Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

Nothing ‘Random’ About Copenhagen Attacks

Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

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Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

The Copenhagen shootings provide important context for the interview of President Obama published last week in Vox. In it, he acknowledged that it was legitimate for people to be concerned about terrorism, but he spoke of it as a secondary concern that gained headlines merely because of the lurid nature of the crimes committed by those involved. Likening his job to that of a “big city mayor” who needs to keep crime rates low, he spoke of terrorism as merely one more problem on his plate and not the most serious one. Obama not only refuses to acknowledge that the spread of ISIS in the Middle East is fueled by a form of religious fundamentalism that has strong support in the Muslim world; he also quite deliberately refused to label what happened in Paris last month an act of anti-Semitism, a stand that was echoed by the press spokespersons for both the White House and the State Department last week.

I wrote last week that, contrary to Obama, there was nothing “random” about an attack on a kosher market in Paris: the assailants were clearly seeking out a place where they could kill Jews and succeeded in that respect. The same is true of the Copenhagen shooter’s decision to attack a synagogue after spraying bullets at a café where a cartoonist who had drawn images of the Prophet Muhammad was speaking. One person was killed at the café and a Jewish voluntary security guard at the synagogue (who was there protecting the celebrants at a bat mitzvah being held at the time).

The Copenhagen attacks are one more reminder that the debate about whether there is such a thing as Islamist terrorism or if attacks on Jews are “random” isn’t about semantics. The refusal to address the religious sources of terrorism—a point on which some Arab leaders have begun to be heard—inevitably renders American efforts to do something about the problem ineffective. Just as importantly, denying the connection between this form of Islam and anti-Semitism seems to be causing the administration to also refuse to acknowledge that Jews in Europe are being targeted because of their identity and not simply due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If the U.S. were to begin to tell the truth about the Islamist roots of terror and the connection with anti-Semitism, that might be the start of a re-examination of mistaken policies that have, albeit unwittingly, led to the rise of ISIS as well as a determination to retreat from the Middle East. The administration’s obsession with creating a new détente with Iran is not merely about pulling back from a confrontation with Tehran about their nuclear-weapons program. It is part of a mindset that mistakenly views the Islamist regime’s bid for regional hegemony as no threat to the West. At the same time it also seems to regard worries about the defense of Jews, whether in an Israel threatened with extinction by Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian terror groups, or in Europe, as complications that need to be either argued down or ignored.

The West needs the sort of moral leadership from the White House that would galvanize world opinion against Islamists, whether in the form of ISIS barbarians in Syria and Iraq, Islamist tyrants in Tehran, or murderers bent on suppressing free speech and killing Jews in European cities. Instead, it has a man who provides misleading and inaccurate analogies between Islamist crimes and the history of the West while seeing himself as beset by demands to address issues of terror and anti-Semitism that don’t hold his interest. When the leader of the free world isn’t terribly interested in the need to defeat freedom’s enemies, the world must tremble.

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Why Is the U.S. Sacrificing Thailand to China?

I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

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I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

Simply put, Thailand—like Morocco, Taiwan, Colombia, Israel, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others—has consistently oriented its policies in support of ties, friendship, and alliance with the United States only to feel that the United States looks at traditional allies with disinterest if not disdain.

Simply put, under President Obama, Thailand finds itself cast aside. And while China has courted Thailand assiduously in recent years, Thailand has so far stood firm despite its rude and often poor treatment at Obama administration hands.

Part of the problem grows out of Thailand’s increasing fractious politics. In September 2006, increasingly raucous street demonstrations led the Thai military to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters took to wearing red shirts and calling themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Those behind the demonstrations which led to Thaksin’s ouster wear yellow shirts and call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Many leftists, students, rural farmers, and some businessmen support the red shirts, while the urban middle class, royalists, and nationalists support the yellow shirts. (The BBC has a useful overview of the red shirt-yellow shirt fight.)

In recent years, the red shirts supported Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won a landslide election victory in 2011. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that she had abused her power and, on May 7, 2014, ordered her to step down. She was ousted by a military coup the next day. The polarization between the red shirts and yellow shirts is quite incredible. Supporters of the two factions often do not speak to each other, and most Thais believe that further violence is inevitable. Picture the societal divisions that marked Turkey or South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bangladesh or Egypt more recently.

Many Thais breathed a sigh of relief when the military stepped in to separate the two sides. They saw the intervention not as a power grab by ambitious generals, but absolutely necessary to separate those whose political spat threatened to unleash violence which might spiral out of control and destroy any foundation for democratic development in Thailand.

