Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Western Enablers of Abbas’s Incitement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbas said Palestinians must be united to defend Jerusalem.

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

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

Avigdor Lieberman responded to Abbas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Selective Memory and the CIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria: What Might Have Been

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

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“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

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“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.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

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“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

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“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

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“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

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“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.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

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“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

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

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Turkey, Kobani, and American Excuses

American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

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American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

Why isn’t he doing more? Partly it’s because he doesn’t want to collaborate with the Syrian version of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group which has battled the Turkish state for years. But partly it’s also because he doesn’t think there is any point in intervening against ISIS as long as President Obama isn’t willing to attack the root cause of the Syrian civil war–the Bashar Assad regime.

Erdogan deserves all the opprobrium he is getting for his inaction but, as the Washington Post editorialists astutely note, the U.S. doesn’t have the high moral ground here. The U.S., they write, “is poorly placed to pass judgment, having stood aside for more than three years while 200,000 Syrians died, most at the hands of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Another 3 million have become refugees, including 1 million who have alighted in Turkey — which, adjusting for population, would be the equivalent for the United States of more than 4 million Mexicans streaming across the border.”

Moreover, the Obama administration is still refusing to create a no-fly zone over Syria as Erdogan and the moderate Syrian opposition are urging. This American failure is allowing Assad to take advantage of the anti-ISIS campaign the U.S. is conducting to focus his attacks on western parts of Syria which are held by the moderate opposition.

Instead of pointing fingers at Erdogan, American policymakers would be better advised to act on his advice to stop Assad as well as ISIS.

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Why Kobani Might Fall

At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

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At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

RAND’s Benjamin Lambeth summed up the Afghan air campaign as follows: “[D]uring the 75 days of bombing between October 7, when Enduring Freedom began, and December 23, when the first phase of the war ended after the collapse of the Taliban, some 6,500 strike sorties were flown by CENTCOM forces altogether, out of which approximately 17,500 munitions were dropped on more than 120 fixes targets, 400 vehicles and artillery pieces, and a profusion of concentrations of Taliban and al Qaeda combatants.”

Now compare with the statistics on the current U.S. aerial bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. According to Central Command, in the 59 days between August 8, when the campaign started, and October 6, the U.S. has conducted 360 strikes utilizing 955 munitions.

That’s a big difference between dropping 17,500 munitions in Afghanistan and 955 in Iraq/Syria. So rare are U.S. strikes today that Centcom has actually taken to issuing press releases to announce the dropping of two 500-pound bombs.

The bare numbers understate the actual difference, moreover, because the U.S. was dropping heavier bombs from heavier aircraft such as the B-52 in Afghanistan which have so far not been utilized in Iraq/Syria. Moreover, the effect of strikes in Iraq/Syria is not as great because Obama has refused U.S. Special Operations personnel permission to go out into the field alongside indigenous forces to call in airstrikes as they did so effectively alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This is to say nothing of the fact that in neither Iraq nor Syria is there a ground force as effective and organized as the Northern Alliance capable of taking advantage of U.S. airstrikes to attack ISIS on the ground.

The lack of a ground force is a problem that will not be solved for a while because it will take time to train and organize fighters, although the process can be hastened by committing U.S. personnel as combat advisers. But even now there is nothing preventing the U.S. from mounting heavier air strikes as we did in Afghanistan. Nothing, that is, except the lack of will exhibited by the commander in chief who has claimed as his goal the eventual destruction of ISIS but refuses to commit the resources necessary to achieve that ambitious objective.

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Roger Cohen, the “Nakba,” and the Falsification of History

For the particularly cynical, monomaniacal critics of Israel and global Jewry, there are myriad ways to hijack the humble, introspective liturgy of the High Holidays to produce a sanctimonious ego-boosting tirade in order to make your column deadline with enough time left over to pat yourself on the back afterwards. If you’re Roger Cohen of the New York Times, there’s the added challenge of making sure to also mangle your history and dishonor the victims of genocide so your readers will get the column they’ve come to expect from you. And readers, Cohen’s post-High Holidays column does not disappoint.

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For the particularly cynical, monomaniacal critics of Israel and global Jewry, there are myriad ways to hijack the humble, introspective liturgy of the High Holidays to produce a sanctimonious ego-boosting tirade in order to make your column deadline with enough time left over to pat yourself on the back afterwards. If you’re Roger Cohen of the New York Times, there’s the added challenge of making sure to also mangle your history and dishonor the victims of genocide so your readers will get the column they’ve come to expect from you. And readers, Cohen’s post-High Holidays column does not disappoint.

Cohen begins by explaining that as he sat in a Reform shul in London over the High Holidays, he couldn’t help but notice that the rabbis were not using the pulpit to bash Israel. No matter–he has a pulpit in the New York Times, so he could do it himself. On the topic of Palestinian children killed in Hamas’s recent war with Israel in Gaza, Cohen offers this:

However framed, the death of a single child to an Israeli bullet seems to betoken some failure in the longed-for Jewish state, to say nothing of several hundred. The slaughter elsewhere in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Jews to avoid this self-scrutiny.

