Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast

At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

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At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

There are legitimate comparisons to be made. Indeed, just as Southern slaveowners once cited the Bible to defend slavery, so now ISIS cites Islamic law to defend its own form of slavery. Just as the Spanish Inquisition once burned heretics at the stake, so now ISIS burns alive a Jordanian pilot. More broadly the religious zealotry, bloodthirstiness, and intolerance of ISIS is indeed reminiscent in many ways, as Obama noted, of the Crusades.

But then I read the actual text of his speech and saw that his message wasn’t: Christianity was once intolerant but it has now reformed itself and Islam should do likewise. That’s an important message similar to the one that Egypt’s President Sisi recently delivered when he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.

Alas, that’s not what President Obama said. What he actually said was: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

He also said: “From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.”

Neither statement is true or helpful.

When we see ISIS beheading and burning hostages, and “selling, crucifying, burying children alive,” I’d say we have every right to get on our “high horse” about that–even if Christians in centuries past committed their share of atrocities. In fact we have an obligation to get on our “high horse”–to make clear that ISIS’s conduct violates every norm of civilized behavior and will not be tolerated. To shrug our shoulders and say “everybody does it” is untrue and immoral.

And it is no more likely to succeed as a rhetorical gambit than Obama’s previous forays into moral relativism, such as his 2009 Cairo speech (which I defended at the time), in which he equated Iranian “hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” with the role the U.S. played in 1953 “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Such comparisons do not win the U.S. any friends–they don’t make the Iranian mullahs (or even the Iranian people) think what a great guy Obama is for disowning the conduct of the Eisenhower administration, just as ISIS (or even the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq) won’t think he is a great guy for disowning the conduct of the Crusaders. They just think he’s weak, that he’s unwilling to stand up and defend the United States, that he can be taken advantage of.

As for Obama’s claim that ISIS’s actions “are betraying” Islam–a claim he has made in the past–that too is a dubious statement and a presumptuous one for a non-Muslim to make. More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to be–but just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the fact–indeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.

No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world (see, for example, this article about Tunisia, which is one of the most moderate and stable corners of the Middle East), and we won’t change that fact by denying it away.

Obama’s speech reveals the fuzzy thinking behind his strategy in what used to be called “the war on terror.” Little wonder that across the greater Middle East–in countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–we are losing the struggle. If the president can’t even think clearly on these major issues, he certainly can’t act effectively.

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Babylon Deserves UNESCO Protection

Few countries have suffered like Iraq. In the last quarter-century, it has endured three wars, devastating sanctions, and insurgency. Torture and terrorism have been commonplace. Two generations have been scarred if not lost by war and isolation. But despite countless premature eulogies, Iraq and Iraqis of all stripes have been far more resilient than the outside world has predicted or given them credit for.

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Few countries have suffered like Iraq. In the last quarter-century, it has endured three wars, devastating sanctions, and insurgency. Torture and terrorism have been commonplace. Two generations have been scarred if not lost by war and isolation. But despite countless premature eulogies, Iraq and Iraqis of all stripes have been far more resilient than the outside world has predicted or given them credit for.

Saddam Hussein was an egomaniac. Beyond all the palaces, statues, portraits, monuments shaped from molds of his forearms and a Koran written in his blood, Saddam saw himself as the inheritor of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s mantle. Hence, he sought to reconstruct Babylon in his image. From the New York Times in 1989:

For the last three years, over a thousand laborers imported from the Sudan (Iraqi men were away fighting Iran) have worked seven days a week through wet winters and scorching summers to rebuild what archeologists call King Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace – a vast complex of some 500 rooms and the reputed site of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Walls of yellow brick, 40 feet high and topped with pointed crenellations, have replaced the mounds that once marked the Palace foundations. And as Babylon’s walls rise again, the builders insert inscribed bricks recording how Nebuchadnezzar’s palace was ”rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” ”We must finish by September,” said Rabia Mahmmood al-Qaysi, Director of Restoration, in his office here. ”It’s the President’s order.” Outside, an immense painting depicts President Hussein standing before the rebuilt towers of Babylon.

The finished product was more kitsch than archaeologically authentic. From the New York Times in 2003:

The Iraqi leader found the squat, khaki-colored nubs of earth and scattered stacks of bricks left over from one of history’s glorious empires somehow lacking, far too mundane to represent the 2,500-year sweep of Mesopotamian history that was to be reborn through his rule. So he ordered one of the three original palaces rebuilt. Never mind that nobody really knows what the imposing palaces looked like. Nor did Mr. Hussein pay much heed to the fact that the archaeological world cried foul — deriding his project as Disney for a Despot — because he was violating their sacred principle of preserving rather than recreating. But as with many moves by Mr. Hussein, the end result garnered great populist appeal and hence he will probably have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins.

What the New York Times got wrong, however, is that it was not Saddam who will have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins, but rather the bureaucrats of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known simply by the acronym UNESCO. When UNESCO isn’t straying from its mission to dabble in politics and polemics, it maintains a list of world heritage sites whose protection it aids.

Iraq has just four UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites: Hatra, Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), Samarra Archaeological City, and the Erbil Citadel in Kurdistan. That puts it alongside such countries as Belarus, the Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, and Kazakhstan, far from the prominence of its true cultural cousins. Such famous archaeological sites as Ur, Nineveh, and Babylon itself are missing from the UNESCO ranks. That could soon change if Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi’s government and the governorate administration in nearby Hilla have their say. From the Iraq Daily Journal:

Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities on Monday said that his country is seeking to restore the ancient ruin city of Babylon onto the UNESCO world heritage list. “We have finished our part and prepared a dossier to be sent to the UNESCO tomorrow, and so we met our obligation to prepare this dossier on February 1,” Adel Shirshab told a press conference in Baghdad. Earlier, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi government and the government of Babil province, in which the Iraqi side has to prepare a dossier by some Iraqi archeologists and tourism experts to assess the damages and situation of the site…

The site is the remains of a Mesopotamian capital that flourished for centuries, it was home to Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) who introduced the world’s first known set of laws, and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.) who built the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Under the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the city was terribly damages when he decided to rebuild Babylon with modern bricks inscribed with his name, right atop the original walls. Then the 4,000-year-old city became military “Camp Alpha” soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. UNESCO earlier said that the U.S. troops and contractors inflicted considerable damage on the historic Iraqi site of Babylon, driving heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through one of the world’ most important archaeological sites.

UNESCO’s complaints with regard to the American (well, actually, Polish) military presence were guided more by knee-jerk opposition to the Iraq war rather than real damage to the site. The U.S. military wasn’t without mistakes, but it had consulted archaeologists and was quite careful. (I had toured Babylon in 2003 while still within the boundaries of the Polish military’s contingent alongside an Iraqi archaeologist). Having the ruins within the confines of a military camp may actually have protected it, by preventing looters and scavengers from picking over its artifacts.

Regardless, When it comes to Iraq, if there’s one thing most of the world can agree upon (well, with the exception perhaps of sectarian states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), it is that policies which bring Iraqis together rather than tear them apart are long overdue. Likewise, almost every senior Iraqi official and foreign diplomat will acknowledge the need for Iraq to diversify its economy, a need made more acute by the drop in the price of oil.

The Iraqi government’s application to list Babylon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is wise. It helps bolster Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector, an industry that will be crucial in the future if and when Iraq stabilizes.

