the globe. But in an editorial published Friday, the paper expressed its satisfaction at the Met’s decision to keep the performances of Klinghoffer on its schedule. The fact that, if anything, the plague of anti-Semitism has grown even worse over the summer as Israel-haters bashed the Jewish state for defending itself against Islamist terrorists with similar attitudes toward Jews as the ones in Klinghoffer means nothing to the Times; it praised Met general manager Peter Gelb for being “true to its artistic mission.”

The Times dismisses concerns about the opera’s content and its potential role in fomenting more hate with facile arguments defending artistic freedom against political pressures that don’t stand up to scrutiny. No one is saying that the Met doesn’t have the right to put on Klinghoffer. What its critics are pointing out is that by putting on a piece that treats terrorism and hate for Jews, the Met is coming down on the wrong side of a moral question.

A more nuanced defense of the opera comes from Opera News, the most widely read publication about the art form in North America that also happens to be the Met’s house organ (although it is allowed to critically review Met performances much to Gelb’s ongoing dismay). In the September issue of the magazine, Phillip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s chief arts critic, attempts to take up the cudgels for Klinghoffer but in doing so without the sort of cant and generalizations that the Times has indulged in, he unwittingly helps make the case for the opera’s detractors.

Rather than merely attempt to pretend that the opera doesn’t justify the motivations and the actions of the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer during the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, Kennicott acknowledges that there is a clear imbalance in the way Palestinians and Jews are depicted by composer John Adams. In discussing the two opening choruses of members of the two groups, Kennicott admits that there is a clear difference in both the text and the musical language deployed by the artist:

There is a powerful musical difference between the choruses, and that difference helps trace the moral trajectory of the opera. The Palestinian chorus begins in a dream-like phantasmagoria, but as the memory of grievance becomes more powerful, it ends in a paroxysm of rage: “Our faith will take the stones he broke / and break his teeth.”

The Jewish chorus, by contrast, remains vague and undirected, full of the detail of memory, but without the clear trajectory of anger that preceded it in the Palestinian song.

He then acknowledges the crux of the matter:

How you interpret these choruses becomes key to how you interpret the opera. Many of the work’s critics found the mix of lyricism and anger in the Palestinian music (including long parlando passages from the four terrorists later in the work) to be too seductive, essentially a humanizing musical language that romanticized or in some way justified their violence. And they found the Jewish characters (including a scene that was later dropped from the opera that depicted a family at home in America chatting, sometimes ironically, about travel) antiheroic, scattered and pallid representations bogged down in the material world.

In other words, the Palestinians are real people with justifiable grievances while the Jews are shown in a distinctly unfavorable light. Kennicott is then forced to perform linguistic back flips in order to try to argue that the unflattering portrayal of the Jews is somehow indicative of the “real world” in which the Jews live and therefore a more compelling and complex narrative than the palpable anger of the Palestinians that the music keeps telling us is more attractive and more deserving of support. It’s a nice try but it doesn’t work.

More to the point, Kennicott claims the point of the opera is to criticize the whole idea of “forward-driven narratives of heroism and anger” and to choose instead more “wandering narratives” that leave us with no satisfying conclusions about events. That’s just a rather complicated way of saying that Adams views one of the most callous acts of international terrorism as one that no one should view as a simple matter of murder driven by hatred of Jews. Which is to say that he is doing exactly what his critics allege when they say the whole point of the piece is moral relativism. Indeed, as Kennicott admits, Adams’s goal is to “posit a continuity of humanity between the terrorists and their victims.”

In defense of this position, Kennicott argues, “A continuity of humanity is the only hope for peace.” That’s true. But while both sides in the Achille Lauro hijacking are, of course, human beings, a piece whose purpose is to put the terrorist and their victims on the same plane is one that is not merely depicting hate, as the opera’s defenders claim, but implicitly endorsing it as being no more objectionable than the position of those who are the objects of hatred.

