Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

Stop Debating Terminology; Just Defeat the Enemy

When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

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When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

Alas, the pattern continues. I have sat through numerous lectures in which scholars and military officers warn against the term “jihadist” to describe those who wage violent jihad. (And, yes, throughout much of Islamic history, jihad was understood to mean violent holy war, not simply internal struggle as some theological revisionists contend.) The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented group and advocacy organization popular with the White House, has suggested banning the word “jihadist” and simply call those waging violent jihad “criminals” instead. This New York Times op-ed went so far as to suggest that by using the term “jihadists,” Americans were effectively endorsing their mission just as much as “if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the ‘leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots’ or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the ‘defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.’”

Ultimately, the George W. Bush administration agreed, and sought to ban government officials from using both “jihadists” and “mujahideen.” Its logic?

U.S. officials may be “unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims,” says a Homeland Security report. It’s entitled “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.” “Regarding ‘jihad,’ even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic because it glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world,” the report says.

This, of course, is nonsense. Islamists no more look to the United States government to bless what is or is not Islamic than they would defer to the theological opinion of the owners of a Wiccan pig farm. If forced to decide what Islam justifies, Islamists will listen to a radical imam or their recruiter, not an anodyne U.S. Department of Homeland Security report.

Debates over the term “terrorism” are their own circle of hell. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got off to a rocky start when she referred to terrorism as “man-caused disasters.” She explained:

“I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

Sometimes moral equivalence infuses the debate. Terrorism, after all, can be judgmental term. Hence the BBC banned the use of the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of last month’s massacre at the headquarters of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. The head of BBC Arabic explained:

“Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.”

The problem is that redefining the word “terrorist” or omitting it from the lexicon altogether no more eliminates the problem of terrorism any more than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s decision to transform “rogue regimes” into “states of concern” transformed North Korea or the Islamic Republic of Iran into liberal, progressive, peace-loving utopias.

Enter the debate about the Islamic State. On September 10, 2014, President Obama cast dispersion on the term “Islamic State”:

Now let’s make two things clear:  ISIL is not “Islamic.”  No religion condones the killing of innocents.  And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.  And ISIL is certainly not a state.  It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.  It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.

Secretary of State John Kerry has likewise said that the Islamic State is neither “a state nor truly Islamic,” and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius joined in to, advising against referring to the Islamic State as either Islamic or a state, the former because it offends Muslims and the latter because it bestows too much legitimacy. The Pentagon, of course, didn’t want to be left out of the wordplay games. It urged its personnel to use the term Daesh. Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria, explained:

“Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate. … They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

The Boston Globe made much the same argument. Here’s the problem: Daesh is simply the Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham which literally means the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” So, all the Pentagon fuss is the equivalent of saying the word “duck” is offensive to the French, so use “canard” instead.

White House political operatives love their polls just as the Pentagon embraces its metrics. Perhaps the biggest indicator of success or failure against external threats, however, is the inverse relationship between defeat of the enemy and a desire to debate terminology. Debate about what to call the Islamic State doesn’t advance its defeat one nanosecond. It is nothing more than a distraction—one that costs lives by substituting political correctness for progress and bureaucratic machination for battlefield success.

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Jordan Chooses Sides

Kudos to King Abdullah II of Jordan for his decision to execute Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber who was part of a terrorist cell that carried out a suicide attack on three Amman hotels in 2005. The Jordanian government executed her and fellow terrorist Ziyad Karboli at dawn in response to the Islamic State’s brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasaesbeh by caging him and then burning him alive.

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Kudos to King Abdullah II of Jordan for his decision to execute Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber who was part of a terrorist cell that carried out a suicide attack on three Amman hotels in 2005. The Jordanian government executed her and fellow terrorist Ziyad Karboli at dawn in response to the Islamic State’s brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasaesbeh by caging him and then burning him alive.

From a political perspective, the executions were necessary. The video of the execution was as brutal as it was scarring. It has circulated widely in Arabic chat forums and elsewhere online. Jordanians, who are already critical of their king, want action. To do anything but execute Sajida would be to hand the Islamic State (ISIS) a victory by effectively cowing to their demands that Jordan stand down. Frankly, she should have died years ago in order to bring justice for the families of her victims. The king demurred, however, effectively commuting her sentence in order to appease her supporters and, alas, in Jordan there are many. Her execution, however, underscores that King Abdullah II has recognized that in the battle against Islamist extremism, Jordan can no longer be neutral.

When it comes to the forces buffeting the region, Jordan has long been between a rock and a hard place. It is nearly landlocked, and is resource poor. At the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was not easy to border both Israel and Iraq, perhaps the Arab world’s most rejectionist state. While King Hussein of Jordan welcomes Palestinian refugees and, unlike all his neighbors, actually granted them citizenship so that they could get on with their lives and contribute more fully to society, he faced a PLO-led coup attempt in 1970, which he barely beat back.

Still, while many in Washington consider Jordan a stable, reliable ally and a security partner, the kingdom has traditionally been a bit two-faced, although its diplomats and officials would say such duplicitousness was necessary to survive. After the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, Jordan became the chief source of Saddam Hussein’s smuggling enrichment under the Oil-for-Food program, a policy from which both King Hussein and King Abdullah II seem to have benefited. In the days before Iraq’s liberation, Jordan undercut opposition to Saddam Hussein and, in the war’s aftermath, welcomed Saddam’s wife and daughter (and their stolen money). Simply put, Jordan traditionally has sought to appease all sides in a conflict and based its security in being friendly with everyone that threatened it, be they Israel and the Palestinians, Saddam’s Iraq and the United States, or post-liberation Iraq and the insurgents which fought it.

The Jordanian balancing act also extended to the battle between Islamists and secularists. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague and Jordan expert Tara Beeny noted last month, while Jordan traditionally sought to accommodate and co-opt Islamists rather than fight them, the terror designation of the Muslim Brotherhood by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an important source of aid to Jordan, had led the king to follow suit, and crack down on the Islamic Action Front, as the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is known. On one hand, the UAE’s pressure and now the reaction to the Islamic State’s execution of its pilot have painted King Abdullah II into a corner, one which might hamper his ability to co-opt and contain the Islamic State. On the other hand, however, neutrality is not always a virtue. When facing an evil like the Islamic State—not only bordering it but also dealing with it within Jordanian borders—it sometimes pays to take sides. In the battle against Islamist extremism, Jordan’s decision to take a firm stand is better late than never.