UNESCO, however, seems ambivalent. Perhaps the reason is political, or perhaps it is sincere concern over previous damage to the site. But, Saddam’s megalomania is hardly the fault of Iraqis; they were its chief victims. Regardless, while archaeologists might lament what Saddam did to portions of the site, large sections remain untouched. For UNESCO to refuse to extend its support and protection because of Saddam’s ill taste would effectively continue the destruction which Saddam began.

There is a further irony here as well. Prior to the “Shock-and-Awe” campaign which marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was some discussion about targeting statues of Saddam and key Baathist monuments. U.S. forces had the precision to conduct such operations, and destroying such Saddam kitsch would signal that Coalition action was against Saddam rather than the Iraqi people. However, U.S. government lawyers said that such a strategy would be illegal since those statues and monuments were Iraq’s cultural heritage. How sad it would be if Saddam’s cultural heritage became the reason to allow Iraq’s real cultural heritage to erode further.

If the international community is serious about allowing Iraq to pick up the pieces, and if UNESCO is sincere in its mission to protect endangered archaeological sites and country’s cultural heritage, then it should both fast-track and work with the Iraqi government to get Babylon the UNESCO designation it needs and deserves.

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Stop Debating Terminology; Just Defeat the Enemy

When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

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When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

Alas, the pattern continues. I have sat through numerous lectures in which scholars and military officers warn against the term “jihadist” to describe those who wage violent jihad. (And, yes, throughout much of Islamic history, jihad was understood to mean violent holy war, not simply internal struggle as some theological revisionists contend.) The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented group and advocacy organization popular with the White House, has suggested banning the word “jihadist” and simply call those waging violent jihad “criminals” instead. This New York Times op-ed went so far as to suggest that by using the term “jihadists,” Americans were effectively endorsing their mission just as much as “if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the ‘leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots’ or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the ‘defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.’”

Ultimately, the George W. Bush administration agreed, and sought to ban government officials from using both “jihadists” and “mujahideen.” Its logic?

U.S. officials may be “unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims,” says a Homeland Security report. It’s entitled “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.” “Regarding ‘jihad,’ even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic because it glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world,” the report says.

This, of course, is nonsense. Islamists no more look to the United States government to bless what is or is not Islamic than they would defer to the theological opinion of the owners of a Wiccan pig farm. If forced to decide what Islam justifies, Islamists will listen to a radical imam or their recruiter, not an anodyne U.S. Department of Homeland Security report.

Debates over the term “terrorism” are their own circle of hell. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got off to a rocky start when she referred to terrorism as “man-caused disasters.” She explained:

“I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

Sometimes moral equivalence infuses the debate. Terrorism, after all, can be judgmental term. Hence the BBC banned the use of the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of last month’s massacre at the headquarters of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. The head of BBC Arabic explained:

“Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.”

The problem is that redefining the word “terrorist” or omitting it from the lexicon altogether no more eliminates the problem of terrorism any more than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s decision to transform “rogue regimes” into “states of concern” transformed North Korea or the Islamic Republic of Iran into liberal, progressive, peace-loving utopias.

Enter the debate about the Islamic State. On September 10, 2014, President Obama cast dispersion on the term “Islamic State”:

Now let’s make two things clear:  ISIL is not “Islamic.”  No religion condones the killing of innocents.  And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.  And ISIL is certainly not a state.  It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.  It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.

Secretary of State John Kerry has likewise said that the Islamic State is neither “a state nor truly Islamic,” and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius joined in to, advising against referring to the Islamic State as either Islamic or a state, the former because it offends Muslims and the latter because it bestows too much legitimacy. The Pentagon, of course, didn’t want to be left out of the wordplay games. It urged its personnel to use the term Daesh. Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria, explained:

“Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate. … They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

The Boston Globe made much the same argument. Here’s the problem: Daesh is simply the Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham which literally means the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” So, all the Pentagon fuss is the equivalent of saying the word “duck” is offensive to the French, so use “canard” instead.

White House political operatives love their polls just as the Pentagon embraces its metrics. Perhaps the biggest indicator of success or failure against external threats, however, is the inverse relationship between defeat of the enemy and a desire to debate terminology. Debate about what to call the Islamic State doesn’t advance its defeat one nanosecond. It is nothing more than a distraction—one that costs lives by substituting political correctness for progress and bureaucratic machination for battlefield success.

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Jordan Chooses Sides

Kudos to King Abdullah II of Jordan for his decision to execute Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber who was part of a terrorist cell that carried out a suicide attack on three Amman hotels in 2005. The Jordanian government executed her and fellow terrorist Ziyad Karboli at dawn in response to the Islamic State’s brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasaesbeh by caging him and then burning him alive.

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Kudos to King Abdullah II of Jordan for his decision to execute Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber who was part of a terrorist cell that carried out a suicide attack on three Amman hotels in 2005. The Jordanian government executed her and fellow terrorist Ziyad Karboli at dawn in response to the Islamic State’s brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasaesbeh by caging him and then burning him alive.

From a political perspective, the executions were necessary. The video of the execution was as brutal as it was scarring. It has circulated widely in Arabic chat forums and elsewhere online. Jordanians, who are already critical of their king, want action. To do anything but execute Sajida would be to hand the Islamic State (ISIS) a victory by effectively cowing to their demands that Jordan stand down. Frankly, she should have died years ago in order to bring justice for the families of her victims. The king demurred, however, effectively commuting her sentence in order to appease her supporters and, alas, in Jordan there are many. Her execution, however, underscores that King Abdullah II has recognized that in the battle against Islamist extremism, Jordan can no longer be neutral.

When it comes to the forces buffeting the region, Jordan has long been between a rock and a hard place. It is nearly landlocked, and is resource poor. At the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was not easy to border both Israel and Iraq, perhaps the Arab world’s most rejectionist state. While King Hussein of Jordan welcomes Palestinian refugees and, unlike all his neighbors, actually granted them citizenship so that they could get on with their lives and contribute more fully to society, he faced a PLO-led coup attempt in 1970, which he barely beat back.

Still, while many in Washington consider Jordan a stable, reliable ally and a security partner, the kingdom has traditionally been a bit two-faced, although its diplomats and officials would say such duplicitousness was necessary to survive. After the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, Jordan became the chief source of Saddam Hussein’s smuggling enrichment under the Oil-for-Food program, a policy from which both King Hussein and King Abdullah II seem to have benefited. In the days before Iraq’s liberation, Jordan undercut opposition to Saddam Hussein and, in the war’s aftermath, welcomed Saddam’s wife and daughter (and their stolen money). Simply put, Jordan traditionally has sought to appease all sides in a conflict and based its security in being friendly with everyone that threatened it, be they Israel and the Palestinians, Saddam’s Iraq and the United States, or post-liberation Iraq and the insurgents which fought it.

The Jordanian balancing act also extended to the battle between Islamists and secularists. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague and Jordan expert Tara Beeny noted last month, while Jordan traditionally sought to accommodate and co-opt Islamists rather than fight them, the terror designation of the Muslim Brotherhood by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an important source of aid to Jordan, had led the king to follow suit, and crack down on the Islamic Action Front, as the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is known. On one hand, the UAE’s pressure and now the reaction to the Islamic State’s execution of its pilot have painted King Abdullah II into a corner, one which might hamper his ability to co-opt and contain the Islamic State. On the other hand, however, neutrality is not always a virtue. When facing an evil like the Islamic State—not only bordering it but also dealing with it within Jordanian borders—it sometimes pays to take sides. In the battle against Islamist extremism, Jordan’s decision to take a firm stand is better late than never.

