Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

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The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

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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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America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

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Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

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Are the Iran Nuclear Talks a Hostage Negotiation?

With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

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With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

As Politico’s sources within the administration make clear, U.S. officials are worried that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could lead to attacks against Americans in Iraq from Shiite militias or others doing Iran’s bidding. Iran has become a de facto ally of the United States in the battle against ISIS. But as problematic as relying on an Islamist regime that sponsors terrorism to fight Islamist terrorists may be, this arrangement also leaves the 3,000 U.S. personnel sent to Iraq as advisers and trainers for the forces fighting ISIS vulnerable to Iranian revenge if the president doesn’t do as they demand in the nuclear talks.

The reason why President Obama has given Iran little reason to worry about his willingness to pressure them in the nuclear talks is a function of his weak negotiating style, but it is also rooted in his objectives. Though he has consistently said he will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, he has proven that he is just as interested, if not more so, in détente with the Islamist regime. But while Obama conceives of this as a way for Iran to “get right with the world,” the Iranians have other intentions. They welcome the president’s effort to find an excuse to end their economic and diplomatic isolation but intend to use it as a cover to proceed toward their own goal of regional hegemony.

With their allies winning the Syrian civil war and keeping Bashar Assad in power, Tehran views the fighting in Iraq as a way to consolidate their influence over a Baghdad government that no longer can count on U.S. forces. With the Iranians directing operations against ISIS in Tikrit and elsewhere in the country, a tacit alliance with the United States has now become an open one. Though that aids the fight against ISIS, it also puts Iran in a position to exact revenge on the U.S. if the administration finds its backbone in the nuclear talks.

Washington may argue that Iran’s stake in Iraq and Syria gives it an incentive to play ball in the nuclear talks since they have a lot to lose if the West were to try to oust Assad or to toss them out of Iraq. But the facts on the ground argue in the other direction. It is the administration that needs Iran, or thinks it does. Iran has made itself both indispensible to the fight against ISIS and created a situation in which the U.S. may think it has no choice but to tread carefully whenever Tehran’s interests are placed in jeopardy. That’s not so much an unavoidable tradeoff that is a standard part of diplomacy as it is an occupational hazard for nations that try to do business with terrorists and their state sponsors.

By abandoning Iraq after the surge had secured the victory that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve, President Obama set a series of events in motion that led to both the rise of ISIS and an unholy alliance with Iran. It has also created a situation where Americans and U.S. interests throughout the region are now hostages that can be threatened if Iran wants to squeeze Obama. Given the president’s eagerness to be fleeced at the nuclear talks by Iran, that may not be necessary. But if the Islamist regime were ever worried about President Obama meaning what he says about not signing a bad nuclear deal, their potential for mayhem in Iraq makes it unlikely that the U.S. will surprise us and stand its ground over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

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Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

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For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

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What Obama’s Rush to Iran Détente Means

The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

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The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

As Diehl rightly put it, the U.S. strategy in the talks isn’t really so much about a nuclear issue on which the Americans have essentially punted on efforts to stop the Islamist regime from obtaining nuclear capability. During his 2012 foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama pledged that any deal with Iran would ensure that it gave up its nuclear program. Yet the U.S. offer to Iran will allow it to keep its nuclear infrastructure in the form of thousands of centrifuges, a nuclear fuel stockpile that could easily be reactivated and a sunset clause that will end any restrictions on Iranian activity after an unspecified period. This will allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear power with Western approval and to easily evade restrictions to build a bomb if they want. Even worse, once sanctions are eventually lifted and the West moves on from this confrontation, Iran might well be able to build a bomb by actually observing the agreement.

Any sort of agreement, no matter how weak or unlikely to achieve the goal of preventing an Iranian weapon, will be portrayed by the White House as a great achievement. But as Diehl noted, those who are concentrating solely on the back-and-forth in the talks or the anger about the letter from Senate Republicans warning that a deal won’t be binding if Congress doesn’t ratify it, misses the real objective of the administration to find a partner to help resolve problems in Iraq and Syria.

The administration seems to view Iranian actions in those two countries as being helpful since its forces are fighting ISIS in Iraq and have helped prop up its ally Bashar Assad against Islamist rebels. That helps explain why Obama dithered for years about taking action in Syria even as he continued to call for Assad’s ouster or spoke about its atrocity crossing “red lines.” It also explains why, despite the fact that U.S. officials have rightly labeled Tehran as the leading state sponsor of terror in the world, both Iran and Hezbollah were left off a list of terror threats prepared by Director of National Intelligence James Klapper.

What the president seems to want is to create an era of cooperation in which Iran will have a free hand to protect its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries dominate, will ensure that ISIS doesn’t get too strong. But this scares both Israel and moderate Arab regimes that rightly sees Iran as every bit as dangerous as ISIS.

The result of such an alliance will not only be détente with Iran that will undermine resistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also allow it to achieve the regional hegemony that it has wanted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Thus, while we do well to try and point out the terrible consequences of the nuclear deal, its real implications go farther than just the question of how quickly Iran can get to a bomb. If this deal goes through without being checked by Congress, future administrations will not just have to deal with an Iran that is closer to a bomb but the fact that President Obama is giving a Western seal of approval to Iran’s regional ambitions.