The critic defends the piece because he thinks it is a good thing that we have discussions about serious issues in the opera house, a position that few would dispute. Yet in making that argument, Kennicott and the Met itself are being more than a little disingenuous. There are, after all, a lot of issues that no one wants debated in the public square, let alone in the opera house or concert hall. No one, or at least no one who had any hope of getting their work produced at the Met or any other respected arts institution, would seek to make similar comparisons between say, African-American victims of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan or between blacks subjugated by apartheid and white South Africans. That is true despite the fact that a composer could give us choruses depicting the suffering of Confederates during and after the Civil War or the wrongs done to Afrikaners in the past, much like that of the Palestinians who are meant to humanize the terrorists who shoot the old Jew Klinghoffer and throw his body overboard. Nor did John Adams choose to use his much praised choral work commemorating the 9/11 attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls, to explain the reasons why Islamists think they have a bone to pick with the West.

The reason why the Met doesn’t produce operas rationalizing Jim Crow or apartheid and the classical music world doesn’t celebrate al-Qaeda is not because the arts world doesn’t embrace works that stir up emotions or are controversial. Kennicott is right when he says there is a consensus about that being the business of artists. We don’t hear such pieces because there is also also a consensus that racism is beyond the pale of such discussions and may not be justified even in the guise of high art. What Klinghoffer’s critics have noticed and its defenders seek to ignore is that the opera’s embrace by arts and media Mandarins illustrates that they consider Jew hatred to fall under the rubric of those expressions that may be debated rather than one that should be merely condemned by members of decent society as they would racism.

It is an unfortunate fact that in recent years forms of anti-Semitism have crept in from the margins of society and been mainstreamed. That is exactly what an opera that rationalizes the murder of an old man merely because he was a Jew does. This is not an issue on which intellectuals should think themselves free to agree to disagree. That is why those who are angry about the Met’s decision are right and the arts community and anyone else who embraces this deplorable decision are not merely wrong but opening the door to a new era of anti-Semitism.

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The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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The Problem with Obama and His Generals

One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

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One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

The president repeated his vow that American troops would not fight the terrorists on the ground today when he spoke to an audience of soldiers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. While trying, not always successfully, to sound appropriately belligerent, the president made it abundantly clear that that his vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is conditional on finding local proxies to fight the war he has been dragged into by circumstance and the shifting tides of public opinion. The purpose of the speech and, indeed, a rare all-out lobbying push in Congress by a normally diffident White House, was to convince the country of the need to fund American participation in the conflict. But the contrast between the recommendations he has reportedly been getting from his military advisors and his adamant refusal to even leave the door open to U.S. action on the ground makes it hard to believe that he is really serious about winning this war.

As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report today in the Daily Beast, Dempsey’s statement is not the only instance of military men urging the president to keep an open mind about how best to win the war. Other advisers, including General John Allen, who has been appointed to lead the anti-ISIS effort, not only criticized the administration for its foolish decision to abandon Iraq that gave ISIS the opening it needed but has been calling for a “robust” effort against ISIS for months.

Some may interpret this disconnect as a standoff between trigger-happy generals and a thoughtful president who thinks carefully before acting (Obama’s cherished self-evaluation of his leadership style that he never tires of extolling). But that is both inaccurate as well as misleading. Generals and admirals are always the last ones to wish to see their cherished institutions and infrastructure hauled into a fight whose outcome is always uncertain. Rather, it is the fact that having found themselves tasked with the winning of a war against a terrorist threat that the American people now rightly think essential, the military understands that this requires a war-winning strategy.

The president embarrassed himself earlier this month when he said that he was still searching for a strategy to defeat ISIS, a position he reversed last week when he announced his order for the campaign. But by setting absolute limits on the willingness of the United States to actually fight and win the conflict, he sent ISIS a signal that he was not as committed to battle as they were.

The point here isn’t necessarily to advocate that the use of American troops in Iraq or Syria is a good or necessary thing. It is to note, as General Dempsey did in a rare moment of complete candor in congressional testimony, that it is not possible to rule their use out if the U.S. actually wants to win rather than merely manage the conflict. You don’t have to be another Lincoln, let alone a Napoleon or Alexander, to understand that when a political leader telegraphs the enemy that his country won’t commit to fighting them on the ground, it will encourage that foe to hang on. If the fight with ISIS is as vital to U.S. security as Obama now says it is—and he’s right about that—it’s fair to ask why he isn’t willing to keep all options on the table.