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ISIS Stokes Sino-Japanese Antagonism

Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

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Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

When the government-controlled Global Times opined that Japanese Prime Minister Abe would likely use the horrific murder as an excuse to send Japanese armed forces abroad, it was both revealing a deep-seated Chinese fear and seeking to further isolate Japan in Asia. Abe had indeed made very un-Japanese statements about making the terrorists pay, but that simply put him in league with Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. To the Chinese, however, Abe’s statements were in reality a dog whistle to right-wing nationalists that the Japanese military would finally be unleashed beyond Japan’s borders.

Such fantasizing is of course hogwash, not least because Japan has almost no offensive or power projection capability. Moreover, the still-powerful strain of pacifism in Japanese society has actually led many to criticize Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad as being too dangerous. China’s criticism instead says much more about Beijing’s worries than Japan’s intentions.

When Chinese officials look around Asia, they see only one country that could plausibly frustrate their desire to become the undisputed hegemon of the region. Despite having ten times the population, and having surpassed Japan in gross GDP, Chinese officials understand Japan’s continued strengths, its strong alliance with the United States, and its newfound willingness to reach out to other Asian nations to form partnerships. Given that China inspires growing worry over its military power and aggressive designs on disputed territory and common sea lanes alike, officials in Beijing know that the region is slowly adopting a balancing position against them. And Japan, especially under Abe, is the leader of that movement.

Thus, the vilification campaign. Instead of acknowledging Japan’s right to avenge its murdered citizens, and perhaps even offering support, China’s propaganda handmaidens seek instead to fan the flames of anti-Japanese feeling. Outside of China, this may well play the best in South Korea, where bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in decades, thanks in part to Abe’s ill-advised statements questioning sensitive World War II issues such as the comfort women or larger questions of Japan’s war guilt. For some of the antagonism between himself and his neighbors, Abe indeed deserves blame, but not for asserting that he will protect Japan’s interests.

What China is really telegraphing is far simpler: there will be no rapprochement between the two great powers anytime soon. And that means an Asia that continues to simmer with tensions both real and imagined.

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What Is the U.S. Doing to Make Its Case in Iraq?

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

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Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

[Badr Organization leader Hadi al-] Amiri told me that late last month he met with U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones at his home, where the ambassador made the offer of U.S. air support to his ground campaign.  “He told me, frankly speaking, ‘We are ready to offer back up in air strikes for the volunteers,’ ” Amiri said, using the term many militia leaders use to refer to the fighters under their command. Amiri said he thanked Jones for the offer, but told him he worried the U.S. Air Force could make a mistake and end up hitting his men instead of the Islamic State. When asked about the meeting, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jeffrey Loree, told me: “We don’t confirm the details of our conversations.  Our policy is that we support the ISF with air strikes and we have urged that the militias be under the command and control of the ISF.”

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse in a way that Lake did not address. Most Iraqis believe that the United States is not only responsible for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) but actively supports it. This is not the result of one or two conversations with Iraqis inside the Green Zone, but rather a pernicious belief that the majority of Iraqis harbor, in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Karbala, and presumably elsewhere.

The reason is simple: Iran. The basis of American influence operations is always to be truthful, and through truth build credibility. Iran has a different strategy, however: metaphorically to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Just yesterday, Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Amir Abdollahian called the U.S. fight against terrorism “insincere.” None other than the supreme leader has been preaching, here at a meeting of Islamic scholars, that the Islamic State is an American creation. Speaking about the rise of Islamist extremism in the Islamic State’s mold, Ayatollah Khamenei said:

…It is a few years now that it has been revived and strengthened with the plots of arrogance, with the money of some regional governments and with the schemes of the intelligence services of colonialist countries such as America, England and the Zionist regime… There is an undeniable point which is the fact that the takfiri orientation and the governments which support and advocate it move completely in the direction of the goals of arrogance and Zionism. Their work is in line with the goals of America, the colonialist governments in Europe and the government of the usurping Zionist regime. This movement is at the service of arrogance. It is at the service of America and England. What they do is at the service of the intelligence services of America and England. It is at the service of Mossad and other such intelligence services.

That may sound like the ranting and raving of a tired, old, paranoid dictator. But, alas, it has stuck, especially after one packet in an airdrop meant for the Kurdish resistance in Kobane went array and was recovered by the Islamic State.

The problem isn’t that the Iranian government actively spreads anti-American propaganda. That should be expected of a regime that, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s pronouncements aside, remains unrepentant. Rather, the problem is that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad remains silent. The embassy hosts hundreds of diplomats, but few get outside the blast walls surrounding the embassy complex, even to go elsewhere in the Green Zone. Rumors swirl, unrebutted by anyone in the U.S. embassy. Baghdad isn’t known for its security, but millions live outside the Green Zone, and diplomats from Iran, Turkey, and many other states regularly traverse the city. Even before Benghazi, guaranteeing diplomats’ security trumped any sense that they needed to circulate to do their jobs.

Security and effectiveness are always a precarious balance but they are no excuse for the United States to keep from being able to refute rumors and rebuff enemy information operations. There’s no point spending billions on an embassy if it is too afraid to function. That Iran gets away with blaming the United States for the Islamic State when Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s proxy in Damascus, refused for years to use his air force against the group as it grew and gathered strength in Raqqa says a lot about Iranian cynicism. Alas, that the United States refuses to make its case and allows Iranian lies to be the first draft of history says a lot about State Department’s incompetence.

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ISIS Terror Continues Unabated

Apparently the shock value of televised beheadings is wearing off. Or maybe captured Muslims are marked for especially gruesome treatment. Whatever the case, news has now emerged that ISIS burned alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. At this rate future captives can expect to be impaled or dismembered. There is simply no end to the evil of ISIS–their depravity and contempt for human life is seemingly infinite.

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Apparently the shock value of televised beheadings is wearing off. Or maybe captured Muslims are marked for especially gruesome treatment. Whatever the case, news has now emerged that ISIS burned alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. At this rate future captives can expect to be impaled or dismembered. There is simply no end to the evil of ISIS–their depravity and contempt for human life is seemingly infinite.

Yet faced with this abomination, the U.S. has blinked. Sure, President Obama has sent a few thousand advisors to Iraq and dropped thousands of bombs in both Iraq and Syria. But, the liberation of the ruined town of Kobani aside, his current strategy isn’t working. As the Daily Beast notes: “The Pentagon has said it has killed 6,000 fighters since coalition strikes began five months ago; the intelligence community estimates 4,000 foreign fighters have entered the fray since September. (A higher estimate, made by The Washington Post, holds that 5,000 foreign fighters have flowed into the two countries since October.)” That kind of math favors the jihadists, because it doesn’t even account for all the thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who have taken up arms under the black banner.

It is high time for a more serious strategy–one that I outlined back in November. Boost the U.S. military presence. Loosen restrictions on bombing. End the prohibition on U.S. boots on the ground. Let U.S. Special Forces accompany Iraqi and Syrian forces into battle and call in airstrikes directly on ISIS positions. Send in the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command to take down ISIS commanders. Do more to train and arm Sunni tribesmen in both Syria and Iraq–work with them directly rather than going through the Iraqi Security Forces and assure Syrians that the U.S. is as opposed to Bashar Assad’s evil as ISIS’s evil.

Yet the White House consistently refuses to get serious. That makes its protests about the murder of ISIS hostages, whether American, British, Japanese, or now Jordanian, toothless. Just empty verbiage. Until the U.S. is willing to do more to stop ISIS, it will continue its reign of terror unabated.

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Strategy Should Be Defeat of Islamists, Not Choosing Sectarian Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does the ISIS Beheading Prove Japan’s Prime Minister Right?

Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

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Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

Yet Abe has made a hallmark of rocking the boat in his second term in office, making him both admired and despised. Many Japanese (and foreigners) consider him a nationalist hawk, and his fighting words will confirm their opinion that he is a danger to Japan’s security. Others think that he is simply acknowledging a reality that Tokyo for far too long ignored: that the world is a dangerous place, that Japan cannot hide from it, and that it has a role to play in protecting not only its own interests, but stability more generally.

It was this last that may have doomed Goto and his fellow Japanese Haruna Yukawa. Abe’s pledge of $200 million in humanitarian aid to countries fighting ISIS apparently caused the two Japanese to be targeted. If Abe hadn’t done that, so the thinking goes, if he hadn’t pushed Japan into a crisis that did not affect it, then there would have been no kidnapping and murder of Japanese nationals.

To adopt such an attitude is to give a victory to ISIS, in transferring blame to some degree to the victim (in this case, a country), instead of the aggressors. Abe is right, and ISIS has proved him so: the danger of radical Islam, or of other disruptive actors, like North Korea, cannot simply be ignored. That may not mean getting involved in every case, but it does mean clearly recognizing the threats to any sense of civilized norms, and deciding how and when to act.

That, of course, is the most difficult, and Abe has now drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, by stating that some punishment will be meted out. Given that Japan lacks an offensive military capability, not to mention a hostage rescue capability of the kind that has failed even the United States in dealing with ISIS, Abe’s words may be written off as overblown rhetoric. Yet in saying them, he is indicating the path that he wants Japan to go down. The word’s third-largest economy, and a force for stability in Asia, should not be so impotent that it cannot protect, rescue, or avenge its citizens. It may be another sign of how Japan will change in the coming years in ways that will complement, not counter, U.S. efforts to respond to global disorder.

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Why ISIS’s Grisly Tactics Haven’t Backfired

To the chronicle of its depravities, ISIS has now added a new chapter by beheading two Japanese hostages. A Jordanian pilot who was captured by ISIS may be the next to go, if he has not been murdered already. ISIS, which reportedly seized at least 23 foreigners, now has only a few of them left, including a male British journalist and a female American aid worker.

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To the chronicle of its depravities, ISIS has now added a new chapter by beheading two Japanese hostages. A Jordanian pilot who was captured by ISIS may be the next to go, if he has not been murdered already. ISIS, which reportedly seized at least 23 foreigners, now has only a few of them left, including a male British journalist and a female American aid worker.

Some are starting to wonder what ISIS has achieved with its high-profile executions. And indeed the countries targeted in its grisly beheading videos–Britain, the U.S., Japan–have not knuckled under. Indeed these executions have had the opposite reaction, leading the U.S. and the UK to begin military action against ISIS along with European and Arab allies. In Jordan, support for its role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been growing, rather than shrinking, as a result of the threats confronting its captured pilot who hails from a prominent tribe. Even Japan, which historically has not used military force abroad, is now threatening retaliation for the murder of its hostages.

So is it safe to say that ISIS’s brutal tactics have backfired? Not so fast. Its barbaric actions may cause revulsion but they also inspire fear among many and help to keep millions of dollars in ransom payments flowing for the release of European hostages. There is even a small subset of Muslims who are inspired by the spectacle of the “Islamic State” waging merciless war on “infidels” (however innocent). These admirers are presumably among the 1,000 or so foreigners a month traveling to Syria to join ISIS and rival groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. Most of all such atrocities keep ISIS in the news and serve as a counterpoint to news of setbacks it has suffered, such as the loss of Kobani in northern Syria to Kurd fighters backed by American airpower.

Certainly since ISIS began its beheadings last summer, it has suffered setbacks; U.S. Central Command claims that 6,000 of its fighters have been killed in that period by coalition airpower. But in that time ISIS has managed to hold onto Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq while actually expanding its control in Syria.

So horrific as ISIS’s tactics are, it’s too soon to call them a failure, largely because the Obama administration has placed so many limitations on American participation in the anti-ISIS coalition (e.g., no “boots on the ground”) and has done so little to mobilize anti-ISIS fighters among the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. As long as that continues to be the case, ISIS will get away with its hideous crimes.

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How to Lose a War: Schiff’s Reckless AUMF

In his State of the Union address, President Obama tried to paint a rosy picture of his administration’s failing effort to roll back ISIS. It was the sales pitch before the ask. He followed it by saying: “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” He should be careful what he wishes for: congressional Democrats are rewarding the president’s request with an embarrassingly unserious war authorization.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama tried to paint a rosy picture of his administration’s failing effort to roll back ISIS. It was the sales pitch before the ask. He followed it by saying: “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” He should be careful what he wishes for: congressional Democrats are rewarding the president’s request with an embarrassingly unserious war authorization.

BuzzFeed’s John Stanton reports on the effort led by California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who has introduced a bill similar to one he put forth last year. The administration is relying on a 2001 authorization passed at the outset of the war on terror. But the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates is only part of the war on terror. Hence we have had to at times fight different terror groups in the same places or the same terror groups in different places, Syria being the prominent example of the latter.

Schiff says, correctly, that it’s time to stop pretending we’re not at war. In a statement, he said: “There is no doubt that our current offensive amounts to war, and Congress should take action both to authorize its prosecution and to set limits on that authorization so it may not be used by any future administration in a manner contrary to our intent.” Democrats have been trying to balance support for the president with a desire to see some of Congress’s traditional powers restored.

The problem, therefore, is not the idea of a new authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) but rather the text of this one. Here’s what it would include:

In addition to barring the use of ground troops, the new AUMF would also sunset in three years, as well as sunset the 2001 AUMF at that time. Additionally, Schiff’s bill would be “geographically limited” to contain counter terrorism war efforts to Iraq and Syria.

Although the White House and hawks in both parties have argued tying the administration’s hands is inappropriate, Schiff argued the overly broad interpretation of the existing AUMF should give Congress pause.

“If circumstances change, they should come to the Congress and make the case” for an expanded AUMF, Schiff told BuzzFeed News in an interview Tuesday evening. But “given how previous authorizations have been broadly construed, we would be wise to tailor this one to the current circumstances,” Schiff added.

Obama has often been (accurately) accused of relying on magical thinking in his prosecution of the war on terror. But Schiff is guilty of no less. Schiff’s logic in wanting to pass a new AUMF is that we’re at war, and so we should act like it. He really ought to follow his own advice.

The desire to avoid a ground war is understandable; the prohibition against ground troops in a declared war is outrageous. And it unlearns any and all lessons from the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan that it claims to be correcting.

One of the main knocks on the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq was that its initial light-footprint strategy was unrealistic with regard to the kind of resistance U.S. forces would face. Another popular accusation was that there was no “exit strategy.”

Schiff’s AUMF aims to repeat both mistakes.

He may think that sunsetting an AUMF is an exit plan. It is not. Putting a time limit on the war would do nothing to end it, and in fact would almost certainly prolong it. Our enemies would know precisely how to run out the clock on us. And the war effort wouldn’t be over; the president would simply have to pause the fighting (as if he can call a timeout in war) and go back to Congress for permission to fire back at the enemy forces who would be in attack mode the whole time. Putting a three-year time limit on the war virtually guarantees it will last more than three years.

As for the prohibition on ground forces: this is so absurd as to be self-refuting. It would be nice to be able to achieve victory without ground troops, and hopefully that’s possible. But barring them from combat ties the hands of the commander in chief.

