Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Obama Has Given Up on Iraq

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was busy yesterday commenting on the calamitous situation in Iraq—and in the process making it even worse. Read More

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was busy yesterday commenting on the calamitous situation in Iraq—and in the process making it even worse.

He told Fox News: “The United States is not going to be responsible for securing the security situation inside of Iraq.”

And then on NPR he rejected calls to send 25,000 or so troops to Iraq, saying:

We are unwilling to dedicate that kind of blood and treasure to Iraq again. We saw what the result of that previous investment was. And that is not discounting the bravery and courage of our men and women in uniform – they had a substantial impact on the security situation there. But the Iraqi people, and because of the failed leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, was not able to capitalize on it.

So our strategy right now is predicated on building up the capacity of those local forces and giving them another opportunity to control the security situation inside their own country and to do so with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. But we’re not going to be able to do it for them.

This comes only days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter excoriated Iraqi troops for their lack of will to fight. What does it say about the US will to fight when the White House spokesman is saying that Iraq is so unimportant that we will not take any responsibility for the outcome there? That we are not willing to dedicate American “blood and treasure” to defeat ISIS?

The obvious takeaway is that this White House has little will or desire to oppose ISIS — that this president doesn’t see the destruction of ISIS as an important US national security objective even though that is exactly what he pledged to achieve. Once again, there is a major disconnect between the president’s strong rhetoric (“we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” he promised on Sept. 10), and his anemic actions that can only cause a further loss of American credibility.

Another obvious takeaway is that not even the failure of Obama’s present strategy will cause him to rethink his approach. The loss of Ramadi has not shaken him out of his complacency. He’s willing to send 3,000 advisers and some warplanes under very restrictive rules of engagement, but that’s about it. Beyond that, the Iraqis are on their own. The White House just doesn’t care that much.

That’s quite a message to send to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been deployed to Iraq since 2003, and especially to the relatives of the 4,491 who gave their lives there (as well as the tens of thousands wounded, many severely). Obama, via his spokesman, seems to be saying that their sacrifices didn’t matter much because the US has no overriding security interest in Iraq.

That is also the message that Obama is sending, of course, to those US military personnel currently deployed to Iraq. One can only imagine what it does for their morale to hear the chief spokesman of their commander-in-chief — the man who sent them into harm’s way — explaining how unimportant their mission is.

But the worst effect of Josh Earnest’s seeming sangfroid about the future of Iraq is the message that he sends to Iraqis themselves. They are caught between two blood-thirsty ogres: ISIS and Iran. The US is the only outside force that could conceivably bolster a third alternative — a more moderate alternative — that would have wide appeal to Iraqis. That’s what we were doing until 2012, and with considerable success. But Obama was not willing to play that role anymore. He pulled out US troops and not even the consequent rise of ISIS is causing him to making a serious commitment.

So what he is basically signaling to Iraqis is that they need to choose sides among the outside powers that, unlike the U.S., ARE willing to risk blood and treasure in Iraq. Inevitably that means Sunnis will choose to go with ISIS and Shiites with Iran’s Quds Force.

It’s astonishing that even after all these years in power President Obama and his aides still have not grasped the importance of displaying presidential will in warfare. The lack of that will has already undermined the US mission in Afghanistan (remember that 18-month timeline on the surge that Obama ordered in 2009?) and it is now making progress hard to imagine in Iraq, much less in Syria.

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ISIS’s First Foreign War

The ISIS proto-state knows how to fight a war. Following the group’s successful simultaneous assaults on Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, ISIS is pressing its advantage. On Thursday, twin car bombs exploded in the center of Baghdad. The attacks targeted the Babylon Hotel, a landmark located on the Tigris River across from the massive United States embassy facility in what used to be the city’s Green Zone. The attack killed 10 and wounded at least 30. A third car bomb that Baghdad police found in the hotel parking lot failed to detonate, or the toll would have been higher. Read More

The ISIS proto-state knows how to fight a war. Following the group’s successful simultaneous assaults on Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, ISIS is pressing its advantage. On Thursday, twin car bombs exploded in the center of Baghdad. The attacks targeted the Babylon Hotel, a landmark located on the Tigris River across from the massive United States embassy facility in what used to be the city’s Green Zone. The attack killed 10 and wounded at least 30. A third car bomb that Baghdad police found in the hotel parking lot failed to detonate, or the toll would have been higher.

Foreign affairs analysts have long suspected that ISIS, a primarily Sunni insurgency, cannot capture a sprawling city like Baghdad with its massive Shia-dominated neighborhoods. ISIS’s logistical lines would be too long, the indigenous resistance too fierce, and the cost in lives suffered by the terrorist group’s relatively modest forces too staggering for the city to fall. But others have speculated that ISIS does not need a 10,000-strong occupational force to crush the Baghdad’s will to resist; its present strategy of weakening the city’s defenses with high-yield, low-tech car bombs, and the infiltration of ISIS insurgents into the city concealed in the waves of refugees displaced from Western Iraq will eventually wear down the city’s defenses until the street fighting can begin in earnest.

While ISIS’s threat to Iraq’s greatest city is of grave concern, what should perhaps be more troubling is the Islamic State’s determination to export terrorism abroad. The Sunni insurgency demonstrated that it possesses not only the will but also the capability to mount an expeditionary terrorist campaign.

Last week, ahead of Friday prayers, a Saudi Arabian citizen walked into a mosque in the Kingdom’s Shia-dominated city of Qatif and blew himself up. The suicide assault on the Shiite mosque killed 21 and injured scores more. Shortly after that, the Saudi Kingdom confirmed the accuracy of ISIS’s claim to have orchestrated that attack.

The Saudi foreign ministry soon identified the explosives used in that attack as RDX, a military-grade compound also used in commercial demolition that is the basic chemical used to make C-4 and Semtex high explosives.

It was the largest terrorist attack on the Saudi state since 2004 when al-Qaeda militants targeted a foreign workers compound. “Unlike that attack over a decade ago, Friday’s strike targeted members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority — a sect that both the Islamic State group and ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia regularly denounce as heretics,” Fox News reported. Also unlike 2004, ISIS was able to repeat the feat just one week later.

On Friday, another ISIS-linked Saudi man approached a Shia mosque in the city of Dammam. Heightened security ensured that he could not enter that religious facility and, faced with insurmountable adversity, the attacker detonated his suicide explosives in the mosque’s parking lot. Four were killed in that attack, but the death toll would have been much higher had the yet-unidentified terrorist been allowed to enter the mosque.

These attacks come just one month after the Saudi Kingdom reportedly foiled an ISIS-led plot to target the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh with a suicide car bomb. 77 of the 93 people arrested in connection with that attack were reportedly Saudi nationals.

The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority are not just tactically deft; they are strategically shrewd. Saudi Arabia is presently leading what can only be described as a coalition of Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern nations in a proxy war in Yemen against forces funded, trained, and supported by Shiite-led Iran. Exacerbating internal sectarian tensions inside Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a key Western ally for generations, would weaken the Saudi state considerably.

It is difficult to envision the collapse of the Saudi government amid internal tension and external pressure from antagonistic insurgencies presently occupying territory on Saudi Arabia’s northern and southern borders. It is similarly hard to imagine Baghdad falling to the nascent terrorist state. But ISIS has demonstrated that it does not lack for inventiveness and vision. A strategy aimed at igniting sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia has the same prospects for success in Baghdad, where the heavy hand of Tehran-backed Shiite militias is acutely felt in the city’s Sunni neighborhoods. By contrast, the West’s luminaries have comforted themselves only months ago with the notion that many of ISIS’s present victories were impossible to achieve. Perhaps it is time for Western leaders to start entertaining the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of those who write for The Daily Beast.

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The White House Treats a Foreign Policy Disaster Like a Political Crisis

Nearly one year after the ISIS hordes charged screaming over the Syrian border and sacked Mosul, they’ve repeated the feat in Ramadi – the capital of the restive Anbar province, and a city located just 70 miles from Baghdad. Simultaneously, ISIS forces launched an offensive to the north and captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the face of this humiliation more than nine months after the start of renewed coalition bombing missions over Iraq, the White House dubiously continued to insist that everything was going according to plan. Except, there never was any plan.

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Nearly one year after the ISIS hordes charged screaming over the Syrian border and sacked Mosul, they’ve repeated the feat in Ramadi – the capital of the restive Anbar province, and a city located just 70 miles from Baghdad. Simultaneously, ISIS forces launched an offensive to the north and captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the face of this humiliation more than nine months after the start of renewed coalition bombing missions over Iraq, the White House dubiously continued to insist that everything was going according to plan. Except, there never was any plan.

“Look, there were several things that surprised us about ISIL,” outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told PBS reporter Martin Smith in a recent exit interview. “The degree to which they were able to form their own coalition, both inside of Syria — and inside of northwestern Iraq; the military capability that they exhibited — the collapse of the Iraq Security Forces. Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises.”

The concession that the fall of Mosul was a source of astonishment for American military planners prompted former senior Iraq CIA officer John Maguire to demand Dempsey resign. While the Pentagon surely deserves some censure for the current state of affairs in the Middle East, it’s perhaps unwise to scapegoat Gen. Dempsey when it is the administration’s shortsightedness that merits criticism.

