Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yemen

Help Yemen? For Obama, Iran Détente Always Wins

When Americans heard on Monday that the United States had diverted two capital ships from their stations in the Persian Gulf to new positions off of Yemen, it sounded as if the Obama administration was finally displaying signs of getting tough with Iran. The movement of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the Normandy, a missile cruiser, was, the Pentagon said, an effort to enforce a blockade of the coast of that war-torn country so as to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels. The move seemed to indicate that American policy was torn between two goals: engagement with Iran via concessions on their nuclear program versus the need to stop the Islamist regime’s terrorist auxiliaries from toppling governments as part of Tehran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony. But yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf poured a bucket of cold water on any hopes that the administration was wising up when she said the U.S. ships were only in the area, “to ensure the shipping lanes remain safe” and not to intercept an Iranian arms convoy heading to the Houthis. So much for getting tough with Iran.

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When Americans heard on Monday that the United States had diverted two capital ships from their stations in the Persian Gulf to new positions off of Yemen, it sounded as if the Obama administration was finally displaying signs of getting tough with Iran. The movement of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the Normandy, a missile cruiser, was, the Pentagon said, an effort to enforce a blockade of the coast of that war-torn country so as to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels. The move seemed to indicate that American policy was torn between two goals: engagement with Iran via concessions on their nuclear program versus the need to stop the Islamist regime’s terrorist auxiliaries from toppling governments as part of Tehran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony. But yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf poured a bucket of cold water on any hopes that the administration was wising up when she said the U.S. ships were only in the area, “to ensure the shipping lanes remain safe” and not to intercept an Iranian arms convoy heading to the Houthis. So much for getting tough with Iran.

What’s going on here? Not for the first time during the Obama presidency, the State Department and the Pentagon seem to be sending conflicting messages.

The Pentagon told reporters that the ships sent to the waters off Yemen were conducting “manned reconnaissance” of the Iranian arms convoy, which would seem to indicate that the Navy was prepared to halt the effort to resupply the Houthis in their effort to fend off the Saudi and Egyptian-backed effort to stop their takeover of Yemen. But the State Department was sending the opposite message with their talk of defending freedom of the seas.

Any mystery about which of the two departments was correct was resolved by White House spokesman Josh Earnest who backed State’s interpretation of events by using the same language about protecting commerce.

Let’s be clear here. U.S. ships have been in the region for decades to protect the freedom of the seas primarily from Iranian threats to interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf. But the presence of Iranian vessels off Yemen is about something else. The only point to sending American warships there is to put a halt to Iran’s efforts to replace Yemen’s government with one beholden to Tehran. If the Roosevelt and the Normandy aren’t going to stop the Iranian arms convoy then the move was nothing more than a transparent bluff and one that is unlikely to impress the ayatollahs as they push the envelope seeking to test American resolve.

While Earnest said that the U.S. was interested in tracking arms shipments to the Houthis, the problem for the coalition fighting these Iranian allies isn’t so much intelligence about Tehran’s efforts as it is the need to actually stop them. Perhaps the administration hoped the mere presence of a powerful U.S. flotilla in the area would cause the Iranians to turn back. But by making it clear that U.S. forces won’t directly interfere with them, why should we expect that to happen?

Yemen is where two U.S. strategies came into direct conflict with each other. Washington doesn’t want Iran’s friends to take over Yemen. But it also is desperate to do nothing that would upset the Iranians and cause them to walk away from a weak nuclear deal that President Obama believes will be a legacy-making achievement. With the apparent order to U.S. ships off Yemen to stand down from any effort to halt the Iranian convoy, the president is indicating that the nuclear deal takes precedence over any other American goal.

This is just one more indication that the primary goal of the nuclear negotiations is not so much to stop Iran from getting a bomb as it is to create a new era of détente with the Islamist regime. By making concession after concession to Iran on its right to enrich uranium and to keep its nuclear infrastructure without intrusive inspections, the president has jettisoned the West’s economic and political leverage over Tehran in favor of a belief that good relations with it is the primary objective of U.S. policy in the region. He is not about to waste years of ardent pursuit of the Iranians at the price of every position he pledged to defend on the nuclear issue merely in order to stabilize Yemen. Nor is he inclined to order military action in the waters off of Yemen merely to placate the Saudis and Egyptians who view the Iranian-backed Houthis as a threat to regional security.

