Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

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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When Terrorists Tweet

My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

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My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

Alas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are together showing how such technology can be used to kill rather than save helpless populations. Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaisani, who regularly uses Youtube to solicit funding for Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, has now taken to Twitter to raise money for an Al Qaeda-style jihad. He is not shy about listing the Qatari and Turkish phone numbers to collect the pledges. That, of course, is simply further evidence that those two nominal U.S. allies are complicit in supporting terror.

(When I was in Syria in January, most everyone relied on Turkish cell phones, as it seemed that Turkey had bolstered its network’s power in order to cover more of northern Syria than it did before the conflict. Turkey therefore has good intelligence on almost everything occurring in that region of Syria, including the activities of the Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

Al-Muhaisani’s feed is illuminating: According to this tweet, 650 Saudi riyals (about $175) buys 150 Kalashnikov bullets or 50 sniper bullets. Muhaisani’s official twitter account has almost 300,000 followers.

In the right hands, Twitter is a wonderful tool that threatens the autocratic monopoly over information and assembly. But, in the wrong hands, it enables terrorists to become more active and more lethal. The answer is not to ban the technology, but to monitor it closely. There is no need to tap it: Simply following it can provide an intelligence trove. Let us hope that the U.S. government and its counter-terror analysts will never be so gun shy, nor American diplomats too language-poor to tune into a source that is far more illuminating than so many of the classified cables that the likes of Edward Snowden dealt in.

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Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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State Dept. Sides with Hamas Funders

Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

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Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

The case, Linde v. Arab Bank, revolves around the efforts of relatives of Americans killed by Hamas terrorists during the second intifada to use the federal Anti-Terrorism Act to bring those who funded the Islamist terror group to book for aiding and abetting these atrocities.

As the Israeli Law Center, the group that has pursued a relentless and courageous campaign to hold terror funders accountable, notes on its website:

The Arab Bank is a Jordanian financial institution that has funneled funds for organizations claiming they are legitimate charities. In fact, they were routing large sums of money to support the violent activities of Hamas and other terrorist organizations. These organizations served as agents of Hamas and used the Arab Bank to receive deposits and process wire transfers. The Bank was aware that these organizations are fronts that support terrorist activities, such that the Bank’s continued provision of services to these groups facilitated their illegal activities. One account number belongs to Hamas itself and was used to collect funds in support of its violent activities.

Further, the Saudi Committee In Support of the Intifada Al Quds (“Saudi Committee”) was established as a private charity in Saudi Arabia whose purpose was to support the intifada and the families of the terrorists who have died, as well as subsidize the Palestinian terror campaign. The Saudi Committee furnishes awards to terrorists’ families as a reward for suicide attacks. The Arab Bank is the exclusive financial administrator for the Saudi Committee. These payments create an incentive to engage in terrorist acts by rewarding all Palestinian terrorists, regardless of their affiliation with a particular group.

Despite the Arab Bank’s pleas of innocence, the facts of their funding of Hamas are not in dispute. But, as the Times notes, Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to upset either Jordan or the Saudis any more than they have already been by Obama administration policies that have strengthened Iran at their expense. What he wants is for the U.S. government to plead diplomatic necessity to the courts and tie up the plaintiffs in circles.

But in doing so, the Justice Department would be flouting the same standards they have applied to other cases in which they have doggedly pursued the funders of al-Qaeda and other groups that have targeted Americans as well as in tax cases in which the U.S. has sought to override the efforts of foreign banks to maintain secrecy about their activities.

Claims of diplomatic necessity are contradicted by the experience of the post 9/11-era in which all banking institutions have been forced to disassociate themselves with terror or face the consequences. Jordan will survive a court defeat by the Arab Bank, as will the Saudis.

A decision by the administration to side with the Arab Bank against terror victims would be an outrageous abuse of power as well as of hypocrisy. U.S. law demands that the government allow those who have been hurt by terrorists to pursue the funders of murder. For President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to interfere with the course of justice would be yet another signal that their anti-terror principles don’t apply to the victims of Palestinian killers.

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White House Thinks Anti-Semitism Is “Disappointing”

The only member of the White House press corps to be denied a visa by Saudi Arabia for the upcoming visit by President Obama is Michael Wilner, a Jewish American and the Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief. In response the White House has expressed its “deep disappointment.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. But we all know what this is on Saudi Arabia’s part: it’s the most open form of politically motivated anti-Semitism. Yes, anti-Semitism has the tendency to be “disappointing,” it must be so very disappointing for Jews who find they are still being demonized and discriminated against. But really by the same measure the White House spokespeople may as well have simply described the Saudi decision as boring. These officials no doubt just find it so incredibly boring having to keep dealing with this tiresome business of the Arab world hating Jews.

The White House claims it will continue to pursue the matter, but given the lack of any sense of genuine outrage coming from officials there, it seems naïve to think anything will come of it. Yet this is an outrage, and the administration should describe it as such. Mr. Wilner is an American citizen; he is also Jewish and the discrimination at work here is clear. U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also described this as an “unfortunate decision.” At the very least she might begin by describing it as utterly unacceptable. Yet the administration’s tolerance for this kind of thing seems disturbingly high.

