Commentary Magazine


Topic: Libya

Two Simple Ways Turkey Can Undercut the Islamic State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What If ISIS Spreads to Pakistan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing the War on Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS and the Cost of Leading From Behind

The cost of leading from behind is going up. The release of a video showing ISIS terrorists in Libya executing Egyptian Christians was shocking and not just because of the depravity of the atrocity. The video’s production showed that the Libyan Islamists were closely coordinating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq revealing that what President Obama called a terrorist “jayvee team” was not only growing stronger but also expanding its reach around the region. In response to the murder of its citizens, the Egyptian military launched a strike at a target in Libya. Though it probably did little harm to the terrorists, it at least sent a strong message that the group could not expect to operate there with impunity. While Egypt may be signaling that it is prepared to push back against ISIS, the ability of the group to operate in Libya demonstrates the bankruptcy of America’s belated and half-hearted efforts against the group. Having originally gotten into Libya while bragging about leading from behind during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the Obama administration appears determined to demonstrate just how disastrous this philosophy can be.

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The cost of leading from behind is going up. The release of a video showing ISIS terrorists in Libya executing Egyptian Christians was shocking and not just because of the depravity of the atrocity. The video’s production showed that the Libyan Islamists were closely coordinating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq revealing that what President Obama called a terrorist “jayvee team” was not only growing stronger but also expanding its reach around the region. In response to the murder of its citizens, the Egyptian military launched a strike at a target in Libya. Though it probably did little harm to the terrorists, it at least sent a strong message that the group could not expect to operate there with impunity. While Egypt may be signaling that it is prepared to push back against ISIS, the ability of the group to operate in Libya demonstrates the bankruptcy of America’s belated and half-hearted efforts against the group. Having originally gotten into Libya while bragging about leading from behind during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the Obama administration appears determined to demonstrate just how disastrous this philosophy can be.

Administration apologists put down the recent spate of terror videos as an effort by ISIS to cover up for its weaknesses and losses with spectacular murders in order to bolster its reputation as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. There is some logic to this argument, but it is offset by the plain facts of the case. After months of a bombing campaign conducted by the United States and some of its Arab allies in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is more than holding its own. Even worse, it has formed alliances and begun to make its impact felt elsewhere. Rather than rolling back ISIS, the U.S. is barely holding it back from making more gains. Even worse, the anti-ISIS coalition has shown itself unable to prevent the group from scoring public-relations coups with snuff films that show what happens to those who are so unfortunate as to fall into their hands.

This ought to be a moment for reflection in Washington as the president and his foreign policy and defense team finally come up with a strategy that has as its aim the destruction of ISIS rather than attrition tactics that seem taken straight out of the Lyndon Johnson administration’s Vietnam War playbook, replete with body counts and overoptimistic bulletins bragging of pyrrhic victories.

But instead, all we continue to get out of the administration is an approach that seems aimed more at ensuring that the U.S. doesn’t win than anything else. The administration’s proposal for a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East is as much about restrictions on the ability of the president to conduct a successful campaign against these barbarians than to actually “degrade” and eventually defeat ISIS.

Just as troubling is the administration’s determination to go on treating the Egyptian government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with disdain at a time when it has become a bulwark in the fight against ISIS and other radicals such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Instead of seeking to help the Egyptians, the U.S. is keeping its distance from Cairo, giving the lie to the president’s belief in multilateralism, a concept that only seems to apply to efforts to constrain self-defense efforts by allies rather than supporting them.

President Obama was dragged into the war against ISIS reluctantly and belatedly and that lack of interest in the fight shows in his statements and an amorphous anti-terror policy that seems aimed more at tolerating Islamists than in taking them out. Sisi is prepared to talk about the religious roots of terror. Obama isn’t. Egypt can’t destroy ISIS in Libya by itself any more than Jordan can do it in Syria and Iraq. American allies look to Washington for commitment and strength and instead they get statements about moral equivalence designed more to allow the president to shirk the responsibility to lead.

