Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

America Needs a Commander-in-Chief, Not a Historian

In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

Read More

In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

Over the course of the last week, political reporters have been consumed with re-litigating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would be unfair to blame this new myopia entirely on the media’s penchant for like-thinking tunnel vision. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s inexplicably poor footing on the legitimacy of the Iraq War invited a duplicative review of distant history in which the country is again engaged. But quite unlike the media’s fascination with parochial social matters, the GOP’s introspection on the issue of Iraq is of some value.

Bush’s stumbles over whether his brother’s signature achievement in office was justified have sparked a deluge of retrospection and self-criticism from the 2016 field of GOP candidates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has taken the opportunity to promote his peculiar brand of paleo-conservative detachment from global affairs. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) asserted that, today, “everyone accepts” that the invasion was imprudent. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have made note of the fact that Congress would never have authorized the Iraq War if the pre-war intelligence had not mistakenly augmented Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. “A dozen years later,” the Associated Press averred, “American politics has reached a rough consensus about the Iraq War: It was a mistake.”

But Republicans are wandering into a trap by attempting to assuage the journalistic establishment’s insatiable desire to see Republicans repent for the last GOP president’s nation-building exercise in Iraq. It is a fortunate accident of fate that the media has decided to review the legacy of the Iraq War and the Republican Party’s prosecution of that conflict at precisely the same moment that Middle Eastern country is coming apart. After more than nine months of U.S-led coalition airstrikes targeting the virulent Islamic State militia, the culmination of that effort has been the fall of a second great Iraqi city. Just 70 miles from Baghdad, the American servicemen and women who bled over Ramadi appear to have fought and fallen in vain.

Despite the protestations of self-satisfied scolds for whom no metric could satisfy their desire to see the American project in Iraq fail, uniting Iraq’s political and tribal leaders against Islamist insurgents in their midst was a historic victory. The West’s hard-won achievement in Iraq has been sacrificed by President Barak Obama’s eternal pursuit of the path of least resistance.

The Republican Party’s presidential aspirants now have a political opportunity that they would be careless not to exploit. For the better part of a week, the press has been reviewing the Iraq War’s legacy. As the Iraq Security Forces retreat to defensible positions around Baghdad and Iran consolidates its grip on the Iraqi capital and the nation’s Shia-dominated regions, Republicans would do well to make a compelling case for their approach to warfighting as commander-in-chief.

Contrary to all his fatuous self-pity, President Obama inherited a relatively pacified Iraq when he took the oath. His successor will not be so lucky. The 45th President of the United States will prosecute a brutal conflict against the richest terrorist organization in human history. The next commander-in-chief must convince the American public to back the prosecution of a war against an unimaginably brutish entity with an unbroken hold on territory ranging from Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad. The war in which the public must invest is one that is characterized by the battlefield use of chemical weapons, has become yet another proxy conflict between the region’s great Sunni and Shiite powers, and is typified by genocide and the deliberate destruction of humanity’s collective heritage.

The present spate of collective handwringing over how the events of the last decade might have been better managed is the historian’s prerogative. The United States is not electing a lecturer; the public will not make that mistake again. America will need a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who will effectively and efficiently prosecute this conflict to which the country is already committed.

It is not merely in Iraq but in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Southeast Pacific that challenges to global security are proliferating. Both state and non-state actors threaten the international order that replaced retreating Soviet-style communism not a quarter-century ago. The press will be satisfied with nothing less than a denunciation of a robust defense of American interests overseas from the GOP’s presidential aspirants, if only to retroactively validate Obama’s vacillating and diffident approach to the application of American hard power. Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to turn the tables on their duplicitous interlocutors.

Rather than issue obsequious mea culpas for the imagined sins of their long-retired fellow party members, Republicans should be using this renewed media interest in the last war in Iraq to remind the public we are busily losing the present one. President Obama will bequeath the next president a Middle East in tatters. The media isn’t interested in that inconvenient subject; it will be up to the GOP to comprehensively outline what is at stake in Iraq.

Read Less

Obama Gives Syria a Pass on Chemical Weapons. Will He Stop Iran’s Nukes?