The New York Times revealed this week that the administration has steadfastly refused to shift tactics in response to ISIS’s shocking gains. The coalition air campaign over Iraq manages to conduct an average of 15 sorties per day; an embarrassingly small number of airstrikes compared to prior engagements that leaves the observer thinking that this war is being conducted in a perfunctory and halfhearted fashion. “The administration’s commitment or lack thereof sends a loud and clear signal to Iraqis: the US has little willingness to fight ISIS,” Max Boot noted. “And that message in turn undermines the fighting spirit of the Iraqis.”

By contrast, ISIS’s strategic approach to its war of conquest has been strikingly dynamic. “Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.” The report added that the ISIS forces are converting captured American armored vehicles into “megabombs,” each with the destructive force equivalent to one of the devices used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

What’s more, ISIS forces operate with virtual impunity outside the frontlines. Beyond the occasional special forces operation — admittedly inspiring feats of derring-do by American servicemen that yield tangible benefits — ISIS operatives apparently have little to fear from U.S.-led coalition airpower.

“[T]he sorties flown so far have been minimal, and damage inflicted still less, even as ISIS held a parade in broad daylight in Rutba, Iraq, last week,” former CIA case officer Kevin Carroll revealed in a recent Journal op-ed outlining some of the tactical shifts the U.S. needs to contemplate. “That is the kind of target our aviators dream of. Rules of engagement need to be loosened, U.S. air controllers sent to the front to call in strikes, and more combat aircraft put into the fight.”

In a lamentably predictable display of political spinning from this administration when faced with adversity, the White House’s response to ISIS’s victories in Iraq and Syria has been utterly incoherent. In response to the fall of Ramadi, the president contended that he does not believe “we’re losing” the fight. Though dispiriting — “not losing” is a far cry from winning — this was perhaps an attempt by the president to raise ebbing morale. Days later, however, a variety of administration officials shifted blame for the collapse of the anti-ISIS effort back onto Iraqis which, some contended, lacked the will to resist ISIS’s advance.

Finally, after a considerable amount of blame shifting and reluctance to address suboptimal realities, the White House has conceded that it needs to consider a shift in tactics. On Wednesday, White House Communications Director Jennifer Psaki conceded that they do need to “adapt our strategy” to contend with the ISIS threat. It is, however, possible that this was merely Psaki veering wildly off message. She did, after all, note that that tactical shift would consist primarily of arming, training, and equipping Iraqi forces that she maintained in the next breath have neither the will nor the competence to successfully beat back ISIS. Still, this modest moment of self-critical awareness is worthy of praise, even more so if it presages some concrete policy adaptations from this administration.

In the meanwhile, ISIS has begun the familiar process of cementing its hold over its newly acquired territories by first executing the irreplaceable Iraqis who cooperated with the government in Baghdad. At least 500 were killed, and another 25,000 displaced in the immediate wake of the fall of Ramadi – the new tide of refugees all swarming on the increasingly beleaguered capital. And still the administration treats this grave security threat as though it were a domestic political issue that would disappear if only the White House could settle on the right messaging.

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Damned Lies and Fact-Checkers

If Mark Twain were around he would have to modify his famous aphorism about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to add another category of lies–reporter’s attempts at fact-checking politicians. This practice has become prevalent in recent decades, but more often than not it is simply a way for reporters to sneak dubious editorializing into the guise of an ostensibly straight news story — to try to put forward their own spin and bias in opposition to the politicians’ spin and bias.

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If Mark Twain were around he would have to modify his famous aphorism about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to add another category of lies–reporter’s attempts at fact-checking politicians. This practice has become prevalent in recent decades, but more often than not it is simply a way for reporters to sneak dubious editorializing into the guise of an ostensibly straight news story — to try to put forward their own spin and bias in opposition to the politicians’ spin and bias.

Case in point is this article from the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler awarding Jeb Bush “four Pinocchios” for his alleged lack of truthfulness. What is it that Bush said that is so wrong? Did he claim that Obama was a secret Muslim? That one of his GOP rivals was a Ku Kluxer? That Hillary Clinton had ordered the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi?

Not quite. Here is the statement from Jeb that so offended Glenn Kessler:

“ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president.”

Kessler claims this is a lie because “to a large extent, the Islamic State of today is simply an outgrowth of al-Qaeda of Iraq,” and AQI came into being while George W. Bush was president. AQI even proclaimed an Islamic State in Iraq in 2006 after the death of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

It’s certainly true that ISIS is an outgrowth of AQI, but what Bush said was right, not wrong. While the chaotic conditions of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 allowed AQI to flourish, it was largely defeated during the surge in 2007-2008. Kessler cites a 2009 US intelligence assessment that AQI “is likely to retain a residual capacity to undertake terrorist operations for years to come.” But the rest of the report, which Kessler, to his credit, also cites, goes on to note:  “AQI, although still dangerous, has experienced the defection of members, lost key mobilization areas, suffered disruption of support infrastructure and funding, and been forced to change targeting priorities.”

I would go further and say that by the time the U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, AQI, while still in existence, was no longer a significant strategic threat to the well-being of the Iraqi state. It had, in a word, been defeated.

What happened next? A civil war broke out in Syria, the US did little to stop it, and the chaotic conditions which then prevailed in Syria allowed AQI to get a fresh lease on life. Soon it had metamorphosed into the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, and using Syria as its base, it expanded back into Iraq. In 2014 it proclaimed a caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq–a new Islamic State that never previously existed.

What Jeb Bush said, then, is certainly true: the Islamic State did not exist when George W. Bush was president, and al-Qaeda in Iraq was essentially defeated during his administration. It emerged stronger than ever in no small part because of Obama’s neglect of the region.

You can criticize Jeb for failing to note that it was his brother’s policies — specifically the failure to establish security in Iraq in 2003-2006 — that made AQI a threat in the first place, but what he said was truthful if not necessarily complete. To argue otherwise is tendentious — akin to calling a politician a liar for saying that the Republican Party was founded in 1854 because its predecessor, the Whig Party, had been founded in 1833.

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The Predictably Shoddy Results of America’s Halfhearted War Against ISIS

When I heard over the weekend that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had said that there was “no will to fight” ISIS, I was ready to applaud him for speaking an unfashionable truth, as his predecessor Bob Gates had done. But it seems that Carter was not indicting the Obama administration’s lack of will—he was talking about the Iraqis.

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When I heard over the weekend that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had said that there was “no will to fight” ISIS, I was ready to applaud him for speaking an unfashionable truth, as his predecessor Bob Gates had done. But it seems that Carter was not indicting the Obama administration’s lack of will—he was talking about the Iraqis.

If Carter were intent on being honest—rather than attempting to blame the administration’s shortcomings on our allies—he would talk about the lack of will exposed in the administration’s inadequate response to the growing threat of ISIS. As the New York Times today notes: “The air campaign has averaged a combined total of about 15 strikes a day in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq War in 2003 about 800 a day.”

The Times article also includes amazing quotes from an A-10 pilot who complains: “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not.”

Senior military leaders justify such tight restrictions on the grounds that they want to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. That is a real concern, but US aircraft would be able to drop a lot more bombs with a lot more precision if American forward-air-controllers were allowed to embed with Iraqi units on the front lines. That, however, is forbidden by this administration which has sent just 3,000 advisers to Iraq and imposed such tight restrictions on them that they are functionally forbidden from leaving their bases. Amazingly Canadian special operations forces operate with more freedom in Iraq than their American counterparts.

The administration’s commitment or lack thereof sends a loud and clear signal to Iraqis: the US has little willingness to fight ISIS. And that message in turn undermines the fighting spirit of the Iraqis.

Recall that the 2007 Anbar Awakening only happened once Iraqis saw that President Bush wasn’t going to cut and run; his surge catalyzed the Sunnis’ turn away from al-Qaeda in Iraq, predecessor of ISIS. As one tribal sheikh told the author Bing West, the Sunnis were willing to fight with the Americans once they concluded the Marines were the “strongest tribe.”

No one looking at Iraq today would conclude the Americans are the strongest force on the ground. Our commitment is dwarfed by that of ISIS and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Not surprisingly, then, Sunnis are not willing to stick their necks out to fight against ISIS when they know Americans don’t have their back and they are afraid that by vanquishing ISIS they will only subjugate themselves to sectarian Shiite domination.

The Shite militias, directed and armed by Iran, have, to be sure, shown more fighting spirit—but that is largely to keep ISIS and other Sunni groups out of the Shiite heartland. They have little desire to waste their resources conquering the Sunni heartland. In fact Iran is largely satisfied with ISIS continuing to hold domain over large parts of Iraq and Syria—this provides a convenient excuse for the Iranians to exert their domination over the Shiite/Alawite parts of those countries.

Most Iraqis, like most Middle Easterners (indeed most people around the world), will make an accommodation with whichever force appears to be strongest in their neighborhood rather than fight to the death against hopeless odds. Only if the US helps to tilt the odds against ISIS—and gives Sunnis a reasonable assurance that they will be able to defeat ISIS if they rise up, rather than be slaughtered as has happened so often in the past—will we see Iraqis showing more will to fight. But to achieve that will require President Obama to show a lot more will to fight than he has so far exhibited.

