Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

The Ineffective Campaign in Yemen

Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

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Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

The Saudis have been bombing rather freely, killing by UN estimates more than 600 people, at least half of them civilians. On March 31, for example, Saudi bombs hit a dairy factory killing 31 civilians, the kind of mistake that would be greeted with global outrage if it were committed by the Israeli Air Force but it is met with polite silence when it’s the Saudis.

Alas, while the Saudis are doing an efficient job of killing civilians (and thereby no doubt driving their relatives into the Houthis’ arms), there is little evidence that they are being effective in stopping the Houthis. Instead, the primary impact of their aerial campaign seems to be to create space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its sphere of control. To be sure, the U.S. continues to fly drones, now from Saudi soil, that continue to kill AQAP leaders. But that makes little difference on the ground where, with the disintegration of central authority, there is no longer an effective counterweight to AQAP.

As the New York Times reports: “Al Qaeda’s adversaries in Yemen are largely in disarray or distracted by other fighting. Military units have melted away or put up little resistance as Al Qaeda has advanced. The Houthis, a militia movement from northern Yemen that is considered Al Qaeda’s most determined foe, have been preoccupied with battles against rival militias across the country, and their fighters have been battered by aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which is trying to restore the exiled government to power.”

As a result AQAP is on the march. The Times again: “Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.”

Yemen, in short, is a mess and getting worse. And the U.S. role—carrying out a few drone strikes, while providing intelligence to the Saudis to facilitate their own bombing—seems to be almost entirely irrelevant. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.” But while the White House may be uneasy, there is no sign it is formulating a different strategy.

All of this is of a piece with the overall state of the war on terror: Both Shiite and Sunni jihadists are advancing across the Arab world while the U.S. fumbles for a response. Perhaps the next administration will formulate a more effective strategy, but unfortunately we can’t afford to wait more than 21 months before doing something about worsening conditions in this strategically vital region.

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Lausanne and an Empowered Iran

In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

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In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Even based on the little we know about what was agreed, a couple of qualifiers are in order. First, even assuming the most heroic possible implementation of the accord, Iran will be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon for perhaps ten years at most–not for all time. The mullahs, who do not have to shut down a single nuclear facility or (apparently) export already enriched uranium, can use that decade to enrich more uranium in their 5,000-plus legal centrifuges, weaponize nuclear warheads, and do everything else needed to assemble a formidable atomic arsenal the second that Iranian leaders decide to break out.

But–and this is the second caveat–even this assumption, which stops far short of what Obama is promising, is itself based on the belief that Iran will abide by the accord. Given the history of other hostile states, such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, in cheating on arms-control agreements, that is quite a Panglossian assumption to make. Perhaps there will be truly strict verification procedures that the Iranians will not be able to subvert–by, for example, setting up a separate, undeclared nuclear facility as they have done in the past–but there is reason for skepticism given how hard the Iranians bargained simply to be able to keep all of their existing facilities open.

While Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord–should one actually be completed in June–remains a speculative proposition, there is much greater reason to think that multilateral sanctions will be lifted and stay lifted no matter if Iran abides by the agreement or not. One of the many unknowns regarding what was announced in Lausanne–an unknown that could actually scuttle the real agreement supposed to be reached in June–is when the sanctions will come off. The Iranians are saying they will be lifted the second a final agreement is signed. The Americans are saying they will be lifted in stages based on Iranian compliance. We’ll see which version is closer to reality if and when the world is actually allowed to read the fine print of any agreement–and assuming there are no secret codicils that remain classified.

But it seems safe to speculate that if Iran signs a piece of paper in June the multilateral sanctions regime will collapse sooner rather than later. This means that Iranian coffers will be flooded with hundreds of billions of dollars in new income.  What will the money be used for? Some undoubtedly will go for social services to buy off a long-suffering Iranian population and prevent an insurrection against the ayatollahs. But it is certain that a large chunk of the money also will go to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which not only runs the nuclear program and a ballistic-missile program but also is in charge of exporting the Iranian revolution abroad. There is absolutely nothing in the Lausanne accord that does anything to hinder much less stop Iran’s support for terrorism or its ballistic-missile programs–both subjects ignored in the Obama administration’s frenzied quest for a nuclear accord, no matter its specifics.

The IRGC, and specifically its elite Quds Force under Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has been busy for decades exporting Iranian power to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Its subversive efforts have borne fruit in recent years by creating a virtual Iranian Empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Iranian lucre has funded the barrel bombs that Bashar Assad has been dropping on civilians and the abusive militias which Shiite leaders in Iraq have been assembling to undermine the Iraqi state. And that is what Iran has achieved with an economy still in a sanctions straitjacket. What will it be able to do once that straitjacket has come off?

