Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

No Victory against ISIS with Erdoğan in Turkey

Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of its caliphate, was a horrible day across the region. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched terrorist attacks that have killed innocents in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Terrorists seek out soft targets. They search for the unprotected and undefended in order to commit the unexpected. While the U.S. counterterrorism community has perfected defending against the last terrorist attack — hence the obsession with bottled water and more than three ounces of shaving cream at airport checkpoints — large bureaucracies are poor at thinking outside the box. Hence, there will always be another terrorist attack no matter how vigilant police might be. Read More

Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of its caliphate, was a horrible day across the region. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched terrorist attacks that have killed innocents in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Terrorists seek out soft targets. They search for the unprotected and undefended in order to commit the unexpected. While the U.S. counterterrorism community has perfected defending against the last terrorist attack — hence the obsession with bottled water and more than three ounces of shaving cream at airport checkpoints — large bureaucracies are poor at thinking outside the box. Hence, there will always be another terrorist attack no matter how vigilant police might be.

But what happens when the government that is supposed to secure the flank actually decides to encourage and enable terrorist attacks? No, this is not some Noam Chomsky-esque study in moral equivalence with regard to the United States. Rather, it is apparently the reality of what happened yesterday in Kobani, the Kurdish-held Syrian town alongside the border with Turkey. Islamic State terrorists infiltrated into Kobani from across the Turkish border and massacred almost 150 civilians.

After months of criticism about allowing Turkish territory to be transformed into a figurative highway for foreign Jihadis, the Turkish government promised that it would interdict those seeking to join the Islamic State. Just as Pakistan arrests an occasional foreign fighter and then claims it is serious about combating terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan, so too did Turkey point to its occasional arrest of a European teenager and say that such action proved it was serious about stemming the flow of recruits into Syria.

The latest Kobani massacre, however, puts that lie to rest. Evidence continues to mount that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish officials answering to him in the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MİT), Turkey’s intelligence service allowed Islamic State fighters to traverse through Turkey and attack Kobani from Turkey, a flank the largely Kurdish residents of Kobani felt was secure by nature of it being an international border belonging to a NATO member that had pledged its security. This apparent collaboration between Turkey and the Islamic State increasingly is the rule rather than the exception.

There was, for example, the leak of MİT documents showing Turkish support of Al Qaeda. And, rather than give medals to the Turkish soldiers who intercepted truckloads of weaponry destined for Syrian radicals, Erdoğan ordered their arrest. These are among the topics that the Erdoğan regime has forbidden the Turkish media from reporting.

The problem appears two-fold. First, Erdoğan sympathizes ideologically with the Islamic State. That may sound preposterous; after all, Erdoğan is the elected leader of a NATO member, but evidence regarding his antagonism to the West and a more secular order is overwhelming. And, secondly, Erdoğan is antagonistic to Kurds. The peace process was about politics. Erdoğan derived great benefit both domestically and abroad for appearing sincere in his efforts to end old animosities. This was a cynical ploy, however. Like Atatürk, Erdoğan is perfectly happy to embrace Kurds so long as they abandon their ethnic identity. The only difference between the two is that Atatürk wanted Kurds to subordinate their identity to Turkish nationalism while Erdoğan expected them to subordinate themselves to a common religious identity.

As to evidence of Erdoğan’s antagonism toward the Kurds: There was the unresolved Roboski massacre, as well as overwhelming evidence—including telephone intercepts—showing Turkish security to be behind the assassinations of three Kurdish activists in Paris, France.

More than nine months ago, President Barack Obama promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Despite ordering airstrikes against Islamic State targets, it is unclear whether Obama is committed to doing what it will take to fulfill his pledge. Obama is right, however, that military strategies alone will not lead to victory. There must be a diplomatic component as well.

Diplomacy isn’t simply about talking to one’s partners and adversaries; it is also about achieving goals that cannot or should not be achieved militarily. If the defeat of the Islamic State is a goal — and, given the terrorist attacks of today it must be—then part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy must be the end of the Erdoğan era. The recent elections — despite the false and naïve optimism of some journalists — were not a “body blow” to Erdoğan but rather a hiccup. If no coalition can be formed, Turkey will head into new elections, ones in which Erdoğan will take no chances.

But how to achieve regime change in Turkey? Direct diplomatic intervention is both unwarranted and unwise. Turks are also nationalist, and so any direct involvement will backfire. But nationalism plays both ways, and many Turks are disgusted about what Erdoğan has done to their country. Indeed, many Turkish political analysts attribute unease over Erdoğan’s Syria policy (and his embrace of radicals) for his party’s disappointing showing in elections earlier this month.

Still, there are tools open to Washington. Back in 2008, the Turkish courts considered banning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its constitutional violations. In the end, single justice saved the party—apparently after receiving a large sum of money wired into his bank account by a Turkish businessman who sought to resolve favorably a long-simmering dispute with the AKP. That businessman’s name is whispered among Turks, and Turkish journalists acknowledge the last minute cell phone call that preceded the change of the Turkish judge’s vote. If such information is known, why not make it public? Saving the Turkish president or his ruling party from the exposure of its actions shouldn’t be a goal of the United States. Delegitimizing them in the public sphere is imperative.

Likewise, the AKP has been plagued by corruption scandals allegedly involving Erdoğan, senior advisors, cabinet ministers and parliamentarians. Again, this should be the subject of public discourse, if not in Turkey than from the bully pulpit of the State Department and the White House. If Erdoğan, his children, or ministers and their families, or members of the AKP are believed complicit in corruption or financing terror, they should be sanctioned and banned from the United States. Would such action undercut Turkish participation in the fight against ISIS or in NATO? Perhaps. But, after the massacre in Kobane, it’s time to ask whether the costs of that partnership outweigh the benefits. Regardless, the problem isn’t Turkey but rather its leader and those who blindly do his bidding in the AKP. It may be an uncomfortable conversation, and perhaps many diplomats and analysts will disagree with the policy prescription but it is time to acknowledge one salient reality: There will be no victory over the Islamic State so long as Turkey remains a Trojan Horse betraying those who fight against it.