It also shows Schiff isn’t paying attention to what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. As Tim Mak reported in the Daily Beast in mid-January:

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began. The result is a net ground gain for ISIS, according to information compiled by two groups with on-the-ground sources.

A net ground gain for ISIS, thanks to a halfhearted air war. This is the strategy Schiff wants to codify in law–even though we are already aware that it’s failing.

The Obama administration deserves much of the criticism it has received on the president’s efforts to colonize the powers of Congress and expand executive authority. But the president is the commander in chief, and he shouldn’t be forced to ask the military to bring a knife to a gunfight. Schiff’s bill is irresponsible and dangerous, and that’s why it shouldn’t–and almost certainly won’t–become law.

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Is Kobani the New Khe Sanh?

The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

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The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

As I have previously argued, the ISIS siege of Kobani, broken with the help of copious American airpower, resembles nothing so much as the North Vietnamese siege of Khe Sanh, a town in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. Held by Marines, Khe Sanh was under assault for 77 days in 1968 before the Communist attackers melted away. So insignificant did Khe Sanh prove in the end that U.S. forces abandoned it shortly after relieving its garrison.

The larger picture in Syria is that ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, the two primary jihadist groups, continue to gain ground while the moderate opposition, once seen as the salvation of Syria, is in worse shape then ever, in no small part because it has never received the support it needs or deserves. If you don’t mind raising your blood pressure, you should read this enraging account in the Wall Street Journal today, by reporter Adam Entous, of how little the CIA has done to help the moderate Syrian opposition.

A few highlights:

  • “One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter.”
  • “ ‘We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,’ a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting.”
  • “Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.”
  • “ ‘We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns,’ the Hazzm leader said, according to people at the meeting. ‘It was a losing bet.’ ”

The predictable result of this neglect–compounded by the American failure to stop Bashar Assad’s air force from bombing the few areas still held by moderate forces–is that many of the mainstream fighters have either abandoned the fight, been killed or captured by the jihadists, or joined their ranks. This, naturally, becomes a further excuse for doing nothing to aid them. But how can we possibly expect Syrians to risk anything fighting with us when we won’t risk anything to help them?

Reading this account–in which terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS are able to outspend the world’s No. 1 economy–makes me think that if the current administration had been in charge of arming the mujahideen in the 1980s, the Russians would still be occupying Afghanistan.

The parlous state of the Free Syrian Army means that there is little prospect for making greater inroads against ISIS, much less the Nusra Front, in Syria. And that in turn means that Kobani is an isolated victory which is unlikely to have any wider strategic significance.

The Obama administration’s failure to do more to stop the bloodshed and the advance of extremists in Syria must rank as one of the worst failures of U.S. foreign policy in the past half-century. Obama can take comfort that he hasn’t repeated George W. Bush’s supposed mistake in invading Iraq; instead he’s making his own mistakes, whose costs continue to mount.

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The Smartest Guy Ever to Be President Isn’t Quite As Smart As He Thinks

Barack Obama is really, really smart. I know, because he told me so during his State of the Union address. Our president is especially smart on foreign policy. I know because Mr. Obama told me that, too. “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” the president said. “We lead best when … we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

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Barack Obama is really, really smart. I know, because he told me so during his State of the Union address. Our president is especially smart on foreign policy. I know because Mr. Obama told me that, too. “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” the president said. “We lead best when … we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

Of course it is.

Take how smart the president has been in combating ISIS (aka ISIL and the Islamic State). On Tuesday night Mr. Obama informed us that he was asking Congress to pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State. This comes precisely a year after our really, really smart commander in chief referred to ISIS as a “jayvee team.” That prediction was so prescient that the president decided to deceive us about it.

Here are some other examples of the shrewdness of the president. In his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Obama declared, “We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort [to defeat the Islamic State], and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” This comes after the president said last August that the notion that arming Syrian rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” The president apparently believes that supporting what he deemed a fantasy–one military official told the press they are calling the moderate Syrian opposition “the Unicorn” because they have not been able to find it–now qualifies as Kissingerian.

The president also declared on Tuesday that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.” That would be good news–if it were true. But just last week a senior defense official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “certainly ISIL has been able to expand in Syria.” According to the Journal, “More than three months of U.S. airstrikes in Syria have failed to prevent Islamic State militants from expanding their control in that country, according to U.S. and independent assessments, raising new concerns about President Barack Obama’s military strategy in the Middle East.” NBC’s chief foreign-policy correspondent, Richard Engel, in reacting to the president’s address, said, “Well, it sounded like the President was outlining a world that he wishes we were all living in but which is very different than the world that you just described with terror raids taking place across Europe, ISIS very much on the move.”

The president added, “Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.” Now in commenting on those safe havens we’re denying terrorists, is it indecorous to point out that the Islamic State, located in the Middle East, is the best-armed, best-funded terrorist group on earth and that it “controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations,” in the words of Janine Davidson of the Council on Foreign Relations? I hope not, since even Mr. Obama’s own secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has said ISIS is “beyond anything we have ever seen.” (That’s some jayvee team.)

Mr. Obama was also brainy enough to declare his foreign policy a terrific success on the very day that a Shiite militia group took over the presidential palace in the Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, “sparking fresh concerns about a country that has become a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” Which reminded me of how President Savant held up Yemen as a model of success only last September, telling us, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Which in turn reminded me of Libya.

It was in the fall of 2011 when President Obama, speaking to the United Nations and announcing yet another of his grand achievements, declared, “Forty two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free.” Mr. Obama went on to say, “This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.” And what a success it was. Just last summer, in fact, the United States, because of rising violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias, shut down its embassy in Libya and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort. Earlier this month King’s College George Joffe wrote, “Libya seems finally to be about to descend into full blown civil war.” Call it another Model of Success during the Obama era.

Our percipient president also declared in his State of the Union speech, “Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.” That assertion is so reality-based that (a) the Washington Post fact-checker declared “there is little basis” for the president’s claims and (b) the highest ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, said the more he hears from Mr. Obama and his administration about Iran, “the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” Oh, and the president made his announcement on the very day that we learned that Russia and Iran are more aligned than ever, having signed an agreement on military cooperation between the two nations.

I also thought it was really smart of the president to declare that “we stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris”–especially since Mr. Obama was one of the very few leaders in the free world who didn’t stand with the people in the streets of Paris during a three-million-person-plus solidarity march there two weeks ago. The president stayed away even though there was no conflict with his schedule, apart from NFL playoff games, of course. And the president wisely saw fit not to send the vice president, his wife, or a member of his Cabinet to attend the rally, but rather sent as his representative the American ambassador to France. (Give yourself a gold star if you can name her without first googling her.)

For us lesser mortals, the president’s foreign policy–country by country, region by region, crisis by crisis–looks to be a disaster. But it turns out it’s actually a fantastic success. How do I know? Because “the smartest guy ever to become president” told us it is.

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Obama’s Yalta Syndrome

President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

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President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

You know Obama’s having a tough run when the New York Times hits him with a yes, but. In this case, what Obama did not mention was that “Russia maintains control of Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine, and continues to support pro-Russian separatists who are at war with Ukraine’s government despite a cease-fire that has failed to stop violence.”

Obama had been bragging about simply waiting Vladimir Putin out until the Russian economy started (or continued) to crumble. But Baker’s next sentence shows what is so unsound about Obama’s approach to foreign affairs: “Russia’s economy has indeed taken a huge hit, in large part because of the fall in oil prices, but so far Mr. Putin shows few signs of backing down.”