Enter the United States: Many Thais complain that the U.S. Embassy is isolated and disinterested. When the coup occurred, it and the State Department more broadly wagged its finger without any understanding or suggestions of other solutions for the precipice on which Thailand found itself. All coups are bad, the State Department seemed to argue, and so it would be better for Thailand to suffer thousands of casualties in mob violence than undertake a corrective, cooling off period in which the two sides might step back. And, as in Honduras, the Obama administration’s position seemed to support left-of-center leaders willing to defy their supreme courts, rather than accept that limited military intervention might actually be necessary to enforce the constitution when a crisis occurred.

The Thai military has promised to hold new elections in October 2015, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. After all, while not ideal, there is ample precedent in Thai history of the military briefly assuming power, but only briefly, and then returning power to the people in actively contested and very legitimate elections.

The Obama administration and State Department, however, seemingly ignorant of Thai history or the consequences of mob violence in Thailand’s incredibly diverse social fabric, continues to turn its back to Thailand, its requests for support, and a nearly 200-year-old Treaty of Friendship. Enter China: China is already Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Beijing is happy to seize advantage from Obama’s diplomatic temper-tantrum to increase both its activity and influence in Thailand, much of which will come at the expense of the United States.

Thailand might not be the stuff of headlines in Washington, but the United States is in no position to willfully rebuff another alliance, sacrificed upon the noxious mix of Obama’s arrogance and ignorance. China is playing chess; Obama might as well be playing with Play-doh.

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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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We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

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In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

BuzzFeed has posted the transcript of the interview, and when the subject turns to Russia, Obama said this:

You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program.

As people pointed out immediately, Obama is wrong about Putin and the KGB. Ben Judah, a journalist who recently wrote a book on Putin’s Russia, responded: “The interesting and informative thing about Obama’s view on Putin is how uninsightful and uniformed it is.”

Putin ran the FSB–the successor agency to the KGB–and the difference matters. But what also matters is the emerging pattern for Obama’s view of the world: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The president, as Sam Cooke sang, don’t know much about history. And it’s evident in each major area of conflict the president seeks to solve and ends up only exacerbating.

It is not my intention to run down a list of all Obama’s flubs. Everybody makes mistakes, and any politician whose words are as scrutinized as the president’s is going to have their share of slip-ups. Yes, Obama is a clumsy public speaker; but that’s not the problem, nor is it worth spending much time on.

The problem is that Obama tends to make mistakes that stem from a worldview often at odds with reality. Russia is a good example. Does it matter that Obama doesn’t know the basics of Vladimir Putin’s biography and the transition of post-Soviet state security? Yes, it does, because Obama’s habit of misreading Putin has been at the center of his administration’s failed Russia policy. And it matters with regard not only to Russia but to his broader foreign policy because Obama has a habit of not listening to anyone not named Jarrett. Obama appointed among the most qualified American ambassadors ever to represent the U.S. abroad in sending Michael McFaul to Moscow. But with or without McFaul, Obama let his own naïveté guide him.

Obama has also run into some trouble with history in the Middle East, where history is both exceedingly important and practically weaponized. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is of particular relevance to the conflict. So Obama was criticized widely for undermining that legitimacy in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, puzzling even Israel’s strident leftists. The speech was harder to defend than either his remarks to BuzzFeed or Vox because such speeches are not off the cuff; they are carefully scrutinized by the administration. When Obama could say exactly what he meant to say, in other words, this is what he chose to say.

It wasn’t the only time Obama revealed his ignorance of the Middle East and especially Israeli history, of course. And that ignorance has had consequences. Obama has learned nothing from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which was reflected quite clearly in his disastrous mishandling of the negotiations and their bloody aftermath. He didn’t understand Palestinian intentions, Israeli political reality, or the lessons from when the U.S. has played a beneficial role in the conflict in the past. The president can simply move on, but Israelis and Palestinians have to pay the price for his learning curve.

And the Vox errors echo throughout the president’s mishandling of the other great security challenge: Islamic terrorism. Such terrorism has contributed a great deal to the undoing of many of the gains in Iraq and the international state system. Here, for example, is a map tweeted out last week by Ian Bremmer, which shows, in his words, “Statelessness overlapping with radical Islam.” We can certainly argue over the chicken-or-egg quality to such an overlap, but the threat radical Islamic violence poses to global order is fairly obvious.

Yet it’s not just the history of Islam and of anti-Semitism that the president gets wrong when trying to spin away the threat of Islamist terror. He also created a firestorm with his faux history of the Crusades in order to draw a false moral equivalence that only obscures the threat.