President Obama would have us believe he would be stalwart in applying “snap back” sanctions on Iran should it violate its nuclear commitments. That would be nice but hardly realistic given the administration’s non-response to growing evidence that Syria’s Bashar Assad has violated the agreement to give up his chemical weapons. Not only has Assad been using chlorine gas (which was not formally covered by the accord negotiated in 2013 between Washington and Moscow) but United Nations inspectors have also found evidence of sarin and VX during to the Scientific Studies and Research Center outside Damascus.

Read More

President Obama would have us believe he would be stalwart in applying “snap back” sanctions on Iran should it violate its nuclear commitments. That would be nice but hardly realistic given the administration’s non-response to growing evidence that Syria’s Bashar Assad has violated the agreement to give up his chemical weapons. Not only has Assad been using chlorine gas (which was not formally covered by the accord negotiated in 2013 between Washington and Moscow) but United Nations inspectors have also found evidence of sarin and VX during to the Scientific Studies and Research Center outside Damascus.

So what is Obama doing to enforce the chemical weapons accord? Bombing Damascus? Stepping up support for the Syrian resistance? He’s not even passing a stiffly worded resolution at the UN, where its friends from Moscow and Beijing protect the Assad regime.

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg report that the administration was informed months ago by UN inspectors of their findings. Since then the White House has basically been sitting on the issue, no doubt for fear that any action would offend Assad’s patrons in Tehran and disrupt hopes of negotiating a nuclear deal. “The discovery set off a months-long debate inside the administration about how to respond. President Obama is said to have not yet decided,” Rogin and Lake write. “Meanwhile, a coalition of rebel groups on the ground has been attacking the area around the facility, raising the danger that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the rebels, many of whom are linked to Islamic extremists.”

If this is how the administration reacts to blatant violations of an arms control agreement by a weak regime such as Assad’s, just imagine how it would react to violations by the much stronger Iranian regime. Unfortunately Iran’s leaders can read the tea leaves as well as anyone else—and they know that they will get a pass, at least while Obama is still in office, no matter how much they cheat on a nuclear deal.

Read Less

The Syrian Precedent for the Iran Deal

The Iranian nuclear accord would hardly be the first major arms control agreement that President Obama has negotiated. An important precedent was the agreement reached in 2013 for Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons in return for not being bombed and for receiving de facto American support to stay in power. Assad ostensibly delivered on the agreement by June 2014 when the last of his chemical weapons stockpile was supposed to be turned over to international inspectors for destruction.

Read More

The Iranian nuclear accord would hardly be the first major arms control agreement that President Obama has negotiated. An important precedent was the agreement reached in 2013 for Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons in return for not being bombed and for receiving de facto American support to stay in power. Assad ostensibly delivered on the agreement by June 2014 when the last of his chemical weapons stockpile was supposed to be turned over to international inspectors for destruction.

Or did he? The New York Times reports: “Two years after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there is mounting evidence that his government is flouting international law to drop cheap, jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas. Lately, the pace of the bombardments in contested areas like Idlib Province has picked up, rescue workers say, as government forces have faced new threats from insurgents.”

So you would think that Assad would suffer quick and certain retribution for flouting the chemical weapons accord, right? Err, not quite. As the Times further notes: “Yet, the Assad government has so far evaded more formal scrutiny because of a thicket of political, legal and technical obstacles to assigning blame for the attacks — a situation that feels surreal to many Syrians under the bombs, who say it is patently clear the government drops them.”

The U.S. can’t even get the United Nations to act against Assad and of course Obama isn’t willing to do anything himself, notwithstanding all of his pious talk about preventing “atrocities” on his watch. No doubt the president doesn’t want to offend Iran by acting against its Syrian proxy, not when nuclear negotiations are so close to being finished.

This is a sign of what happens to major arms control agreements in practice—not in the fantasy world constructed by the Obama administration where the only choice is either to sign on the bottom line or to start a war with Iran. In reality signing up for an agreement is often an invitation to cheat—and as the Syria case (along with those of North Korea, Russia, and many others show) the U.S. has a terrible track record of holding other nations to account for arms control violations. There is always some compelling reason not to act against the cheaters, to look the other way and hope for the best.