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The only member of the White House press corps to be denied a visa by Saudi Arabia for the upcoming visit by President Obama is Michael Wilner, a Jewish American and the Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief. In response the White House has expressed its “deep disappointment.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. But we all know what this is on Saudi Arabia’s part: it’s the most open form of politically motivated anti-Semitism. Yes, anti-Semitism has the tendency to be “disappointing,” it must be so very disappointing for Jews who find they are still being demonized and discriminated against. But really by the same measure the White House spokespeople may as well have simply described the Saudi decision as boring. These officials no doubt just find it so incredibly boring having to keep dealing with this tiresome business of the Arab world hating Jews.

The White House claims it will continue to pursue the matter, but given the lack of any sense of genuine outrage coming from officials there, it seems naïve to think anything will come of it. Yet this is an outrage, and the administration should describe it as such. Mr. Wilner is an American citizen; he is also Jewish and the discrimination at work here is clear. U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also described this as an “unfortunate decision.” At the very least she might begin by describing it as utterly unacceptable. Yet the administration’s tolerance for this kind of thing seems disturbingly high.

Wilner is not Israeli, but in such cases one is often told that this is not really about Jews or Jew hatred, but simply about Israelis. Just such thinking is promoted by the boycott movement. Yet, even if we were to buy into the notion that this is simply about Israelis–Wilner, after all, works for an Israeli newspaper–what are Israelis other than Jews who live in the Jewish state? Such moves never target Arabs living in Israel. This notion that it is not as bad to target an Israeli Jew not only promotes the belief that it is perhaps not quite right that Jews should have a state, but also that there are certain places that it is permissible to forbid Jews from living. This is the logic that imprisons Jews in ghettos, that says that certain places are off-limits for Jews.

President Obama may have bowed before the king of Saudi Arabia, but this is a country where the most vicious hatred of Jews is deeply entrenched in the national culture. As Eli Lake highlights in today’s Daily Beast, there are still serious concerns about the kind of incitement to hatred being promoted in Saudi school textbooks. As Lake notes, the State Department is refusing to release its most recent report on these books, yet it assures us that the Saudis are making promising progress on this matter.

Douglas Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, which the State Department commissioned to carry out the study, has said, “We strongly suggested it should not be published because they are making great progress on this.” This is hardly a very persuasive explanation. If the progress has been so impressive then what is it that anyone could wish to hide by not publishing the report?

One wonders how far along the Saudi textbooks have really come since December 2011 when the Institute for Gulf Affairs exposed how these schoolbooks were still demonstrating how to sever hands, advocating the reconquest of formerly Muslim parts of Europe, and stirring up hatred against Christians and Jews, with a particular dislike for that renowned Jew Charles Darwin. Yet, with President Obama visiting Saudi Arabia this week, apparently none of this can be allowed to spoil his trip.

The White House says it is disappointed by the Saudis’ refusal to grant entry to this Jewish American journalist, but no doubt not as disappointed as Mr. Wilner is. Not as “disappointed” as Jews always are when they continue to be subjected to this tenacious bigotry. 

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Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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Is Morocco the Antidote to Saudi-Sponsored Extremism?

Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

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Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

De-radicalization may be fashionable among European officials, Western NGOs, and the State Department, but there is little evidence that U.S. and European programs are anything more than an expensive boondoggle.

Increasingly, Morocco appears to be the antidote to decades of Saudi-sponsored radicalism. I have highlighted here before the innovative “Mourchidat” program. Now Morocco is beginning to expand its imam training program to Tunisia and Libya in North Africa, as well as Guinea in West Africa. This follows a similar program conducted on behalf of imams in Mali, which has faced a severe challenge from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

President Obama will soon travel to Saudi Arabia. This is wise, as Obama seeks to repair ties with the Saudi Kingdom undercut by his own diplomatic tin ear. Still, if Obama really wants to support friends, he should move to bolster U.S. ties with Morocco, which is pulling far beyond its weight in efforts to promote peace, stability, and moderation not only among Arab states, but also across Africa, a continent Obama once described as a priority. Rather than throw money at de-radicalization programs that don’t have anything to show for their efforts, perhaps it is time to actually work through allies to support what does work.

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The Predictable Consequences of Retreat

It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

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It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

Although the Saudis claim to be providing these weapons only to secular elements of the Free Syrian Army, it’s hard to have much confidence in their track record. Recall how they armed the most extreme jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Even if the missiles in question go only to “moderate” rebel fighters, the danger that they will fall into the wrong hands goes up. And that could be a catastrophe in the making, given what an enticing target civil airliners, such as those that land at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, are for terrorists armed with manpads.

That is why the Obama administration has been warning against supplying these portable and deadly missiles to the rebels. But if it had really wanted to stop the arms flow, the U.S. should have offered an alternative method of taking down Assad’s airpower–most likely in the form of a no-fly zone enforced by the U.S. and its allies. Failing that, the Saudis are taking matters into their own hands–yet another reason to be concerned about the consequences of American retreat.

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