Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barack’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gaza Residents: Hamas Kept Us from Fleeing Israeli Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Klinghoffer’ Opera and the Mainstreaming of Jew Hatred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then acknowledges the crux of the matter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Problem with Obama and His Generals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Was Right Not to Ransom Foley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is their anger justified?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Not About What ISIS “Wants”

ISIS continues to behead its hostages. The latest victim of its brutality was British aid worker David Haines, whose execution video was released over the weekend. Pretty much the entire world has united in condemnation of these evil actions, which have raised so much outrage in the U.S. that most Americans now support military action in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. But, some analysts suggest that this is precisely what ISIS wants–that the beheadings are simply a plot to draw us into a guerrilla war we cannot win. Can this be? Is it possible that we are playing into their hands by taking action against them?

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ISIS continues to behead its hostages. The latest victim of its brutality was British aid worker David Haines, whose execution video was released over the weekend. Pretty much the entire world has united in condemnation of these evil actions, which have raised so much outrage in the U.S. that most Americans now support military action in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. But, some analysts suggest that this is precisely what ISIS wants–that the beheadings are simply a plot to draw us into a guerrilla war we cannot win. Can this be? Is it possible that we are playing into their hands by taking action against them?

A similar suggestion was made about 9/11–some suggested that al-Qaeda struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon to ensnare the U.S., like the Soviet Union before it, into a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. So too it was sometimes suggested that the Iraqi army folded during the conventional U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003 so that Saddam Hussein could pursue guerrilla warfare against our troops. There is not, however, much evidence, much less proof, that this was ever our enemies’ intentions; even if the upshot of their actions was indeed to draw us into military expeditions in the Muslim world, that was probably not their intent.

If al-Qaeda had been expecting a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, it would have been better prepared. Instead its cadres, including Osama bin Laden, had to scatter willy-nilly. Many of them were caught or killed by U.S. forces; others went into hiding. The Taliban were also caught off guard and it took them years to launch an insurgency, which they could not have done without Pakistan’s help. There is not much evidence of premeditation here. In all likelihood bin Laden was expecting the kind of response al-Qaeda had seen earlier, when Bill Clinton had lobbed a few cruise missiles at them. Neither bin Laden nor his ally Mullah Omar was prepared for an American-enabled offensive by the Northern Alliance that drove al-Qaeda and its ilk out of power and into hiding.

What about Saddam? Although he had prepared some Saddam Fedayan irregular fighters, who shocked the U.S. invasion force with their fanatical and suicidal resistance, and although some of his henchmen became instrumental in launching an insurgency against the U.S., there is not much evidence that he expected to lose the war or that he was prepared to wage guerrilla warfare if he did so. Saddam, too, would have been better prepared for defeat if he had expected it–instead he went on the run and was pulled out of his spider hole by U.S. troops at the end of 2003. The bulk of the evidence points to the conclusion that the insurgency developed as a result of circumstances–such as the dissolution of the Iraqi security forces and the excessive de-Baathification campaign–that could not have been foreseen in advance.

I doubt that ISIS can foretell the consequences of its actions any better than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden could. In fact the group’s brutality has backfired before, by sparking the Anbar Awakening in 2006-2007. Ayman al Zawahiri, then the deputy head of al-Qaeda, now its head, even armed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, then the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS), against excessive brutality such as videotaped beheadings of hostages and mass murder of Shiites. All of this, Zawahiri said, would turn public opinion against AQI. But Zarqawi was so fanatical he ignored this good advice. So too now Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is indulging his blood lust and trying to instill respect for his group the only way he knows how–by lopping off heads. He probably imagines that this will frighten and cow his enemies. Instead it is having the opposite effect, by galvanizing opposition.

But let’s say I’m wrong and the beheadings are actually a diabolical plot to draw the U.S. into the wars in Iraq and Syria. What should our response be then? Should we simply ignore ISIS’s brutality if it actually wants us to intervene? Hardly. Because ISIS would win a victory–in fact it is winning today–as long as the U.S. does little to resist its evil designs.

At the end of the day, whether ISIS wants us to intervene or not is irrelevant. As President Obama recognizes, we have to intervene whether we like it or not–but we must ensure that our intervention is so successful that even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually wanted to draw us in, he will come to regret his decision.