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Obama Blames Iraqis for America’s Failure

There is a lot of interesting material in President Obama’s interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic beginning with the president’s claim: “No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground.” I can’t help remembering that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush said some variation of that statement regularly between 2003 to 2006 even as we were manifestly losing. Earth to Oval Office: Just because military commanders tell you that they’re not losing doesn’t mean that they’re right!

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There is a lot of interesting material in President Obama’s interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic beginning with the president’s claim: “No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground.” I can’t help remembering that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush said some variation of that statement regularly between 2003 to 2006 even as we were manifestly losing. Earth to Oval Office: Just because military commanders tell you that they’re not losing doesn’t mean that they’re right!

The US military is the finest fighting force in the world, but its officers are prone to over-optimistic assessments—the flip side of their “can do” ethos. It’s striking that this president who so routinely ignores military advice (by, for example, imposing a time limit on the surge in Afghanistan and by forbidding US advisers in Iraq from leaving their bases) now embraces military thinking when it’s so deeply flawed, yet convenient for him. Like the assessments of progress that emanated from the Pentagon and the White House during 2003-2006, this one is not going to be believed by many people.

But that’s not what I want to focus on here. What I want to focus on is this statement from the president: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.” That’s a statement that’s likely to have wider resonance even among Republicans. Indeed, it was a common trope during debates over whether to send more forces to Iraq in 2006-2007. Many on both the left and the right wondered why the US should be helping Iraqis when Iraqis appeared not to be willing to help themselves.

This misses the point on several levels.

First and foremost, we’re not in Iraq now, any more than we were during the 2003-2011 period, to help the Iraqis. We’re there to help ourselves because we perceive threats to our national security. Before those threats came from Al Qaeda in Iraq and from Iranian-backed Shiite militias; today from ISIS and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. We need to work with Iraqis to advance our interests, but if we feel that there is insufficient effort on the part of the Iraqis, we can’t simply throw up our hands in despair and walk out—that would be a serious blow to American interests in the region. Instead, we need to figure out how to better motivate the Iraqis to fight hard.

Obama’s broad-brush indictment of Iraqis misses the all-critical circumstances in which Iraqis find themselves. Imagine that a vicious street gang were terrorizing a neighborhood of Detroit or South Central Los Angeles. Would we blame the residents for not being willing to confront the gang on their own and thereby conclude that the residents were not worth saving? Of course not. Because we would recognize that a small number of heavily armed toughs can terrorize a neighborhood—and if sufficiently vicious they can even cow the local police force. That doesn’t mean that the residents want to live under the domination of the street gang, any more than Iraqis today want to live under the domination of ISIS or the Quds Force. The problem is that they don’t feel strong enough at the moment to rise up against those terrorist organizations.

Plenty of Iraqis have shown themselves more than willing to fight for their country—just recall how the Iraqi armed forces and the Sons of Iraq, in cooperation with US forces, routed Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and then later took on the Mahdist Army. The reason that today we consistently see small ISIS formations scattering much larger Iraqi units is that the Iraqi units have been undermined from within by corruption and sectarianism. Iraqi soldiers today are badly trained, badly led, badly supplied, badly motivated. But that’s not the fault of rank and file troops. The blame goes to the Shite sectarians who have dominated Baghdad since the American pullout in 2011. If Iraq forces have better leadership and training and supplies, as they did in 2007-2008, they will fight far more effectively.

It’s in America’s interest to increase the quality of Iraqi forces but that won’t happen unless we make more of a commitment ourselves, not only sending more American troops but also loosening restrictions that currently prevent our advisers from operating side by side with Iraqi units—the only way to significantly enhance Iraqi combat performance.

President Obama’s comments have a whiff of “blame the victim” about them, because ordinary Iraqis are the main victims of the vicious sectarian extremists who currently dominate their country. Most Iraqis would love a more moderate government of the kind they enjoyed until the US pullout in 2011, and it’s in our interest to help them achieve that goal. But don’t blame Iraqis for not being willing to stand up to the cut-throats of ISIS or the Quds Force on their own. Both organizations have substantial outside backing and to roll back their advance will require substantial support for more moderate forces—especially Sunni tribes—from the US and its allies.

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We Need More Islamist Radicals in the Pentagon!

The United States has been fighting a global war on terror, or a crusade against man-made disasters, for almost 14 years, and it has been more than 17 years since Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. (Perhaps President Bill Clinton could explain to President Barack Obama why it’s not wise to assume that declarations of death to America are not heartfelt). Alas, America’s strategy has not yet brought victory. Islamists are on the rampage across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Nigeria, the Gaza Strip, and the suburbs of Paris.

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The United States has been fighting a global war on terror, or a crusade against man-made disasters, for almost 14 years, and it has been more than 17 years since Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. (Perhaps President Bill Clinton could explain to President Barack Obama why it’s not wise to assume that declarations of death to America are not heartfelt). Alas, America’s strategy has not yet brought victory. Islamists are on the rampage across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Nigeria, the Gaza Strip, and the suburbs of Paris.

Perhaps, rather than adopt a military strategy that takes the fight to the Islamist radicals, it’s time to have American forces follow the advice of American diplomats, politicians, and generals who have long involvement counseling our allies and partners about their own counter-terror strategies.

Take Iraq, which is now reeling from the capture of Ramadi by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). A number of analysts have doubled down on the accusation that motivating ISIS is Baghdad’s sectarian refusal to work with its Sunni communities. If only Baghdad would include more Sunni tribesmen and ex-Baathists in government and the Iraqi army, then the problem would go away. There’s a certain comforting logic to this and so perhaps it should be replicated in Washington: If the problem is disillusionment among Islamists at lack of political power, essentially, an easily addressable grievance, why not bring more Islamists into the Pentagon? And if they don’t accept the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution in law, that’s no matter. After all, many Baathists don’t accept the legitimacy of the Iraqi constitution, but U.S. advice is that such trivial things don’t matter. And let’s ignore the fact that every time men like Gen. David Petraeus have forced the Iraqis to include Islamists and Baathists in their structures, the result has been Islamists and Baathists stabbing the Iraqi government in the back.

With tongue stuck even further in cheek, it’s important to understand that, even if Baghdad doesn’t have any clear Sunni partner—every Sunni delegation that meets with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has as their chief demand that he not listen to the other Sunni delegations which also claim to represent the same communities—how much outrage the supposed lack of Baghdad’s generosity sparks in the Sunni world. After all, if ISIS’ rampage in Iraq is the fault of the Iraqi government rather than ISIS’ religious and financial sponsors and furthermore, if ISIS’ misogynistic and murderous ideology really is not the motivating factor, then outrages at the Abadi government and, for that matter, Iran, surely explains why ISIS is all the rage in the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Libya, and increasingly Afghanistan as well. When Boko Haram seizes and enslaves Nigerian Christian girls, the logic of America’s approach to Iraq suggests that Boko Haram’s motivation is outrage at Baghdad rather than a twisted, religious interpretation that endorses murder, rape, and slavery.

Likewise, if inclusivity in government is paramount, perhaps what the United States needs is not more beer summits or Oval Office lectures, but an invitation from Obama to have Karl Rove and Valerie Jarrett share a desk. And I’m sure Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, won’t mind alternating months on duty with John Bolton. After all, a big tent always leads to happy, efficient government, right?

Or, rather than implement Washington’s advice to Baghdad, maybe it’s time to live our own advice to Jerusalem. Want peace between Israel and a radical group like Hamas that openly calls for genocide in its charter? More concessions are in order, the more unilateral, the better. So, perhaps, rather than fight the Islamic State, it’s time to offer a foothold. No one would really mind if Delaware disappeared, so perhaps it’s time to pull back from Dover Air Force Base and raise the black flag of ISIS over the Delaware Legislative Hall.

To be perfectly serious, there is no magic diplomatic or political formula to drain the swamp of Islamic radicalism. And while Iraqi governance leaves much to be desired, to attribute the rise of ISIS to Baghdad is essentially to blame the victim.

Can Iraq reform politically in a way that puts the onus of governance on local authorities, regardless of how and to whom they pray? Yes. Iraqis would accept administrative federalism, with certain caveats from the Kurds. Are the Iranians a panacea? No. To rely on Iran is like treating an ingrown toenail with a deadly dose of radiation. But are all the Shi’ites pro-Iranian puppets? No, although Americans treating them as such could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact of the matter is that Sunni refugees from Al-Anbar and even Mosul prefer to be in Najaf and Karbala than in Kurdistan, because Shi’ite sectarian discrimination isn’t as ingrained as the ethnic discrimination practiced in Kurdistan. Tales of looting and lynching in Tikrit turned out to have been wildly exaggerated. As the Sunni government in Tikrit renewed its function after that city’s liberation, one of the first things they did was work to build a memorial to all of those Shi’ites massacred by the Islamic State at Camp Speicher.

When advising the Iraqi government, Israeli government or, for that matter, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments or any other state struggling against Islamist terrorism, it would behoove American policymakers, diplomats, and generals to consider a simple question: Would the same advice applied to the United States enhance the U.S. fight against terrorism, or would it at best miss the point and at worst exacerbate conflict? Because ideology and not grievance drives Islamist terrorism, the anecdote must address that ideology and not simply seek to paper over grievance. And if the fallacy of an ideology cannot be immediately exposed, then the only answer is to kill the ideologues rather than tilt at windmills.

