Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lebanon

What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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What Obama’s Rush to Iran Détente Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Imad Mughniyah and Iran’s Covert War

Osama bin Laden may have been more famous, but arguably the most influential and successful terrorist of modern times was Imad Mughniyah. A poor Shiite boy from Lebanon, he exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s as a terrorist prodigy. Working for the organization that would become Hezbollah, and cooperating closely with Iran’s Quds Force, he was held responsible for the most significant terrorist attacks of the 1980s and 1990s including the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983 (63 dead), the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 (241 dead), the torture and murder of William Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut (1984), the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of a U.S. navy diver who was on board (1985), the suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 (29 dead), the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 (85 dead), and the bombing of the U.S. Air Force Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (19 dead).

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Osama bin Laden may have been more famous, but arguably the most influential and successful terrorist of modern times was Imad Mughniyah. A poor Shiite boy from Lebanon, he exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s as a terrorist prodigy. Working for the organization that would become Hezbollah, and cooperating closely with Iran’s Quds Force, he was held responsible for the most significant terrorist attacks of the 1980s and 1990s including the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983 (63 dead), the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 (241 dead), the torture and murder of William Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut (1984), the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of a U.S. navy diver who was on board (1985), the suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 (29 dead), the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 (85 dead), and the bombing of the U.S. Air Force Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (19 dead).

Mughniyah pioneered suicide bombing, a malignant new trend in terrorism, which has since reached industrial size proportions in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only was Mughniyah an innovator, he was a proselytizer–he reportedly taught Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well as Shiite militias in Iraq which targeted American troops.

Mughniyah was as evil as any man can be, and therefore it was cause for celebration when his reign of terror was cut short in 2008: He was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. His end was fitting since the car bomb was his own weapon of choice, although the attack which killed him had a precision utterly lacking in his own blunderbuss assaults (no civilians were killed around Mughniyah).

It has long been speculated that Mossad was behind Mughniyah’s execution but now the Washington Post reports that the CIA was closely involved as well. It was the CIA which actually developed, tested, and installed the bomb, hidden in the spare wheel of a car, which killed Mughniyah. And a CIA team on the ground surveilled his movements.

The only shortcoming of the operation, according to the Post, was that the CIA-Mossad team could have killed not only Mughniyah but also Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is another terrorist mastermind, while the two were walking together. But in an excess of legalism, the CIA declined to pull the trigger because there had been no presidential finding to kill Soleimani as there was for Mughniyah. So Soleimani has been free to plan and carry out numerous atrocities in Syria, among other countries.

Nevertheless the operation was a huge success. It delivered justice for Mughniyah’s victims and it dealt a setback to the Iranian terrorist network. That is an example of effective action that should be kept in mind today when, as Michael Doran argues in Mosaic, President Obama is carrying out a secret strategy to court Iran. Instead of trying to woo Iran, the U.S. should be trying to stop its power grab across the Middle East. It should be waging covert war on Iranian operatives just as they wage covert war on the U.S. and our allies. The Mughniyah operation is only one example of what such a counteroffensive should look like–the U.S. also had a great deal of success in Iraq in 2007-2008 in exposing and uprooting an Iranian network. It’s a shame that this containment policy has been abandoned in favor of what Doran describes as Obama’s misguided determination “to encourage and augment Iran’s potential as a successful regional power and as a friend and partner to the United States.”

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Outsourcing Israel’s Security to Peacekeepers

Following yesterday’s attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli military convoy, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, there have been growing concerns of a major escalation along the Lebanese border. During the exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah that followed the attack, a United Nations peacekeeper was also killed. As fears grew that the attack by Hezbollah might signal the beginning of a major new conflagration to Israel’s north, the death of the peacekeeper was a reminder that in such circumstances the UN forces would be completely impotent in preventing such an escalation. Worse still, the UN in Lebanon will have contributed to the severity of any hostilities by allowing Hezbollah to have proliferated under its watch. This too should be a reminder of the ineffective nature of any international forces deployed on Israel’s borders.

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Following yesterday’s attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli military convoy, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, there have been growing concerns of a major escalation along the Lebanese border. During the exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah that followed the attack, a United Nations peacekeeper was also killed. As fears grew that the attack by Hezbollah might signal the beginning of a major new conflagration to Israel’s north, the death of the peacekeeper was a reminder that in such circumstances the UN forces would be completely impotent in preventing such an escalation. Worse still, the UN in Lebanon will have contributed to the severity of any hostilities by allowing Hezbollah to have proliferated under its watch. This too should be a reminder of the ineffective nature of any international forces deployed on Israel’s borders.

UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which was created during Israel’s first Lebanon war, was subsequently emboldened with a reinforced mandate following the second Lebanon war in 2006. As well as maintaining the peace in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL was also tasked with assisting the Lebanese army in consolidating Lebanese government sovereignty throughout that part of the country. This presumably should necessitate the rolling back of the mini-state that Hezbollah terrorists have created for themselves in Lebanon’s south. Yet not only has UNIFIL utterly failed in that regard, but there are also serious questions about whether or not UNIFIL has in fact been complicit in assisting Hezbollah in various ways. Most egregious of all was UNIFIL’s conduct during the second Lebanon war itself, when UNIFIL publicly broadcast the movements of the IDF, knowingly exposing Israel’s troops to attack by Hezbollah fighters.