Expressions of shock about the mass beheadings of Christians are of no use. Mere statements of condemnation are not a substitute for a war-winning strategy or a willingness to stand by our allies. Far from mere propaganda, ISIS’s murder videos have shown the region that the U.S. can be defied with impunity. If the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS, that is not an impression that it can allow to persist. Or at least it can’t if we really intended to defeat ISIS. Obama must lead or at least get out of the way.

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Will ISIS Use Libya as a Springboard to Attack Egypt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, two things become clear:

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

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

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

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

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS Releases Videos of Its Activities in Tripoli, Libya

For President Obama and his advisor (and now UN ambassador) Samantha Power, Libya was supposed to be the anti-Iraq, an example of the United States “leading from behind” yet implementing a “responsibility to protect.” While President George W. Bush made a mistake with his emphasis on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the casualties sustained and money spent were in the failed effort to reconstruct the country, not in efforts to achieve initial military goals), Obama went to the other extreme. In 2004, the New York Times attempted an “October surprise” by alleging that the Bush administration negligently failed to secure an Iraqi government arms cache, resulting in the flow of 363 tons of explosives to insurgents. This turned out to be an exaggeration, but any loss of ordnance and explosives into insurgent hands costs lives and enables terrorism.

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For President Obama and his advisor (and now UN ambassador) Samantha Power, Libya was supposed to be the anti-Iraq, an example of the United States “leading from behind” yet implementing a “responsibility to protect.” While President George W. Bush made a mistake with his emphasis on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the casualties sustained and money spent were in the failed effort to reconstruct the country, not in efforts to achieve initial military goals), Obama went to the other extreme. In 2004, the New York Times attempted an “October surprise” by alleging that the Bush administration negligently failed to secure an Iraqi government arms cache, resulting in the flow of 363 tons of explosives to insurgents. This turned out to be an exaggeration, but any loss of ordnance and explosives into insurgent hands costs lives and enables terrorism.

In Libya, however, there is no doubt that hundreds of tons of weaponry and explosives poured out of the country as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell, fueling civil war and strife across the Sahel.

In recent months, the civil war in Libya has coalesced largely into a struggle between two groups: “Libyan Dignity” and “Libyan Dawn.” Libyan Dignity and the forces of former Gaddafi-era general and U.S. resident Khalifa Heftar are dominant in Tobruk and enjoy some backing by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Tunisia in their quest to roll back radical Islamist gangs. Libyan Dawn militias backed by Qatar, meanwhile, remain dominant in Misrata, Sirte, and Tripoli.

Here’s the problem: Aligned with Libyan Dawn have been al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State (ISIS), and Ansar ash-Sharia. Maybe Qatar and some Islamist Libyans believe they can use, manage, and contain the more radical terrorist groups, but they would be wrong. It was a strategy Sunni Arab oppositionists and perhaps even Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani tried in Iraq to a disastrous outcome, as the Islamic State turned on its allies of convenience and unleashed a reign of terror from which areas under its control may never recover.

It also appears that what happened in Mosul could very well happen in Tripoli. Today, Al-Awsat, a Libyan daily, published photos of an alleged ISIS patrol dismantling a cosmetic store in the Libyan capital, on foot patrol, and in a pickup truck waving an ISIS flag in what they say is Tripoli.

Now, just because the Islamic State claims that it operates freely in Tripoli doesn’t make it completely so. Pictures might not lie, but they also might not give full perspective. Nevertheless, perhaps its time to recognize that Libya today is akin to Syria three years ago. If Syria was a cancer that metastasized into an immense human tragedy threatening to destabilize neighboring states, it’s possible that an ISIS safe haven in Libya could do the same not only in the Sahel, but to Egypt and Tunisia as well.

Make no mistake: Gaddafi was no ally; he was an unrepentant supporter of terror and it is hard to shed any tears over his demise or that of his autocratic and bizarre regime. Obama and Power might preach about a responsibility to protect, but ham-handed strategies are neither responsible nor do they protect; instead, they simply tap the hornet’s nest.