One straw man up, one straw man disposed of. And in particularly accusatory fashion as well: as if Israeli self-scrutiny needs Cohen’s prodding, and as if any defense of its actions is properly labeled an “alibi,” thereby affirming the criminal nature of Israeli self-defense. Cohen then swings again:

Throughout the Diaspora, the millennia of being strangers in strange lands, Jews’ restless search in the scriptures for the ethics contained in sacred words formed a transmission belt of Judaism. For as long as the shared humanity of the other is perceived and felt, such questioning is unavoidable. The terrible thing about the Holy Land today is the denial of this humanity to the stranger. When that goes, so does essential self-interrogation. As mingling has died, separation has bred denial and contempt.

This is a classic tactic of the left: whatever the Palestinians are obviously guilty of–in this case, dehumanizing the Jews–the Jews too must be guilty of, because otherwise there would be no moral or intellectual basis for Cohen’s worldview, which assumes Israel’s guilt.

And it’s especially rich of Cohen to throw the “separation” in Israel’s face. In fact, Israeli policy is, as we saw this past week, to encourage Jews and Arabs to live side by side in shared peace and prosperity. The view of the left, the Obama administration, and the editorial board of the newspaper that employs Roger Cohen is that ethnic segregation–and in some places, like Givat Hamatos, racial segregation–must be enforced. Cohen’s segregationist employers might be a better target for his ire, though that would require a level of intellectual honesty Cohen is not prepared to demonstrate.

Cohen then goes on to speculate that perhaps the rabbis did want to use the pulpit to denigrate Israel but were afraid to incur the wrath of the Jews who keep such rabbis “muzzled,” in the words of a colleague of Cohen quoted in the column.

But then Cohen finally gets to the point. After referencing a passage from Stefan Zweig that refers to the Jews as the one and only “community of expulsion,” Cohen updates it to make clear the Jews are now the oppressors, the ones who expel:

Two phrases leapt out: “community of expulsion,” and “driven out of lands but without a land to go to.” The second embodied the necessity of the Jewish state of Israel. But it was inconceivable, at least to me, without awareness of the first. Palestinians have joined the ever-recurring “community of expulsion.” The words of Leviticus are worth repeating for any Jew in or concerned by Israel today: Treat the stranger as yourself, for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What Cohen is saying here, implicitly, is that the Palestinian narrative of the “nakba” is correct. But with an especially offensive twist: that the Jews expelled the Palestinians in much the same way the Jews themselves have been expelled from countries for thousands of years.

It should go without saying, but apparently it does not, that for Cohen to sit in a synagogue in Europe and decide that the Palestinians are the victims of what Europe did to the Jews is not run-of-the-mill historical ignorance: it’s malicious falsehood and it’s repulsive. But it’s also nonsensical to equate the pre-Israel Jews “without a land to go to” with the Palestinians in Gaza (or the West Bank, for that matter). In fact, the Palestinians are sitting on land that they govern, and for which Israel has offered recognition of Palestinian statehood and practically begged them to accept it.

The Palestinians are not a people without a land, and they don’t have to be a people without a state. But the Palestinians would have to accept their statehood and all the responsibilities that come along with it. They’ve thus far chosen not to, and no amount of slandering of the Jewish people on the High Holidays is going to change that.

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How Do You Fight a Hundred Years’ War?

Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

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Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

In Saturday’s Washington Post, historian and former soldier Andrew Bacevich wrote to say that it didn’t matter whether the battle with ISIS was won or not. By his count, the U.S. had invaded, occupied, or bombed 14 Islamic countries in the last 35 years and that this latest chapter of a long-running war wasn’t likely to end any more satisfactorily than any of the others. To summarize Bacevich’s thesis, he thinks each successive U.S. intervention has only made things worse than its predecessors and that the end result is as futile as American military efforts in Vietnam, a telling analogy as it betrays his frame of reference about these conflicts.

What does Bacevich advise to do instead of attacking ISIS? On that point, he’s a bit hazy other than to imply that staying out will be less messy than going in. Moreover, he believes that since the U.S. is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, there’s no real need to fuss about the future of the region, a point that also betrays his cynical and somewhat dated echo of the original discredited arguments about the reason the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003.

Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq, has a right to feel bitter about that conflict but though George Will praised his piece yesterday on Fox News Sunday, his plea for isolationism offers us little that is useful in untangling the current conflict or about the options the U.S. currently faces in Iraq and Syria.

Let’s start by noting that Bacevich’s list of 14 Islamic countries attacked by the U.S. is more than a bit misleading. Including Kosovo, a conflict in which NATO mercilessly bombed the Serbian Christian enemies of Kosovo Muslims, in this roster of invasions is absurd. The whole point of that effort was to defend Muslims and to ultimately aid their creation of another Muslim state at the expense of their neighbors who had themselves misbehaved. But he’s right that Americans have gotten little satisfaction out of any of our encounters in the other 13 nations.

Yet his idea that the U.S. is only making the problem worse is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

Radical Islamists do use American actions as a recruiting tool, but to claim that their atrocities or campaigns are primarily a reaction to the West rather than something that reflects the desperate state of their own political culture is fundamentally mistaken. Conflicts with Iran or Libya didn’t create the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Rather the growth of these radical movements is a reflection of the dire state of the Islamic world as it attempts to confront modernity and instead seeks a solution in the old formula of jihad and world domination.

