Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. foreign policy

Could Oman be the Next Crisis?

In 1970, with British help and support, Qaboos bin Sa‘id overthrew his father and took the reins of powers in the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was an enlightened monarch, and firmly guided the xenophobic and isolationist state back into the modern world. Oman has since been a model of neutrality and tolerance, often acting as a bridge between regional adversaries (it is no coincidence that Oman served as the initial go-between for U.S.-Iran talks). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Oman has done what is needed to combat terrorism. U.S. aircraft based in Oman launched some of the initial airstrikes against the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom.

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In 1970, with British help and support, Qaboos bin Sa‘id overthrew his father and took the reins of powers in the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was an enlightened monarch, and firmly guided the xenophobic and isolationist state back into the modern world. Oman has since been a model of neutrality and tolerance, often acting as a bridge between regional adversaries (it is no coincidence that Oman served as the initial go-between for U.S.-Iran talks). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Oman has done what is needed to combat terrorism. U.S. aircraft based in Oman launched some of the initial airstrikes against the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Oman is also strategically important. For all Western policymakers fret about Iranian activities in the Strait of Hormuz, they often forget that Oman occupies one side of the important waterway. Should Iran gain a toehold on both sides of the Strait, the calculus of Persian Gulf security would change.

Alas, the status quo cannot last forever. Sultan Qaboos is aging. A “confirmed bachelor,” Qaboos has produced no offspring. Succession looms. And, perhaps never closer than now. ForeignPolicy.com today has an interesting piece speculating that Qaboos, who will turn 74 next week, may be on his deathbed. The Sultan has in recent weeks sought to dispel the rumors that he suffers from terminal colon cancer, but his frail appearance and his subsequent cancellation of his forthcoming national day appearance have added fuel to the fire.

In theory, when Qaboos dies, a new leader is supposed to be chosen by consensus among the leading factions of the royal elite. But if there is no consensus, then a letter that Qaboos will leave should help determine that successor. The problem is that surrounding countries have everything to gain and nothing to lose by disputing the authenticity of such a letter or by putting forward fraudulent copies favoring their own proxy. While it’s doubtful that Oman will make as radical a political shift as it did as a result of the last succession, the failure of the White House to adopt a proactive strategy toward the region does put its future in doubt. While Washington shouldn’t necessarily muck about in Omani royal politics, it is a vital interest to protect the integrity of the process and prevent Iran from doing so.

There are a few nightmare scenarios. One is that a pro-Iranian ruler will become Oman’s next leader. Another is an outbreak of fighting. This is farfetched, of course. Just as Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to prevent a Shi‘ite triumph over the Khalifa ruling family, it would not sit idly while another friendly monarchy fell to what it considers hostile forces. Then again, Oman is neither Sunni nor Shi‘ite, and so long as the monarchy isn’t threatened—and it won’t be—then Saudi Arabia might choose more subtle ways to interfere.

Herein lays another danger. Should both Iran and Saudi Arabia begin supporting proxy figures or movements, it might not be long before this undercut Omani stability in other ways. After all, Oman has been a pillar of stability for decades, but then again so was Syria; at least since Hafez al-Assad staged his 1970 coup. Oman could also face the resurgence of regional tension; it wasn’t too long ago in the scheme of things that it fought an insurgency against communist rebels in Dhofar.

Let us hope that Qaboos overcomes his current health crisis but, realistically, septuagenarian leaders do not last forever. The United States should hope for the best in Oman, but it’s long past time when U.S. officials should plan for the worst. Alas, planning for the worst case is something to which too often American strategists across administrations seem adverse. We should not be. Oman is too important to lose.

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Obama, Not Bibi, Created U.S.-Israel Crisis

Since Barack Obama became president, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has been a reliable indicator of administration opinion about foreign-policy issues. Like some other journalists who can be counted on to support the president, he has been the recipient of some juicy leaks, especially when the White House wants to trash Israel’s government. But Goldberg and his “senior administration sources” reached a new low today when he published a piece in which those anonymous figures labeled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and a “coward.” The remarks are clearly not so much a warning to the Israelis to stop complaining about the U.S. push for appeasement of a nuclear Iran and the administration’s clueless approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Rather the story is, as Goldberg rightly characterizes it, a genuine crisis in the relationship. That much is plain but where Goldberg and the talkative administration members are wrong is their belief that this is all Netanyahu’s fault. Their attacks on him are not only plainly false but are motivated by a desire to find an excuse that will be used to justify a drastic turn in U.S. foreign policy against Israel.

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Since Barack Obama became president, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has been a reliable indicator of administration opinion about foreign-policy issues. Like some other journalists who can be counted on to support the president, he has been the recipient of some juicy leaks, especially when the White House wants to trash Israel’s government. But Goldberg and his “senior administration sources” reached a new low today when he published a piece in which those anonymous figures labeled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and a “coward.” The remarks are clearly not so much a warning to the Israelis to stop complaining about the U.S. push for appeasement of a nuclear Iran and the administration’s clueless approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Rather the story is, as Goldberg rightly characterizes it, a genuine crisis in the relationship. That much is plain but where Goldberg and the talkative administration members are wrong is their belief that this is all Netanyahu’s fault. Their attacks on him are not only plainly false but are motivated by a desire to find an excuse that will be used to justify a drastic turn in U.S. foreign policy against Israel.

The administration critique of Netanyahu as a coward stems from its disgust with his failure to make peace with the Palestinians as well as their impatience with his criticisms of their zeal for a deal with Iran even if it means allowing the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power. But this is about more than policy. The prickly Netanyahu is well known to be a tough guy to like personally even if you are one of his allies. But President Obama and his foreign-policy team aren’t just annoyed by the prime minister. They’ve come to view him as public enemy No. 1, using language about him and giving assessments of his policies that are far harsher than they have ever used against even avowed enemies of the United States, let alone one of its closest allies.

So rather than merely chide him for caution they call him a coward and taunt him for being reluctant to make war on Hamas and even to launch a strike on Iran. They don’t merely castigate him as a small-time politician without vision; they accuse him of putting his political survival above the interests of his nation.