In Syria, there was a time when support for the opposition might have prevented further radicalization. With all due respect to Sen. John McCain, with the exception of the Syrian Kurds whom both Obama and McCain ignore the time has long since passed when the Free Syrian Army was a plausible, moderate option. In Libya, however, there is a chance to internalize the lessons of Syria. Should American boots go on the ground? No. But should the United States do everything possible to hunt down and kill the radical militias sinking their roots into Libyan soil? Absolutely.

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Obama’s Irresponsible Gitmo Plan

To the list of unilateral second-term moves, we can now add President Obama’s determination to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in the face of both public opinion and congressional intent. The New York Times reports that the administration has accelerated the release of terrorists detained at Gitmo: “Now 127 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, down from 680 in 2003, and the Pentagon is ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks; officials will not provide a specific number. President Obama’s goal in the last two years of his presidency is to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.” Obama appears hell-bent on emptying Gitmo before he leaves office, to fulfill a campaign pledge from 2008, no matter the consequences.

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To the list of unilateral second-term moves, we can now add President Obama’s determination to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in the face of both public opinion and congressional intent. The New York Times reports that the administration has accelerated the release of terrorists detained at Gitmo: “Now 127 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, down from 680 in 2003, and the Pentagon is ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks; officials will not provide a specific number. President Obama’s goal in the last two years of his presidency is to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.” Obama appears hell-bent on emptying Gitmo before he leaves office, to fulfill a campaign pledge from 2008, no matter the consequences.

This is in spite of the fact that 66 percent of Americans oppose closing the detention facility and even though the Senate voted 90-6 in 2009 not to provide the funds necessary to close Gitmo and transfer the detainees to stateside prisons. Obama still can’t bring the detainees to the American mainland so he is shipping them home–even if home is a chaotic place like Yemen where these terrorists are likely to reenter the fight. The Times writes, chillingly: “In one example of the administration’s eagerness to speed the releases, the White House is no longer waiting for security improvements in Yemen before transferring Yemeni prisoners.”

This cavalier attitude raises the risks of recidivism, which were already high to begin with. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes that, as of July 15, 2014, 29.7 percent of former Gitmo detainees are confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist activities. There are reports that some 20 to 30 former Gitmo detainees have joined ISIS or other radical groups in Syria and that another former Gitmo detainee was behind the attack which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

We are virtually assured of more such terrorists on the loose if Obama continues with his plan to close Gitmo without having any plan in place to keep the detainees locked up. It is the height of irresponsibility to continue releasing detainees without any idea of what they will do next. Congress needs to step in to pass legislation making sure that suitable safeguards are in place before any further detainee releases occur.

Alas, Congress cannot force Obama to send newly captured terrorist suspects to Gitmo–which means that there is effectively no way to process them unless there is near-certainty that they can be convicted in a federal criminal court. This means that U.S. forces, both military and CIA, operating oversees have a de facto preference for killing terrorist suspects rather than imprisoning them–especially now that the U.S. no longer has the right to run its own detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is of a piece with the marked increase in drone strikes under the Obama presidency, which is certainly a defensible policy but not if it comes at the expense of capturing and interrogating terrorists who can provide valuable information. It’s hard to see why it’s considered humane to blow up a terrorist suspect with a Hellfire missile (and in all likelihood a number of innocent civilians who happen to be in his vicinity) but inhumane to hold that same suspect in Gitmo where conditions are far better than in any maximum-security prison used for normal convicts.

One can only conclude that Obama’s ideological and political animus against Gitmo–opened, of course, by the preceding president whom he loathes–is producing dangerous and nonsensical national security decisions.

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Obama’s Been Pickpocketed By Reality

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

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A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

And over the weekend Democrats tried desperately to convince him he’s been mugged. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s being “too cautious” on ISIS. That’s her way of saying that she’s privy to enough intel to wonder what Obama sees when he looks at the same information. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Obama needs to be doing more to fend off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–and yes, by the way, he used the word “invasion” rather than participate in the administration’s Orwellian word games to deny reality and make excuses for abandoning American allies.

And the Washington Post editorial board laid into Obama’s swirling confusion over the complexity of the world:

This argument with his own administration is alarming on three levels.