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Support Syrian Kurdish Forces Now

It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

China has stolen at least 14 million present and former government officials’ personal information, including mine, according to Office of Personal Management emails I received. And the consequences for Chinese actions? None. And, for that matter, the consequences for those within the U.S. government charged with keeping our personal information secure? Again, zero.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnians might reflect at how much worse the massacre might have been had it been Obama rather than Bill Clinton at the helm. At least the U.S. under NATO auspices launched an air campaign later that summer to bring the horrific violence to an end. Obama would likely have found a reason not to enforce any humanitarian or strategic red lines whatsoever. And, as for the Ukraine? It’s easy to talk about helping a fledgling democracy counter naked aggression but when push comes to shove, Obama seems perfectly willing to sell Ukrainians down the river as well.

Of course, it gets worse. After having invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is preparing to pull the plug on the former and has already largely done so on the latter.

It is increasingly clear that neither U.S. national security nor human rights are criteria upon which Obama bases decisions. Max Boot is absolutely right that the Obama administration is readily ceding Iraq to Iranian influence, all the more ironic since many of the Iraqi Shi‘ites hugely resent Iran’s ambitions: If a traveler ever wants to experience true anti-Iranian sentiment, forget Jerusalem or Riyadh and visit Fao, the southern-most fishing village in Iraq, or have hushed conversations in some of the hill villages of southern Lebanon. I have also had the opportunity to see Hayya Bina, the Lebanese group to which Max refers, in action during some of my trips to Beirut and southern Lebanon. The Obama administration has demanded the group stop working among Lebanese Shi‘ites to organize or support any work or opposition to Hezbollah.

Nowhere has the Obama administration been so cavalier toward freedom, liberty, and the fight against terrorism as in Syria. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” even after his murderous rampage began. And, as senator, John Kerry made his aides blanch when he repeatedly described Assad as “my good friend” after bonding during a motorcycle ride. Let’s just be glad that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t like yachting, as Kerry’s moral vacuity and poor character judgment might have led him to say something equally regrettable.

Whatever the hope for the Syrian opposition in the initial months, the group radicalized tremendously. Advocates for the opposition like Sen. John McCain have their hearts in the right place, but have allowed their tenaciousness to trump good judgment: Supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition would, at this point, be akin to supporting Al Qaeda. McCain should not become Erdoğan with a better sense of humor. At the same time, though, the idea of reconciliation or even a hands-off approach to Assad is noxious. This is a man that not only uses chemical weapons against his own people, but also refused to order his air force to strike the Islamic State’s headquarters at Raqqa at any point during the pre-September 2014 period when he had uncontested dominance over Syrian airspace.

There is only one group that has had any modicum of success fighting radicals and counter Assad inside Syria, and that is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG), the People’s Protection Units or the Syrian Peshmerga. I was fortunate to meet the YPG last year during a trip to northeastern Syria. They have sacrificed tremendously: I visited both memorial shrines, spaces reserved for families of martyrs, and fresh graves, while also hanging out at YPG checkpoints and talking to YPG commanders. Aside from a few airdrops around Kobane and, in the last few days, some air support around Ayn Issa, a town north of Raqqa, they have received little from the United States. The Syrian opposition that the United States does support has little to show for its money.

The YPG – and the Syrian Kurdish administration to which they answer – has the added benefit of being largely tolerant. They host tens of thousands of Arab refugees from the Aleppo area, and churches, mosques and, for that matter, Yezidi temples. And yet, the Obama administration and Kerry specifically give the Syrian Kurds the cold shoulder. The State Department refuses Salih Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, a visa and it is a rarity that U.S. diplomats will speak with him, even if in the same room. Kerry has welcomed Syrian militants with blood on their hands to join the international diplomatic process but continues to veto any real Kurdish participation, at least among the Kurds representative of the Rojava administration.

In the last few days, the YPG has captured a strategic town just 30 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. It’s an opportunity that should be supported. Clearly, the YPG fulfill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s “will to fight” prerequisite. If Obama truly wishes to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, then working with the YPG should be the central pillar. It’s time to work in the realm of reality and seize every opportunity, rather than continue to embrace the fantasy of Assad’s responsibility or other Syrian opposition’s credibility and moderation.

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Prosecuting the Islamic State’s ‘Willing Executioners’

In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

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In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

Historians still debate Goldhagen’s thesis today, but the issues he raises about mass psychology and complicity in war crimes are relevant beyond simply the Holocaust. On June 23, 2015, the Ninawa Division of the Islamic State distributed the link to a video via twitter depicting the execution of alleged spies. The first group was forced to sit in a car that an Islamic State adherent then blew up with a rocket-propelled grenade. The second group was forced into a cage, which was then slowly submerged underwater until all the prisoners had drowned. The third group was decapitated with explosive cord.

Snuff videos are unfortunately common with the Islamic State, but all too often politicians and press ignore an important aspect of them: What happens behind the camera is as important as what happens in front of it. Take all the focus on Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. “Jihadi John.” He featured in at least seven videos, but who held the camera? Who transported the prisoners? Are they any less culpable? And, with each of the execution videos, assume that the prisoners and hostages endured several — arbitrarily, let’s say five — mock executions (that’s why so many appear calm; most may not believe the video would be anything but another bluff). So, there is then the responsibility of their wardens, drivers, and even house cleaners.

President Obama prefers to see terrorism as a criminal rather than a military problem. Certainly, there are elements of both. But, if the criminal analogy is pursued, then it is crucial to understanding the extent of culpability. The 1988 movie “The Accused” starring Jodie Foster was inspired by the true story of the gang rape of Cheryl Araujo in a Massachusetts bar. In the movie, Foster, playing a character named Sarah Tobias, is unwilling to accept only the prosecution of the three rapists, and demands — successfully — prosecution of those in the bar who cheered the rapists on.