This episode also ought to inform our expectations about the final phase of negotiations with Iran as the nuclear deal is finalized in the next two months. Though the U.S. opposes Iran’s intervention in Yemen, the victory of the State Department over the Pentagon on the use of the Navy illustrates that nothing will be allowed to derail the new entente with Iran that Obama so values. This will give the Iranians all the confidence they need to stand firm on every outstanding issue, including inspections, transparency about their military research, and the disposition of their stockpile of nuclear fuel.

This is good news for the Islamist regime and very bad news for America’s allies in the region that hoped that President Obama wouldn’t abandon them even as he sought a nuclear deal.

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The Ineffective Campaign in Yemen

Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

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Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

The Saudis have been bombing rather freely, killing by UN estimates more than 600 people, at least half of them civilians. On March 31, for example, Saudi bombs hit a dairy factory killing 31 civilians, the kind of mistake that would be greeted with global outrage if it were committed by the Israeli Air Force but it is met with polite silence when it’s the Saudis.

Alas, while the Saudis are doing an efficient job of killing civilians (and thereby no doubt driving their relatives into the Houthis’ arms), there is little evidence that they are being effective in stopping the Houthis. Instead, the primary impact of their aerial campaign seems to be to create space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its sphere of control. To be sure, the U.S. continues to fly drones, now from Saudi soil, that continue to kill AQAP leaders. But that makes little difference on the ground where, with the disintegration of central authority, there is no longer an effective counterweight to AQAP.

As the New York Times reports: “Al Qaeda’s adversaries in Yemen are largely in disarray or distracted by other fighting. Military units have melted away or put up little resistance as Al Qaeda has advanced. The Houthis, a militia movement from northern Yemen that is considered Al Qaeda’s most determined foe, have been preoccupied with battles against rival militias across the country, and their fighters have been battered by aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which is trying to restore the exiled government to power.”

As a result AQAP is on the march. The Times again: “Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.”

Yemen, in short, is a mess and getting worse. And the U.S. role—carrying out a few drone strikes, while providing intelligence to the Saudis to facilitate their own bombing—seems to be almost entirely irrelevant. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.” But while the White House may be uneasy, there is no sign it is formulating a different strategy.

All of this is of a piece with the overall state of the war on terror: Both Shiite and Sunni jihadists are advancing across the Arab world while the U.S. fumbles for a response. Perhaps the next administration will formulate a more effective strategy, but unfortunately we can’t afford to wait more than 21 months before doing something about worsening conditions in this strategically vital region.

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Iran Funds the Building of New Terror Tunnels for Hamas

President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

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President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

As Britain’s Daily Telegraph reports:

Iran has sent Hamas’s military wing tens of millions of dollars to help it rebuild the network of tunnels in Gaza destroyed by Israel’s invasion last summer, intelligence sources have told The Sunday Telegraph. It is also funding new missile supplies to replenish stocks used to bombard residential neighbourhoods in Israel during the war, code-named Operation Protective Edge by Israel.

Much like the White House’s determination to ignore everything the Iranians have continued to say about eliminating Israel, not to mention its history of violating commitments, this effort isn’t influencing the administration’s determination to press ahead with the nuclear agreement. Everything that might distract us from embracing the possibility that Iran is changing and will use its nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is deemed irrelevant to the issue at hand by the president and his defenders. So no one should think the thought of Iran directly attempting to foment a new war between Israel and Hamas will lessen the president’s enthusiasm for what he clearly believes to be a legacy achievement.

But those who, unlike President Obama, are not already besotted with the notion of détente with Iran should think very seriously about what this means for the future of the Middle East.