Ever since 2006 Hezbollah has been remilitarising well beyond the levels it had reached prior to the second Lebanon war, and it has been doing it directly under UNIFIL’s noses. UNIFIL therefore has not only failed to assist with reasserting the authority of the Lebanese state in the south of the country; it has allowed for the unfolding of a situation that will almost inevitably undermine a key aspect of UNIFIL’s mandate: to ensure peace and security in that territory.

Even before war broke out in Syria, Hezbollah had–with the assistance of Iran–been drastically increasing its stockpiles of weapons, the range and force of its missile capabilities, and the numbers of trained fighters within its ranks. Then, when Hezbollah was brought into Syria to help Assad retain power, a new channel for the flow of weapons opened as Hezbollah was able to move some of Assad’s weaponry into Lebanon itself. Indeed, from the outset of UNIFIL’s renewed mandate in 2006, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had always made clear that the force wouldn’t intervene to stop the flow of weapons from Syria unless specifically instructed to do so by the Lebanese government.

Just as UNIFIL would be completely incapable of preventing the outbreak of another war in Lebanon, so too have the UN personnel utterly failed in the Golan. This of course is in part because the international forces in that case primarily have an observational role. As such the strikes into the Israeli part of the Golan by Syrian rebels, and the Israeli retaliatory strikes, went on completely unimpeded by the UN troops there. However, the UN observer forces were at least supposed to keep the peace and prevent infiltration of the buffer zone that they control. Not only did they fail in this when the Syrian army began to engage rebels in the buffer zone, but in March 2013 21 Filipino peacekeepers managed to get themselves abducted by Syrian rebels. When the same happened to 45 Fijians in August of last year the UN’s forcers pulled back to the safety of the Israeli side and now carry out their work from Israeli lookout posts.

Given this abysmal record it is hard to believe that there are still those who would readily outsource Israel’s security to still more international peace keeping forces. Following this summer’s war in Gaza there had been talk of creating an EU force to police the Philadelphi corridor through which the majority of weapons are smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai. Still more alarming had been the proposal made during Kerry’s last round of peace talks that advocated for the IDF in the Jordan Valley being replaced with a foreign fighting force that would supposedly prevent a Palestinian state in the West Bank from becoming yet another terror hub.

From May 1967, when the UN willingly withdrew its peacekeepers from the Sinai so that General Nasser could remilitarize the territory in preparation for a war of annihilation against the young Jewish state, Israelis have always known that they need to be able to defend themselves by themselves. Quite apart from the fact that the UN appears to have a total disregard for the safety of Israelis–as seen with both UNIFIL and UNRWA–it will always be the case that international forces acting on behalf of international organizations, as opposed to national self-interest, will be woefully ineffective. A catalog of recent genocides are a sorry testament to the way UN forces are much better at observing and monitoring atrocities than they are at preventing them.

On the whole, most countries are simply not inclined to put their own troops at risk for the sake of other people’s peace and security. Israel knows this and should resist any pressure to outsource its security to coldly disinterested international forces in the future.

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Iran Looking for Missile Base Against Israel, Not Nuclear Peace

What was an Iranian general doing hanging around on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with Israel? The answer is that, along with several high-ranking figures in the Hezbollah terrorist group, General Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, a reputed ballistic missiles expert, was there helping to set up a missile base from which the terror group would, with Iranian aid and instructions, strike at the State of Israel. But before he completed his mission Allahdadi was killed along with some of the Hezbollah personnel in an Israel strike on their base near the town of Quenetra. The mission nipped the Iranian scheme in the bud but it’s doubtful that anyone in the Israeli government is under the impression that the strike ended the threat of attack from Iranian forces and their auxiliaries. But the revelation of the Iranian effort near the Golan is significant because it illustrates how deeply involved Iran is in fomenting a new terror war against Israel as well as the peril presented by Western policies that would, at best, make Iran a threshold nuclear power in the years to come.

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What was an Iranian general doing hanging around on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with Israel? The answer is that, along with several high-ranking figures in the Hezbollah terrorist group, General Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, a reputed ballistic missiles expert, was there helping to set up a missile base from which the terror group would, with Iranian aid and instructions, strike at the State of Israel. But before he completed his mission Allahdadi was killed along with some of the Hezbollah personnel in an Israel strike on their base near the town of Quenetra. The mission nipped the Iranian scheme in the bud but it’s doubtful that anyone in the Israeli government is under the impression that the strike ended the threat of attack from Iranian forces and their auxiliaries. But the revelation of the Iranian effort near the Golan is significant because it illustrates how deeply involved Iran is in fomenting a new terror war against Israel as well as the peril presented by Western policies that would, at best, make Iran a threshold nuclear power in the years to come.

The purpose of the Iranian effort wasn’t just to make mischief for the Israelis under the cover of the chaos engendered by the Syrian civil war. The point of the plot was to allow Hezbollah to create a missile base from which it could rain death and destruction down on Israelis without involving the country of Lebanon. Hezbollah is still smarting from the negative feedback created by the 2006 war it started with Israel and which left much of that country in ruins. So what the group and its Iranian masters wanted is a secure base from which it could pepper Israel with rockets from the north in much the same manner that Hamas has done from the south. But, fortunately, as it has with various other terror plots involving Hezbollah in Syria, Israeli action has made the execution of this plot more difficult if not impossible in the short run.