Inevitably, if and when the Islamic State collapses — and it very well might when there is more concerted leadership in the White House — countries across the globe will have to consider how to address their citizens who travelled to and/or volunteered for the Islamic State. Many will claim that they committed no war crimes, but only played a supporting role. Indeed, Islamic State recruiters often promise their recruits that they need not fight if they choose not to: there are many other roles — guard duty, laundry and catering, and burying bodies, for example. Even some seeking the glory of jihad found themselves in these support roles. None of this should be exculpatory, however. “Jihad John” might be the face in front of the camera, but every single individual who volunteered to fight or aid the Islamic State bears responsibility. Indeed, most learned of and chose to assist the Islamic State precisely because they had seen the depiction of Islamist power and the humiliation of opponents or non-Muslims depicted in those videos. They are little different than those in Big Dan’s Bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who enabled and cheered on a rape, even if they themselves did not penetrate the victim.

It’s essential also to recognize that while not all residents of the Islamic State support it, an uncomfortable number of local Syrians and Iraqis have enabled and accepted its arrival. These, even more than the foreign Jihadis, are the Islamic State’s equivalent of “willing executioners.” They are the ones who have informed on neighbors hiding wanted opponents or lending their service to the terrorist entity. So-called Jihadi brides who travel from the West to Syria and Iraq are knowingly and willingly providing solace to murderers. They should be treated no more leniently than the wife of a serial killer who helped her husband commit his crimes.

And while the children and students indoctrinated into the Islamic State might not (yet) share the same level of guilt, their teachers do — whether Iraqi, Syrian, or foreign.

The Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias in Iraq, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighting in Syria have so far been remarkably restrained as they reconquer territory, although their records have not been perfect. Just as the Islamic State’s victories have been quick and caught the world largely by surprise, their defeat might be similar.

It pays to be prepared. If 22,000 jihadis from 90 countries now fight for the Islamic State, then it behooves those 90 countries to create and share a database with names, photographs, and any biometric information to hamper not only their return to their home country, but also their relocation elsewhere.

The International Criminal Court is woefully inefficient. And justice should not be a jobs industry for NGOs. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International furthermore have disqualified themselves with their previous partnership with an Al Qaeda financier. In addition, Human Rights Watch’s previous fundraising in Saudi Arabia creates a conflict of interest, to say the least, given Saudi culpability in funding extremism in Iraq and Syria. While governance in Syria remains uncertain, the Iraqi government should have first crack at prosecuting any member of or volunteer for the Islamic State in much the same way as it tried Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants. Only then can the healing truly begin.

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Anbar Sleeps Once More

For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

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For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

One of the great gains of the Surge is what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.” In late 2006 and into 2007, Sunni Arab leaders in the restive western Anbar Province that had once tolerated the heavy hand of al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to prevent encroaching Shiite influence united against their oppressors. Contrary to the popular mythology espoused by al-Qaeda leadership, the United States had demonstrated that it was a Middle Eastern power. It would not simply retreat amid a slow bloodletting at the hands of the insurgency. As Bing West observed, the American military showed that it was “the strongest tribe,” and the region’s leaders were prepared to throw their lots in with America.

Today, with the fall of Ramadi to ISIS apparently representing a new status quo, there is no doubt about who is the strongest tribe in Anbar. Many of the region’s Sunni clerics and tribal leaders who resisted ISIS’s advance were exiled or slaughtered by the renewed insurgency. Those who remain have now accepted their overlords. “A number of Sunni tribal sheikhs and tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group,” Al Jazeera reported earlier this month. “The sheikhs and tribal leaders made the pledge on Wednesday in Fallujah in a statement read out by Ahmed Dara al-Jumaili, an influential sheikh, after a meeting.”

The gains of the Surge are lost. Anbar is again asleep.

Compounding the impression among Anbar’s Sunni elites that a Shiite conspiracy is afoot that will only further undermine their influence in their home governorate is the fact that the United States has so flagrantly traded expediency for strategic competence by, reportedly, inviting Iran-backed Shiite militias into Anbar. Not only are militias loyal to Tehran operating inside Anbar, they are doing so alongside U.S. service personnel and within the same base.

“Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported. “Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.”

As galling as that last sentence may be — and it is galling — it is even more disheartening to know that the Sunni leaders in Anbar now have even more reason to tacitly or even openly welcome the ISIS insurgency, regardless of how brutal it might be. It’s hard to square the revelation that American troops and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s September 2014 contention that “we are not coordinating military operations or sharing intelligence with Iran.” The direct communication between forces that take orders from the Pentagon and those that are loyal to Tehran is now overt.

What’s harder to comprehend, however, is how this strategy would lead to a lasting victory against ISIS in Iraq. What seems more likely is that it would sow the seeds of a new civil war, and a real one, in the vacuum that would follow ISIS’s retreat and America’s second withdrawal from Iraq.

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Can Hillary Face the Truth About Iraq?

In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

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In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

What West is saying reflects little more than battlefield reality—the hard logic of war that can’t be wished away with airy political rhetoric. And it is a reality acknowledged even by some prominent Democrats such as Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense who is widely believed to be a leading candidate for secretary of defense in a Hillary Clinton administration. She told CNN, “We need to provide more stuff for training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level. We need to provide more fire power support, more intelligence surveillance ….” She further called for “providing operational support on the battlefield. Enablers, air cover and so forth.” That certainly sounds like a commitment greater than the one President Obama has made, which Flournoy criticized for being “under-resourced.”

It would be interesting to hear what Hillary Clinton thinks of Michele Flournoy’s observation. Clinton has recently said, “I basically agree with the policies that we are currently following,” adding, “There is no role whatsoever for American soldiers on the ground to go back, other than in the capacity as trainers and advisers.”

Clinton is, of course, trying, as best she can, to eradicate memories among Democratic voters of how she supported the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 before jumping ship to opposing the surge. That may be good politics in a Democratic primary—but it’s bad policy. The same could be said of her refusal to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord that she supported as secretary of state.