It’s quite an indictment but once you get beyond the personal dislike of the individual on the part of the president, Secretary of State Kerry, and any other “senior officials” that speak without attribution on the subject of Israel’s prime minister, all you have is a thin veil of invective covering up six years of Obama administration failures in the Middle East that have the region more dangerous for both Israel and the United States. For all of his personal failings, it is not Netanyahu—a man who actually served as a combat soldier under fire in his country’s most elite commando unit—who is a coward or a small-minded failure. It is Obama and Kerry who have fecklessly sabotaged a special relationship, an act whose consequences have already led to disaster and bloodshed and may yet bring worse in their final two years of power.

It was, after all, Obama (and in the last two years, Kerry) who has spent his time in office picking pointless fights with Israel over issues like settlements and Jerusalem. They were pointless not because there aren’t genuine disagreements between the two countries on the ideal terms for peace. But rather because the Palestinians have never, despite the administration’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their favor, seized the chance for peace. No matter how much Obama praises Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and slights Netanyahu, the former has never been willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. They also chose to launch a peace process in spite of the fact that the Palestinians remain divided between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas-ruled Gaza, a situation that makes it impossible for the PA to make peace even if it wanted to do so. The result of their heedless push for negotiations that were bound to fail was another round of violence this summer and the possibility of another terrorist intifada in the West Bank.

On Iran, it has not been Netanyahu’s bluffing about a strike that is the problem but Obama’s policies. Despite good rhetoric about stopping Tehran’s push for a nuke, the president has pursued a policy of appeasement that caused it to discard its significant military and economic leverage and accept a weak interim deal that began the process of unraveling the international sanctions that represented the best chance for a solution without the use of force.

Even faithful Obama supporter Goldberg understands that it would be madness for Israel to withdraw from more territory and replicate the Gaza terror experiment in the West Bank. He also worries that the administration is making a “weak” Iran deal even though he may be the only person on the planet who actually thinks Obama would use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So why is the administration so angry with Netanyahu? It can’t be because Netanyahu is preventing peace with the Palestinians. After the failure of Kerry’s fool’s errand negotiations and the Hamas missile war on Israel, not even Obama can think peace is at hand. Nor does he really think Netanyahu can stop him from appeasing Iran if Tehran is willing to sign even a weak deal.

The real reason to target Netanyahu is that it is easier to scapegoat the Israelis than to own up to the administration’s mistakes. Rather than usher in a new era of good feelings with the Arab world in keeping with his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has been the author of policies that have left an already messy Middle East far more dangerous. Rather than ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his decision to withdraw U.S. troops and to dither over the crisis in Syria led to more conflict and the rise of ISIS. Instead of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama is on the road to enabling it. And rather than manage an Israeli-Palestinian standoff that no serious person thought was on the verge of resolution, Obama made things worse with his and Kerry’s hubristic initiatives and constant bickering with Israel.

Despite the administration’s insults, it is not Netanyahu who is weak. He has shown great courage and good judgment in defending his country’s interests even as Obama has encouraged the Palestinians to believe they can hold out for even more unrealistic terms while denying Israel the ammunition it needed to fight Hamas terrorists. While we don’t know whether, as Goldberg believes, it is too late for Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, it is Obama that Iran considers weak as it plays U.S. negotiators for suckers in the firm belief that the U.S. is a paper tiger that is not to be feared any longer.

If there is a crisis, it is one that was created by Obama’s failures and inability to grasp that his ideological prejudices were out of touch with Middle East realities.

The next two years may well see, as Goldberg ominously predicts, even more actions by the administration to downgrade the alliance with Israel. But the blame for this will belong to a president who has never been comfortable with Israel and who has, at every conceivable opportunity, sought conflict with it even though doing so did not advance U.S. interests or the cause of peace. No insult directed at Netanyahu, no matter how crude or pointless, can cover up the president’s record of failure.

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Hitting ISIS Everywhere But Where it Matters

The Pentagon today announced another set of airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq:

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The Pentagon today announced another set of airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq:

In Syria, one strike south of Al Hasakah destroyed an ISIL garrison, while one strike southeast of Dayr Az Zawr destroyed two ISIL tanks. Two strikes north of Ar Raqqah struck two modular oil refineries and an ISIL training camp, while another strike northeast of Aleppo struck an ISIL occupied building. One strike against an ISIL artillery piece west of Ar Raqqah was not successful.

What’s curious is what was not targeted. Over the past couple weeks; the Islamic State has been on the offensive against the Kurdish-held town of Kobane (‘Ain al-Arab). The Islamic State has been as brutal as it was in Sinjar, and recently even beheaded a group of captured Kurds, including women. Kurds may govern Kobane but the Kurdish administration has given shelter and protection to tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs and Christians. As the Islamic State advances, more than 100,000 refugees have flooded into Turkey. In the Pentagon, one strategic briefer tactlessly called the massacres and mass flight of population as “a tactical withdrawal.”

And yet, despite the heat of the battle around Kobane the United States and its Gulf allies did nothing to strike at Islamic State forces besieging the Kurds. It would be as if Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the United States would enter the war against Japan, and then proceeded to bomb Argentina. Given that President Obama has insisted that he approve every strike inside Syria, the only logical conclusion is that Obama does not want to protect Kobane, perhaps out of deference to Turkey, which is suspicious of any Kurdish entity.

This is shortsighted: Syrian Kurds may not be perfect, but they are largely secular, moderate, and tolerant. And despite their links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency inside Turkey, those days are over: The Turks and PKK have been in peace talks and have abided by a ceasefire for over 18 months.

As the Islamic State advanced on the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, Obama scrambled to utilize airpower to stop the terrorist advance. That he will not do so in an analogous case inside Syria shows the complete lack of strategic coherence to U.S. actions. If military action is going to be effective, it should occur where the fighting is: not dozens of miles away.