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Obama Needs a New ISIS Strategy

“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

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“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

For one thing, a rethink would have to begin with the acknowledgment that the current strategy isn’t working. But although the White House is now willing to grudgingly concede that the fall of Ramadi is a “setback” (government-speak for a “defeat”), White House spokesman Josh Ernest still claims that “overall”  the president’s anti-ISIS strategy is still working. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” Ernest truculently demanded. In a similar vein, the Journal quotes a “senior defense official” as saying: “The Department believes the current course of action is the right one.”

As long as the White House and Pentagon remain in a state of denial, they are unlikely to radically rethink their failing strategy. And indeed the Journal article offers scant evidence of such a rethink. It simply says that the White House “is poised to accelerate the training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters” and to deliver “1,000 shoulder-held rockets” to Baghdad. In other words, pretty much more of the same strategy that hasn’t been working.

What would it take for the US strategy to be more successful? I laid out some ideas in this Council on Foreign Relations policy memo. Among other points, I suggested lifting the prohibition on “boots on the ground”—i.e., allow US military personnel to accompany Iraqi forces on operations—and also increasing the size of the US force from the current 3,000 to 10,000 to 25,000 personnel.

In a similar vein, the military analysts Fred and Kim Kagan wrote yesterday: “A few thousand additional combat troops, backed by helicopters, armored vehicles and forward air controllers able to embed with Iraqi units at the battalion level, as well as additional Special Forces troops able to move about the countryside, would certainly prevent further gains [by ISIS]. They could almost certainly regain Ramadi and other recently lost areas of Anbar, in cooperation with local tribes. They might be able to do more.”

Beyond the military dimension there is an important political component missing in the US anti-ISIS strategy. Obama is expecting that Baghdad will arm Sunnis. But Iran has a de facto veto in Baghdad and it has no interest in arming any Sunnis. Iran also has no real desire to defeat ISIS—the existence of ISIS gives Iran a good excuse to grab power in the Shiite regions of Iraq following the strategy it has previously used in Lebanon and Syria. As long as we subordinate our anti-ISIS strategy to Baghdad/Tehran, it is bound to fail.

The US needs to make a major effort to bolster the power of independent Iraqis such as Prime Minister Abadi and to decrease the power of Iranian agents such as Hadi al-Amari, head of the Badr Organization, the largest Shiite militia. Such an effort would have to start at the top, with President Obama, and would involve sending more dynamic senior military and civilian representatives to Baghdad. The US needs to engineer a political deal to give Sunnis some degree of autonomy, guaranteed by the US. Otherwise, Sunnis will refuse to fight ISIS if they fear that by doing so they will simply be subordinating themselves to radical Shiite domination.

The US is not entirely powerless in Iraq even now, as the administration showed last year by orchestrating the toppling of Nouri al Maliki as prime minister. But ever since then, the White House seems to have ignored Iraqi politics, figuring that its work had been done. As a result, while prime ministers have changed, the underlying reality of Iranian dominance has not.  Indeed, even out of office, Maliki continues to exercise considerable power while Abadi’s own authority is considerably limited.

Reversing the losing course of the war against ISIS will require taking some difficult steps in both the military and political arenas beginning with the dispatch of more US troops. But alas there is no sign that the administration is truly open to the kind of fundamental recalculation that would be needed.  And as long as the strategy remains the same, expect more of the same results: which is to say, more gains by ISIS and the Shiite militias. And those gains will come not only in Iraq but also in Syria and as far afield as Libya.

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Obama’s Orwellian World

At his press briefing today, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl if our war strategy against the Islamic State is a success. “Overall, yes,” Earnest replied.

Overall, that answer is untrue. Overall, that answer is insane. Overall, that answer is Orwellian.

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At his press briefing today, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl if our war strategy against the Islamic State is a success. “Overall, yes,” Earnest replied.

Overall, that answer is untrue. Overall, that answer is insane. Overall, that answer is Orwellian.

To show how utterly dishonest this claim is, you might want to look at these pictures of members of the Islamic State holding a massive military parade in West Anbar, celebrating their victory in Ramadi. That would be Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq, which fell completely to militants of the Islamic State on Sunday. This represented, in the words of the New York Times, “the biggest victory so far this year for the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the vast areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls.”

But that victory by ISIS shouldn’t obscure the fact that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Islamic State leaders in Syria have sent money, trainers and fighters to Libya in increasing numbers, raising new concerns for the U.S. that the militant group is gaining traction in its attempts to broaden its reach and expand its influence. In recent months, U.S. military officials said, Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on rising popularity among extremist groups around the world.”

And those gains in Libya, in turn, shouldn’t obscure the fact that last week, as the Associated Press points out, “The Islamic State group … seized more territory in Syria’s central province of Homs amid clashes with government forces that left dozens dead and wounded on both sides.”

The Islamic State’s gains in Libya, in turn, shouldn’t conceal the fact that “Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria’s fearsome Boko Haram – all once linked to al Qaeda – have … pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Beyond all these gains in individual countries — because of these gains in individual countries — CBS News reports, “ISIS has a dynamism and fervor that has seemed to fade for al Qaeda.”

Remember when President Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State? And assured us earlier this year that the Islamic State is “on the defensive and … is going to lose”? Those pledges were bluster, just as was Mr. Obama’s assurance that if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, he would be crossing “a red line for us.” President Assad used chemical weapons — and Mr. Obama did nothing in response.

The world — our adversaries and our allies — got the message. President Obama’s words mean nothing. He’s supine. He’s weak. He’s a laughingstock.

That is bad enough. But for the president and his press secretary to enter an Alice in Wonderland world makes things even worse. There is no known universe in which our current war strategy against the Islamic State can be considered, overall, a “success.” In fact it is, by virtually every objective measure, a failure. And not just any failure. It is the latest link in a chain of catastrophic foreign policy failures by Mr. Obama.

For Josh Earnest to claim that what we are witnessing in Iraq and throughout the Middle East is evidence of success is beyond spin. It’s beyond insulting. It is literally unbelievable. The contempt Mr. Earnest and the president he serves have for the truth, and the American people, is stunning. It’s a kind of corruption that is rare and worrisome to find in any political office, but especially in the presidency. And as Mr. Obama’s failures continue to multiple, so, we can assume, will his administration’s deceptions.

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The White House Deploys Spin and Denial in Response to Setbacks in Iraq

If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

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If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

“Ramadi has been contested over the last 18 months. We’ve always known the fight against ISIS would be long and difficult, particularly in Anbar Province,” White House Deputy Press Sec. Eric Shultz conceded on Monday. “There’s no denying that this is, indeed, a setback.”

Apparently, Schultz’s boss resented his deputy’s demoralizing candor. On Tuesday, he went about offering a variety of dubious claims designed to tamp down speculation that the president’s strategic approach to the war against the Islamic State was in shambles.

During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest urged reporters to “maintain perspective” when reporting of the fall of the capital of Anbar Province, a key city situated just 70 miles from Baghdad. Though he hinted that the president might entertain a “tweak” or two to his strategic approach to the war, Earnest insisted that the West’s tactical approach to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is regularly modified according to circumstances on the ground.

“We have seen important progress that has been made, but there have also been periods of setback,” Earnest insisted. When pressed on whether the president believes that the war against ISIS is generally a success, Earnest insisted, “overall, yes.”

Courting the charge of insensitivity, Earnest mocked reporters for engaging in figurative self-immolation over the fall of a second major Iraqi city to the ISIS insurgency. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time there’s a setback?” the exasperated press secretary said of the Sunni militia’s efficacy on the battlefield, perhaps failing to recall that this terrorist organization is composed of a number of proficient arsonists.

If the White House’s communications team set out to abate their humiliation over the abject and empirical collapse of America’s halfhearted war fighting strategy in the Middle East, they failed rather spectacularly. Not only are these comments reflective of a dangerous frivolousness on the part of this administration, they are indicative of the unsettling reality that the White House views the trifurcation of Iraq along ethno religious lines as a political challenge to be messaged away.

It is not merely the military front in the war against ISIS that is collapsing. The fall of most of Anbar has given way to a bloody purge of government officials and anyone who ever worked closely with U.S.-allied institutions in Iraq. Officials in Baghdad believe that some 500 civilians and soldiers have been murdered while another 5,000 were displaced since Friday, when ISIS began its final assault on Ramadi. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Shiite militias loyal to Tehran to descend on a military base near the occupied provincial capital in preparation for a counterassault, despite the White House’s concerns that a Shiite-led attack on a Sunni-dominated city could ignite a sectarian civil war.

The war on ISIS’s assets is equally bereft of successes. Despite a successful mission conducted by U.S. Special Forces which resulted in the death of a figure described as the Islamic State’s CFO, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that ISIS’s finances are generally healthy.

“The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that researches public policy,” the Times revealed. “The group minimizes costs by looting military equipment, appropriating land and infrastructure, and paying relatively low salaries. The group also limits its vulnerability by shifting operations, transitioning between expanding its territory and fueling terrorist activity.”

