Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Giving Iran a Piece of Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop Letting Qatar Set the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ash Carter’s Happy Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Multipronged Assault on Truth and Reality

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

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

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

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

The author, Graeme Wood, adds this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Islamism and Obama’s Dangerous Flight from Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mosul and Obama’s Phony War on ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s ISIS Narrative Problem

On the second day of what is actually being billed as the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama tried again today to explain his strategy for defeating ISIS. But as with his speech on Wednesday, the result was a confusing rhetorical mess that failed to prioritize the need to defeat the terrorists. The president is clearly worried about reinforcing what he considers to be ISIS’s narrative of this war, but in doing so he seems to have actually conceded victory to them. By doggedly sticking to his position that there is no such thing as Islamist terror and by focusing on the economic and political grievances of such groups, the president undermined any notion that the U.S. was committed to the fight. Indeed, rather than bolster the West’s resistance to ISIS, the massive effort expended on this public-relations extravaganza may have only solidified the belief among the terrorists that this president isn’t someone they should either fear or take seriously.

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On the second day of what is actually being billed as the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama tried again today to explain his strategy for defeating ISIS. But as with his speech on Wednesday, the result was a confusing rhetorical mess that failed to prioritize the need to defeat the terrorists. The president is clearly worried about reinforcing what he considers to be ISIS’s narrative of this war, but in doing so he seems to have actually conceded victory to them. By doggedly sticking to his position that there is no such thing as Islamist terror and by focusing on the economic and political grievances of such groups, the president undermined any notion that the U.S. was committed to the fight. Indeed, rather than bolster the West’s resistance to ISIS, the massive effort expended on this public-relations extravaganza may have only solidified the belief among the terrorists that this president isn’t someone they should either fear or take seriously.

According to the president, to say that ISIS is an Islamic terrorist group is to give credence to the organization’s narrative in which they depict their struggle as being one of a Western war against Islam. Instead, Obama and his various minions only talk about “violent extremism,” in a vain effort to deflect attention away from the religious roots of the conflict. But by refusing to acknowledge the religious roots of the conflict and by focusing on talking points about poverty and Muslim frustration with the politics of the Middle East, the president has done exactly what he claims he is not doing: adopting the same narrative promoted by terrorists whose goal is the destruction of the West.

As I noted in my New York Post article on yesterday’s speech, this is not, as the president’s apologists insist, merely a semantic argument. So long as the position of the White House is that the ultimate solution to this conflict is one that revolves more around better community relations than on military action, ISIS has little to worry about.

Let’s acknowledge that the president is right to echo his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he says this isn’t a war between the West and Islam. But by adopting this line as a constant refrain, President Obama is setting up one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the straw man. After all, no one on either side of the political aisle is claiming that it is a war against all Muslims. Rather, it is a fight against a powerful variant of political Islam that can count on significant support throughout the Muslim world. Though he continues to try and set the U.S. government up as an authority who can decide who is really a representative of Islam and who is not, ISIS and its allies have no doubt about their Islamic character. Nor does anyone else.

Remarks by Vice President Biden at the event’s opening doubled down on the president’s previous comments attempting to establish a moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity and Judaism. But like the president’s dubious history about the Crusades, the vice president’s discussion of white supremacist extremists is off the point. That the person who publicized this gaffe on Twitter was someone who once said Israel was a “suspect” in the 9/11 attacks and was considered worthy of an invitation to the summit speaks volumes about the misguided nature of the event. If we are in a war against ISIS, and we are, then we need our leaders to be inspiring us to persevere in that fight, not trying to tell us that Americans are not really very different from a barbarous enemy. In a month in which ISIS has expanded its reach from Iraq and Syria to Libya and in which the group has beheaded and burned to death its captives while its sympathizers gun down journalists, artists, and Jews in the streets of Europe, the White House is more concerned with not offending Muslims than in ramping up a half-hearted military effort against the terrorists.

Just as bad, the president is still stuck on his 2011 talking points about the Arab Spring. Many of us had high hopes for that moment when it seemed as if the Muslim world might embrace democracy as it shucked off the fetters of incompetent autocracies. But those of us who prefer to deal with reality rather than our dreams had to admit that this was largely a delusion. The Arab Spring proved that Islamists were not seeking to reform the Arab world but to enslave it. The people of Egypt figured this out when they overthrew a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, but the administration still seems to think the rise of Islamists in the last three years is a coincidence they can ignore.