In other words, it’s a comprehensive historical ignorance. And on matters of great significance–the major world religions, the Middle East, Russia. And the president’s unwillingness to grasp the past certainly gives reason for concern with Iran as well–a country whose government has used the façade of negotiations to its own anti-American ends for long enough to see the pattern.

They’re not just minor gaffes or verbal blunders. They serve as a window into the mind of a president who acts as if a history of the world before yesterday could fit on a postcard. We talk a lot about the defects of the president’s ideology, but not about his ignorance. The two are related, but the latter is lately the one causing a disproportionate amount of damage.

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If We’re at War with ISIS, Ransoms Are Out of the Question

With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

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With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

Obama spoke of the death of Kayla Jane Mueller, the Western aid worker whose death has now been confirmed, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith in which he described the difficulty of his decision to opt for rescue rather than ransom. Even the president’s sternest critics must sympathize with him when he says that telling the families of hostages that he will not pay for their liberation is as “tough as anything I do.” He also revealed that he had ordered a rescue mission in which the U.S. reportedly deployed Delta Force commandos into Syria trying to find Mueller and other hostages held by ISIS. According to the president, the raid came a day or two late as the captives had already been moved to another location.

Obama paid tribute to Mueller and contrasted her aid work with “the barbaric organization that held her captive.” But that eulogy won’t satisfy her loved ones who care only about the fact that she is dead, whether at the hands of her captors or, as ISIS has claimed, from injuries incurred when the building in which she was held was hit by bombs dropped from Jordanian planes.

As I’ve written before about this issue, I understand the motivations of the families. Which one of us would not move heaven and earth and be prepared to do anything to save the life of a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or even a close friend? But President Obama’s responsibility is to safeguard the interests and the security of the nation and not just to one or even a few individuals in peril.

It is widely understood that ISIS’s military success has been fueled in no small measure by the profits it has made in selling hostages. If they have overplayed their hand and generated more outrage than fear by beheading Americans or burning a Jordanian prisoner alive, the terrorists have also succeeding in making kidnapping pay handsomely. The problem is not just that the more hostages that are ransomed, the more likely that other Westerners will face a similar fate. It’s that the vast sums ISIS has made in this business have been put to use funding operations that have resulted in their control of much of the territory of two nations and threatening both American security and the future of our allies.

The real point that most of those calling for Obama to relent on this policy are missing is that the West is at war with ISIS. The president is partly responsible for this misperception with his comments that treat Islamist terror as a policing problem and by his foolish refusal to speak of their motivations and purpose. ISIS and other Islamist groups are not mere violent zealots randomly killing people. Their goal is to destroy Western democracy and to force nonbelievers to accept their religious beliefs.

It is true that the U.S. has ransomed hostages before. President Reagan gained the freedom of some Americans held in Lebanon by bribing the Iranian government. Obama bought the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held by the Taliban. But as troubling as both of those examples might be, there is a difference between negotiating with a foreign government and doing an exchange of prisoners of war. Both of those decisions were mistakes, but they are not really analogous to enriching a terrorist group waging a war on the West.

Those who put themselves in harm’s way in Syria, whether out of humanitarian motives or misguided politics, did not deserve to become bargaining chips for barbarians or to be murdered by them. But the president was absolutely right to determine that the only reasonable course of action for the United States was to attempt to rescue them and not to do business with terrorists.

If the U.S. is to prevail in its war with ISIS, it will need more resolute leadership from the president, whose lack of a clear strategy or a willingness to provide a moral clarion call to action is undermining American efforts. He has erred both by refraining from a whole-hearted military campaign and by making deeply troubling statements in which he has made inaccurate analogies between the actions of ISIS and crimes committed by Christians centuries ago.

But he is right to stand his ground on ransoms. Those who are criticizing that decision are not merely wrong. They fail to grasp that in a war, giving your foes the resources they need to kill more Americans would not merely be wrong, but a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the president.

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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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Obama’s Blind Spot About Anti-Semitism

There has been a great deal of justified criticism about President Obama’s unwillingness to respond to terrorist outrages with the sort of moral leadership that can rally the West to fight back. His comments at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in which he sought to create a false moral equivalency between ISIS’s horrific burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot and the Christian West’s past sins during the Inquisition and even the Crusades have been rightly blasted for his tone-deaf approach to terrorism. The president seems so mired in his deep ambivalence about the West’s role in world history that he is unable to play his part as leader of the free world in what is, like it or not, a life-and-death struggle against truly evil forces. It is also revealed in his administration’s refusal to call Islamist terrorism by that name. But just as troubling is his unwillingness to address one of the primary characteristics of this brand of terror: anti-Semitism. In an interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, he described the terror attack on a Paris kosher market as a “random” event rather than an act of murder motivated by Jew hatred. Though it won’t get the same attention as his outrageous speech last week, it gives us just as much insight into the president’s foreign-policy mindset.