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John Kerry’s Stupid Condescension

There is a certain kind of personality that not only can’t admit an error, but becomes stupidly condescending when they are asked to explain their error. Barack Obama is one such person; Secretary of State John Kerry is another.

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There is a certain kind of personality that not only can’t admit an error, but becomes stupidly condescending when they are asked to explain their error. Barack Obama is one such person; Secretary of State John Kerry is another.

Let me explain what I mean. Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer asked Secretary Kerry to clarify whether or not the United States is at war with ISIS (also known as ISIL). The reason the clarification is necessary is because the Obama administration, in the course of a few days, has had high-ranking officials say we’re both at war and we’re not at war with ISIS. Kerry himself said on Thursday that our mission was not a war but a counter-terrorism operation. By yesterday, in his interview with Schieffer, Kerry said we were at war with ISIS. In other words, Kerry was saying we aren’t at war with ISIS before he was saying we are.

When asked about all this, Kerry didn’t admit he was wrong. Here’s what he said instead:

Well, Bob, I think there’s, frankly, a kind of tortured debate going on about terminology. What I’m focused on obviously is getting done what we need to get done to ISIL. But if people need to find a place to land in terms of what we did in Iraq: Originally, this is not a war. This is not combat troops on the ground. It’s not hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not that kind of mobilization. But in terms of al Qaeda, which we have used the word war with, yeah, we went — we’re at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. And in same context, if you want to use it, yes, we’re at war with ISIL in that sense. But I think it’s a waste of time to focus on that. Frankly, let’s consider what we have to do to degrade and defeat ISIL. And that’s what I’m frankly much more focused on.

Memo to Secretary Kerry: the reason there’s a “tortured debate going on about terminology” is because the administration you work for is sending out not just different, but contradictory, messages about the nature of the conflict we have with ISIS. And while you may think it’s a “waste of time” to focus on whether we’re at war or not, it actually matters. The citizens of this nation deserve to know whether or not we’re at war; and one might expect a minimally competent administration to be saying the same thing rather than conflicting things. To dismiss these matters by saying he’ll answer the question “if people need to find a place to land” is quite patronizing, which raises this question: What exactly has Mr. Kerry ever achieved to make him believe he’s above the rest of us? He’s been wrong on virtually every major foreign-policy matter since the 1970s.

Beyond that, the semantics are important because they reveal the cast of mind of those in the administration. If the president and his top advisors are conflicted about whether even to call this a war, you can bet they don’t have the determination and strength of purpose to actually wage and win one. And oh-by-the-way: If Messrs. Obama and Kerry believe we can defeat ISIS without prosecuting a war–if they think a counterinsurgency operation is enough–they are living in a fantasy world.

The Obama administration increasingly resembles a clown act. If they were in charge of a circus, that would be one thing. But the fact that they are in charge of American foreign policy is quite another. The damage being inflicted on America’s national interests and the international world order by the ineptness of Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, Susan Rice & Co. is beyond immense. It now qualifies as incalculable. Those are not grounds for being haughty and supercilious.

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Teaching U.S. Officials About Radical Islam

When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

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When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

But while deploying troops must sit through countless hours of cultural awareness training to learn about the region in which they will soon live and fight, many with whom I have talked over the years voice a common criticism about the programs: They are subject to basic, politically correct descriptions of Islam that seem detached from the reality of their missions. U.S. troops who have fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan are fighting not peaceful Muslims who abide by the most benevolent Koranic interpretations, but rather radical jihadis who seek to disfigure and murder in the name of religion.

The same is too often true with Department of Justice training. After having been criticized by Islamist advocacy groups for focusing too much on radicalism, the Justice Department has largely sanitized its training. It avoids controversy by allowing groups like the Council on American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)–which embrace or apologize for some of the worst groups–to help set the bounds of permissible interpretation. Letting CAIR determine what can and cannot be taught about Islamist terrorism is like letting the Taliban have final say on the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manuals. To have ISNA have sway on how Muslim military chaplains are credentialed suggests a lack of seriousness about combating radicalism.