But the significance of this goes beyond the threat to Israel’s missile defense efforts or its desire to keep the north peaceful even as Hamas stirs the pot in the south.

It’s no surprise to learn that senior Iranian military personnel are wandering around loose in Syria. Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel have been deployed to Syria to aid efforts to preserve the rule of dictator and Iranian ally Bashar Assad. But what is also now becoming clear is that the Iranians are looking to use their entry into Syria as part of an effort to, at the least, revive a northern front military option against Israel.

That this effort involved a ballistic missile export should, however, interest observers. While it is possible that the initial hopes for Allahdadi’s efforts were limited to attempts to launch the kind of middle-range rockets Hamas lobbed at Israel last summer, it is impossible to ignore the implications of Iran expanding its ballistic missile program to Syria.

While the world has focused its attention on Iran’s nuclear program and the effort to force the Islamist regime to abandon its ambitions for a bomb, relatively little notice has been paid to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Indeed, the Iranians have been as reluctant to discuss their rockets as they have been to reveal the details about their military research on nuclear material. But if Tehran is already sending generals to the border with the Golan to build up a missile threat against the Jewish state, it doesn’t take much imagination to think what will happen once the U.S. drops sanctions on the regime as part of a new and weak nuclear deal that let the Iranians keep their program and its infrastructure.

That puts the effort by the Obama administration to appease Iran and to work for a new détente with the regime rather than pressing it to give up its nuclear capability in a very different light. Previously, when one spoke of Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism, it brought to mind their using Hezbollah operatives to launch atrocities such as the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires or the attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. But now when we link Iran and terror, it must be acknowledged that it is possible that one day the primary Iranian threat to Israel will be nuclear and that missiles based in Syria will be the method by which Tehran will cause trouble and perhaps even launch a nuke at Israel.

If Israelis are more nervous about Iranian intentions in nuclear talks that Tehran has been, it is not just because they may think President Obama has proved himself a terrible negotiator in the peace talks. Rather, it is due to a sensible fear about Syria becoming nothing more than a launching pad for rockets in the same way Gaza has been transformed into a bastion of terror. Throw in the potential for nuclear weapons and you have a formula that ensures chaos and future bloodshed. Unless the U.S. wakes up to this threat and the folly of its stance toward Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the consequences could be catastrophic.

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Beauty Pageant Selfie Provides a ‘Middle East for Dummies’ Tutorial

The Miss Universe Pageant is a rather silly made-for-television event owned by entrepreneur and celebrity Donald Trump. But this piece of junk food for the mind has nevertheless provided the universe, or at least the portion of it that includes this planet, a tutorial in the realities of the Middle East that one cannot get from reading, say, the editorials of the New York Times or the statements about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that come out of the mouths of people like President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. And all it took was one selfie from Miss Israel.

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The Miss Universe Pageant is a rather silly made-for-television event owned by entrepreneur and celebrity Donald Trump. But this piece of junk food for the mind has nevertheless provided the universe, or at least the portion of it that includes this planet, a tutorial in the realities of the Middle East that one cannot get from reading, say, the editorials of the New York Times or the statements about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that come out of the mouths of people like President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. And all it took was one selfie from Miss Israel.

The controversy arises from an incident during a photo session before the Miss World festivities began during which the contestants were also talking photos of each other. Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, took a photo of herself and a few other participants, including Saly Greige, Miss Lebanon, in which the young ladies are all smiling while dressed in shirts with their country’s names. The photo was predictably circulated on social media but the reaction involved more than the usual appreciation for the sight of a few pretty girls. Lebanese who saw it were enraged at Greige, who was reviled for treason for being depicted as engaging in normal friendly relations with an Israeli.

This sort of thing had happened once before when the 1993 version of Miss Lebanon was pictured next to that year’s Miss Israel. She was subsequently stripped of her title and ostracized as a traitor.

So to save herself from such an ignominious end, Greige claimed that she had been photo-bombed by the Israeli and then posted a new version of the same picture with Matalon cropped out. Perhaps that lame story will be enough to keep her out of the soup in a country that is dominated by terrorist militias like Hezbollah and where hatred for Israel and Jews is endemic. In response, Matalon merely said she was “sad” that her Arab counterparts were not allowed to put aside official hostility for even the three weeks of the event.

But there’s more to this story than just an embarrassing and potentially dangerous moment of fraternization for one Lebanese woman.

The exchange encapsulated the essence of why peace in the Middle East has eluded generations of diplomats.

The problem between Israel and Lebanon, which is a more cosmopolitan place than many other Arab countries, isn’t a matter of borders or disputes over settlements. Many Lebanese may hold grudges about Israel’s intervention in their civil war and its occupation of a portion of that country that ended in 2000. But any umbrage about that must be tempered by the knowledge that the dispute was caused by the willingness of the Lebanese to let the southern portion of their country be used as a terrorist base of attack by the Palestinians, who operated a state within a state in the south, for many years. The same is true now of Hezbollah, which embroiled all of Lebanon in a pointless and bloody war against Israel in 2006 because of their cross-border terror raids.

Nor are the Lebanese particularly exercised about Israeli settlement policies or the plight of Palestinians in Hamas-run Gaza. Indeed, the Lebanese are, as a result of their own experiences with armed Palestinian militias and terror cadres during the civil war, even less sympathetic to the Palestinians than Israelis.