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There has been a great deal of justified criticism about President Obama’s unwillingness to respond to terrorist outrages with the sort of moral leadership that can rally the West to fight back. His comments at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in which he sought to create a false moral equivalency between ISIS’s horrific burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot and the Christian West’s past sins during the Inquisition and even the Crusades have been rightly blasted for his tone-deaf approach to terrorism. The president seems so mired in his deep ambivalence about the West’s role in world history that he is unable to play his part as leader of the free world in what is, like it or not, a life-and-death struggle against truly evil forces. It is also revealed in his administration’s refusal to call Islamist terrorism by that name. But just as troubling is his unwillingness to address one of the primary characteristics of this brand of terror: anti-Semitism. In an interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, he described the terror attack on a Paris kosher market as a “random” event rather than an act of murder motivated by Jew hatred. Though it won’t get the same attention as his outrageous speech last week, it gives us just as much insight into the president’s foreign-policy mindset.

It should be recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the Hyper Cacher market by killers associated with those who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre days earlier, President Obama also refused to call it an act of anti-Semitism. That was, in its own way, as shocking as the president’s decision to not send any high-ranking U.S. official to the Paris unity march that took place to protest the murders or to go himself as did many other Western leaders.

But official American statements that did mention anti-Semitism and the subsequent rally boycott overtook this controversy. The kerfuffle over that initial comment was soon forgotten. But the president’s return to this topic has brought that statement back to mind.

His Vox comments are, in fact, far worse than his initial reaction which was more a matter of omission than a conscious twisting of events. Here’s what the president said in response to a question about whether the media is blowing terrorist incidents out of proportion:

It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.

Let’s first note that his characterization of the assailants again omits their Islamist loyalties and the fact that religion was the motivating factor for their crime. This is consistent with administration policy that seeks to cleanse ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other Islamists of any connection with the Muslim faith. This is absurd not just because it is wrong. It also puts Obama in the position of trying to play the pope of Islam who can decide who is or is not a real Muslim, a responsibility that no American president should try to usurp.

But it is also significant that once again the president chooses to treat a deliberate targeting of a Jewish business filled with Jewish customers as something that is random rather than an overt act of anti-Semitism. Doing so once might be excused as an oversight. The second time makes it a pattern that can’t be ignored.

This is a peculiar talking point especially since the increase of anti-Semitism in Europe with violent incidents going up every year is something that even the Obama State Department has dubbed a “rising tide” of hate.

Why does the president have such a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism? His critics will jump to conclusions that will tell us more about their views of Obama than about his thinking. But suffice it to say that this is a president who finds it hard to focus on the siege of Jews in Europe or of the State of Israel in the Middle East. Nor can it be entirely coincidental that a president who treats Israeli self-defense and concerns for its security as a bothersome irritant to his foreign policy or seeks to blame the Jewish state’s leaders for obstructing a peace process that was actually blown up by the Palestinians would have a blind spot about anti-Semitism.

To address the spread of violent anti-Semitism in Europe would require the administration to connect the dots between slaughters such as the ones that took place at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher and the hate spread by the Islamists of Iran with whom Obama is so keen on negotiating a new détente. To put these awful events in a context that properly labels them an outbreak of violent Muslim Jew-hatred would require the administration to rethink its policies toward Israel as well as Iran. And that is something this president has no intention of doing.

You can’t defeat an enemy that you refuse to call by his right name. That’s why ignoring Islamism and calling ISIS and the Paris killers mere “zealots” or “extremists” not only misses the point but also hampers the West’s ability to resist them. By the same token, the omission of any discussion of anti-Semitism about an event that was an unambiguous act of Jew hatred similarly undermines the effort to strike back at such atrocities. When a president calls one of the more egregious acts of anti-Semitism in recent years a mere “random” shooting, it trivializes the victims and places the U.S. on the wrong side of the moral divide. In doing so, Obama does the nation and the cause of freedom a grave disservice.

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Do Not Ignore Egypt’s Real Security Needs

Far from being dead, or even on the defense, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are proliferating. Radical Islamists now control more territory than since the first decades of the religion. While Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dominate international headlines, the rise of radical Islamism in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might be the most threatening to immediate U.S. interests.

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Far from being dead, or even on the defense, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are proliferating. Radical Islamists now control more territory than since the first decades of the religion. While Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dominate international headlines, the rise of radical Islamism in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might be the most threatening to immediate U.S. interests.