Pretending that the U.S. can beat ISIS by leading from behind with foreign proxies doing the hard slog on the ground is a formula for stalemate at best and possibly defeat. U.S. air power can influence the outcome of the battle and even do serious damage to ISIS. But such wars are won with troops on the ground pursuing counterinsurgency tactics.

President Obama is burdened with serious political constraints in a war-weary country and untrustworthy and often unsavory allies who are also opposed to ISIS. But even as we make allowances for the handicaps that he is laboring under, there is no disguising his lack of enthusiasm for the task as well as his lack of commitment to victory. What America lacks is not a strategy but a president who is ready to lead the country to victory. That will have to change if U.S. forces are to have any hope of success.

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interventionism Was Hiding in Plain Sight

A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

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A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

As the New York Times reports, the troops will help with the construction of medical treatment facilities, distribution of aid, and will take the reins in coordinating a regional response. The administration expects to deploy as many as 3,000 to Africa in the effort. Some health experts are calling for an even greater response from the U.S., saying the focus on Liberia is not enough; Sierra Leone and Guinea are also in dire need.

If the crisis worsens, so will disorder, border chaos, and perhaps even a refugee crisis of sorts, not to mention the need to protect all these treatment centers and medical storage facilities. This is not an overnight mission, nor a relatively quiet one like sending forces to help track down African warlords, as we have also been doing.

So that’s one kind of military intervention–to fight a disease epidemic across the ocean. The other major story today was on the administration’s shaky attempts to wrangle support for military intervention in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

The plan is to use airpower to hit ISIS from above. But there are a couple of ways this could escalate. First is the possibility that since the U.S. is not coordinating attacks in Syria with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Assad’s forces could target U.S. aircraft. As the AP reported, “The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.”

Another complication is the fact that no one seems to believe airstrikes alone would be enough to accomplish the mission–though the mission itself isn’t quite clear enough for some of the members of Congress on the fence about the plan. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about mission creep and said success may, in fact, require boots on the ground in Iraq. “My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

We should also not forget that on his recent trip to Estonia attempting to counter Russian aggression, “Obama also announced the US would send more air force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia’s Amari air base an ideal location to base those forces.” The U.S. has since repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting NATO allies in the region, but it hasn’t stopped Russia from sending veiled threats it may test that promise.

So to sum up: we’re sending troops to one, and possibly three or more, African countries to deal with Ebola; we’re sending the Air Force to the Baltics, with promises to confront Russia with more troops if need be; and we’re contemplating the possibility of sending troops to Iraq while striking at one, possibly two sides in a three-way Syrian civil war while arming the third side, which may or may not have agreed to a truce with one of the sides we’re bombing.

How is it that the American public can be war-weary and also quite clearly interventionist at the same time? The answer is: piece by piece. Americans are tired, in an abstract way, of “policing” the world and fighting open-ended military campaigns. But the individual issues here scramble that message.

According to Rasmussen, half the country is worried about Ebola. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, most are concerned about ISIS, and thus by clear majorities support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. That same Post/ABC poll finds more than 40 percent think Obama has been “too cautious” on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That might be because, according to Pew, Americans see Russia as the country’s top looming threat.

In other words, when Americans’ retrenchment instincts clash with real-world crises, their concern for the latter tends to win out. And that’s also why we suddenly see a diverse coalition of hawks, at least on the right. Those who prefer less intervention may be learning from the Obama administration’s bungled retreat from the world stage that there is such a thing as a power vacuum, and nature does indeed abhor it.

A stable world order promoted by American power can in many cases make later military intervention unnecessary. Intervention is sometimes the most rational response from noninterventionists.