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ISIS Stokes Sino-Japanese Antagonism

Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

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Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

When the government-controlled Global Times opined that Japanese Prime Minister Abe would likely use the horrific murder as an excuse to send Japanese armed forces abroad, it was both revealing a deep-seated Chinese fear and seeking to further isolate Japan in Asia. Abe had indeed made very un-Japanese statements about making the terrorists pay, but that simply put him in league with Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. To the Chinese, however, Abe’s statements were in reality a dog whistle to right-wing nationalists that the Japanese military would finally be unleashed beyond Japan’s borders.

Such fantasizing is of course hogwash, not least because Japan has almost no offensive or power projection capability. Moreover, the still-powerful strain of pacifism in Japanese society has actually led many to criticize Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad as being too dangerous. China’s criticism instead says much more about Beijing’s worries than Japan’s intentions.

When Chinese officials look around Asia, they see only one country that could plausibly frustrate their desire to become the undisputed hegemon of the region. Despite having ten times the population, and having surpassed Japan in gross GDP, Chinese officials understand Japan’s continued strengths, its strong alliance with the United States, and its newfound willingness to reach out to other Asian nations to form partnerships. Given that China inspires growing worry over its military power and aggressive designs on disputed territory and common sea lanes alike, officials in Beijing know that the region is slowly adopting a balancing position against them. And Japan, especially under Abe, is the leader of that movement.

Thus, the vilification campaign. Instead of acknowledging Japan’s right to avenge its murdered citizens, and perhaps even offering support, China’s propaganda handmaidens seek instead to fan the flames of anti-Japanese feeling. Outside of China, this may well play the best in South Korea, where bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in decades, thanks in part to Abe’s ill-advised statements questioning sensitive World War II issues such as the comfort women or larger questions of Japan’s war guilt. For some of the antagonism between himself and his neighbors, Abe indeed deserves blame, but not for asserting that he will protect Japan’s interests.

What China is really telegraphing is far simpler: there will be no rapprochement between the two great powers anytime soon. And that means an Asia that continues to simmer with tensions both real and imagined.

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What Is the U.S. Doing to Make Its Case in Iraq?

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

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Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

[Badr Organization leader Hadi al-] Amiri told me that late last month he met with U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones at his home, where the ambassador made the offer of U.S. air support to his ground campaign.  “He told me, frankly speaking, ‘We are ready to offer back up in air strikes for the volunteers,’ ” Amiri said, using the term many militia leaders use to refer to the fighters under their command. Amiri said he thanked Jones for the offer, but told him he worried the U.S. Air Force could make a mistake and end up hitting his men instead of the Islamic State. When asked about the meeting, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jeffrey Loree, told me: “We don’t confirm the details of our conversations.  Our policy is that we support the ISF with air strikes and we have urged that the militias be under the command and control of the ISF.”

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse in a way that Lake did not address. Most Iraqis believe that the United States is not only responsible for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) but actively supports it. This is not the result of one or two conversations with Iraqis inside the Green Zone, but rather a pernicious belief that the majority of Iraqis harbor, in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Karbala, and presumably elsewhere.

The reason is simple: Iran. The basis of American influence operations is always to be truthful, and through truth build credibility. Iran has a different strategy, however: metaphorically to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Just yesterday, Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Amir Abdollahian called the U.S. fight against terrorism “insincere.” None other than the supreme leader has been preaching, here at a meeting of Islamic scholars, that the Islamic State is an American creation. Speaking about the rise of Islamist extremism in the Islamic State’s mold, Ayatollah Khamenei said:

…It is a few years now that it has been revived and strengthened with the plots of arrogance, with the money of some regional governments and with the schemes of the intelligence services of colonialist countries such as America, England and the Zionist regime… There is an undeniable point which is the fact that the takfiri orientation and the governments which support and advocate it move completely in the direction of the goals of arrogance and Zionism. Their work is in line with the goals of America, the colonialist governments in Europe and the government of the usurping Zionist regime. This movement is at the service of arrogance. It is at the service of America and England. What they do is at the service of the intelligence services of America and England. It is at the service of Mossad and other such intelligence services.

That may sound like the ranting and raving of a tired, old, paranoid dictator. But, alas, it has stuck, especially after one packet in an airdrop meant for the Kurdish resistance in Kobane went array and was recovered by the Islamic State.

The problem isn’t that the Iranian government actively spreads anti-American propaganda. That should be expected of a regime that, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s pronouncements aside, remains unrepentant. Rather, the problem is that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad remains silent. The embassy hosts hundreds of diplomats, but few get outside the blast walls surrounding the embassy complex, even to go elsewhere in the Green Zone. Rumors swirl, unrebutted by anyone in the U.S. embassy. Baghdad isn’t known for its security, but millions live outside the Green Zone, and diplomats from Iran, Turkey, and many other states regularly traverse the city. Even before Benghazi, guaranteeing diplomats’ security trumped any sense that they needed to circulate to do their jobs.

Security and effectiveness are always a precarious balance but they are no excuse for the United States to keep from being able to refute rumors and rebuff enemy information operations. There’s no point spending billions on an embassy if it is too afraid to function. That Iran gets away with blaming the United States for the Islamic State when Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s proxy in Damascus, refused for years to use his air force against the group as it grew and gathered strength in Raqqa says a lot about Iranian cynicism. Alas, that the United States refuses to make its case and allows Iranian lies to be the first draft of history says a lot about State Department’s incompetence.

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ISIS Terror Continues Unabated

Apparently the shock value of televised beheadings is wearing off. Or maybe captured Muslims are marked for especially gruesome treatment. Whatever the case, news has now emerged that ISIS burned alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. At this rate future captives can expect to be impaled or dismembered. There is simply no end to the evil of ISIS–their depravity and contempt for human life is seemingly infinite.

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Apparently the shock value of televised beheadings is wearing off. Or maybe captured Muslims are marked for especially gruesome treatment. Whatever the case, news has now emerged that ISIS burned alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. At this rate future captives can expect to be impaled or dismembered. There is simply no end to the evil of ISIS–their depravity and contempt for human life is seemingly infinite.

Yet faced with this abomination, the U.S. has blinked. Sure, President Obama has sent a few thousand advisors to Iraq and dropped thousands of bombs in both Iraq and Syria. But, the liberation of the ruined town of Kobani aside, his current strategy isn’t working. As the Daily Beast notes: “The Pentagon has said it has killed 6,000 fighters since coalition strikes began five months ago; the intelligence community estimates 4,000 foreign fighters have entered the fray since September. (A higher estimate, made by The Washington Post, holds that 5,000 foreign fighters have flowed into the two countries since October.)” That kind of math favors the jihadists, because it doesn’t even account for all the thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who have taken up arms under the black banner.