The problem is a spirit of intolerance and rejection for the idea of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. That is a hatred so deep that it can’t be bridged by creative diplomacy or gestures of goodwill, such as those that infuse international events like the Miss Universe contest.

It is a cliché for contestants at such competitions to say they wish for world peace when asked for their opinions about the issues of the day. But what happened to Miss Lebanon illustrates that the divisions of the Middle East run so deep and are so primal that no amount of global hooey like a beauty contest is enough to make the Arab and Muslim world forget about their antipathy for Israelis.

That one picture was worth a million words of nonsense about the Middle East conflict being a misunderstanding or a problem that could be solved with enough good will on the part of both sides. The State Department should consider it a free “Middle East for Dummies” tutorial. Until Lebanese beauty contestants are not afraid to have their pictures taken with Jews, the diplomats should not bother trying to pretend their efforts will be enough to solve the problem.

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Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Trouble on Israel’s Northern Border

During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

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During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

The explosions and incursions into Israeli territory that occurred on the Lebanese border last weeks are a reminder that this ongoing threat could all too easily escalate. With Hezbollah’s Iranian paymasters always looking for distractions from their illegal nuclear program, the recent war in Gaza, like the rise of ISIS, provided just such a distraction. As there is now the possibility of renewed pressure on Iran over its nuclear program–particularly once the congressional midterms are over–the Iranians are no doubt weighing the benefits of diverting the world’s attention through another proxy war with Israel.

Considering the reality of this wider geopolitical context it is extraordinary that parts of the international media have attempted to construe the recent incidents on the Lebanese border as in some way deriving from a land dispute over the so-called Sheba Farms. That was the line taken by the Agence France-Presse recently. It is true that the Lebanese state claims this splinter of the Golan Heights as part of Lebanon, despite the fact that the United Nations has made quite clear that Israel withdrew from all Lebanese territory in 2000. But to imagine that the leaders of a radical Shia group like Hezbollah genuinely lose sleep over whether or not the Lebanese state has sovereignty over the Sheba farms is completely implausible. Yet, during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war even then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was prepared to entertain the notion that Hezbollah might be appeased by an Israeli withdrawal from the Sheba farms.

The idea that Hezbollah’s belligerence toward Israel is on account of a minor territorial dispute is as foolish as the belief that Hamas went to war this summer over Gaza’s lack of an international seaport. Islamist groups such as these do not take to the warpath over these kinds of single-issue grievances. If such disputes were the real cause of their underlying conflict with Israel then peace would have been secured long ago. Rather, these factions initiate hostilities when their ongoing desire to destroy the Jewish state aligns with a geopolitical moment that encourages them to believe that a renewal of the violence could be advantageous.

Israel, however, will also be aware that the volatility along the northern border is yet another manifestation of the turmoil raging throughout the region as Iranian backed Shia forces continue to slug it out with radical Sunni groups. Along with the threat of ISIS infiltrating into Lebanon from Syria, there has also been the ongoing effort by Hezbollah to transfer Assad’s weapons stockpiles to their strongholds in Lebanon. Recalling that southern Lebanon is another territory from which Israel withdrew its military, Israelis will surely be drawing similar lessons to the ones they drew this summer from the war in Gaza. Given those rocket and tunnel attacks, the threat growing along the Golan Heights, the attacks that have come from the border with Sinai, the very real threat of Jordan also becoming engulfed by ISIS, and now the renewed hostilities on the Lebanese border, Israelis will surely be all the more wary about bringing the threat still closer to their population centers by pulling out of strategically vital West Bank areas such as the Jordan Valley.

So while European governments and the Obama administration continue to push the line that there is an urgent need to press on with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, nothing could be further from the truth. The critically fragile situation on the Lebanese border, so intrinsically linked as it is to the present situation in Syria and the ongoing Iranian quest for regional hegemony, should persuade observers that the matter of Israeli territorial concessions is one issue on which the parties should sit tight. With so many parts of the jigsaw on the move, Western leaders ought to be eager to preserve those few areas where relative stability is still being maintained. Finally, in the event that Hezbollah does seek to provoke a further conflagration on the northern border, they should know which forces are really behind it. And its not the Israeli presence in the Sheba farms.

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How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

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While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

There are three kinds of Mideast engagements with Iran. In all three, Iran is a step ahead of the Obama administration. The first category is direct military engagement. The United States military is involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the U.S. has been treated to characterizations that America is more or less acting as Iran’s air force: in Iraq, that comparison is made directly; in Syria, it is by acting essentially as Bashar al-Assad’s air force–and Assad is an Iranian proxy hanging on to power in large part through Iran’s investment.

The second category includes conflicts in which America’s allies are up against Iranian proxies. Israel, for example, fought a summer war against Hamas, an Iranian client firing Syrian missiles delivered by Iran. Far from understanding what was taking place, the Obama administration played right into Iran’s hands by distancing itself from Sisi’s Egypt and not only pressuring Israel to give in to Hamas’s terror but even sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo with a ceasefire agreement reflecting the wishes of Hamas’s patrons. When Israel objected, President Obama took retribution against Jerusalem, withholding arms transfers while Israel was under fire.