The hope of Clinton’s more hard-headed supporters—including, one suspects, Michele Flournoy—is that she is merely throwing out political red meat to win the White House and that once in office she will tilt to the center. But if Clinton won’t utter unpleasant truths in a laugher of a primary, in which her closest rival is Bernie Sanders, there is good cause to wonder if, once in office, she will take hard, unpopular but necessary actions—such as allowing U.S. personnel in Iraq to take the calculated risks necessary to beat the Islamic State.

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Who Will Be the First to Suggest Negotiating with Islamic State?

There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

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There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

In Years of Upheaval, Kissinger ridiculed the notion of talking with terrorists. “We did not have a high incentive to advance the ‘dialogue’ with the PLO, as the fashionable phrase ran later,” he wrote, “not because of Israeli pressures but because of our perception of the American national interest.” He further explained how, “Before 1973, the PLO rarely intruded into international negotiations. In the 1972 communiqué ending Nixon’s Moscow summit, there was no reference to Palestinians, much less to the PLO…. The idea of a Palestinian state run by the PLO was not a subject for serious discourse.” In 1972, Black September, a PLO offshoot-proxy, attacked the Munich Olympics, and a year later, the National Security Agency heard PLO leader Yasir Arafat give the order to murder U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel who had been taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Khartoum. Simply put, you can’t get more pariah than that.

But, just six years later, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN, ostensibly to determine whether there was any formula by which the PLO would accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The State Department had never authorized the meeting between Young and a PLO representative. When reprimanded, the defiant Young resigned. President Carter, true to form, privately blamed Israel for forcing the issue to a head. And while many conservatives lionize President Ronald Reagan for his moral clarity, it was at the tail end of the Reagan administration that the State Department—with Reagan National Security Council permission—began talking to PLO representatives.

The same lack of resolve holds true with Hamas. In 2003, Richard Haass, at the time director of policy planning at the State Department (and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations) dismissed any notion of talking to Hamas. Speaking on PBS Newshour, he said, “There are some groups out there you can negotiate with. You have to decide whether there are terms you can live with,” he explained. “But groups like Hamas … have political agendas that I would suggest are beyond negotiation. And for them…, there’s got to be an intelligence, a law enforcement, and a military answer.” Just three years later, however, he suddenly began to advocate for engagement with Hamas.

Haass’ turnaround was consistent with the Council on Foreign Relations’ informal role as the barometer of elite opinion, rather than its path breaker. Already, in 2005, the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway had argued that political power might moderate Hamas by forcing its accountability to a constituency, never mind that donations from terror sponsoring regimes insulate Hamas from popular accountability. Chris Patten, the European Union’s former chief diplomat, in a March 13, 2007 Financial Times op-ed, counseled forgetting Hamas’s past and starting anew, never mind that in the run-up to the elections, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar vowed, “We will join the Legislative Council with our weapons in our hands.” Jimmy Carter was just as willing to whitewash the record. He told NBC’s Meredith Vieira in January 2009, for example, that Hamas had upheld its ceasefire with Israel—seemingly unaware that the group had fired over 600 mortars and rockets into Israel the previous month. The next month, Paddy Ashdown and ten other former statesmen and politicians signed a letter published in The Times of London saying, “We have learnt first-hand that there is no substitute for direct and sustained negotiations with all parties to a conflict, and rarely if ever a durable peace without them. Isolation only bolsters hardliners and their policies of intransigence. Engagement can strengthen pragmatic elements and their ability to strike the hard compromises needed for peace.” Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act: Her State Department approved a direct meeting between diplomat Rachel Schneller and the Hamas representative in Lebanon. Through it all, had Hamas changed? No. Its charter still embraces genocide, and the group remains just as committed to terrorism, if not more so now that it knows it can act without losing diplomatic credibility.

As for Iran, Sohrab Ahmari’s “The 36-Year Project to Whitewash Iran” says it all. Seldom has a regime so intent in rhetoric and practice to murder Americans been given so many repeated free passes on it actions.

Time has even laundered Al Qaeda and it fellow travelers among proponents of engagement. Secretary of State Colin Powell was roundly ridiculed for suggesting outreach to “moderate Taliban” just months after 9/11, but that’s exactly what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently made the policy of the United States. As for Al Qaeda proper? It only took four years before the first academic researchers began suggesting dialogue with Al Qaeda. While a moderate Syrian opposition existed in the first months of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, it was quickly pushed aside, defeated, or co-opted by far more radical groups. The Nusra Front made no secret of its fealty to Al Qaeda. When the Islamic State went its own way, suddenly the Nusra Front looked moderate by comparison. Was it moderate? Absolutely not, but that has not stopped the Turkish government, whose counter-terrorism work the State Department still praises, from arming it. Members of the Syrian National Coalition, which the State Department supports, also advocate negotiation with the Nusra Front.

This brings us to the Islamic State. Far from degrading and defeating the group, President Obama’s strategy has at best been ineffective and at worst allowed the group space to grow. It has consolidated control over territory and has begun brainwashing a generation of children. Some among a more radical fringe have already suggested negotiations with the group. While most analysts would recognize the futility and ridiculousness of such a position given the murderous ideology which the Islamic State embraces, the absence of moral clarity among diplomats means that it’s only a matter of time until the Islamic State becomes a fact of life in the diplomatic mind, and some ambitious diplomat or Nobel Prize-seeking Secretary of State quietly suggests letting bygones be bygones and insisting that realism mandates talking to the enemy. Such a scenario might sound ridiculous today, but it’s the only outcome of a rudderless, valueless foreign policy. After all, if the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Taliban, chemical weapons-wielding Syrian regime, and even Nusra Front can become partners, then there is no behavior so evil as to force permanent pariah status. That is, unless both Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognize just how sick U.S. diplomatic culture as become and re-assert their oversight role in earnest, use the power of the purse to constrain the State Department, and legislate to set the parameters of a more responsible policy.

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Obama Wins Small Victories While Suffering Big Defeats Against Terrorists

As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

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As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

These are all nice little victories. Wuhayshi and Belmokhtar certainly deserved to die, as punishment for their crimes, and it’s good to see any towns liberated from ISIS’ murderous grips. But weighed on the scales against all of the victories that terrorists have been enjoying lately these seem like small change.