There is nothing wrong with the U.S. government seeking to cooperate with Muslim communities in the fight against terror, but doing so is not a substitute for waging war on ISIS. The president is right that there is a problem with narratives, but it is one that he is perpetuating. The Muslim world needs to be convinced of American determination to defeat ISIS but instead the president offers platitudes that do just the opposite. Moderate Arabs observing the spectacle at the White House the last two days were not reassured by the outreach efforts. Instead, they may be forgiven for thinking that this is a president who is still more interested in appeasing Islamists—like his Iranian negotiating partners—than in vanquishing them. Though the White House summit was oozing good intentions, all America’s enemies may have seen was weakness and irresolution that will inspire them to even greater cruelties and bloodshed in the weeks and months to come.

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Obama Misses the Point About Fighting ISIS

President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

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President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

The president was right to say, “We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion.” But what he neglected to do entirely was to mention the most important way to counter the violent message of what is now the world’s most successful (and most threatening) terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood offers a long and invaluable analysis of what it is that ISIS wants and how to counter it. In the first place, he refutes the canard, popularized in good faith by President Obama, that ISIS is somehow “un-Islamic.” In point of fact, as Wood notes, ISIS leaders “insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”

There is no doubt that, mercifully, ISIS’s is a minority reading of Islam but that does not change the fact that its ideology is rooted in Islam and has legitimacy among some Muslims. A refusal to confront that reality will not help us defeat ISIS.

What will help defeat ISIS? Wood makes an important point here:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

In short, if we can roll back ISIS’s territorial control, we will dissipate its appeal. How we can do that is subject to debate. Wood himself writes that suggestions from some analysts, such as Fred Kagan and me, to deploy tens of thousands of troops to fight ISIS are misguided and will backfire. He writes: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options.”

And yet many months of those air strikes have failed to dislodge ISIS from the vast majority of its territory in Syria and Iraq–which, as Wood notes, is the only way to defeat this evil organization. At best those air strikes have blunted ISIS’ momentum in Iraq. In Syria they have not done even that much: ISIS has continued to expand its territorial control even while being bombed. This means, as Wood writes, that “an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.”

Wood is compelling in analyzing the ISIS threat–less so in suggesting a solution. His work points to the imperative for the US to do more to deny ISIS territorial control. That is why I have suggested the new for more than 10,000 US personnel to be deployed, primarily in an advise and assist capacity, so as to galvanize opposition to ISIS primarily among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Yes, this carries risks–but so does allowing ISIS to continue expanding, not only in the Levant, but also as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan.

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Two Simple Ways Turkey Can Undercut the Islamic State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What If ISIS Spreads to Pakistan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing the War on Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Root-Cause Zombie Rises Again

Barack Obama’s post-midterm second term continues to be enlightening. Mostly the president has been spending his time confirming conservative critiques of his presidency. But he’s also been demonstrating, as I wrote last week, startling ignorance. And the latest example comes from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who last night enlightened MSNBC’s viewers by revealing why Obama’s attempts to stop ISIS have been so disastrous.

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Barack Obama’s post-midterm second term continues to be enlightening. Mostly the president has been spending his time confirming conservative critiques of his presidency. But he’s also been demonstrating, as I wrote last week, startling ignorance. And the latest example comes from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who last night enlightened MSNBC’s viewers by revealing why Obama’s attempts to stop ISIS have been so disastrous.

It turns out that the Obama administration believes two very silly, discredited tropes about terrorism and violence. Behold, via the good folks at Power Line, the distillation of Obama’s foreign policy:

MATTHEWS: Are we killing enough of them?

HARF: We’re killing a lot of them and we’re going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians, so are the Jordanians. They’re in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether…

MATTHEWS: We’re not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime or fifty lifetimes. There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor Muslims, and as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet’s blowing and they’ll join. We can’t stop that, can we?

HARF: We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people…

Liberals might think that conservatives are happy to have any opportunity to criticize Obama (hence the “Thanks, Obama” meme), and especially when it involves an Obama administration statement that is so utterly wrong as to invite a social media pile-on. But the truth is there are really two kinds of critiques of Obama. There are those when Obama gets something trivial wrong, and when he gets something significant wrong. The latter is no fun; it means lives are in Obama’s singularly incapable hands.