It is high time for a more serious strategy–one that I outlined back in November. Boost the U.S. military presence. Loosen restrictions on bombing. End the prohibition on U.S. boots on the ground. Let U.S. Special Forces accompany Iraqi and Syrian forces into battle and call in airstrikes directly on ISIS positions. Send in the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command to take down ISIS commanders. Do more to train and arm Sunni tribesmen in both Syria and Iraq–work with them directly rather than going through the Iraqi Security Forces and assure Syrians that the U.S. is as opposed to Bashar Assad’s evil as ISIS’s evil.

Yet the White House consistently refuses to get serious. That makes its protests about the murder of ISIS hostages, whether American, British, Japanese, or now Jordanian, toothless. Just empty verbiage. Until the U.S. is willing to do more to stop ISIS, it will continue its reign of terror unabated.

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Strategy Should Be Defeat of Islamists, Not Choosing Sectarian Sides

The United States has lacked a coherent strategy in the Middle East—if not worldwide—for more than a quarter-century. George W. Bush came closest in recent years and voiced a strategy that centered on an emphasis on democratization but, when push came to shove, he did not have the wherewithal or patience to overcome resistance from within the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and his own National Security Council.

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The United States has lacked a coherent strategy in the Middle East—if not worldwide—for more than a quarter-century. George W. Bush came closest in recent years and voiced a strategy that centered on an emphasis on democratization but, when push came to shove, he did not have the wherewithal or patience to overcome resistance from within the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and his own National Security Council.

With the Arab Spring, the traditional basis of regional stability—or, at least relative regional stability (there were multiple Arab-Israeli and Arab-Arab wars, after all)—collapsed as both pro-American and anti-American dictators who had ruled for decades fell or their states collapsed into violence and civil war. Meanwhile, traditional secular bulwarks like Turkey are now as much adversary as ally. Questions remain about the future of other allies. Saudi Arabia just underwent a transition and appears to be trending hardline, and Oman and the United Arab Emirates are not far behind, as their leaders probably have weeks or months to live, but likely won’t make it into 2016. ISIS is simply icing on the chaotic cake.

It would be cheaply partisan—and myopic—to attribute all the chaos to President Obama’s decisions since he took office, or George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The world doesn’t revolve around Washington, and much of the trouble in the region would have occurred no matter who was in the White House. That said, decisions do have consequences. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (a decision I supported and still support) certainly undercut stability in Iraq, although that instability might have been inevitable, given that Saddam would have been nearly 80 years old today and so might not have survived to the present anyway. With regard to Obama, his desire to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on the cheap, and without U.S. ground forces, meant no one was willing to step up and secure his weapons depots. The resulting flood of weaponry has destabilized countries across the Sahel, empowered radicals, and continues to threaten international air travel. If Obama aide and now UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s “responsibility to protect” motivated the ill-planned Libya intervention, then the failure to intervene in Syria before the opposition radicalized was pure hypocrisy. Today, the only moderate opposition group inside Syria is the Democratic Union Party (YPG), which because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and outdated U.S. deference to Turkey, the U.S. government wrongly considers to be a terrorist entity (it’s safer to be a journalist in Qamisli, Syrian Kurdistan, than it is in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan).

It’s no secret to either Republicans or Democrats that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry increasingly appear rudderless in their approach to the Middle East. On one hand, they seem intent on working with Iran and its proxies against the threat posed by radical Islamist groups like ISIS—the Houthis are just the latest case—but on the other hand, as the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has reported, they are legitimizing the Muslim Brotherhood which at best is an incubator for Sunni radicalism and at worst is a terrorist group itself (both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have designated it as such).

There is incoherence to such policies. Isolating al-Qaeda, its fellow travelers, and its enablers makes a great deal of sense, but then why reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which has targeted Christians, eroded the rights of women, and cheered terrorism? Why deny the terrorism of the Taliban? And can Iran really be a counterbalance to al-Qaeda when it supports groups like Hezbollah which is just as deadly and radical as al-Qaeda, albeit with just a slightly different sectarian patina? Nor does it make sense to rehabilitate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is responsible for mass murder and who hasn’t hesitated to use cynically ISIS against his more moderate opponents? (That’s not a conspiracy theory: the Syrian regime had uncontested control of its airspace for years before the United States launched its air campaign against ISIS; during that time, Assad preferred to drop barrel bombs on civilians rather than bomb ISIS’s headquarters in Raqqa).

So what should the United States policy be? Rather than choose between different flavors of radicalism or get drawn into a sectarian struggle in which Washington absolutely does not belong, perhaps it’s time to make the defeat of extremists of all sects the guiding principle of U.S. policy. This would mean rolling back the Muslim Brotherhood and its proxies wherever they exist and moving to marginalize rather than legitimize it, as Secretary of State John Kerry and the Foreign Service he leads seem wont to do. It would mean embracing its enemies—providing unequivocal support to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for example—and pushing away its supporters, Turkey and Qatar. If the Clinton and George W. Bush-era flirtation with the Erdoğan regime shows one thing, it is that for Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups, moderation is a tactic not a goal. It should mean isolating rather than embracing Muslim Brotherhood fronts in the United States, as well, like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the latter of which, unfortunately, the Pentagon uses to credential Muslim military chaplains.

It’s not enough, however, to simply seek to isolate and diminish the Muslim Brotherhood. It should be just as much a goal to undermine and eliminate Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, and Iranian influence. There are Shi‘ites across the region who chafe under and resist Iranian influence; the United States should support them. Washington must look at the region as Tehran does: not as an area for shared influence, but rather a zero-sum game. It should be the goal of the United States to deny Iran space while at the same time promoting programs which lead to the empowerment of the Iranian people rather than the regime that oppresses them.

The Middle East may look chaotic, but with Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country on the right side, with Tunisia breaking through the glass ceiling to become the first Arab state categorized as free by Freedom House, and with Morocco, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Kuwait promoting moderation, it can be possible to consolidate an axis of moderation against the looming threat of the extremists. It’s not a one- or two-year task, however, but should be the goal of any American strategy. The United States must never apologize for putting its own interests and helping those with whom they coincide while undercutting those whose ideology would counter them.

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Does the ISIS Beheading Prove Japan’s Prime Minister Right?

Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

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Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

Yet Abe has made a hallmark of rocking the boat in his second term in office, making him both admired and despised. Many Japanese (and foreigners) consider him a nationalist hawk, and his fighting words will confirm their opinion that he is a danger to Japan’s security. Others think that he is simply acknowledging a reality that Tokyo for far too long ignored: that the world is a dangerous place, that Japan cannot hide from it, and that it has a role to play in protecting not only its own interests, but stability more generally.

It was this last that may have doomed Goto and his fellow Japanese Haruna Yukawa. Abe’s pledge of $200 million in humanitarian aid to countries fighting ISIS apparently caused the two Japanese to be targeted. If Abe hadn’t done that, so the thinking goes, if he hadn’t pushed Japan into a crisis that did not affect it, then there would have been no kidnapping and murder of Japanese nationals.