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A Pause to Account for Ourselves

Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

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Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the beginning of this festival until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. But this period of introspection should cause all of us to think about the same questions. Indeed, as Americans now take stock of the war against Islamist terrorists that they have been dragged back into against their will, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though my point of reference is Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul—that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties, and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad we have seen the way the natural American desire to withdraw ourselves from difficult problems only made the threat from Islamist terror worse. For the moment, strident voices of isolationism have been quieted as the nation realizes the awful nature of the peril we face, but the impulse to ignore these problems is always there and must be answered directly.

Just as important, we have seen the failure of much of our media to give sufficient attention to genuine scandals that go to the heart of the concept of accountability on the part of a democratically elected government. Elsewhere, it also failed to adequately cover the rising tide of anti-Semitism and viciously distorted Israel’s efforts to defend its people against rocket attacks and terrorist tunnels.

In the coming 12 months, Americans will find themselves dealing with another war in the Middle East that can’t be avoided. And unless the president is able to match deeds to his new rhetoric, the nuclear threat from Iran that dwarfs even that of ISIS will only grow more serious. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

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Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is ISIS Mainstreaming Hezbollah?

One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

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One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

Iran and Hezbollah have much in common with ISIS in terms of hostility to the West, support for terror, and Islamist ambitions. But the Shia-Sunni religious schism makes them implacable foes as well as being on opposite sides of the ongoing wars for control of Iraq and Syria. This also places them, at least in theory, on the same side as the United States as it now haltingly attempts to fight ISIS. That awkward juxtaposition has convinced the Iranians that the West is no longer serious about stopping their drive for nuclear weapons. This conclusion is well supported by the latest pathetic rumblings from the Obama administration about a “face-saving” proposal to help conclude another weak nuclear deal. The bottom line there is that Iran has good reason to believe it can now either defy the West entirely and push on to fulfillment of its nuclear goal or sign a deal that can be easily evaded to the same end.

Hezbollah’s goals are more limited. The Lebanese terror group has been badly damaged by its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Acting on Tehran’s orders, Hezbollah has taken heavy losses and found itself embroiled in a conflict that it can’t win as Syrians revolted against Iran’s ally. But it, too, sees belated Western intervention against ISIS as a potential turning point in the conflict. As the Times notes, even though both Iran and Hezbollah agree that there will be no coordination with the United States—a position that the administration is adamant about—the reality on the ground may be different.

The Syrian civil war is a complex conflict in which the various sides–Assad’s forces and his Hezbollah allies, moderate Syrians, more radical anti-regime forces, and ISIS–are all at war with each other. Secretary of State John Kerry noted last week that Assad is “playing footsie” with ISIS as he seeks to strengthen them at the expense of more credible domestic foes.

This awful situation is largely the result of the West’s refusal to intervene in Syria years ago when it was possible to both topple Assad and prevent the emergence of ISIS. There are only bad choices left, of which allowing ISIS to continue to expand would be the worst. But even as the U.S. chooses among those unsavory options, Hezbollah is hoping the new alignment will solidify their position in Lebanon as well as normalizing them in the eyes of the world. This is something the U.S. must resist.

The decision of Hezbollah’s PR chief to give an interview to the Times’s Beirut bureau chief is a sign the group knows the time is ripe to bolster their international standing. But the resulting article, which includes comments from other pro-Hezbollah figures, seems to make the case that there is a wide gulf separating the group from ISIS. But this PR campaign should not go unanswered.

In the article, Hezbollah official Mohammed Afif claims the group warned the West about the danger from terrorism but nobody listened until ISIS began beheading Western captives. Another pro-Hezbollah voice is Kamel Wazne, who is given the last word in the Times piece. He says Hezbollah only presents a threat to Israel, not the U.S. and Europe. But that is a lie. Hezbollah has conducted terror operations at Iran’s behest in both Europe and South America over the years. Merely being an ISIS rival in the cutthroat world of Middle East conflict ought not give Hezbollah a Western seal of approval.

By going into a war with ISIS in a halfhearted manner, President Obama does not appear to have a strategy to actually “degrade,” let alone defeat, ISIS. But one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this lead-from-behind approach will be to further empower and validate Hezbollah’s own murderous efforts that have already contributed to the death toll in Syria.

The United States will have to do more than merely say it won’t cooperate with Iran and Hezbollah against ISIS. It must actively aid the efforts of those forces that are fighting against these outside meddlers who are in many respects similar to ISIS. The U.S. appears to be now heading toward a situation where it will not only fail to eradicate ISIS but will also strengthen those terrorists who are looking forward to operating in the future under the cover of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. That is a formula for more chaos. For an administration that considers “don’t do stupid stuff” to be its guiding principle, that’s pretty stupid.

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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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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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Poll Driven War May Not Scare ISIS

President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

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President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

Whatever may have brought him to this moment, let’s first specify that to the extent that the president is speaking plain truth about the threat from ISIS and willing to commit U.S. forces to its destruction, he deserves the support of the American people. This is a fight that the United States cannot ignore or pretend will go away merely because we wish to avert our eyes. As he rightly noted, the group presents a clear threat to the security of the people of the region and, if not stopped now, a very serious one to that of the United States. If the coalition which the United States is attempting to put together to deal with ISIS succeeds, it will be a singular success for an administration that can, despite the president’s boasts, point to a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that is remarkable for its brevity./

In going forward with this campaign, whatever direction it takes or for however long it goes on, the president can count on the support of the American people and even most of the Congress that he has not seen fit to ask for a vote authorizing the effort. He will have leeway to order attacks on ISIS targets as he and his commanders see fit without too much second-guessing outside of the precincts of the far right and the far left. Nor will Americans have to worry much about the kind of scrutiny other armed forces face when similarly targeting terrorists who often hide among civilians. There will be no United Nations investigations or media meltdowns about any civilians who will without question be hurt when U.S. bombers take out ISIS fighters or instillations as Israel must face when it fights another brand of Islamist terror in Hamas.