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The Politics of Obama’s Afghanistan Plan

A casual reader might be misled by the headline on this Associated Press article: “Officials: US to keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan.”

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A casual reader might be misled by the headline on this Associated Press article: “Officials: US to keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan.”

Does this mean that President Obama has abandoned his self-defeating plan to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before he leaves office in 2017? Not quite. As the article notes, all that Obama may be doing (“no final decision on numbers has been made”) is possibly slowing down their rate of withdrawal. Originally Obama had announced plans to cut the U.S. force roughly in half, from some 10,000 today to 5,500 by the end of the year–a way station on the road to zero by 2017. Now, assuming the AP report is accurate, the administration may consent to leave more than 5,500 troops after 2015–a change urgently requested by the top U.S. commander, Gen. John Campbell, and President Ashraf Ghani, both of whom know how destabilizing a rapid U.S. withdrawal would be. But there is no indication that Obama is seriously rethinking his plan to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office.

We’ve seen this movie before. When Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, he promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq at the rate of one or two brigades a month, pulling all of them out within 16 months. Once in office, he slowed down the pace of the drawdown, at the request of U.S. commanders, but he still wound up pulling all of the troops out by the end of 2011 after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq–and not trying very hard to achieve that goal.

What this suggests is that Obama has some flexibility about the pace of withdrawals but he is much more determined to accomplish his larger goal of “ending” wars–meaning ending American involvement in wars even if our enemies benefit from our departure. He achieved the pullout from Iraq before the end of his first term and he seems determined to achieve the pullout from Afghanistan by the end of his second term, presumably so he can brag about how he pulled U.S. troops out of conflict–and never mind that the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq precipitated a civil war and forced Obama to send 3,000 troops back. It would be nice if the president were to apply in Afghanistan the lesson of Iraq–namely don’t leave too soon. But he is so stubborn and ideological that he may well be prepared to ignore the weight of evidence and continue with his politically motivated pullout, even if it risks subverting all that U.S. troops have fought to achieve on his watch.

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A Hollow Victory in Tikrit

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

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There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

But even if this “victory” stands up, our jubilation should be tightly controlled. Yes, it’s a good thing if ISIS is suffering defeats, but who’s winning? It’s not the United States and it’s not  the lawful Iraqi state led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The real victor here, if there is a victory, is Iran. Most of the fighters who are taking Tikrit are Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, not soldiers of Iraq. The real leader of this operation is not any general appointed by Prime Minister Abadi but rather Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who has been a high-profile presence on the front lines.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. With Iran and its proxies taking the lead in fighting ISIS, there is a real danger that U.S. support for the anti-ISIS drive will wind up delivering Iraq into the hands of Iran. This is, of course, the danger that many opponents of the Iraq War warned about, but it was a danger kept in check as long as there was a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The U.S. departure at the end of 2011, however, opened the floodgates for Iranian influence.

By focusing U.S. efforts solely on rolling back ISIS, President Obama is providing another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. This is a very bad development for two reasons: First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.

Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.

The U.S. desperately needs a plan not to just to roll back ISIS influence but also to roll back Iranian influence. The kind of plan implemented in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraues in Iraq, when U.S. forces targeted Iranian operatives for exposure and arrest. There is, alas, no sign of such a plan today–if anything, the U.S. seems to be tacitly conceding Iran the right to a dominant role in Iraq, Syria, etc., as part of a broader rapprochement that, Obama hopes, will include a nuclear deal.

This is a monstrous mistake. A victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.

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Giving Iran a Piece of Iraq

Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

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Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

“Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guard on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror,” he alliterated. “Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran. Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea.”

As if to illustrate his point, the Wall Street Journal has an important report about how Shiite militias and the Iraqi army are combining to attack the Sunni town of Tikrit. “In addition to supplying drones,” the Journal reports, “Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force has fighters on the ground with Iraqi units, mostly operating artillery and rocket batteries.” Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is apparently overseeing this operation in person.

At first blush this might sound no different from the kind of military aid that the U.S. provides to allied militaries but in fact, despite the superficial similarities, there is a major difference. U.S. advisers have always stressed to Iraqi and Afghan forces the importance of acting in an ethical and restrained manner, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because abuse of the civilian population risks driving them into the arms of the insurgents.

The Iranian-backed militias, whether in Syria or Iraq, have exhibited no such restraint. They became notorious in past years for kidnapping Sunnis and torturing them to death with power tools. More recently, under Iranian guidance, Bashar Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Such a blood-thirsty assault, even if tactically successful in Tikrit, will sow the seeds of strategic defeat by encouraging Sunnis to fight even harder against Shiite encroachments. That may well be what Iran wants: the more polarized Iraq and Syria become, the more that Shiites (or, in the case of Syria, the Alawites) will feel compelled to look to Iran for guidance and protection.

That is why the Obama administration is supremely ill-advised, not just for granting Iran concession after concession to win a nuclear deal, but also for looking the other way as Iran assumes an increasingly prominent role in the anti-ISIS fight. The Journal notes that in Iraq “a de facto division” is “developing between areas where Iran has the lead in assisting the fight against the Islamic State, and areas where the U.S. has the lead,” with both sides taking “steps not to interfere with one another’s operations.”