And getting terrorism wrong is significant. Additionally, it has long since ceased being enjoyable to correct the purveyors of Harf’s “root causes” fallacy regarding the economic motivations of terrorist recruits. This is the national-security version of a flat-earther. We use flat-earthers as an example; we don’t actually still engage with flat-earthers, if there are any left. There’s nothing fun about rehashing an argument your side won long ago.

But Harf can’t be dismissed or ignored, because she speaks for the Obama administration. And yet it is downright tedious to have this conversation for the millionth time. Here, for example, is Charles Krauthammer explaining the root-cause fallacy–thirty years ago. Harf’s career in the American government never coincided with a time when the root-cause theory prevailed.

Which raises a broader question: Where does Obama find all these staffers who are so far removed intellectually from the issues they deal with? To populate an administration with such incompetents, you’d almost have to go back in time. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Obama administration, then, is how easily Obama has been able to find fellow dissenters from reality.

Additionally, the root-cause fallacy has wider implications, because it sets the foundation of a misguided worldview. Last month, I wrote about one aspect of this: the attempt to establish causation between Muslim integration and radicalization. There was always a certain logic to this, and the president and others in his administration are surely right when they talk of America’s admirable integration of its minorities and immigrants. Europe, it’s true, would be well served to do the same.

But I had called attention to a thorough investigation by terrorism analyst Lorenzo Vidino into the relationship between integration and radicalization. Vidino had showed that the integration argument was a sort of adjunct to the root causes argument. It was easy to see its appeal to Westerners, but in the end it was a distraction that veered into self-flagellating blame shifting.

The other part of Harf’s statement is likewise absurd: “we cannot win this war by killing them.” Harf might be surprised to hear this but yes, you can win wars by succeeding on the battlefield. It’s happened before, I swear. Wars have been won–quite a lot of them, in fact–by defeating the enemy. Maybe it sounds too obvious to be true. Could it really be that simple? You can win a war by winning a war? Wonders never cease.

As I said, the whole thing has been revelatory. It’s now quite easy to understand why Obama’s war on ISIS is failing: he seems to think that winning requires holding job fairs in a war zone. But ISIS has no intention of trading in its Islamist expansionism for a lemonade stand. (Though liberal nanny-state regulators would probably outlaw those too.) The root-cause zombie returns, again and again, to devour American policymaking.

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Nothing ‘Random’ About Copenhagen Attacks

Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

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Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

The Copenhagen shootings provide important context for the interview of President Obama published last week in Vox. In it, he acknowledged that it was legitimate for people to be concerned about terrorism, but he spoke of it as a secondary concern that gained headlines merely because of the lurid nature of the crimes committed by those involved. Likening his job to that of a “big city mayor” who needs to keep crime rates low, he spoke of terrorism as merely one more problem on his plate and not the most serious one. Obama not only refuses to acknowledge that the spread of ISIS in the Middle East is fueled by a form of religious fundamentalism that has strong support in the Muslim world; he also quite deliberately refused to label what happened in Paris last month an act of anti-Semitism, a stand that was echoed by the press spokespersons for both the White House and the State Department last week.

I wrote last week that, contrary to Obama, there was nothing “random” about an attack on a kosher market in Paris: the assailants were clearly seeking out a place where they could kill Jews and succeeded in that respect. The same is true of the Copenhagen shooter’s decision to attack a synagogue after spraying bullets at a café where a cartoonist who had drawn images of the Prophet Muhammad was speaking. One person was killed at the café and a Jewish voluntary security guard at the synagogue (who was there protecting the celebrants at a bat mitzvah being held at the time).

The Copenhagen attacks are one more reminder that the debate about whether there is such a thing as Islamist terrorism or if attacks on Jews are “random” isn’t about semantics. The refusal to address the religious sources of terrorism—a point on which some Arab leaders have begun to be heard—inevitably renders American efforts to do something about the problem ineffective. Just as importantly, denying the connection between this form of Islam and anti-Semitism seems to be causing the administration to also refuse to acknowledge that Jews in Europe are being targeted because of their identity and not simply due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If the U.S. were to begin to tell the truth about the Islamist roots of terror and the connection with anti-Semitism, that might be the start of a re-examination of mistaken policies that have, albeit unwittingly, led to the rise of ISIS as well as a determination to retreat from the Middle East. The administration’s obsession with creating a new détente with Iran is not merely about pulling back from a confrontation with Tehran about their nuclear-weapons program. It is part of a mindset that mistakenly views the Islamist regime’s bid for regional hegemony as no threat to the West. At the same time it also seems to regard worries about the defense of Jews, whether in an Israel threatened with extinction by Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian terror groups, or in Europe, as complications that need to be either argued down or ignored.