Even if the Iranians observe the rather loose limits on their nuclear ambitions and do not cheat their way to a bomb—as they could easily do given their continued possession of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile—it must be understood that the deal makes their eventual possession of a bomb inevitable once the agreement expires. But even if we are to, as the administration demands, ignore this certainty, we must confront just how much the economic boost the deal will give its economy and the legitimacy it will grant the regime will impact its efforts to spread its influence and sow the seeds of conflict between Arab and Jew as well as Sunni and Shia.

It is one thing to claim, as President Obama does, that he got the best deal with Iran that was possible. On its face, that assertion can sound reasonable even if it is given the lie by the fact that he spent the last two years discarding all of his political and economic leverage over the Islamist regime and making endless concessions that make it a threshold nuclear power. But it is not much of a secret that the president sees his diplomatic efforts as having a larger goal than a technical and rather insubstantial check on the nuclear program that he pledged to dismantle in his 2012 reelection campaign.

The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to end the 36 years of strife between Iran and the West that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the theocratic regime to power. After decades of supporting terrorism against the West and threatening Israel’s destruction, the president is laboring under the delusion that what he has done is to open up a chance for a true rapprochement with Iran. That’s the argument some of his cheerleaders like the New York Times’s Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof have been making. They have long campaigned for changing the West’s view of Iran from that of a rigid, tyrannical, aggressive, and anti-Semitic regime to one that Americans can feel comfortable doing business with and embracing. The images of a kind, friendly Iran these writers and others like them have worked so hard to promote is based on the notion that the differences between the countries are just politics. The president’s own assertions about Iran being a “complicated” country that is on some levels no different from the United States echoes these disingenuous claims.

But while Iran has political factions that contend for influence and is populated by many nice people who might want to be kind to visiting Americans, none of this changes the fact that its government and military have very different intentions. The real Iran is not the picture postcard version writers like Cohen and Kristof give us but the cold hard facts of Iranian arms shipments and financial support for terrorists in Gaza and its auxiliaries in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. None of those “complicated” factions disagree about war on Israel or their nuclear goals.

This agreement will not just empower Iran’s nuclear efforts but will strengthen the regime economically in such a way as to make its replacement by more moderate forces unthinkable.

While Americans dream of an entente with exotic Persia, Iran’s leaders are busy preparing the way for violence. The Gaza terror tunnels and missiles are just the tip of the iceberg of Iranian efforts. The American seal of approval that the deal will give will make it easier for them to spread their influence, further isolating and endangering both moderate Arab governments and Israel. That is the cold, hard reality of Iranian power that defenders of this effort to appease Tehran must take into account. Senators pondering whether to vote to give themselves the right to approve the deal should be focused on events in Gaza and Yemen and not just the president’s empty promises about a new era of hope and change in the Middle East.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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Was the Houthi Takeover in Yemen Inevitable?

Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

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Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

The Houthis, of course, have not always been Iranian proxies. Just a few years ago, the Iranian press largely ignored them. They might have been Shi‘ite, but they were Zaydi rather than Twlever Shi‘ites. Theologically, this means that they diverged in their recognition of who was the rightful Imam somewhere toward the end of the seventh century AD. In reality, while technically Shi‘ite, the Houthis have long hewn closer to the Sunnis in terms of jurisprudence. When I bumped into a Houthi delegation in Karbala, Iraq, late last fall, some joked that they were there to get up to speed on the Shi‘ite credentials they had lacked for centuries.

That said, it’s hard to deny Iranian influence among the Houthis, circa 2015 at least. When looking back over the past few months, the rise of the Houthis to their current position seems far from inevitable. The Houthis waited several weeks on the outskirts of Sana’a before taking the capital in September 2014. Even then, however, they waited several months before staging the coup against Hadi, never mind driving southward toward Aden.

Many analysts have compared the Houthis to Lebanese Hezbollah. They are both members of the Shi‘ite minority within their respective countries, but have accepted Iranian largesse and training and, apparently, at times command and control. There are major differences, of course. The Houthis are far from as disciplined and organized as Hezbollah although, to be fair, Hezbollah has more than a 30-year head start on that. Nor did Hezbollah ever try to digest the whole country as it appears the Houthis now aspire, at least since late January.