It is comforting to think that the West can simply ignore the war being waged on it by a host of ever-changing Islamist groups whose names change but whose methods are consistently barbarous and whose goals are uncompromising. But every time we do, whether in the ’90s when al-Qaeda’s rise was considered insignificant or during an Obama administration that pretended it could take credit for “ending” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or staying out Syria, we end up paying a price.

Bacevich is right to note that the conflict against ISIS won’t be easy. Nor will we be able to conclude it with victory parades the way Americans prefer to end wars. Instead, it will require a long-term commitment that recognizes that our foes view this as a hundred years’ war and not a neat little battle that can be quickly won and then forgotten.

The Islamists aren’t looking to behead Westerners, take over Arab countries, and then extend their terror to Americans and our allies because we stumbled into Iraq or bombed Libya in the distant past. Nor is it about our supposed sins in Iran in the 1950s or any other oft-repeated tale of Islamic woe. Rather, it is a function of a basic conflict between Islamist belief and the West and those Muslims who prefer peace and coexistence to Sharia law and endless war.

The call to retreat from the Middle East is advice that President Obama and the American people would do well to ignore. Sooner or later, if we stay out of the conflict with ISIS, that group or those that ultimately replace it will bring their war to America. Contrary to Bacevich and Will, our choice is not whether or not to fight Islamists but where we will fight them. It is simply common sense to do so on their home turf and at a point when Western military superiority can be brought to bear on the group and their allies before they become even more dangerous. The outcome of each battle in this new hundred years’ war won’t be satisfying, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary to fight. The enemy will make sure to remind us that giving up isn’t an option.

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Getting Into Bed with Iran in Iraq Will Have Consequences

At first glance, the idea that Iran’s elite shock troops operating in Iraq have been ordered to avoid targeting Americans seems like good news. But as much as we should hope that U.S. personnel (reportedly some 1,600 Americans are currently there advising Iraqi and Kurdish troops) will be able to operate without interference or attack from the Iranians, Eli Lake’s story in the Daily Beast about the latest intelligence assessment about Iraq is quite troubling especially in light of the U.S. making desperate offers to get Tehran to agree to another weak nuclear deal. If, contrary to public assurances from the administration, there is any quid pro quo between the U.S. and Iran over events in Iraq and Syria, then these dealings are indicative of the long-range problems brewing for American security.

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At first glance, the idea that Iran’s elite shock troops operating in Iraq have been ordered to avoid targeting Americans seems like good news. But as much as we should hope that U.S. personnel (reportedly some 1,600 Americans are currently there advising Iraqi and Kurdish troops) will be able to operate without interference or attack from the Iranians, Eli Lake’s story in the Daily Beast about the latest intelligence assessment about Iraq is quite troubling especially in light of the U.S. making desperate offers to get Tehran to agree to another weak nuclear deal. If, contrary to public assurances from the administration, there is any quid pro quo between the U.S. and Iran over events in Iraq and Syria, then these dealings are indicative of the long-range problems brewing for American security.

According to Lake, intelligence officials believes the Islamist regime has ordered its Quds Force to lay off Americans in order to make it easier for President Obama to persuade the international community to buy into another nuclear deal with Iran. This is significant because the Quds Force has a history of being among the most dangerous terrorists forces on the planet. It helped orchestrate terror campaigns against U.S. forces in Iraq and waged war on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. It also has a record of involvement in international heroin trafficking.

But for the moment the fact that ISIS is at war with both the U.S. and Iran is motivating Tehran to call off its terrorist dogs with respect to the presence of Americans in Iraq. Though the U.S. has explicitly pledged to avoid making common cause with Iran about ISIS, the idea that the two countries were going to conduct operations against the group without any cooperation, whether overt or tacit, in this conflict was always far-fetched. The administration is all too happy to make nice with the Iranians in the field against ISIS but also thrilled at any sign that the Iranians are actually interested in a new nuclear deal. But the informal cease-fire between Quds operatives and Americans after years of the Iranians targeting Americans is just another indication of the problems awaiting President Obama if his attempt to broker détente with Tehran succeeds.

From the beginning of his administration, the president has been eager to put an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. But in order to do that he must maneuver around his pledge not to allow the Islamists to obtain a nuclear weapon. After years of failed attempts at engagement, Congress dragged him into enforcing tough sanctions on the regime and the international coalition on the issue had backed the Iranians into a corner. But his zeal for a deal caused him to squander the immense economic and military leverage over Iran and the result was last November’s interim agreement that weakened sanctions while doing little to forestall the nuclear threat. After another year of talks, the Americans appear to be cracking again and making offers that build on last year’s concessions. The Iranians have now been told that not only will they continue to be able to enrich uranium but that they can keep their infrastructure including the centrifuges that create nuclear fuel for weapons. Instead of pushing for dismantling the centrifuges, which are not needed if Iran’s goal is truly to use its program for civilian purposes, American negotiators have offered to let Tehran keep its machines but asked that they be disconnected, a “compromise” that is little more than a fig leaf on a Western surrender to Iranian demands.