The first has to do with simple competence. One can only imagine the whiplash that foreign leaders must be suffering…

Similarly, his senior advisers uniformly have warned of the unprecedented threat to America and Americans represented by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. But Mr. Obama didn’t seem to agree…

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One can almost imagine the Post’s editors intended the editorial to be read aloud, slowly and with exaggerated elocution, as if speaking to a child. And so the president hasn’t really been mugged by reality, because he doesn’t seem to know he’s been hit.

The Post editorial was right to call attention to the bewilderment America’s allies around the world must be experiencing. But it’s worth dwelling on the same confusion America’s enemies must be feeling. Their actions have resulted in a propaganda windfall because they surely expected the American president not to parrot their talking points or shrug off their murderous intent.

When it was revealed in August that President Obama had downgraded American security cooperation with Israel and was withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a column headlined “US livid with Israel? Hamas can’t believe its luck.” Indeed, Hamas probably expects at best empty words from Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself, but it’s doubtful they ever imagined they would start a war with Israel only to have the American president withhold military support from Israel during that war and then fume that the U.S.-Israel military relationship is such that both sides assume America will have Israel’s back, at least during wartime. Obama wants Israel to make no such assumptions.

Similarly, could Vladimir Putin have expected the Obama administration to help him obfuscate the fact that he has invaded Ukraine–again? Administration officials “have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine,” the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey wrote late last week. “They just don’t want to say the word out loud.” Putin must be giddy.

And when video surfaced revealing that, in the words of CNN, “Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones protested the coverage of an event the symbolism of which was impossible to ignore. It was not true that those ransacking the compound were ransacking the compound, she claimed; they were, um, guarding it. We are truly in the best of hands.

What is most troublesome about this, and what might be responsible for bringing Democrats out of the woodwork to denounce Obama’s foreign-policy silliness, is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be anything that can get the president to confront reality. It’s always been assumed that at some point Obama will wake up; Democrats are no longer convinced that’s the case, and have gone public to try to assure friends and foes alike that not everyone in the U.S. government is so steeped in comforting delusions while the world burns.

Someone’s at the wheel, in other words, just not the president. And now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to believe the spin coming out of Washington, instead of hoping American officials don’t believe the spin coming in.

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U.S. Can’t Retreat and Still Call the Shots

Want to know what happens when the U.S. retreats from a leadership role in the Middle East? This is what happens–Egypt and the United Arab Emirates together collaborate to stage air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. And meanwhile Qatar, which is at odds with its fellow Persian Gulf sheikhdom, the UAE, has been funneling arms to the very Islamist militias that UAE’s air force is bombing.

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Want to know what happens when the U.S. retreats from a leadership role in the Middle East? This is what happens–Egypt and the United Arab Emirates together collaborate to stage air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. And meanwhile Qatar, which is at odds with its fellow Persian Gulf sheikhdom, the UAE, has been funneling arms to the very Islamist militias that UAE’s air force is bombing.

American officials quoted by the New York Times are said to be fuming about these attacks, “believing the intervention could further inflame the Libyan conflict as the United Nations and Western powers are seeking to broker a peaceful resolution…. ‘We don’t see this as constructive at all,’ said one senior American official.”

But guess what? When the U.S. has abdicated its leadership role, there is no reason for anyone–not our enemies and not our allies–to listen to what we have to say. In the case of Libya, the American failure to do more, in cooperation with our allies, to build up central government authority has brought us to a point where this country is fast becoming a failed state consigned to perpetual civil war. The UAE air strikes, enabled by Egypt, will do little to tilt the balance or restore order but they can be read as a cri de coeur from our allies–a protest-by-bombing against all that the Obama administration has failed to do as it has unilaterally and foolishly pulled back from the Middle East.

Even the president seems to be acknowledging that his chief foreign-policy initiative has backfired–how else to explain his newfound willingness to bomb in Iraq and possibly, before long, in Syria? But a few bombing runs, whether by the UAE air force or the U.S. Air Force, are not a substitute for a strategy of concerted engagement designed to stop the march of jihadist terrorist from Libya to Iraq. And that strategy is still not apparent.

