Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

ISIS Opens New Front in Egypt

As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

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As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

Last month, on the heels of a Saudi raid that reportedly rolled up a nearly 100-member strong ISIS cell inside the Kingdom, ISIS-linked suicide bombers twice targeted Shiite Mosques with attacks amid Friday prayers. Last week, this style of attack was replicated in Kuwait. 27 worshipers packed into Kuwait City’s Al-Sadiq mosque were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device amid a Friday prayer service. The bodies were still being removed when an ISIS-linked video claiming responsibility for that attack was posted online. On that same day, a radical Islamic gunman attacked a Tunisian hotel where he killed 38 and injured 39 more. Most of the casualties were British citizens, making this assault the deadliest terror attack targeting Britons since the 2005 bus bombings. “ISIS has claimed responsibility for that attack, as well, though this claim may be more tenuous,” CNN reported. Simultaneously, in France, the manager of a local transportation company was found beheaded at a United States-owned factory. His body was discovered alongside two banners bearing Islamic writing.

Whether all or some of these attacks are directly linked to ISIS or were merely inspired by the organization and its affiliates, it’s clear that the terrorist organization’s reach extends well beyond the fluid borders of its nascent caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the most daring example of ISIS’s ability to project force across the region occurred this week on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The strategic land bridge between Egypt and Africa was turned into a battlefield on Wednesday when ISIS executed a coordinated military assault against Egyptian military personnel.

The New York Times report from the front lines of the assault reads like a dispatch from a war zone rather than the scene of a terrorist incident:

Dozens of Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles. The Egyptian Army responded with warplanes in the area around the town, Sheikh Zuwaid, 200 miles northeast of Cairo, near the Gaza Strip.

The attack was the most audacious and deadliest yet for the Egyptian militants who have affiliated with the Islamic State, the extremist group that has emerged as the most potent jihadist force convulsing the Arab world. The group has established itself in Syria, expanded into Iraq and has strong footholds in Libya.

By nearly 5 p.m. local time, the attack that had begun in the early morning hours was still ongoing. Cairo boasted that its military had killed over 100 militants while just 10 of its soldiers had lost their lives, but local media outlets placed the military’s casualty rates as much as four times higher.

The attack also marked a shift in tactics by Islamic State fighters. “Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsula – most notably this January and last October,” wrote The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley. “But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.”

To what extent Isis had succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsula’s southern tourist resorts.

But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.

In a thoughtful analysis of the spiraling violence in eastern Egypt, Michael Rubin observed that this assault came just hours after the assassination of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. “Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013,” Rubin noted. He added that Egyptian media made short work of blaming regimes perceived to be sympathetic toward ISIS, like that of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of being complicit in the attack – or worse.

Despite almost a year long, U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the group’s capabilities have not been appreciably disrupted. In fact, they are expanding their ability to destabilize the region either directly or through surrogates.

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Egypt at War

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks. Read More

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks.

Western critics of Sisi base their criticism in the 2013 coup. Morsi was, after all, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. And while many observers acknowledge deep unease at Morsi’s attitude toward democracy as a means toward an undemocratic end, there is merit to their argument that forcing Morsi’s exit might provoke the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists to violence, whereas a better approach might be to allow subsequent elections delegitimize Morsi. The counterpoint to this argument, of course, was that Morsi might not allow future free-and-fair elections. Sisi won subsequent elections with 96 percent of the vote, a margin usually reserved for Arab autocrats. While Sisi certainly had the public behind him leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the inflated margin also reflects the inability of any opponent to wage a serious campaign and receive equal attention in the state-controlled media. Over subsequent months, Sisi and his team have used security forces and the judiciary to devastating effect against those prone to seek a more Islamic order.

Unease at Egypt’s human rights situation may be real, but that does not mean that the United States can be sanguine about the fight Egypt now faces.

First of all, even for those prone to see democratic potential in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sinai is a completely different ballgame. Even at the height of Mubarak’s security state, there was huge disaffection in the western Egyptian province of Matruh, in the Sinai, and Upper Egypt. Moderators had to silence regional delegates to Mubarak’s own party’s convention when they complained about the lack of infrastructure, housing, and opportunity.

The Sinai, however, was always a special case. There has always been a sharp cultural divide between Egyptians from Egypt proper and the Sinai. Egyptians did not consider themselves Arabs until the 1920s and 1930s, while the Bedouin consider themselves to be the proto-Arabs. Egyptians have long looked at the Bedouin with additional suspicion because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first reason is that some lived under Israeli control between 1967 and 1982, when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. Second, many have distant relatives who are Israeli citizens, although no Egyptian I have interviewed has ever been able to cite an example of an Egyptian Bedouin betraying Egyptian security to Israel.

Over recent decades, Saudi television has also radicalized some Bedouin. Bedouin Arabic is closer to that spoken in the Arabian Peninsula than it is to mainstream Egyptian Arabic. Before the advent of satellite television, it could sometimes be easier for Bedouin to access terrestrially broadcast Saudi programs than Egyptian television and, given the choice of either, Bedouins often preferred to listen to the more easily accessible Saudi dialect. The Saudis, meanwhile, broadcast a steady stream of religious propaganda that encouraged radicalism. The Mubarak regime kept Bedouin radicalism at bay, but Morsi opened the floodgates. He stopped any serious security regimen and encouraged Hamas in the neighboring Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy held up the delivery of helicopters meant to counter the Al Qaeda threat. The rise of the Islamic State has only radicalized things further. The Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group targeting police and Egyptian soldiers stationed in the Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. Europeans and American officials may be critical of Sisi and skeptical of his reformist pledges, but it can be incredibly shortsighted to risk a growing Islamic State foothold alongside the Suez Canal out of animus to the new Egyptian leader.

But what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Al-Watan online has reported in Arabic today that Egyptian security forces today killed nine Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Even if Western officials are more sympathetic to their political plight in the wake of the coup, it would be incredibly backward to rationalize the assassination of Barakat simply because of the events of 2013 left a bad taste to those seeking broader, faster democratization inside Egypt. First Morsi and then the coup may have polarized Egypt, but it’s important to deal with reality than fantasy. As broader violence erupts between Sisi on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State proxies on the other, it’s crucial to back the former and a definitive U.S. interest to seek the defeat of the latter.

As for Turkey and Qatar, Saudi-backed media has to be taken with a grain of salt. But be it in Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and now Turkey, there is an uncomfortable pattern emerging of the Turkish state backing the most radical Islamist movements in the region. Diplomats might like to talk to the partner they’d like to imagine rather than the partner sitting in front of them, but it’s essential to deal with the reality: Egypt is a friend in the war against terror; Turkey is not.

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Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it. Read More

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it.

In February, when Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the first non-Arab state to which he would make a formal trip, it set off alarm bells in Washington. America’s bilateral relationship with that flawed but nevertheless critical nation’s military leadership had long been strained. Relations between American and Egyptian officials grew tense when President Barack Obama demanded Washington’s ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, leave office amid anti-government protests and spiraling violence. At first welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi and then standing by him when it became clear that he and his political allies would use every lever of Egyptian democracy at their disposal to destroy it, Barack Obama alienated the members of the Egyptian military with whom America had once had firm relations since the late 1970s. Finally, after being visibly paralyzed by events in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster – vexed by the notion of whether to punish the putsch leaders by calling the events they welcomed a “coup” – Obama’s government eventually withdrew a significant amount of the military aid the world’s most populous Arab country had come to rely upon.

The result of this fecklessness was to alienate Egypt’s democrats, frustrate its Islamists, and terrify the members of its military establishment. It’s one thing to have an idealistic foreign policy that eschews legacy obligations to unsavory actors established by foreign policy realists, but it’s quite another to adopt an approach to international affairs that apparently has no philosophical moorings whatsoever. Obama embraced the latter course.

“Washington’s rather limited criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood during its year in power, as well as the intensifying swirl of conspiracy theories about the U.S. role in Egypt, have fostered a severely anti-American political atmosphere that may welcome a shift away from Washington,” The Washington Institute’s David Schenker and Eric Trager observed.

If the alarm bells were ringing in February, they screamed like an air raid siren by March. It was then that the Sisi government announced that it had secured a deal to purchase $2 billion in arms from Moscow. The arrangement represented the ruination of the post-Sadat status quo, in which the former Egyptian leader and American administrations under three successive presidents over the skillfully disentangled Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the importance with which Russia viewed Egypt was revealed when Sadat flamboyantly expelled Soviet advisors and he was subsequently rewarded with even more military aid from Moscow. Putin had effectively reversed Leonid Brezhnev’s folly in Egypt.