Given all this, the administration has the temerity to blame House Republicans for setbacks in Iraq by failing to pass a new authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria – a measure that, as written to the White House’s specifications, would constrain coalition military planners and limit the freedom of action they presently enjoy.

In early February, American military planners trumpeted ill advisedly their intention to mount the assault to liberate Iraq’s second city, Mosul, from ISIS terrorists in the late spring. That optimistic plan has been subject to some revision in the interim. With another major city in ISIS’s hands, the portions of that country in need of liberation are accumulating rapidly.

Even before Earnest’s buck-passing escapade, it was clear to most observers that the White House was focused more on managing public opinion than safeguarding Iraqi security. Today, there should be no doubt about the president’s priorities.

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Are Americans Prepared to Let ISIS Win?

The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

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The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and most of the coverage focused, as it has always done, on the American evacuation of Saigon and the stories about the last people to escape the city as it fell to North Vietnamese troops. For the most part, the American memory of the war ends at that point with little if any thought given to the question of what happened to the country after the U.S. gave up. The horrors of the “re-education” camps and the ordeal of the boat people have largely slipped down the collective memory hole. Though some writers, such as Norman Podhoretz tried to address the moral questions raised by the communist victory, as far as the overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned, Vietnam no longer existed once the war ended. We washed our hands of it as if blaming the Vietnamese people more than the U.S. leaders who had plunged the nation into the war for the suffering that America had endured during the long conflict.

I reference this disturbing fact because the current debacle with ISIS and the general indifference toward it here raise the question of whether Americans are going through a similar process with respect to Iraq. It would seem obvious that during a week when it appears that a loathsome Islamist organization is taking control of places like Ramadi for which Americans fought and bled only a few years ago that we would be intensely debating the wisdom of President Obama’s efforts to make good on his pledge to defeat ISIS. But there’s no sign that the White House feels any particular pressure to reassess its half-hearted approach to the war.

As was true of Vietnam, the overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans as well as Democrats — have now come to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion was a mistake. Though the world is better off without a monster like Saddam Hussein and, as some GOP candidates have pointed out this week, the decision was reasonable given what we knew then, few now think it was a good idea. Indeed, given the rise of Iran as its rival collapsed, it’s possible to argue that the horrors of Saddam’s regime notwithstanding, the war hurt U.S. security in the long run. If the current debate about the war’s origins are any indication, it will take a lot more videos of ISIS beheading or burning hostages to galvanize Americans into thinking they ought to do something more to stop it. The trauma of the war is such that the success of the surge that won the war in 2007 and 2008 after initial setbacks and the subsequent spectacle of Iraq’s collapse after President Obama pulled U.S. troops seems to be less important in the minds of much of the press and the people than the pointless finger pointing about what happened in 2003.

Seen in that light, it appears a lot of Americans would like Iraq to fade from our consciousness, as Vietnam once did, like a bad dream. But the problem with that attitude is that while the atrocities visited on the Vietnamese people by the communist victors in that war were awful, they were largely contained to a Southeast Asia that America could afford to ignore even during the Cold War. Not even genocide in Cambodia rattled Americans enough to revisit their decision to forget about that war. So, too, many of us may think we can do the same in Iraq regardless of how bad thing might be as it falls into the hands of ISIS or Iran’s allies.

Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is located in the middle of one of the most strategic regions in the world. As ISIS has proved as it branches out to Libya, it cannot necessarily be contained in Iraq and Syria. Nor can an Iran that is, thanks to President Obama’s desire for détente with the Islamist regime, prepared to compete with ISIS for regional hegemony, leaving moderate Arab nations and Israel to look to their own defenses.

Like it or not, Iraq can’t be as easily put in America’s rear-view mirror as Vietnam was. If President Obama can’t be motivated to do more than to contain ISIS or minimize its gains, his foreign policy legacy will be a disaster that will bedevil his successor and the people of the Middle East. Unlike that triumph of North Vietnamese communism that Norman Podhoretz rightly decried but which did not prove to be a strategic threat to the U.S., an ISIS victory will be a catastrophe. Though Americans may still prefer to pick at the scar of our misguided decision to enter the war, eventually they’re going to have to come to grips with the need to win it or pay the consequences.

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America Needs a Commander-in-Chief, Not a Historian

In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

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In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

Over the course of the last week, political reporters have been consumed with re-litigating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would be unfair to blame this new myopia entirely on the media’s penchant for like-thinking tunnel vision. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s inexplicably poor footing on the legitimacy of the Iraq War invited a duplicative review of distant history in which the country is again engaged. But quite unlike the media’s fascination with parochial social matters, the GOP’s introspection on the issue of Iraq is of some value.

Bush’s stumbles over whether his brother’s signature achievement in office was justified have sparked a deluge of retrospection and self-criticism from the 2016 field of GOP candidates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has taken the opportunity to promote his peculiar brand of paleo-conservative detachment from global affairs. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) asserted that, today, “everyone accepts” that the invasion was imprudent. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have made note of the fact that Congress would never have authorized the Iraq War if the pre-war intelligence had not mistakenly augmented Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. “A dozen years later,” the Associated Press averred, “American politics has reached a rough consensus about the Iraq War: It was a mistake.”

But Republicans are wandering into a trap by attempting to assuage the journalistic establishment’s insatiable desire to see Republicans repent for the last GOP president’s nation-building exercise in Iraq. It is a fortunate accident of fate that the media has decided to review the legacy of the Iraq War and the Republican Party’s prosecution of that conflict at precisely the same moment that Middle Eastern country is coming apart. After more than nine months of U.S-led coalition airstrikes targeting the virulent Islamic State militia, the culmination of that effort has been the fall of a second great Iraqi city. Just 70 miles from Baghdad, the American servicemen and women who bled over Ramadi appear to have fought and fallen in vain.

Despite the protestations of self-satisfied scolds for whom no metric could satisfy their desire to see the American project in Iraq fail, uniting Iraq’s political and tribal leaders against Islamist insurgents in their midst was a historic victory. The West’s hard-won achievement in Iraq has been sacrificed by President Barak Obama’s eternal pursuit of the path of least resistance.

The Republican Party’s presidential aspirants now have a political opportunity that they would be careless not to exploit. For the better part of a week, the press has been reviewing the Iraq War’s legacy. As the Iraq Security Forces retreat to defensible positions around Baghdad and Iran consolidates its grip on the Iraqi capital and the nation’s Shia-dominated regions, Republicans would do well to make a compelling case for their approach to warfighting as commander-in-chief.

Contrary to all his fatuous self-pity, President Obama inherited a relatively pacified Iraq when he took the oath. His successor will not be so lucky. The 45th President of the United States will prosecute a brutal conflict against the richest terrorist organization in human history. The next commander-in-chief must convince the American public to back the prosecution of a war against an unimaginably brutish entity with an unbroken hold on territory ranging from Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad. The war in which the public must invest is one that is characterized by the battlefield use of chemical weapons, has become yet another proxy conflict between the region’s great Sunni and Shiite powers, and is typified by genocide and the deliberate destruction of humanity’s collective heritage.

The present spate of collective handwringing over how the events of the last decade might have been better managed is the historian’s prerogative. The United States is not electing a lecturer; the public will not make that mistake again. America will need a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who will effectively and efficiently prosecute this conflict to which the country is already committed.

It is not merely in Iraq but in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Southeast Pacific that challenges to global security are proliferating. Both state and non-state actors threaten the international order that replaced retreating Soviet-style communism not a quarter-century ago. The press will be satisfied with nothing less than a denunciation of a robust defense of American interests overseas from the GOP’s presidential aspirants, if only to retroactively validate Obama’s vacillating and diffident approach to the application of American hard power. Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to turn the tables on their duplicitous interlocutors.

Rather than issue obsequious mea culpas for the imagined sins of their long-retired fellow party members, Republicans should be using this renewed media interest in the last war in Iraq to remind the public we are busily losing the present one. President Obama will bequeath the next president a Middle East in tatters. The media isn’t interested in that inconvenient subject; it will be up to the GOP to comprehensively outline what is at stake in Iraq.

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Time for Military to Admit ISIS is Winning

Is ISIS on the defensive and about to lose? To listen to U.S. military commanders, you would think the answer is yes. On Friday, as Ramadi was falling, Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley (USMC), Chief of Staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and Colonel Steve Warren, Director, Defense Press Office, gave a surreal news conference. Said General Weidley:  “We firmly believe Daesh is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria … It’s the CJTF’s assessment that the Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress.” Sadly, the only progress that Iraqi troops are making is in rapidly retreating before the ISIS onslaught which has led the Islamic State to capture not only Mosul and Fallujah but now Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province.

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Is ISIS on the defensive and about to lose? To listen to U.S. military commanders, you would think the answer is yes. On Friday, as Ramadi was falling, Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley (USMC), Chief of Staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and Colonel Steve Warren, Director, Defense Press Office, gave a surreal news conference. Said General Weidley:  “We firmly believe Daesh is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria … It’s the CJTF’s assessment that the Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress.” Sadly, the only progress that Iraqi troops are making is in rapidly retreating before the ISIS onslaught which has led the Islamic State to capture not only Mosul and Fallujah but now Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province.