While no religion has a monopoly on terrorism, cultural equivalence also rings hollow: There is a far greater problem right now with Islamist terrorists operating across the globe and who use theological exegesis to motivate and justify their actions than with groups which root themselves in Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. To teach counter-terror analysts only about the “Five pillars of Islam,” commonalities between the Koran and the Old and New Testaments, and explain only the most sanitized interpretations of the Koran is simply policy malpractice made worse when questions regarding radicalism go unanswered.

Basic theology is not hard to understand. But if U.S. military officers and Department of Justice officials are truly going to understand the environments in which they serve and the adversary against whom they seek to protect the United States and all Americans, then it becomes essential that U.S. officials are able to understand and explain not only what the five pillars of Islam are, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, or what the 21st century definitions of Greater and Lesser Jihad are, but rather be able to discuss:

  • The passages of the Koran which extremists use to justify suicide bombing and precise theological arguments moderate clergy might use to refute those (beyond simply saying Islam forbids suicide).
  • The evolution of Islamic interpretation of the Koranic passages which promote beheading of prisoners.
  • They should also learn that, contrary to common rhetoric, the Koran is not always the same, either historically or in translation and interpretation.
  • All religions evolve. Few Christians would advocate publicly burning at the stake women who might publicly recite the Bible. After all, this is no longer the 14th century. Likewise, while it is important to understand contemporary interpretations of jihad, it is likewise important to recognize that the concept of jihad has evolved over time. That said, when militant groups seek to build a society based on their notion of how Islamic states might have acted 1,350 years ago, it behooves analysts to understand what theological interpretations predominated then.
  • The theology that Osama Bin Laden embraced and expounded, and that advanced by Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abubakr al-Baghdadi. If these men preach something un-Islamic, then an official with understanding should be able to explain why–not simply ignore their theology.

Teaching about radicalism is not Islamophobic nor should those who wish to protect or even advocate for Islam agitate against it. After all, the chief victims of radical Islamism are the moderates.

President Obama may have sought to project seriousness when he outlined a strategy to combat ISIS on September 10. But until the U.S. government—whether the Defense Department focused abroad or the Justice Department at home—refines its curriculum to address rather than avoid tough questions of theological interpretations, any officer or official participating in the fight will not only be entering it blind but, more damningly, will be entering it blind based on the political desire of their leadership. It’s time to equip those manning our front lines with real cultural awareness, not the religious equivalent of My Little Pony.

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Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

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When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

There were the beginnings of a similar moment when terrorists from Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group, abducted hundreds of school girls, most of whom remain missing. Even al-Qaeda criticized Boko Haram’s action as destructive to the overall cause which al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists embrace.

Alas, it seems that the public—and Islamists—are becoming accustomed to such brutality and are no longer willing to condemn it on such a broad scale. Cases in point are the capture and enslavement of Yezidi girls and the systematic execution of journalists and aid workers by proponents of ISIS. Now certainly, these have been subject to the usual rote condemnations by governments and by groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that have taken Saudi and Qatari money and often associate with more radical Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, when push comes to shove, many Islamists and the groups and countries which support them are not putting their money where their mouth is. Arab countries—the same countries whose citizens often donated to ISIS and associated charities—have been reluctant to help. Turkey’s excuse—that it is afraid for hostages held in Mosul—does not pass the smell test given that Turkey has not hesitated to wage war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even when that group has held Turks hostage. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to label ISIS as terrorists simply reinforces the issue.

It’s all well and good to dismiss ISIS actions as “un-Islamic” as CAIR has done or, for that matter, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have done. But the truth is that to millions of Muslims, they are very Islamic. To deny the religious component of “Jihad John” or ISIS’s actions is to deny that there is an exegesis within Islamic thought that not only allows but blesses such actions. It is to deny that there is a battle of interpretation which must be won. Nor is it logical to embrace a politically correct and scrubbed 21st century definition of jihad when ISIS reaches back to interpretations of a millennium and more ago when jihad was understood by Islamic theologians to mean an often offensive holy war.

The fact that the visceral outrage which confronted the Beslan murders has now been replaced by pro-forma but ultimately meaningless condemnations of Islamic terror by Muslim majority states and Islamic advocacy organizations suggests that far from rising up with righteous outrage against the actions of the latest Islamist group, the broader Islamic world has become inured to such actions conducted in its name and unwilling to recoil and shame its proponents and supporters in the same way.