But this would not be the end of the West’s humiliation on the Nile. According to a report via the Egyptian Independent, Cairo has agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone dominated by Russia and comprised of the former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

“Egypt’s trade agreement with the EEU would ideally give it preferential access to the integrated single market of 176 million people and a GDP of over US$4 trillion,” The publication wrote of the trade zone designed to serve as a counterbalance to the European Union. “A Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and a number of other joint projects in the areas of transport, manufacturing, and energy are on the table, and the upcoming free trade agreement, expanding the scope of cooperation, would undoubtedly contribute to increasing EEU’s influence…”

As Washington makes no secret of its desire to see Iran rise and become the region’s prohibitive stabilizing power, it isn’t just Egypt that has turned its jilted eyes toward Moscow. “Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg in the last week and signed several agreements with the Russians concerning cooperation on oil, space and peaceful nuclear energy, as well as nuclear technology sharing,” Al-Monitor reported on Wednesday. Between the Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite rebels and its speedy pursuit of nuclear technology from countries like France and Russia, the Saudi Kingdom’s behavior a virtual textbook example of how sovereign powers react to shifting regional dynamics and alliance structures.

In fact, the effects of the Obama administration’s approach to regional power politics in the Middle East might have been pulled directly from one of the late University of California, Berkeley, Professor Kenneth Waltz’s lectures. As the United States has become an unreliable ally, propping up a revisionist aspiring hegemon in their neighborhood, the region’s Sunni states have gone in search of some insurance. This real world experiment in international relations theory is actually quite fascinating. If only it were not so extremely dangerous.

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Justice and Influence in Egypt and Iran

There are many ways to judge a nation’s standing and influence abroad. One of the most telling is to judge how other nations treat one’s citizens. By that standard, it should surprise no one to learn, America’s standing is perilously low from one end of the Middle East to the other.

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There are many ways to judge a nation’s standing and influence abroad. One of the most telling is to judge how other nations treat one’s citizens. By that standard, it should surprise no one to learn, America’s standing is perilously low from one end of the Middle East to the other.

The Egyptian government, which has just been favored with a decision by the Obama administration to continue $1.3 billion a year in military aid, has responded by sentencing an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, to life in prison on trumped-up charges of subversion. Soltan’s real crime was criticizing the military coup which ousted Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government. Even though Soltan was not a Brotherhood member himself, or even a sympathizer, he was rounded up in the same dragnet which has caught up many of the Brothers while working as a volunteer translator for foreign reporters. He has been on a hunger strike for the past year to protest his unlawful detention. It is a sign of America’s impotence that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi felt free to ignore President Obama’s pleas to release Soltan (whose father was sentenced to death in the same case) even while Obama was considering whether or not to resume military aid.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Middle East, Iran is proceeding with a trial on trumped-up espionage charges against Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran. He was arrested last summer and imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison where political detainees are held. Only now has he been allowed to consult with a lawyer. Now he is being charged with such offenses as “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment.”

Naturally the mullahs have ignored Secretary of State Kerry’s pleas to release Rezaian along with two other U.S. citizens currently held in Iranian prisons. Yup, this is the same Iranian government that is being wooed with offers of $50 billion in released funds as soon as it agrees to a sign a deal with the U.S. that would allow it to become a nuclear power in waiting. So little leverage does the U.S. have with Tehran—and so little respect does Tehran have for American demands—that it feels free to proceed with the persecution of Jason Rezaian even as it negotiates with the U.S. in the hopes of getting sanctions lifted.

President Obama might want to read up on the Don Pacifico Affair, the famous case in 1850 when Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, sent the Royal Navy to Athens to make sure that Greece fully paid claims owed to David Pacifico, a Jewish merchant whose house had been ransacked by an anti-Semitic mob. Pacifico, you see, had been born in Gibraltar and was therefore a British subject. When Palmerston’s actions were attacked in the House of Commons, he replied with a famous five-hour oration concluding, “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”

The United States is a lot more powerful, in both absolute and relative terms, than the British Empire was in its heyday—but not powerful enough, it seems, to protect our citizens from “injustice and wrong” at the hands of our allies and negotiating partners. “I am an American citizen” is, today, too often an invitation to abuse—not a protection against abuse.

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Obama’s Preemptive Attack on Critics of the Iran “Framework”

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

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President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

Obama’s press conference this afternoon was notable for its tone. Though he was ostensibly announcing what he considers something of a diplomatic victory, he was agitated and defensive. But it was not just the tone. Here is what Obama said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue. If in fact Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option.

It is a remarkably spiteful comment. What the president is saying is not that he and Netanyahu disagree about how to achieve a peaceful resolution. He says they disagree on “whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution” (emphasis added). In other words, Obama is saying publicly that Netanyahu wants war with Iran, and he wants the United States to fight it.

This is significant not just because of what it says about the president’s opinion of Netanyahu. It’s also important because Netanyahu is not just speaking for Israel. As we’ve seen throughout this process, Netanyahu has of late become the public spokesman for a coalition consisting of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies. And he’s voicing concerns that the French clearly possess as well, but won’t risk their seat at the table to say publicly.

Ironically, Obama’s shunning of Netanyahu has made such public criticism more likely, not less. By putting Netanyahu on the outside looking in–as opposed to giving him more of a stake in the discussions, as he’s done with the French–he’s given the Israeli prime minister and other skeptics in Israel’s security establishment more room to rally opposition to any element of a deal that would put them in grave danger.

That’s why Obama wanted to have some kind of agreement to announce this week, well ahead of the June 30 deadline for a more complete deal. Throughout this process the president has insisted that the only two options on the table are the deal or war. It was untrue, and not very convincing. After all, some details kept changing, and others were never set, so what the president really meant was it’s either whatever deal they can scrounge together or war, which was intended to insulate the administration against criticism for some of the inevitable concessions made to Iran.

But critics of the way the administration handled the negotiations could always credibly say that this wasn’t true–that there were other options, namely a better deal. As long as the parameters were theoretical, they had room to maneuver. What Obama wanted to do is box them in by announcing the parameters well ahead of the announcement of a final deal. This would give the administration a three-month head start to say that it really is this deal or war. Either way, it’s a fait accompli: these are the terms, they’ll say, and no other terms are relevant now.

The purpose of Obama declaring a victory of sorts and calling out Netanyahu today, then, was to send the following message: Critics of this framework must, by process of elimination, want war. It’s why Obama felt so confident smearing Netanyahu as being against a “peaceful” resolution. Because the narrative the administration will hammer home now is that there is only one peaceful resolution on offer.

If it was intended to prevent criticism, it didn’t work. The Times of Israel reports that Jerusalem is already reacting:

In Jerusalem, officials slammed the framework as “a capitulation to Iranian dictates.” The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “a bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous agreement. If finalized, it would make the world “far more dangerous.”

The agreement constitutes “international legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program” whose “only purpose is to build nuclear weapons.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. Just because these are the terms the administration could get doesn’t mean it’s not a bad deal. If our allies in the region are on the same page, it also means the Saudis will be unconvinced and are likely to continue exploring their own route to nuclear capability, with the Egyptians not far behind. If Obama thinks this is a victory, it’s easy to see why our allies don’t agree.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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Peter Beinart’s Israeli Democracy Problem

Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

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Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

Beinart does not trouble himself to account for his staggeringly mendacious claims about Israel’s past attempts to negotiate peace or his comments about the threat from terrorism. Beinart shoves three Israeli offers of statehood to the Palestinians by non-Likud governments from 2000 to 2008 that they rejected, as well as their stonewalling during the talks last year, down the memory hole. With his no “shadow of terror” remark, he does the same for last year’s war with Hamas in which thousands of Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli cities and the fact that any Israeli schoolchild knows that the only thing preventing another campaign of suicide bombing is the West Bank security barrier, not forbearance by Hamas or Fatah killers. As for the last six years of President Obama’s sniping at Israel’s government, that is also too insignificant a detail for Beinart to notice.

These points are important because they illustrate that Beinart’s arguments are based on a willful disregard for the facts that have influenced Israeli voters to hand the last three elections to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his party despite the fact that neither he nor the Likud is all that popular.