If you listen to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ramadi doesn’t matter. A month ago he told reporters that Ramadi “is not symbolic in any way. … I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.” In the real world, Ramadi does matter and its fall is a sign that Operation Inherent Resolve, as the U.S. campaign against ISIS is called, is failing.

Yet rather than engage this stark reality military leaders prefer to engage in ludicrous spinning that is sadly reminiscent of what their predecessors did while the Iraq War was being lost from 2003 to 2006. Who can forgot the statements made by Gen. George Casey, then commander of US forces in Iraq, while the situation was spinning out of control? For example, on March 19, 2006, General Casey said, “In 15 of the 18 provinces, there are six or less incidents of violence a day — (and) that’s not just sectarian (violence), that’s all kinds of violence. … So the country is not awash in sectarian violence. … I’m fairly confident that what we’re doing here in Iraq will be successful. … There’s a lot of hard work still to be done here in Iraq. But I’m optimistic that we will ultimately be successful.”

Those comments came just a month after the bombing of the Samarra mosque, the point at which Iraq headed toward the abyss of all-out civil war. But even as violence escalated out of control, Casey blithely claimed that all U.S. troops could be pulled out within 18 months and Iraqis could take charge of their own security.

Such optimism seems ludicrous in hindsight, except that we are now hearing equally nonsensical assessments from senior military figures. By claiming that everything is going just fine, military commanders are guilty of “dereliction of duty.” That was the name of a best-selling history of the Joint Chiefs during the Vietnam era, written by now-Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, which accused those generals of not doing their duty by not speaking up about failure of U.S. strategy in Vietnam. Today another generation of generals is staying similarly mute even as the U.S. is losing another war.

I understand why President Obama is refusing to take steps that might reverse the disastrous course of the war effort in Iraq—he doesn’t want to be drawn into another war, even if it means ceding much of the Middle East to Sunni and Shiite fanatics. But why are the generals enabling his dubious decision-making by pretending that the current war effort is making progress when it isn’t? Granted, generals serve the commander-in-chief but they also have a responsibility to the Constitution and to the men and women under their command to level with the public and especially Congress about what’s really going on. It is nothing short of a disgrace that no uniformed military personnel are willing to concede the obvious—that we’re losing, not winning, against ISIS.

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A Raid Doesn’t Make Up for Loss of Ramadi

The White House didn’t have much to say about the fall of Ramadi on Friday. Hardly surprising since this was a demoralizing blow to Operation Inherent Resolve whose mission is to “destroy” ISIS. But the White House was more than happy to take credit for a raid by Delta Force into Syria on Saturday that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf (a nom de guerre), described as a mid-level figure in ISIS who was responsible for its finances, and the capture of two women–Abu Sayyaf’s wife and Yazidi slave.

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The White House didn’t have much to say about the fall of Ramadi on Friday. Hardly surprising since this was a demoralizing blow to Operation Inherent Resolve whose mission is to “destroy” ISIS. But the White House was more than happy to take credit for a raid by Delta Force into Syria on Saturday that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf (a nom de guerre), described as a mid-level figure in ISIS who was responsible for its finances, and the capture of two women–Abu Sayyaf’s wife and Yazidi slave.

The raid was a real achievement but a limited one. No doubt “sensitive site exploitation” (i.e., the computers and papers found in Abu Sayyaf’s house), along with potential interrogation of Mrs. Sayyaf, will reveal more information about ISIS’ structure and operations. The operation would have been even more successful if Abu Sayyaf had been taken alive for interrogation and if the White House had held off on its desire to take credit, giving the Joint Special Operations Command more time to digest the collected intelligence before ISIS reacted by shutting down any operations that might have been compromised.

But let’s not get carried away. Even if the raid had killed a far more senior ISIS leader it would not have made a strategic difference. After all back in 2006, JSOC killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of AGI (predecessor of ISIS), and that did not prevent AQI from becoming stronger than ever. It took a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in 2007-2008 to bring AQI to the brink of defeat and it will take a similar campaign today to defeat ISIS.

In this Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum I outlined what such a campaign would look like “Leadership targeting,” i.e., mounting more of the kind of raids that killed Abu Sayyaf, is an important line of operations but it’s only one line of operations.

More important is to create Sunni military forces in both Syria and Iraq that are able and willing to fight against ISIS with American help. But there is scant sign of progress on this front, because the Obama administration has held U.S. policy in Iraq hostage to the dictates of Baghdad, where the Shiite sectarians who are in control are, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic about arming Sunnis.

That’s why Ramadi fell and why there will be little success in rolling back ISIS’ gains in Syria and Iraq–because Sunnis still see ISIS as the lesser evil compared to domination by Shiite extremists armed and supported by Iran. That is the fundamental strategic problem that must be addressed in order to make progress against ISIS. Special Operations raids, no matter how successful, are of scant importance by comparison.

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Focus on Obama’s Terrible Iraq Blunder

I remember walking down the ruined streets of Ramadi in the spring of 2007. The vista resembled pictures of Berlin in 1945: ruined buildings everywhere, water bubbling in the streets from water mains damaged by too many explosions. But what was most remarkable was not the evidence of violence but, rather, the fact that no insurgents were shooting at my military escorts or me.

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I remember walking down the ruined streets of Ramadi in the spring of 2007. The vista resembled pictures of Berlin in 1945: ruined buildings everywhere, water bubbling in the streets from water mains damaged by too many explosions. But what was most remarkable was not the evidence of violence but, rather, the fact that no insurgents were shooting at my military escorts or me.

“A few weeks ago you couldn’t drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs,” Army Colonel John W. Charlton told me as we drove into town in his up-armored Humvee. But now Ramadi was eerily quiet; by the time I visited in April, not a single American soldier had been killed in Ramadi for weeks. Everywhere there were Joint Security Stations and Observation Posts where American and Iraqi security forces worked side by side to keep the peace.

Ramadi was really where the Anbar Awakening began—the movement, started by Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006, to mobilize Sunni tribes against AQI. After having lost hundreds of American soldiers in Ramadi and its environs since 2003, US efforts finally appeared to have paid off. AQI had been routed of the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and would soon be routed out of the rest of the Sunni Triangle. Victory was in sight.

It is all the more heartbreaking, therefore, to read now that the Islamic State—AQI’s successor organization—has seized the government center in Ramadi. Islamic State extremists detonated a series of suicide car bombs on Thursday to punch their way through fortifications protecting the government headquarters. Reports were that, after the headquarters fell, black-clad fanatics were going to door-to-door, executing tribal fighters who opposed their onslaught. Government security forces and many civilians were fleeing in panic. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute points out, it’s as if the Marines, having taken Iwo Jima, had abandoned it and the Japanese had lowered the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi.

Just a month ago, when the ISIS offensive against Ramadi began in earnest, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to reassure the world that it was no big deal. Ramadi, he claimed, “is not symbolic in any way…. I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.”

We can only watch and wait to hear what spin General Dempsey—who has increasingly defined his role as telling the president what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear—will put on this latest catastrophe. It is, in fact, unspinnable. The fall of Ramadi is a sign of the abysmal failure of the misnamed Operation Inherent Resolve launched by President Obama in August 2014 to “degrade” and ultimately to “destroy” ISIS.  Operation Uncertain Resolve is more like it.

There is no doubt that US bombing has succeeded in slightly degrading ISIS—Central Command helpfully puts out a long laundry list of all the buildings and vehicles its aircraft have blown up. But there is scant sign that ISIS is on the path to destruction. True, its offensive toward Baghdad has been blunted and it lost control of Tikrit. But the fact that the assault on Tikrit was led by Shiite militiamen under the effective control of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, indicates the self-defeating nature of this offensive. Sunnis will never turn on ISIS, as they turned on AQI in 2007, if by doing so they will open themselves to domination by Shiite militias.

A reminder of what that would mean was delivered earlier this week in Adhamiyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. Shiite mobs, with Shiite militiamen allegedly in the lead, rampaged through the area on a pogrom. As terrified Sunni families cowered in their homes, a number of homes were burnt and at least four people were killed. The security forces of a Shiite-dominated government were nowhere to be seen.

“Leading from behind” is a bad enough strategy when America’s allies take the lead. It is an utterly ruinous strategy when America’s enemies take the lead. But that’s what is now happening in Iraq.

Obama has sent fewer than 3,000 trainers and they are confined to base and prohibited from going out and directly recruiting, training, and arming Sunni tribesmen. Nor, of course, are they allowed to personally call in air strikes from the frontlines; they have to depend on Iranian-dominated Iraqi security forces and aerial imagery to tell them what to bomb. US aid flows through the government of Baghdad, which, despite a change of prime ministers, remains for the most part dominated by Iran and its proxies. Instead of trying to rebuild the Iraqi army, shattered by the fall of Mosul nearly a year ago, the Baghdad regime is encouraging the recruitment of Shiites into sectarian militias closely aligned with Iran. In the guise of fighting ISIS, Iran is taking over most of Iraq.

The fight against ISIS is in even worse shape in Syria where there is no credible ground force—none—that can challenge Islamic State, which is why its domains have actually expanded since US bombing began last August. The US is only now training a company—i.e., roughly one hundred men—from the Free Syrian Army in the hope that somehow they will be able to defeat Islamic State’s army, which is estimated to number more than 20,000. That kind of thing happens in action flicks like “The Expendables” or “The Dirty Dozen,” not in real life.