And as the Ted Cruz-IDC dustup has shown, Americans tend to be a diverse country full of people who strongly believe the United States has a responsibility to protect various at-risk populations around the globe. Here, for example, is the closing sentence of Ross Douthat’s column on the controversy from Sunday:

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

This is, I find, a strong argument for intervention. It’s also an argument, however unintended, for intervention that never materialized in Darfur, and perhaps the consideration of such in Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims might very well be the target of such a campaign. And it’s an argument for intervention in a broad array of crises. It is, in fact, a neat summation of Samantha Power’s foreign-policy philosophy. Douthat sounds about as much a realist here as John McCain is.

And Douthat’s not wrong about the need to save the besieged Christians of the Middle East! That’s the point. There are times when the United States is treaty-bound to intervene on behalf of allies. And there are times when the United States must intervene out of strategic interest. And there are times when the United States seems obligated to intervene out of sheer moral responsibility.

It all adds up to an active, interventionist American role in the world. And the support for that foreign policy goes on periodic hiatus, but it always returns.

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U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition

Last week a congressman asked me: Should I support President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy even though it is likely to fail? Good question. And it’s not only lawmakers who are asking themselves that question. So are actual or potential U.S. allies from Europe to the Middle East. The most important people to be asking themselves that question are Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria whose support is vital to defeat ISIS. But should they risk their lives in what could well be a losing cause?

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Last week a congressman asked me: Should I support President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy even though it is likely to fail? Good question. And it’s not only lawmakers who are asking themselves that question. So are actual or potential U.S. allies from Europe to the Middle East. The most important people to be asking themselves that question are Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria whose support is vital to defeat ISIS. But should they risk their lives in what could well be a losing cause?

That, unfortunately, is the issue that will confront retired General John Allen, who has been tasked with assembling an anti-ISIS coalition. American credibility reached a low point a year ago when Obama threatened air strikes against Syria but then lost his nerve. Obama’s credibility has never recovered either with American voters or American allies. As one analyst in the UAE (one of the countries Obama is relying upon for help), recently told the Washington Post, “We have reached a low point of trust in this administration. We think in a time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin.”

The president does nothing to enhance his own credibility when he overrules the best advice of his own military commanders by refusing to commit U.S. “boots on the ground” to help anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria became a more credible military force. Most serious military analysts believe a substantial force of American advisers and Special Operations Forces will be required. Kim and Fred Kagan, for example, argue for 25,000 personnel in Iraq and Syria. I have suggested a figure of 10,000 to 15,000. By limiting the entire U.S. presence to 1,600 personnel so far, and by refusing to let U.S. advisers operate with units in the field, Obama has made it much less likely that the U.S. could achieve the objectives he set out.

And those objectives are themselves problematic. Obama said he is out to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. If his objective is really to destroy the group, why include the word “degrade”? Did FDR commit the U.S. after Pearl Harbor to “degrade and ultimately destroy” German and Japanese power? No, he committed the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to achieve he unconditional surrender of the enemy–the “degrade” part was assumed as being necessary on the road to ultimate victory. Because, however, Obama makes clear that his immediate objective is only to “degrade” ISIS–and because Pentagon officials have been leaking that the administration envisions a multiyear effort that will be handed off to the next administration–he raises the suspicion that he is intent only on “degrading” not on “destroying” ISIS.

Secretary of State John Kerry does not help matters, either, when he denies that the U.S. is at war with ISIS–he says it’s simply a “major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” That kind of language hardly inspires men to risk their lives.Kerry had to backpeddle on Sunday, saying that, yes the U.S. is “at war” with ISIS but the damage had been done–it shouldn’t be a matter of debate whether the U.S. is or is not at war.

This exquisitely nuanced and cerebral president needs to understand that war is, above all, a matter of willpower–that, especially when you are engaged in a conflict against an adversary utilizing guerrilla or terrorist tactics, the winner is usually the side with the greatest will to win. Alas, the president is doing little to convince anyone that he has committed every fiber of his being to crush ISIS. And until allies are convinced of our seriousness they are not likely to hazard much to help us.