ISIS has taken over roughly half of Syria and a third of Iraq, most recently capturing the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. It has also expanded its operations to Libya, where an ISIS offshoot is battling with other extremists for control of ungoverned territory, as well as to Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, and other countries which it has ambitiously declared to be provinces of its caliphate. Meanwhile the Al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has helped to take Idlib and is expanding its operations elsewhere in Syria, while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has succeeded in exerting significant territorial control in Yemen. In Afghanistan the Taliban and Haqqani Network remain as active as ever, as do Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, etc. There is even a newish Al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which is threatening to unleash another reign of terror in countries such as India and Bangladesh—a threat to take seriously given the large Muslim population on the subcontinent.

And don’t forget the flip side of all of these Sunni jihadist groups—Shiite jihadist groups, under the thumb of Iran, which now the most powerful actors in the ostensibly government-controlled regions of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, all of which are becoming virtual provinces of Greater Iran.

Sad to say, none of these alarming trends will be shaken in the slightest by the death of a couple of terrorist commanders or the loss of a town or two. Given the way that terrorist groups have been expanding into the vacuum of so many lands across the Greater Middle East, it takes a willful denial of reality to claim that we are winning what used to be known as the war on terror.

The most that can be said is that we have enjoyed some success in avoiding a repeat of 9/11 on our soil; while terror attacks such as the Boston marathon bombing have occurred, they have mercifully been on a smaller if still terrible scale. But alas we can expect more attacks on the homeland as well as on our interests abroad because ISIS, the most high-profile terrorist group of the moment, is ramping up its international operations. As this graphic shows it has already been linked to numerous attacks from Australia to Texas, and we can expect more in the future.

If the Obama administration has an effective way to fight back, it has been carefully concealed for the moment. It is important to break ISIS’ hold over its “caliphate” in order to dispel its mystique and to lessen its attraction to foreign jihadists. But the most effective ground forces to oppose ISIS in Syria are the YPG, which, even if we ignore their ties to the PKK Marxist terrorist group, are still limited in what they can do—they cannot take and hold non-Kurdish areas. The same goes for the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite militias which have the most effective counter-ISIS forces in Iraq: their reach is effectively limited to areas occupied by their own groups.

Defeating ISIS, a Qaeda and their ilk will require an ambitious agenda far beyond any developed or even contemplated, as far as I can tell, by the Obama administration, which prefers to bomb from long range in a way that is destined to remain ineffectual.  There is no American strategy that I can see that will seriously shake the hold that these terrorists groups have been developing on ever-more extensive territory. And that means that recent successes, however welcome, are likely to be inconsequential.

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Obama Embraces Hope But Little Change in Iraq

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained? Read More

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained?

The administration is apparently pinning its hopes on the passage of a law authorizing a National Guard composed of Sunni tribesmen, but Iraqi officials have been promising to pass that law for at least a year and haven’t delivered because sectarian Shiites have no interest in arming Sunnis. Perhaps that will suddenly change. And perhaps 450 additional trainers will somehow make a difference when the previous deployment of 3,000 personnel hasn’t done much to stop the ISIS onslaught. Perhaps the administration will get lucky, but hoping to fill an inside straight isn’t a good basis for policymaking.

If the administration were really serious about defeating ISIS, it would have to lift the rules that prevent American personnel from going into battle with Iraqi forces and calling in air strikes. It would also have to be prepared to order US Special Operations Forces to engage ISIS directly, staging regular raids like the one that recently killed an ISIS mid-level leader in Syria. In addition, it would have to mount a major political initiative to give the Sunnis a reason to fight ISIS by assuring them that they will not again be subjugated to extremist Shiite rule. Oh, and the administration would also have to come up with some strategy for fighting ISIS in Syria — and in far-flung lands such as Libya, where the Islamic State is now expanding.

If the administration has any plans to address these issues, they are well-concealed secrets. What we can tell from public statements and leaks is that the president is willing to tinker around the edges with the current strategy, much in the way that President Bush did during 2003-2006. But, unlike Bush in 2007, Obama is not willing to question the flawed assumptions on which his current strategy is based. Until that happens don’t expect to see much success in rolling back the Islamic State.

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The Fall of Sirte Makes ISIS in Libya a Mediterranean Power

While ISIS conducts wildly successful, multipronged assaults on targets in Syria and Iraq, it might be easy to forget that the fight against the Islamic State is raging across the Muslim world. From the coast of the Atlantic in Nigeria to the Persian Gulf, from the Southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the teeming and expansionist Islamic State has reinvigorated the militant Islamist movement. Among the many forgotten battlefields where ISIS seeks to expand its nascent caliphate is the failed state of Libya. There, the West’s democracies sought to correct for George W. Bush’s oft-criticized policy of regime change by ironically embracing it, but with slightly less acumen or foresight. As ISIS gains a foothold in the Libya that took shape after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and subsequent murder, that country is growing increasingly likely to be next front in the war against Islamic radicalism. Read More

While ISIS conducts wildly successful, multipronged assaults on targets in Syria and Iraq, it might be easy to forget that the fight against the Islamic State is raging across the Muslim world. From the coast of the Atlantic in Nigeria to the Persian Gulf, from the Southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the teeming and expansionist Islamic State has reinvigorated the militant Islamist movement. Among the many forgotten battlefields where ISIS seeks to expand its nascent caliphate is the failed state of Libya. There, the West’s democracies sought to correct for George W. Bush’s oft-criticized policy of regime change by ironically embracing it, but with slightly less acumen or foresight. As ISIS gains a foothold in the Libya that took shape after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and subsequent murder, that country is growing increasingly likely to be next front in the war against Islamic radicalism.

Reports from the region suggest that Libya has become a popular site for veterans of the Syrian civil war, as well as Iraqi and Tunisian extremists, to practice their newfound skills of seizing and holding territory. “[A]ccording to Libyan security sources, ISIS now has about 2,000 fighters in Sirte and an estimated 700 in Sabratha, famous for its Roman ruins, in the northwestern corner of Libya just 41 miles from Tripoli,” The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer wrote on Monday.