Indeed, the thousands of foreign terrorists which now flock to Syria and Iraq did not radicalize in the last two months, nor did they embrace the most radical interpretations of Islam simply because they disliked former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, they were instructed in hundreds of mosques scattered across Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. They were taught the Koran and its meaning by thousands of teachers and imams funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. These mosques were protected from criticism by so-called Islamic civil-rights and advocacy groups who conflated any criticism of radical Islamist ideology with Islamophobia. If only the same organizations instead began to name and publicly shame the extremists who preach in American, European, or Middle Eastern mosques.

Press releases won’t cut it, nor diplomatic handshakes and symbolic press conferences. The problem lies deeper, and ultimately boils down to the tolerance for extremism in so many European, American, and Middle Eastern mosques upon which ISIS recruiters rely.

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Beheading Shows Just How Bad U.S. Intelligence Has Become

The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

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The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

Still, as the United States prepares military action, if President Obama is to be believed, the beheading of Haines reinforces just how bad American intelligence has become in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The terrorist murdering Haines refers to British pledges to support the Kurdish peshmerga against ISIS as well as bombing of the Haditha dam a week ago. This suggests that Haines was not killed at the time of previous ISIS videos, but rather in the last couple days.

This suggests that neither the United States nor United Kingdom has much of an idea about where its citizens are being held hostage. Given the importance to ISIS of its propaganda campaign, this means in turn that the United States and United Kingdom likely have little to no idea about where high-value ISIS targets are. (Turkey may have some idea. When I was in Syria earlier this year, almost everyone—opposition and regime—used Turkish cell phone signals which mysteriously penetrated deep into Syria. That those are not monitored beggars belief; that Turkey would not share its intelligence with Western democracies does not.)

In effect, while air power can strike at some ISIS hardware or permanent encampments, the United States is fighting blind.

Time may resolve this. Intelligence insight increases with greater and contiguous presence. The longer the United States remains committed, the better our intelligence penetration should be.

Let us hope that future presidents learn a lesson: The United States based its withdrawal from Iraq and its coming retreat from Afghanistan on two pillars: That armies we trained could control ground and that the United States could provide “over-the-horizon” security from naval aircraft or from bases outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Both assumptions were false: The training of the Iraq army, Afghan army, and Kurdish peshmerga were a multi-billion dollar fiasco, and the United States has been able to do very little from over-the-horizon, largely because we blinded ourselves with our withdrawal.

By withdrawing completely, however, and severing so much of the military-to-military and intelligence relationships, the United States blinded ourselves to events just as surely as we had shoved a hot poker into our eyes. Our human intelligence slowed to a drip, and then dried up completely. Once hard-won capabilities are forfeited, they cannot be restored with a wave of a magic wand or presidential rhetoric.

Perhaps had we not packed up and gone home but left the residual force which the Iraqis expected, we would not have been so blind as to ISIS’s rise and the whereabouts of its assets and our captured citizens.

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World Yawns as Hamas Admits War Crimes

Perhaps it’s because the world is currently transfixed by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and isn’t paying much attention to the events in Gaza that generated such outrage from human rights groups determined to indict Israel for war crimes before any investigations are even conducted. But perhaps some of those who pooh-poohed Israel’s claims that Hamas was firing rockets at Israeli cities from civilian areas and thereby using the people of Gaza as human shields will pay a smidgeon of attention to the news that, as the Associated Press reported today, Hamas operatives admit that they did exactly what the Israelis said they did.

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Perhaps it’s because the world is currently transfixed by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and isn’t paying much attention to the events in Gaza that generated such outrage from human rights groups determined to indict Israel for war crimes before any investigations are even conducted. But perhaps some of those who pooh-poohed Israel’s claims that Hamas was firing rockets at Israeli cities from civilian areas and thereby using the people of Gaza as human shields will pay a smidgeon of attention to the news that, as the Associated Press reported today, Hamas operatives admit that they did exactly what the Israelis said they did.

According to the AP, contrary to the claims of its defenders, Hamas operatives have admitted firing rockets from civilian areas in Gaza. But they say they did so at a distance from actual buildings. As the AP report noted, videos from surveillance conducted by the Israeli Air Force has produced evidence of rockets flying from residential neighborhoods, hospitals, cemeteries, mosque courtyards and other civilian areas. But Hamas officials quoted by the news service now say that when they did fire from such places, the rocket launchers were always at a “safe distance” from such structures or that the nearby buildings were deliberately kept vacant.