That, in fact, is what the divide is all about, because Obama considers that a victory while most of the reality-based community disagrees. To Obama, what happens to insignificant states–as he sees them, at least–isn’t important. This is a kind of great-power politics stripped of all nuance. It’s what someone who wants to practice great-power politics but doesn’t really understand international affairs would think constitutes such a policy.

To Obama, it’s the large states–or as he sees them, important states–that matter. Because Obama is a follower, not a leader, he gravitates toward the strong horse. He does not want to be in conflict with Russia, whatever that means for Russia’s ability to crush nearby states that the U.S. has promised to protect. Obama’s foreign policy suffers from Yalta syndrome.

And it’s the reason for what was really the centerpiece of Baker’s Times article on Obama’s unrealistic foreign policy: ISIS and the war on terror. Here’s how the article begins:

Under the original plan, this was to be the State of the Union address in which President Obama would be able to go before the nation and declare that he had fulfilled his vow to end two overseas wars. Only the wars did not exactly cooperate.

Mr. Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq in 2011 and ordered all “combat forces” out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But before he could seize the mantle of peacemaker in Tuesday night’s speech, the rise of a terrorist group called the Islamic State prompted Mr. Obama to send forces back to Iraq, and security challenges in Afghanistan led him to leave a slightly larger residual force.

The total American military commitment overseas has shrunk significantly since Mr. Obama took office, with just 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, down from 180,000 six years ago. The situation in both countries, however, is not as clean or as settled as the president had hoped. Instead of ending American wars abroad, he now faces the prospect of finishing his presidency in two years with at least one of them still unresolved.

Even that understates it just a bit, but it’s mostly on-target. If the president ended or almost ended the two long wars the U.S. military has been engaged in, why isn’t he a peacemaker? The standard answer, which is correct but not quite complete, is that ending a war isn’t the same thing as winning a war; if you leave the job unfinished, it will be almost impossible to credibly pretend otherwise.

But it’s also because of the particular age in which Obama was elected to be that very peacemaker. Terrorism has long been with us, but 9/11 did change our recognition of the threat and thus our posture toward it. Land wars feel like a relic–even though Russia is proving they still occur, and will continue to occur. Asymmetric warfare, however, is much more difficult to avoid, as events both in the U.S. and especially in Europe of late have shown.

The spread of ISIS has nudged Obama even more into the arms of the country he sees as the Muslim world’s strong horse: Iran. We are now aligned with Iran’s client in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, a man the president previously insisted must be deposed from power. And we are in pursuit of the same near-term goal in Iraq: the defeat of ISIS.

And Obama has made it quite clear he intends to kick the nuclear can down the road far enough for it to be his successor’s problem (just as he, to be fair, inherited it from his predecessor). What he doesn’t want is conflict with Iran. If that means chaos in Yemen and slaughter in Syria while Iran gets away with exporting revolutionary terror–well, it is what it is. And if that means Iran displacing some of the hard-earned American influence in Iraq–well, what can you do. And if that means continuing to consign Lebanon to Hezbollah’s control, or trying not to pay much attention to another of Iran’s enemies dropping dead in a foreign country–you get the point.

The Georgians watching South Ossetia apprehensively are paying attention. Surely so are the states in China’s near abroad. For that matter, Poland too is getting nervous. They know a Yalta when they see one.

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Obama Makes Clear: No Foreign-Policy Recalibration Coming

Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

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Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

This focus is perhaps understandable given that the economy is looking up and Obama wants to claim credit, whereas there isn’t much to claim credit for in foreign affairs. Mainly Obama tried to claim credit for what he isn’t doing–“Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

This was, once again, a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his current critics, such as Senator John McCain, implying that they are warmongers. The implication became even clearer in the section where he promised to veto further sanctions on Iran: “Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

Obama is right that he has avoided repeating Bush’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he’s made his own, allowing Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen to spin out of control. All of those countries are consumed in violent civil wars where America’s enemies, both Shiite and Sunni, are gaining ground. Obama was just flat-out wrong to claim that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance.” ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State may be stopped in Iraq but it hasn’t been rolled back, much less “destroyed,” and in Syria it hasn’t even been stopped–it’s been gaining ground since the U.S. began dropping bombs back in August.

Not surprisingly Obama omitted any mention of Somalia or Yemen, which in September he had cited as a model for fighting ISIS. That model is looking like an Edsel amid recent reports that the Houthis, a Shiite militia backed by Iran, have overrun Yemen’s capital.

Nor, predictably, did Obama make any mention of Boko Haram, which has carved out its own Islamist caliphate in Nigeria much like the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Remember when Michelle Obama joined the hashtag campaign to #BringBackOurGirls? Neither does her husband. The girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has been killing thousands of people but it did not merit a mention in the address.

Also ignored was the U.S.-aided campaign to combat the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army–a campaign that resulted in U.S. Special Forces capturing top commander Dominic Ongwen, but that has not led to the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony who was the subject of another hashtag campaign (#Kony2012). In fact the only mention of Africa was a well-deserved shout-out “to our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola, saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease.”

Likewise Asia–once a key area for the administration, which touted its Pacific Pivot–all but disappeared from the address. No mention of “rebalancing” our military commitments–only an anodyne sentence about how “in the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”

Ultimately what was missing from the State of the Union is any hint that Obama is prepared to rethink the “lead from behind” policies that have diminished American power and made the world–especially the Middle East–a much more dangerous place. There was no sign that, a la Jimmy Carter, this president had been mugged by reality and would become a born-again hawk. Instead he sounded confident, energetic, even arrogant in defending his (failed) record. Any recalibration of American foreign policy, it is clear, is at least two years away. That’s a long time given how dangerous the world looks right now.

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Be Very Worried About Barzani Family Power Struggle

American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.

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American officials tend to lionize Iraqi Kurdistan, and not without reason. Iraqi Kurdistan has, for more than two decades, been stable and relatively secure. And while its claims to be democratic are a bit exaggerated, its transformation in a relatively short period of time is astounding.

That said, the region was never democratic—the freest and fairest election it had was in 1992—and then the leaders simply massaged the process in order to maintain their hold. Regional President Masud Barzani, for example, is officially limited to two terms by the constitution, but got around the problem by extending his second term extra-legally. Simply put, today, Iraqi Kurdistan is a dictatorship.

The two ruling families dominate politics and society. Masud Barzani is president and lives in a palace complex in a resort inherited from Saddam Hussein. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. His uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, was Iraq’s foreign minister and is now finance minister. Masud’s eldest son, Masrour Barzani, leads the intelligence service; and his second son Mansour is a general, as is Masud’s brother Wajy. Barzani’s nephew Sirwan owns the regional cell phone company which, while purchased with public money, remains a private holding. Barzani’s sons are frequently in Washington D.C. They have their wives give birth in Sibley Hospital in order to ensure the next generation has American citizenship, and Masrour Barzani acquired an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. Hanging out in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, some of Masoud Barzani’s daughters-in-law have, according to Kurdish circles, been known to introduce themselves as “Princesses of Kurdistan” as they visit high-end shops accompanied by their own rather unnecessary (while in the United States) security details.

(Barzani isn’t the only family dynasty, just the most important one. Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad runs a number of media outlets, “non-governmental organizations,” and maintains a stranglehold over the finances of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party Talabani founded. She calls the shots for her son Qubad, whom she maneuvered into the deputy premiership. Lahur Talabani, the former president’s nephew, is head of his party’s counter-terrorism unit. President Talabani, when deciding who from his party should join him in Baghdad, appointed his brother-in-law Latif Rashid to be a minister.)