Far from being on a path to defeat, ISIS appears stronger than ever notwithstanding the anemic American assault. And yet all last week presidential candidates have been forced to opine on a historic question—whether or not they would have authorized the invasion of Iraq given all that we now know. The real debate we should be having is not what we should have done in 2003 but what we should do now, today, to defeat ISIS and Iran—the twin forces, mirror images of one another — that are ripping the Middle East asunder. All of the candidates, including the silent Hillary Clinton, need to tell us what they would do.

And President Obama, who remains commander in chief, needs to go on television and explain to the American people where the war effort stands and what if anything he is going to do differently.  If the answer is “things are going fine” and “we’re not going to do anything differently,” he will be repeating the very mistake that President George W. Bush made from 2003 to 2007 when he was lulled by over-optimistic reports from PowerPoint-happy military commanders. A losing war effort only began to reverse itself in places such as Ramadi once Bush acknowledged that we were on the edge of the abyss.

Today we are fast falling into an ever worse abyss—and it is one to which, by all indications, President Obama and his senior military commanders and civilian aides are utterly blind. Perhaps we should be talking about that rather than about what happened 12 years ago.

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Why Can’t Kurdistan Afford to Fight ISIS?

Iraqi Kurdistan is, like Iraq itself, in a financial crisis. Salaries for state employees—the majority of workers in the region—are months in arrears. The Kurdish leaders frequently accuse the Iraqi central government of not forwarding Kurdistan its share of the Iraqi oil revenue. Indeed, sometimes, money transfers from Baghdad to Erbil are delayed (and, more often, transfers from Erbil to Sulaymani). Kurdistan has, however, been exporting its own oil and has also refrained from passing along contractual royalties to the various oil companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning there is money in Erbil; the government simply chooses not to spend it.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is, like Iraq itself, in a financial crisis. Salaries for state employees—the majority of workers in the region—are months in arrears. The Kurdish leaders frequently accuse the Iraqi central government of not forwarding Kurdistan its share of the Iraqi oil revenue. Indeed, sometimes, money transfers from Baghdad to Erbil are delayed (and, more often, transfers from Erbil to Sulaymani). Kurdistan has, however, been exporting its own oil and has also refrained from passing along contractual royalties to the various oil companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning there is money in Erbil; the government simply chooses not to spend it.

When the Iraqi Kurds claim that they do not have the money to acquire arms and ammunition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), they may want to consider the more than $30 million which President Masoud Barzani claimed from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance in 2014 (Hoshyar Zebari, the minister of finance, is Barzani’s uncle although there has been no suggestions by Iraqis that he has acted improperly). Here’s a breakdown of Barzani’s annual office expenses as provided to me:

  • Office stationery: 250,000,000 Iraqi Dinar [ID] ($214,000)
  • News subscriptions: 200,000,000 ID ($171,000)
  • Food: 14,370,000,000 ID ($12.3 million) or, approximately, $33,700 per day
  • Hotels: 700,000,000 ID ($601,000)
  • Travel expenses: 1,650,000,000 ID ($1.38 million)
  • Clothes: 300,000,000 ID ($257,000)
  • Vehicle maintenance: 1,180,000,000 ID ($1 million)
  • Fuel: 1,700,000,000 ID ($1.46 million)
  • Distribution and gifts: 2,500,000,000 ID ($2.1 million)
  • Rent: 500,000,000 ID ($429,000)

In addition, there are two other line items for ‘other expenses.’ One is for 10,100,000,000 ID ($8.6 million) and 450,000,000 ID ($386,000). Regional presidents must entertain, these sums represent quite a hefty chunk of change (and that doesn’t take into account the fact that I rounded down, or that the Iraqi currency has weakened slightly relative to the dollar; the real total is a few million dollars higher. And several expenses are curious. To whom is Barzani giving gifts worth a total of $2 million? Let us hope that not too many American officials have been tempted although, alas, in the past some have. And for what is he paying rent? A penthouse in Dubai? A chalet in Switzerland? A villa on the Bosporus in Istanbul? And is it really worth paying $171,000 in news subscriptions when the same information could be had largely for free if he has his staff scan the Internet?

Now, importantly, these figures don’t include Barzani’s salary itself: He reportedly makes as much per month officially as President Barack Obama does in a year. Obama’s annual entertainment allowance is just $19,000, so about half a day in Barzani-land.

The point is this: the Kurdistan Regional Government may claim poverty now, and the expense of fighting ISIS may be daunting. But Barzani—who is now serving the tenth year of his eight-year presidency—has consistently prioritized his own comfort and a taste for luxury above the needs of the people whose allegiance he claims. At this time of crisis—and that is what the rise of ISIS is—Kurds cannot help but compare Barzani (and, in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s domains, the parallel profligacy of Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, ailing former president Jalal Talabani’s wife) with the bare-bones spending and austerity practiced by the Syrian Kurdish militia which, perhaps not by coincidence, has seen far greater success fighting ISIS in Syria and also in and around Sinjar than their KDP brethren. That doesn’t make the Syrian Kurds perfect, but how governments spend money is perhaps the most accurate reflection of their values.

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More Evidence Turkey Supports Al Qaeda

Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

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Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

Both the Iraqi government and the Syrian Kurds who have done more than anyone else to fight the Islamic State have long complained that Turkey was not only turning a blind eye to the most radical groups in Syria, but also actively supporting them.

First, there’s the passive support. If Turkey wanted to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, it could simply tweak its visa rules for those countries that are the source to require visas for those under the age of 40. This wouldn’t impact most businessmen, but would stop the impulsive Jihadi. It could stop allowing thousands of foreign fighters to traverse its territory virtually unmolested. Stopping two dozen, when more than 100 times as many get a free pass, isn’t counter-terrorism; it is optics, equivalent to when Pakistan arrests a Taliban shadow governor, all the while supporting the rest. It could stop extending its medical services to wounded terrorists, all the while denying care to pro-democracy protestors beaten by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Brown Shirts.

Then, there is more active Turkish support, including allegations that Turkey has armed and supplied al Qaeda elements in Syria. These accusations are now more fire than smoke. One Islamic State commander, for example, has acknowledged Turkey’s material help. There is also documentary evidence about the relationship.

Last month, Turkey arrested 17 Turkish soldiers who intercepted an arms shipment destined to radicals in Syria. The arms shipment had been authorized by Turkish intelligence. Now, a Turkish judge has issued an arrest warrant for five more who sought to prevent the Turkish supply of weaponry to al Qaeda. So, here we have a titular NATO ally, which instead of arresting al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists instead throws the book at those seeking to stop their supply. Welcome to the reality of Turkey, an undeniable sponsor of terror and a force for instability and sectarian hatred throughout the region. Diplomats can put lipstick on a pig, but there’s no denying this pig.

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And If the Shooters Were Not From ISIS?

Does it make a difference whether ISIS is directly responsible for Sunday night’s attack in Garland, Texas or whether jihadists who swore allegiance to the group from afar carried out the shooting instead? In terms of managing domestic counterterrorism, yes, it makes a huge difference. Doing battle with organized cells trained and supplied by the Islamic State is a very different matter from playing whack-a-mole with those Joe Biden calls “knock-off jihadists.” But in terms of the larger, long-term threat posed by ISIS, it doesn’t matter as much as we seem to think. As long as ISIS thrives in Syria and Iraq, putting out high-production snuff films, garnering recruits, and claiming victory before the world, the greater its pull on the lost souls of the West. We can look forward to more knock-off jihadists. And no matter who is behind Sunday’s shooting, there will be more attacks.

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Does it make a difference whether ISIS is directly responsible for Sunday night’s attack in Garland, Texas or whether jihadists who swore allegiance to the group from afar carried out the shooting instead? In terms of managing domestic counterterrorism, yes, it makes a huge difference. Doing battle with organized cells trained and supplied by the Islamic State is a very different matter from playing whack-a-mole with those Joe Biden calls “knock-off jihadists.” But in terms of the larger, long-term threat posed by ISIS, it doesn’t matter as much as we seem to think. As long as ISIS thrives in Syria and Iraq, putting out high-production snuff films, garnering recruits, and claiming victory before the world, the greater its pull on the lost souls of the West. We can look forward to more knock-off jihadists. And no matter who is behind Sunday’s shooting, there will be more attacks.

ISIS isn’t only a direct threat to peace because of its actions. Its self-celebrated existence is an engine for radicalization worldwide. ISIS-inspired jihadists are still jihadists. They’re not waiting on a blue Twitter verification check before they try to kill Americans. As ISIS raises its profile “over there,” more admirers will be inspired to attack us over here. That’s why what happens “over there” is our business after all.

Global interconnectedness is a pet theme of the left, but liberals rarely have the clarity to act on its ramifications. At the end of the day, they lament our foreign adventures, rattle off some statistics about America’s failing schools, and call for “nation building at home.” They only seem to see the big global picture when someone abroad has a problem with American power. Blowback for American action is a grave threat to our safety, but lawlessness resulting from American retrenchment is none of our business. Barack Obama talks a lot about shared destinies in the 21st century. We’re no longer divided by east and west, north and south, and so on. Yet he crafts foreign policy precisely as if he thinks we can’t be touched by troubles in faraway lands. So he left Iraq to spiral into jihadist carnage. Similarly he believed the United States had no business intervening in Bashar al-Assad’s rule of Syria and that country too was left to combust. With ISIS running rampant in both places, Obama’s barely authorized enough American force to inconvenience the sworn enemies of the West. Now, we’re left wondering just how much influence ISIS had on a shooting attack in Texas.