The Journal quotes an anonymous “U.S. official” cheerleading for Iran, saying, “To the degree that they can carry out an offensive without inflaming sectarian tension and can dislocate ISIL, it can be helpful.” The anonymous official might very well be Brett McGurk, the State Department point man on the anti-ISIS fight, who has been tweeting merrily in support of the Iranian-directed offensive against Tikrit (without acknowledging that it is Iranian-directed).

Netanyahu warned against this dangerous tendency when he said: “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America… When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Too bad the administration isn’t listening to him on this subject, any more than it is on the nuclear negotiations. Instead Obama appears to be pursuing a broader rapprochement with Tehran that would have the U.S. grant de facto acquiescence to the actions of Iranian proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

In other words, the state of U.S.-Iranian relations at the moment is even more worrisome than Netanyahu (anxious not to burn every single bridge to the White House) was able to explain.

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Jeb Bush’s James Baker Problem

Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

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Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

Jeb Bush gave a fine speech, even if a bit anodyne. Sure, Jeb criticized Obama’s “inconsistent and indecisive” leadership on the world stage, but that’s an issue of style and competence, not philosophy. Pretty much any successor to Obama, whether Democrat or Republican, will do better on the world stage. The same holds true for Jeb Bush’s insistence that red lines should matter. Few presidents would disagree, Obama being the exception. Calling for greater economic growth at home is also a no-brainer: Would any president really want moribund growth? Greater defense spending is a step in the right direction, as so many military and national-security experts and scholars across the partisan divide recognize.

While it may be commendable that Jeb Bush has hired folks who represent different sides of past policy debates, former Secretary of State James Baker who, alongside former Secretary of State George Shultz, is Jeb’s most senior and, perhaps because he is not fishing for a job himself, most influential advisor, has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants.

Baker was co-chair back in 2006 of the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission which, in the darkest days of the Iraq war, not only counseled the type of retreat which George W. Bush refused but also blessed the idea of unilateral retreat which Barack Obama implemented. Baker went further, however, and worked into the report a call for Israel to make concessions under fire and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to be rewarded. Both a latent hostility to Israel and a benign reading of the Syrian regime have long been characteristic of Baker’s philosophy, as they have been Obama’s. Remember, Obama came into office believing Assad was a reformer and, despite the horrific civil war in subsequent years, now appears ready to again legitimize Assad as a partner. Baker also sought to partner with Iran in order to resolve difficulties in Iraq, leading to this brilliant David Zucker parody featuring Baker.

If there’s one thing that the past decade should have made clear it is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not central to the divisions and problems which undercut Middle Eastern stability and American national security. The whole Iraq Study Group was a put-up job, with Baker and Lee Hamilton stroking the egos of those testifying all the while ignoring the substance of their input while aides wrote a pre-ordained report. As such, Baker should be held fully accountable for the report’s often counterproductive and self-defeating recommendations.

Alas, the Baker-Hamilton report was the rule rather than the exception. Against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, Baker traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he appeared to give an endorsement of the type of diplomacy with rogue regimes which George W. Bush shied away from, but which Obama had made the centerpiece of his campaign. Then, again, this merely restated the policy which Baker blessed as secretary of state with regard to North Korea. In The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989–1992, he explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” In reality, however, Baker pioneered a philosophy which Obama has now perfected; that is, a belief that a bad deal is better than no deal, even if it means turning a blind eye toward an enemy’s cheating. As the State Department negotiated with Pyongyang, Baker accepted North Korea’s insistence that limited inspections regarding North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure to sites “agreed upon between the two sides,” in effect giving Pyongyang a veto. Baker offered this concession even though the CIA had warned that North Korea was hiding parts of its nuclear program. Such a philosophy laid the groundwork for a process that culminated during the Clinton administration in “The Agreed Framework,” an achievement celebrated in Washington but treated disdainfully in Pyongyang as the North Korean regime pocketed associated aid and accelerated its drive toward a nuclear bomb. Baker, however, bragged in his memoirs (published after the Agreed Framework was signed) that “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North.”

Much of Baker’s positive reputation comes from how he and George H.W. Bush handled Operation Desert Storm. And, for this, they deserve plaudits. What is interesting, however, is how Baker was for Saddam before he was against him. On February 15, 1990, after the Voice of America broadcast an editorial into several Arab countries celebrating the collapse of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and castigating Iraq as belonging to a club whose leaders maintained power “by force and fear, not by the consent of the governed,” Saddam was furious. Rather than defend the premise and maintain moral clarity, the Bush administration apologized and decided that the secretary of state, James Baker, would personally clear future editorials. Again, instinct matters.

Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush. While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy.

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Whom Should the U.S. Train in Syria and Iraq?

The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

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The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

As currently conceived, the effort is doomed from the start. Including—and, indeed, relying upon—Turkey is a poison pill, given the growing extremism of the Turkish government and the sympathies of at least certain segments of the Turkish government to more extreme elements inside Syria.

At the same time, the United States has moved forward with training and assistance programs to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

The irony of both efforts is that the United States continues to ignore the most moderate, religiously tolerant, and most effective fighting force in the region: the Popular Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurds. Without formal training, the YPG held Kobane in the face of a tremendous onslaught. But Kobane is only the tip of the iceberg: I visited portions of Syria controlled by the YPG last year. They have made tremendous sacrifices and brought a modicum of stability and security to northeastern Syria.