Family means everything in Kurdistan. When Masud Barzani met with President Obama several years ago at the White House, he brought with him Masrour and nephew Nechirvan even though the latter at the time was out of office and without any governmental role. Barham Salih, the serving prime minister, stayed home. Barham simply didn’t come from the right family. The Barzani Charity Foundation has “urged” other non-governmental organizations not to compete in certain sectors, or face the consequences. Meanwhile, its funds—Kurdish NGO workers and journalist say—go as much toward private jets and six-figure salaries as they do to assistance.

Masud Barzani is a dictator. As Islamist terrorists rage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Barzani remains calm to that supposed provocation. But when Sardasht Osman, a young Kurdish journalist, penned a relatively innocent poem highlighting how his life and fortunes would change if he married Barzani’s daughter—a subtle and sophisticated poke at the region’s nepotism and corruption—Barzani’s security service led by son Masrour apparently kidnapped and executed him. Family trumps everything.

For policymakers and businessmen in the United States or Europe who seek only stability and do not prioritize democracy, that may be fine. After all, aside from Israel and perhaps now Tunisia, the Middle East isn’t known for democracy. That stability, however, is on the verge of breaking down and, ironically, the reason is family.

Masud Barzani is nearing 70 years old. Like many Middle Eastern potentates, he is carefully considering his succession. While many in the West assume that Nechirvan Barzani, on paper the second-most powerful Kurdish figure, would be next in line, Masud has apparently decided to cast his lot with son Masrour. There have been subtle personnel changes and alterations in portfolios in recent years as Masrour has consolidated power. Take the case of Karim Sinjari: In theory the interior minister answering to Nechirvan Barzani, Sinjari has seen Masrour encroach on his power and portfolio in recent years. Whereas Sinjari once was responsible for the region’s impressive security, today Sinjari’s title may be the same but he holds sway over little more than local and traffic police forces.

The result of the power struggle matters. Both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani would be corrupt by any American standard. Certainly, that’s a more difficult call by Iraqi and Kurdish law which doesn’t define business and political conflicts of interest in the same way. Still, both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds. That said, while Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, it is in the Tammany Hall sense: his machine may be shady at times, but it delivers not only to his immediate inner circle but to the public at large. Nechirvan is skilled, works with both supporters and opposition, and is generally popular. He does not exaggerate his academic or military prowess; he is self-confident enough to know that he need not bother, and that the general public sees through and privately jokes about embellishments. Nechirvan also knows that it is far better to co-opt or ignore opponents than use force to imprison or kill them.

Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade—the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics in Virginia and Vienna, and the murder of journalists seem to rest at Masrour’s feet.

The problem may be generational: The Barzanis are much like the Saudis. Both Masud Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, were tribal leaders. Even at the height of their power, they remained close to the people. With every generation, however, the Saudis and Barzanis grew more isolated. Masud understands why his father was popular and may genuinely desire to be the same sort of leader, but he has allowed a huge distance—both literal and figurative—to develop between himself and the people he supposedly represents. He does not mix and mingle. The newest generation, however, has no real memory of their grandfather, and so has a very limited sense of the responsibility they inherit. They were born to power and see it as an entitlement. If Masoud Barzani’s grandsons enter the Erbil airport or any other government complex, scores of servants will bow and genuflect toward them. Grow up with endless servants and grown men singing your praises, little discipline and a sense that rules and the law are beneath you, and the same sort of perverse morality and mindset that afflicted Saddam Hussein’s sons and Muammar Gaddafi’s children can take root. Whereas Nechirvan uses power with nuance and still seeks to deliver, Masrour can simply be cruel. Human-rights monitors say that businessmen who do not pay him kickbacks are imprisoned, and journalists who write critically of him or his father disappear. He is quick to threaten, and seldom delivers. Nechirvan is smart; Masrour is not. Prior to the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul, for example, Nechirvan understood the danger they posed; Masrour was too clever by half and apparently thought he could use them against political enemies.

Various people have tried to warn Masud about his sons’ behavior. In the past, Barzani supporters would say that Masud was simply unaware of their antics. Seldom does anyone hear such excuses anymore. Kurdish officials—and even Barzani family members—whisper that, like Saddam Hussein, Barzani is aware of the excesses and behavior of his sons but simply does not care. Family trumps Kurdistan, let alone democracy.

What does this mean for the United States? Privately, both diplomats and intelligence circles seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour-Nechirvan split and, if it is not too strong a term, the psychopathic trends within Masrour’s behavior. They have expressed their displeasure by withdrawing diplomatic etiquette and searching Masrour and his delegation at Dulles airport, but there is a limit to what American officials are willing to do. That said, post-Masud Kurdistan—and potentially U.S.-Kurdish relations—will be far different with Masrour predominant than with Nechirvan in charge. The question for U.S. policymakers and perhaps the intelligence community as well is whether they are content to watch a slow-motion train wreck or whether leverage exists to prevent worst-case scenarios from developing. What they should under no circumstances take for granted is security in Kurdistan. Leadership matters.

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Hezbollah Is Neither Reformed nor Moderate

No doubt, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has taken Sunni sectarianism and extremism to a new level, but that doesn’t make Hezbollah, a group which prior to 9/11 was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization, either moderate or a partner. And, yet, that’s exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry effectively believe. And the farther left on the American political spectrum one goes, the worse the love affair with Hezbollah becomes. Zaid Jilani, a blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization affiliated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that “Hezbollah is socially progressive and always has been.” This, of course, is nonsense.

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No doubt, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has taken Sunni sectarianism and extremism to a new level, but that doesn’t make Hezbollah, a group which prior to 9/11 was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization, either moderate or a partner. And, yet, that’s exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry effectively believe. And the farther left on the American political spectrum one goes, the worse the love affair with Hezbollah becomes. Zaid Jilani, a blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization affiliated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that “Hezbollah is socially progressive and always has been.” This, of course, is nonsense.

It’s useful to remember just what Hezbollah is about. Hezbollah is not, by any means, progressive. Its loyalty, both politically and religiously, is to the philosophy and theology espoused by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. Visit Mleeta, Hezbollah’s answer to Disneyland, tour Hezbollah cave networks and above their bedrolls are posters of their Khomeini, their source of emulation. Nor is Hezbollah a Lebanese nationalist organization, as some journalists and diplomats claim. A Lebanese nationalist organization would not have turned its guns on fellow Lebanese in Beirut in 2008, nor would it have sent hundreds if not thousands of young Lebanese to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Then, of course, there’s Hezbollah’s genocidal ideology. On October 23, 2002, the Daily Star, Lebanon’s premier newspaper, quoted Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as declaring, “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” Such anti-Semitism was the rule rather than the exception. Whereas many anti-Semites couch their hatred of Jews in anti-Zionism, Nasrallah had no patience for such word-smithing. “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli,” he reportedly declared. Even, if as some suggest, that quote actually came from another member of the Hezbollah hierarchy, the point remains the same. Then, of course, on Hezbollah’s television channel Al-Manar, he declared that the Jews are the “grandsons of apes and pigs.”

In 2000, Israel withdrew from territory it had occupied in 1982, a withdrawal the United Nations certified as complete. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has refused to recognize the border, claiming not only Har Dov (in Arabic, the Shebaa Farms), territory which Israel technically occupied from Syria and which was reflected as Syrian on a map on Lebanese currency, but also seven villages in Israel’s Galilee, towns which have been Israeli since the Jewish state’s independence. If Israel withdrew from these villages, expect Hezbollah to claim Haifa has always been Lebanese as well. After all, when diplomats prefer a lie and quiet to truth and conflict, why not keep pushing for more concessions?