The Islamic State’s advance into the key Libyan port city of Sirte has accelerated in the last several hours. In the early morning, forces loyal to the government in Tripoli fled a power plant in the port city of Sirte amid an assault by ISIS fighters. According to ISIS forces, which had seized much of this city last year and captured its international airport two weeks ago, the remaining holdouts still loyal to the acting Libyan government soon capitulated.

“The Islamic State group claimed to have seized full control Tuesday of the Libyan city of Sirte from the Fajr Libya militia, including a power plant, according to a US monitor,” the AFP reported. With the fall of that key port located just a few hours from the Sicilian coast, ISIS is now a Mediterranean power.

The fall of Sirte coincides with a nationwide offensive by ISIS fighters that consists of mounting attackson soft targets inside Tripoli, laying siege to the country’s oil fields, and executing suicide bombings in a number of Libyan cities. The ISIS-linked fighters in Libya have reportedly adopted the practice of summarily executing minorities, including Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians. Defense officials reported on Tuesday that the Islamic State had captured 88 Ethiopian Christians in their effort to flee North Africa and escape by boat to Europe.

An estimated 50,000 have already fled to southern Italy, igniting fears that a humanitarian crisis in Europe is imminent if the chaos in North Africa continues – a prospect that seems today to be more than likely.

On Monday, representatives from the G-7 states advised the various groups vying for legitimacy in post-Gaddafi Libya to make “bold political decisions,” put aside their differences, and unite before the nation they seek to lead has utterly collapsed. But the West will have to adopt a more substantial approach to this crisis, including a material commitment to provide support for the strongest and most reliable anti-Islamic force in the country.

And they will have to do it soon.

“Forces loyal to the eastern government have been fighting Islamic fighters in the eastern city of Benghazi for a year but have been unable to control the entire city,” the Saudi-based news agency Al Arabiya warned on Monday. “Last week, the eastern army said it was short of ammunition.”

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Obama Plays Analyst-In-Chief in Fight Against ISIS

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be. Read More

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be.

The president also neatly dodged the issue of whether he would be prepared to commit more U.S. forces. Asked about that, he replied, “I think what is fair to say is that all the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraqi security forces if they feel like that additional work is being taken advantage of.” That reveals muddled thinking on two levels. First the question wasn’t just about more trainers—it was about more US forces, period. Trainers alone will never be very effective; what are needed are more advisers, tactical air controllers, and special operations personnel to work alongside Iraqis in battle to call in precision air strikes and to bolster their professionalism. With his answer, Obama revealed a willful refusal to even consider this kind of commitment even though most military experts agree it is the only one with any shot of success.

The second problem with Obama answer is that he is once again putting the onus on Iraqis to get their house in order before the U.S. will do more assist them. Obama was right that the effort to enlist Sunnis to fight ISIS “has not been happening as fast as it needs to.” He was right, too, that “the political agenda of inclusion remains as important as the military fight that’s out there. If Sunnis, Kurds, and Shia all feel as if they’re concerns are being addressed, and that operating within a legitimate political structure can meet their need for security, prosperity, non-discrimination, then we’re going to have much easier time.” But what if anything is President Obama himself going to do to break through the political log jam, to provide a check on Iranian influence, and to push for the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s governing structure? Here is the entirety of his answer: “And so we’ve got to continue to monitor that and support those who are on the right side of the issue there.”

What was missing was any pledge by Obama that he was going to roll up his sleeves and work on this personally or even that he would send a high-profile envoy to Baghdad, of the kind the administration has employed on other issues. All we got was pretty much more of the same — more a description of the problem than a pledge to find a solution. Once again, the president is showing himself to be more analyst-in-chief than commander-in-chief. But dispassionate analysis will not defeat a determined organization like ISIS. That requires a massive effort that is plainly not forthcoming from this administration.

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Obama’s Contemptibly Casual War on ISIS

It was the gaffe so good, he made it twice. Apparently, the president does not see his shamelessly lackadaisical approach to conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a failure of which his administration should be ashamed. After conceding that he didn’t have a comprehensive ISIS strategy, much less one that would result in unambiguous victory, last August, President Barack Obama reiterated that admission on Monday.  Read More

It was the gaffe so good, he made it twice. Apparently, the president does not see his shamelessly lackadaisical approach to conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a failure of which his administration should be ashamed. After conceding that he didn’t have a comprehensive ISIS strategy, much less one that would result in unambiguous victory, last August, President Barack Obama reiterated that admission on Monday. 

The president’s admission in August, exactly 20 days after the start of renewed airstrikes in Iraq targeting ISIS, that “we don’t have a strategy yet” was met with shocked gasps and myriad disapproving opinion pieces. Many saw the fact that the commander-in-chief did not have a clear and executable strategy for victory even after sending American forces into combat as the height of irresponsibility. Today, exactly 10 months after the beginning of new coalition combat operations over Iraq, the president said that he still has no clear vision for victory in the war against ISIS.

“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said at a press conference at the G-7 gathering in Germany, “because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”

It was deplorable that an American commander of the armed forces did not have a plan for victory after the fall of a major Iraqi city to a terrorist organization, but it is simply reprehensible for the president to continue to cling to a failing war plan even amid cascading losses. Obama may, however, benefit from Americans’ reduced expectations of him. 20 days into the new campaign against ISIS, it was revelatory to learn that Obama had no strategy. Today, after so many setbacks, that might not come as much of a shock.

The president did his best to shift blame for his failure of leadership onto Pentagon commanders. Obama claimed that Defense Department officials had not yet presented to him a “finalized” plan for victory in Iraq that consists of relying on Iraqi Security Forces to serve as the primary ground combat forces. But what if the plan that the president wants is simply unfeasible? The U.S. was reportedly caught “off guard” by the spectacular implosion of the ISF in the summer of last year, as waves of ISIS forces poured over the Syrian border and sacked city after city including Mosul, the second largest urban center in Iraq. By November of 2014, U.S. troops began speeding the training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for an assault on that city that never came. Now Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province and a city located just 70 miles from the seat of Iraqi governance, has also fallen to ISIS. The return on American investment in the ISF seems a long way off.