It’s bad enough that Assad is ignoring an accord to drop chemical weapons on his own people—arguably a weapon no more destructive than the barrel bombs he favors (and about whose use this White House apparently could not care less). It would be far worse if Iran were to violate a nuclear accord and start stockpiling nuclear weapons. Yet is there any reason to believe that Assad’s masters in Tehran will be any more scrupulous about observing international obligations than he has been?

Read Less

It’s Still Too Late to Save Syria

It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

Read More

It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

The deterioration of the Syrian government’s command was fully apparent earlier this week, when General Rustom Ghazali, a powerful intelligence official, died of wounds reportedly sustained at the hands of the guards of a rival general. Both men, according to the New York Times, were then fired. (It wouldn’t matter for Ghazali, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.) The Syrian command appeared to be splintering.

Then rebels took a strategic town and a military base in Idlib province, near Turkey. “The rebel gains in Idlib have put the opposition on a path to advance into the neighboring provinces of Hama and Latakia, bastions of support for Mr. Assad and key to his grip on power,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Most of Idlib province is now under opposition control, giving rebels a firm foothold to advance on regime forces elsewhere in the country.” And as Max noted yesterday, some observers are starting to talk again about a Syria after Assad.

In light of all this, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai offer some reason to temper the rebels’ confidence: “Yet if the regime is able to hold on, prevent further serious losses, and retake more lost positions, the final outcome would represent something of a setback for the rebels. It would be an opportunity lost, and it would make the regime’s position in Idlib secure for the time being, albeit reduced — at least until the rebels could mount another major effort.”

But, they add, the Idlib campaign could turn out to change the entire trajectory of the war. And they suggest helping nudge that outcome along:

As of this writing, the Idlib campaign looks to be one of the more important developments of the war, possibly even the elusive turning point that signals a clear shift in momentum against the regime after four years of inconclusive fighting. For those seeking a positive outcome in Syria, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on the regime, either forcing it to genuinely negotiate a transition or causing its military failure.

It must be tempting to see the possibility that Assad could fall as an opportunity for the West. But in fact some of the appearance of weakness on the part of Assad’s government is actually evidence of its strength–or at least durability and resilience–in the military realm.

To understand why, it’s instructive to go back to a quote from a Washington Post report on Ghazali that Max quoted in his post: “Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Assad is not just a nudge away from falling. It’s no wonder Assad’s high command are bickering: they’re increasingly irrelevant, and have been for some time. Not entirely irrelevant, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian civil war has completed Assad’s turn to becoming a traditional Iranian proxy. And Iran is not going to let its proxy fall in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere.

Assad created a monster, not only in unleashing his family’s characteristic oppression and bloodlust on the opposition but also in deliberately allowing ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups to thrive at the expense of more moderate rebel groups. This not only ensured that the more moderate rebels, which had the West’s backing as an alternative government to Assad, would never get strong enough on their own to take power. It also meant that the only groups who could possibly finish Assad off were the ones the West was invested in defeating.

Those groups, like ISIS, were destabilizing Iraq next door. This drew the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Assad because it brought them into an alliance with Iran. The rise of ISIS–which, again, Assad facilitated–also ensured Iran would do whatever it took to keep Assad in power.

The internal turf wars in the Syrian command are not evidence that Assad is on his way out. They’re evidence that what remains of the Assad power base has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.

Not only is the West fooling itself if it thinks it can push Assad out at this point with minimal military involvement, but it’s still in partnership with Assad through the Iranians.

From a military perspective, there is no “Syria.” There are three “Syrias,” which amount essentially to competing factions fighting for territory. We are currently aligned with the strongest of these, Iran, against the second-most powerful group. What we are not going to do is somehow throw in our lot now with the weakest of the factions, especially since we’ve constructed our management of Iraq by allowing Iran a significant role.

Syria can’t be saved. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t have to be this way. And certainly, the world should not ignore it. But those who dream of a Western military effort against Assad will keep dreaming.

