Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

ISIS’s Rise Means 2016 May Be a Foreign-Policy Election

In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

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In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

As our Max Boot termed it, Obama’s proposal for authorizing U.S. actions against terrorists in the Middle East is “a classic muddle.” By attempting to balance the administration’s allergic reaction to a U.S. commitment that might actually defeat ISIS while providing a legal basis for its ongoing half-hearted efforts, the president has provoked criticism from both the right and the left. But rather than being a compromise that makes sense, it merely confirms for those who weren’t already convinced that the president has no real strategy for eliminating ISIS or even for significantly “degrading” it.

It’s not clear what exactly will come out of the Congress as both House and Senate leaders struggle to come up with a formula that makes more sense than the administration’s attempt to set up one with limitations that ensures the U.S. can’t prevail in the conflict. But while his critics may demand that the president demonstrate that he has a path to victory over ISIS, they have very little leverage over his choices. No matter the outcome of the votes on a force authorization, nothing can make the president prosecute this war with conviction. Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly showing signs that the president is more interested in making common cause with Iran than in actually rolling back ISIS’s vast territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. That means the connection between Obama’s equivocal approach to the nuclear talks with Iran is not only worrisome in and of itself but a sign of an overall strategy in which the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and obtaining regional hegemony in return for cooperation against ISIS.

All this makes it even more important than it normally might be that potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have more to say about foreign policy than platitudes. In 2008 the presidential contest—or at least the Democratic nomination that year—was essentially decided on the basis of Barack Obama’s adamant opposition to the Iraq war. Yet every new ISIS atrocity and terror attack is going to make it harder for anyone—whether on the right or the left—to run on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the Middle East or to avoid conflicts.

For Democrats, this might make it even harder for those outliers with the temerity to challenge the Hillary Clinton juggernaut to get some traction by outflanking her on the left with another anti-war campaign. For Republicans, the more attention paid to ISIS murders of Americans, the harder it will be for Rand Paul to break out from the ideological box that his libertarian isolationist base has put him.

Nevertheless, Republican candidates need to do more than merely carp at Obama or issue ringing rhetoric about fighting terror. Unlike in 2008 and 2012, when many Americans thought they were electing a president to get them out of unpopular wars, the force authorization vote ensures that whoever wins next year will be leading a war effort that may well dominate their presidencies.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the next year, Republican candidates will be competing in primaries where they will be expected to tell us how they are prepared to beat an enemy that is, contrary to President Obama’s assurances, very much not on the run. That gives an advantage to a candidate like Senator Marco Rubio, who has been speaking with some authority on foreign policy throughout his first term in the Senate. Jeb Bush will have to also show whether his approach to foreign policy is, as some reports have indicated, a knockoff of his father’s “realist” policies that may not provide much of a contrast with Obama’s equivocations. By contrast, it puts those GOP governors that many of us have been assuming will be formidable candidates on the spot to quickly get up to speed on foreign policy. Walker is not the only one who fits in that category, but after his recent surge in the polls in Iowa, it’s obvious that if he wants to stay on top, he’s going to have to say something more than “no comment” about Iran.

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Update the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

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At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

And it is doubtful that Obama will seek to stigmatize Sudan, Darfur and Sudan’s increasing support for the Lord’s Resistance Army notwithstanding. Syria’s another call—but Obama seems to be pivoting to reconciling with Bashar al-Assad despite the brutality of the last four years. With both Khartoum and Damascus, Obama might also argue that whatever the brutality of the regimes, they have focused their repression inward and have not engaged in international terrorism. To reach such a conclusion would, of course, require cherry-picking Sudanese assistance with weapons transfers to Palestinian terrorists and Syrian-sponsored violence inside Lebanon.

Clearly, Obama is treating the State Sponsor of Terrorism list subjectively rather than objectively. To be fair, George W. Bush did likewise: The only reason why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed North Korea from the list in 2008 was to try to jumpstart diplomacy in the hope that she could provide Bush with a foreign-policy success. North Korea was no more deserving of removal than Iran would be: While Bush administration officials insisted that Pyongyang had ceased its support for terror in the 1980s, the Congressional Research Service was reporting continued ties between North Korea on one hand, and both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah on the other.