That is the grim prospect that will now confront Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states that feel a mortal threat emanating from Iran. They will now have to face an Iran with a nuclear program delayed but not dismantled, and an Iran with growing power to undermine and dominate its neighbors. Under such a scenario do not be surprised if Saudi Arabia proceeds with a nuclear program of its own, as it has long threatened to do.

President Obama likes to claim, erroneously, that anyone who opposes his accord must be in favor of World War III. He would make a more persuasive case for the accord if he would more honestly grapple with its baleful consequences for enhancing Iran’s regional power–power which is already at a 30-year high and which now promises to grow even greater.

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Obama’s Preemptive Attack on Critics of the Iran “Framework”

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

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President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

Obama’s press conference this afternoon was notable for its tone. Though he was ostensibly announcing what he considers something of a diplomatic victory, he was agitated and defensive. But it was not just the tone. Here is what Obama said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue. If in fact Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option.

It is a remarkably spiteful comment. What the president is saying is not that he and Netanyahu disagree about how to achieve a peaceful resolution. He says they disagree on “whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution” (emphasis added). In other words, Obama is saying publicly that Netanyahu wants war with Iran, and he wants the United States to fight it.

This is significant not just because of what it says about the president’s opinion of Netanyahu. It’s also important because Netanyahu is not just speaking for Israel. As we’ve seen throughout this process, Netanyahu has of late become the public spokesman for a coalition consisting of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies. And he’s voicing concerns that the French clearly possess as well, but won’t risk their seat at the table to say publicly.

Ironically, Obama’s shunning of Netanyahu has made such public criticism more likely, not less. By putting Netanyahu on the outside looking in–as opposed to giving him more of a stake in the discussions, as he’s done with the French–he’s given the Israeli prime minister and other skeptics in Israel’s security establishment more room to rally opposition to any element of a deal that would put them in grave danger.

That’s why Obama wanted to have some kind of agreement to announce this week, well ahead of the June 30 deadline for a more complete deal. Throughout this process the president has insisted that the only two options on the table are the deal or war. It was untrue, and not very convincing. After all, some details kept changing, and others were never set, so what the president really meant was it’s either whatever deal they can scrounge together or war, which was intended to insulate the administration against criticism for some of the inevitable concessions made to Iran.

But critics of the way the administration handled the negotiations could always credibly say that this wasn’t true–that there were other options, namely a better deal. As long as the parameters were theoretical, they had room to maneuver. What Obama wanted to do is box them in by announcing the parameters well ahead of the announcement of a final deal. This would give the administration a three-month head start to say that it really is this deal or war. Either way, it’s a fait accompli: these are the terms, they’ll say, and no other terms are relevant now.

The purpose of Obama declaring a victory of sorts and calling out Netanyahu today, then, was to send the following message: Critics of this framework must, by process of elimination, want war. It’s why Obama felt so confident smearing Netanyahu as being against a “peaceful” resolution. Because the narrative the administration will hammer home now is that there is only one peaceful resolution on offer.

If it was intended to prevent criticism, it didn’t work. The Times of Israel reports that Jerusalem is already reacting:

In Jerusalem, officials slammed the framework as “a capitulation to Iranian dictates.” The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “a bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous agreement. If finalized, it would make the world “far more dangerous.”

The agreement constitutes “international legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program” whose “only purpose is to build nuclear weapons.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. Just because these are the terms the administration could get doesn’t mean it’s not a bad deal. If our allies in the region are on the same page, it also means the Saudis will be unconvinced and are likely to continue exploring their own route to nuclear capability, with the Egyptians not far behind. If Obama thinks this is a victory, it’s easy to see why our allies don’t agree.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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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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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

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General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

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Hillary’s Undeserved Reputation as a Champion of Women Is Imploding

Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

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Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

Last week I wrote about Carly Fiorina’s longshot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, highlighting her CPAC speech and her effective line of attack against Hillary Clinton. We’re now seeing just how effective it is. Two of Fiorina’s sound bites in particular stand out. Of Clinton, she said: “She tweets about women’s rights in this country, and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights.” And: “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”

Those attacks have now found their way into a New York Times story on the hypocrisy of Hillary talking up women’s rights while her foundation was accepting hefty donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries with poor records on women’s rights. And it threatens to turn the Hillary campaign’s entire raison d’être into a liability.

From the Times’s Amy Chozick:

And for someone who has so long been lampooned, and demonized on the right, as overly calculating, playing up her gender as a strength would also allow her to demonstrate her nurturing, maternal — and newly grandmotherly — side to voters whom she may have left cold in the past.

Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject.

But the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has accepted tens of millions of dollars in donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Algeria and Brunei — all of which the State Department has faulted over their records on sex discrimination and other human-rights issues.

The department’s 2011 human rights report on Saudi Arabia, the last such yearly review prepared during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure, tersely faulted the kingdom for “a lack of equal rights for women and children,” and said violence against women, human trafficking and gender discrimination, among other abuses, were all “common” there.

Saudi Arabia has been a particularly generous benefactor to the Clinton Foundation, giving at least $10 million since 2001, according to foundation disclosures. At least $1 million more was donated by Friends of Saudi Arabia, co-founded by a Saudi prince.

I don’t really understand the editorializing comment “Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject,” which doesn’t really sound plausible at all, but everything else is about right. It’s the collision of two critiques of Clinton that make this such a complicated story for Hillary. First, there has been the ongoing (and at times unintentionally comical) attempt by Hillary’s partisans to name any serious accomplishment in her time at Foggy Bottom and coming up emptyhanded. And the second is the rank hypocrisy and influence peddling at the Clinton Foundation.

The first critique makes the second harder to deflect. If Hillary had been able to accomplish anything besides logging lots of miles, she could balance the fact that her foundation was taking cash from the subjugators of women worldwide. At the same time, it’s a problem of Hillary’s own creation, not only because of her role in the scandals but also because she’s apparently chosen to make women’s rights the central plank in her campaign.

That, in its own weird way, makes a great deal of sense. The actual reason Hillary is running for president is because she believes it’s her turn and she’s entitled to it. That’s it, but it’s not a very compelling personal story. Running as the potential first woman president is a way of projecting that entitlement onto half the electorate. She’s entitled to it because you’re entitled to it, or so goes the logic. She’s running as Oprah; look under your seat, ladies: there’s a presidency for each of you.

This would be the moment for Hillary and her defenders to point to all her major accomplishments in the world of women’s rights. But they don’t exist. And the Times story makes this abundantly clear. Here is how the story begins:

It was supposed to be a carefully planned anniversary to mark one of the most important and widely praised moments in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career — and to remind the country, ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, about her long record as a champion for the rights of women and girls.

Instead, as Mrs. Clinton commemorates her 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing in back-to-back events in New York, she finds herself under attack for her family foundation’s acceptance of millions of dollars in donations from Middle Eastern countries known for violence against women and for denying them many basic freedoms.

Hillary Clinton is going on tour to remind voters that she made what she considers a great speech in 1995. And instead of unadulterated adulation, she’s dealing with the dawning realization on the voting public that an old speech promoting women’s rights is all she’s got. Once she attained power on the world stage she became not a liberator of women but the beneficiary of largesse from some of the world’s worst oppressors of women.

All Hillary Clinton’s been able to change in the last twenty years is her address. And dredging up an old speech will only serve as a reminder of that fact.

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Obama’s Main Achievement: Iran in Iraq

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

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Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

As the Times notes:

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.

Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.

The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.

Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.

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Bibi’s Speech Already Bearing Fruit

Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

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Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

Obviously the main point of the speech was Iran’s nuclear program. But Netanyahu also sought to convey the kind of regime Iran is and what it does with its military and financial might. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” Netanyahu said. He recited a litany of examples of Iranian troublemaking, and pointed out that these are all recent–that this is the regime on a path to a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu said:

Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.

Just last week, near Hormuz, Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. That’s just last week, while they’re having nuclear talks with the United States. But unfortunately, for the last 36 years, Iran’s attacks against the United States have been anything but mock. And the targets have been all too real.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the Middle East, Iran attacks America and its allies through its global terror network. It blew up the Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. It helped Al Qaida bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. It even attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, right here in Washington, D.C.

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.

Netanyahu wants the West’s negotiators to curb Iran’s terrorism and expansionism as part of the negotiations. And he’s not alone.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry cannot dispute the characterization of Iran in Netanyahu’s speech, and don’t try to do so. What he said is the uncontested truth. Obama sees Iran’s regional influence as either inevitable or ultimately desirable. Yet those in the region are well aware that Obama’s view of Iran is a fantasy; Tehran is the prime agent of destabilization throughout the Middle East.

One triumph of Netanyahu’s speech today seems to have been to get Obama and especially Kerry to do something they often appear completely incapable of doing: listening to allies. AFP reports that Kerry is heading to the region to try to convince allies that the Obama administration takes the Iranian threat much more seriously than they appear to, nuke or no nuke:

The United States will “confront aggressively” Iran’s bid to expand its influence across the Middle East even if a nuclear deal is reached, a State Department official said Tuesday.