Given the evidence of civilian casualties from Israeli fire directed at such launchings, this is a transparent lie. More to the point, if human rights groups and the international press accept this excuse they will not only be validating an almost certainly false story but also moving the goalposts to accommodate the terrorists propaganda needs.

Let’s remember that the international press that flooded into Gaza during the war did a conspicuously poor job of covering Hamas activities in Gaza. No pictures were shot of Hamas fighters or of the thousands of missile launches during the 50 days of conflict. Instead they either knuckled under to Hamas intimidation or were actively complicit in publicizing the narrative the Islamists preferred that focused solely on Palestinian suffering instead of Hamas terror.

Hamas figures quoted by the AP contend that it was impossible for them to fire missiles without being in the vicinity of civilians because the strip is so congested. There are two answers to this argument.

One is to point out that, despite the contentions about Gaza being the most congested place on earth, that there are, plenty of vacant areas in the strip. Parts of Gaza are crowded but it is not one continuous urban jungle. If Hamas really wanted to avoid Israeli fire being brought down on areas where civilians lived they could have used such places. But, firing from beaches or open fields doesn’t provide the cover that hospitals, mosques or school courtyards give the terrorists.

More to the point, if the only places they shoot missiles that are deliberately aimed to cause the maximum civilian casualties for the Israelis are an urban area, and then a group that was not a pack of bloodthirsty terrorists would have held its fire. Hamas did not.

These admissions prove again, as if much more proof was needed, that what Hamas did during this war was a double war crime. They were intent on slaughtering as many Jews as possible with their rockets and tunnels and also hopeful of causing Palestinian deaths as well to increase international sympathy for their cause.

Giving Hamas a pass because they fired near civilians but not on top of them is to grade them on a curve whose purpose is to justify their war on Israel. While individual Israeli strikes might have been made in error as always happens in the fog of war, Palestinian casualties were completely the responsibility of the group that launched this war for no good reason, kept it going when cease fires would have ended it before more were killed and did everything in their power to maximize the pain to their own people.

We can expect human rights groups, the United Nations to pay little attention to these admissions as they continue to seek to bash Israel for having the temerity to defend itself. But if anyone wants the truth, Hamas has just laid it out for the world to see. Too bad, much of the press and those participating in anti-Israel demonstrations where anti-Semitism is rampant, aren’t interested in it.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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At War with the English Language

The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

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The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

That’s the takeaway from this interview Rice did on CNN. Apparently, whether or not we call this a war is up to you, the public. The administration isn’t really sure, so they’re going to crowdsource it, Wikipedia-style. Here’s Rice telling Wolf Blitzer that what’s important is not whether you call a war a war but that you just follow your heart, man:

I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign. I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war. So I think this is very different from that. But nonetheless, we’ll be dealing with the significant threat to this region, to American personnel in the region and potentially also to Europe and the United States. And we’ll be doing it with partners. We’ll not be fighting ourselves on the ground but using American air power as we have been over the last several weeks as necessary.

Now, it should be noted that Rice’s opinion is consistent with some but not all such statements by current American officials, because a coherent vision has not and will not be forthcoming from the White House. Here’s John Kerry, saying it’s not a war:

The U.S. is not at war with ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted today, describing the military campaign outlined by President Obama as “a counterterrorism operation of a significant order.”

And yet at today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest changed tune:

And the Pentagon:

How the administration sees this war is important not only for the constitutional implications, which are serious enough. It’s also because the way officials are describing it gives us an indication of their overarching strategy. There’s no question ISIS is a terrorist group, and thus the administration certainly isn’t wrong in saying that combating ISIS will require elements of counterterrorism.

But ISIS is also more than just a terrorist group. It may not be a state, as the president said in his speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s without state-like characteristics, and that matters for how the U.S. military will approach rolling it back and ultimately defeating it.

As I wrote last week, ISIS’s declarations of statehood may just be bluster, but they indicate something else: that ISIS is operating as if Iraq, Syria, and its other targets are not states either. Most of the terrorist groups the West has fought in the global war on terror were either state-like and static–think the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas–or fluid and less interested in collapsing existing states and declaring their own, like the al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that try to hit American and Western targets.