But the question that should be troubling Americans and others who are hoping that tonight’s speech marks a turning point in this troubled presidency is not so much about the goals that Obama stated tonight but the commitment of the commander-in-chief to this struggle and his ability to think clearly about the mistakes that led to the crisis that made this speech necessary.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the president’s remarks is that this speech, like the policy that it sought to explain, is largely a poll-driven affair. After all, the president could have made the same decision several months ago when he was deriding ISIS as the “JV” of terror even as they were taking the city of Fallujah that American troops had won so dearly during his predecessor’s watch. Or at any other time since then as the situation in Syria and Iraq went from a crisis to a near catastrophe as ISIS overran vast amounts of territory and committed many of the unspeakable atrocities that the president mentioned in his remarks. The decision was necessitated not by the severity of the challenge but by the fear generated by the videos showing ISIS’s barbaric murder of two American journalists.

More to the point, the president’s decision is a silent acknowledgement that much of his past policies were not only wrong but also directly responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq and Syria. It was Obama who spent three years ridiculing the very policies on Syria that he is now embracing as warmongering. And it was also Obama who chose to squander the victory he had inherited from the Bush administration by fleeing the conflict and assuming that if he said the war there was over that would mean that this must be so.

The president’s defenders will say that this is mere backbiting and irrelevant to the current dilemma. But as much as it does the country little good for the president’s critics to be saying “I told you so,” it must also be said that it might be easier to have confidence in this administration if its leader were man enough to admit his errors.

Instead, the president reinforced the impression that this was a speech written with focus groups in mind by insisting—in contrast to polls that show that Americans feel less safe today than at any moment since 9/11—that he has made the country more secure. In addition to the rote repetition of his reelection campaign boasts about killing bin Laden, he took credit for pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq even though that is exactly what led to the current debacle.

Just as important was his insistence that this would not be a war like Afghanistan or Iraq because no U.S. ground troops would be deployed. Americans prefer wars where they can merely bomb their enemies without coming to grips with them on the ground. But the president also admitted that the success of the effort would depend on other nations, principally Iraq, that would supply the ground troops. But if you’re ISIS you may not be shaking in your boots. If ISIS is really the scary threat to the U.S. that Obama makes it out to be—and it is—then the terrorists must be asking themselves why no Americans will fight. If this is a battle for our values as well as our security why will it only be Iraqis or Kurds who will be asked to fight for them? As important as Obama’s talk about destroying ISIS may be, his refusal to say that America will do whatever it takes to beat it must be encouraging the terrorists.

We don’t need mea culpas from the president as much as an indication that he comprehends what went wrong and how to fix it. That was a test that his predecessor George W. Bush passed when he switched defense secretaries and war fighting strategies in Iraq in 2007. But while the president strove at times to copy Bush’s moral clarity about the fight (a position that Obama didn’t support at the time), he lacks his humility or his ability to admit his errors.

Obama’s conclusion in which he extolled America’s greatness was nice to hear. But I doubt that ISIS, which despises all this country stands for, was interested. They were listening for signals that Obama was so committed to their defeat that he would not let anyone or anything get in the way of that goal, including his desire to be seen as the man who ends wars, not the guy who starts them.

Listening to polls or employing half measures that minimize casualties so as to protect leaders from critical comments does not win wars. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama can rise above his hubris and arrogant unwillingness to admit mistakes in order to beat ISIS. But judging by this speech, it is doubtful that members of the terror group are thinking they can’t outlast a president who leads from behind his allies and his own people.

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Obama Still Leading From Behind

After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

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After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

Though belated, the administration’s decision to act is commendable. But what is remarkable about this radical shift in policy is that it seems to be as much a response to the change in public opinion about the situation in the Middle East as it is a realization on the president’s part that his past decisions to stay out of Syria and to bug out of Iraq were mistaken.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the president has spent much of his time in office mocking those who urged him to stop standing on the sidelines as the Middle East fell apart as warmongers. At other times, he engaged in puzzling maneuvers, such as his embarrassing back and forth decisions on Syria last year, that amounted to a gigantic head fake that encouraged America’s foes while puzzling and isolating friends.

But, as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals, not only do Americans no longer have any confidence in the president’s foreign policy, they actually feel less safe than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. The poll also shows that a large majority of Americans support air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a substantial minority also willing to deploy ground troops to deal with the threat.

In theory, that ought to make the president’s job of selling the country and the world on the need for the U.S. to go on offense against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists. But the spectacle of the last several weeks during which it appeared that the president was being dragged kicking and screaming toward a decision makes it a bit harder for both friends and foes to take Obama seriously. More to the point, if the orchestrated leaks about the president’s speech are accurate, the cribbed nature of his plan for action in which he will take the possibility of a U.S. presence on the ground off the table and set firm time limits on the campaign will undermine the effort from the start.

Why are Americans so upset and fearful?

Part of the answer lies in the power of the disgusting videos released by ISIS that showed American journalists being brutally murdered. While one can argue that Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program may provide as much, if not more of a challenge to U.S. security as this terror group, the images in the videos were visceral and easily understood. Moreover, if the NBC/Journal poll is accurate, more than 94 percent of Americans saw it. Theoretical threats are one thing. Arrogant Islamists beheading Americans and taunting us (and President Obama) about it are quite another. The public seems to have understood long before the president that this is something that has to stop and that there is no negotiating with or maneuvering around a terror threat that, despite Obama’s reelection boasts, is very much alive.

Does it matter that negative poll numbers about the president are driving the anti-ISIS effort more than it is being pushed by his vision of defending both the U.S. and our allies against a clear and present danger?

One could argue that the motivation for U.S. action isn’t important so long as the president follows through on his plans and lets the U.S. military operate effectively to defeat ISIS. But the long-range success of those efforts will depend as much on the confidence of the people of the region that America can be counted on to stay the course in a conflict that won’t provide quick or easy victories. That will require more than a poll-driven speech that provides as many caveats about what the U.S. won’t do than anything else.

In any conflict, there is no substitute for leadership that not only can articulate policies that people want but also is prepared to tell them that there are some things that must be done that are not so popular. Not every wartime leader must be Winston Churchill, but one that is primarily concerned with “not doing stupid stuff” and who takes weeks to make up his mind to do what Americans wanted already done is setting both himself and the country up for failure.