The official’s comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a controversial address to the US Congress, sought to highlight Iran’s expansionist hopes as one reason to halt the nuclear talks.

Top US diplomat John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to reassure US Gulf allies that an Iran deal would not mean Washington would turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions.

“Regardless of what happens in the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region and Iranian aggressiveness in the region,” the official said.

It’s a tough sell. The Obama administration has found itself enabling that very expansion in the stubborn belief that the U.S. and Iran not only share interests but can cooperate to the West’s benefit on various conflicts around the Middle East.

The administration wants to divorce its nuclear diplomacy from Iranian expansionism because it doesn’t want an Iranian retreat in the Middle East, not while ISIS slaughters its way across Iraq and Syria, and not while the administration is intent on leaving a vacuum of American influence into which any number of militant groups can step.

It’s also a tough sell because of the administration’s own rhetoric. AFP quotes a State Department official today as follows: “You can’t read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the US relationship with Iran may go in the future.”

In fact, you absolutely can. The administration’s posture toward Iran, as evident in this conciliatory deal on the table, is that Tehran is a power with legitimate “rights” to enrich uranium and have a nuclear program in place, and that it’s a country that can be trusted with a sunset clause to boot. Netanyahu’s speech clearly and convincingly laid out the case against that view. And Kerry knows it.

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Clintons’ Qatari Cash Should End Democrats’ Koch Attacks

When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

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When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

The first two stories were from the Wall Street Journal, showing the Clinton Foundation was raking in donations from foreign governments as Hillary’s candidacy gets underway and also that Hillary had promoted as secretary of state companies that donated to the foundation. The latest such story is from Politico, and it details the problematic role that Bill Clinton has played in all this.

The story concerns the “big-money” speeches Clinton gave while his wife was secretary of state. He was required to get approval from his wife’s State Department in case there were any ethical gray areas and, wouldn’t you know it, he almost always got them.

There are two separate issues. The first is influence peddling:

The records also highlight a blind spot in the ethics deal the Clintons and the Obama transition team hammered out in 2008 with the involvement of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: While the pact subjected Bill Clinton’s moneymaking activities to official review, it imposed no vetting on donations to the Clinton Foundation by individuals or private companies in the U.S. or abroad.

Concerns about individuals seeking influence by dropping money in both buckets arose soon after the first few Bill Clinton speech proposals landed at Foggy Bottom. In a 2009 memo greenlighting those talks, a State Department ethics official specifically asked about possible links between President Clinton’s speaking engagements and donations to the Clinton Foundation. However, the released documents show no evidence that the question was addressed.

That phrase, “imposed no vetting,” is essential to the Clintons’ scheme. A donation to the Clinton Foundation is not instead of a donation to Bill or Hillary; it’s just a way to hide the details of a donation to Bill or Hillary.

And that’s related to the second issue: transparency. The Clintons were only technically vetting money given directly to Bill under this State Department setup. And yet, even those records are incomplete:

Doubts also remain about the transparency of the ethics deal. Obtaining details on how the approval process played out in practice has been difficult and slow. For nearly three years after POLITICO filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in late 2009, the State Department released no information.

Heavily redacted documents began to emerge only after the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in 2013. So far, the department has not committed to a date to produce all of the records.

And, further:

How thoroughly State Department ethics officers vetted the requests remains unclear because of document redactions.

Some show lawyers there searching the Internet for information on the people or entities involved. One speech request generated a query to the acting chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but the details of the exchange were redacted in the released documents.

Painter said that if the State Department did not know in advance about the specific fees involved for speeches or consulting deals, it would be difficult to judge whether sponsors were overpaying for Bill Clinton’s services.

“That would be a gap if they didn’t find out at all,” the ethics lawyer said.

Now, to suggest that this is solely a Bill Clinton problem for Hillary is not quite right. After all, the foundation was in his name while she was secretary of state and yet companies she would champion as the nation’s chief diplomat were plunking money into the foundation. The foundation also had a self-imposed ban on foreign-government contributions while she was at Foggy Bottom but the “ban wasn’t absolute,” so it wasn’t much of a “ban.”

When Hillary left the State Department, her name was added to the foundation and it resumed accepting the foreign money, eschewing even basic subtlety. So it’s not just about Bill; Hillary has been quite active in passing the hat herself once she turned toward running for president.

Now that there have been calls from both Republicans and Democrats to rein in the sleaze, the Clintons are contemplating going back to the old system. But that old system is the one with horrendous transparency, obvious ethical problems, and the appearance of impropriety at all times.