In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah went to war after Hezbollah attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Such actions were done at the behest not of Lebanon’s elected leaders or its people, but rather to please Hezbollah’s paymasters in Tehran. That war ended with an international pledge to ensure Hezbollah’s disarmament. Well, Hezbollah has once again illustrated that United Nations and European Union guarantees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed. On January 14, al-Manar broadcast Nasrallah’s claim that Hezbollah has “every conceivable type of weapon” and that Hezbollah’s new weapons will “break the Israeli national morale and immunity during an upcoming war.” And here is Nasrallah, going further, and talking about his organization’s preparedness to enter Galilee. So how is it that internationally-certified withdrawal from territory will bring peace?

Back to Obama and Kerry. Sure, the Islamic State is an adversary (one that deserves a real strategy to counter and not simply symbolic and ineffective opposition). But to think that Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah are somehow moderate and responsible partners is not naïveté; it is gross incompetence, a mistake that betrays Israel, America’s Arab allies, and U.S. security itself, and will have long-term implications throughout the region. Having allowed Syria to fester and metastasize, it will be impossible to bring peace to that country anytime soon. But, make no mistake: the enemy is not simply Sunni extremists, but extremists of any sect whatsoever. Forget the adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this battle, the enemies are not limited to a single side.

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Terror Motivated by “Foreign Occupation”? The Data Says Otherwise.

I was shocked and disturbed by one of the passages Seth Mandel quoted Wednesday from a book by a well-regarded scholar of comparative religion. According to Karen Armstrong, ascribing Islamist terror mainly to religious motivations is wrong; “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations.” As Seth correctly noted, that claim ignores some pretty glaring historical evidence. But it also ignores the latest hard data, published just this month by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

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I was shocked and disturbed by one of the passages Seth Mandel quoted Wednesday from a book by a well-regarded scholar of comparative religion. According to Karen Armstrong, ascribing Islamist terror mainly to religious motivations is wrong; “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations.” As Seth correctly noted, that claim ignores some pretty glaring historical evidence. But it also ignores the latest hard data, published just this month by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

According to INSS, only 3 percent of all suicide bombings in 2014 were carried out against foreign armies. The vast majority targeted home-grown governments, militaries, and security services or rival ethnic and religious groups. And needless to say, almost all were carried out by Muslim extremists.

Nor can Armstrong and her unnamed experts be excused on the grounds that the world has changed since her book was published. A decade ago, before the explosive rise of Sunni-versus-Shi’ite violence in places like Iraq and Syria, the collapse of several Arab states and resulting internecine violence in places like Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the upsurge of violence by groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan, perhaps their thesis might have been more tenable. But Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence was published in 2014–the same year in which “foreign occupation” accounted for a mere 3 percent of all suicide bombings.

One can understand why experts might prefer to view Islamist terror as a response to “foreign occupation,” because if that were true, the whole problem would be within the West’s power to solve: Withdraw all Western forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and other countries; force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, India from Kashmir, China from Xinjiang, and so forth; and presto, no more Islamist terror.

Nevertheless, this view has two big problems even aside from the fact that it belies the data. First, it denies Muslim extremists any agency, refusing to acknowledge that they could possibly have dreams and aspirations of their own. All the goals the extremists claim to desire–restoring the caliphate, imposing Sharia law, defeating the West, eradicating Israel, reconquering Andalusia–are dismissed as mere window-dressing.

Indeed, this view reduces Muslims to mere human versions of Pavlov’s dog, responding automatically to the stimulus of “foreign occupation” with no possibility of doing otherwise. And it ought to go without saying that any theory that reduces some human beings to puppets dancing on a string pulled by others–i.e., that ascribes agency to Westerners alone while denying it to Muslims–is liable to be a poor explanation of reality.

Second, because it is a poor explanation of reality, this theory not only precludes any possibility of dealing with the real problem posed by Islamic extremism, but is liable to lead to counterproductive solutions. For instance, if “foreign occupation” were really the problem, then withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan might be productive. But if the problem is that Muslim extremists want to restore the global caliphate, Western withdrawals are actually counterproductive. Withdrawing leaves behind weak governments that the extremists can easily topple, giving them control of more territory and resources; it also makes the extremists look like they’re winning, which attracts more supporters to their banner.

The best way to defeat an extremist ideology is to show its potential adherents that it’s a dead end incapable of producing any real-world gains. But to do that, the West must first recognize that the problem is the ideology, not the straw man of “foreign occupation.”

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Obama’s Pass-the-Buck Foreign Policy

So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

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So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqis are frustrated with the U.S. campaign which they deride as “too slow and too small.” The U.S. has been especially remiss in not doing more to mobilize Sunni tribes; most of our aid is going to Kurdish forces, even though they can’t take and hold Sunni Arab areas, and to government security forces, even though they are deeply penetrated by Iranian militias that are anathema to Sunnis.

The fact that the U.S. isn’t doing more is leading to the growth of conspiracy theories which hold that the U.S. secretly wants ISIS to succeed. And this despite the fact that there has been some progress in Iraq in checking ISIS’s advance and even pushing it out of some contested areas–if not out of Mosul and Fallujah, the major cities it captured last year.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Another Journal article notes that “jihadist fighters have enlarged their hold in Syria since the U.S. started hitting the group’s strongholds there in September.” About the only thing the U.S. has accomplished in Syria is to prevent the border town of Kobani, held by Kurds, from falling to ISIS. Everywhere else ISIS remains on the offensive. The fact that ISIS enjoys a safe haven in Syria also makes it virtually impossible to defeat it in Iraq: If you squeeze too hard in Iraq, ISIS fighters can always retreat and regroup across the border.

Much of the problem in Syria is that the U.S. has no reliable proxy on the ground to coordinate and exploit air strikes. Yet the Obama administration still refuses to launch the kind of crash training program for the Free Syrian Army that it should have undertaken years ago. Nor will it declare a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s air force from bombing moderate rebels or set up buffer zones along Syria’s borders where anti-Assad forces can mobilize a more moderate alternative to ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Admittedly, given the administration’s scandalous and stupid neglect of Syria, it may be too late to accomplish any of this–but the attempt must still be made.

The fact that the administration isn’t doing more suggests that President Obama may well be content to run out the clock on his administration–only two more years to go!–and hand off the problem to his successor. But while that may be the most politically expedient path, it is not a course likely to defeat the jihadist menace that looms not only over the Middle East but over France and the U.S., among other Western states, as well.

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Interplay Between Turkey and al-Qaeda Revealed?

Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

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Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Such documents—which appear to be legitimate and the leaking of which the Turkish government has responded to by trying to shut down accounts housing them, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook as well—are, according to initial reports, the statements of those questioned when the Turkish military raided trucks heading into Syria carrying arms and weaponry. The trucks, it turns out, were driven by employees of the MIT. The arms were apparently destined for more radical groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When the police stopped the trucks, the Erdoğan regime was furious, and ordered the press not to report on the incident, declaring it “a state secret.” Alas, just as dictators in North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, or the former Soviet Union have learned, it is impossible to completely control news and the flow of information.

Turkey is not simply wrong on policy; it appears to be a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Simply put, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) likely would not exist if it were not for Turkish assistance and Qatari financing. At the very least, the United States, every member of the European Union, and every Arab state should call Turkish ambassadors in and read them the riot act. If the documents are real, Turkey should no longer avoid designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it’s long past time the United States and its Canadian and European allies began a serious dialogue about Turkey’s role in NATO.

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