In 2006, I attended the national convention in Cairo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). There were a number of sessions over the course of a few days. I hoped to attend a panel on Egypt and nuclear energy but when I returned to the conference center, the previous panel regarding water and infrastructure was running late. It was a heated affair. The delegates from Sinai—even more so than their counterparts from Upper Egypt and the Western Desert—were especially rowdy; they complained that Cairo systematically discriminated against them in terms of housing, water, and electricity. They slammed the government repeatedly to the point that chairing officials would cut off power to microphones and threaten to use security guards to return order to the room.

Now, such heated arguments might not seem out of place in South Korea, Taiwan, or even Israel, but Egypt was at the time effectively a one-party state, a dictatorship, and the chaos was within not parliament but inside the convention of the ruling party. Even under President Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai was a hornet’s nest.

The reason for the Sinai’s restiveness is multi-fold. Successive Egyptian governments have long ignored the region, hence their anger at the NDP convention. Then, Egyptians have always seen themselves as a civilization apart; they did not even see themselves as Arabs until the 1920 or 1930s. The Sinai, however, is largely Bedouin, and these are looked down upon if not discriminated against by the Egyptian state. Geography also plays a part. Whereas satellites now provide the chief platform for Arabic television, for decades, broadcasting was more terrestrial. Many of the Sinai Bedouins live closer to Saudi Arabia than to Cairo, and so had their world shaped more by Saudi religious programming than by Egyptian soap operas. Long story short, radicalism has long found fertile ground in the Sinai.

Immediately following Mubarak’s fall, Sinai-based radicals formed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi at best turned a blind eye toward such radicalism and at worst encouraged it. In November 2014, the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State. Its reign of terror has been considerable. It has conducted economic warfare, repeatedly blowing up the gas pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan, and also attacking Israeli border posts. Most of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’s opprobrium has been reserved for Egypt. The group attacked the interior minister’s motorcade in Cairo and, in late January, killed more than 30 Egyptian security force members in the Sinai. In recent days, the Egyptians have fought back hard, but it is no secret that if the Egyptian military should fail, security could be at risk for Suez Canal shipping, Jordan, and more broadly Egypt itself.

Where does the United States stand? The State Department designated the group a terror entity in April 2014, but hasn’t done much since. Indeed, we have more hampered Egyptian counterterrorism than advanced it, especially as the Senate slow-balled until recently Egypt’s request for helicopters to help take on the group. Israel, for its part, has been more helpful, allowing a de facto revision to the Camp David Accords to enable Egypt to send the equivalent of a mechanized division into the Sinai. Still, the White House has at best been ambivalent to Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, and the State Department has openly sought to undermine him.

This is counterproductive not only in terms of security, but also strategically as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as reticent as Obama in defending and asserting national interest, and Putin isn’t going to miss the chance to advance Russian interests in Egypt. He’s in Egypt today and tomorrow to woo Sisi. If the United States is going to turn its back on Sisi—a man who seeks to defeat terrorism and promote reform in Islam—then Putin is going to fill the gap.

Does the United States have concerns with regard to human rights in Egypt? Yes. It is ironic, however, to use those as an excuse to sink relations. Working against Sisi rather than with him will simply throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Muslim Brotherhood’s human-rights record is worse. It supported terrorist groups in Gaza and elsewhere. And its own internal pronouncements made clear its embrace of democracy was more rhetorical than real. Nor would Egypt under Russian influence solve any of the problems American officials cite as an excuse for their cool, counterproductive approach to Cairo.

When it comes to strategic suicide, there is no team better than Obama and Kerry. But when it comes to the real world, and America’s economic and security interests, as well as Washington’s desire to promote human rights and reform, there really only is one choice: Full-throated support for Sisi, his security operations in the Sinai, and a real Egyptian-American partnership.

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Rand Paul Can’t Have Best of Both Worlds

Rand Paul is on the stump in Iowa this week and, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s beating the bushes seeking to mobilize his father’s libertarian base to support his own 2016 presidential hopes. That’s smart politics for the Kentucky senator, who knows that if he can hold onto the 2012 Paulbots who turned out for his father Ron and add on to them a significant percentage of Tea Partiers and other Republican voters not attracted to other candidates, he can create a coalition that will vault him into the first tier of GOP candidates and give him an outside–but by no means insignificant–chance to win his party’s presidential nomination. But his attempt to make gestures toward what the New York Times refers to as the “middle” of the party while simultaneously winking at libertarians is telling us more about the contradiction at the heart of the Paul candidacy than about its viability.