One thing is for certain: with the Clintons raking in the cash from foreign governments in anticipation of her candidacy, every single Democrat’s accusation of “dark money” and “Koch brothers cash” levied at Republicans should be ignored, without exception. As Kim Strassel wrote, the Clinton Foundation is essentially a super-PAC. And the candidate accepting contributions from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is in no position to lecture anyone on influence peddling and American democracy.

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Conservatives and the War on Modesty

By now, you’re probably aware that first lady Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf when she and President Obama met with new Saudi king Salman on Tuesday. You may have heard that this was a scandal; or you may have heard that it was not. You may have heard that this was practically revolutionary; or you may have heard that it was simply protocol. But whatever you’ve heard, there’s one question to which I’ve been searching, in vain, for a good answer: Why are we hearing anything about it at all?

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By now, you’re probably aware that first lady Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf when she and President Obama met with new Saudi king Salman on Tuesday. You may have heard that this was a scandal; or you may have heard that it was not. You may have heard that this was practically revolutionary; or you may have heard that it was simply protocol. But whatever you’ve heard, there’s one question to which I’ve been searching, in vain, for a good answer: Why are we hearing anything about it at all?

The fact of the matter is that Michelle Obama’s decision to forgo a headscarf was nothing new. Laura Bush did the same, as did Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, etc. So why is it a big deal for Obama to follow in their footsteps? Here’s the Washington Post’s case:

But Obama is much more associated with clothes and fashion; she sets trends and boosts brands. And in the age of social media, she has an unparalleled global audience. …

Keep in mind that Michelle Obama does not make fashion choices lightly, particularly on the world stage. Her fashion choice comes as the late Saudi king Abdullah’s legacy on women is considered in light of the ascension of Crown Prince Salman to the throne.

Nonsense. I don’t have any desire to play armchair psychologist and go into the Obamas-Kennedys-Camelot fixation. But it is true that Obama received plaudits from both sides of the aisle for exposing her hair to the Saudis. Some women with roots in the Muslim world cheered her for what was treated as a silent protest on their behalf. On the right, politicians like Ted Cruz expressed their admiration. At Hot Air, Allahpundit supported the move but asked a more interesting question as to whether the significance was not in Obama breaking from the past but that she might be the last not to.

And this gets at the problem with celebrating this decision one way or the other: it’s just a different kind of conformity.

To be clear: I don’t think Michelle Obama should be forced to wear a headscarf in Saudi Arabia. But I also don’t think she should be pressured not to wear one. I simply don’t see what’s wrong with the choice–emphasis on choice–to cover one’s hair in a voluntary show of respect.

I get the opposition to bowing; it suggests subservience. But I don’t think the headscarf does, at all. I understand that many women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are forced to cover up, and that this is a form of subservience. But so is, by this logic, being precluded by law from wearing one, as was once the case in Turkey and which has been discussed in Western Europe, though in the latter case only a ban on covering the face tends to be politically viable. Covering the face is obviously different than covering the hair, and this difference is recognized throughout the world.

Covering the head, in fact, is something that religious cultures often require of the men as well as the women, and so a headscarf does not strike me as a violation of feminist principles, such as they are. (I’m an Orthodox Jew, and cover my head–though not my hair, and yes I acknowledge the difference there. And plenty of Orthodox men wear hats, covering their whole head anyway.)

Is it offensive when Barack Obama wears a yarmulke at the Western Wall? If not (and it isn’t), then it shouldn’t be offensive if Michelle Obama chooses to wear a headscarf in Saudi Arabia (though she didn’t). One mistake too many conservatives make is to conflate any outward expression of Islamic adherence with oppression. This strikes me as flatly wrong, and irrationally so: donning a headscarf voluntarily is not the same thing as being prohibited by law from driving, to take just one example.

Additionally, conservatives should stand athwart Western culture’s assault on modesty whenever they can. And they should also understand that such modesty, and religious adherence in general, can be as freeing as it appears constricting. It might not be that way for everyone, but eliminating certain superficialities from everyday interactions can be its own form of liberation. Linda Sarsour tried to make a similar point on MSNBC yesterday:

As you can see, I wear hijab. It is a choice for me to wear and cover my hair for religious observation; and I consider myself to be a feminist and someone who supports the upholding of all rights, specifically of women. So this conversation we’re having needs to be more about not obsessing over Michelle Obama wearing a headscarf or not wearing a headscarf — which she is not mandated to do or required in a place like Saudi Arabia, specifically in Jeddah. Also, she is wearing modest clothing, but she was not at a mosque, so she wasn’t required to wear it. But this conversation about, oh, she was standing up for women for not wearing hijab, what about women who do wear hijab, and who choose to wear hijab? I’m very proud of my religion, and my faith, and I’m very proud of the hijab that I wear.