The Houthis probably never imagined getting this far. At first, it seemed as if the Houthis were simply taking a page from Hezbollah’s 2008 playbook. That year, Hezbollah deployed its fighters to the center of Beirut and turned its guns on fellow Lebanese, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shi‘ite. Hezbollah did not stage a coup, however, choosing instead to accept veto power over the Lebanese government. Why take responsibility for governance, they seem to have figured, when they can blame the government for any ills, not have to hold themselves accountable for the delivery of services, and prevent their political opponents from acting in any way that undercuts their organizational interests?

So why have the Houthis pressed on while Hezbollah stopped? Alas, the answer is more opportunity than naked ambition. At every key moment, the Houthis paused. They stopped outside Sana’a waiting for the United States and the wider world to react, to send some signal that they should not push on. There was none. Then, they entered Sana’a, but then stood down. Again, they were waiting for a response which never came. Fearing no consequence for their actions, they next staged their coup. Then, they pushed further south and eventually came to Yemeni military bases. But here, too, they paused. Some in the military and State Department have suggested that if only the United States had reinforced its presence rather than evacuated it, the Houthis and their sponsors would have understood they could go no farther. I’m not on the ground in Yemen, and certainly am not privy to the intelligence surrounding the Houthi advance, so that’s just speculation, albeit conjecture based on those who are or have been there in recent weeks and months. Regardless, the Houthis advanced, seized the bases, and, along with them, sensitive U.S. intelligence information.

The Houthis and their Iranian sponsors may have pushed too far this time, however, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and like-minded Arab countries decided enough was enough. Nevertheless, in hindsight, it’s pretty incredible: One of the most amazing things about the complete and utter strategic collapse of the United States in the Middle East is that even U.S. enemies wait to see a response and seem unable to believe their luck when they understand that none will be forthcoming. Seldom if ever are ice hockey metaphors made with regard to Yemen, but there’s always a first time: When we look at how the strategic situation plays itself out there, it’s almost as if President Obama was coaching an ice hockey team and simply decided to pull his goalie in the first period for no reason whatsoever, handing his opponent an effective victory.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A White House That Can’t Admit a Mistake

It is a danger in all White Houses: the longer an administration stays in office, the more detached it becomes from reality. The Obama administration is now exhibiting advanced signs of this political malady.

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It is a danger in all White Houses: the longer an administration stays in office, the more detached it becomes from reality. The Obama administration is now exhibiting advanced signs of this political malady.

Exhibit A: The White House resolutely refuses to back down from the president’s claim that Yemen is a “success” for the administration’s counter-terrorism policy—a success worth emulating, in fact. This would be the country where the U.S. embassy and all U.S. Special Operations troops have been pulled out, and which is now in the grip of a multisided war involving the Houthis, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the forces of the previous strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, the forces of the current president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the forces of Saudi Arabia and its allies. In recent days White House spokesman Josh Ernest has repeatedly been offered opportunities to walk back the earlier claims of success—and time after time he refuses to do so.

“The measure of U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise,” Earnest said in a roundtable discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, adding, “The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States.”

Umm, okay. But even if the US goal was not secure a stable government (and if it wasn’t, it should have been), Earnest never explained how the US is proposing to battle terrorist elements in Yemen now that our own Special Operations forces have been pulled out, now that a good deal of our intelligence has fallen into Houthi/Iranian hands, and now that the armed forces of the government of Yemen, whose help we were counting on, are being bombed by our Saudi allies.

Exhibit B: The White House won’t admit that the army’s decision to file desertion charges against Bowe Bergdahl might call into question the wisdom of the decision to swap him for five senior Taliban terrorists who were being held at Guantanamo. “Was it worth it? Absolutely,” Jen Psaki, the incoming White House communications director, told Fox News. “We have a commitment to our men and women serving in the military, defending our national security every day, that we’re going to do everything to bring them home if we can, and that’s what we did in this case.”