Beinart is right when he says the fact that Israelis have elected a Knesset with a clear majority opposed to his policies does not obligate him to agree with their judgment. In fact, I stated as much myself. One can vocally oppose the policies of any government without exposing oneself to the charge of contempt for democracy. But Beinart isn’t content anymore to merely voice criticism, however uninformed or contemptuous of the facts he may have been. The point is, he explicitly wrote that what must now happen is for Americans to rise up and back measures by the U.S. government that will overturn the judgment of Israel’s voters. Instead of continuing to try and persuade them of the wisdom of his suggestions, he now says what he wants is for Israelis to be isolated, economically and politically, and to be treated as a pariah state. If that is not contempt for the democratic process as played out in Israel, I don’t know what else it can be called.

It is true that, in theory, the voters of one democracy are not obliged to respect the decisions of voters in other countries. But this is no mere policy dispute. He alleges that Israel is a “brutal, undemocratic and unjust power” because it has rightly decided that allowing the creation of another terrorist state on its borders—like the one it allowed to rise up in Gaza—is unwise. What he is doing is not disagreement but delegitimization.

He also argues that because the Arab residents of the West Bank are not allowed to vote in Israel’s elections, it cannot be said to be a democracy there. This again is a willfully misleading argument. If the people of the West Bank can’t vote in an election, it is due entirely to the fact that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have consistently rejected offers of statehood and independence for their people because doing so would also require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders would be drawn, next door. As he well knows, the majority of Israelis would have been happy to embrace a two-state solution. But the Palestinians have never been able to do so because it means ending the conflict with Zionism and their national identity has been inextricably tied to that war since its inception. If Israelis have, at least for the moment, given up on two states, it is not because they don’t think it’s a good idea, but because they recognize the Palestinians aren’t interested in it, something that Beinart refuses to accept despite ample proof.

The status quo is both anomalous and unsatisfactory, but its continuation is not due to Netanyahu’s decisions or statements. It is the work of the Palestinians. They have constructed this status quo just as they did the security barrier, which they forced a reluctant Israeli government to build to keep out terrorists. Asking Israelis to ignore these facts and to place their population centers next to another Hamasistan is neither consistent with affection for their existence nor reasonable. Nor is it something that was likely to happen even if Netanyahu had been defeated and replaced with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. Comparing Netanyahu to racist segregationists or any other evil figures in history tells us more about Beinart than the prime minister. When the political culture of the Palestinians changes to allow them to accept a state alongside Israel, they will get it. Until that happens, blaming Israel for Palestinian irredentism and hate merely denies agency to the Arab side of the conflict.

As for his claim that I’m being hypocritical because of my lack of support for Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, that is mere sophistry.

It is true that the Brotherhood won an election after the fall of the Mubarak regime. But any comparison between the victory of a party advocating a totalitarian theocracy, whose ability to turn out its supporters or coerce others to do so bears little resemblance to the normal democratic process, and true democrats is absurd. The Brotherhood’s goal was to transform Egypt into another Gaza or Iran and to enact the usual Third World practice of “one man, one vote, one time” to ensure that its hold on power could never be endangered. A year after it came to power, tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand its ouster and the military complied. That’s a sorry tale and one that shows how hard it is to create a democracy in a country with no democratic traditions or consensus about governance. Applauding the demise of an anti-democratic Islamist movement is not only consistent with belief in democracy; it was a precondition for any hope (albeit a very slim one) that Egypt will ever become a democracy.

Perhaps in Beinart’s fevered imagination, he thinks the Likud is analogous to the Brotherhood. This is a transparent libel of a party that has, since its inception, always abided by democratic norms in a way that Hamas’s Islamist ally has never done. What Beinart would like is for Israel’s people to rise up against the Likud as Egyptians did against the Brotherhood. If they did, Netanyahu’s government would fall. But not only have they failed to do so, they just gave him a third consecutive victory because, unlike Beinart, they have paid attention to what the Palestinians have done and said about peace.

That has to be frustrating for Beinart, but the answer for those who care about democracy to failure in an election is not an attempt to overturn the vote by foreign pressure but to work harder to give your ideas a fair hearing and to persuade Israelis to change their minds. Beinart has clearly tired of trying to do that and now places himself in the ranks of those seeking to treat its democratically elected government as pariahs. That is why, along with others, I have written that he has contempt for democracy. The charge stands.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

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General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

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Don’t Abandon Muslim Dissidents

Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

His own emphasis was on the “freedom agenda”–i.e., expanding democracy. President Obama, by contrast, has governed for the most part as a Realpolitiker intent on “rebalancing” American commitments and not letting sympathy for human rights distract him from his foreign policy objectives. That American neglect is having dire consequences for dissidents in the Muslim world who champion precisely the liberal values that we would like to see flourish.

Paul Wolfowitz notes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama, while embracing Malaysian President Najib Razak, has ignored the plight of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed on bogus charges under an archaic “anti-sodomy” law. Wolfowitz, who once served as ambassador in neighboring Indonesia, notes that Ibrahim is “a liberal Muslim who defends the rights of the Christian minority and quotes the Quran alongside Tocqueville, Locke and Jefferson. Now his voice for a tolerant, modern and peaceful Islam will be silenced.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board notes that the American-backed Sisi regime in Egypt is also busy jailing liberal activists. The Post writes that “a court in Egypt sentenced one of the country’s best-known liberal democratic activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to five years in prison, along with 20 other activists. The next day, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi issued a new law that will allow his regime to prosecute any protest as terrorism.”

This shows that Sisi’s crackdown extends far beyond the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood. The Post writes that many of those being locked up are “secular democrats who supported the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and later protested the autocratic excesses of Mr. Morsi. They include Ahmed Maher and a dozen other leaders of the April 6 movement, and Ahmed Douma, a liberal blogger who was sentenced this month to life in prison.”

And what is Obama doing about it? Not much beyond paying lip service to the need for freedom. At his summit on countering “violent extremism” last week, he said, “When dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” But as with a lot of the president’s foreign policy (“red lines,” anyone?) this is just hot air that isn’t backed up with any action on the part of the United States.

Obama’s reluctance to intervene is understandable–both Malaysia and Egypt are American allies, so why get into a fight with their leaders over the fate of a few dissidents? Because ultimately it is those who are now being imprisoned who are the best hope of moving the Muslim world in a better direction. If the U.S. abandons them, we will continue to face a Sophie’s choice between secular despots (whose repression breeds terrorism) and radical Islamist regimes. There is a third way, to invoke a term used in the 1950s to describe an alternative to either Communism or colonialism in the Third World, but Obama seems to be ignoring it. The price of U.S. neglect will be paid not only by brave liberal Muslims but also by the United States, which will find the Muslim world increasingly evolving in the direction of ISIS.

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An Island of Normalization in the Mideast?

An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

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An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

The QIZ, which the U.S. created 10 years ago in order to bolster Egyptian-Israeli peace by encouraging economic collaboration, allows Egypt to export textiles to America duty-free if Israel contributes a certain percentage of their value. But until now, Egypt has kept its cooperation with Israel as low-profile and limited as possible due to the sweeping consensus against normalization.

After all, this is a country where a leading author was expelled from the writers’ union and saw his books banned for the “crime” of traveling to Israel and writing about his experiences. It’s a country where translated Israeli books sparked such outrage that the culture minister had to defend himself from accusations of “normalization” by saying the translations were intended only to enable Egyptians to “know their enemy” and promising that the project would involve no contact with Israeli publishers, but only with the Israeli authors’ foreign publishers. It’s a country where every candidate in the 2012 presidential election vowed to either scrap or “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel. And none of this was long ago.

Yet now, suddenly, Egypt is running a joint booth with Israel at a trade fair and discussing ways to expand the QIZ.

In part, this may indicate that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is more serious about trying to improve his country’s battered economy than he’s often given credit for–to the point that he’s even willing to bolster cooperate with Israel to do so, despite the risk of antagonizing the anti-normalization trolls, who quite definitely still exist.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this happening without the growing recognition that Egypt and Israel face a common enemy: the Islamist terrorists in the Sinai and their Palestinian collaborators from Gaza. As a result, not only has security cooperation between the two defense establishments never been closer, but attitudes have also begun changing among ordinary Egyptians. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, some Egyptian media commentators openly rooted for Israel to defeat Hamas (which an Egyptian court has since declared a terrorist organization).