To adopt such an attitude is to give a victory to ISIS, in transferring blame to some degree to the victim (in this case, a country), instead of the aggressors. Abe is right, and ISIS has proved him so: the danger of radical Islam, or of other disruptive actors, like North Korea, cannot simply be ignored. That may not mean getting involved in every case, but it does mean clearly recognizing the threats to any sense of civilized norms, and deciding how and when to act.

That, of course, is the most difficult, and Abe has now drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, by stating that some punishment will be meted out. Given that Japan lacks an offensive military capability, not to mention a hostage rescue capability of the kind that has failed even the United States in dealing with ISIS, Abe’s words may be written off as overblown rhetoric. Yet in saying them, he is indicating the path that he wants Japan to go down. The word’s third-largest economy, and a force for stability in Asia, should not be so impotent that it cannot protect, rescue, or avenge its citizens. It may be another sign of how Japan will change in the coming years in ways that will complement, not counter, U.S. efforts to respond to global disorder.

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Why ISIS’s Grisly Tactics Haven’t Backfired

To the chronicle of its depravities, ISIS has now added a new chapter by beheading two Japanese hostages. A Jordanian pilot who was captured by ISIS may be the next to go, if he has not been murdered already. ISIS, which reportedly seized at least 23 foreigners, now has only a few of them left, including a male British journalist and a female American aid worker.

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To the chronicle of its depravities, ISIS has now added a new chapter by beheading two Japanese hostages. A Jordanian pilot who was captured by ISIS may be the next to go, if he has not been murdered already. ISIS, which reportedly seized at least 23 foreigners, now has only a few of them left, including a male British journalist and a female American aid worker.

Some are starting to wonder what ISIS has achieved with its high-profile executions. And indeed the countries targeted in its grisly beheading videos–Britain, the U.S., Japan–have not knuckled under. Indeed these executions have had the opposite reaction, leading the U.S. and the UK to begin military action against ISIS along with European and Arab allies. In Jordan, support for its role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been growing, rather than shrinking, as a result of the threats confronting its captured pilot who hails from a prominent tribe. Even Japan, which historically has not used military force abroad, is now threatening retaliation for the murder of its hostages.

So is it safe to say that ISIS’s brutal tactics have backfired? Not so fast. Its barbaric actions may cause revulsion but they also inspire fear among many and help to keep millions of dollars in ransom payments flowing for the release of European hostages. There is even a small subset of Muslims who are inspired by the spectacle of the “Islamic State” waging merciless war on “infidels” (however innocent). These admirers are presumably among the 1,000 or so foreigners a month traveling to Syria to join ISIS and rival groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. Most of all such atrocities keep ISIS in the news and serve as a counterpoint to news of setbacks it has suffered, such as the loss of Kobani in northern Syria to Kurd fighters backed by American airpower.

Certainly since ISIS began its beheadings last summer, it has suffered setbacks; U.S. Central Command claims that 6,000 of its fighters have been killed in that period by coalition airpower. But in that time ISIS has managed to hold onto Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq while actually expanding its control in Syria.

So horrific as ISIS’s tactics are, it’s too soon to call them a failure, largely because the Obama administration has placed so many limitations on American participation in the anti-ISIS coalition (e.g., no “boots on the ground”) and has done so little to mobilize anti-ISIS fighters among the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. As long as that continues to be the case, ISIS will get away with its hideous crimes.

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Outsourcing Israel’s Security to Peacekeepers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Must Connect the Dots Between Iran Talks and Hezbollah Violence

The instinct in Washington is to dismiss the latest flare-up in violence along Israel’s northern border as just another incident in a long-running cycle of violence involving Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. The State Department will condemn the attack on Israel but it will call for restraint and calm. Their expectation, echoed in much of the media, is that once the smoke clears, the combatants will return to an armed and hostile truce enabling diplomats to concentrate on more important things like the administration’s pursuit of détente with Iran. But whether or not the shooting continues in the coming days, this incident, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed by terrorists firing over an international border, must be understood as intrinsically connected to the broader issue of U.S. relations with Iran and its nuclear program. The fighting is a wake-up call to the West alerting it to the fact that Tehran’s real purpose is not, as President Obama hopes, “to get right with the world,” but to dominate the region and threaten Israel and moderate Arab nations.

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The instinct in Washington is to dismiss the latest flare-up in violence along Israel’s northern border as just another incident in a long-running cycle of violence involving Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. The State Department will condemn the attack on Israel but it will call for restraint and calm. Their expectation, echoed in much of the media, is that once the smoke clears, the combatants will return to an armed and hostile truce enabling diplomats to concentrate on more important things like the administration’s pursuit of détente with Iran. But whether or not the shooting continues in the coming days, this incident, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed by terrorists firing over an international border, must be understood as intrinsically connected to the broader issue of U.S. relations with Iran and its nuclear program. The fighting is a wake-up call to the West alerting it to the fact that Tehran’s real purpose is not, as President Obama hopes, “to get right with the world,” but to dominate the region and threaten Israel and moderate Arab nations.

The border violence is generally being reported as part of a tit-for-tat exchange between Hezbollah and Israel. Today’s incident, in which anti-tank shells were fired at Israeli vehicles travelling on a civilian road from three miles away inside Lebanon, is seen by many as retaliation for Israel’s strike at a Hezbollah missile base inside Syria last week in which, among others, an Iranian general was killed. Iran has warned Israel that it would retaliate and it is thought that today is proof that they meant what they said.

But there is more to this than the need for Hezbollah to do the bidding of its Iranian paymasters or even for it to gain revenge for the death of the terrorists slain with Tehran’s ballistic missile expert, one of whom was the son of a slain commander of the group. The point of setting up that base in Syria, near the Golan Heights, was to create a launching pad to hit the Jewish state without bringing down the wrath of the Israel Defense Forces on Lebanon, as was the case during the 2006 war that was set off by similar cross-border raids. But the reason why Hezbollah and Iran were so interested in strengthening their ability to rain down destruction on Israeli civilian targets is that Tehran sees itself as being locked in a permanent war with Israel as well as with Arab states in the region.

This is more than obvious to anyone who pays the slightest attention to Iranian policy as well as its use of terrorists to advance its policy goals. Hezbollah is an arm of Iranian foreign policy as proved by its use as shock troops in the effort to preserve the rule of Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad in Syria.