What we need from the president tonight is a signal that his period of irresolute dithering is over and that he will spend the time that is left to him in the White House fighting to win against Islamist terrorists rather than managing the threat. Both doubtful American allies and a worried Congress are waiting to hear from a leader who will get out in front of this problem. More leading from behind will not only fail but also conclusively tarnish his legacy forever.

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Obama’s Monty Python Foreign Policy

Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

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Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

While conceding, “I can see why a lot of folks are troubled,” the president said this: “And the truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” According to Mr. Obama, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” (The remark weirdly elicited laugher from his audience.) He added that while the Middle East is challenging, “the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while.” The president told his audience, “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” In fact, “we are much less vulnerable than we were 10 or 12 or 15 years ago.”

Let’s sort through these comments, shall we?

It’s certainly true that the world has always been messy; but it actually has gotten a good deal messier during the president’s watch. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a front-page story published earlier this summer, “The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.” Things have even gotten worse since that story. On Sunday the Washington Post, in front-page story, put things this way:

Short of world war, it’s rare that a chief executive goes through a foreign policy month like President Obama’s August.

U.S. warplanes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. diplomats struggled to establish a new government in Baghdad. Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria and spread their reach across the Middle East.

War raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an orderly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of disaster. Russia all but invaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya descended into violent chaos.

Even since that story, it’s been reported that a political crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan is worsening. And it was confirmed today that ISIS beheaded another American journalist.

In his remarks on Saturday the president seemed to be advancing the thesis of Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My concern is that the president, in taking comfort from long-term trends that are driven by a variety of factors (including the rise of the nation-state, commerce and cosmopolitanism), is underplaying the dangers that characterize this particular moment.

Professor Pinker’s book may well be right in broad historical terms; but it’s the trajectory of events just now that are so alarming. And that’s what the president, I think, is missing. This is a period of rising disorder and instability that could unleash catastrophic consequences. And Mr. Obama has shown he’s wholly unprepared to meet them. He has been completely overmatched by events – confused, hesitant, often passive, sending mixed signals, desperately hoping a deus ex machina arrives in the form of allies who confront these threats in lieu of America leading the effort.

The president made that clear once again during his press conference in Estonia this morning, declaring that “if” we are joined by the “international community,” we can continue to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

But that “international community” isn’t going to emerge unless America leads the way, which is something the president hasn’t shown any inclination to do. His preference since Day One has been “leading from behind,” in the words of an Obama advisor. Which means not leading at all. It turns out coalitions in the abstract mean nothing at all and can do nothing at all.

The president, rather than facing reality, appears to be turning from it. He looks to be falling deeper into denial. He doesn’t like what’s happening in the real world, so he’s reinventing it. This is how it plays itself out: Mr. Obama now insists he really and truly wanted to keep American troops in Iraq rather than withdraw them. The tide of war is receding. Vladimir Putin’s conquests are a sign of weakness and even unfashionable. (“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said as Russia began its invasion of Crimea earlier this year.) The Libya campaign was a model of success. As recently as the early part of this year, ISIS/ISIL was nothing more than a “jayvee team.” The president’s policies have, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “improved the — you know, the tranquility of the global community.”

We now have a presidency that resembles a Monty Python movie. Apart from the Islamic State, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Crimea, Ukraine, Russia, China, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, North Korea, and other nations, the world is a sea of tranquility.

The difference between the Obama presidency and Monty Python is Monty Python was intentional satire.

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That’s Some Jayvee Team, Mr. President

Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

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Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

Do you still recall when the president promised he would punish Syria if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons? When we were assured that the “tide of war is receding”? And how ISIS was the “jayvee team” of terrorist groups?

That was then. Let me (via Foreign Policy magazine) tell you about now. Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria, we’re told, are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. According to the story:

The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.

“The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states

… the longer the caliphate exists, the more likely it is that members with a science background will come up with something horrible. The documents found on the laptop of the Tunisian jihadist, meanwhile, leave no room for doubt about the group’s deadly ambitions.

“Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. “Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”

That’s some jayvee team. Some new beginning. Some receding tide.

You’d think that the commander-in-chief might develop a strategy to combat what he himself calls a “cancer.” But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama just yesterday admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. He might consider getting one. Because ISIS clearly has one. It’s to kill as many Americans as possible.

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Spin Can’t Explain Obama Failure to Lead

From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

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From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

The official explanation for the president’s statement has several parts.

One is that the president meant only that there was no strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria but that he did have one that applied to Iraq. But this is nonsensical. As much as the situations in the two countries are different, ISIS doesn’t recognize the border. To pretend that one can fight it in Iraq while leaving its Syrian base unmolested is both illogical and a demonstration of the administration’s incoherence.

A second is that the president is waiting on getting options for action from the Pentagon. If so, one has to ask whether it is possible that the Department of Defense had not prepared contingency plans for the current situation. But that can’t be true. The military has been studying American options on Syria for years, something that was again confirmed today during the Pentagon press briefing. The problem isn’t the lack of options for the president to consider. It’s that the president can’t or won’t decide on one.

The third explanation is that the president is determined that if there is to be action taken against ISIS it must be in concert with other nations in the Middle East and our Western allies. That makes sense. But the question here is why hasn’t the administration already firmed up plans for joint action? It’s not as if Arab nations that are concerned about the rise of ISIS aren’t eager to cooperate with the U.S. about this threat. It’s that the administration can’t make up its mind.

Finally, the explanation put forward by some, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, to the effect that the president is playing possum with ISIS by not revealing his strategy is even dumber than the White House spin. No one is saying that the administration should telegraph its moves to the enemy. But there is a difference between saying we know what we will do but won’t say what it is yet and admitting you don’t have a strategy. The former gives the terrorists something to worry about. The latter makes clear they have little to worry about.

So what is really going on?

The first and most obvious message being sent by President Obama was to his own foreign and defense policy teams. After days of administration officials signaling that action against ISIS in Syria was imminent, the president felt he needed throw some cold water on those expecting a decision, let alone, orders to strike at the Islamists’ bases. As with past deliberations about Syria, there are clearly a lot of people inside the Obama tent who realize that the years of dithering over the crisis there is damaging U.S. credibility as well as allowing the threat to metastasize. But the president may be far more worried about being pressured to act by both members of his own administration as well as political critics than he is about ISIS.