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Obama’s Libya Debacle

Think back with me, if you will, to a time not all that long ago when the American intervention in Libya was held up as a model by President Obama.

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Think back with me, if you will, to a time not all that long ago when the American intervention in Libya was held up as a model by President Obama.

“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free,” Mr. Obama told the United Nations on September 21, 2011. “Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”

So Libya is how it’s supposed to work, is it? That is the example the president likes to hold up when he referred to “smart diplomacy” and the virtues of America “leading from behind”?

So how are things going in Libya?

For one thing, the United States shut down its embassy in Libya earlier this summer and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli. “Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.

And today, on the front page of the New York Times, is a story by David Kirkpatrick titled, “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War.”  According to Mr. Kirkpatrick:

Three years after the NATO-backed ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the violence threatens to turn Libya into a pocket of chaos destabilizing North Africa for years to come. Libya is already a haven for itinerant militants, and the conflict has now opened new opportunities for Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist group involved in the assault on the American diplomatic Mission in Benghazi in 2012… In a broad series of interviews on a five-day trip across the chasm now dividing the country — from the mountain town of Zintan, through Tripoli to the coastal city of Misurata — many Libyans despaired of any resolution. “We entered this tunnel and we can’t find our way out,” said Ibrahim Omar, a Zintani leader. Towns and tribes across the country are choosing sides, in places flying the flags of rival factions, sometimes including the black banners of Islamist extremists.

The story goes on to say this:

Even the first years after Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster were better, said Hisham Krekshi, a former Tripoli councilman, savoring a few hours of uninterrupted electricity in the upscale cafe that he owns, its tables and the street deserted. “This is a war, and a lot of innocent people are dying.”

The reason the debacle in Libya isn’t getting more attention is because there are so many other catastrophes that are unfolding in the rest of the world–Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, Crimea, Ukraine, the South China Sea, et cetera–that we are at the point where they are overloading our ability to process it all. Call it the geopolitical version of sensory overload.

These disaster aren’t all Mr. Obama’s fault, of course; but his policies have in every instance made things worse, and in some cases they have made things far worse. As bad as things seem now, they are probably worse than we imagine. It will take years, and in some cases probably decades, to undo the damage of the Obama era. The sheer breadth and scope of his incompetence in the world arena–virtually no continent and very few countries have been spared–is quite remarkable. It almost makes one long for the days of Jimmy Carter.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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A Revolution Betrayed

Talk about humiliations.

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Talk about humiliations.

In 2011 U.S. forces, acting with NATO allies, helped Libyans to overthrow the dictatorial regime of Moammar Gaddafi.

On Saturday, the situation in Libya had gotten so bad that the State Department felt compelled to evacuate all of the U.S. Embassy staff from Tripoli. The decision was probably a prudent one, given that rival militias have in recent days wrecked much of Tripoli’s airport with their internecine fighting. But the fact that Tripoli is becoming Mogadishu-on-the-Mediterranean is a pretty damning indictment of the Obama administration’s approach to the country.

Obama was willing, largely for humanitarian not strategic reasons, to have the U.S. take part as one ally of many in an anti-Gaddafi coalition. This was called by one of his own aides “leading from behind.” But Obama was not willing to lead from behind or from anywhere else when it came to providing aid to the new government of Libya to gain control of its own territory. No peacekeepers, no trainers, no nothing. So intent was he on avoiding “another Iraq” that, ironically, he actually repeated the mistake of Iraq, which was overthrowing a dictator in the Middle East without having a plan to replace him.

The result of this neglect was already paid by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Steven and three other Americans killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi in 2012. Now the cost is being paid by Libyans in general who are seeing their revolution betrayed. Instead of freedom, they have anarchy. And the Obama administration has yet another object lesson in what happens when America retreats from the Middle East in particular and the world in general.

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The Missile Threat Goes Beyond Ukraine

The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

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The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

Several thousand surface-to-air missiles went missing in Libya in part because the White House chose to lead from behind and so did not work to secure Libya’s substantial arms caches. While airlines scramble to avoid Ukrainian airspace, they still fly over other contested regions. Less than two weeks ago, I flew on an American carrier from Washington to Dubai: we traversed Turkey and avoided Syria, but then appeared to fly over portions of Iraq which were newly seized by the Islamic State.