This exposes the fallacy that lies at the heart of the current U.S. approach to Iran. President Obama is convinced that sooner or later he will be able to persuade the Islamist regime to accept a weak nuclear deal that will enable him to withdraw sanctions on the regime and start working toward an amicable relationship. The idea of such an entente is ludicrous since the ideology of the Iranian regime is implacably hostile to the United States. Moreover, their goal is not integration into the region but rather domination of it, something that will be facilitated once it becomes clear it is a threshold nuclear state (even if no bomb is actually constructed) as well as by its use of its Hezbollah auxiliaries and a renewed alliance with Hamas.

Seen from that perspective, the administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran is not merely misguided because Iran has no intention of abiding by any agreement and that it will use the nuclear infrastructure that the West seems poised to allow it to keep to continue a pursuit of a weapon. Rather, what makes it truly disastrous is that an embrace of Iran will encourage its adventurism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, as well as along Israel’s northern and southern borders. An Iran that is permitted to become a nuclear threshold state will not only be vastly more powerful than it is today but in a position to directly threaten Israeli security and that of Jordan and perhaps even Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The fighting along Israel’s northern border is just a tease of what may come once Hezbollah is protected by an Iran that believes the U.S. has granted it impunity to pursue its aggressive agenda.

Instead of dismissing the border fighting, the White House should be realizing that it is headed down a perilous path in its pursuit of friendship with Iran. If it doesn’t turn back soon, today’s violence may be just a foreshadowing of the atrocities that will follow.

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How to Lose a War: Schiff’s Reckless AUMF

In his State of the Union address, President Obama tried to paint a rosy picture of his administration’s failing effort to roll back ISIS. It was the sales pitch before the ask. He followed it by saying: “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” He should be careful what he wishes for: congressional Democrats are rewarding the president’s request with an embarrassingly unserious war authorization.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama tried to paint a rosy picture of his administration’s failing effort to roll back ISIS. It was the sales pitch before the ask. He followed it by saying: “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” He should be careful what he wishes for: congressional Democrats are rewarding the president’s request with an embarrassingly unserious war authorization.

BuzzFeed’s John Stanton reports on the effort led by California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who has introduced a bill similar to one he put forth last year. The administration is relying on a 2001 authorization passed at the outset of the war on terror. But the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates is only part of the war on terror. Hence we have had to at times fight different terror groups in the same places or the same terror groups in different places, Syria being the prominent example of the latter.

Schiff says, correctly, that it’s time to stop pretending we’re not at war. In a statement, he said: “There is no doubt that our current offensive amounts to war, and Congress should take action both to authorize its prosecution and to set limits on that authorization so it may not be used by any future administration in a manner contrary to our intent.” Democrats have been trying to balance support for the president with a desire to see some of Congress’s traditional powers restored.

The problem, therefore, is not the idea of a new authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) but rather the text of this one. Here’s what it would include:

In addition to barring the use of ground troops, the new AUMF would also sunset in three years, as well as sunset the 2001 AUMF at that time. Additionally, Schiff’s bill would be “geographically limited” to contain counter terrorism war efforts to Iraq and Syria.

Although the White House and hawks in both parties have argued tying the administration’s hands is inappropriate, Schiff argued the overly broad interpretation of the existing AUMF should give Congress pause.

“If circumstances change, they should come to the Congress and make the case” for an expanded AUMF, Schiff told BuzzFeed News in an interview Tuesday evening. But “given how previous authorizations have been broadly construed, we would be wise to tailor this one to the current circumstances,” Schiff added.

Obama has often been (accurately) accused of relying on magical thinking in his prosecution of the war on terror. But Schiff is guilty of no less. Schiff’s logic in wanting to pass a new AUMF is that we’re at war, and so we should act like it. He really ought to follow his own advice.

The desire to avoid a ground war is understandable; the prohibition against ground troops in a declared war is outrageous. And it unlearns any and all lessons from the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan that it claims to be correcting.

One of the main knocks on the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq was that its initial light-footprint strategy was unrealistic with regard to the kind of resistance U.S. forces would face. Another popular accusation was that there was no “exit strategy.”

Schiff’s AUMF aims to repeat both mistakes.

He may think that sunsetting an AUMF is an exit plan. It is not. Putting a time limit on the war would do nothing to end it, and in fact would almost certainly prolong it. Our enemies would know precisely how to run out the clock on us. And the war effort wouldn’t be over; the president would simply have to pause the fighting (as if he can call a timeout in war) and go back to Congress for permission to fire back at the enemy forces who would be in attack mode the whole time. Putting a three-year time limit on the war virtually guarantees it will last more than three years.

As for the prohibition on ground forces: this is so absurd as to be self-refuting. It would be nice to be able to achieve victory without ground troops, and hopefully that’s possible. But barring them from combat ties the hands of the commander in chief.

It also shows Schiff isn’t paying attention to what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. As Tim Mak reported in the Daily Beast in mid-January:

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began. The result is a net ground gain for ISIS, according to information compiled by two groups with on-the-ground sources.

A net ground gain for ISIS, thanks to a halfhearted air war. This is the strategy Schiff wants to codify in law–even though we are already aware that it’s failing.

The Obama administration deserves much of the criticism it has received on the president’s efforts to colonize the powers of Congress and expand executive authority. But the president is the commander in chief, and he shouldn’t be forced to ask the military to bring a knife to a gunfight. Schiff’s bill is irresponsible and dangerous, and that’s why it shouldn’t–and almost certainly won’t–become law.

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Is Washington Encouraging Iran’s Threats?

The United States and Iran have been locked in dead-end negotiations over the Islamist regime’s nuclear program for over a year, but the lines of communication between Washington and Tehran appear to be open. According to Iran’s IRNA news agency, that country’s deputy foreign minister said that his country had sent a warning to Israel via their U.S. negotiating partners. The message was a threat that retaliation should be expected for the death of an Iranian general in an Israeli air strike on a Syrian site where Hezbollah terrorists were establishing a missile base. But according to the State Department, no such message was passed on to the Israelis. While the U.S. condemned the talk of threats, if the account is accurate, the omission shows that the Obama administration may find it easier to talk to a radical Iranian regime than it does to their democratic ally Israel.

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The United States and Iran have been locked in dead-end negotiations over the Islamist regime’s nuclear program for over a year, but the lines of communication between Washington and Tehran appear to be open. According to Iran’s IRNA news agency, that country’s deputy foreign minister said that his country had sent a warning to Israel via their U.S. negotiating partners. The message was a threat that retaliation should be expected for the death of an Iranian general in an Israeli air strike on a Syrian site where Hezbollah terrorists were establishing a missile base. But according to the State Department, no such message was passed on to the Israelis. While the U.S. condemned the talk of threats, if the account is accurate, the omission shows that the Obama administration may find it easier to talk to a radical Iranian regime than it does to their democratic ally Israel.