Read Less

Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

Read More

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

Read Less

ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Read More

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

Read Less

Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

Read More

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

Read Less

America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Read More

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

Read Less

America’s Doing More Harm Than Good at the UN Human Rights Council

Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

Read More

Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

The good news about the UNHRC votes is that in each of the four condemnations of Israel, the United States provided the sole no vote. President Obama’s defenders cite this as proof that he is not hostile to the Jewish state. Though the claim would be a little easier to accept if the president did not seek applause for doing something that any American leader ought to take as a matter of course, nevertheless the U.S. did the right thing. It would also be a little easier to cheer these stands if the president and various senior administration officials were not threatening to abandon Israel at the UN in the future because Prime Minister Netanyahu does not always follow Obama’s orders, but that is an argument for a different day.

But however much we might be glad that the U.S. is there to be a sole voice of sanity at the HRC, it’s arguable that even if the president doesn’t decide to stab Israel in the back to vent his pique about the results of the recent election there, America is doing more harm than good by legitimizing this farce by its continuing membership on the council.

It should be pointed out that the UN HRC managed to pass eight resolutions condemning alleged human-rights abuses at its recent sessions. That meant that half of its output was pro-forma attacks on Israel. One of the four resolutions condemned Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights, which it claims harms rights of the inhabitants. Another did the same for its presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. One demanded “self-determination” for the Palestinians and another treated the existence of Jews living in these areas as an offense against their Arab neighbors.

One may debate the wisdom of Jewish settlements as well as the virtues of a two-state solution, even if the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no interest in such a scheme but prefer to hold onto their desire for destroying the one Jewish state no matter where its borders may be drawn. But to represent the situation in the territories, where the greatest threat to human life remains Palestinian terrorism and the efforts of groups like Hamas to rain down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities last year, as the worst thing happening in the region, let alone the world, illustrates how the HRC remains a theater of the absurd.

As scholar and activist Anne Bayefsky writes on the Fox News website, China, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are all members of the HRC, because “protecting human rights is not a condition of being elected to the Council.” The Council ignores or dismisses other more pressing concerns (one resolution about a human-rights catastrophe in Syria where hundreds of thousands have died in the last four years and one non-condemnatory procedural measure about the Islamist tyranny in Iran) while devoting the lion’s share of its time to the campaign to delegitimize Israel.

In doing so, the HRC isn’t merely being unfair or disproportionate but is doing something far more insidious. As Bayefsky writes, “Subverting human rights principles for all turns out to be the other side of the coin of subverting human rights for Jews.” She’s right. Instead of treating the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as one in which the two sides must try to reconcile competing rights, the HRC renders Jewish rights to self-determination and self-defense as unworthy of respect. That is to say, the HRC refuses to grant the one Jewish state in the world the same rights granted without argument to every other people. The term for such discriminatory treatment meted out to Jews is anti-Semitism.

As such, this is a forum that no self-respecting democracy ought to dignify with their presence. The lonely U.S. votes against this madness are not so much principled as they are granting the HRC an undeserved legitimacy. Past presidents have at times tried to step back from this disreputable body but President Obama’s obsessive affection for the UN has taken such a step off the table. Indeed, by staying on there, he seems to be using America’s votes as leverage to pressure Israel’s governments into taking steps its electorate has already specifically rejected at the polls.

Whoever it is that replaces President Obama in the White House will have a full plate of inherited foreign-policy crises to untangle in January 2017. But last week’s votes serve as a reminder that one of the items on the 45th president’s “to do list” ought to be pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Read Less

What If There’s No Iran Deal?

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Iran Tests Obama’s Desperation Again

As the last weekend before the deadline for its nuclear talks with Iran wound down, administration sources were talking as if a deal was a foregone conclusion. But as they have throughout this process, Tehran’s agents decided to test President Obama’s desperation one more time. On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi let slip that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Islamist regime had no intention of agreeing to anything that would commit them to shipping their growing stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. Reneging at the last minute on something they have previously committed to doing is a standard Iranian negotiating tactic. Though American officials are insisting that negotiations about this crucial point are continuing, the last-second switch was yet another telling moment in a dispiriting display of weak American diplomacy. Along with Iran’s ongoing refusal to reveal its military research program and reports about nuclear work in Syria and North Korea that may be conducted on behalf of the regime once sanctions are lifted, this news raises the question of just how much more will the U.S. have to concede to get Iran to sign on to anything?