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Obama Was Right Not to Ransom Foley

In our era of a bifurcated media, it’s not every day that both the New York Times and Fox News take up the same cause with almost equal fervor. But that’s the case with the efforts of the family of slain hostage James Foley to castigate the Obama administration for their handling of the negotiations with ISIS over the captive’s fate. The natural sympathy felt by all Americans for the Foleys combined with a story of government indifference and hypocrisy makes an irresistible story for both liberal and conservative media. But as much as any parent can identify with the sorrow and frustration of the family, in this case criticism of the administration is not justified.

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In our era of a bifurcated media, it’s not every day that both the New York Times and Fox News take up the same cause with almost equal fervor. But that’s the case with the efforts of the family of slain hostage James Foley to castigate the Obama administration for their handling of the negotiations with ISIS over the captive’s fate. The natural sympathy felt by all Americans for the Foleys combined with a story of government indifference and hypocrisy makes an irresistible story for both liberal and conservative media. But as much as any parent can identify with the sorrow and frustration of the family, in this case criticism of the administration is not justified.

The Foleys’ complaints revolve around both what they consider the duplicitous handling of the affair by the government as well its hypocrisy. When ISIS reached out to them with a ransom demand for their son, they contacted the FBI but what followed gave them little satisfaction and ended in tragedy. The Bureau not only informed them that paying ransoms was against U.S. policy. They also threatened them saying it was a crime to send money to terrorists even if the motivation was saving a hostage. What’s more, they also kept secret from them the fact that their governments were ransoming Europeans that were also held by ISIS. It was only after they learned that some of Foley’s fellow hostages were being freed after ransoms were paid that the family defied the government and began the process of raising money to gain their son’s release.

Yet the moment that convinced them that the administration had abandoned them was when news broke that the U.S. had obtained the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdhal from the Taliban in exchange for five Taliban members that were being held at Guantanamo Bay. Releasing terrorists under any circumstances is, at best, controversial, even if it means ensuring that no U.S. soldier is left behind. But given Bergdhal’s questionable conduct—there are allegations that he deserted his post and may have surrendered to the enemy voluntarily that have yet to be resolved—the exchange was widely criticized and left the Foleys and other hostage families believing they had no choice but to act on their own.

Even the government’s July 3 effort to rescue the hostages comes in for criticism from the Foleys. They believe its failure was due to lack of sufficient resources being devoted to surveillance of possible ISIS sites which caused delays that led to the victims being moved before U.S. forces arrived.

In the end, James Foley was murdered by ISIS to send a message to the U.S. about the price of intervention against their efforts to overrun all of Syria and Iraq. That left the Foleys grief stricken but also angry with they way they were treated by the Obama administration. They were, they say, consistently ignored and believe their son’s death is the direct result of the callous indifference to his plight displayed by American officials from the top down.

Is their anger justified?

Let’s state upfront that the Foleys, and every other hostage family, deserve our complete sympathy. Even if one is inclined to view the behavior of anyone like Foley or the other hostages who ventured into Syria the past few years as reckless, that is not something for which his family need apologize. Any parent would seek to move heaven and earth to save their child. Just as important, any parent would damn any government official, no matter how principled their behavior, if they did not do everything in their power, including breaking every rule in the book, to save that child.

But this illustrates the difference between personal priorities and those of the nation. However much we may sympathize with the Foleys, the administration did exactly the right thing by refusing to pay ransom to ISIS whether it was the reported $130 million they demanded or a lower amount.

It should be understood that ISIS’s military success this year was largely funded by the ransoms paid by Europeans for their hostages. Paying that money merely ensured that more people would be kidnapped, thus endangering more lives as well as worsening an already terrible situation in the Middle East. If you want to stop the kidnapping as well as to stop the onslaught of bands of murdering fanatics, the only way to begin is to stop paying ransoms and to start making the terrorists pay a price for their crimes.