But it is not only inside Syria where the YPG has seen success. Despite billions of dollars poured into the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, they at best have achieved little more than a stalemate. Prior to the Islamic State’s onslaught against the Yezidis of Mount Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani had turned down the Yezidis and local residents’ requests for reinforcements. Then, peshmerga and security forces commanded by his sons abandoned their posts, sacrificing thousands of Yezidis to the cruelty of the Islamic State. The YPG did not wait for coalition airstrikes before seeking to come to their rescue. At present, the YPG reportedly enjoys greater popularity than the Kurdistan Region Government’s peshmerga in Sinjar and those areas inside northwestern Iraq contested by the Islamic State.

The reason why Turkey objects to any training for the YPG is that they and their civilian political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fall under the general umbrella of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which aligned with Soviet interests during the Cold War and long waged an insurgency inside Turkey. That may be a problem, but it’s time to set priorities: Defeating the Islamic State is more important than paying heed to Turkey’s obsessions. If Turkey won’t play ball if the YPG are included in training, then it’s time to stop working through Turkey. They are, after all, not the only U.S. partner to border Syria.

The Islamic State presents a grave and growing threat throughout the region. If they are to be defeated, no moderates should be excluded. If moderates can be found among Syrian Arabs, that would be great, although they are, at this point, likely a chimera. But there are worthy forces to train among the Iraqi army and even some of the Iraqi volunteers who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to fight the Islamic State. Last fall, I stayed at a facility in which some of these volunteers trained in southern Iraq. While Iran has certainly tried to co-opt and control some of these volunteers, many more care only about defending their communities against the Islamic State and do not care an iota for geopolitics. The United States needs to support and help rebuild the Iraqi army, and those elements which survived their trial by fire. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga also are worthy of support. But the YPG complete the picture. If they can be as successful as they have been against the Islamic State without formal training, they might be the ace in the hole if they can hone their tactics and skills and actually receive the weaponry they need to do the job at hand.

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Stop Letting Qatar Set the Rules

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific story about the tangled relationship between the U.S. and Qatar.

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The Wall Street Journal has a terrific story about the tangled relationship between the U.S. and Qatar.

The article notes: “American officials said the U.S. has uncovered Qatari connections—such as involvement by members of the emirate’s elite business, religious and academic circles—in financing for Hamas, al Qaeda and Islamic State.” Qatar also has close ties to the al-Nusra Front, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood. And of course it also funds Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab TV network that has a decidedly anti-American bias.

Yet at the same time Qatar hosts the forward operating headquarters of Central Command and allows one of its airbases, Al Udeid, to be used by U.S. aircraft to attack ISIS.

Qatar, in short, has perfected the double game of appeasing both the U.S. and its enemies. It’s obvious why Qatar does this: It’s a good survival strategy. What’s less clear is why the U.S. allows Qatar to keep getting away with its duplicity. According to the Journal, the Obama administration even nixed an idea to move a U.S. fighter squadron out of Qatar as a sign of displeasure.

That’s ridiculous. The U.S. should threaten to remove not just a squadron but our entire military presence from Qatar. The fact is, Qatar needs us a lot more than we need Qatar. The U.S. military has bases in all of the other Gulf sheikdoms. It’s hard to see why the infrastructure in Qatar couldn’t easily be shifted to Kuwait or the UAE. But Qatar needs U.S. protection, and if that’s withdrawn that would be increase the risk to the ruling family.

By allowing a postage stamp-sized country like Qatar to push us around, the U.S. is making itself neither feared nor respected. It’s well past time to make a significant move to signal what we really think of Qatar’s double game.

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Ash Carter’s Happy Talk

It’s hardly surprising that the new secretary of defense, Ash Carter, emerged from a long meeting in Kuwait with American generals and diplomats to pronounce himself satisfied with the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). Imagine the headlines if the new Pentagon chief had said that the campaign was unsatisfactory! But what counts is not what Carter says for public consumption. The real question is whether he has swallowed the Kool-Aid or not–and whether his generals have too.

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It’s hardly surprising that the new secretary of defense, Ash Carter, emerged from a long meeting in Kuwait with American generals and diplomats to pronounce himself satisfied with the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). Imagine the headlines if the new Pentagon chief had said that the campaign was unsatisfactory! But what counts is not what Carter says for public consumption. The real question is whether he has swallowed the Kool-Aid or not–and whether his generals have too.

It’s not easy to tell from his public comments, which amount to saying that the Islamic State is “hardly invincible” and that its “lasting defeat … can and will be accomplished.” That may be true, but he left unclear exactly how and when its defeat will be accomplished.

Certainly in the case of Syria–where the U.S. has all but given up training the Free Syrian Army–it is hard to see any ground force on the horizon capable of beating ISIS unless it belongs to Hezbollah, whose victory would hardly be much of an improvement. In Iraq, there is slightly more reason for hope but only if the U.S. relies on Iranian-backed Shiite militias whose takeover, again, would not be any improvement on ISIS.

Lately senior U.S. officers have been bragging that Mosul will be liberated as soon as April or May. But it seems unlikely that this feat could be accomplished by majority Sunni forces since little progress has been made in mobilizing Sunni tribes and the Iraqi Security Forces, which were designed to be genuinely multi-sectarian, have largely fallen apart. That leaves the Shiite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga as the most capable striking forces, but neither one has any credibility in west Mosul, the Sunni part of town.