And while it is simply inexcusable that the President of the United States has so far refused to craft an achievable strategic plan for victory in Iraq and Syria nearly one year after committing American personnel and material to the fight, it’s perhaps more galling that his apparent intention is to bequeath his war to the next president. It would be a unique political failure if Obama, a president elected with a mandate to withdraw from Iraq, were compelled to again commit U.S. ground forces to combat operations in Iraq as a direct result of the premature pursuit of that agenda item. Obama appears content to do his best to contain ISIS insofar as it is possible and let the next president make the inevitable case that Western forces must again return to Iraq before the nascent caliphate can export terrorism abroad.

In this way, Obama does have a strategy that he has applied to fighting ISIS in Iraq. It is not, however, a strategy designed to achieve a victory.

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Obama’s Dithering on Assad Has Resulted in the Worst Case Scenario

In a wild tactical shift, Bashar al-Assad’s air force is reportedly conducting raids in support of ISIS. As the Islamic State’s forces advance on the anti-Assad rebel-held city of Aleppo, the New York Times reported this week that Assad’s air forces began to clear the way for their eventual assault on the city. Max Boot theorized that the maneuver is designed to ensure that Assad’s regime remains the only alternative to Islamist dominance of Syria that is palatable to the West. Institute for the Study of War analyst Christopher Kozak agreed. “The regime still feels that … at the end of the day, if it really comes down to [the Nusra Front], ISIS, and Assad in a room, you have to side with Assad,” he told Business Insider. But will the Assad regime survive long enough to present the West with that suboptimal choice? Is the Assad regime near collapse? It could be, according to a new report. Read More

In a wild tactical shift, Bashar al-Assad’s air force is reportedly conducting raids in support of ISIS. As the Islamic State’s forces advance on the anti-Assad rebel-held city of Aleppo, the New York Times reported this week that Assad’s air forces began to clear the way for their eventual assault on the city. Max Boot theorized that the maneuver is designed to ensure that Assad’s regime remains the only alternative to Islamist dominance of Syria that is palatable to the West. Institute for the Study of War analyst Christopher Kozak agreed. “The regime still feels that … at the end of the day, if it really comes down to [the Nusra Front], ISIS, and Assad in a room, you have to side with Assad,” he told Business Insider. But will the Assad regime survive long enough to present the West with that suboptimal choice? Is the Assad regime near collapse? It could be, according to a new report.

According to reporting from Washington Post opinion writer David Ignatius, it is increasingly likely that a post-Assad Syria will soon be a reality. What that reality will look like, however, remains uncertain. It is even less clear that this new normal will be one with which the United States is comfortable.

“Assad faces hard choices as battlefield losses mount,” an unnamed U.S. intelligence official recently said, according to Ignatius.  “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria.”

U.S. officials see mounting pressure on Assad from four directions. A potent new rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, seized the capital of Idlib province late last month. Fighting ferociously alongside this coalition is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Moderate rebels known as the “Southern Front,” backed by the United States and Jordan, are finally gaining some ground in southern Syria. And the Islamic State, the most fearsome group of all, is rampaging across northern, central and eastern Syria.

If Assad’s goal is to create the impression that the world would be better off with him at the helm, however unsavory that proposition may be, the Syrian dictator’s would-be successors go a long way toward supporting that contention.

It didn’t have to be this way.

When President Barack Obama reluctantly attempted to shore up domestic support for the mission to follow up on his self-imposed “red line” for action in Syria, he was doing so in defense of the long-standing international norm prohibiting the battlefield use of chemical weapons — much less, the use of those weapons on civilian populations. By taking the easy way out provided to him by a duplicitous Moscow, Obama sanctioned the use of those weapons, and they remain a staple element of Syria’s counter-insurgency strategy.

But the cobbling together of two distinct international coalitions that are presently intervening over the skies of Syria and Iraq (as though they are different conflicts) indicates that a confederacy of some sort could have been cobbled together. Had America and its willing partners intervened in Syria in 2013 in order to punish the Assad government, it is likely that those nations would have eventually formulated a strategy to contain the remnants of the Assad regime and, by necessity, the Syrian Civil War in Syria.

Even if there were no ground component to that campaign, the weakening of the Syrian regime would have presented anti-Assad rebels a more urgent and tempting target in Damascus than that which lay helpless on the eastern side of the Syrian border with Iraq. For those who contend that the collapse of the Assad regime at Western hands would have resulted in Syria becoming an Islamist-dominated basket case, it appears as though that reality was merely forestalled by two years and Iraq has been lost in the interim.

“The United States refuses to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, regarding it as a band of unrepentant al-Qaeda followers, even though the group is said to receive indirect support from Turkey and Qatar,” Ignatius reported. “U.S. officials weren’t persuaded by an interview broadcast last week by Al Jazeera with al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, in which he offered conciliatory statements toward Syrian minority groups and said his fight isn’t with the United States.”

The catastrophic results of the West’s careless dithering should be evident to any neutral observer today. A suboptimal situation has, in the space of just two years, become a disastrous situation. This should be a lesson to all who gallingly present advocate for a policy of cowardice masquerading as prudence.

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Obama Is Losing Iraq Just as LBJ Lost Vietnam

The Obama White House’s mental synapses must be short-circuiting right now. If the president were a robot (rather than just being a bit robotic), he would by now be repeating over and over: “Does not compute! Does not compute!” Neither of his basic operating assumptions about the anti-ISIS campaign are coming true; in fact, both are being refuted by reality in ways that suggest a fundamental flaw in the underlying mental software. Read More

The Obama White House’s mental synapses must be short-circuiting right now. If the president were a robot (rather than just being a bit robotic), he would by now be repeating over and over: “Does not compute! Does not compute!” Neither of his basic operating assumptions about the anti-ISIS campaign are coming true; in fact, both are being refuted by reality in ways that suggest a fundamental flaw in the underlying mental software.