Of course, Israeli and American officials talk all the time about all sorts of things related to the alliance between the two democracies. But the dustup over the Israeli strike on the Syrian missile base may illustrate the curious nexus between U.S. efforts to make friends with Iran and the spat between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over sanctions on the Islamist regime.

The Iranians are clearly furious about the death of General Ali Allahdadi, a ballistic missile expert at a site near the town of Kunetra, along the border between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Allahdadi was supervising the creation of a new Hezbollah base in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah have backed the Assad government in Damascus with troops and arms in the Syrian civil war. In return, Assad has apparently given his OK for Hezbollah to set up a base from which it could potentially fire missiles into Israel. Having a Syrian launching pad would immeasurably strengthen Hezbollah because it would give them an option for hitting Israeli targets that would not invite retaliation on them in Lebanon. The widespread destruction caused by the 2006 war that was provoked by Hezbollah attacks on Israeli targets earned the terror group the ire of most Lebanese. But neither Hezbollah nor other Lebanese seem to care if attacks on Israel cause more destruction in war-torn Syria.

Since Hezbollah is under Iranian orders, the presence of one of Tehran’s missile experts at their Syrian base was no surprise. The destruction of the base and the death of their man there angered Iran perhaps to the point where it might seek to escalate the battle with Israel.

But the question is not why the Iranians sought to create the missile base. Rather it is what made them think the Israelis would sit back and wait to be hit rather than taking the facility out as it did Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007 and the various Iranian weapons convoys that have attempted to transfer some of Syria’s heavy weapons into Lebanon?

The Iranians have created a de facto alliance with the Obama administration against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq. But while the U.S. seems content to let the Iranians extend their hegemony over a crippled Syria, that entente does not extend to Israel, which rightly views Iranian activities in the vicinity of their border a deadly threat.

It’s not clear whether missiles fired today into the Golan from Syria were an opening salvo in an Iranian retaliation campaign or just stray fire from a civil war whose combatants are all too close to the Jewish state. But Israel is rightly now on alert and anticipating the possibility of more such attacks or an attempt by Hezbollah to carry out some sort of spectacular terrorist attack on Jewish or Israeli targets elsewhere in the world.

But what is most troubling about this story is not so much the Iranian threats but the possibility that the U.S. is not coordinating with Israeli efforts to defend against them. Can it be that the Obama administration is so besotted with the notion of détente with Iran via nuclear talks that it is distancing itself from Israeli acts of self-defense intended to warn Tehran to avoid escalating the conflict? One would hope not, but with U.S. foreign policy now almost obsessively focused on lessening tension with Iran, the administration’s unwillingness to confront Tehran about terrorism may be causing the Islamist regime to abandon caution.

This episode not only demonstrates the dangers of appeasing a state sponsor of terror; it also shows that Obama’s predilection for picking fights with Israel may be increasing the chances of violence. It is not too late for the White House to step back from the brink and send an even sterner warning to Iran to stand down. If it doesn’t, the blame for what follows will belong to both the Iranians and a president who fell in love with the idea of allowing Iran “to get right with the world.”

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Is Kobani the New Khe Sanh?

The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

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The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

As I have previously argued, the ISIS siege of Kobani, broken with the help of copious American airpower, resembles nothing so much as the North Vietnamese siege of Khe Sanh, a town in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. Held by Marines, Khe Sanh was under assault for 77 days in 1968 before the Communist attackers melted away. So insignificant did Khe Sanh prove in the end that U.S. forces abandoned it shortly after relieving its garrison.

The larger picture in Syria is that ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, the two primary jihadist groups, continue to gain ground while the moderate opposition, once seen as the salvation of Syria, is in worse shape then ever, in no small part because it has never received the support it needs or deserves. If you don’t mind raising your blood pressure, you should read this enraging account in the Wall Street Journal today, by reporter Adam Entous, of how little the CIA has done to help the moderate Syrian opposition.

A few highlights:

  • “One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter.”
  • “ ‘We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,’ a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting.”
  • “Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.”
  • “ ‘We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns,’ the Hazzm leader said, according to people at the meeting. ‘It was a losing bet.’ ”

The predictable result of this neglect–compounded by the American failure to stop Bashar Assad’s air force from bombing the few areas still held by moderate forces–is that many of the mainstream fighters have either abandoned the fight, been killed or captured by the jihadists, or joined their ranks. This, naturally, becomes a further excuse for doing nothing to aid them. But how can we possibly expect Syrians to risk anything fighting with us when we won’t risk anything to help them?

Reading this account–in which terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS are able to outspend the world’s No. 1 economy–makes me think that if the current administration had been in charge of arming the mujahideen in the 1980s, the Russians would still be occupying Afghanistan.

The parlous state of the Free Syrian Army means that there is little prospect for making greater inroads against ISIS, much less the Nusra Front, in Syria. And that in turn means that Kobani is an isolated victory which is unlikely to have any wider strategic significance.

The Obama administration’s failure to do more to stop the bloodshed and the advance of extremists in Syria must rank as one of the worst failures of U.S. foreign policy in the past half-century. Obama can take comfort that he hasn’t repeated George W. Bush’s supposed mistake in invading Iraq; instead he’s making his own mistakes, whose costs continue to mount.

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

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

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

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran Looking for Missile Base Against Israel, Not Nuclear Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Yalta Syndrome

President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

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President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

You know Obama’s having a tough run when the New York Times hits him with a yes, but. In this case, what Obama did not mention was that “Russia maintains control of Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine, and continues to support pro-Russian separatists who are at war with Ukraine’s government despite a cease-fire that has failed to stop violence.”

Obama had been bragging about simply waiting Vladimir Putin out until the Russian economy started (or continued) to crumble. But Baker’s next sentence shows what is so unsound about Obama’s approach to foreign affairs: “Russia’s economy has indeed taken a huge hit, in large part because of the fall in oil prices, but so far Mr. Putin shows few signs of backing down.”

That, in fact, is what the divide is all about, because Obama considers that a victory while most of the reality-based community disagrees. To Obama, what happens to insignificant states–as he sees them, at least–isn’t important. This is a kind of great-power politics stripped of all nuance. It’s what someone who wants to practice great-power politics but doesn’t really understand international affairs would think constitutes such a policy.

To Obama, it’s the large states–or as he sees them, important states–that matter. Because Obama is a follower, not a leader, he gravitates toward the strong horse. He does not want to be in conflict with Russia, whatever that means for Russia’s ability to crush nearby states that the U.S. has promised to protect. Obama’s foreign policy suffers from Yalta syndrome.