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Rand Paul is on the stump in Iowa this week and, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s beating the bushes seeking to mobilize his father’s libertarian base to support his own 2016 presidential hopes. That’s smart politics for the Kentucky senator, who knows that if he can hold onto the 2012 Paulbots who turned out for his father Ron and add on to them a significant percentage of Tea Partiers and other Republican voters not attracted to other candidates, he can create a coalition that will vault him into the first tier of GOP candidates and give him an outside–but by no means insignificant–chance to win his party’s presidential nomination. But his attempt to make gestures toward what the New York Times refers to as the “middle” of the party while simultaneously winking at libertarians is telling us more about the contradiction at the heart of the Paul candidacy than about its viability.

As I wrote last week, Paul’s stand on vaccination revealed the main obstacle to his hopes for a libertarian coup that would topple his party’s establishment. Though he was at pains to try and show that he was personally supportive of vaccination, his rhetoric about choice and intrusive government was not just a wink in the direction of the activists who enabled his father to make respectable showings in both 2008 and especially in 2012. It was an indication that his core political philosophy remained deeply influenced by his father’s extreme libertarianism.

The same is true of his speeches this week about the need to reform the Federal Reserve and to change America’s approach to foreign policy to one less engaged in struggles overseas.

Though many Republicans are not unsympathetic to hostile rhetoric about the fed or even Ron Paul’s obsession about the Gold Standard, reviving these issues are about ginning up libertarian enthusiasm, not winning over non-libertarian conservatives. The same is true for Paul’s sounding the note of retreat from conflict in the Middle East.

In 2013 the supposed end of America’s long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fading of terrorism as an issue seemed to present a golden opportunity for Paul to mainstream his neo-isolationist foreign-policy views. Calling himself a “realist” in the mode of the first President Bush, the senator believed disillusionment with George W. Bush’s wars and suspicion about the Obama administration’s continuance of much of that last Republican president’s national-security policies would enable him to rout the establishment that had disposed of his father’s challenges with ease.

But the notion that Republicans were ever to going to embrace a foreign-policy mindset that was actually closer to that of Obama than traditional GOP stands about a strong America was always something of an illusion. The rise of ISIS as a result of Obama’s decisions to abandon America’s foreign responsibilities jolted the nation back into reality. Though most do not want another land war in Syria and Iraq, there is a growing consensus, especially among Republicans, that the current crisis is a result of a failure of leadership and vision.

Conservatives are angry about having a president who reacts to terrorist atrocities with talk about moral equivalence to the West’s past. Obama’s failure is not merely tactical as the U.S. continues to struggle to come up with a war-winning strategy for dealing with ISIS and dabbles in appeasement of Iran. It’s that he can’t articulate American values in a coherent way so as to rally the country to the task of defeating these barbarians.

Paul has his virtues, but on this point he is particularly deficient. Since his views on foreign policy reflect Obama’s lack of conviction in the rightness of America’s cause abroad, he is in no position to make a coherent critique of the administration. While other Republicans seek to provide an alternative that speaks to this glaring problem, Paul is wandering the countryside in Iowa talking about what the Journal describes as a “less bellicose” foreign policy and seeking to make it harder for U.S. intelligence to seek out terrorists, not exactly the message most people want to hear when Islamist murderers are burning people alive and beheading American hostages.

That is exactly what Ron Paul’s supporters, many of whom haven’t been too happy with Rand’s tiptoeing toward the center in the last two years, want to hear. Ron Paul’s views are, of course, far more extreme than those of his son. Paul famously greeted the Republican victory in the midterms that his son worked so hard to help achieve by warning that it would mean more “neocon” wars. But while Ron Paul’s vision of American foreign policy is a carbon copy of what might be heard on the far left and is the sort of thing that got his supporters out to the polls, such ideas are anathema to the rest of the party.

The same is true of vaccination. For libertarians, the senator’s talk of making childhood vaccinations voluntary is catnip. But for the mainstream of his party, let alone the rest of the country, this is ideological extremism that is doing real damage to public health policy.

Paul thought he could romance mainstream Republicans while holding onto his father’s backers. That may have seemed like a viable plan in 2013. The political realities of 2015 have turned it into a fantasy and made his hopes for 2016 seem much more like a long shot than he may have thought. The contradiction at the core of his candidacy is proving too great for him to resolve.

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The Crusades Weren’t the Grievance Pundits Believe

By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

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By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

The irony of the obsession with either apologizing for or avoiding mention of the Crusades is as important as they were to Christians at the time and perhaps even to broader European history, contemporary Muslims considered them little more than minor irritation.