The fight against ISIS has only strengthened the president’s desire to make a deal with Iran. But while both nations have an interest in seeing the terror group destroyed, the unintended consequence of the administration’s belated recognition that its retreat from American commitments in the region has created havoc is that in doing so, it will strengthen the very forces—Iranian-backed Shiite terrorists in Iraq and the Assad government and the Iranian auxiliaries such as Quds force and Hezbollah in Syria—that are seeking to extinguish American influence in the region and extend Iranian hegemony across the region at the expense of U.S. allies such as the moderate Arab nations and Israel. Enlisting the aid of the arsonist in putting out the fire rarely works well for the burning building or the firemen.

If the Iranian strategy succeeds, they will not only have suckered the U.S. into going along with a pact that will make it more likely than not that Tehran will achieve is nuclear dream without having to worry about a Western coalition strangling its economy or threatening the use of force. By the same token, the tacit recognition of the right of Iran to operate with impunity in Iraq and Syria will, in the long run, make these nations more dangerous to the West, rather than less so. If we worry about ISIS, and we should, we should be even more worried about a new balance of power in which the terrorists and drug dealers of the Quds Force will be the ones in charge.

Deals with terrorists are never good bargains except for the terrorists. Getting into bed with Iran in Iraq for the sake of a nuclear deal the West should avoid is an unforced error on Obama’s part. He needs to back away from Iran both in Iraq and at the nuclear negotiating table quickly and ditch his foolish desire for a rapprochement with a regime that is as determined to undo the West as ISIS may be. If he doesn’t, the consequences may be Iranian rule in Iraq and Syria protected by a nuclear umbrella that the president has promised will never happen.

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ISIS Withstanding U.S. Counteroffensive

The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

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The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

Actually it’s worse than that–far from giving up ground, ISIS continues to take fresh territory. There are recent reports that “the black flag of ISIS was raised on the outskirts of the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani on Monday afternoon”; that ISIS fighters “have become a major presence in Abu Ghraib,” a town only 15 miles from Baghdad International Airport; and that ISIS fighters have also “seized weapons and besieged hundreds of Iraqi soldiers after overrunning … the Albu Aytha military camp, 50 miles outside of Baghdad.”

And the situation could get more dire still: “With U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq failing to halt the advance of the Islamic State, opposition forces in neighboring Syria warn that the Obama administration risks losing the Iraqi capital of Baghdad unless Washington helps the rebels open up new fronts against the militants in both countries.” Actually it’s unlikely that Baghdad will fall anytime soon to ISIS simply because there are so many Shiite residents of the capital, but it is quite plausible to expect a battle in the streets that will increase the already high death toll.

What is to be done about all this? Robert Ford, who resigned in disgust as Obama’s ambassador to Syria, offers useful suggestions. These include: “The United States and its partners must supply more ammunition and equipment to moderate groups in northern and southern Syria…. We must support a unified Syrian command structure by channeling our assistance through it, and we need to insist that our Arab allies do the same… We should be doing more to coordinate our attacks with opposition commanders.”

All good ideas. Beyond that, Obama needs to relax his prohibition on “boots on the ground.” While there are undoubtedly some Special Operations and CIA forces already running around Iraq and possibly Syria, a much larger commitment of Special Operators and advisers is needed to work as combat advisers alongside Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes, and select units of the Iraqi army and Free Syrian Army. This will make it possible to push back ISIS from the town of Kobani, whereas if the U.S. doesn’t have eyes on the ground it will be hard to bomb accurately.

The U.S. must also recommit to toppling Assad–a move that could finally entice President Erdogan of Turkey to commit Turkish troops to carve out safe zones in northern Syria where the more moderate Syrian opposition can begin to govern and thus offer an alternative to the terror of both Assad and ISIS.

In short, Obama needs to overcome his illusions and understand the limits of air power. Bombing is a good first step, but by itself it is not going to roll back the fanatical empire that ISIS is constructing.

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Appeasement of Iran Should Be Unthinkable

The secret nuclear negotiations that have been going on recently between Iran and the States have, to date, yielded no results. But given the recent statements from both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry indicating their continuing zeal for a deal with Tehran, one shouldn’t discount the possibility that sometime in the coming month or those that follows, they will yield enough to the ayatollahs to secure some kind of agreement. If so, the question Americans will have to answer is whether they want to live in a world in which the administration’s drive for détente with Iran yields a new nuclear power.

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The secret nuclear negotiations that have been going on recently between Iran and the States have, to date, yielded no results. But given the recent statements from both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry indicating their continuing zeal for a deal with Tehran, one shouldn’t discount the possibility that sometime in the coming month or those that follows, they will yield enough to the ayatollahs to secure some kind of agreement. If so, the question Americans will have to answer is whether they want to live in a world in which the administration’s drive for détente with Iran yields a new nuclear power.