This includes Lebanon as well, where Iranian proxies not only occasionally attack Israel but have a chokehold on a the government. The West has occasionally stepped up in Lebanon, such as when it galvanized outrage at Syria to help force Assad’s expulsion from its neighbor. But most of the time, the West has been unwilling or unable to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. And as Jonathan wrote earlier in the week, concern about ISIS terrorism is raising the possibility of legitimizing and mainstreaming Hezbollah.

And then there is the direct American engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. On this, the Iranians saw early on that Obama and Kerry wanted a deal of some sort that would kick the can down the road while enabling the president to claim progress. It’s doubtful any such plan was more obviously bush league than begging the Iranians to disconnect some pipe rather than dismantle the program. But the limitless diplomacy, in which deadlines float past with nary a thought, has done its damage as well by giving the Iranians additional leverage–and a powerful bargaining chip–on other issues on which the U.S. would want Iranian cooperation.

Aside from these three, there is evidence of a fourth category in the Middle East: a state like Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn away from democracy, human rights, and the West more generally has been conducted publicly, but even here there appears to be malign Iranian influence. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler has a fascinating post discussing the Turkish government’s connections to Iranian intelligence. He writes:

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

Yet nothing has been done to crack down on the group in Turkey. Schindler continues:

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the Turkish connection serves to fill out the picture of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Tehran has continually played Washington, setting fires and then offering to help Obama put them out, for a price. It’s a predictable racket, but Obama keeps falling for it.

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War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Beware of Qatar’s Mediation

If crises make or break statesmen, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has tried Secretary of State John Kerry and found him wanting. Throughout the crisis, Kerry acted as a simple arbiter rather than a diplomat who believed it was in his interest to defend democracy, freedom, and punish rather than reward terrorism.

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If crises make or break statesmen, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has tried Secretary of State John Kerry and found him wanting. Throughout the crisis, Kerry acted as a simple arbiter rather than a diplomat who believed it was in his interest to defend democracy, freedom, and punish rather than reward terrorism.

Kerry does not simply lead the State Department, but he also reflects its culture. It has been a generation or more since State Department leaders thought strategically rather than simply reacted to crises. Talking, diplomacy, and the desire to initiate and continue processes occur round the clock: Few diplomats understand that sometimes the best option is to stand by and do nothing, all the more so if an enemy’s strength declines as conflict continues.

America’s adversaries understand the mindset of U.S. diplomacy and play the United States like a fiddle. Qatar is a case in point: While Qatar styles itself as a Dubai alternative which punches above its weight on the world stage, the reality is that it encourages, funds, and embraces corrosive forms of radicalism responsible over the last decade for more deaths than the entire population of Qatar itself. This is reflected in Qatari mediation.

Take events in Lebanon in 2008: The United States has long considered Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization for good reason. In interviews with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in 2008, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first ambassadors to Lebanon acknowledged that Iran formed the group and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps trained it as its proxy. When I visited Lebanon a couple years back, I toured some Hezbollah bunkers in southern Lebanon in which posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adorned otherwise blank walls above bedrolls.

While Hezbollah clings to its rhetoric of anti-Israel resistance, Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 denied it its contrived raison d’être. So it made a new one, claiming Lebanese sovereignty over the Sheba’a Farms, Syrian highlands occupied by Israel when Israeli forces took the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. In practice, however, on the Lebanese political scene, Hezbollah operates like a mafia. It moves in on profitable business, demands protection, and runs the black market. Putting ideology aside, it’s like 1930s Chicago or, perhaps, 2014 Chicago. In 2008, Hezbollah moved into central Beirut and turned its guns on the fellow Lebanese it claimed to protect because it feared central government control over Beirut’s international airport would mean it would be harder to use that facility for the drug and weapons smuggling in which it and its Iranian sponsors engaged.

At the same time, the rise of the March 14 movement in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, no matter how fractious that political coalition was, threatened Hezbollah and its vision of a Lebanon oriented toward the Iranian sphere. Violence erupted. Enter Qatar: It decided to mediate the dispute, a process which then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed. The result was the Doha Agreement of 2008. This ill-conceived compromise, blessed by Rice, the State Department, and its culture of short-term thinking, awarded Hezbollah a third of Lebanon’s cabinet posts, giving Hezbollah effective veto power. That was the end of Lebanon’s democratic spring, and a direct result of a U.S.-endorsed Qatari compromise that privileged the violent and the Islamist.

Now consider Hamas. The magnitude of Qatar’s support for the terrorist group should be enough to get Qatar prime listing on the state sponsor of terrorism list. And yet, Kerry has made Qatar a full partner in the diplomatic process to achieve a ceasefire. America’s goal might be to achieve calm, and Kerry’s goal might be to find some—indeed any—success during his tenure, but it’s essential to recognize that Qatar’s goal is simply to salvage Hamas and allow its rearmament.

It’s always a dangerous thing when militants and terrorists conclude that an American desire for peace means that promoting violence can lead to a deal which privileges the violent over those who follow the rules of diplomacy. Yet, that’s exactly what first Rice and then Kerry did when it has come to Qatar acting as the good cop to achieve the aims of the bad cops in the Middle East. Rather than treat Qatar as a partner, it’s long past time the State Department and Pentagon began crafting plans to disassociate the United States from Qatar, which increasingly should be considered a liability rather than an asset.

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While West Dithers, ISIS Creates Facts on the Ground

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

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“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

So wrote my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Janine Davidson on July 24. And that was before this weekend’s reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had routed Kurdish fighters from the town of Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border–one of the few border posts it did not already control–and that it may have taken control of the Mosul dam, which if blown up could flood much of northern Iraq with a 65-foot wave.