Just how much Egypt’s enemy list has changed in recent years was somewhat ironically highlighted by a front-page article in the daily Al Ahram last week, after ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the Obama administration refused to support Egypt’s retaliatory airstrikes. In the best tradition of Egyptian conspiracy theories, the article accused Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. of collaborating to sow “chaos and destruction” in Egypt. Notably absent from the list was the usual suspect–the one that used to routinely figure as the villain in every Egyptian conspiracy theory, like the 2010 classic that blamed the Mossad for shark attacks on Sinai beaches.

Having long since despaired of the dream that the cold peace with Egypt would someday thaw into normalization, most Israelis figured the new and improved security coordination was as good as it gets and expected nothing more. And yet, improbably, more seems to be happening. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything more “normalized” than a joint booth at a trade fair. And it offers hope that just maybe, something good can emerge from the current Mideast madness.

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ISIS and the Cost of Leading From Behind

The cost of leading from behind is going up. The release of a video showing ISIS terrorists in Libya executing Egyptian Christians was shocking and not just because of the depravity of the atrocity. The video’s production showed that the Libyan Islamists were closely coordinating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq revealing that what President Obama called a terrorist “jayvee team” was not only growing stronger but also expanding its reach around the region. In response to the murder of its citizens, the Egyptian military launched a strike at a target in Libya. Though it probably did little harm to the terrorists, it at least sent a strong message that the group could not expect to operate there with impunity. While Egypt may be signaling that it is prepared to push back against ISIS, the ability of the group to operate in Libya demonstrates the bankruptcy of America’s belated and half-hearted efforts against the group. Having originally gotten into Libya while bragging about leading from behind during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the Obama administration appears determined to demonstrate just how disastrous this philosophy can be.

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The cost of leading from behind is going up. The release of a video showing ISIS terrorists in Libya executing Egyptian Christians was shocking and not just because of the depravity of the atrocity. The video’s production showed that the Libyan Islamists were closely coordinating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq revealing that what President Obama called a terrorist “jayvee team” was not only growing stronger but also expanding its reach around the region. In response to the murder of its citizens, the Egyptian military launched a strike at a target in Libya. Though it probably did little harm to the terrorists, it at least sent a strong message that the group could not expect to operate there with impunity. While Egypt may be signaling that it is prepared to push back against ISIS, the ability of the group to operate in Libya demonstrates the bankruptcy of America’s belated and half-hearted efforts against the group. Having originally gotten into Libya while bragging about leading from behind during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the Obama administration appears determined to demonstrate just how disastrous this philosophy can be.

Administration apologists put down the recent spate of terror videos as an effort by ISIS to cover up for its weaknesses and losses with spectacular murders in order to bolster its reputation as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. There is some logic to this argument, but it is offset by the plain facts of the case. After months of a bombing campaign conducted by the United States and some of its Arab allies in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is more than holding its own. Even worse, it has formed alliances and begun to make its impact felt elsewhere. Rather than rolling back ISIS, the U.S. is barely holding it back from making more gains. Even worse, the anti-ISIS coalition has shown itself unable to prevent the group from scoring public-relations coups with snuff films that show what happens to those who are so unfortunate as to fall into their hands.

This ought to be a moment for reflection in Washington as the president and his foreign policy and defense team finally come up with a strategy that has as its aim the destruction of ISIS rather than attrition tactics that seem taken straight out of the Lyndon Johnson administration’s Vietnam War playbook, replete with body counts and overoptimistic bulletins bragging of pyrrhic victories.

But instead, all we continue to get out of the administration is an approach that seems aimed more at ensuring that the U.S. doesn’t win than anything else. The administration’s proposal for a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East is as much about restrictions on the ability of the president to conduct a successful campaign against these barbarians than to actually “degrade” and eventually defeat ISIS.

Just as troubling is the administration’s determination to go on treating the Egyptian government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with disdain at a time when it has become a bulwark in the fight against ISIS and other radicals such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Instead of seeking to help the Egyptians, the U.S. is keeping its distance from Cairo, giving the lie to the president’s belief in multilateralism, a concept that only seems to apply to efforts to constrain self-defense efforts by allies rather than supporting them.

President Obama was dragged into the war against ISIS reluctantly and belatedly and that lack of interest in the fight shows in his statements and an amorphous anti-terror policy that seems aimed more at tolerating Islamists than in taking them out. Sisi is prepared to talk about the religious roots of terror. Obama isn’t. Egypt can’t destroy ISIS in Libya by itself any more than Jordan can do it in Syria and Iraq. American allies look to Washington for commitment and strength and instead they get statements about moral equivalence designed more to allow the president to shirk the responsibility to lead.

Expressions of shock about the mass beheadings of Christians are of no use. Mere statements of condemnation are not a substitute for a war-winning strategy or a willingness to stand by our allies. Far from mere propaganda, ISIS’s murder videos have shown the region that the U.S. can be defied with impunity. If the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS, that is not an impression that it can allow to persist. Or at least it can’t if we really intended to defeat ISIS. Obama must lead or at least get out of the way.

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Countering Violent Extremism the Right Way

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the offices of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack by Islamist extremists on a kosher market, President Barack Obama invited political and religious leaders to a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The whole summit is a bit amorphous and unfortunately seems to be the latest example of foreign policy by photo-op rather than substance.

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In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the offices of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack by Islamist extremists on a kosher market, President Barack Obama invited political and religious leaders to a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The whole summit is a bit amorphous and unfortunately seems to be the latest example of foreign policy by photo-op rather than substance.

Crippling the U.S. effort is an unwillingness to address the theological component: violent interpretations of Islam. I have spent the last several days in Morocco, witness to the academic and diplomatic effort to counter extremism which was a major subject of discussion at the Marrakech Security Forum, and then in Rabat, where I was able to sit in on workshops in which Moroccan graduates of religious studies programs and peer leaders addressed strategies to identify and counter radicalism among their peers.

I have previously addressed some aspects of Morocco’s strategy to promote religious moderation, here. Morocco has pioneered the Mourchidat program, in which both men and women together study the same religious curriculum, but combine it with instruction in psychology, sociology, and history so that they can discuss and explain religion to ordinary people so that extremists do not have a blank slate upon which they can declare their interpretation of Islam to be the correct one.

In addition, the Moroccans have set up networks to reach across society in order to nip radicalization in the bud, and provide alternatives. Think a religious equivalent of Boys and Girls Clubs, one in which young people undertake activities that provide alternatives to the Islamist vision. Other groups reach out via children’s books, cartoons, and interactive websites, some for children, and others for serious discussion and debate about religion and radicalism. See, for example, www.chababe.ma, whose offices I visited today.

Many Western diplomats and experts understand that change will have to come from within. Moroccan religious leaders recognize there is no single summit or call for international attention which can moderate growing extremism within Islam. Rather, it is a decades-long struggle that requires building a group of religious scholars that have credibility to push back upon those Saudi- and Qatar-funded and Muslim Brotherhood-oriented scholars inclined either to politicize Islam or to push more intolerant lines.

It also means not dismissing moderation in places such as Morocco as simply peripheral to the world of Islam. Today, the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina lay in Saudi Arabia, but that is only because Ibn Saud in 1925 conquered the previous Kingdom of Hejaz. The reality is that Nejd, from where the Saudis came, was long obscure and marginal to Islamic history, and that Saudi Arabia itself and the brand of Islam which it (and Qatar) promotes was not relevant until they used oil wealth to promote it. Morocco and Moroccan religious scholars have traditionally been far more influential throughout Africa and during both the Umayyad and Fatimid eras, as well as under the Almoravids. In many ways, the Islam practiced in and increasingly promoted by Morocco is far more authentic than the Wahhabism espoused by Saudi Arabia.

Nor should Western officials dismiss voices of moderation simply because calls for moderation against extremism occur alongside political agendas. Here, the case of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is instructive. In late December, Sisi made an extraordinary speech at Al-Azhar University calling upon theologians to revolutionize and modernize religion. His speech was largely ignored in the United States and the West, but it reverberated across the Maghreb and the Middle East. American diplomats seem more intent on antagonizing and isolating Sisi or dismissing his call to revolutionize Islam as a political ploy to further undercut the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if that were the case, however, what’s wrong with that? Radical Islamism and the theology preached by the Muslim Brotherhood are inherently political. The only difference between Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood is that Sisi seeks to promote a vision of religion which embraces tolerance and enables greater individual liberty, while the Brotherhood seeks to constrain interpretations and de-legitimize those who seek interpretations of Islam which conform with individual liberty and broader religious tolerance.