The president’s rhetoric on Iran has always been good. He pledged to stop Iran when he first ran for president in 2008 and went even further in 2012 as he vowed not to terminate its nuclear program. But last year’s interim nuclear revealed that his desire to “engage” Iran is clearly greater than any fears about giving the Islamist regime the ability to achieve their nuclear ambition if they are determined to do so. Last year’s deal was achieved only by the U.S. abandoning the considerable economic and military leverage it had over Iran. If Obama is to get another, he will have to go further and gut sanctions altogether while allowing Tehran to retain its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for precautions that cannot be enforced and can easily be reversed by the Iranians. The farcical nature of some of the proposals intended to ensure that Iran will not get a bomb indicates just how desperate the U.S. is to get any sort of deal that could allow the president to pretend that he had kept his promises.

But for the moment, let’s ignore the details and just think about what it will mean for the U.S. to end Iran’s isolation. Advocates for Iran, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen consider a “thinkable ally.” Cohen has long been besotted with the Islamist regime, going so far in 2009 to write a series of embarrassing columns in which he sought to argue that Jews were actually treated well by one of the planet’s most anti-Semitic regimes. Now he has returned to his dream and normalizing relations with the Islamist tyranny and believes the president can make it a reality if only he will stop worrying about Iran lying about its nuclear dreams and the fact that it is the world’s leading state sponsor of Islamist terrorism.

A world in which such a result is thinkable is one in which the United States will, despite the president’s stated goal of fighting ISIS, be complicit in the transformation of the Middle East into one dominated by Iran and its allies which include Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas. It is one in which both moderate Arab regimes and Israel will rightly fear for their safety and which a newly empowered Iran will be able to threaten the West with the ballistic missiles, the U.S. isn’t interested in negotiating about and a nuclear program that will be easily converted to a weapon.

Americans are rightly afraid of ISIS and applaud the president’s desire to eliminate it. But if the U.S. surrenders to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, what will follow will be far more perilous than anything that ISIS could possibly achieve. This is not something sane persons should consider “thinkable.”

In the next 24 hours, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which they will contemplate their shortcomings and ask forgiveness for their sins. But we hope the president and those implementing his policies toward Iran will do the same about their plans. We don’t know what the world will look like a year from now. But if the U.S. does not step back from its course of appeasement of Iran, we know it will be even more dangerous than it is now.

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Will Afghanistan Turn the Tables on Pakistan?

Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

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Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

For many Americans, ancient history is anything more than a decade or two old. While a generation of American servicemen, diplomats, and journalists think about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they think about it in terms of one-way infiltration: Pakistani-supported Taliban or other terrorists infiltrating into Pakistan in order to conduct terrorism. In this, they are not wrong. But if the broader sweep of history is considered, then much of the infiltration went the other way, with Afghan and Pashtun nationalists sneaking across the border into Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province. (I had summed up a lot of that history, here.)

As U.S. forces and America’s NATO partners prepare to withdraw upon an arbitrary political deadline, terrorism will surge inside Afghanistan but terrorism will not be limited to that country. Many Afghans believe—and they are perhaps not wrong—that diplomacy will never convince Pakistan to curtail its terror sponsorship. Pakistani officials do not take American diplomats seriously. Pakistani diplomats either lie shamelessly or purposely keep themselves ignorant of the actions and policies of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Instead, Afghans may increasingly turn to tit-for-tat terrorism, all with plausible deniability: A bomb goes off in Kabul? Well, then a bomb will go off in Islamabad. A Talib shoots an Afghan colonel? Well, then a Pakistani colonel will mysteriously suffer the same fate.

Pakistan has supported Islamist radicalism since at least 1971, when its defeat at the hands of Bangladeshi nationalists convinced the ISI and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that radical Islam could be the glue that held Pakistan together and protect it against the corrosiveness of ethnic nationalism. President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took that embrace of Islamism to a new level.

The Pakistani elite has not hesitated to use the Taliban and various Kashmiri and other jihadi and terrorist groups as a tool of what it perceives as Pakistani interests. Sitting within their elite bubble, they mistakenly believe that they can control these forces of radical Islamism. That Pakistan has suffered 50,000 deaths in its own fight against radicals suggests they are wrong. The blowback may only have just begun, however.

Pakistanis may believe that an American withdrawal will bring peace (on Pakistan’s terms) to Afghanistan, but they may soon learn the hard way that Afghanistan can be an independent actor; that not every official is under the control of, let alone easily intimidated by Pakistan; and that terrorism can go both ways. That is not to endorse terrorism—analysis is not advocacy—but simply a recognition that the regional reverberations of the forthcoming American and NATO drawdown will be far broader than perhaps both Washington and Islamabad consider.

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Déjà Vu? Public Opinion on Obama’s ISIS Plan Starting to Look Familiar

The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

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The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

As Aaron Blake notes, “It has been eight months since Obama last cracked half the American public on any given issue — foreign policy or otherwise — in Washington Post/ABC News polling.” That should be encouraging for the president, as it means the numbers are moving in the right direction. But as Ed Morrissey points out, that 50 percent is actually noticeably lower than the percent of the public who had earlier said they would support this particular strategy. Morrissey writes, correctly:

Getting to 50% approval on a plan which 68% of Americans wanted three weeks ago isn’t really much of an accomplishment. In fact, it looks a little like — how to say it? – leading from behind.