Ostracizing modest dress and voluntary respectful gestures strikes me as a bizarre cause for conservatives (or anybody, really) to take up. And I would hate to see women who cover their hair depicted as anti-freedom by a Western society that claims religious liberty as a paramount value.

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Obama’s Saudi Policy: Tone Deaf to U.S. Interests and Values

For six years, the hallmark of Obama administration’s foreign policy has been its predilection for embracing foes and distressing allies like Saudi Arabia. President Obama’s determination to pursue détente with Iran, a deadly threat to the Saudis as well as to Israel, has shaken ties between the two countries. But the death of Saudi King Abdullah has caused both the president and his administration to belatedly attempt to repair the relationship. That is smart. But in doing so, it appears that the administration has once again faltered. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is one based on common interests, not values. Like the president’s choice to attend the king’s funeral after snubbing the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the decision by the Pentagon to sponsor an essay contest on Arab and Muslim issues in honor of the king’s memory is a spectacular example of how tone deaf Obama’s Washington is to the nature of the underlying threat to peace in the Middle East.

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For six years, the hallmark of Obama administration’s foreign policy has been its predilection for embracing foes and distressing allies like Saudi Arabia. President Obama’s determination to pursue détente with Iran, a deadly threat to the Saudis as well as to Israel, has shaken ties between the two countries. But the death of Saudi King Abdullah has caused both the president and his administration to belatedly attempt to repair the relationship. That is smart. But in doing so, it appears that the administration has once again faltered. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is one based on common interests, not values. Like the president’s choice to attend the king’s funeral after snubbing the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the decision by the Pentagon to sponsor an essay contest on Arab and Muslim issues in honor of the king’s memory is a spectacular example of how tone deaf Obama’s Washington is to the nature of the underlying threat to peace in the Middle East.

There is no better example of an alliance of interests but not values than the long and, in some ways, quite close, relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom is a medieval anachronism in many ways with its despotic form of government and its devotion to Wahabi Islam, an extreme and quite aggressive variant of the Muslim faith. But America’s interest in the free flow of oil from the Arabian Peninsula and stability in the Middle East has tied it to the Saudi monarchy, which, in turn has clung to the U.S. as a shield against even more radical Islamists, especially Iran. Thus, the Saudis are rightly alarmed at the administration’s retreat from a policy of rigorous opposition to Tehran and, to their amazement, find themselves more in agreement with Israel than with the U.S. on the most important issue facing the region.

This is an American blunder of huge proportions, but this type of fawning on the Saudis cannot make up for it. What exactly are we honoring when we ask scholars or military officers enrolled at the National Defense University to take part in such an exercise?

While the U.S.-Saudi alliance is important to the security of both nations, honoring Abdullah is, by definition, treating the political and religious culture that he exemplified as somehow compatible with the values of the American government and its military. By soliciting essays about the Arab and Muslim world, it will be inviting work that will not give the unsparing criticism of Saudi Arabia that is deserved.

The Saudis may be crucial to Middle East stability but the Wahabi monarchy is also a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is backward in its attitudes toward human rights and the treatment of women. Its brand of authoritarianism may be preferable to that of Iran or terrorist groups like ISIS but it is also the reason why many Muslims have come to think of the radicals as viable alternatives. Its intolerance for religious minorities is a scandal especially at a time when so many Western leaders are at pains to promote Islam as a religion of peace.

The spectacle of the leader of the free world paying a personal tribute to a backward feudal monarch or kowtowing to his successor does neither country much good. Nor will essays honoring the role of Abdullah enable the future leaders of America’s defense establishment to understand what the U.S. needs to do to promote stability or productive change.

What it needs is a policy that stands up to genuine threats to the Middle East like Iran instead of efforts to appease Islamists. At the same time, it needs to make it clear that our national interests have not compromised American values that are offended by everything the Saudis stand for.

The Obama administration has done the opposite in both cases. That means we are promoting insecurity while also reinforcing the worst instincts of a reactionary regime badly in need of reform. In doing so, it is laying the foundation for a future in which the U.S. will have neither allies nor common values with any nation in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including those who are now its allies.