With ISIS, although there is concern they could try to attack the homeland, the primary threat does not appear to be random suicide bombers or even training grounds for wannabe jihadis. (Though the number of European passport holders flocking to ISIS territory raises that threat as well.) What ISIS has done is essentially put together a kind of standing army that seeks to capture and hold strategic territory. As the terrorism scholar William McCants told the site ThinkProgress earlier this week with regard to an influential 2004 jihadist manifesto and its similarities with ISIS tactics:

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

There’s an actual strategy here, and it’s not just about causing mayhem and it’s not just about targeting symbols of the West. Principles of counterterrorism can be very helpful in fighting ISIS, but an army on the march demands more than that. Which is why the language from the commander in chief on down is so important.

Perhaps they’re getting it right. Today’s briefings seem to mark a shift toward admitting we’re at war. But that will also require dropping the silly word games meant to deride ISIS, as if taunting them will bring victory or minimizing the threat will attract more global support for the war. The president needs to get the terminology right, and then get the strategy right. At the moment, officials are giving off the impression that they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten us into.

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Tell Turkey: Counterterror Goes Both Ways

The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

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The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

Some Turks may be held hostage, although if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were truly worried about ISIS terrorism, they likely would not have forbidden the Turkish press from reporting on it nor would they have encouraged ISIS in the first place nor would they have opened their borders to provide medical treatment for ISIS leaders.

The problem with American diplomacy today is, when it comes to important issues, there is no consequence for those who would thumb their nose at American priorities. In the wake of Hagel’s visit to Ankara, Hürriyet Daily News interviewed Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary for defense. Despite the Turkish refusal, Chollet’s talk was full of the usual platitudes:

  • “The U.S. and Turkey see very much the same threats in this region and have a shared perspective.” (Really? So we share Turkey’s views on Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and al-Qaeda?)
  • “Secretary Hagel wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States on many challenges we face in the world, whether it be the threat from ISIL or broader regional issues happening in the Middle East.” (Never mind that Turkey just slapped the United States down on ISIS.)
  • “One of the conversations we had was about how we can work together to help strengthen border security. That’s not a unique conversation between the U.S. and Turkey at all; it’s something we have talked about with many partners around the world.” (Yet it is a unique problem when it comes to Turkey, as the Turkish border is the main mechanism of ingress for foreign jihadis joining ISIS.)

His last one was the real whopper, however. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

Another concern that Turkey has is that weapons to be provided to the groups fighting ISIL may end up in the wrong hands, such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Chollet said this worry was also being taken seriously “because it is the last thing we want.”

Why should arms leaking to Syrian Kurdistan be “the last thing we want?” The Syrian Kurds are the only group to have defeated both the Syrian regime and ISIS. They have established a secular, autonomous region and given shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands regardless of their religion or ethnicity. When I went to “Rojava” earlier this year, girls walked to school unescorted and without fear of violence, municipalities collected trash on regular schedules, and women and men worked and shopped together in the markets. The weaponry of the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga, did not leak to Turkey.

The United States has long supported Turkey’s fight against the PKK. Whatever one’s views regarding the PKK and whether or not they are a terrorist group (here are three views, including my own, ranging across the spectrum arguing that the PKK should be de-listed as a terrorist group), it’s long past time the United States embrace reciprocity. Fighting terrorism is never easy. It’s always inconvenient, and there can always be complications. Rightly or wrongly, America (and Israel) bent over backwards to support the Turkish fight against the PKK because Turkey was an aspiring democracy and because it took terrorism seriously. But today Turkey does not reciprocate counter-terrorism assistance; indeed, more often than not, whether with regard to Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah, it undercuts it. There should be absolutely zero assistance to Turkey in what it perceives as its counter-terror fight until such a time that Turkey realizes that alliances go both ways.

Indeed, just as the United States should support India and Afghanistan without apology in their war against terrorism and ensure India, at least, receives a qualitative military edge over terror-sponsors like Pakistan, it would be just as wise to support actively Syrian Kurds and perhaps even the PKK so long as they continue to take their fight to ISIS. Turkey has chosen its side; let it face the consequence of its decision. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that, given Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s actions and position, Turkey was the past and, for the United States, Kurdistan is the future.

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