In sum, there’s no shortage in the Middle East of efforts to counter violent extremism. Those in the region who seek to counter violent extremism don’t tie their hands with political correctness: They recognize that the problem lies within interpretations of Islam, and simply seek to counter those interpretations with better ones. Denying the legitimacy of the religious basis for extremism, however, is counterproductive. It is also arrogant, as the people who least have credibility to define what Islam is or is not are those like President Obama whose legitimacy is entirely political and not based in theology.

So what should the West do? We must embrace those like the Moroccan and Egyptian governments which actively seek to promote moderation. Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Sisi—and the religious scholars who work alongside them—have much greater standing to lead the drive than a White House intent on a photo-op or an easy answer. We must not stand in the way of those voices who acknowledge the need for contemporary interpretations that focus on the present and future rather than the past.

And we must not fall into the trap of assuming compromise means finding the lowest common denominator. Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) might be the loudest in the United States because their financiers provide the resources to enable them to be, but that does not mean anyone should treat them as sincere in the effort to counter radicalization; rather, we should recognize that their main goal is to obfuscate the theological roots of radicalism and undercut the sincere efforts of moderates across the Middle East and elsewhere to promote moderation, modernity, and tolerance within Islam.

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Will ISIS Use Libya as a Springboard to Attack Egypt?

Whereas the Obama administration once sought to juxtapose the supposed success of its light-footprint Libya model with the failures of the George W. Bush administration’s heavy footprint and full-scale invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, now it appears that the decision to “lead from behind” in Libya may come back to haunt the United States and the region.

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Whereas the Obama administration once sought to juxtapose the supposed success of its light-footprint Libya model with the failures of the George W. Bush administration’s heavy footprint and full-scale invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, now it appears that the decision to “lead from behind” in Libya may come back to haunt the United States and the region.

Today, Libya has descended into civil war. As in Afghanistan in the years immediately preceding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two completely separate governments claim to be the sole legitimate authority for the entire country as they continue their fight. Meanwhile, huge swaths of the country have descended into chaos. As Amb. Angel Losada, Spain’s special representative for the Sahel, said on February 13 at the Marrakesh Security Forum, southern Libya has become “Club Med for smugglers and criminals.”

Last month, I highlighted the inroads that the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) had made into Tripoli, Libya, to the extent that the group has uploaded videos of its activities and morality patrols in the capital. Whereas once it appeared that either Lebanon or Jordan could be the next states to fall to the Islamic State, now it appears that Libya might have that dubious honor.

Over the past month, however, the situation has worsened even further. From the Tripoli-based Libya Herald:

Egypt today said it was preparing for an evacuation of workers from Libya after the Islamic State published photographs of 21 Coptic Christians kidnapped last month in Sirte. The photographs show the men in orange jump suits being paraded along the sea shore by black-clad gunmen. The Egyptian authorities, facing pressure at home to intervene, said they will consider evacuating some among the tens of thousands of workers who remain in Libya. There are fears that all Egyptians could become targets for IS which regards the authorities in Cairo and, by extension, Egypt as an enemy… Earlier this week Islamic State claimed control of the nearby town of Nawfaliya, while its units have already proclaimed an Islamic Caliphate in Derna on the north-eastern coast….

Egyptian-Libyan relations are long and complex. When Muammar Gaddafi seized power in 1969, he initially courted Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egyptian commentator Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal recalled that, just hours after the coup, Gaddafi asked him to pass the following message to Nasser:

We have hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline. We have the airfields. We have the money. We have everything. Tell President Nasser we made this revolution for him… All we have done is our duty as Arab nationalists. Now it is for President Nasser to take over and guide Libya from the reactionary camp, where it was to the progressive camp, where it should be.

The honeymoon was brief—Gaddafi’s impulsiveness was too much even for Nasser who, at any rate, died the next year. President Anwar Sadat backed out of a proposed union and relations deteriorated quickly. Antagonism and distrust has survived in both countries. Throw into that mix the ideology of the Islamic State and the situation is volatile. Home to one in four Arabs in the Middle East and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is the ultimate prize. That Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi has become the Arab Ataturk, symbolizing an alternative in which Islam is respected but kept distant from governance, and a desire to bring the fight to Egypt by jihadists is palpable.

What was unthinkable just a few years ago across the Arab world is now the new reality: Syria and Libya were once considered among the most stable, even if repressive, societies and are now the most chaotic. Shi’ites are the predominant power in Yemen. Once the prime obsession across the region, Israel is now marginal to most discussions in Arab capitals. As Libya’s descent into chaos continues, and as the Islamic State makes advances in the oil-rich state, the new unthinkable might be a renewed effort to destabilize Egypt and the potential for real conflict.

Either way, two things become clear:

  • The fight against the Islamic State cannot simply be limited to Syria and Iraq. Defeat of the group in either country does not equate to its end.
  • And, second, Egypt will—as with Jordan—be the next frontline with the expanding movement. It is long past time to stop wringing hands about Egypt’s revolution, the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi, and the circumstances of President Sisi’s rise. It is essential to support and equip Egypt’s ability to fight terrorism, not only in the Sinai but increasingly against the threat of a looming Islamic State affiliate to its west.

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Do Not Ignore Egypt’s Real Security Needs

Far from being dead, or even on the defense, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are proliferating. Radical Islamists now control more territory than since the first decades of the religion. While Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dominate international headlines, the rise of radical Islamism in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might be the most threatening to immediate U.S. interests.

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Far from being dead, or even on the defense, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are proliferating. Radical Islamists now control more territory than since the first decades of the religion. While Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dominate international headlines, the rise of radical Islamism in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might be the most threatening to immediate U.S. interests.

In 2006, I attended the national convention in Cairo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). There were a number of sessions over the course of a few days. I hoped to attend a panel on Egypt and nuclear energy but when I returned to the conference center, the previous panel regarding water and infrastructure was running late. It was a heated affair. The delegates from Sinai—even more so than their counterparts from Upper Egypt and the Western Desert—were especially rowdy; they complained that Cairo systematically discriminated against them in terms of housing, water, and electricity. They slammed the government repeatedly to the point that chairing officials would cut off power to microphones and threaten to use security guards to return order to the room.

Now, such heated arguments might not seem out of place in South Korea, Taiwan, or even Israel, but Egypt was at the time effectively a one-party state, a dictatorship, and the chaos was within not parliament but inside the convention of the ruling party. Even under President Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai was a hornet’s nest.

The reason for the Sinai’s restiveness is multi-fold. Successive Egyptian governments have long ignored the region, hence their anger at the NDP convention. Then, Egyptians have always seen themselves as a civilization apart; they did not even see themselves as Arabs until the 1920 or 1930s. The Sinai, however, is largely Bedouin, and these are looked down upon if not discriminated against by the Egyptian state. Geography also plays a part. Whereas satellites now provide the chief platform for Arabic television, for decades, broadcasting was more terrestrial. Many of the Sinai Bedouins live closer to Saudi Arabia than to Cairo, and so had their world shaped more by Saudi religious programming than by Egyptian soap operas. Long story short, radicalism has long found fertile ground in the Sinai.

Immediately following Mubarak’s fall, Sinai-based radicals formed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi at best turned a blind eye toward such radicalism and at worst encouraged it. In November 2014, the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State. Its reign of terror has been considerable. It has conducted economic warfare, repeatedly blowing up the gas pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan, and also attacking Israeli border posts. Most of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’s opprobrium has been reserved for Egypt. The group attacked the interior minister’s motorcade in Cairo and, in late January, killed more than 30 Egyptian security force members in the Sinai. In recent days, the Egyptians have fought back hard, but it is no secret that if the Egyptian military should fail, security could be at risk for Suez Canal shipping, Jordan, and more broadly Egypt itself.

Where does the United States stand? The State Department designated the group a terror entity in April 2014, but hasn’t done much since. Indeed, we have more hampered Egyptian counterterrorism than advanced it, especially as the Senate slow-balled until recently Egypt’s request for helicopters to help take on the group. Israel, for its part, has been more helpful, allowing a de facto revision to the Camp David Accords to enable Egypt to send the equivalent of a mechanized division into the Sinai. Still, the White House has at best been ambivalent to Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, and the State Department has openly sought to undermine him.