Terrorists with weaponry that can blow planes out of the sky may increasingly become the new normal. The question for policymakers is what to do about it. Only Israel equips its civilian jets with measures to counter missile threats. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli charter flight leaving Mombasa. The missiles failed to hit their target, in part because of Israeli countermeasures.

The U.S. government is infamous for always defending against the last terrorist attack. TSA agents continue to pat down grandmothers in order to confiscate hidden water bottles. That may be all well and good, but increasingly it provides security theater rather than real security. If the growing threat is from below, the question the White House and airline industry should answer is what steps are they taking to defeat a surface-to-air missile aimed at a civilian jetliner, or whether they will simply wait to act until terrorists down an American-flagged aircraft.

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Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney”: How Buyer’s Remorse Works

Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

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Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

Henry begins by spelling out the challenge of losing a presidential election and then not only winning the nomination again but winning the general election as well. (The model is Nixon.) Henry breaks down the case for Romney into three categories:

  • Romney is re-emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
  • There is no natural 2016 GOP nominee and the field is highly fractured.
  • All failed nominees other than Romney were career politicians.

Does Romney qualify as someone who isn’t a “career politician”? I can see both sides of this debate. The other two claims seem to me arguments against Romney, if anything. His “re-emergence” as the de facto leader of the party is really his re-emergence as a respected figure of the establishment–an establishment which so happens to be locked in a rather nasty public battle with the party’s conservative grassroots.

In that context, a Romney nomination is unthinkable. Romney was really the last of the “next in liners” with regard to the party’s nominating process. His loss was the end of turn taking and the beginning of the party’s turn to its next generation.

And that brings us to the second point. The field is “highly fractured” not out of weakness but strength. The field of possible 2016 candidates is far more dynamic and in line with the party’s emerging identity than the 2012 field. Romney was preferable even to many conservatives over Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. It’s doubtful the same would be said for Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, or Bobby Jindal.

There are times when an elder statesman is the appropriate candidate. There’s a much stronger case for a Romney candidacy without the Romney, however. The case for Romney is really about buyer’s remorse–it would be the GOP telling the electorate “we told you so.” But as Henry himself intimates, the electorate doesn’t actually need to be told that. The buyer’s remorse is real, and it’s because they realize now that voting for the birth-control-and-Big-Bird candidate was a fairly irresponsible thing to do.

Barack Obama tends to run extremely shallow campaigns. Manufactured war on women controversies and episodes of messianic self-love are usually all you get. But the electorate seems to have assumed that the ideas would come later–that, at some point, Obama would think seriously about the issues of the day, end the perpetual campaign, and start governing. What they got instead was grade-school name calling. On foreign policy, his dithering and disastrous “leading from behind” led to chaos and disintegrating borders. The response of the international community to this was predictable. No one takes Obama seriously, and his diplomatic endeavors have mostly been laughed out of the room.

What they reasonably hoped was that this would stop after Obama’s reelection, when he had no more elections ahead of him. They have learned the hard way the president had no such intentions. Thus their buyer’s remorse is pretty strong, but also much less relevant to 2016. Just because they wish someone else had won in 2012 doesn’t mean they would prefer Romney to someone who isn’t Obama in a future election. Buyer’s remorse doesn’t really work that way.

But they do have an understanding of the consequences of the president’s world view, and it happens not to be too different from the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She was, after all, the president’s secretary of state, who managed the Russian “reset,” ignored some allies while haranguing others, and presided over the light-footprint model of state intervention that resulted in the death of an American ambassador in Libya.

It turned out that Romney was right about a whole lot, both on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. Perhaps that’s the road map future candidates will follow: not to mimic all of Romney’s policy prescriptions, but to concentrate on where and why he was right and how polling shows these areas to be weaknesses for the current ruling Democrats. That doesn’t mean they’d need to run Mitt Romney in order to make those arguments, but does explain why we’re having this conversation to begin with.

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A Welcome Win for Obama and the U.S.