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U.S.-Saudi Relations After Abdullah

The death of King Abdullah provides a good opportunity to reflect on the long and troubled relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

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The death of King Abdullah provides a good opportunity to reflect on the long and troubled relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

It is not, by any stretch, an obvious or easy or natural alliance. The U.S. is the land of the free; Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive societies on the planet, a country where not only do the people have no say in the selection of their leaders but where bloggers are flogged and women are prevented from driving. The U.S. is animated by Enlightenment ideals, Saudi Arabia by the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Yet since the 1940s the fortunes of these two countries have been closely linked. For many years the relationship could be described simply as: The Saudis give us oil, we give the Saudis security. This is still, for the most part, true. Even if our reliance on Saudi oil is down and we have become more energy self-sufficient, Saudi Arabia is still the second-largest source of imported oil in the U.S. after Canada. And Saudi Arabia still very much depends on American weapons, American military advisers, and ultimately an implicit American security guarantee, manifested when President George H.W. Bush sent troops to the Kingdom in 1990 to defend it against Iraqi aggression.

A few events, in more recent years, have greatly complicated the relationship. First, of course, was 9/11: 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudis as was the leader of al-Qaeda–Osama bin Laden. This revealed the malignant consequences of the Saudis’ fundamentalist ideology, which gave rise to the world’s most dangerous terrorist group. But when al-Qaeda began to target Saudi Arabia, the Saudis fought back, mobilizing their highly effective bureaucracy of repression to stamp out terrorist attacks. This more or less restored the Saudis to American good graces.

Then a decade after 9/11 came the Arab Spring. With change sweeping the Middle East, the Saudis emerged as the primary champions of repressive stability, playing a role similar to that of the Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria, Prussia) which put down liberal uprisings in Europe in the 19th century. The Saudis even sent their troops into neighboring Bahrain to stamp out Shiite protests, much like the tsar sending his army into Hungary to maintain Austrian rule during the revolutions of 1848. This offended American sensibilities but did not seriously disturb the alliance because the U.S. was also ambivalent about the Arab Spring uprisings, as evidence by our confused policy toward Egypt.

Now, however, a very different and potentially more serious rift is growing between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over relations with Iran. President Obama is intent on an entente with Tehran. He is desperate for a deal over Iran’s nuclear program that will prepare the way for a broader realignment in the Middle East where Iran could become a partner, rather than an adversary, of the U.S. This is evident in the fact that the U.S. is doing so little to oppose Iranian imperial expansion in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, among other places, where the Obama administration naively sees Iran and its proxies as allies against ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The Saudis have a very different view. They hate Iran not only because it is a Shiite state and therefore composed of infidels in the eyes of pious Wahhabis but also because Iran is a revolutionary, expansionist state that is challenging Sunni power throughout the region. And Saudi Arabia, as the richest and largest of the Gulf oil kingdoms, has long seen itself as the primary Sunni champion. Thus the Saudis sponsor proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to wage war on Iran and its proxies. Unfortunately suspicion is rife that some of those who have received Saudi support include jihadists such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

The Saudis are apoplectic that President Obama is flirting with the Iranian mullahs. They want the U.S. to bomb Iran, not to make a deal with it. And they want the U.S. to take tougher action against Iranian proxies such as Bashar Assad, not to reach deals and understandings with them as Obama has done.

Much as it pains me to say it, my country is wrong and Saudi Arabia is right. Obama’s outreach to Iran will not succeed; Iranian revolutionaries who still chant “Death to America” will not make common cause with us. And the price of flirting with them is to drive Sunnis, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, further into the camp of the jihadists.

From a moral standpoint, admittedly, there is little to choose from between Saudi Arabia and Iran: both are despotic theocracies that are anathema to American values. But from a strategic standpoint, Iran is much more of a threat to the U.S. and our allies.

A useful analogy here is World War II where we had to choose an alliance with the lesser evil (Stalin) to defeat the greater evil (Hitler). It would have made no sense to go the other way, as some on the far-right were advocating in the 1930s; in other words, to team up with Hitler against Stalin. Yet that is akin to what Obama is trying to do today. He would be better advised to hold his nose and restore closer ties with the Saudis, who, however odious, are still a better bet than the Iranians.

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Training Free Syrians in Turkey Is a Bad Idea

In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

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In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

Fast forward 17 years. What Pakistan once represented vis-à-vis the Taliban, today Turkey represents vis-à-vis many of the most extreme factions among the Syrian rebels. President Obama has made the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels a central pillar of his strategy to take on ISIS inside Syria and a way to diminish the need for ground combat forces which he is loath to deploy back to Iraq and Syria.

Let’s put aside the fact that training such forces would take more than a year and that they would be inserted against an ISIS foe which is now battle-hardened and brutal. And let’s also put aside the fact that there haven’t been any serious lessons learned as to why the military training program implemented in Iraq by such military luminaries as David Petraeus and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has proven such an abject failure.