In an ideal world, there would be no state sponsors of terror, but simply waving the diplomatic wand to remove states from the list does not end terror. Indeed, the whole purpose of designation is not to hamper diplomacy but to aid it: When states are listed on objective grounds, it provides diplomatic leverage to get them to reform.

Perhaps, then, it would be useful for the State Department not only to review those states on the list like Cuba and Iran which Obama wants removed, but also other states or entities whose recent behavior suggests they deserve inclusion.

Turkey is a clear example. There is ample evidence that Turkey has smuggled arms to Boko Haram, and there is also conclusive evidence that Turkey has also armed radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and perhaps even ISIS in Syria.

Both Turkey and Qatar also overtly support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be diplomatically inconvenient to designate two U.S. allies but, then again, it should be even more inconvenient to have allies who are unrepentant sponsors of terrorist groups.

By any objective measure, Russia should also be considered a state sponsor of terrorism: Whether it is providing arms used to shoot down civilian jets, or simply providing arms to militias which indiscriminately shell civilian targets, it is clear that Russia does not abide by the rule of law.

And, of course, if the Palestinian Authority wishes to be treated as a state, one membership they deserve is designation as a terror sponsor. Despite the Oslo Accords and subsequent interim agreements, the Palestinian Authority simply has not kept its hand clean: offering salaries to convicted terrorists—men and women who fully acknowledge their role in attacks targeting civilians—is evidence enough.

While Cuba remains an autocratic, corrupt regime, it is debatable whether they still are an international terror sponsor. What is not debatable, however, is that Venezuela is. And, so long as Algeria continues to aid and support the Polisario Front almost 25 years after that Cold War relic agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco, then Algeria too deserves to be listed as a terror sponsor. Pakistan, too, for all its assistance to the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. And North Korea’s brief interlude off the list should end so long as it continues its relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, for whom it apparently still digs tunnels and builds other underground facilities.

Let’s hope that one day there will be no need for a State Sponsor of Terrorism list. But let’s also acknowledge that that day has yet to come. Alas, a true State Sponsor of Terrorism list would not include just two or three countries, but perhaps a dozen. Diplomatic sleights-of-hand might be the bread and butter of the Obama administration and State Department more broadly, but pretending terrorism has no sponsors does not actually do anything to stop terrorism. Quite the contrary, it just convinces terror sponsors in Algiers, Ankara, Caracas, Doha, Islamabad, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Ramallah that they face no accountability for their actions.

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Israel, Jordan, and the Disproportionate Response

In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

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In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

Of course Jordan had been participating in strikes against ISIS long before the kidnapping and murder of al-Kasasbeh. Back in September Jordan had joined with the Gulf states as part of the U.S.-led effort against ISIS. But since al-Kasasbeh’s horrific murder Jordan has begun to seriously flex what military muscle it has. Indeed, it is doing so in an open display of revenge against ISIS. Quite apart from the fact that many will consider such revenge a just response, it is also fully in Jordan’s national interest to push back ISIS before the rebels are able to cross the country’s porous desert border. No doubt many in the region will simply be grateful to see someone displaying the will to take serious action against ISIS and the terrible prospect that its rapid expansion represents.

Yet, watching all of this unfold one can’t help but think of the war that took place this summer shortly before allied strikes on ISIS began. The world was indeed shocked, albeit momentarily, by the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers while on their way home from school. But as Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in an attempt to find the boys and to round up Hamas operatives in the West Bank, there were already the first mutterings that Israel needed to show restraint. Concerns were expressed that Israel’s operation in the West Bank might “destabilize” the situation.

Then when a desperate Hamas short on friends and money used these events as an excuse to unleash an unprecedented wave of rocket and tunnel warfare against Israeli civilians, Israel’s allies formed a chorus calling on the Israeli government to show maximum restraint. That phrase was so chilling in its moral redundancy and yet so commonly heard that it became inspiration for a remarkably apt song by Peter Himmelman.