More important and far more dangerous is the message that this statement sent to ISIS.

It is true that the U.S. is already striking ISIS targets in Iraq, a move that has helped stabilize a situation that was quickly getting out of control. The president deserves credit for this. Nor should one underestimate the efforts that U.S. intelligence services are making to address any possible ISIS threats against U.S. targets outside of Syria and Iraq or to try to rescue Americans still being held by these terrorists.

But there is little doubt that ISIS could not help but be encouraged by the president’s obvious reluctance to commit to action.

Even the president’s defenders must acknowledge that the ISIS problem is a direct result of years of administration dithering on Syria. Instead of intervening decisively early in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents when American help could have been decisive the president chose to wait and merely called for Assad’s fall. The vacuum created by American and Western indecision made ISIS’s growth possible.

Just as important, Obama’s disastrous failure to follow through on his threat to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” undermined any notion that the West was prepared to enforce its own standards. Critics are right to note that is more than ironic that the president’s indecision about hitting Assad last year and is now behaving similarly when it comes to dealing with the threat that comes from the other side in that civil war. But the main takeaway from this disastrous day of White House messaging is that once again this president is primarily articulating his lack of comfort with a position of international leadership. This president came into office primarily determined to end U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to somehow put a period on the war on terror pursued by his predecessor. He has since learned that merely bugging out of a conflict does not end wars or the threat to U.S. interests and security emanating from Islamist terrorists. But even after his decisions and reluctance to deal decisively with the resurgence of a terrorist movement he pretended was beaten has blown up in his face, the president is still more worried about being pressured to act than anything else.

What the United States lacks today is not a strategy for dealing with ISIS, a group that must be relentlessly attacked and destroyed. What it lacks is a president who has the will to deal with this problem and a belief in the need for America to lead.

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The Price of Wasting Time and Energy

Martin Indyk’s interview with Foreign Policy this week contained many interesting nuggets, but one statement in particular shocked me: “It’s very hard to make the argument that America now has a strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Indyk said. “It’s just one of many conflicts and it’s not the most important and it’s not the most difficult.” What’s shocking about this statement isn’t that it’s false; indeed, it’s admirably clear-eyed. But it bears no relationship to the policy actually followed either by Indyk himself or the administration he served.

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Martin Indyk’s interview with Foreign Policy this week contained many interesting nuggets, but one statement in particular shocked me: “It’s very hard to make the argument that America now has a strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Indyk said. “It’s just one of many conflicts and it’s not the most important and it’s not the most difficult.” What’s shocking about this statement isn’t that it’s false; indeed, it’s admirably clear-eyed. But it bears no relationship to the policy actually followed either by Indyk himself or the administration he served.

Until he resigned this spring, Indyk was Secretary of State John Kerry’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, he spent nine months devoting all his time and energy to a problem he himself says America has no “strategic interest” in solving. Moreover, he wasn’t doing so to free up his boss for more strategically important issues; Kerry also devoted more time and energy to this issue – by a large margin – than to anything else on Washington’s foreign policy agenda.

In fact, President Barack Obama and other administration officials repeatedly cited the issue as a top foreign policy priority. In his address to the UN General Assembly last September, for instance, Obama named the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of “two particular issues” American policy in the Middle East and North Africa would focus on, declaring that while it isn’t “the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has “been a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it could “help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.” Back in 2010, he went even further, terming Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital national security interest of the United States.” Susan Rice, then UN ambassador and now Obama’s national security adviser, also termed Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital U.S. interest,” while Vice President Joe Biden deemed it “fundamentally in the national security interest of the United States.” Kerry himself hyperbolically declared it the most important issue in the world, asserting that no matter what country he traveled to, it was always the first thing he was asked about.

Such statements were always ludicrous. As I wrote more than a year ago, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wasn’t even the most important in the Middle East; that title belonged to Syria’s civil war – a fact some Westerners belatedly woke up to after ISIS emerged from Syria to gobble up large swathes of Iraq. Since then, a few other unimportant little conflicts have erupted as well, like Russia’s invasion of Crimea and now, apparently, eastern Ukraine.

This misplaced emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict carried real costs. Not only did it harm Israelis and Palestinians themselves (as I’ve explained before), but any administration has only so much time, energy and diplomatic capital to spend. So if it wastes a large chunk of that time, energy and diplomatic capital on unimportant issues, it will inevitably short-change more important ones – some of which will then explode in ways extremely detrimental to America. That’s precisely what happened in Syria, which the administration ignored for years while devoting all its efforts to fruitless Israeli-Palestinian talks, only to suddenly discover that the Syrian civil war had spawned an “apocalyptic” terrorist group that poses an “imminent threat” to America.

It’s worth asking why this administration – and others before it – wasted so much time and energy for so long on an issue in which, as Indyk acknowledged, America has no “strategic interest.” It’s also worth asking whether, since Indyk is still advising Kerry on the Middle East, his statement means the administration has finally wised up to its mistake, or only that he himself has sobered up.

But the most important question is when this realization will finally become accepted foreign-policy wisdom. For until it does, each subsequent administration, like all the previous ones, will keep wasting time, energy and diplomatic capital on an unimportant conflict at the expense of the ones that really matter.

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Popularity, Leadership, and War Weariness

It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

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It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

A new Fox News poll continues the steady drumbeat of negative opinion surveys for the president. Though Americans approved of his decision to authorize air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq by an overwhelming 62-25 percent margin, the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance on virtually every foreign-policy category matches or even exceeds its disapproval of his domestic performance. On Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, and foreign policy in general a majority of Americans gave the president a thumbs down.

While one should be cautious in extrapolating approval for a larger intervention in the Iraq crisis, these numbers ought to sober up many on the left who still seem to think the public is incapable of re-evaluating U.S. policy on even as contentious an issue as the Iraq war. Though it’s doubtful many Americans are eager to revisit the low points of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the assumption that Obama can simply ignore the mess he helped create in the Middle East because Americans are war weary may be incorrect.