I have been quite critical recently of the Obama administration foreign policy that has been associated with one disaster after another in, among other places, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. As Bret Stephens writes, “Like geese, Americans are being forced to swallow foreign-policy fiascoes at a rate faster than we can possibly chew, much less digest.”

So it is only fit and proper to give credit where it’s due—in this case for the apprehension by Special Operations Forces of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the reported ringleader of the terrorist cell which attacked the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and killed the US ambassador to Libya. This has been a while coming but it is fitting justice nevertheless.

Republicans who seek to criticize this coup are, I believe, off-base. There are two grounds for criticism: First that the president reportedly sat on this intelligence for fear that a raid would destabilize the government of Libya and second that Khattala is being remanded for trial in a federal district court, not sent to Guantanamo for trial by a special terrorist tribunal. Neither criticism stands up to much scrutiny.

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I have been quite critical recently of the Obama administration foreign policy that has been associated with one disaster after another in, among other places, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. As Bret Stephens writes, “Like geese, Americans are being forced to swallow foreign-policy fiascoes at a rate faster than we can possibly chew, much less digest.”

So it is only fit and proper to give credit where it’s due—in this case for the apprehension by Special Operations Forces of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the reported ringleader of the terrorist cell which attacked the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and killed the US ambassador to Libya. This has been a while coming but it is fitting justice nevertheless.

Republicans who seek to criticize this coup are, I believe, off-base. There are two grounds for criticism: First that the president reportedly sat on this intelligence for fear that a raid would destabilize the government of Libya and second that Khattala is being remanded for trial in a federal district court, not sent to Guantanamo for trial by a special terrorist tribunal. Neither criticism stands up to much scrutiny.

In the first place, it is perfectly legitimate to balance the benefits of a Special Operations raid against the political costs of action. Presumably Obama finally determined that Libya is so chaotic and the government so powerless that this raid would do nothing further to destabilize the situation. That is itself a sad indictment of U.S. policy (or lack thereof) in Libya but it is that policy that should be subject to criticism, not the raid itself.

As for trying Khattala in a civilian court: This should not be a matter of dogmatism. Many top terrorists have been tried and convicted in civilian courts in the past. The point of Gitmo and the special terrorist tribunals is that they offer a separate venue for handling terrorists who are judged dangerous by the intelligence community but whom prosecutors are unable to convict in a civilian court. In the case of Khattala, the Justice Department is apparently confident of winning a conviction in district court, so there is no reason not to go ahead with a prosecution. Khattala is actually more likely to remain locked up if he is sent to a super-max prison than if he goes to Gitmo where far too many dangerous detainees have been released.

It goes without saying that the capture of Khattala, however welcome, hardly reverses by itself the tide of disasters that has swept over U.S. foreign policy in recent months. But for an administration that has not had a lot (or any) victories lately, it is a welcome win—and one that Republicans should welcome for signaling a willingness to use force against America’s enemies.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Unsecured Libyan Weapons Went to Boko Haram

Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram’s] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

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Add another drop of tragedy to the story of America’s reluctant, no-boots-on-the-ground operation in Libya in 2011: Weapons that were never secured after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster made their way to Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist organization now holding hundreds of Nigerian girls. Last May, Boko Haram staged an attack in the town of Bama, killing 55 innocents and freeing 100 prisoners. That month Reuters ran a story by Tim Cocks headlined “Nigeria’s Islamists staging bolder, deadlier comeback.” It explained:

The Bama attack showed their [Boko Haram’s] substantial firepower, including machine guns, large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a sign the weapons flood from the Libyan war that helped rebels seize parts of Mali last year has reached Nigeria, officials say.

Let this be a miserable lesson in the dangers of foreign-policy ambivalence. The Obama administration was dragged kicking and screaming into Libya and refused to take the necessary steps to secure the regime’s weapons after Gaddafi was gone. This “light footprint” approach was praised by many as a low-risk “new model” for American military action. But in reality it was just world-policing on the cheap. The results speak for themselves. We can either fight terrorism or we can watch it advance and offer our remorse after the fact.

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