The Foleys are right to complain about the hypocrisy of the Bergdahl deal. But, as much as its terms were disgraceful, that soldier was in harm’s way as a result of his army service. Exchanging POWs—even when the price is too high—is not the same thing as paying ransoms to kidnappers. Foley was in Syria of his own accord and as much as we would all have liked to see him saved, his desire to pursue freelance journalism in a war zone with terrorists did not give him, or his parents, the right to alter U.S. foreign or defense policy in order to bail him out of trouble or to endanger other Americans who would then be even more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The dynamic of hostage families influencing governments to pay off terrorists is a familiar one. It led President Reagan to trade arms with Iran. And it has repeatedly caused Israeli governments to make decisions that would free thousands of terrorists—many of whom ultimately return to terrorist activity—to free a handful of captive Jews. But while these decisions are understandable and maybe even inevitable (especially in Israel where the question of captured soldiers transfixes the nation), they are not wise and almost always do more harm than good.

There is much in President Obama’s conduct and policies on Iraq and Syria that is worthy of condemnation and I have often written here to articulate those concerns. The current alarming situation there is largely due to the president’s poor decisions that led him to delay action on Syria and to bug out of Iraq. But when he upheld existing policy against paying ransom for hostages, he was right. And, though it did not succeed, the president did the right thing when he ordered a rescue mission.

So while Fox and the Times may be assisting the Foleys in their campaign to blame the president for their son’s death, this is not a cause the media should embrace. While we grieve with the Foleys for their son, the best way to ensure that other families will not suffer in the future is to defeat and wipe out ISIS, not to pay them off.

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Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

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Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

The same thing holds true with regard to foreign affairs. When the United States engages militarily, it is often quite direct. Bill Clinton did not send American troops into Somalia or Bosnia secretly, nor did he try to hide the fact that he had ordered a cruise missile strike on Sudan and Afghanistan in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings. George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism, which combined not only the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also deployments to the Philippines. Likewise, Barack Obama has announced the deployment of American forces to places as far afield as Uganda, Iraq, and Liberia.

Many other countries obfuscate when they send troops into harm’s way. Hence, Russia has consistently denied that its troops were fighting in Ukraine, even as Russian journalists uncovered graves in Pskov, home of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, of Russian special forces based there but whom the Ukrainian government had announced killed over the previous weeks in Ukraine.

Likewise, the Iranian government has long denied that its forces are actively fighting in Syria. When the Syrian opposition has captured Iranians inside Syria, Tehran has dismissed its culpability saying that the young, fit, military-age men were simply pilgrims. This, of course, is nonsense. Heading into the midst of war-torn Syria on religious pilgrimage is like going to Acapulco for the cross-country skiing.

It seems with the United States projecting weakness and with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their team willfully blind, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stopped hiding its direct involvement in the Syrian fighting, at least in Persian. Hence, this story in the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency today, which announces the death of one Hoseyn Tabesteh which it identifies as a member of the “10th of Moharrem” IRGC Unit. Qasem Malekdar, the head of the Martyrs Foundation of Semnan Province, told the news agency that Tabesteh would be buried today in Semnan’s Shahrud county with several parliamentarians and provincial officials in attendance.

It is absolutely necessary to counter ISIS, wherever it might be—in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon. At the same time, journalists and analysts are right to ask whether targeting ISIS inside Syria is simply going to empower Bashar al-Assad and his noxious regime. The answer, of course, is not necessarily: there are more than two forces fighting inside Syria. While I am dubious about the Free Syrian Army, its moderation, and its capabilities, the Syrian Kurds are a more capable force than their Iraqi counterparts and have a far better track record against both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The problem is, though, that the White House and Pentagon continue to see Syria as an isolated, contained problem. President Obama’s strategy assumes the United States will act, and that no one else will interfere in the sandbox.

But if this story from Iran’s conservative press is to be believed—and there is no reason why it should not—then the IRGC will do its darnedest to ensure that once U.S. strikes against ISIS begin in Syria, Iran will be in a position to seize maximum advantage for Assad. This is not a reason for inaction against ISIS; rather, it is long past time that the White House and the Pentagon make clear that the IRGC inside Syria cannot expect immunity from American action regardless of the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians may culturally be indirect, but America should not be. To ignore the reality of Iranian action and strategy will simply empower Iran to augment its strategic position on the back of U.S. force, again.

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