Read More

As the last weekend before the deadline for its nuclear talks with Iran wound down, administration sources were talking as if a deal was a foregone conclusion. But as they have throughout this process, Tehran’s agents decided to test President Obama’s desperation one more time. On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi let slip that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Islamist regime had no intention of agreeing to anything that would commit them to shipping their growing stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. Reneging at the last minute on something they have previously committed to doing is a standard Iranian negotiating tactic. Though American officials are insisting that negotiations about this crucial point are continuing, the last-second switch was yet another telling moment in a dispiriting display of weak American diplomacy. Along with Iran’s ongoing refusal to reveal its military research program and reports about nuclear work in Syria and North Korea that may be conducted on behalf of the regime once sanctions are lifted, this news raises the question of just how much more will the U.S. have to concede to get Iran to sign on to anything?

The official U.S. response to the New York Times report about Iran reneging on exporting its nuclear fuel was hardly encouraging. Virtually all observers were under the impression that the West had secured Iran’s agreement on this point. Though there would still be plenty of room to cheat on a deal with such a provision in place, without it, the entire shaky edifice of the negotiations would collapse. Thus, when a “senior State Department official” said that, “Contrary to the report in The New York Times, the issue of how Iran’s stockpile would be disposed of had not yet been decided in the negotiating room, even tentatively,” that is hardly a sign that the situation is in hand. If Iran is still holding onto that crucial card with only hours before a deadline is supposed to expire, that’s a sign of enormous confidence on the part of Tehran’s negotiators that they have President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry just where they want them.

If Iran is planning on insisting on retaining their enriched uranium, all the confident talk coming out of the administration in recent months about a deal being the best way to ensure that the regime doesn’t get a bomb is exposed as patent falsehood. The Times hints, no doubt at the prompting of its helpful State Department sources, that a possible solution would be for the fuel remaining in Iran being kept in a diluted form. But we know that so long as it remains on Iranian soil and under its control, that stockpile could be easily converted back into material that can be used for a bomb.

As we noted last week, Iran’s refusal to fess up to its progress on possible military dimensions of its nuclear program is, in and of itself, a glaring weakness in any agreement since it means negotiators are operating in the blind about how close it may already be to a bomb. If that point is now apparently off the table as the West scrambles to try and persuade the Iranians not to gut what is left of an agreement that also doesn’t touch on their support for terror and missile program, there seems little hope that this agreement can be verified even in its weakened state. The West’s acquiescence to Iran continuing to operate centrifuges in its mountainside bunker at Fordow reduces even further the already slim chances that the deal can stand up to scrutiny.

It’s in that context that yesterday’s Washington Post article by Ali Alfoneh and Marc Ruel Gerecht about Iran hiding some of its nuclear work in North Korea and Syria must be viewed. Israel’s 2007 destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor that was designed in North Korea and almost certainly an Iranian project eliminated one threat, but it did not foreclose the possibility that Tehran would continue to use this tripartite alliance of rogue regimes to further its nuclear ambitions. With the Assad regime now totally dependent on Iranian aid to survive in the current civil war, the prospect that Iran will use its Syrian ally to hide or store some of its nuclear work can’t be ignored. That’s especially true since U.S. intelligence—a vital aspect of compliance with any nuclear agreement—in both countries appears to be so poor.

But these obvious holes in the arguments buttressing support for the proposed deal are even more important when set beside Iran’s confidence that it can force Obama and Kerry to make even more concessions in the last hours of the talks rather than be forced to walk away with nothing. Indeed, the Islamist regime seems to be certain that there is almost nothing it could do or threaten that would be enough to scare off a U.S. negotiating team that cannot go home empty-handed.