Additionally, he writes that the boost in support is coming in part from Republicans, who are more likely to support hawkish policies. That’s not new, and it’s not really expanding Obama’s base of support–at least not in a way that could overflow onto other issues. (Republicans are unlikely to approve of Obama’s handling of health care or the economy no matter how successful are the anti-ISIS strikes.)

And in fact, we have precedent for warning the president of this effect. Let’s turn the clock back a few years to 2009, when we saw a very similar pattern on a very similar issue.

On December 1, 2009, Obama announced a surge for Afghanistan of an additional 30,000 troops. On the eve of that announcement, Gallup found his approval rating on his prosecution of the Afghanistan war was slipping, from 56 percent in July of that year to 49 percent in September and finally 35 percent just before the speech. After the announcement, Gallup found 51 percent approved of the Afghan surge, including a majority of Republicans and Democrats. Quinnipiac found even higher support for the plan, plus this, as Bloomberg explained: “Also, 57 percent said fighting in Afghanistan was the right course of action, up 9 points from a similar survey released Nov. 18.”

That latter nugget was arguably more important, because it showed that–as is the case with the president’s plan to fight ISIS–Americans approved of the idea behind the strategy. That is, they still wanted to fight, and Obama’s plan matched up to those preferences. Bloomberg added that it was an improvement on “Obama’s handling of the Afghan war, with 45 percent supporting him and 45 percent opposing him. That was a 7-point gain for the president.”

Gallup found Obama’s overall job approval got a bit of a bump too, reaching 52 percent after the announcement. But that dropped a few days later to 47 percent, which represented (at the time) a new low for the administration (though the administration was less than a year old).

Signs of trouble appeared even among the good news back then. For example, not even a majority of Americans believed the goals of the Afghanistan policy they supported would be met.

Which brings us back to ISIS. Obama said he “will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” instead favoring air strikes. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll published over the weekend found the public wasn’t buying it: “72 percent of Americans believe the United States will still use its ground troops anyway against ISIS, versus just 20 percent who think it won’t.”

So there’s skepticism on the feasibility of Obama’s plan from the beginning. That doesn’t necessarily doom it in the eyes of the public: according to that same poll, a plurality (45 percent) support using ground troops if military commanders want them, with 37 percent opposed.

You can see what makes this particular issue so dicey for the president. The public seems ahead of him not only on the need to destroy ISIS but also on the possibility of using ground troops. So he could find that while the public isn’t exactly clamoring for another land war, they’re not enamored of too much restraint either. It looks less like a formula for presidential success and more like a formula to run afoul of virtually everyone’s expectations. Such are the perils of leading from behind a fickle public.

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Obama’s Hypocrisy on Civilian Casualties

A few weeks ago, the State Department’s incoherent spokeswoman Marie Harf all but accused Israel of war crimes. As Tablet noted at the time, Harf said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” She said a full investigation and accounting of Israel’s actions was warranted (as if Israel doesn’t already conduct such investigations). Expect her, then, to be asked about the following:

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A few weeks ago, the State Department’s incoherent spokeswoman Marie Harf all but accused Israel of war crimes. As Tablet noted at the time, Harf said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” She said a full investigation and accounting of Israel’s actions was warranted (as if Israel doesn’t already conduct such investigations). Expect her, then, to be asked about the following:

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.

A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.

The Obama White House appears to have expanded Richard Nixon’s famous maxim to international law: when the (American) president does it, it’s not illegal. The Obama administration’s air war on terror has operated under the standard referred to as “near certainty”: that they be all but certain no civilians will be endangered by air strikes. But as the Obama administration continues withdrawing from these battlefields, that gets more difficult to ensure since sources of on-the-ground intelligence dry up.

Such sources weren’t there to begin with in Syria, at least not to the extent they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s not as though President Obama suddenly decided he doesn’t care about innocent Syrian lives. It’s that he’s doing his best to prevent civilian casualties within the realm of realistic but effective warfare. The double standard is still glaring, as Jonathan pointed out last week. And it only becomes more so with yesterday’s report on the shift in standards. The White House was asked about just how much effort they’re putting into their aim after a particularly damaging errant strike:

But at a briefing for members and staffers of the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last week, Syrian rebel commanders described women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians. Images of badly injured children also appeared on YouTube, helping to fuel anti-U.S. protests in a number of Syrian villages last week.

“They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. … I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a political member of one of the Free Syria Army factions, who attended the briefing for Foreign Affairs Committee members and staff. “We believe this was a big mistake.”

Yes, a “big mistake” that mere weeks ago the State Department was calling unjustified–tantamount to a war crime, in other words–when committed by Israel. Now, there will be some leeway of course: it’s not as though Obama’s a Republican, so the laws of war are of minimal concern to the left. Additionally, everyone knows a double standard is applied to Israel, so no one expected Barack Obama to live up to his own words or follow his own administration’s sanctimonious pronouncements.