It’s possible that the assault force could penetrate Mosul and win some victories against the relatively small number of Islamic State militants who are said to be garrisoning the town–especially if the White House lifts the prohibition on allowing U.S. Special Operations Forces and combat-air-controllers to accompany the assault force into battle. But it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly hold the city afterwards. Unless the U.S. can cobble together a capable and credible Sunni force, the likely result would be long-term chaos, with continuing urban warfare that would allow the Islamic State and/or other extremist groups to assert their influence once again.

And that’s to focus only on the difficulty of driving ISIS out of Mosul. Don’t forget that ISIS also controls much of the rest of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. And no matter how hard-pressed ISIS becomes in Iraq, it can always simply cross the Iraq-Syria border and regroup within its Syrian territory where, as previously mentioned, it remains virtually unchallenged.

Ash Carter is a smart guy. Presumably he knows all this. The question, impossible to answer from the outside, is whether he still genuinely believes ISIS is on its way to defeat or whether he’s just making such statements for public consumption. Whichever the case, he has embarked on a dangerous start to his tenure in office, because happy talk for public consumption has a way of overriding any private concerns and taking control of the official mindset. We have already seen the high cost of having an overly optimistic secretary of defense who buys bogus claims of progress from his generals. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Iraq in 2003-2007.

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Obama’s Multipronged Assault on Truth and Reality

President Obama is fond of invoking the term “narrative,” so it’s worth considering several instances in which he invokes exactly the wrong narrative–the wrong frame–around events.

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President Obama is fond of invoking the term “narrative,” so it’s worth considering several instances in which he invokes exactly the wrong narrative–the wrong frame–around events.

The most obvious is the president’s repeated insistence that militant Islam is utterly disconnected from the Islamic faith. As this much-discussed essay in the Atlantic points out:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

The author, Graeme Wood, adds this:

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

President Obama continues to insist the opposite, pretending that what is true is false, and even suggesting those who are speaking the truth are actually endangering the lives of innocent people. This makes Mr. Obama’s comments offensive as well as ignorant.

But that hardly exhausts the examples of false narratives employed by the president. As this exchange between Fox’s Ed Henry and White House press secretary Josh Earnest demonstrates, in its statement the White House avoided saying that the 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by members of ISIS were Christian, even though that was the reason they were beheaded. At the same time the president suggested that the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina was because they were Muslim, when in fact that wasn’t by any means clear when the White House issued its statement. (The shooting appears to have involved a long-standing dispute over parking.) So when Christian faith is a factor in a massacre, it’s denied, and when there’s no evidence that the Islamic faith was a factor in a killing, it’s nevertheless asserted.

And then there was the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the president and his attorney general constantly spoke about the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson as if race was a factor in the shooting. That assertion is fiction. It was an invention, just as it was an invention to suggest, as the president did back in 2009, that the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley was racially motivated.

Here, then, are three separate examples of the president imposing a false narrative on events. (I could cite many others.) Which makes Mr. Obama a truly post-modern president, in which there is no objective truth but simply narrative. Mr. Obama doesn’t just distort the facts; he inverts them. He makes things up as he goes along. This kind of thing isn’t unusual to find in the academy. But to see a president and his aides so thoroughly deconstruct truth is quite rare, and evidence of a stunningly rigid and dogmatic mind.

The sheer audacity of Mr. Obama’s multipronged assault on truth is one of the more troubling aspects of his deeply troubling presidency.

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Islamism and Obama’s Dangerous Flight from Reality

This past week has been dominated by comments by the president in which he continues to insist that the brutal acts of violence by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic terrorist groups are completely unrelated to Islam, to the point that he and his administration look absurd in their efforts to avoid using words like “radical Islam” or variations of it.

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This past week has been dominated by comments by the president in which he continues to insist that the brutal acts of violence by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic terrorist groups are completely unrelated to Islam, to the point that he and his administration look absurd in their efforts to avoid using words like “radical Islam” or variations of it.

Let me explain why there’s more to all this than simply semantics, starting with this proposition: Engaging in acts of deception and self-deception is unwise. Yet that is precisely what Mr. Obama is doing. He persists in putting forth a false narrative that he insists is a true one. And then there is the supreme arrogance of the president, assuming that his pronouncements about Islam will be received by the Muslim world like pronouncements of the Pope will be received by the Catholic world. Of course, this is a man who declared that if elected president he would stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, so it shouldn’t shock us that he believes his shallow and incomplete theological interpretations of Islam will carry weight across the Islamic world.

Memo to Mr. Obama: They won’t. Having you lecture the Islamic world about the true nature of Islam actually strengthens the jihadists, who will be thrilled to get in a theological debate in which the Christian president of the United States offers one view and Islamic jihadists and imams offer another.

You might also think an American president would understand that in order to defeat an enemy you need to understand the nature of the enemy you face; that in order to win a war, you need to understand the nature of the war you are in. But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama understands neither, which explains why he’s so inept at prosecuting this war and why the Islamic State is extending its reach beyond Syria and Iraq into nations like Algeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya.

The president, then, is utterly clueless and misdiagnosing the problem. Think if you had a pain in your chest and assumed it was heart burn when it was a heart attack. That would be a problem, since to address the threat you have to diagnosis it correctly. When it comes to Islamism, Mr. Obama is badly misdiagnosing the threat we face.