Other reports indicate that ISIS has taken control of a Syrian oil field near Homs. As the Washington Post notes in a very comprehensive round-up of depressing news: “Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.” Oh and ISIS also just staged an attack in yet another country–Lebanon.

In short, the news is about as bad as it could be. The question that remains is: What is the U.S. doing about it? So far President Obama has dispatched 825 military personnel to Iraq to make a survey of the situation and to conduct some liaison work with the Iraqis in two headquarters. That’s about it, aside from some fiery rhetoric from Washington denouncing ISIS excesses. One wonders if the president is once again assuming that denouncing something is the same thing as doing something about it.

There are no air strikes, no Special Operations raids, no attempts to rally Sunni tribesmen to resist their new overlords. Granted, one should not rush willy-nilly into action before gaining an accurate assessment of the situation and deploying the resources necessary to be successful. That is why, for example, the Bush administration did not start bombing Afghanistan until weeks after the 9/11 attacks. But one fears that this time around the U.S. is not preparing a devastating response–or any meaningful response at all–to the alarming expansion of Islamist terrorist control in Iraq and Syria.

One fears that Washington is busy analyzing while ISIS is altering facts on the ground. And that eventually we will hear about Iraq the same thing we have been hearing about Syria: that the situation is so grim that there is nothing we can do about it. That, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy–the less we do, the worse the situation gets, and the less likely we are to intervene in any form.

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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Hold Turkey and Saudi Arabia Accountable

The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

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The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

Since the current ISIS/Baathist uprising in Iraq started, Turkey’s behavior has been absolutely reprehensible. There have been photographs circulated in Turkey of an ISIS commander recovering at a Turkish hospital in Hatay. While Turkey claims medical treatment for ISIS terrorists wounded in Syria (or Iraq) is a humanitarian act, the same Turkish government prosecutes doctors who treat protestors wounded in demonstrations against the Turkish government’s authoritarianism in Istanbul.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu complained that the media was portraying ISIS unfairly. Turkey may finally have declared the Nusra Front a terrorist group—only after the group stopped obeying Turkish direction—but it has apparently yet to impose the same designation on ISIS, a group too radical even for al-Qaeda. Iraqi press reports suggest that Iraqi forces have arrested four Turkish officers helping train ISIS in Iraq; while the Turks have denied that accusation, it seems there’s some fire causing that smoke. If any Turkish officer took part in training a terrorist group that has reportedly summarily executed more than 2,000 soldiers, then it is hard to conclude that Turkey does not have blood on its hands.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no angel, but to blame Iraq’s Shi’ites or a democratically elected government that includes Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and Christians, men and women is unfair. The current strife in Iraq is not because of Shi’ite intolerance but rather because of intolerance of the Shi’ites. Those who say the uprising could have been averted if only Maliki had given more perks, positions, and goodies to Sunni Arabs misunderstand the fact that what Iraqis are fighting against is a noxious and hateful ideology, not simply grievance.

Never again will Iraq be dominated by a small Sunni minority. Nor should it. Shi’ites cannot be expected to sit idly by when Saudi- and Turkish-supported radical groups brag about their plans for genocide against the Shi’ites. It’s important to check Iranian ambitions and to reinforce that Iran does not represent all Shi’ites. If the United States truly wants to encourage peace in Iraq, however, it is time to acknowledge that Shi’ites too have legitimate grievances and face a deadly challenge, one embarrassingly that has a return address in Riyadh and Ankara.

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Remember Previous U.S.-Iran “Cooperation” in Iraq?

Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

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Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

A major theme of my recent book was that while the U.S. military constantly examines its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department does not engage in lessons-learned exercises. Secretary of State John Kerry is absolutely right that the United States and Iran have a shared interest in Iraq. Then again, firefighters and arsonists have a shared interest in fires.

Let us hope that President Obama understands that it is a lot easier to bless Iran’s entrance into Iraq than achieve its exit. If he has any doubts, he can just as the Lebanese, who have been struggling against an Iranian-created proxy group if not IRGC advisors for almost 32 years or, if charitable, for 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

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Could Jordan Fall?

I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

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I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

If ISIS is able to consolidate control, and given its ideological antipathy to nation-state borders, then it will likely turn its sights on Jordan. After all, while ISIS considers Jews, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of a slow and painful death, its main victims have always been Sunnis.

Security officials acknowledge that ISIS already has cells in Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan does himself no favors. Like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia or Ayad Allawi in Iraq, Abdullah is far more popular abroad than he is at home. Indeed, when he assumed the throne upon the death of his father, Abdullah was fluent in English but stumbled through Arabic. His wife Rania might charm Western audiences and might be imagined to attract Palestinian support because of her own heritage, but her profligate spending and tin ear to the plight of ordinary people has antagonized many Jordanians.

Many tensions Jordan faces are not Abdullah’s fault: While Jordan has, more than any other Arab state, worked to integrate the Palestinian refugee population, it has also been hit by waves of refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Those working among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan report that they have not previously seen such a radicalized population. Jordan also does not have the natural resources of some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iraq are oil-rich and Israel now has gas.

The left-of-center Center for American Progress last week released an excellent new report looking at the pressures Jordan faces as well as the Islamist landscape in the Kingdom. Anything by the Washington Institute’s David Schenker is also worth reading.