If the Americans are not going to be tough about verification measures or the location of Iran’s nuclear stockpile now while the sanctions are still in place and there is yet a chance that the West might realize the current deal won’t actually stop Iran from getting a bomb, how much less likely will it be that the U.S. or its European allies will reimpose those economic restrictions once a nuclear pact is signed?

Iran knows this is the moment to pressure Obama to give up even more than the staggering concessions he has already made in the last two years. Having already failed to stand up to call Iran’s bluffs when all the leverage was on his side, what possible hope is there that he will do so when it is the ayatollahs that have him at a disadvantage?

Read Less

What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Read More

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

Read Less

Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Read More

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

Read Less

In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

Read More

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

Read Less

Are the Iran Nuclear Talks a Hostage Negotiation?

With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

Read More

With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

As Politico’s sources within the administration make clear, U.S. officials are worried that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could lead to attacks against Americans in Iraq from Shiite militias or others doing Iran’s bidding. Iran has become a de facto ally of the United States in the battle against ISIS. But as problematic as relying on an Islamist regime that sponsors terrorism to fight Islamist terrorists may be, this arrangement also leaves the 3,000 U.S. personnel sent to Iraq as advisers and trainers for the forces fighting ISIS vulnerable to Iranian revenge if the president doesn’t do as they demand in the nuclear talks.

The reason why President Obama has given Iran little reason to worry about his willingness to pressure them in the nuclear talks is a function of his weak negotiating style, but it is also rooted in his objectives. Though he has consistently said he will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, he has proven that he is just as interested, if not more so, in détente with the Islamist regime. But while Obama conceives of this as a way for Iran to “get right with the world,” the Iranians have other intentions. They welcome the president’s effort to find an excuse to end their economic and diplomatic isolation but intend to use it as a cover to proceed toward their own goal of regional hegemony.

With their allies winning the Syrian civil war and keeping Bashar Assad in power, Tehran views the fighting in Iraq as a way to consolidate their influence over a Baghdad government that no longer can count on U.S. forces. With the Iranians directing operations against ISIS in Tikrit and elsewhere in the country, a tacit alliance with the United States has now become an open one. Though that aids the fight against ISIS, it also puts Iran in a position to exact revenge on the U.S. if the administration finds its backbone in the nuclear talks.

Washington may argue that Iran’s stake in Iraq and Syria gives it an incentive to play ball in the nuclear talks since they have a lot to lose if the West were to try to oust Assad or to toss them out of Iraq. But the facts on the ground argue in the other direction. It is the administration that needs Iran, or thinks it does. Iran has made itself both indispensible to the fight against ISIS and created a situation in which the U.S. may think it has no choice but to tread carefully whenever Tehran’s interests are placed in jeopardy. That’s not so much an unavoidable tradeoff that is a standard part of diplomacy as it is an occupational hazard for nations that try to do business with terrorists and their state sponsors.

By abandoning Iraq after the surge had secured the victory that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve, President Obama set a series of events in motion that led to both the rise of ISIS and an unholy alliance with Iran. It has also created a situation where Americans and U.S. interests throughout the region are now hostages that can be threatened if Iran wants to squeeze Obama. Given the president’s eagerness to be fleeced at the nuclear talks by Iran, that may not be necessary. But if the Islamist regime were ever worried about President Obama meaning what he says about not signing a bad nuclear deal, their potential for mayhem in Iraq makes it unlikely that the U.S. will surprise us and stand its ground over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Read Less

Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

Read More

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

Read Less

What Obama’s Rush to Iran Détente Means

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Obama Evolves on the Concept of Credibility

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

Read More

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

The president’s most famous brush with the issue of credibility is, of course, Syria. In August 2012, Obama very clearly and very plainly said, regarding Syria: “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Any attempt to deny he set such a red line would be absurd, which is why he did exactly that. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said once the red line was crossed. If a credibility gap were to open up, that would seem to be the time. In addition, Obama had gone from asserting that Bashar al-Assad would have to end his rule in Syria to making Assad a partner in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, which would turn out to be a failure as well once Syria continued using chemical weapons.

But no, said the president: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.” His credibility is not at risk, and if it were, so is yours. So there. The food’s no good and the portions are too small.