Of course, for some in the media it will always be 2006 as far as Iraq is concerned. The New York Times’s publication of a highly offensive “op-art” cartoon by R.O. Blechman mocked the plight of starving Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain while fleeing ISIS murderers illustrated the imbecilic nature of much of what passes for commentary in the liberal mainstream media. Like the way most Americans ignored the plight of the boat people forced to flee South Vietnam after the U.S. abandoned that country to its Communist conquerors, apparently the collateral damage from Obama’s decision to bail on Iraq doesn’t prick the conscience of the Times opinion page editors.

The same spirit was manifested on MSNBC yesterday in an interesting exchange between Rep. Peter King and MSNBC personality Thomas Roberts on the network’s Morning Joe program. The New York Republican was discussing his view that the U.S. needs to be doing more to stop the advance of ISIS terrorists in Iraq when the left-leaning station’s Roberts challenged him, claiming that the American people approved of the president’s bugout from Iraq and that to reverse that verdict in any way merely because of King’s views about the current situation there amounted to anti-democratic activity comparable to that of ISIS.

This is the sort of argument that is so stupid as to be almost not worth refuting, though King did so gallantly despite Roberts’ attempts to shout him down by rightly asserting that if popularity on an issue must dictate policy then Winston Churchill should not have warned Britons of the consequences of popular appeasement stands by their government.

But the problem with the new isolationism that is supposedly sweeping the nation and deterring the administration from taking decisive action to save Kurdistan ad the rest of Iraq from the clutches of ISIS is that to stick to that line you’ve got to ignore the pictures of those starving Yazidis on the mountaintop that the Times dismissed as a bunch of “Arabs” (sic) who had seized on a good tactic to get U.S. assistance.

Americans may not want to pay the full price of involvement in that war but they are also, as the poll numbers indicate, profoundly uncomfortable with the policies of a president who remains bent on facilitating a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

As King correctly said, leadership is not always doing what is popular. Staying out of wars is rarely the sort of thing that gets a politician in trouble. But to assume that standing by impotently as a nation that thousands of Americans died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and to keep out of the clutches of al-Qaeda terrorists is now lost to the same band of Islamist cutthroats is not as smart as the Times and MSNBC may think.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, allowing the so-called “caliphate” established in Syria and Iraq to remain in place unmolested (as opposed to merely saving the Kurds and Yazidis from further incursions) constitutes a profound threat to U.S. security comparable to the re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan as they were prior to 9/11.

Americans are always weary of, or wary of, war until they are attacked. Historians will debate the merits of the original decision to go into Iraq but even if we were to concede it was a mistake, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The focus of much of the post-9/11 U.S. security policy has been to ensure that the U.S. homeland remains safe. One needn’t be a neoconservative booster of a new Iraq war to understand that in this case apathy about the situation in that country is comparable to complicity in the creation of a new terror base. Preventing that from happening requires leadership. Which is to say that a president who is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom about Iraq or the need to resist a nuclear Iran is necessary to avert a catastrophe.

President Obama was reelected on a platform that asserted that it was OK to back off from the world stage because Osama bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda was defeated. As the Benghazi attack and current events in Syria and Iraq prove, that was a false assumption and increasingly Americans realize they were duped. A few opinion polls won’t reverse a decade-long trend but those who take it as a given that non-intervention in Iraq is synonymous with the will of the American people may be misinterpreting a natural reluctance a to re-engage in a difficult conflict. What they want is presidential leadership that will help keep them and the world safe, and that is exactly what they are not getting from President Obama.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

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The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires isn’t much less of a fantasy than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretensions. Yet the news that Russia is sending aircraft to the government of Iraq as well as expert personnel to help deploy them is yet another indication that Moscow’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage is no empty boast. Like the Russians’ opportunistic efforts to cozy up to an Egyptian government that has become thoroughly alienated from the United States and its successful aid program that has helped prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the Russian foothold in Iraq is just the latest indication of what happens when the United States makes a conscious decision to abandon its responsibilities.

The delivery of a dozen jets won’t alter the balance of power in the region or probably even improve the Iraqi government’s faltering military efforts. Nor does this one move, even when placed in the context of Russia’s other attempts to worm its way back into international relevance, give Putin the kind of power that Leonid Brezhnev once wielded. At this moment, the U.S. is not discouraging efforts to aid the cause of the Baghdad government even if it means Iran or even Syria is attempting to exploit the implosion of Iraq.

Moreover, the confusing and shifting alliances of the factions fighting in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to see any foreign interventions as signifying anything more than a chaotic scrum in which the United States has no real friends or much to gain.

But what must be understood about these developments is that they all stem from the power vacuum that has developed in the region as the Obama administration tried to ease itself out of a conflict in which it no longer believed. The abandonment of Iraq by the U.S. was depicted as President Obama “ending” a war that wearied and depressed Americans. The war had been essentially won by the time Obama took office by means of a surge that the president had claimed could never work. But he and his vice president happily took credit for President Bush’s decision and then proceeded to bug out, just as they seem prepared to leave Afghanistan now.

But wars don’t end just because Americans and their presidents want them to be finished. Similarly, just because this administration thought that it could back away from American interests and allies without paying a cost, that didn’t mean that the implementation of such a policy would not wind up setting the stage for chaos.

Liberal thinkers thought the post-American Middle East would be one in which a healthy multilateralism would replace cowboy diplomacy to produce a more stable world that would no longer be dominated by the U.S. But the result of this pullback has created the opposite result. In the absence of a strong U.S. presence, Iraq has disintegrated. Iran is more powerful than ever and, via its Syrian and Lebanese surrogates, is causing Arab moderates to fear for their future even as insurgents like ISIS are having the same effect. The decision of the Russians to parachute into this disaster is just one more indication of how bad things have gotten.