For the Crusaders, the goal was Jerusalem. But for contemporary Muslims, while Jerusalem might have had some religious significance, Palestine—and, indeed, the entire Arab world—was a backwater. Less than three decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Umayyad dynasty shifted the seat of the Islamic empire to Damascus, and then less than nine decades later, the center of gravity for the Islamic world shifted further east to Baghdad with the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty. The great empires of the Islamic world, however, were non-Arab: The Safavids in Iran, the Ottomans in Anatolia, and the Mughals in India. It may be on the older side, but J.J. Saunders’ History of Medieval Islam is still probably the best-written, detailed, and accessible sketch of the earlier history of the Islamic world out there.

Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade in 1095, and the Crusaders managed to conquer Jerusalem four years later. The Second Crusade a few decades later failed to win Damascus. In 1187, Salahuddin—an ethnic Kurd, not an Arab—regained Jerusalem, leading European Christians to launch the Third Crusade with the aim of winning back the Holy City.

Contemporary Islamic historians, however, largely ignored this Christian campaign for a very simple reason: looming on the horizon was a far greater threat. A young Mongol tribesman—Temüjin—had already begun uniting Mongol tribes and would soon take the name Genghis Khan. As word spread of the Mongol hordes, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing ahead of his horsemen started migrating westward, slowly encroaching on the various Islamic entities that had risen up as the Abbasid dynasty. And the Muslims at the time were to be concerned, given how the Mongolian hordes swept through and conquered Baghdad just a few decades later, shortly after the Seventh Crusade.

Now, perception today is more important than reality. The more the West self-flagellates with regard to the Crusades, the more Islamists feign grievance and claim victimization. The historical truth, however, is different. If any group of people should walk on egg shells, they live in Ulan Bator, not Washington, Paris, London, or Berlin. And even those people–as well as their victims–are so many centuries removed that either outrage or guilt would be nonsense.

Context matters in other ways as well. Even if the Crusades have assumed heightened importance in the Islamist narrative only in recent decades, Many histories of the Islamic world begin in the sixth century when Muhammad was born, or the seventh century when Muhammad began receiving revelations. Arbitrarily starting a narrative with the rise of Islam, however, limits context. This is why Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, wrote The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He consciously wanted to provide rather than ignore Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian context to the region. Islam did not arise upon a blank slate. To begin the narrative of grievance with the First Crusade—and depicting that episode as an unprovoked Christian attack on Islam which started tit-for-tat violence which continues to the present—is artificial and arbitrary. The initial Islamic invasions of Egypt and North Africa were an attack on the Byzantine Empire and other Christian communities. In the centuries before the Crusades, there was constant raiding from Islamic communities into Europe and vice versa. Muslim armies invaded Spain, briefly took Sicily, and tried to take Malta.

So Obama might wring his hands at the violence of the Crusades and might draw comparisons to downplay the malign exegesis which enables the Islamic State to enslave and rape Yezidi girls, burn churches, or burn alive captives. But when it comes to grievances over the Crusades, he and others should remember: Offense over the Crusades is more a modern phenomenon than based in the reality of Islamic history.

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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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Abbas and Charlie Hebdo: More Hypocrisy

Last month, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a prominent participant in the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the slaughter at a kosher market. At the time, I noted the immense hypocrisy in having a figure who has engaged in Holocaust denial and who has also, even in the last few months, engaged in anti-Semitic incitement participate in such at an event. But weeks later we are learning that the disconnect between the symbolism of Abbas’s visible role in that unique moment and what he and his government are doing is even greater than we thought.

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Last month, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a prominent participant in the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the slaughter at a kosher market. At the time, I noted the immense hypocrisy in having a figure who has engaged in Holocaust denial and who has also, even in the last few months, engaged in anti-Semitic incitement participate in such at an event. But weeks later we are learning that the disconnect between the symbolism of Abbas’s visible role in that unique moment and what he and his government are doing is even greater than we thought.

As today’s New York Times reports, Abbas has punished an editor of a PA publication that printed a cartoon that some readers thought might depict the Prophet Mohammed.

Mr. Abbas said it was necessary to take “deterrent measures against those responsible,” Wafa reported. Ali Khalaf, an editor at the newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, said on Tuesday that the cartoonist and the editor in chief of the paper had been suspended.

The cartoonist, Muhammed Sabaaneh, claimed that his drawing was meant to depict a Muslim who follows the message of Islam, not to depict the prophet himself. It was instead, “a symbolic figure for Islam and the Muslim’s role in spreading light and love for all humanity.” But if he thought that sort of thing would be accepted in a Palestinian media that routinely publishes articles and cartoons that demonize Jews and Israel, he was mistaken.