In order to implement their free Syrian training program, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry have apparently decided to work primarily through Turkey:

Military officials from the United States and Turkey have met at the Turkish General Staff’s headquarters in Ankara for a third time to discuss equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, and agreed on using the Hirfanlı military training center in Kırşehir for the training ground. Officials from both the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and high-ranking Turkish military officials agreed on a number of points about the training of Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, including Syrian Turkmens will be trained at the Hirfanlı gendarmerie training center in Kırşehir, sources told to the Hürriyet Daily News. U.S. officials will also take part in the training. The U.S. will primarily provide weapons and ammunition for the Syrian opposition, with the costs of the training also expected to be provided by Washington.

In other words, the United States will provide the money and the weapons, but defer to their Turkish counterparts the training. So, as Hagel seeks to implement Obama’s plan, he chooses to rely on a country that targets the secular, and promotes the radical. Rather than smother extremism inside Syria, such a plan will fan its flames.

When a similar plan was worked up before the Iraq war, Hungary stepped up to the plate. Whether or not that plan was effective—it was rushed by the time diplomats and lawyers hashed out its modalities—at least the Pentagon recognized that venues with a vested interest in Iraq and those which had a radically different vision from the United States should not be part of such sensitive missions. Training the Free Syrian Army at this point might be more symbolic than effective. But if that’s the path the Obama administration seeks to go down, let us hope that the end result would be better than Holzman’s plan to use Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s original underwriters, to “moderate” the Taliban.

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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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Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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Has Saudi Arabia Really Become Moderate?

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

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Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

But while Saudi Arabia now portrays itself as moderate and responsible, and while many supporters of Israel concerned by Iran reconsider the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, ugly episodes, such as the the sentencing of Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death, remind us just how sectarian and ideological the Saudi Kingdom is. In June, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph surveying regional Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. We noted both the legitimate grievances many of these communities have and their efforts to maintain their autonomy from Iran. Many Shi‘ites despise the Islamic Republic and to paint all Shi‘ites as Fifth Columnists is counterproductive. To turn a blind eye to repression of Shi‘ites in countries like Saudi Arabia is to play into Iranian propaganda and give these communities no recourse but to turn to Iran for protection.

Saudi Arabia is as bigoted a country as Turkey or Qatar, its recent attempts to paint a moderate image notwithstanding. It can never become a moderate, responsible partner so long as its embrace of sectarianism trumps tolerance and rule-of-law. Let us hope that Saudi authorities are not so shortsighted as to execute—murder would be as appropriate a term—Sheikh Nimr. And if they do carry out the sentence, Saudi Arabia deserves no support when it faces the storm that follows. It is time to calibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia not to that country’s money and oil but rather to its behavior and willingness to undo the damage it has done over the past half century.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

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The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Almost a decade ago, while I was editing the Middle East Quarterly, I published an insightful article by Timothy Furnish entitled, “Beheading in the Name of Islam.” While some more radical Islamic advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) bend over backwards to obfuscate the links between such acts of violence and religion, the truth lies in the interpretation of religious texts espoused by more radical elements.

Furnish explains, “Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah (verse): ‘When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.’” He then explains the history of the exegesis:

The famous Iranian historian and Qur’an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that “striking at the necks” is simply God’s sanction of ferocious opposition to non-Muslims. Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription to “strike at the necks” commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to confirm death and not simply wound…

Literalism with regard to the interpretation of this passage was re-introduced in relatively recent times:

In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued… Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war. Mawdudi argued, “Under no circumstances should the Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely crushed.”

What is striking to me with regard to the evolution of interpretation is how it has hardened with time. For that, the world has no one to blame but Saudi Arabia which has, for decades, done everything possible to distribute the Yusuf ‘Ali interpretation of the Koran which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s generous subsidies, remains perhaps the most widely-available version of the Koran not only in the English-speaking world, but across the Sunni world as well.

Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once made the following analogy:

The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them. Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

What we are seeing now is not the natural evolution of Islam, but rather the result of decades of Saudi-fueled hatred. Many Saudi officials may have recognized that their financing of radical Islam has gone too far and may seek a more productive role—especially vis-à-vis unrepentant Qatar—but it is important to recognize that interpretations have changed over time to allow the murders within ISIS to justify their cruelty and crimes in Islam.

The question which both Muslims and non-Muslims must then answer is: How can decades of well-funded radicalism be undone? It’s not going to happen with Oval Office pronouncements, art therapy, or snake-oil de-radicalization programs. It will happen with a concerted, decades-long, well-financed operation to change hearts and minds. That investment, alas, must come from within the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its money where it mouth is and, regardless, no country other than perhaps Morocco appears ready to give the promotion of moderation beyond its borders a serious try.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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