After years of dithering, measures like Obama’s decision to fund Syrian opposition factions won’t repair the damage that his previous prevarications have caused. When you create a vacuum like the one that the U.S. created in the last few years, all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant things are bound to happen. Iraq’s would-be worldwide caliph will provide fodder for American comics but, as Putin seems to understand, the trouble that was created by Obama’s desire to pull back from the world stage is just getting started.

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Polish Complaint About U.S. Has Merit

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

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Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Moscow’s motive in seeking to undermine Polish-U.S. relations at a time when its aggression against Ukraine has the democracies of Eastern Europe worrying about the future is clear. Poles are rightly obsessing about Russia’s possible meddling in their internal affairs and whether the center-right pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk will survive this crisis. Yet the more important question for Americans is whether Sikorski’s colorful and, at times, vulgar, backlash at what he feels has been the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude toward its Polish ally is justified.

Predictably, isolationists and critics of U.S. engagement on behalf of the embattled democracies bordering Russia are labeling Sikorski as an ungrateful wretch. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison claims that the U.S. is already doing everything it can for Poland and that Sikorski’s complaint about the “worthless alliance” is contradicted by the facts since U.S. presidents have repeatedly pledged this country to the defense of Poland since it joined NATO after the Cold War.

But what Larison and anyone else inclined to dismiss Sikorski’s lament need to understand is that Poland’s situation and history require more than the routine pro-forma reassurances Warsaw has gotten from Washington. After five and half years of U.S. retreat under President Obama, including repeated instances in which it has cut off the Poles and other regional democrats at the knees, it’s little wonder that Sikorski is questioning the value of his country’s alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the fact that one of the most pro-American figures in Eastern European politics is speaking in this manner, even if it did come from an off-the-record illegal tape, ought to alarm Americans who think the president’s feckless appeasement of Russia doesn’t have consequences.

Sikorski is not just any Polish politician. He is a distinguished journalist who was educated in the West and left Poland during the period of Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Since his return to his country he has shown himself to be a consistent voice in favor of a strong alliance with the West and the United States that would guarantee defense of the freedom of his nation and others in the region. But in the last few years he has had to contend with an Obama administration more intent on their farcical attempt to “reset” relations with Russia than in shoring up ties to friendly nations like Poland that are threatened by Moscow. Obama’s cancellation of the plan to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was the first indication that he had little interest in bolstering Eastern European democracies against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. Since then relations with Poland have been continuously undermined by the administration’s desire to avoid tension with the Putin regime.

The futility of such efforts was demonstrated this year as Putin reacted to the fall of an ally in Ukraine with the seizure of Crimea and efforts to undermine that country’s sovereignty over its eastern regions that border Russia. Since then the U.S. talked the talk about supporting democracy and resisting aggression. President Obama even visited Poland this spring to restate his willingness to defend that country. But it’s hard to argue with Sikorski’s question about whether the Polish effort to play along with U.S. diplomacy on this and other issues has done more harm than good. If Poles assume that the Americans will save them from winding up under the thumb of a resurgent Russian empire, Sikorski seems to think Obama’s record proves this belief to be a hindrance to improving the situation.

As the recorded conversation apparently took place before the attacks on Ukraine began and the growing antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, perhaps Poles feel a bit better about American intentions today. But if, as many suspect, the release of the tapes is a Russian ploy to topple a pro-American government in Warsaw, perhaps Sikorski’s worries about Poland’s future are not as off the mark as some are suggesting. What Putin wants is to line his borders with governments that are oriented toward Moscow rather than the West. While the inclusion of Poland and the Baltic republics in NATO ought to make any Russian plans for re-writing the outcome of the Cold War a pipe dream, Moscow’s adventurism and Obama’s “lead from behind” response to other international crises is rightly causing many in the region to question America’s ability to stay the course.

Rather than joining in the gang tackle of Sikorski, Americans should be pondering how it is that their government has alienated so many allies while engaging in futile efforts at engaging our foes. The U.S. alliance with Poland may not be worthless, but there is little question that it is worth a lot less since Barack Obama became president.

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Key to Obama’s Diplomacy? Giving Up

While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

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While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.

Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.

That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.

It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.

Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.

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Europe’s Lurch Right Is Bad for the Jews … and the United States

The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

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The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

As much as the lurch right seems to represent a backlash among Europeans against outside influences, let’s put aside any illusion that these parties are really capable of routing Islamist influences. Nothing short of a turn to open fascism can evict Muslim immigrants from Europe. The rising influence of these communities and the anti-Semitism they help fuel stems not only from their numbers but also from the way the Jew-hatred they brought with them dovetails with traditional European anti-Semitism. Hostility to Israel and Jewish interests unites academics and other elites with those on the far right and Muslims. Euro nationalists of various stripes are not likely to be able to achieve their objectives with respect to Muslim immigrants because of the huge numbers involved and the resistance to that project from the traditional parties of the left and the center. But their fomenting of hate against religious minorities is likely to be more successful when it is directed against the far less numerous Jews. Though the far right and Muslims are locked in a never-ending fight, Jews are more vulnerable and easily caught in the crossfire of that conflict.

Just as important is the potential that these parties will splinter Europe in ways that are profoundly damaging to the defense of Western democracy. Small government conservatives in the United States may sympathize with those Europeans who bristle at being ruled by unaccountable EU bureaucrats in Brussels. But as much as the EU seems to be a perfect combination of the perils of big social democratic governments, a Europe that is worried about appeasing anger on the right is one that is likely to opt out of the collective security arrangements that have guaranteed the peace of the world since 1945. The EU is already a weak partner of the United States. But the increasing influence of rightist parties is liable to have a far greater impact on the ability of the U.S. to count on being able to use NATO to resist threats to collective security around the globe and in Europe as the Russian assault on Ukraine has proved.

The rise of the European right won’t do much to undermine the assault on the West from Islamists, but it could undermine any hope that the U.S. will be able to defend Western interests. European anti-Semites are, in fact, natural allies of their Muslim antagonists when it comes to making life difficult for European Jews and isolating Israel. This is an ominous development that should be viewed with horror by precisely those in the West who have rightly worried most about the way Islamists are gaining ground in Europe.

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