Next was Ukraine. The president’s dithering on Ukraine sent a dangerous message to Russia, didn’t it? And in fact, it sent a message about the president’s credibility more broadly, since the administration was trying to reassure countries in the Middle East about protecting them from an Iranian nuke and yet here was Ukraine, a country we (in the Budapest Memorandum) got to give up its own nukes on the promises its sovereignty would be respected. It turned out everybody lied–that’s got to deplete our credibility, right?

The Economist said yes, Peter Beinart said no, and Tom Rogan sided with The Economist:

For a start, take Dexter Filkins’s study of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force and an archetypal hardliner of the regime. In his meticulous analysis, Filkins shows how the sharp edge of Iranian strategy is shaped significantly by perceptions of American global resolve. Where America is seen to be resolute and determined, Iran is deterred. Where America is seen to be timid and uncertain, Iran is emboldened.

And perceptions of U.S. credibility among players who are not part of a foreign regime are also important. Take America’s adversaries in the Middle Eastern media. Opinion makers there now present Obama as the master of a rudderless agenda. These populist narratives are important — they mobilize political agendas in ways that are either favorable or problematic for the United States.

Point to Rogan, I would think. Do our past actions really not indicate a future course, especially under the same president? That might be why the administration has evolved, as the president might say, on the issue of credibility.

When Tom Cotton and 46 other senators wrote their open letter to the Iranian government asserting congressional authority over arms treaties, the White House responded with a statement from Vice President Biden: “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” Credibility was back in vogue.

And it continued to be. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the White House Congress was considering new legislation that would give Congress a say on the agreement the president is negotiating with Iran. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wrote back to Corker that the president would prefer to sign the deal first, present a fait accompli to the Congress, and grant Congress permission to rubber-stamp the deal. For credibility’s sake:

We believe that the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations–emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in the negotiations; and once again call into question our ability to negotiate this deal.

Put simply, the Obama administration wants it both ways on credibility. And for their own legacy, they should probably hope they’re wrong this time. After all, if credibility truly matters, the Obama administration’s legacy is going to consist of a Europe at war for the near future, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and general instability as states react to the president’s continuing incoherence on foreign affairs.

Read Less

Kerry’s Accidental Admission on Assad

All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Read More

All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That was then, this is now. Having done virtually nothing to compel Assad to step down, the Obama administration appears to have accommodated itself to his indefinite continuation in office, even as he continues to drop barrel bombs on civilians, pushing the death toll of the civil war well north of 200,000. Naturally the administration won’t admit what it’s doing, which appears to be part of a wider outreach to Iran, Assad’s No. 1 sponsor. But occasionally an administration official “misspeaks” and reveals a bit of the truth.

Thus on Face the Nation on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, in the words of a news article, “that he still believed it was important to achieve a diplomatic solution for the conflict in Syria and that the negotiations should involve President Bashar al-Assad.” True, Kerry said that he would talk to Assad only if he committed to the goal of the Geneva process that Kerry set up with Russia, designed to eventually ease Assad out of power through some kind of constitutional process. But his words will be read in the Middle East as a sign that the administration is reaching out to Assad and seeking to accommodate him–a perception that was already strong when in September 2013 the administration, rather than bomb Assad for his crossing of a “red line,” instead reached an accord with him to remove his chemical weapons from the country.

Naturally State Department officials rushed in to deny that Kerry said what he plainly said. As the New York Times noted: “State Department officials later said that the United States was not open to direct talks with Mr. Assad, despite what Mr. Kerry appeared to suggest in his television appearance.”

For my part, I’m skeptical of the denials. This sounds to me like Michael Kinsley’s classic definition of a Washington gaffe, which occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

In this case the truth appears to be that the administration has decided that Assad is the lesser evil, next to ISIS, and that it is willing to throw him a life preserver to get in good with the mullahs in Iran. Too bad the administration isn’t willing to come clean about what it’s up to in pursuing this amoral (and, I would argue, futile) policy that is likely to strengthen the hand of both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which will posture as the defenders of Syria’s Sunni majority against the Alawites and Shiites, Hezbollah and the Quds Force.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.