An element of blowback also exists. Speaking on the Chris Matthews Show almost a decade ago, King Abdullah II warned of a “Shi’ite crescent,” a specter he subsequently explained in this Middle East Quarterly interview. For those who see an Iranian hidden hand behind every Shi’ite community, Abdullah’s warning had resonance. For Arab Shi’ites, however, it was unrestrained bigotry. Abdullah was not simply content to warn, however. He transformed Jordan into a safe haven for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and spared little effort to undermine Iraqi stability. He, like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was too clever for his own good: By supporting those who justified violence against Shi’ites on sectarian grounds and by working for his own sectarian reasons to undercut Iraqi stability, he set the stage for the blowback which is on the horizon.

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“Lebanonization” and Other Bogus Defenses of Obama’s Hamas Policy

The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

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The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

Additionally, the United States and Israel often have different approaches to the Palestinians because of the different roles the two play. Generally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed ending American aid to the Palestinian Authority, and has gone to bat for Obama by lobbying Congress to back off such proposals. The reason is the Palestinians have two primary choices for leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Until now Hamas has been excluded from the broader government, which means any money that flows to Mahmoud Abbas may have been misused in any number of ways, but it at least propped up the far superior alternative to Hamas.

Had Fatah been abandoned by the West, Hamas would have taken over the West Bank too. It can be argued that this process incentivizes Abbas’s misbehavior because it signals to him that he can get away with virtually anything. But actions have consequences, and the consequences of setting Abbas adrift would be disastrous.

The whole point of propping up Abbas was to fund the PA instead of Hamas, in an effort to weaken the latter. Funding a Palestinian government that includes Hamas is, strategically, the opposite of what the United States has been doing. It is not hypocritical of Israel to point this out. Indeed, it should not need pointing out. But if the geniuses running the White House and State Department insist on behaving as though they were born yesterday, they can expect the leaders of the nations that will bear the brunt of the consequences to treat them as such.

The other accusation of hypocrisy concerns the so-called “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian Authority. Here’s the Times:

Nothing illustrated the complexity of the situation for the United States better than Mr. Kerry’s backdrop: He was in Lebanon to underscore American support for the Lebanese government — which includes the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.

This argument has gained some traction recently, but its popularity is truly puzzling. The implication here is that the United States supports the Lebanese government even though the terrorist group Hezbollah is an influential part of that government. Therefore, how can Israel oppose American support for a similar government in the Palestinian territories when it does not push back against American support for Lebanon?

Can anyone at the State Department guess the difference between the Palestinians and Lebanon? Show of hands? If you said, “The Israeli government is not involved in land-for-peace negotiations, including the possibility of ceding control of holy places and uprooting Israelis from ancient Jewish land, with the Lebanese,” then you get a gold star.

As the Times story notes, this is really a preliminary confrontation. There will supposedly be elections within the next six months or so, and Hamas will want to participate. Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Sure, but here’s an American official putting everyone at ease:

“Can a group that has a political party and a militia of 20,000 troops run in an election?” a senior administration official said. “These are issues that are going to have be dealt with down the road.”

We’ll find out together! It’ll be exciting. Of course, we already know the answer, since Hamas has already participated in elections in what was widely viewed as a mistake back in 2006. And Hamas currently governs its own province of the territories, the Gaza Strip. The Americans have already seen this movie, but they still can’t wait to see how it ends.

That, of course, could be the one silver lining. If Hamas enters the government and Israel refuses to negotiate with them, it’ll put the onus back where it belongs: on the Palestinian leadership to prove it can build a state that would coexist side by side with a Jewish state. It’ll be John Kerry’s chance to prove the Israelis wrong, though I don’t think they’ll be holding their breath.

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The “Facts” According to Journalists

As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

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As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

Or take a Reuters report on Lebanon this month, which asserted as fact that “Israeli forces still hold at least three pockets of occupied territory which are claimed by Lebanon.” This isn’t a quote from a Lebanese official; it’s the Reuters reporter.

Anyone reading that would never know Israel withdrew from every inch of Lebanon in 2000; that this withdrawal was unanimously certified as complete by the UN Security Council; and that only afterward did Hezbollah, backed by its Lebanese puppet government, suddenly lay claim to additional territory to justify its continued war on Israel. They’d think Israel indeed continues to “occupy” Lebanese territory. And anyone who believes this is easily persuaded that Hezbollah is a legitimate political player that seeks only to regain “occupied Lebanese territory,” rather than a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist organization whose goal is Israel’s eradication, and which any civilized country ought to shun.

This steady drip of media falsehoods even permeates stories that ostensibly have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict–like a New York Times review of Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus, which casually refers to events in “first-century Palestine.” As the reviewer, a Yale professor of religious studies, certainly ought to know, there was no “Palestine” in Jesus’s day. The Roman province Jesus inhabited was called “Judaea,” a word whose linguistic similarity to “Judaism” is no accident; Judaea was a Jewish commonwealth. Only after the Bar-Kochba revolt more than a century later did the Romans rename it “Palestine,” after the Philistines, in a deliberate effort to obscure Jewish ties to the land.

But anyone reading this review would easily conclude that just like the Palestinians always claim, they–not the Jews–are the Holy Land’s indigenous people: Look, there never was a Jewish state there; “Palestine” existed even back in the first century! And if so, then Israel is indeed a thief who stole the Palestinians’ land.   