Assumption No. 1 was that a US air campaign could degrade ISIS and allow its defeat by US allies on the ground. There is no question that the US air campaign has taken a toll. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken just bragged that 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the start of bombing in August. Yet this is hard to square, as Bill Roggio notes at Long War Journal, with previous CIA estimates that ISIS only had 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. If Blinken’s number is right, ISIS should have lost one-half to one-third of its fighters, yet somehow during that time it has actually gained ground in both Iraq and Syria — oh, and estimates of its overall strength have not varied.

This means that either previous CIA estimates were gross underestimates (Roggio believes ISIS had at least 50,000 fighters to begin with) or that it has managed to replenish its losses—or both. Either way, what we are seeing now is what President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland discovered for themselves in Vietnam: namely that it’s impossible to win a war of attrition against a foe that has a lot more will to fight and suffer losses than you do.

Assumption No. 2 can be summed up as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In both Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration calculated that Iran was the enemy of ISIS — after all, the Iranian regime is Shiite and ISIS is a Sunni organization. Thus the administration has tacitly embraced Iran’s allies — Iraqi Shiite militias and the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as the lesser evil in the expectation that they would do for us the dirty work of stopping ISIS. It’s a little hard to square this naïve assumption with the latest news, aptly summed up in a New York Times headline: “Assad’s Forces May Be Aiding ISIS Surge.” There are credible reports that Assad’s air force is making bombing runs in support of an ISIS offensive to capture Aleppo, a major city, from other rebel groups.

Why would Assad do this? Because he wants to reduce the battle in Syria to himself vs. ISIS on the assumption that with such an extremist foe, the rest of the world will be compelled to back him. By contrast, the more moderate rebel forces are viewed as a greater threat to his regime because they are capable of winning greater external backing. Iran is also relatively satisfied to have ISIS in control of Sunni areas in both Syria and Iraq because this gives Tehran the excuse it needs to consolidate its control over Alawite and Shiite areas — and Iran knows that it can’t rule over Sunni areas anyway.

There is nothing particularly novel about this development. There is a long history of reports suggesting deals between Assad and ISIS which range from a non-aggression pact to an agreement to cooperate in selling oil which has been captured by ISIS, while in Iraq it has long been obvious that Iranian militias are more interested in protecting Baghdad and the Shiite south than they are in pushing ISIS out of Mosul or Ramadi. The administration has just chosen to look the other way both in Syria and in Iraq rather than take on board facts that are at odds with its fundamental assumptions.

The Obama administration is now at a turning point in Iraq. It is roughly at the same place where the US was in Vietnam in 1967 and Iraq in 2006. In all those cases, the falsity of the assumptions under which we had been fighting had been revealed. The question was whether the president would execute a change of strategy. LBJ did not really do that, beyond his ineffectual bombing pauses and refusal to provide 200,000 more reinforcements to Gen. Westmoreland. It was left to Nixon and Gen. Creighton Abrams to transform the US war effort. By contrast, in Iraq in 2007 George W. Bush did execute a transformation of his strategy that rescued a floundering war effort.

Which way will Obama go now? Will he be another Johnson or a Bush? All signs, alas, point to the former. Thus it is particularly appropriate that to show progress (what used to be known as “light at the end of the tunnel”) the administration is now resorting to the discredited body counts of Vietnam days.

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Obama’s Bankrupt Anti-ISIS Strategy Confuses Even His Allies

At the risk of getting your work week off to a bad start, I thought I would share some of the latest articles on the fight against ISIS. The news is unrelievedly grim.

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At the risk of getting your work week off to a bad start, I thought I would share some of the latest articles on the fight against ISIS. The news is unrelievedly grim.

ISIS is expanding in Libya where it is pushing a rival militia out of the town of Misurata.

–In Syria, one of the major Free Syrian Army leaders whose 1,000 men have been designated for American training to fight ISIS is threatening to pull out of the program. “The issue: the American government’s demand that the rebels can’t use any of their newfound battlefield prowess or U.S.-provided weaponry against the army of Bashar al-Assad or any of its manifold proxies and allies, which include Iranian-built militias such as Lebanese Hezbollah. They must only fight ISIS, Washington insists.” As Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast notes, this “wouldn’t just mean the loss of a few fighters for the anti-ISIS army the U.S. is trying to assemble. It could mean a fracturing of the entire program—a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s plan to fight ISIS in Syria.”

–“Nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria returned to base without firing any weapons in the first four months of 2015, holding their fire mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence and raising questions about President Obama’s key tactic in pushing back an enemy that continues to expand its territory in the war zone.” Embedding forward-air-controllers with Iraqi units could provide much better targeting information but this is forbidden by the White House.

Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the large Iranian-directed militia in Iraq, says, “Iraqi forces will make no immediate attempt to recapture the city of Ramadi. “ He also brags about his influence: “We send the key points of the operation to the prime minister, and he agrees them,” he said. “Mr prime minister is a civilian. It is not his job to lay our plans.”

–“Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, has admitted that his government does not have full control of the predominantly Shia militia, the so-called Popular Mobilisation force.”

These news articles, randomly gathered during my reading today, suggest the utter bankruptcy of US strategy against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq—to say nothing of countries farther afield such as Libya. In Syria there is no ground force able to oppose ISIS and, in Iraq, the only credible ground force is composed of Iranian-directed militias such as the ones that Hadi al-Amaeri commands. Unfortunately, the Shiite militias cannot clear and hold predominantly Sunni areas without sparking a lethal backlash.

In light of all this, the New York Times editorial board has some sensible advice to offer today. While the Times editorialists are wrong to dismiss the possibility of beefing up the US military presence in Iraq, they are right to say “the Americans should consider working more directly with the Sunni tribes if Baghdad continues to refuse” to arm the Sunnis.

Alas there is no sense that the Obama White House is seriously considering this or other steps that would represent a significant modification of its failed policies in the struggle against ISIS.

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Obama Has Given Up on Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS’s First Foreign War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Damned Lies and Fact-Checkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Blames Iraqis for America’s Failure

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

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

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

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

This misses the point on several levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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