And it’s the reason for what was really the centerpiece of Baker’s Times article on Obama’s unrealistic foreign policy: ISIS and the war on terror. Here’s how the article begins:

Under the original plan, this was to be the State of the Union address in which President Obama would be able to go before the nation and declare that he had fulfilled his vow to end two overseas wars. Only the wars did not exactly cooperate.

Mr. Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq in 2011 and ordered all “combat forces” out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But before he could seize the mantle of peacemaker in Tuesday night’s speech, the rise of a terrorist group called the Islamic State prompted Mr. Obama to send forces back to Iraq, and security challenges in Afghanistan led him to leave a slightly larger residual force.

The total American military commitment overseas has shrunk significantly since Mr. Obama took office, with just 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, down from 180,000 six years ago. The situation in both countries, however, is not as clean or as settled as the president had hoped. Instead of ending American wars abroad, he now faces the prospect of finishing his presidency in two years with at least one of them still unresolved.

Even that understates it just a bit, but it’s mostly on-target. If the president ended or almost ended the two long wars the U.S. military has been engaged in, why isn’t he a peacemaker? The standard answer, which is correct but not quite complete, is that ending a war isn’t the same thing as winning a war; if you leave the job unfinished, it will be almost impossible to credibly pretend otherwise.

But it’s also because of the particular age in which Obama was elected to be that very peacemaker. Terrorism has long been with us, but 9/11 did change our recognition of the threat and thus our posture toward it. Land wars feel like a relic–even though Russia is proving they still occur, and will continue to occur. Asymmetric warfare, however, is much more difficult to avoid, as events both in the U.S. and especially in Europe of late have shown.

The spread of ISIS has nudged Obama even more into the arms of the country he sees as the Muslim world’s strong horse: Iran. We are now aligned with Iran’s client in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, a man the president previously insisted must be deposed from power. And we are in pursuit of the same near-term goal in Iraq: the defeat of ISIS.

And Obama has made it quite clear he intends to kick the nuclear can down the road far enough for it to be his successor’s problem (just as he, to be fair, inherited it from his predecessor). What he doesn’t want is conflict with Iran. If that means chaos in Yemen and slaughter in Syria while Iran gets away with exporting revolutionary terror–well, it is what it is. And if that means Iran displacing some of the hard-earned American influence in Iraq–well, what can you do. And if that means continuing to consign Lebanon to Hezbollah’s control, or trying not to pay much attention to another of Iran’s enemies dropping dead in a foreign country–you get the point.

The Georgians watching South Ossetia apprehensively are paying attention. Surely so are the states in China’s near abroad. For that matter, Poland too is getting nervous. They know a Yalta when they see one.

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Obama Makes Clear: No Foreign-Policy Recalibration Coming

Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

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Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

This focus is perhaps understandable given that the economy is looking up and Obama wants to claim credit, whereas there isn’t much to claim credit for in foreign affairs. Mainly Obama tried to claim credit for what he isn’t doing–“Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

This was, once again, a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his current critics, such as Senator John McCain, implying that they are warmongers. The implication became even clearer in the section where he promised to veto further sanctions on Iran: “Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

Obama is right that he has avoided repeating Bush’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he’s made his own, allowing Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen to spin out of control. All of those countries are consumed in violent civil wars where America’s enemies, both Shiite and Sunni, are gaining ground. Obama was just flat-out wrong to claim that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance.” ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State may be stopped in Iraq but it hasn’t been rolled back, much less “destroyed,” and in Syria it hasn’t even been stopped–it’s been gaining ground since the U.S. began dropping bombs back in August.

Not surprisingly Obama omitted any mention of Somalia or Yemen, which in September he had cited as a model for fighting ISIS. That model is looking like an Edsel amid recent reports that the Houthis, a Shiite militia backed by Iran, have overrun Yemen’s capital.

Nor, predictably, did Obama make any mention of Boko Haram, which has carved out its own Islamist caliphate in Nigeria much like the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Remember when Michelle Obama joined the hashtag campaign to #BringBackOurGirls? Neither does her husband. The girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has been killing thousands of people but it did not merit a mention in the address.

Also ignored was the U.S.-aided campaign to combat the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army–a campaign that resulted in U.S. Special Forces capturing top commander Dominic Ongwen, but that has not led to the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony who was the subject of another hashtag campaign (#Kony2012). In fact the only mention of Africa was a well-deserved shout-out “to our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola, saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease.”

Likewise Asia–once a key area for the administration, which touted its Pacific Pivot–all but disappeared from the address. No mention of “rebalancing” our military commitments–only an anodyne sentence about how “in the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”

Ultimately what was missing from the State of the Union is any hint that Obama is prepared to rethink the “lead from behind” policies that have diminished American power and made the world–especially the Middle East–a much more dangerous place. There was no sign that, a la Jimmy Carter, this president had been mugged by reality and would become a born-again hawk. Instead he sounded confident, energetic, even arrogant in defending his (failed) record. Any recalibration of American foreign policy, it is clear, is at least two years away. That’s a long time given how dangerous the world looks right now.

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Obama’s White Flag On Assad a Gift for Iran

As anyone who has heard President Obama discuss his opposition to more sanctions being placed on Iran knows, the White House is deeply disturbed at the notion of the United States doing anything to disturb those who run the Islamist regime. Thus, the news that the United States is signaling what may be the formal end of its opposition to Bashar Assad’s rule over Syria must be seen in the context of a general American push for détente with that dictator’s allies in Tehran. This is bad news for the people of Syria who are seeking an alternative to Assad’s murderous rule–other, that is, than the ISIS terrorists. But it is very good news for the Iranians who are pleased about the way the rise of ISIS has led to a de facto alliance on the ground between the U.S. and Iran’s allies Assad and Hezbollah in the effort to fight ISIS. This has led not only to a tacit green light for Assad to go on killing Syrians but also for negotiations that seemed fated to grant a Western seal of approval for Iran’s aspiration to become a threshold nuclear power.

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As anyone who has heard President Obama discuss his opposition to more sanctions being placed on Iran knows, the White House is deeply disturbed at the notion of the United States doing anything to disturb those who run the Islamist regime. Thus, the news that the United States is signaling what may be the formal end of its opposition to Bashar Assad’s rule over Syria must be seen in the context of a general American push for détente with that dictator’s allies in Tehran. This is bad news for the people of Syria who are seeking an alternative to Assad’s murderous rule–other, that is, than the ISIS terrorists. But it is very good news for the Iranians who are pleased about the way the rise of ISIS has led to a de facto alliance on the ground between the U.S. and Iran’s allies Assad and Hezbollah in the effort to fight ISIS. This has led not only to a tacit green light for Assad to go on killing Syrians but also for negotiations that seemed fated to grant a Western seal of approval for Iran’s aspiration to become a threshold nuclear power.