All this means that many well-meaning people don’t know even the most basic facts, like the Jews’ historic ties to Israel or the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza. And unless pro-Israel activists tell them, they never will–because the media certainly won’t.

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John Kerry and Israel’s Security Priorities

In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

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In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

Speaking from Jerusalem about the progress of negotiations last week, Kerry told reporters: “These are complicated issues that involve the survival and the future of peoples. And this is a conflict that has gone on for too long.” Few could disagree with that, least of all Israelis, who have long lived with the disorienting awareness of just how precarious the survival of their nation really is. Yet Kerry went on to say more. Of the focus of the negotiations he added, “Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges … We don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from our goal. What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead and keep in mind the vision of what can come, and if we can move forward.”

Touching as visions of the future may well be and true as it is that both sides should seek to avoid becoming bogged down in a petty exchange of accusations, we must also wonder about precisely what it is that Israel should and shouldn’t allow itself to be “distracted” by right now. For if Kerry is as committed to the survival of peoples and the ending of conflicts as his above statements would suggest, then there are serious questions that Israelis need to be asking about where the Obama administration has been trying to direct their attention in recent years. What really counts as a luxury and a distraction?

Given that Kerry has undertaken no less than ten visits to Israel since assuming his office less than a year ago, it can hardly be in doubt just how much of a priority overseeing a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is for him. The only trouble is that getting an agreement signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and bringing about peace almost certainly isn’t the same thing. Israel cannot truly make a deal based on land for peace with Abbas, because even if Abbas genuinely wished to do so, neither peace nor security are things that he is able to give Israelis. This is not simply the case because Mahmoud Abbas is almost nine years into his four-year-long presidential term and represents few of the people he claims to speak for or have authority over. Rather, negotiations with Abbas can’t possibly hope to bring Israel peace and security because the Palestinians in the West Bank are not remotely close to being Israel’s primary security concern.

The greatest threat to Israel’s security and continued survival is not even the other group of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, who almost certainly would not hold by any agreement Kerry might be able to somehow conjure up. The single greatest threat to Israel comes from the Islamic regime in Iran and its proxies. Most ominously of all it comes from the Iranian nuclear program. Something which the Obama administration has so far completely failed to bring under control, perhaps unsurprising given how preoccupied Secretary Kerry has been with the matter of trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to agree to accept a state from Israel in exchange for little more than his simple recognition of the Jewish state in return.  

From what has been leaked from the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority so far, it would seem that there has been a great deal of focus on whether or not Israel would maintain a security force in the Jordan Valley. This security matter is clearly of great importance, but right now it pales in comparison to the mounting threat from Iran’s primary proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And if Abbas can do next to nothing to assure Israel’s security from Hamas rockets in Gaza, how much less can he do about the critical danger to Israel coming from north of its border?

In addition to having stockpiles of an estimated 100,000 rockets and a growing ground force of Iranian-trained troops, it now appears that Hezbollah is acquiring new devastating weaponry via Syria. In recent days there have been statements from U.S. intelligence officials expressing their belief that Russian-made Yakhon anti-ship cruise missiles are now being brought into Lebanon. Despite attempts by the Israeli Air Force to strike weapons stores in Syria in an effort to prevent their transfer to Hezbollah, U.S. officials believe components of advanced radar-guided missiles have already entered southern Lebanon. Although primarily designed for use against ships, these missiles have a range that reach almost the full length of Israel’s territory and are equipped with armor-piecing highly explosive warheads. Additionally, some of the weaponry Hezbollah has been acquiring from Syria would give it the capabilities to attack Israeli planes and stave off the kind of air strikes used to stop the stream of rockets fired into Israeli civilian areas during Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel. 

Concurrent with this has come news that Israel’s military will have to delay the deployment of its defensive Iron Dome batteries in the north of the country due to budget cuts. The air defense batteries which were supposed to be positioned to protect Israel’s north reportedly cannot be placed for the moment due to a shortage of manpower related to recent budgetary cuts from Israel’s Ministry of Defense, something which representatives of the military have warned will have serious consequences. As it is, these air defense systems place a huge financial strain on Israel’s ability to defend itself, with each Tamir interception rocket fired costing Israel $50,000. In a war of attrition by Iranian proxies this means of defense could quickly become unsustainable. As one senior military representative stated, “In recent years the enemy has understood that the cheapest and most effective way to harm Israel is by missiles, and therefore the defense establishment is forced to equip itself with the appropriate defense systems, which have a monumental cost.”

These matters are then Israel’s real and primary concern, or at least they should be. Yet, at the moment Israel risks being distracted by the relentless circus of Kerry’s sideshow diplomacy. When it comes to ending conflicts, securing peace and securing the survival of peoples, the most pressing matters do not center on the Palestinians but Iran and its proxy armies. Yet, the Obama administration’s softly-softly approach on Iran, currently materializing in the form of its efforts to ease sanctions on the mullahs, mean that the really serious threats to Israel are now becoming critical. Kerry is quite right when he counsels from Jerusalem on Israel not being able to afford the luxury of dwelling on distractions. Right now, however, Kerry’s shoot-for-the-stars negotiations with Abbas are serving as the most dangerous distraction of all. 

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The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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