This is counterproductive not only in terms of security, but also strategically as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as reticent as Obama in defending and asserting national interest, and Putin isn’t going to miss the chance to advance Russian interests in Egypt. He’s in Egypt today and tomorrow to woo Sisi. If the United States is going to turn its back on Sisi—a man who seeks to defeat terrorism and promote reform in Islam—then Putin is going to fill the gap.

Does the United States have concerns with regard to human rights in Egypt? Yes. It is ironic, however, to use those as an excuse to sink relations. Working against Sisi rather than with him will simply throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Muslim Brotherhood’s human-rights record is worse. It supported terrorist groups in Gaza and elsewhere. And its own internal pronouncements made clear its embrace of democracy was more rhetorical than real. Nor would Egypt under Russian influence solve any of the problems American officials cite as an excuse for their cool, counterproductive approach to Cairo.

When it comes to strategic suicide, there is no team better than Obama and Kerry. But when it comes to the real world, and America’s economic and security interests, as well as Washington’s desire to promote human rights and reform, there really only is one choice: Full-throated support for Sisi, his security operations in the Sinai, and a real Egyptian-American partnership.

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Strategy Should Be Defeat of Islamists, Not Choosing Sectarian Sides

The United States has lacked a coherent strategy in the Middle East—if not worldwide—for more than a quarter-century. George W. Bush came closest in recent years and voiced a strategy that centered on an emphasis on democratization but, when push came to shove, he did not have the wherewithal or patience to overcome resistance from within the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and his own National Security Council.

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The United States has lacked a coherent strategy in the Middle East—if not worldwide—for more than a quarter-century. George W. Bush came closest in recent years and voiced a strategy that centered on an emphasis on democratization but, when push came to shove, he did not have the wherewithal or patience to overcome resistance from within the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and his own National Security Council.

With the Arab Spring, the traditional basis of regional stability—or, at least relative regional stability (there were multiple Arab-Israeli and Arab-Arab wars, after all)—collapsed as both pro-American and anti-American dictators who had ruled for decades fell or their states collapsed into violence and civil war. Meanwhile, traditional secular bulwarks like Turkey are now as much adversary as ally. Questions remain about the future of other allies. Saudi Arabia just underwent a transition and appears to be trending hardline, and Oman and the United Arab Emirates are not far behind, as their leaders probably have weeks or months to live, but likely won’t make it into 2016. ISIS is simply icing on the chaotic cake.

It would be cheaply partisan—and myopic—to attribute all the chaos to President Obama’s decisions since he took office, or George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The world doesn’t revolve around Washington, and much of the trouble in the region would have occurred no matter who was in the White House. That said, decisions do have consequences. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (a decision I supported and still support) certainly undercut stability in Iraq, although that instability might have been inevitable, given that Saddam would have been nearly 80 years old today and so might not have survived to the present anyway. With regard to Obama, his desire to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on the cheap, and without U.S. ground forces, meant no one was willing to step up and secure his weapons depots. The resulting flood of weaponry has destabilized countries across the Sahel, empowered radicals, and continues to threaten international air travel. If Obama aide and now UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s “responsibility to protect” motivated the ill-planned Libya intervention, then the failure to intervene in Syria before the opposition radicalized was pure hypocrisy. Today, the only moderate opposition group inside Syria is the Democratic Union Party (YPG), which because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and outdated U.S. deference to Turkey, the U.S. government wrongly considers to be a terrorist entity (it’s safer to be a journalist in Qamisli, Syrian Kurdistan, than it is in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan).

It’s no secret to either Republicans or Democrats that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry increasingly appear rudderless in their approach to the Middle East. On one hand, they seem intent on working with Iran and its proxies against the threat posed by radical Islamist groups like ISIS—the Houthis are just the latest case—but on the other hand, as the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has reported, they are legitimizing the Muslim Brotherhood which at best is an incubator for Sunni radicalism and at worst is a terrorist group itself (both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have designated it as such).

There is incoherence to such policies. Isolating al-Qaeda, its fellow travelers, and its enablers makes a great deal of sense, but then why reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which has targeted Christians, eroded the rights of women, and cheered terrorism? Why deny the terrorism of the Taliban? And can Iran really be a counterbalance to al-Qaeda when it supports groups like Hezbollah which is just as deadly and radical as al-Qaeda, albeit with just a slightly different sectarian patina? Nor does it make sense to rehabilitate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is responsible for mass murder and who hasn’t hesitated to use cynically ISIS against his more moderate opponents? (That’s not a conspiracy theory: the Syrian regime had uncontested control of its airspace for years before the United States launched its air campaign against ISIS; during that time, Assad preferred to drop barrel bombs on civilians rather than bomb ISIS’s headquarters in Raqqa).

So what should the United States policy be? Rather than choose between different flavors of radicalism or get drawn into a sectarian struggle in which Washington absolutely does not belong, perhaps it’s time to make the defeat of extremists of all sects the guiding principle of U.S. policy. This would mean rolling back the Muslim Brotherhood and its proxies wherever they exist and moving to marginalize rather than legitimize it, as Secretary of State John Kerry and the Foreign Service he leads seem wont to do. It would mean embracing its enemies—providing unequivocal support to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for example—and pushing away its supporters, Turkey and Qatar. If the Clinton and George W. Bush-era flirtation with the Erdoğan regime shows one thing, it is that for Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups, moderation is a tactic not a goal. It should mean isolating rather than embracing Muslim Brotherhood fronts in the United States, as well, like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the latter of which, unfortunately, the Pentagon uses to credential Muslim military chaplains.

It’s not enough, however, to simply seek to isolate and diminish the Muslim Brotherhood. It should be just as much a goal to undermine and eliminate Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, and Iranian influence. There are Shi‘ites across the region who chafe under and resist Iranian influence; the United States should support them. Washington must look at the region as Tehran does: not as an area for shared influence, but rather a zero-sum game. It should be the goal of the United States to deny Iran space while at the same time promoting programs which lead to the empowerment of the Iranian people rather than the regime that oppresses them.

The Middle East may look chaotic, but with Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country on the right side, with Tunisia breaking through the glass ceiling to become the first Arab state categorized as free by Freedom House, and with Morocco, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Kuwait promoting moderation, it can be possible to consolidate an axis of moderation against the looming threat of the extremists. It’s not a one- or two-year task, however, but should be the goal of any American strategy. The United States must never apologize for putting its own interests and helping those with whom they coincide while undercutting those whose ideology would counter them.

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Sisi, Charlie Hebdo, and the Search for an Islamic Turning Point

On Tuesday, FDD’s Michael Ledeen noticed that the media were not covering what seemed like an important story: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s speech to Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University on Islam. The speaker and the venue were made all the more significant because of the content of the speech. Sisi castigated the assembled Islamic leaders, and by extension their global co-religionists, for breeding an extreme and intolerant Islam. The tragic events in Paris yesterday only reinforce the substance of Sisi’s message.

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On Tuesday, FDD’s Michael Ledeen noticed that the media were not covering what seemed like an important story: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s speech to Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University on Islam. The speaker and the venue were made all the more significant because of the content of the speech. Sisi castigated the assembled Islamic leaders, and by extension their global co-religionists, for breeding an extreme and intolerant Islam. The tragic events in Paris yesterday only reinforce the substance of Sisi’s message.

The lack of coverage of Sisi’s speech was such that Ledeen found himself having lunch “with three gentlemen who are very well read, who follow the news attentively, and who would shudder to think they are victims of ideological censorship. Yet not one of them — and the trio includes a very famous former reporter (a first-class reporter at that) for one of the country’s top newspapers — had heard a word about” the speech. “All three watch TV news and read the leading dailies, so they were surprised that they hadn’t heard about it. They agreed that the story warranted banner headlines. World-wide.”

That lack of coverage–perhaps censorship is too strong a word to describe it, but it comes close–is also given new significance by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office in which Islamist terrorists murdered twelve for the sin of insulting Mohammed. The resulting self-censorship, at a time when basic fortitude was called for, is a crucial part of the story. The scourge of political correctness cannot be held blameless for the media’s decision to ignore Sisi’s criticism of Islamic extremism.

According to Raymond Ibrahim, who provided a translation from Michele Antaki, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics.   We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before.  It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.  It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

He added that Muslim clerics needed to approach Islam “from a more enlightened perspective”–a term likely chosen very carefully, and quite daringly–and that this necessitates a “religious revolution.”