The West needs the sort of moral leadership from the White House that would galvanize world opinion against Islamists, whether in the form of ISIS barbarians in Syria and Iraq, Islamist tyrants in Tehran, or murderers bent on suppressing free speech and killing Jews in European cities. Instead, it has a man who provides misleading and inaccurate analogies between Islamist crimes and the history of the West while seeing himself as beset by demands to address issues of terror and anti-Semitism that don’t hold his interest. When the leader of the free world isn’t terribly interested in the need to defeat freedom’s enemies, the world must tremble.

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Will ISIS Use Libya as a Springboard to Attack Egypt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, two things become clear:

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

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We Need a Boko Haram Strategy

I’m currently attending the Marrakesh Security Forum in Morocco, an annual confab that focuses on security issues in Africa, especially with regards to the Sahel and Maghreb. Representatives from nearly every African and European country, as well as China, Russia, and a large American delegation are here to discuss an area that doesn’t get the sustained attention it deserves, despite how crucial it is to regional and American national security.

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I’m currently attending the Marrakesh Security Forum in Morocco, an annual confab that focuses on security issues in Africa, especially with regards to the Sahel and Maghreb. Representatives from nearly every African and European country, as well as China, Russia, and a large American delegation are here to discuss an area that doesn’t get the sustained attention it deserves, despite how crucial it is to regional and American national security.

One talk was given by Professor Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, a special advisor to the president of Cameroon. With regard to Boko Haram, he noted that in 2014, the group was responsible for more casualties than ISIS. As with the ISIS, there is increasingly a foreign fighter problem with Boko Haram. “Boko Haram soldiers are coming from everywhere,” he noted. As for the war against Boko Haram, he pointed out that it was political, ideological, and territorial, which is more than President Obama often acknowledges with regard to the fight against Islamist extremists.

One of the key points Mouelle Kombi made, however, that isn’t expressed enough is that while ISIS has been largely checked by the Kurds to its north and the Shi‘ites to its south and east, there is little to stand in the way of Boko Haram. It is expanding rapidly, not only in Nigeria but in Cameroon and in the Sahel as well.

This then raises the point: Obama has declared war on ISIS and he outlined a strategy to defeat the group in his September 10, 2014 speech that followed the beheadings of two American journalists. That strategy can be debated—it certainly seems to fall short—but at least the subject is up for debate, all the more so now with the submission to Congress of an Authorization for Use of Military Force.

But when it comes to Boko Haram—as grave a threat and territorially perhaps just as substantive with the ability to grow even faster—there is very little discussion. Expressions of outrage do not equate with a strategy. Nor does simple condemnation of the corruption of Goodluck Jonathan’s government in Nigeria. Boko Haram isn’t about grievance with the Nigerian government; it’s about Islamist ideology. Boko Haram versus ISIS should not be an either-or question, but rather a recognition that the two are flip sides of the same coin.

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ISIS’s Rise Means 2016 May Be a Foreign-Policy Election

In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

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In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

As our Max Boot termed it, Obama’s proposal for authorizing U.S. actions against terrorists in the Middle East is “a classic muddle.” By attempting to balance the administration’s allergic reaction to a U.S. commitment that might actually defeat ISIS while providing a legal basis for its ongoing half-hearted efforts, the president has provoked criticism from both the right and the left. But rather than being a compromise that makes sense, it merely confirms for those who weren’t already convinced that the president has no real strategy for eliminating ISIS or even for significantly “degrading” it.