Umm, okay. But was Bergdahl actually “defending our national security”—or was he undermining that that security by walking off his base in a dangerous, Taliban-infested province of eastern Afghanistan, forcing other soldiers to risk their necks in a futile attempt to find him? (Bergdahl’s lawyer now claims that he was merely setting off in search of another American unit to report supposed misconduct at his Forward Operating base, implying that he had never heard of those recent inventions known as “the telephone” and “the Internet” which can be used to report misconduct without taking a stroll in Talibanistan.)

This continues the White House pattern of doubling down after committing Bergdahl gaffes. Recall how National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bergdahl served “with honor and distinction”. These comments came last summer, when the copious evidence of Bergdahl’s desertion was already widely known both inside and outside of the government. Refusing to back down an inch, Rice stubbornly defended her comments by claiming “what I was referring to was the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war. That, in and of itself, is a very honorable thing.”

All right, I get it: all White Houses hate to admit mistakes because they think it simply throws raw meat to their critics. But sticking with a story that doesn’t pass the laugh test does critical damage to an administration’s credibility. The Bush administration saw that when its senior officials insisted on denying for years that there was any “insurgency” in Iraq. The Clinton administration saw that when the president couldn’t admit that he had indeed had “sexual relations” with “that woman.” The Reagan administration saw that when the president couldn’t admit for the longest time that he had traded “arms for hostages” with Iran. Now the Obama administration is showing it has learned nothing from the mistakes of its predecessors—that indeed it is intent on not merely equaling but even exceeding those mistakes. Even those classic Nixonian formulations “I misspoke myself” and “that statement is inoperative” show a greater willingness to admit error than currently evinced by this White House.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yemen’s Lesson For the Future of Terror

“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

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“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

The above items are largely self-explanatory. Far from decimated, Al Qaeda is, in combination with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, chasing the US out of Yemen, which, far from being a shining example of US counter-terrorism policy in action, is an abysmal failure. This is a serious blow to US national security because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has long been judged the Al Qaeda affiliate most interested in striking the US homeland. Thus the attacks on AQAP that Special Operations Forces have carried out in Yemen have been necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians.

We will not be entirely helpless to fight AQAP even now–there is a Special Operations base in Djibouti directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and there is reportedly a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia. But even if Predators and other aircraft can still reach targets in Yemen with ease, it will be harder to identify high-value targets without any American personnel on the background–and you can bet that if Embassy and Special Operations personnel have pulled out, so have CIA, NSA, and other intelligence officers.

The only other point to make is that this is a cautionary tale for the future of Afghanistan. President Obama seems to think that it would still be possible for a small number of US Special Operations Forces to be based in Afghanistan in order to target Al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if all other US forces are pulled out after 2016. Yemen shows why this is a very bad idea–not even the most skilled SOF forces can operate in a country that is in utter chaos as Yemen is today. Afghanistan needs to be minimally stable in order to be a useful platform for launching SOF strikes, and to keep it minimally stable will require a long-term commitment of at least 10,000 US troops. But to make that kind of commitment Obama will have to admit that, contrary to his earlier boasts, the war in Afghanistan is not “winding down,” just as Al Qaeda is not “decimated,” and Yemen is not an example of “successfully” fighting terrorists.

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Obama’s Words v. Reality

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

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“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

“The United States is closing its embassy in Yemen to the public until further notice, the embassy said in a statement on Monday amid political turmoil after that nation’s government resigned last week under pressure from the Houthi rebel movement. ‘The U.S. Embassy will be closed to the public until further notice out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting the Embassy. We are continuously analyzing the security conditions and will resume consular operations as soon as our analysis indicates we are able to do so safely,’ the statement said.” — Reuters, January 26, 2015

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“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free. Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights. Now, all of us have a responsibility to support the new Libya — the new Libyan government as they confront the challenge of turning this moment of promise into a just and lasting peace for all Libyans.” — President Obama, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ spokeswoman Marie Harf said.” — the Daily Mail, July 26, 2014