It must be acknowledged that at this point the United States has no good options open to it on Syria. If the U.S. had acted swiftly to aid moderate opponents to the Assad regime after the Arab Spring protests began, it might have been possible to topple Assad, something that would have been a telling blow to Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. But President Obama was characteristically unable to make a decision about what to do about it for years despite continually running his mouth about how Assad had to go. By the time he was ready to strike—after Assad crossed a “red line” enunciated by the president about his use of chemical weapons against his own people—the moderate option looked less attractive. The president quickly backed down and punted the task of cleaning up the chemical weapons to Assad’s Russian ally.

Even worse, after Obama’s precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and inaction on Syria led to the rise of ISIS terrorists, Washington seemed more interested in using this crisis as an excuse to make common cause with Iran than in actually fighting the Islamist group. Thus, while U.S. air attacks on ISIS have barely made a dent in the terrorists’ grip on control of much of Syria and Iraq, the administration is signaling enthusiasm for Russian and United Nations-sponsored diplomatic events that will effectively doom a framework agreed to by the West last year in Geneva by which Assad would be forced to yield power.

The administration will defend this switch as something that will aid the effort to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands. They also justify the tacit alliance with Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield as the only possible option available to those who wish to combat ISIS. At this point with non-Islamist Syrian rebels effectively marginalized and the battlefield dominated by the Iran/Hezbollah/Assad alliance and their ISIS foes, forcing Assad out may no longer be an option.

But the chain of events that led to this American move to allow Assad to survive despite his crimes must now be viewed from a different perspective than merely one of Obama’s Hamlet routine on difficult issues.

The decision to gradually back away from the president’s campaign pledge to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program and to engage in negotiations aimed at granting Tehran absolution for its ambitions will, if it results in an agreement, at best make Iran a threshold nuclear power. A weak nuclear deal will further buttress Iran’s hopes for regional hegemony by which it will further threaten moderate regimes and strengthen its Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist allies.

It’s not clear yet whether the Iranians will ever sign a nuclear agreement with the U.S. or if, instead, it will continue to run out the clock on the talks. That’s something that the president’s zeal for a deal may permit because he refuses to admit failure or pressure the Iranians as Congress would like him to do by toughening sanctions in the event the talks collapse.

But what we do know now is that this administration’s Syria policy must now be viewed through the prism of its infatuation with the idea of, as the president put it last month, letting “Iran get right with the world.”

Options for getting rid of the butcher Assad may be few these days. But the American white flag acknowledging his continued reign of terror is more than merely an admission that he can’t be pushed out of Damascus. It must now be understood as part of a comprehensive policy that is aimed at appeasing Iran. That presents a danger not only to the oppressed people of Syria but to every other nation in the region, including both moderate Arabs and Israel, who are targets of Iran’s predatory ambition.

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Hezbollah Is Neither Reformed nor Moderate

No doubt, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has taken Sunni sectarianism and extremism to a new level, but that doesn’t make Hezbollah, a group which prior to 9/11 was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization, either moderate or a partner. And, yet, that’s exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry effectively believe. And the farther left on the American political spectrum one goes, the worse the love affair with Hezbollah becomes. Zaid Jilani, a blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization affiliated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that “Hezbollah is socially progressive and always has been.” This, of course, is nonsense.

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No doubt, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has taken Sunni sectarianism and extremism to a new level, but that doesn’t make Hezbollah, a group which prior to 9/11 was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization, either moderate or a partner. And, yet, that’s exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry effectively believe. And the farther left on the American political spectrum one goes, the worse the love affair with Hezbollah becomes. Zaid Jilani, a blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization affiliated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that “Hezbollah is socially progressive and always has been.” This, of course, is nonsense.

It’s useful to remember just what Hezbollah is about. Hezbollah is not, by any means, progressive. Its loyalty, both politically and religiously, is to the philosophy and theology espoused by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. Visit Mleeta, Hezbollah’s answer to Disneyland, tour Hezbollah cave networks and above their bedrolls are posters of their Khomeini, their source of emulation. Nor is Hezbollah a Lebanese nationalist organization, as some journalists and diplomats claim. A Lebanese nationalist organization would not have turned its guns on fellow Lebanese in Beirut in 2008, nor would it have sent hundreds if not thousands of young Lebanese to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Then, of course, there’s Hezbollah’s genocidal ideology. On October 23, 2002, the Daily Star, Lebanon’s premier newspaper, quoted Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as declaring, “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” Such anti-Semitism was the rule rather than the exception. Whereas many anti-Semites couch their hatred of Jews in anti-Zionism, Nasrallah had no patience for such word-smithing. “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli,” he reportedly declared. Even, if as some suggest, that quote actually came from another member of the Hezbollah hierarchy, the point remains the same. Then, of course, on Hezbollah’s television channel Al-Manar, he declared that the Jews are the “grandsons of apes and pigs.”

In 2000, Israel withdrew from territory it had occupied in 1982, a withdrawal the United Nations certified as complete. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has refused to recognize the border, claiming not only Har Dov (in Arabic, the Shebaa Farms), territory which Israel technically occupied from Syria and which was reflected as Syrian on a map on Lebanese currency, but also seven villages in Israel’s Galilee, towns which have been Israeli since the Jewish state’s independence. If Israel withdrew from these villages, expect Hezbollah to claim Haifa has always been Lebanese as well. After all, when diplomats prefer a lie and quiet to truth and conflict, why not keep pushing for more concessions?

In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah went to war after Hezbollah attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Such actions were done at the behest not of Lebanon’s elected leaders or its people, but rather to please Hezbollah’s paymasters in Tehran. That war ended with an international pledge to ensure Hezbollah’s disarmament. Well, Hezbollah has once again illustrated that United Nations and European Union guarantees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed. On January 14, al-Manar broadcast Nasrallah’s claim that Hezbollah has “every conceivable type of weapon” and that Hezbollah’s new weapons will “break the Israeli national morale and immunity during an upcoming war.” And here is Nasrallah, going further, and talking about his organization’s preparedness to enter Galilee. So how is it that internationally-certified withdrawal from territory will bring peace?

Back to Obama and Kerry. Sure, the Islamic State is an adversary (one that deserves a real strategy to counter and not simply symbolic and ineffective opposition). But to think that Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah are somehow moderate and responsible partners is not naïveté; it is gross incompetence, a mistake that betrays Israel, America’s Arab allies, and U.S. security itself, and will have long-term implications throughout the region. Having allowed Syria to fester and metastasize, it will be impossible to bring peace to that country anytime soon. But, make no mistake: the enemy is not simply Sunni extremists, but extremists of any sect whatsoever. Forget the adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this battle, the enemies are not limited to a single side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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