It’s not clear what exactly will come out of the Congress as both House and Senate leaders struggle to come up with a formula that makes more sense than the administration’s attempt to set up one with limitations that ensures the U.S. can’t prevail in the conflict. But while his critics may demand that the president demonstrate that he has a path to victory over ISIS, they have very little leverage over his choices. No matter the outcome of the votes on a force authorization, nothing can make the president prosecute this war with conviction. Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly showing signs that the president is more interested in making common cause with Iran than in actually rolling back ISIS’s vast territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. That means the connection between Obama’s equivocal approach to the nuclear talks with Iran is not only worrisome in and of itself but a sign of an overall strategy in which the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and obtaining regional hegemony in return for cooperation against ISIS.

All this makes it even more important than it normally might be that potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have more to say about foreign policy than platitudes. In 2008 the presidential contest—or at least the Democratic nomination that year—was essentially decided on the basis of Barack Obama’s adamant opposition to the Iraq war. Yet every new ISIS atrocity and terror attack is going to make it harder for anyone—whether on the right or the left—to run on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the Middle East or to avoid conflicts.

For Democrats, this might make it even harder for those outliers with the temerity to challenge the Hillary Clinton juggernaut to get some traction by outflanking her on the left with another anti-war campaign. For Republicans, the more attention paid to ISIS murders of Americans, the harder it will be for Rand Paul to break out from the ideological box that his libertarian isolationist base has put him.

Nevertheless, Republican candidates need to do more than merely carp at Obama or issue ringing rhetoric about fighting terror. Unlike in 2008 and 2012, when many Americans thought they were electing a president to get them out of unpopular wars, the force authorization vote ensures that whoever wins next year will be leading a war effort that may well dominate their presidencies.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the next year, Republican candidates will be competing in primaries where they will be expected to tell us how they are prepared to beat an enemy that is, contrary to President Obama’s assurances, very much not on the run. That gives an advantage to a candidate like Senator Marco Rubio, who has been speaking with some authority on foreign policy throughout his first term in the Senate. Jeb Bush will have to also show whether his approach to foreign policy is, as some reports have indicated, a knockoff of his father’s “realist” policies that may not provide much of a contrast with Obama’s equivocations. By contrast, it puts those GOP governors that many of us have been assuming will be formidable candidates on the spot to quickly get up to speed on foreign policy. Walker is not the only one who fits in that category, but after his recent surge in the polls in Iowa, it’s obvious that if he wants to stay on top, he’s going to have to say something more than “no comment” about Iran.

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Update the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

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At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

And it is doubtful that Obama will seek to stigmatize Sudan, Darfur and Sudan’s increasing support for the Lord’s Resistance Army notwithstanding. Syria’s another call—but Obama seems to be pivoting to reconciling with Bashar al-Assad despite the brutality of the last four years. With both Khartoum and Damascus, Obama might also argue that whatever the brutality of the regimes, they have focused their repression inward and have not engaged in international terrorism. To reach such a conclusion would, of course, require cherry-picking Sudanese assistance with weapons transfers to Palestinian terrorists and Syrian-sponsored violence inside Lebanon.

Clearly, Obama is treating the State Sponsor of Terrorism list subjectively rather than objectively. To be fair, George W. Bush did likewise: The only reason why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed North Korea from the list in 2008 was to try to jumpstart diplomacy in the hope that she could provide Bush with a foreign-policy success. North Korea was no more deserving of removal than Iran would be: While Bush administration officials insisted that Pyongyang had ceased its support for terror in the 1980s, the Congressional Research Service was reporting continued ties between North Korea on one hand, and both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah on the other.

In an ideal world, there would be no state sponsors of terror, but simply waving the diplomatic wand to remove states from the list does not end terror. Indeed, the whole purpose of designation is not to hamper diplomacy but to aid it: When states are listed on objective grounds, it provides diplomatic leverage to get them to reform.

Perhaps, then, it would be useful for the State Department not only to review those states on the list like Cuba and Iran which Obama wants removed, but also other states or entities whose recent behavior suggests they deserve inclusion.

Turkey is a clear example. There is ample evidence that Turkey has smuggled arms to Boko Haram, and there is also conclusive evidence that Turkey has also armed radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and perhaps even ISIS in Syria.

Both Turkey and Qatar also overtly support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be diplomatically inconvenient to designate two U.S. allies but, then again, it should be even more inconvenient to have allies who are unrepentant sponsors of terrorist groups.