Fortunately, Israel ignored the calls coming from Washington and the European capitals, and acting in its national interest hit Hamas hard. But for doing so the Israelis were now subjected to another allegation; that this was a disproportionate response. Even John Kerry was unwittingly caught on camera discussing the matter in angry and condescending tones; “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation!” the secretary of state was heard saying.

The discussion around the escalation in Jordan’s war against ISIS has been unrecognizable in comparison. Even if the claim that 7,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in airstrikes is true, how many civilians have been killed alongside those fighters? Today the question of civilian casualties goes virtually unmentioned, whereas during Israel’s war with Hamas every news screen seemed to keep a running tally of the numbers killed in Gaza, always with an emphasis on the claim that these were mostly civilians, often accompanied by sneering remarks by journalists about how few Israeli casualties there had been. Not enough for the liking of those in Europe such as Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, that was for sure.

Then of course there has been the death of American hostage Kayla Mueller. ISIS had claimed she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, however the Pentagon has made clear its belief that Mueller was in fact murdered by ISIS directly. But either way, imagine if it was being claimed that an American citizen had been killed during Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. What would be the reaction then, and where would most of the blame be placed?

To be clear, Jordan is not using disproportionate force against ISIS. Proportionality is measured in terms of the amount of force legitimately warranted to militarily defeat an enemy. It does not mean that if Hamas indiscriminately fires thousands of projectiles into Israeli civilian areas then Israel should simply do the same back to Gaza. Nor that if ISIS burns a Jordanian pilot to death then Jordan is only permitted to execute one ISIS fighter. Far from it. Jordan is permitted to use the amount of force necessary to defeat ISIS, but not more.

The truth is that most people agree that ISIS should be defeated, they agree ISIS is unquestionably evil. Not so with Hamas. Similarly, almost nobody in the West questions Jordan’s right to have taken preemptive action against ISIS in the first place. But clearly very many people fiercely opposed Israel’s right to take any real action to stop the attacks being launched against its people. Rather, most of Israel’s supposed allies applied pressure to try and force Israel into stopping the rockets by appeasing Hamas’s demands.

For many it seems that the definition of disproportionate is any action taken by the Jewish state that might limit its enemy’s abilities to eventually destroy it.

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Obama’s Anti-ISIS AUMF: A Classic Muddle

Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

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Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

I refer to the president’s request to Congress to pass an Authorization for the Limited Use of Military Force (ALUMF) against ISIS. Now, the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August and the administration has been talking about how to produce an AUMF that will allow Congress to weigh in without unduly cramping the president’s options. The result of all these deliberations? A request that allows the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” So far so good: this is the kind of robust authority that the president needs to fight this band of jihadist fanatics.

But then come the limitations. First, the authority does not extend to “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground operations.” Second, the authority will expire in three years. Presumably these are sops intended to appeal to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican isolationists who are upset about the prospect of the U.S. waging “another” war in the Middle East. But do they make any sense?

The way the first restriction is worded–what the heck is an “enduring offensive ground operation” and how does it differ from a “temporary defensive ground operation”?–will, admittedly, make it largely meaningless. But still: the intent is clear and it’s to prevent the U.S. from engaging in ground combat against ISIS even if there is no good tactical alternative to such action.

Likewise the deadline–a favorite Obama limitation on the use of military force–is not as binding as it sounds. After all, if Obama has been able to fight ISIS for more than six months based on his executive authority and with no AUMF, it stands to reason that a future president could continue such action even after the AUMF expires. But the symbolism is clear–it is meant to imply that the U.S. will end its anti-ISIS operation within three years, whether that group is defeated or not.

This may be welcome to the ears of anti-war Democrats, but to our allies and enemies in the Middle East this, along with the restriction on the use of ground combat forces, sends a message of irresolution that will make it tougher for our troops to accomplish their mission.