Biden’s dismissive term “knock-off jihadists” captures the poverty of thinking here. A better term for ISIS-inspired American terrorists might be “entrepreneurial jihadists.” Entrepreneurship thrives in the United States. With the right people willing to take the right risks, it can be contagious and grow like mad. It’s at least conceivable that entrepreneurial jihadists could become a more potent threat to the American homeland than “official” ISIS terrorists. They’re not as well trained as their heroes, but they have certain other advantages. For starters, they’re already here. They don’t have to face the hurdles of connecting with hiding parties in the Middle East, managing secret overseas travel, and so on. They can use the Internet to obtain weapons and a modicum of training. That’s precisely why al Qaeda and ISIS publish guides and magazines online. They have no problem seeing the benefits of unofficial franchising. If the Texas shooters weren’t directly tied to ISIS, the group is still justified in taking some credit. And we shouldn’t necessarily take the news that these were “knock-off jihadists” as a relief. It’s just a different kind of problem, for which we’re ill prepared.

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ISIS Connection to Garland Attack Debunks 9/10 Mindset

For much of the last few years, Americans seemed to be shedding their post 9/11 concerns about security and terrorism. The Patriot Act became a piñata for those disillusioned and wearied by the long war against Islamist terror as well as for those concerned about possible civil liberties violations. This mindset brought Senator Rand Paul to the forefront of the 2016 presidential conversation as well as leading to the ending of surveillance programs operated by cities like New York seeking to head off homegrown Islamist terror. That isolationist moment seemed to pass last year, as the threat from ISIS was made clear to Americans horrified by their beheadings of Western hostages. The realization that President Obama’s re-election campaign boasts about having ended the war on terror and decimating al-Qaeda weren’t true also changed minds. But the news that there appears to be an ISIS connection to the failed terror attack on a free speech conference in Garland, Texas Sunday night should further disabuse those who think the U.S. can afford some complacence about the Islamist threat. What nearly happened in Garland should remind us that this is no time for America to stop playing hardball on anti-terror intelligence efforts.

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For much of the last few years, Americans seemed to be shedding their post 9/11 concerns about security and terrorism. The Patriot Act became a piñata for those disillusioned and wearied by the long war against Islamist terror as well as for those concerned about possible civil liberties violations. This mindset brought Senator Rand Paul to the forefront of the 2016 presidential conversation as well as leading to the ending of surveillance programs operated by cities like New York seeking to head off homegrown Islamist terror. That isolationist moment seemed to pass last year, as the threat from ISIS was made clear to Americans horrified by their beheadings of Western hostages. The realization that President Obama’s re-election campaign boasts about having ended the war on terror and decimating al-Qaeda weren’t true also changed minds. But the news that there appears to be an ISIS connection to the failed terror attack on a free speech conference in Garland, Texas Sunday night should further disabuse those who think the U.S. can afford some complacence about the Islamist threat. What nearly happened in Garland should remind us that this is no time for America to stop playing hardball on anti-terror intelligence efforts.

The reported links between ISIS and the slain terrorists in Garland are deeply troubling. The ISIS claim of responsibility for the attempt might be dismissed. But the fact that some of their social media accounts alerted followers to the crime as it was happening shows that the shooter’s claims of a connection to the Islamist terror group may well have been accurate.

The alleged link between ISIS and this incident may mean that this was the first documented instance of the group’s involvement in an American terror attack. That is frightening and not just because of what might have happened if police hadn’t foiled the would-be killers of “infidels.” What is truly upsetting is the prospect that there are more than a couple of potential jihadist murderers lurking on the margins of American society waiting for their opportunity to prove their worth to their foreign role models.

In the days after 9/11, most Americans took it for granted that another major attack loomed ahead of us. That it never occurred had much to do with luck but also the willingness of the Bush administration to take the fight to the enemy and its willingness to do what was necessary to get good intelligence about possible jihadist connections.

Though we have seen lone wolf Islamist terrorists carry out both failed attacks and successful ones (such as the one at the Boston Marathon), America has been spared the catastrophe that most of us thought was inevitable. But the notion that we can simply assume that ISIS will continue to fail as al-Qaeda did while simultaneously standing down tough intelligence procedures is wishful thinking

So far the debate about intelligence has centered more on what are entirely legitimate concerns about overreach on the part of the government that has been fueled by the Edward Snowden leaks. But the jokes about the CIA reading everyone’s emails and text messages — which are gross exaggerations of even the most far reaching measures that might be considered — wouldn’t sound as funny in the wake of a successful mass terror attack or even a small-scale one should it subsequently be revealed that the killers were already on the radar of the intelligence community.

Nor should we be diverted — as some would have it — by the attempt to change the subject about Garland from Islamist terror to a debate about whether those at the conference had it coming to them because they were deliberately provoking Muslim extremists. The contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad might have been the excuse for this attempt but the Islamist ideology that drove the terrorists and those who hoped they would succeed don’t need a logical rationale to kill Americans. Their goal is not merely to intimidate those who “blaspheme” against their faith into silence. It is to kill regardless of any other consideration.

What happened in Garland should be a spur to greater support for a concerted intelligence effort aimed at potential terrorists that is undeterred by groundless worries about American tyranny or government overreach. A return to a 9/10 mindset that would have the police and the FBI fearing to use surveillance on Islamist mosques or those with other connections to supporters of terror is a luxury that America can’t afford if it wants to stay safe as well as free.

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It’s Still Too Late to Save Syria

It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

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It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

The deterioration of the Syrian government’s command was fully apparent earlier this week, when General Rustom Ghazali, a powerful intelligence official, died of wounds reportedly sustained at the hands of the guards of a rival general. Both men, according to the New York Times, were then fired. (It wouldn’t matter for Ghazali, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.) The Syrian command appeared to be splintering.

Then rebels took a strategic town and a military base in Idlib province, near Turkey. “The rebel gains in Idlib have put the opposition on a path to advance into the neighboring provinces of Hama and Latakia, bastions of support for Mr. Assad and key to his grip on power,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Most of Idlib province is now under opposition control, giving rebels a firm foothold to advance on regime forces elsewhere in the country.” And as Max noted yesterday, some observers are starting to talk again about a Syria after Assad.

In light of all this, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai offer some reason to temper the rebels’ confidence: “Yet if the regime is able to hold on, prevent further serious losses, and retake more lost positions, the final outcome would represent something of a setback for the rebels. It would be an opportunity lost, and it would make the regime’s position in Idlib secure for the time being, albeit reduced — at least until the rebels could mount another major effort.”

But, they add, the Idlib campaign could turn out to change the entire trajectory of the war. And they suggest helping nudge that outcome along:

As of this writing, the Idlib campaign looks to be one of the more important developments of the war, possibly even the elusive turning point that signals a clear shift in momentum against the regime after four years of inconclusive fighting. For those seeking a positive outcome in Syria, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on the regime, either forcing it to genuinely negotiate a transition or causing its military failure.

It must be tempting to see the possibility that Assad could fall as an opportunity for the West. But in fact some of the appearance of weakness on the part of Assad’s government is actually evidence of its strength–or at least durability and resilience–in the military realm.

To understand why, it’s instructive to go back to a quote from a Washington Post report on Ghazali that Max quoted in his post: “Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Assad is not just a nudge away from falling. It’s no wonder Assad’s high command are bickering: they’re increasingly irrelevant, and have been for some time. Not entirely irrelevant, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian civil war has completed Assad’s turn to becoming a traditional Iranian proxy. And Iran is not going to let its proxy fall in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere.

Assad created a monster, not only in unleashing his family’s characteristic oppression and bloodlust on the opposition but also in deliberately allowing ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups to thrive at the expense of more moderate rebel groups. This not only ensured that the more moderate rebels, which had the West’s backing as an alternative government to Assad, would never get strong enough on their own to take power. It also meant that the only groups who could possibly finish Assad off were the ones the West was invested in defeating.

Those groups, like ISIS, were destabilizing Iraq next door. This drew the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Assad because it brought them into an alliance with Iran. The rise of ISIS–which, again, Assad facilitated–also ensured Iran would do whatever it took to keep Assad in power.

The internal turf wars in the Syrian command are not evidence that Assad is on his way out. They’re evidence that what remains of the Assad power base has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.

Not only is the West fooling itself if it thinks it can push Assad out at this point with minimal military involvement, but it’s still in partnership with Assad through the Iranians.

From a military perspective, there is no “Syria.” There are three “Syrias,” which amount essentially to competing factions fighting for territory. We are currently aligned with the strongest of these, Iran, against the second-most powerful group. What we are not going to do is somehow throw in our lot now with the weakest of the factions, especially since we’ve constructed our management of Iraq by allowing Iran a significant role.

Syria can’t be saved. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t have to be this way. And certainly, the world should not ignore it. But those who dream of a Western military effort against Assad will keep dreaming.

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