If it were merely a matter of semantics, it would concern me less. If he were waging this war successfully, with intelligence, purpose, and focus, and an unbreakable will to win, he could refer to ISIS as the Islamic version of the Quakers–even, as absurd as it sounds, as a “jayvee team”–and most of us might be willing to overlook it. But in this case, the president’s flawed semantics are a manifestation of a badly confused mind and a fundamentally flawed worldview. And this, in turn, is causing him to downplay the threat we face.

As a result of this, Mr. Obama is waging this war (his attorney general insists we’re not at war) in a half-hearted, going-through-the-motions fashion, constantly putting constraints on what he’s willing to do to confront ISIS specifically and militant Islam more broadly. For example, the president, in sending Congress a use-of-force resolution against ISIS, wants to put into statutory language that Congress “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” He announced the surge of forces in Afghanistan–and declared in the very same speech a withdrawal date. By bungling the Status of Forces Agreement, we ended up withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq, which has led to a descent into chaos and violence. The president was told by many members of his national-security team to support the moderate opposition in Syria, yet he refused until it was too late. He declared the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi to be a great success, only to ignore Libya, which is now a failed state and a haven for jihadists. In interviews, Mr. Obama continually underplays the threat we face. And minutes after speaking about the beheading of an American by ISIS, the president, in a staggeringly inappropriate display, hit the links for a round of golf. In all these actions and more, he is advertising his unseriousness and weakness to our enemies and our allies, many of whom no longer trust us.

To be sure, militant Islam is not a dominant current of thought within Islam. But it is a current of thought that exists and is particularly malevolent and virulent. If Mr. Obama understood this, he might be more prepared to combat it and defeat it. And defeating it on the battlefield is, at the end of the day, the best and really the only way to delegitimize it in the Muslim world. To show them and the world, including the Islamic world, that we are the “strong horse” and they are the “weak horse.”

The president should get on with this task. But we’ve all seen enough to know he won’t. As a result, much death and great horror will continue to spread throughout the world, and eventually, I fear, to America itself.

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Mosul and Obama’s Phony War on ISIS

During the two days of the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism there was little evidence to prove that the administration is serious about defeating the ISIS terrorists. Not only is President Obama unwilling to call Islamist terrorists what they are and admit the religious roots of this conflict (hence the euphemism about generic violent extremism), his speeches seemed to give the impression that he thinks jobs programs and better community relations can defeat the group. And while the press briefing conducted at the end of the event by the person described by the press as “an official from the United States Central Command” finally did address what is primarily a military problem, the announcement that there would be an offensive aimed at retaking the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS didn’t lend much credibility to the counter-terrorism theme of the conference. The telegraphing of what might otherwise be considered a military secret only confirmed the impression that the U.S. is fighting a phony war against ISIS.

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During the two days of the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism there was little evidence to prove that the administration is serious about defeating the ISIS terrorists. Not only is President Obama unwilling to call Islamist terrorists what they are and admit the religious roots of this conflict (hence the euphemism about generic violent extremism), his speeches seemed to give the impression that he thinks jobs programs and better community relations can defeat the group. And while the press briefing conducted at the end of the event by the person described by the press as “an official from the United States Central Command” finally did address what is primarily a military problem, the announcement that there would be an offensive aimed at retaking the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS didn’t lend much credibility to the counter-terrorism theme of the conference. The telegraphing of what might otherwise be considered a military secret only confirmed the impression that the U.S. is fighting a phony war against ISIS.

Let’s concede that the fact that the coalition of Iraqi, Kurdish, and pro-Iranian forces fighting ISIS were going to try to retake Mosul sometime this year is about as much of a secret as the Allied plans to invade France were in 1944. But there is a difference between what is inevitable and a press conference bragging about an event that hasn’t happened yet and whose success is by no means assured.

The official said that the offensive against ISIS in Mosul would begin in April and May and would require somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 troops from the various forces aligned against the Islamist terrorists. As the New York Times reported:

It is unusual for American officials to discuss the details and timing of a military operation before it occurs. But the official said his intent was to describe the Iraqis’ “level of commitment” in regaining control of Mosul, which he said was held by as many as 2,000 fighters from the Islamic State.

“There are a lot of pieces that have to come together, and we want to make sure the conditions are right,” the official said. “But this is their plan. They are bought into it. They are moving forward.”

The Times is right about this being unusual. In war, broadcasting even the most obvious moves is generally considered dumb, if not a breach of security, especially in an administration that has conducted more prosecutions of leaks of secret information than any of its predecessors. But the official from the Central Command need not fear that he will suffer the fate of others who have fed information to the press. He was there at the direction of the White House specifically to provide some proof that, despite all the pointless politically correct rhetoric spouted by the president, the war against ISIS was not merely a theoretical exercise.

The administration’s credibility gap on ISIS is enormous. Months after the president announced that he was authorizing strikes on the Islamist group, there has been little progress toward the announced goal of degrading and then destroying the terrorists. To the contrary, ISIS has not only not lost any of the enormous territories it overran in 2014, it has also shown itself capable of conducting operations on different fronts simultaneously, while also demonstrating its ferocious resolve to kill Westerners and non-Muslims via the media of its horrific murder videos showing captives being beheaded or burned alive. The recent atrocity in Libya, in which Egyptian Christians were beheaded, also illustrated the fact that it is expanding its reach throughout the region.