Nonetheless, even some Obama partisans are wondering if the president is simply making it up as he goes along. The Yahoo story that confirmed the removal of the “near certainty” standard quotes Harold Koh, formerly the Obama State Department’s top lawyer, trying mightily to figure out where Obama’s legal authority is coming from:

“They seem to be creating this grey zone” for the conflict, said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer during President Obama’s first term. “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.”

The difference, then, between the way the Obama administration and Israel conduct war boils down to: Israel puts the greatest effort it can into avoiding civilian casualties and then follows up with transparent investigations, while Obama basically just hopes for the best. The press should ask him about that.

Indeed, they should do more: will the New York Times shove down its readers’ throats a constant stream of enemy propaganda designed to engender sympathy for genocidal terrorists at the expense of the democratic West? To ask the question is to answer it. If Jews or Republicans can’t be blamed, what’s the point?

More likely, however, is the possibility that the walking disaster that is Marie Harf will be asked about it, since the diplomatic press pool tend not to find her petty sniping and cheerful ignorance intimidating in the least. Does she still think these acts are war crimes, now that her government is the one conducting them? And does she believe she owes Israel an apology? There’s no question she does owe Israel that apology, and so does the Obama administration more broadly. But it would be interesting to see if they could summon the necessary integrity to offer it.

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Dem Senate Candidates: Bombs Away!

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

As Politico recounts in a story today, Democratic Senate candidates are finding their inner hawks on the campaign trail, but none more noticeably than Shaheen, the New Hampshire incumbent trying to fend off a challenge from Scott Brown. Shaheen, on matters of war and peace, is a walking focus group:

When she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said at a debate: “I’ll stand with President Bush on national security, the war on terrorism and to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

In a 2008 rematch against then-Sen. John Sununu, after the war had gone south, Shaheen vowed to fight to bring the troops home.

“I would vote to authorize military action if the U.S. or any of its treaty partners are attacked militarily, and to prevent an imminent attack,” she said on a 2008 questionnaire. But “I oppose the Bush doctrine of preemption because it implies that the United States will use preemption as a first option, rather than a last resort.”

Setting aside her obvious ignorance of the Bush doctrine (an ignorance she shares with virtually everyone on the left), we should ask Shaheen: Which way are the winds blowing this time? Answer:

Republican candidate Scott Brown has been hammering Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for failing to understand “the nature of the threat,” as he put it in one commercial that began airing last week.

This has prompted the freshman Democrat to begin quietly running a response ad (her campaign has not released it to the news media), in which she says: “I support those airstrikes. I think it’s important for us to take the fight to ISIL.”

A narrator accuses Brown of playing politics and says, over patriotic music, that Shaheen “always works to keep America strong.”

Even her ads are a study in contradiction. It’s apparently “playing politics” for politicians to campaign on the issues, and yet Shaheen takes the bait and claims that she, too, enthusiastically wants to bomb some folks, as the president might say.

But Shaheen is just a product of a Democratic Party that has not had a coherent approach to national security in over a decade. During President Bush’s first term, Al Gore maniacally accused him of betraying the country. The Democrats then nominated John Kerry in 2004, to make crystal clear they didn’t have the energy to even pretend they cared about national security.

In 2008, Democrats nominated Barack Obama, whose antiwar speech in 2002, lauded by the left, was startlingly unintelligent and Ron Paul-esque in its wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Obama followed the usual fringe leftist critique of blaming Wolfowitz and Perle for manipulating the country into war. He also called them “weekend warriors,” showing he doesn’t know what “weekend warrior” means. He then accused Karl Rove of manufacturing the war to distract the country from the economy and to protect corporate evildoers from public opprobrium. The speech sounded like a raving fusion of Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones. So naturally the Democrats chose him to represent their party.

And then when he won, the script had to be flipped. The president was introduced to reality, and he embraced his power to expand America’s war in the Middle East and Central Asia. He had genuine successes, like the operation to take out Osama bin Laden, which he then made his campaign slogan to the extent that it was actually surprising his nominating convention speech didn’t feature him standing over bin Laden’s body while exclaiming to the audience “Are you not entertained?

Indeed they were entertained. The thousands of Democratic Party voters and activists cheered on targeted assassination. In his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, Obama taunted his challenger’s lack of appetite for the messy business of spilling bad-guy blood. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then stepped down and immediately spread the word that Obama was insufficiently hawkish for her, and that, as she rocketed to the top of 2016 Democratic polls, she would take the country further into battle. You only think you’re entertained now, Clinton’s message intimated; you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And that was all before Obama abandoned Iraq and watched ISIS rise, march on territory, and then start beheading Americans. The public may have been war weary, but they won’t stand for being targeted with impunity. Obama did the right thing and agreed to try and push back ISIS and protect the ethnic and religious minority groups whose existence ISIS was trying to extinguish. He also was informed of credible threats against America and acted accordingly.

And Democratic candidates are following suit. The idea of “antiwar liberals” was always something of a misnomer. They were, mostly, anti-Bush or anti-Republican liberals. What matters most to the left is not who is being bombed but who is ordering the bombing. It’s why Jim Webb is probably kidding himself if he believes an antiwar candidate poses a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. If he wants to know if there’s space on the left for a serious antiwar campaign, he’s going through entirely too much effort by traveling around the country and talking to prospective supporters. All he really needs to do is ask Jeanne Shaheen.