By any objective measure, Russia should also be considered a state sponsor of terrorism: Whether it is providing arms used to shoot down civilian jets, or simply providing arms to militias which indiscriminately shell civilian targets, it is clear that Russia does not abide by the rule of law.

And, of course, if the Palestinian Authority wishes to be treated as a state, one membership they deserve is designation as a terror sponsor. Despite the Oslo Accords and subsequent interim agreements, the Palestinian Authority simply has not kept its hand clean: offering salaries to convicted terrorists—men and women who fully acknowledge their role in attacks targeting civilians—is evidence enough.

While Cuba remains an autocratic, corrupt regime, it is debatable whether they still are an international terror sponsor. What is not debatable, however, is that Venezuela is. And, so long as Algeria continues to aid and support the Polisario Front almost 25 years after that Cold War relic agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco, then Algeria too deserves to be listed as a terror sponsor. Pakistan, too, for all its assistance to the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. And North Korea’s brief interlude off the list should end so long as it continues its relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, for whom it apparently still digs tunnels and builds other underground facilities.

Let’s hope that one day there will be no need for a State Sponsor of Terrorism list. But let’s also acknowledge that that day has yet to come. Alas, a true State Sponsor of Terrorism list would not include just two or three countries, but perhaps a dozen. Diplomatic sleights-of-hand might be the bread and butter of the Obama administration and State Department more broadly, but pretending terrorism has no sponsors does not actually do anything to stop terrorism. Quite the contrary, it just convinces terror sponsors in Algiers, Ankara, Caracas, Doha, Islamabad, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Ramallah that they face no accountability for their actions.

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Israel, Jordan, and the Disproportionate Response

In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

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In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

Of course Jordan had been participating in strikes against ISIS long before the kidnapping and murder of al-Kasasbeh. Back in September Jordan had joined with the Gulf states as part of the U.S.-led effort against ISIS. But since al-Kasasbeh’s horrific murder Jordan has begun to seriously flex what military muscle it has. Indeed, it is doing so in an open display of revenge against ISIS. Quite apart from the fact that many will consider such revenge a just response, it is also fully in Jordan’s national interest to push back ISIS before the rebels are able to cross the country’s porous desert border. No doubt many in the region will simply be grateful to see someone displaying the will to take serious action against ISIS and the terrible prospect that its rapid expansion represents.

Yet, watching all of this unfold one can’t help but think of the war that took place this summer shortly before allied strikes on ISIS began. The world was indeed shocked, albeit momentarily, by the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers while on their way home from school. But as Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in an attempt to find the boys and to round up Hamas operatives in the West Bank, there were already the first mutterings that Israel needed to show restraint. Concerns were expressed that Israel’s operation in the West Bank might “destabilize” the situation.

Then when a desperate Hamas short on friends and money used these events as an excuse to unleash an unprecedented wave of rocket and tunnel warfare against Israeli civilians, Israel’s allies formed a chorus calling on the Israeli government to show maximum restraint. That phrase was so chilling in its moral redundancy and yet so commonly heard that it became inspiration for a remarkably apt song by Peter Himmelman.

Fortunately, Israel ignored the calls coming from Washington and the European capitals, and acting in its national interest hit Hamas hard. But for doing so the Israelis were now subjected to another allegation; that this was a disproportionate response. Even John Kerry was unwittingly caught on camera discussing the matter in angry and condescending tones; “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation!” the secretary of state was heard saying.

The discussion around the escalation in Jordan’s war against ISIS has been unrecognizable in comparison. Even if the claim that 7,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in airstrikes is true, how many civilians have been killed alongside those fighters? Today the question of civilian casualties goes virtually unmentioned, whereas during Israel’s war with Hamas every news screen seemed to keep a running tally of the numbers killed in Gaza, always with an emphasis on the claim that these were mostly civilians, often accompanied by sneering remarks by journalists about how few Israeli casualties there had been. Not enough for the liking of those in Europe such as Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, that was for sure.

Then of course there has been the death of American hostage Kayla Mueller. ISIS had claimed she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, however the Pentagon has made clear its belief that Mueller was in fact murdered by ISIS directly. But either way, imagine if it was being claimed that an American citizen had been killed during Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. What would be the reaction then, and where would most of the blame be placed?