So what is Sisi up to? Part of it, surely, is that he hopes his words are heeded. This is not an unselfish gesture: he wants his enemies, like the Muslim Brotherhood and their even more extreme allies and offshoots (including Hamas in Gaza, right on Egypt’s border), to do some of his work for him by tempering their own passions. It is dangerous for Sisi to say what he said, but he is already a marked man. I imagine he ran an improvised cost-benefit analysis in his head and decided, probably correctly, that the Hail Mary (forgive the analogy) was worth it.

Another explanation is the role terrorism plays in forging alliances. We saw one example at the end of December when an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian UN Security Council resolution was on track to pass (though it likely would have been vetoed by the U.S.), its momentum helped by a yes-vote from France. But the resolution failed when Nigeria surprised even the Israelis and voted against the Palestinian resolution. Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram reportedly was a factor:

Part of the change stemmed from the tightening relationship between Israel and Nigeria and from the common interests of the countries in the fight against global terrorism. Israel was one of the first nations in the world to offer the Nigerians help in the struggle against the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Sisi is looking abroad, especially to the West. Since the army’s coup deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and handed Sisi the reins, and especially since Sisi’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood and dissent more broadly following the coup, Sisi has not exactly been embraced by Western governments made doubly uneasy by military coups and by being seen as taking a stand against Islamists. Appeasement and capitulation are the trend among the Western left, though as France is learning this appeasement is not earning them any goodwill among Islamists.

And Sisi is also trying to get his house in some order. As long as ethnic and religious minorities will be violently persecuted by Egypt’s Muslim establishment and Brotherhood networks, the country will be an economic basket case. Sisi also cannot claim to stand with the West while allowing his country to be part of the bloody global war on Christians currently engulfing the Middle East and Central Asia most violently of all. That’s probably why Sisi made another historic gesture: he became the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas mass.

Whatever the reasons for the speech and whatever its outcome, the brutal terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest proof of the fact that Sisi at least has the virtue of being right.

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The Right’s Unwise Eisenhower Nostalgia

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

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There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

To be sure, there is much to admire in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t add any clarity to conservative policy planning to admire things about Eisenhower that didn’t actually exist. This week two of the right’s foreign-policy minds, Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim, wrote a piece for National Review Online sketching out what they say is a reform-conservative foreign policy with a GOP candidate “who will play Eisenhower” as its avatar. As sensible as many of their principles are, the article contains neither much reform nor an accurate portrayal of Ike.

They pitch the coming GOP foreign-policy debate as a modern-day battle between Eisenhower and Taft. They cast Rand Paul as the champion of the Taftites, but I don’t think they’re being quite fair to Paul when they say those on his side of the debate “see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests.” His father, Ron Paul, probably believes this. Rand believes in strategic retrenchment that, I think, underestimates the repercussions of such retrenchment but which does not replicate the noxious rhetoric of his father’s acolytes.

So what would a reform-conservative foreign-policy doctrine look like? Here’s their description:

It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

This sounds almost exactly like … the reigning conservative foreign-policy consensus. I’m not sure what about that description is “reform”–which is fine with me, because those are sound principles. They just happen to be sound principles that have been guiding most conservative foreign-policy thinkers. It’s such a general description, in fact, that I could imagine it appearing on any GOP 2016 candidate’s issues page.

But the authors see this as a back-to-our-roots conservative reform. They write: “President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above.”

He most certainly did not.

The obvious hole in this plot is the second in their list of principles: “It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” If this sounds like Ike to you, we’re having a very strange foreign-policy debate.

Two of the most famous foreign-policy incidents on Ike’s watch were the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Eisenhower fumbled the attempt to keep American partnership in the Aswan Dam and influence on the Suez Canal, which Egypt then nationalized. And he forcefully opposed the allies’ attempts to break Nasser’s hold.

In his recent book on postwar American foreign policy, Stephen Sestanovich writes: “Suez was no mere transatlantic disagreement, but a strategic defeat from which Britain and France never recovered. This was, in a sense, Eisenhower’s goal. He and Dulles now went beyond merely wanting American allies to fail. The United States actively and decisively promoted their failure.” Ike’s public stand against Britain, France, and Israel later in the crisis “combined outrage with undisguised pleasure at the chance to join world opinion against old-fashioned imperialism.”

Ike’s decision not to intervene in the Kremlin’s quashing of the Hungarian uprising certainly has many defenders, but I doubt it qualifies as making “clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” Ike’s foreign policy was muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow. Eisenhower’s caution was followed by the next Republican president, Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans had a foreign policy consistent with the principles Dueck and Zakheim lay out.

Of course, the Iraq War is the elephant in the room, and Dueck and Zakheim choose to acknowledge it this way:

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq.

That seems really to be what this is about: the foreign-policy factory worker’s ritual denunciation of Bush. I don’t have a ton of patience for this. I wasn’t part of this supposed evil cabal of warmongers that led us into Iraq either. I was a sophomore in college when the 9/11 attacks enduringly changed our foreign-policy debate. But I don’t feel the need to claim clean hands every time I expound on foreign affairs.

Conservatives who believe that the principles that guided much of Bush’s foreign policy are perfectly acceptable unless they’re held by people who actually served in Bush’s inner circle are engaging in school-cafeteria politics. And transferring Bush’s principles to Eisenhower in order to launder political capital is not constructive. Ike was a hero, and he deserves to be remembered as one. But as president, his foreign policy was eventually left behind for a reason.

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Arab Spring Illusions Are Dead. Good.

The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

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The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

The protests throughout the Arab world raised hopes in the West that at last, that region was about to undergo a necessary transformation from dominance by authoritarians to one in which democracy, or at least the founding of democratic institutions, might offer the hope of a new era of freedom. The Mubarak regime was a corrupt military dictatorship that was ripe for overthrow and both liberals and neo-conservatives hoped this would lead to better things for Egypt.

But we were all wrong. Rather than leading to a chance for genuine democracy, what followed was an election that brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood. Its goals had nothing to do with liberalization, let alone accountability on the part of the government. After a year of misery that would have led, if unchecked, to a far worse dictatorship than that of Mubarak, the people of Egypt took to the streets for mass protests that dwarfed those that ended the old regime.

That led to the current government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It has no interest in further investigations of the conduct of the Mubarak regime, especially its last days as protesters were murdered by the same troops that are now the bulwark of the new military regime. Indeed, Sisi’s government may already be guilty of far worse in its efforts to suppress the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

But while the Times and others who condemn the deplorable human-rights situation in Egypt are not wrong about the nature of the new regime, they are dead wrong on the question of whether the United States should be trying to do something to undermine Sisi, such as cutting U.S. aid to Cairo.

Whatever we may think of Sisi and the collapse of hopes for change in Egypt as well as the minimal success of other such efforts in the Arab and Muslim world, the last four years have shown that there are other, bigger problems to be dealt with first before Westerners should worry much about the absence of democracy in that region.

Unfortunately, there was never a real constituency of any size in Egypt for liberal democracy. The choices there were always going to be between a stable, if authoritarian military government and one run by Islamists. Had the latter prevailed, Egypt would not only have been less free than under the military but it would have helped further destabilize the region and aided the efforts of Islamist terror groups like Hamas, which was allied with the Brotherhood.

Sadly, the Obama administration’s inconsistent and ultimately feckless policies alienated both Sisi and the Egyptians who blame it for the rise of the Brotherhood. It will take a long time before the U.S. will win back their trust. But the key question facing the region is whether Islamist groups like ISIS will overrun regimes that while neither democratic nor free, at least represent a bulwark against the tide of extremism and violence. That makes it absolutely essential that the U.S. continue to support governments like that led by Sisi and to assist them in the general effort to combat the wave of Islamist extremism sweeping across the region.

Which also means that both liberals and neoconservatives alike must put aside their illusions as well as their hopes about democracy promotion in the Middle East. The war against Islamism must be fought and eventually won first before we will be able to return to that discussion about the Arab world, if then. Those who cannot grasp this reality are being obtuse, not principled.

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Sinai Terror Shows the Danger of Ungoverned Places

Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

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Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

When Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of the peace agreement signed with Egypt in 1979, it had good reason to believe that the territory was being transferred to a nation state that was at least relatively stable and that could secure the border. But what we have witnessed across the region more recently is that it is in those geographic areas where states have failed or have become weak to the point of absence that terrorist groups have best been able to flourish. The story has been played out repeatedly from Afghanistan to Yemen, Libya to Somalia, and from southern Lebanon to Syria and northern Iraq. And today large parts of the Sinai have become just such an ungoverned vacuum where al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups have dug themselves in and established strongholds. There, jihadist groups have carried out a spate of attacks against Egyptian police and military personnel, and have repeatedly targeted the Arab Gas Pipeline, disrupting the supply between al-Arish, Jordan, Syria, and the wider region.