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Our Lying President and His Lying Press Secretary

White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

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White House press secretary Josh Earnest has a problem. In a misguided effort to protect his boss, the president, he is continuing to lie.

I use the word lie advisedly but, I believe, correctly. Here’s why.

In an exchange yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Mr. Earnest continues to peddle the fiction that President Obama did not have ISIS/ISIL in mind when he referred to it in an interview in the New Yorker as a “jayvee team.” Several weeks ago I showed why that claim is false, and so have many others, including Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker for the Washington Post.

It’s simply not plausible to believe the White House press secretary is unwittingly mistaken on this matter. By now he has to know what the truth is. He has to know full well that Mr. Obama had ISIS in mind when he referred to it as a “jayvee team.” So, by the way, does Mr. Obama, who is also deceiving Americans about this matter.

I understand why the president and his press secretary would rather not admit to having mocked ISIS now that it is the largest, richest, most well armed, and most formidable terrorist group on the planet. But Mr. Obama did, and being duplicitous about the fact that he did isn’t going to help anyone. It will, in fact, further erode the president’s credibility.

It is bad enough for this administration to be so inept; it’s worse for them to be so obviously dishonest as well.

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Obama’s Mistakes Come Back to Haunt Him

President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

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President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

The headline-grabbing statement was the president blaming the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS and overestimating the capacity of the Iraqi army. And it’s true that Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, did recently tell David Ignatius, “We underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army” although he also said that “his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its ‘prowess and capability,’ as well as the ‘deficiencies’ of the Iraqi military.” So the president can take refuge in asserting that he was simply claiming Clapper’s own self-critique.

But I doubt that will seem very convincing to intelligence community personnel who will feel that the president is throwing them under the bus–hiding policy errors behind a front of supposed intelligence failures. Indeed, the New York Times today quotes one “senior American intelligence official” as saying: “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The reality is that it didn’t require any specialized intelligence apparatus to know that the threat from jihadists like ISIS would grow or that the capabilities of the Iraqi army would decline if we left Iraq and Syria alone, as we have largely done since 2011. I and many other analysts were noting at the time that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq was a “tragedy” that would leave Iraqis ill-prepared to defend themselves and that the U.S. failure to help the moderate Syrian opposition would cede ground to “Sunnis extremists such as al Qaeda.” That Obama chose to ignore such warnings was not the fault of his intelligence personnel; it was his own fault for believing what he wanted to believe–namely that the U.S. could retreat from the Middle East without increasing the danger of our enemies gaining ground.

Such a belief was fantastic enough in 2011; it became utterly preposterous when in January of this year Fallujah and Ramadi fell to ISIS. Yet even then Obama did nothing for another nine months. It took the fall of Mosul in June to shake him out of his complacency–although not to get him off the golf course–and at last try to come up with some strategy to stop ISIS. Again, this isn’t the intelligence community’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault, and he would enhance his own credibility if he would accept some of the blame for this failure.

Instead he is once again pointing fingers, not only at the intelligence agencies but also at former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course,” Obama said. “And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country.”

True enough, but this analysis ignores the important role of Obama’s own administration in helping Maliki to win a second term in 2010 when he actually won fewer parliamentary seats than Ayad Allawi. It is also ignores the fact that those of us who were in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (and that includes senior U.S. military commanders on the ground) believed it was essentially in no small part to allow the U.S. to continue exerting pressure on Maliki to stay non-sectarian. That Maliki would unleash his inner sectarian as soon as we left was also utterly predictable and cannot be blamed on any intelligence failure.

Of course Obama won’t accept responsibility for pulling out of Iraq either–he blames that too on the Iraqis for failing to agree to grant U.S. troops legal immunity in a status of forces agreed ratified by their parliament. Yet it turns out this was a bogus issue all along. How do I know? Because Obama has now sent 1,600, and counting, U.S. troops to Iraq without any legal immunity or any Status of Forces Agreement ratified by parliament. If he’s doing it now, why couldn’t he do it in 2012? Simply because he didn’t want to–Iraqi leaders almost certainly would have acceded if Obama had shown the will to remain past 2011.

Rather than accepting blame for his own misjudgments, Obama stubbornly continues to defend his mistakes such as failing to arm moderate Syrian fighters in 2011-2012 as most of his security cabinet was urging him to do. “For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But we also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria,” Obama said.

Yet Obama’s own officials, including Robert Ford, his former ambassador to Damascus, have said that the U.S. has had the information for years that it needs to figure out who’s who among the Syrian rebels. It’s just that Obama refused to act on that information precisely because he refused to accept a “more significant role inside of Syria” even if such a role could have stopped the growth of ISIS.

If Obama is going to rebuild shattered confidence in his foreign policy, he needs to accept blame for what he did wrong before and act to correct those mistakes now instead of scapegoating others and taking refuge in half-measures such as his current air strikes without boots on the ground, which he characterized on 60 Minutes as a “counterterrorism operation” rather than “the sort of occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghan war.”

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