Of course, this isn’t the only indication that Abbas’s participation in the Parisian kumbaya moment was a farce. Weeks later, his Fatah Party issued a call for more “resistance” against Israelis, a code word for violence, and a hint that most Palestinians generally don’t need. Last fall, when Abbas and the PA incited Palestinians to attack Israelis in retaliation for the efforts by a few Jews to obtain equal prayer rights on the Temple Mount, there was no shortage of volunteers. For their pains, Abbas praised one attempted murderer as a “martyr” who went straight to heaven.

Why is Abbas pandering to such base sentiments? The answer came in part from a survey conducted in January by the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency which revealed that 84 percent of those queried believe that Israel was behind the Paris attacks rather than Islamist terrorists. While deplorable, this is hardly surprising since, as Palestine Media Watch notes, the official PA press has been filled with articles claiming this to be the case. In fact the same paper that Abbas punished for publishing the supposedly offensive cartoon ran a piece claiming that Israel benefited from the crime and therefore must be held responsible for it.

That the PA is responsible for incitement is nothing new. Nor is this the first Abbas (currently serving the 10th year of a four-year term as president of the PA) has been directly involved in dictatorial behavior. But what is remarkable about this is the fact that those who celebrated Abbas’s participation in the Paris rally and lionize him as a genuine partner for peace have nothing to say about his post-march behavior.

Yet these incidents are significant, not because they demonstrate Abbas’s hypocrisy or the moral bankruptcy of the PA kleptocracy over which he presides. Rather, they are important because they illustrate that the pose of moderation that he puts on for the Western press and American and European consumption has nothing to do with the way he governs the West Bank. Those who continue to push for a revival of a peace process that Abbas has continually snubbed and blown up after his repeated refusals of peace offers must ignore the truth about him. If they acknowledged the reality of Abbas’s conduct it would compel them to admit how wrongheaded their assumptions about Palestinian intentions and Israeli culpability for the lack of peace truly are.

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Charting the Arc of Obama’s “Jayvee Team”

“A former deputy director of the CIA said on ‘CBS This Morning’ Wednesday that it would take 100,000 ground troops to effectively respond to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. ‘Unless the coalition is willing to put more ground troops into Iraq and possibly into Syria, there is very little we can do to respond,’ said CBS News senior security contributor Michael Morell, the former No. 2 at the CIA [under President Obama]. Morell made the comments following ISIS’ release of a video Tuesday purportedly showing captive Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death. The killing led Jordanian officials to execute two Iraqi al Qaeda-linked prisoners.” — “Fight against ISIS needs troops to be effective, Michael Morell says,” CBS News, February 4, 2015

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“A former deputy director of the CIA said on ‘CBS This Morning’ Wednesday that it would take 100,000 ground troops to effectively respond to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. ‘Unless the coalition is willing to put more ground troops into Iraq and possibly into Syria, there is very little we can do to respond,’ said CBS News senior security contributor Michael Morell, the former No. 2 at the CIA [under President Obama]. Morell made the comments following ISIS’ release of a video Tuesday purportedly showing captive Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death. The killing led Jordanian officials to execute two Iraqi al Qaeda-linked prisoners.” — “Fight against ISIS needs troops to be effective, Michael Morell says,” CBS News, February 4, 2015

*  *  *  *

“The United Arab Emirates, a crucial Arab ally in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, suspended airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in December, citing fears for its pilots’ safety after a Jordanian pilot was captured and who the extremists said had been burned to death, United States officials said Tuesday.” — “United Arab Emirates, Key U.S. Ally in ISIS Effort, Disengaged in December,” New York Times, February 3, 2015

*  *  *  *

“ISIS is going on the offensive in areas of strategic importance for the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and Iranian-backed militias to deny such forces freedom of movement between Samarra and its environs and the eastern Anbar front.” — “Iraq Situation Report,” The Institute for the Study of War, February 2, 2015

*  *  *  *

“The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has begun to expand its presence in the Syrian central corridor which stretches from the Jordanian border through Damascus to the central cities of Homs and Hama. The ‘central corridor’ is highly-contested key terrain for both the Syrian regime and its armed opposition, while ISIS presence has generally been limited in the area until recently… Over the past two months, ISIS has once again escalated its military and public relations activities in this area, threatening to divert both regime and rebel resources away from active fronts in the Damascus area in order to contend with the ISIS threat. This development may provide an indicator of ISIS’s broader expansion plans in western Syria and the potential response of Syrian opposition fighters to this expansion” — “The Islamic State Eyes Expansion in Damascus,” The Institute for the Study of War Syria Update, January 20, 2015

*  *  *  *

‘“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIS], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,’ Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. ‘I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.’” — President Obama, quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

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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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