The problems in the Sinai have been dramatically compounded by the peninsula’s proximity to another area of unstable statelessness: Gaza. When Israel withdrew in 2005, Gaza was theoretically handed into the care of the Palestinian Authority, but as some on Israel’s right had already predicted, it did not take long before the power vacuum created by the absence of the IDF was replaced by the militiamen of Hamas. The same, of course, had already happened after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, as the non-state actor Hezbollah entrenched its position in the area, turning it into a kind of Iranian backed fiefdom.

Militant groups in the Sinai, and the relative weakness of the Egyptian state in this large sparsely populated area, would ultimately prove to be of huge strategic significance for Hamas, with smuggling along the Sinai-Gaza border providing Gaza’s Islamist rulers with their primary source of weaponry, which otherwise would have been kept out by the Israeli blockade. At the same time jihadist groups in Gaza provided training and assistance to militants in the Sinai, while they in turn would periodically fire missiles toward Eilat and Israel’s Negev border communities.

The Sisi government, however, with its fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, finds itself squarely at odds with the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot Hamas. Since the overthrow of President Morsi, the Egyptians have pursued a sustained and serious policy of eradicating the hundreds of smuggling tunnels around Rafah, and during this summer’s war in Gaza Egypt intensified its operations against militants operating close to that border. Indeed, it would appear that under Sisi there has been a concerted effort to reassert the power of the Egyptian state throughout the peninsula. Now, with the Egyptians convinced of the Gaza connection to this latest deadly attack on their troops, the authorities have closed the Rafah border crossing and advanced plans for the construction of deep water-filled trenches to block any restoration of terror tunnels.

Most importantly, the Gaza-Sinai experience must be instructive for both Israel and the wider region. Israelis already look to the turmoil in Syria and consider their good fortune given the failure of both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in their misguided efforts to hand over Israel’s Golan Heights buffer to Assad. Similarly, as the wider region becomes more tumultuous and not less, Israelis must be all the more wary of gambling their national security on further territorial withdrawals in the West Bank, not least at a time when the PA has already proved so ineffective at maintaining order in the few localities it is currently entrusted with. And given the weak position of the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, it would not be difficult to imagine ISIS rapidly spreading from northern Iraq to the West Bank hilltops overlooking Tel Aviv.

Desperate to appear as if it has any clout on the world stage, the EU will continue to push for Israeli concessions in the West Bank. Equally desperate to distract from its multiple failings throughout the region, the Obama administration will also increase its pressure on Israel to give ground. But as the Gaza-Sinai experience shows, creating another area of ungoverned lawlessness and instability on their doorstep is not an option Israelis can afford.

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Egypt, Abbas, Refugees, and Peace

When the Egyptian government reached out to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, one surprising and one predictable thing happened. The tale of this offer and its rejection tells us all we need to know about Palestinian politics and the changing political landscape of the Middle East.

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When the Egyptian government reached out to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, one surprising and one predictable thing happened. The tale of this offer and its rejection tells us all we need to know about Palestinian politics and the changing political landscape of the Middle East.

The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported today that in a speech given to members of his Fatah Party on Sunday, Abbas said that the Egyptian government had made a startling offer to the PA. The Egyptians told Abbas that they were willing to cede a 618-square mile area of the Sinai adjacent to Gaza for resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, an idea first floated by former Israeli National Security Adviser Giora Eiland.

“They [the Egyptians] are prepared to receive all the refugees, [saying] ‘let’s end the refugee story’,” Abbas was quoted by Ma’an news agency as saying.

The Palestinian leader noted that the idea was first proposed to the Egyptian government in 1956, but was furiously rejected by Palestinian leaders such as PLO militant Muhammad Youssef Al-Najjar and poet Muin Bseiso who “understood the danger of this.”

“Now this is being proposed once again. A senior leader in Egypt said: ‘a refuge must be found for the Palestinians and we have all this open land.’ This was said to me personally. But it’s illogical for the problem to be solved at Egypt’s expense. We won’t have it,” Abbas said.

The remarkable thing about this is the decision of the Sisi government to embrace such a practical solution to the long, sad tale of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Like the rest of the Arab world, the Egyptians were never interested in resettling the refugees anywhere, let alone on a huge swath of the Sinai next door to Gaza. Not even during the 19 years during which Egypt illegally occupied Gaza and Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank and part of Jerusalem did either nation seek to ameliorate the suffering of the refugees by offering them the full rights of citizenship or a home anywhere but in the State of Israel. The same applies to every other Arab and Muslim country. All stuck by the demand of a “right of return” aimed at destroying the newborn Jewish state which was at that time absorbing an equal number of Jewish refugees that had fled or been thrown out of their homes in the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s enemies purposely kept the Palestinian refugees in order to use them as props in their never-ending war on Israel.

Egypt’s offer was, of course, not merely aimed at finally doing the right thing by the refugees. The Hamas stronghold in Gaza is a threat to the Egyptian military government in Cairo because of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. They also recognize how toxic the situation in Gaza—where hundreds of thousands of the descendants of the refugees live—and the need to get these people out of a bad situation that is only made worse by their exploitation by the Hamas terrorist government of the strip.

Resettling the refugees could be the first step in neutralizing Hamas as well as in reforming the political culture of the Palestinians to the point where it might be possible for them to start thinking about making peace instead of sticking to demands for a return to Israel. That is something that could only happen after the demands in Hamas’s charter are fulfilled: the destruction of the Jewish state and the deportation/genocide of its Jewish population.

But in making this proposal, Egypt, which was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, wasn’t just seeking to deal with the threat from Hamas and its jihadist allies to the Sisi regime. It was making clear that the new unofficial alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and Israel isn’t mere talk. These Arab countries haven’t suddenly fallen in love with Zionism. The Jewish state is very unpopular even in Jordan, which has a peace treaty with it and also signed an agreement to import Israeli natural gas this week. But all these moderate Arab governments understand that the real threat to their future comes not from Israel but from Iran and its Islamist allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is nominally in the same boat as these governments since he knows that Hamas’s goal is to topple him in the West Bank just as they did in Gaza in 2007. He also has an interest in defusing the Gaza tinderbox and offering some alternative to the “right of return” to a refugee population whose adamant opposition to peace with Israel is one of the primary reasons why the PA has rejected offers of statehood and peace with Israel over the last 15 years.

If Abbas is serious about peace with Israel, as his apologists in the West and in Israel insist he is, this is an offer that he should have jumped at. But he didn’t, and from the sound of it, it was not even a close call. Why?

Let’s first dismiss the idea that the offer was refused out of solicitude for Egypt as Abbas said. As Egyptians always used to say back in the decades when they were fighting wars against Israel, the Palestinians were always willing to fight Israel to the last Egyptian.

Rather, the refusal reflects Abbas’s recognition that although Hamas has followed in the path of his old boss Yasir Arafat and led the Palestinian people to more death and destruction with no hope in sight, it is the Islamists who seem to represent the wishes of the Palestinian people, not the so-called moderates that he leads. Any acceptance of any refugee solution that does not involve “return” to what is now Israel is the political third rail of Palestinian politics. Indeed, the refugees themselves are adamant about their rejection of any solution short of “victory” over Israel.

That is why Abbas, though supposedly in favor of a two-state solution, has rejected it every time the Israelis have offered the PA independence over almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and even a share of Jerusalem. As much as we are told that in the aftermath of the latest war in Gaza that the time of the moderates is upon us, Palestinian opinion polls indicate that they are still backing Hamas. That means they won’t make peace with Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. So long as the refugees remain homeless, when Palestinians speak of Israeli occupation, they are clearly referring to pre-1967 Israel, not the West Bank.

Egypt’s offer to the PA is a healthy sign that many in the Arab world are rising above their hatred for Israel and ready to make peace, if not for the sake of the Jews then to help them combat the Islamist terror threat. That is a remarkable thing that should be celebrated. The Palestinian refusal is, however, a very unremarkable confirmation of the fact that they remain unready and unwilling to make peace.

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