To be clear, Jordan is not using disproportionate force against ISIS. Proportionality is measured in terms of the amount of force legitimately warranted to militarily defeat an enemy. It does not mean that if Hamas indiscriminately fires thousands of projectiles into Israeli civilian areas then Israel should simply do the same back to Gaza. Nor that if ISIS burns a Jordanian pilot to death then Jordan is only permitted to execute one ISIS fighter. Far from it. Jordan is permitted to use the amount of force necessary to defeat ISIS, but not more.

The truth is that most people agree that ISIS should be defeated, they agree ISIS is unquestionably evil. Not so with Hamas. Similarly, almost nobody in the West questions Jordan’s right to have taken preemptive action against ISIS in the first place. But clearly very many people fiercely opposed Israel’s right to take any real action to stop the attacks being launched against its people. Rather, most of Israel’s supposed allies applied pressure to try and force Israel into stopping the rockets by appeasing Hamas’s demands.

For many it seems that the definition of disproportionate is any action taken by the Jewish state that might limit its enemy’s abilities to eventually destroy it.

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If We’re at War with ISIS, Ransoms Are Out of the Question

With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

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With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

Obama spoke of the death of Kayla Jane Mueller, the Western aid worker whose death has now been confirmed, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith in which he described the difficulty of his decision to opt for rescue rather than ransom. Even the president’s sternest critics must sympathize with him when he says that telling the families of hostages that he will not pay for their liberation is as “tough as anything I do.” He also revealed that he had ordered a rescue mission in which the U.S. reportedly deployed Delta Force commandos into Syria trying to find Mueller and other hostages held by ISIS. According to the president, the raid came a day or two late as the captives had already been moved to another location.

Obama paid tribute to Mueller and contrasted her aid work with “the barbaric organization that held her captive.” But that eulogy won’t satisfy her loved ones who care only about the fact that she is dead, whether at the hands of her captors or, as ISIS has claimed, from injuries incurred when the building in which she was held was hit by bombs dropped from Jordanian planes.

As I’ve written before about this issue, I understand the motivations of the families. Which one of us would not move heaven and earth and be prepared to do anything to save the life of a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or even a close friend? But President Obama’s responsibility is to safeguard the interests and the security of the nation and not just to one or even a few individuals in peril.

It is widely understood that ISIS’s military success has been fueled in no small measure by the profits it has made in selling hostages. If they have overplayed their hand and generated more outrage than fear by beheading Americans or burning a Jordanian prisoner alive, the terrorists have also succeeding in making kidnapping pay handsomely. The problem is not just that the more hostages that are ransomed, the more likely that other Westerners will face a similar fate. It’s that the vast sums ISIS has made in this business have been put to use funding operations that have resulted in their control of much of the territory of two nations and threatening both American security and the future of our allies.

The real point that most of those calling for Obama to relent on this policy are missing is that the West is at war with ISIS. The president is partly responsible for this misperception with his comments that treat Islamist terror as a policing problem and by his foolish refusal to speak of their motivations and purpose. ISIS and other Islamist groups are not mere violent zealots randomly killing people. Their goal is to destroy Western democracy and to force nonbelievers to accept their religious beliefs.

It is true that the U.S. has ransomed hostages before. President Reagan gained the freedom of some Americans held in Lebanon by bribing the Iranian government. Obama bought the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held by the Taliban. But as troubling as both of those examples might be, there is a difference between negotiating with a foreign government and doing an exchange of prisoners of war. Both of those decisions were mistakes, but they are not really analogous to enriching a terrorist group waging a war on the West.

Those who put themselves in harm’s way in Syria, whether out of humanitarian motives or misguided politics, did not deserve to become bargaining chips for barbarians or to be murdered by them. But the president was absolutely right to determine that the only reasonable course of action for the United States was to attempt to rescue them and not to do business with terrorists.

If the U.S. is to prevail in its war with ISIS, it will need more resolute leadership from the president, whose lack of a clear strategy or a willingness to provide a moral clarion call to action is undermining American efforts. He has erred both by refraining from a whole-hearted military campaign and by making deeply troubling statements in which he has made inaccurate analogies between the actions of ISIS and crimes committed by Christians centuries ago.

But he is right to stand his ground on ransoms. Those who are criticizing that decision are not merely wrong. They fail to grasp that in a war, giving your foes the resources they need to kill more Americans would not merely be wrong, but a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the president.

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