At least we can be grateful that Obama is not seeking the repeal or rewrite of the unlimited post-9/11 AUMF against al-Qaeda, something he has been talking about doing since at least 2013. The last thing the U.S. military and intelligence community need are greater limitations on their ability to combat the monsters who burn and behead hostages.

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Give Jordan Drones

Jordan has formally requested that the United States provide it Predators for its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Alas, true to the Obama doctrine of screwing over allies at every opportunity, the United States has refused the Jordanian request.

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Jordan has formally requested that the United States provide it Predators for its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Alas, true to the Obama doctrine of screwing over allies at every opportunity, the United States has refused the Jordanian request.

This is a mistake. King Abdullah II might have seized the momentum in the current crisis after the Islamic State released a video showing it burning alive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, but as Kasasbeh’s crash shows in the first place, flying over enemy territory is always a risky endeavor. If Jordan loses another pilot in as barbaric a manner, all bets could be off with regard to the king. After all, the shifts in momentum in the fight against the Islamic State could give any observer whiplash.

It would be ironic if the Obama administration fell back over concerns regarding Israel’s qualitative military edge, given its increasing hostility to Israel’s security needs. Regardless, the qualitative military edge balance was originally crafted at a time when the security situation in the Middle East was far different: Israel faces far greater threats than a surprise Jordanian attack.

The icing on the cake, of course, is that Iran announced earlier this week that it would begin providing its own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its allies, a move calculated to erode regional security whereas providing Jordan with the equipment it needs to push back the nihilistic forces of the Islamic State would do the opposite.

It’s one thing if Obama doesn’t want the United States to lead, but is far more tragic if he actively seeks to tie the hands of American allies who are willing to step up to the plate.

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The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast

At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

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At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

There are legitimate comparisons to be made. Indeed, just as Southern slaveowners once cited the Bible to defend slavery, so now ISIS cites Islamic law to defend its own form of slavery. Just as the Spanish Inquisition once burned heretics at the stake, so now ISIS burns alive a Jordanian pilot. More broadly the religious zealotry, bloodthirstiness, and intolerance of ISIS is indeed reminiscent in many ways, as Obama noted, of the Crusades.

But then I read the actual text of his speech and saw that his message wasn’t: Christianity was once intolerant but it has now reformed itself and Islam should do likewise. That’s an important message similar to the one that Egypt’s President Sisi recently delivered when he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.

Alas, that’s not what President Obama said. What he actually said was: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

He also said: “From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.”

Neither statement is true or helpful.

When we see ISIS beheading and burning hostages, and “selling, crucifying, burying children alive,” I’d say we have every right to get on our “high horse” about that–even if Christians in centuries past committed their share of atrocities. In fact we have an obligation to get on our “high horse”–to make clear that ISIS’s conduct violates every norm of civilized behavior and will not be tolerated. To shrug our shoulders and say “everybody does it” is untrue and immoral.

And it is no more likely to succeed as a rhetorical gambit than Obama’s previous forays into moral relativism, such as his 2009 Cairo speech (which I defended at the time), in which he equated Iranian “hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” with the role the U.S. played in 1953 “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Such comparisons do not win the U.S. any friends–they don’t make the Iranian mullahs (or even the Iranian people) think what a great guy Obama is for disowning the conduct of the Eisenhower administration, just as ISIS (or even the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq) won’t think he is a great guy for disowning the conduct of the Crusaders. They just think he’s weak, that he’s unwilling to stand up and defend the United States, that he can be taken advantage of.

As for Obama’s claim that ISIS’s actions “are betraying” Islam–a claim he has made in the past–that too is a dubious statement and a presumptuous one for a non-Muslim to make. More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to be–but just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the fact–indeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.

No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world (see, for example, this article about Tunisia, which is one of the most moderate and stable corners of the Middle East), and we won’t change that fact by denying it away.

Obama’s speech reveals the fuzzy thinking behind his strategy in what used to be called “the war on terror.” Little wonder that across the greater Middle East–in countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–we are losing the struggle. If the president can’t even think clearly on these major issues, he certainly can’t act effectively.

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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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