The administration has not had much good news to offer on its efforts to fight ISIS. The low volume of air strikes, especially when compared to other recent U.S. conflicts, provided more evidence of the president’s signature lead-from-behind style in which allies were expected to do the heavy lifting. But though this minimal commitment is in President Obama’s comfort zone, it’s also sending a message to ISIS that they needn’t fear the U.S. Thus, the temptation to broadcast plans for an offensive against ISIS this spring proved too much to resist for a White House desperate to win the news cycle even if that doesn’t do much to hurt ISIS.

But though no one doubts that the coalition of Iraqi, Kurdish, and pro-Iranian forces fighting ISIS will try to take Mosul, the administration is gambling with the lives of its allies when it makes such announcements. It’s true that there’s not much point worrying about the element of surprise in a battle where no surprise is possible. But given the trouble these elements have had in coordinating their efforts, the Iraqi army’s poor performance, the Kurds’ lack of up-to-date weaponry, and the troublesome role of Iran in the fighting, there are no sure things in this war even if we are told that ISIS only has a couple thousand fighters in Mosul at the moment.

The point is governments that are successful in prosecuting wars don’t consider press conferences about battles that haven’t yet been fought a substitute for a war-winning strategy. To date, the U.S. has been fighting a phony war against ISIS that has been more talk than action. This week’s White House extravaganza only reinforced that image.

When President Obama authorizes briefings by Pentagon officials about battles that have already been fought and won, we’ll know he knows what he’s doing. Until then, neither ISIS nor the American public should be too impressed by what we’re hearing from the White House.

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Two Simple Ways Turkey Can Undercut the Islamic State

It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

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It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

Turkey has provided medical aid, safe haven, and perhaps even weaponry to the Islamic State. But its biggest contribution has been free passage. A huge preponderance of the foreign fighters flowing into Syria and Iraq have transited Turkey. It’s as easy as flying in on Turkish Air, transferring to a domestic flight to Gazientep or Hatay near the Syrian border, and then paying a taxi driver to go to the border. Turkish border guards at most charge a $40 bribe to turn the other way, according to journalists and analysts who have made the journey.

I spent much of the last week in Morocco for the Marrakech Security Forum, where I had the opportunity to speak to Arab security professionals. Issues relating to foreign fighters dominated conversations. For example, why is it that so many Moroccans fight for the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq and yet are poorly represented in Boko Haram’s emirate or in Libya, where the Islamic State is also resurgent? Or, conversely, since Islamist radicalism is rife in Algeria, why is it that Algerians are relatively poorly represented in the Islamic State, but yet are ever present in the Libyan fight?

Sometimes, the answers are mundane. It comes down to the Turkish visa regimen. Turkey does not require visas for Moroccans, making Syria accessible to would-be Moroccan jihadists. Ditto for Libyans, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Tunisians. And yet, Turkey requires visas for Algerians, hence the relatively small number of Algerians fighting in Syria and Iraq. It’s simply much easier for Algerians to fight in Libya which has proximity in its favor.

Meanwhile, Moroccans have reported a shift over time in how their extremists travel to fight in self-conceived jihads. In the past, Islamist enablers would recruit young Moroccans and help facilitate their travel to the world’s hotspots. Today, however, most of the Moroccans traveling to join the Islamic State understand they need only fly to Istanbul and then they will easily find a facilitator inside Turkey. Whether in Istanbul’s airports or in regional cities, Islamic state spotters find young would-be jihadis exiting the airport and make themselves known. Picture pimps at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York approaching girls coming off buses from the Midwest in the 1970s; when you’re trained to spot the young and naive, it’s relatively easy work.

This raises two simple policy fixes which might cut off some of the oxygen from the Islamic State:

  • First, if Turkey is serious about the fight against terrorism, it needs to start requiring visas in advance from nationalities which today serve as the chief recruiting pool for the Islamic State. Businessmen and legitimate tourists won’t have a problem applying, and Turkish intelligence might benefit from the vetting as well.
  • And, second, if would-be Islamic State fighters have no problem finding Islamic State fixers in and around Turkey’s airports, then it’s curious that the Turkish intelligence service can’t identify and round them up. Here, the problem is likely less ability than desire on the part of the Turkish government. But that’s no reason to deflect diplomatic attention to a real problem. Once again, perhaps it’s time to designate Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism if only to pressure the Erdoğan government to do what a responsible member of the international community would have done years ago.

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What If ISIS Spreads to Pakistan?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love one. The U.S. military-led surge in Iraq largely pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq into oblivion, but the uprising against the Arab Spring created a space for radical Islamists to incubate. The Bashar al-Assad regime ironically found the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)’s presence useful both because he could hold them up as the alternative to his rule and because they often did the dirty work targeting the more moderate opposition. For his part, President Obama opposed any military action in Syria. Rather than excise the tumor when it was small, the United States sat aside as it metastasized, creating the circumstances that last summer enabled the Islamic State to bulldoze through much of Iraq and Syria. Even this was not inevitable: tumors need oxygen, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist dictator, provided it, allowing men and munitions to traverse the Turkey-Syrian border. Libya increasingly risks being the next Syria.

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Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love one. The U.S. military-led surge in Iraq largely pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq into oblivion, but the uprising against the Arab Spring created a space for radical Islamists to incubate. The Bashar al-Assad regime ironically found the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)’s presence useful both because he could hold them up as the alternative to his rule and because they often did the dirty work targeting the more moderate opposition. For his part, President Obama opposed any military action in Syria. Rather than excise the tumor when it was small, the United States sat aside as it metastasized, creating the circumstances that last summer enabled the Islamic State to bulldoze through much of Iraq and Syria. Even this was not inevitable: tumors need oxygen, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist dictator, provided it, allowing men and munitions to traverse the Turkey-Syrian border. Libya increasingly risks being the next Syria.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate might sound overwrought in the West, but Arab security experts in the Middle East with whom I have spoken in recent weeks say it has been tremendously inspiring to Islamists across the world. In Libya, the Sinai, and the Sahel, Islamist terrorist groups swore loyalty to the Islamic State. Boko Haram seeks its own caliphate, but nevertheless expressed its support to Baghdadi.

Clearly, the Islamic State brand reverberates. No matter how much the White House and State Department deny the Islamic basis of the Islamic State, it is resilient and attractive to many in the Islamic world. Right now, the Islamic State talks about conquering Rome, and while lone wolf and sleeper cell terrorism in Europe will continue to be a threat, a full-fledged invasion of Europe is unlikely. The nightmare scenario about which policymakers should be most concerned is a spread of the Islamic State to Pakistan.

Before 9/11, I spent a few weeks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, the group was desperate for recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and continues to embrace an essentially nationalist vision. Ditto the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban group which continues to dominate and terrorize Pakistan’s tribal territory, with ambitions throughout Pakistan. However, as Osama bin Laden once said, everyone loves the strong horse, and the Islamic State—which dismisses modern nationalism as illegitimate—has certainly proven itself that. If Pakistani radicals and militants—and there are no shortage of these in Pakistani society—shift their focus to the Islamic State, then all bets are off.

Pakistani officials might deny or even sneer at such suggestions that they are vulnerable to the Islamic State. But a consistent problem in Pakistani society has been that the elite believe that they can harness radicalism toward Pakistani ends in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and not pay the price. Simply put, the elite bubble is like a one-way mirror: Islamists can see in, but the Pakistani elite can see only their own reflection.

The danger for the West is, of course, that Pakistan is a nuclear power. What a tempting target Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be for the Islamic State or its fellow-travelers. And while Western officials have long fooled themselves into thinking states like Iran developing a bomb could be contained because Iran isn’t suicidal, clearly the Islamic State prioritizes ideology above pragmatism.

Pakistan today might seem safe, but the allure of the Islamic State is a game changer. Indeed, it can change the game in a matter of months, as it has shown in Libya. The West allowed the Islamic State to metastasize. Unfortunately, policymakers still have no clue about how horrendous its terminal phase might be.

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Losing the War on Terror

I am currently in the Philippines where I am reminded of how global the threat from Islamist terrorism has become: President Benigno Aquino III is under fire after 44 police commandos were killed in a battle with Muslim separatist groups. But the threat here is relatively limited because Muslims make up only 5 percent or so of the population. Muslims make up roughly the same percentage of the European population, which means that while atrocities such as the recent shootings in Copenhagen and Paris are likely to continue, there is no threat of an actual Islamist takeover.

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I am currently in the Philippines where I am reminded of how global the threat from Islamist terrorism has become: President Benigno Aquino III is under fire after 44 police commandos were killed in a battle with Muslim separatist groups. But the threat here is relatively limited because Muslims make up only 5 percent or so of the population. Muslims make up roughly the same percentage of the European population, which means that while atrocities such as the recent shootings in Copenhagen and Paris are likely to continue, there is no threat of an actual Islamist takeover.

The epicenter of the jihadist threat remains, of course, the Middle East, and recent trends there are alarming–they suggest that Islamists are increasingly ascendant. A few articles that have caught my eye:

  • The Islamic State (ISIS) is expanding not only in Iraq and Syria but also in Libya, another country where it’s easy for extremists to take advantage of the total chaos.
  • A Sunni tribal sheikh in Iraq who preached reconciliation with Shiites was apparently abducted and killed by Shiite militias.
  • Shiite militias, with more than 100,000 men under arms, now far outnumber the Iraqi army, which is down to 48,000 personnel. As a result the army is effectively becoming an adjunct of the militias–and that in turn means that U.S. air strikes, weapons, and training are effectively going to support the Quds Force, which controls the Shiite militias.
  • Hezbollah is not only ramping up its operations in Syria but also in Iraq.

The trends described above–Shiite and Sunni extremists expanding their operations–are in fact a closely-linked mirror image: the more that one side gains ground among its sectarian group (whether Sunni or Shiite), the more the other one gains in reaction.

There is another link between them: the utter lack of a serious response from the United States. Given the failure of the U.S. and its allies to fill the vacuum in Iraq, Syria, or Libya, we can expect the further emergence of competing jihadist states, one Sunni, the other Shiite, to the detriment of our interests and those of our more moderate allies. I hate to say it, but we have been losing the battle against Islamist terror ever since President Obama’s “mission accomplished” moment–the killing of Osama bin Laden. If the president has a plan to reverse this calamitous trend, he has kept it a closely guarded secret.

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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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