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“We’re demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“Unexpectedly, at the height of the Ukrainian winter, war has exploded anew on a half-dozen battered fronts across eastern Ukraine, accompanied by increasing evidence that Russian troops and Russian equipment have been pouring into the region again… The renewed fighting has dashed any hopes of reinvigorating a cease-fire signed in September and honored more in name than in fact since then. It has also put to rest the notion that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would be so staggered by the twin blows of Western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices that he would forsake the separatists in order to foster better relations with the West. Instead, blaming the upsurge in violence on the Ukrainians and the rise in civilian deaths on ‘those who issue such criminal orders,’ as he did on Friday in Moscow, Mr. Putin is apparently doubling down, rather than backing down, in a conflict that is now the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan wars…. newly emboldened separatist leaders have abandoned all talk of a cease-fire. One of the top leaders of the Russian-backed rebels said Friday that his soldiers were ‘on the offensive’ in several sectors, capitalizing on their capture of the Donetsk airport the day before.” — New York Times, January 23, 2015

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“And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission [to defeat the Islamic State] by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

‘“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIL], 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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“We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World,” Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

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“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.” — Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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The “Yemen Model” Goes Down in Flames

Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

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Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

The last few days have brutally exposed the falsity of these claims, which is no doubt why Yemen went entirely unmentioned in the State of the Union. The Houthi militia, a Shiite group armed and supported by Iran, has overrun Sana, the capital, and seized the presidential palace. It only agreed to release President Hadi after he agreed to share power with them. This does not sit well with Sunni tribes who are threatening war on the Houthis, which will undoubtedly draw them into league with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group which has taken responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Hadi government and major adversary of Iran and its proxies, is vowing to cut off all aid to Yemen as long as the Houthis are in control. Yemen, in short, is on the verge of plunging into a Libya-like or Syria-like abyss, which would certainly make it representative of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East but not in the way the president intended.

The administration in recent weeks has softened its anti-Houthi rhetoric. Many inside and outside the administration are tempted to see the Houthis as allies because they are fighting AQAP. This is a big mistake. The Houthis are, like Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia whose slogan is “God is great; death to America; death to Israel.” They are hardly potential allies for Washington. Any attempt to align American policy with them will only drive Sunnis further into the camp of al-Qaeda–exactly the same phenomenon we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq where a perceived American tilt toward Iran and its murderous proxies has driven many Sunnis to side for protection with ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

There is no easy or obvious solution in Yemen beyond the continuing need to support relative moderates such as Hadi and to press for political solutions that can work rather than to simply be content with killing a few terrorists with air strikes–which seems to be the Obama administration’s preferred approach to the entire Middle East. The administration’s policy can be characterized as general lethargy and disengagement punctuated by periodic outbursts of carefully targeted violence. This is a policy that cannot possibly work, and it hasn’t. The administration hasn’t created the chaos that is gripping the Middle East–chaos that is a Petri dish for extremism–but it certainly hasn’t done much to stop it.

Even France’s president, Francois Hollande, is lambasting Obama for creating a power vacuum in the Middle East. When a French socialist, of all people, is attacking him for not being interventionist enough, that should tell Obama something. But if the State of the Union is any indication, he is feeling too cocky at the moment, because of better economic news, to seriously take on board and address the catastrophic failure of his foreign policy in Yemen and beyond.

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Obama Makes Clear: No Foreign-Policy Recalibration Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paris Terror and the Flawed “Yemen Model”

Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

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Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

This caused many commentators, including me, to do a double take. As I wrote at the time, “The president’s analogy to Somalia and Yemen is not an encouraging one. Obama may be one of the few people around who thinks that the U.S. has achieved so much success in those countries that it is a model worth emulating.”

Now the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris brings further evidence of how flawed the Yemen model actually is. Considerable evidence has emerged of links between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the gunmen who murdered 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Said Kouachi, one of the two brothers involved, was said to have visited Yemen in 2011 for training, and before launching the assault either he or his brother told bystanders, “Tell the media we are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

It is still unknown whether the actual operation was directed from Yemen, but it was at least inspired from there–a word I use advisedly because a recent issue Inspire, the AQAP glossy magazine, had listed Charlie Hebdo’s now-deceased editor, Stephane Charbonnier, on its hit list of foreigners who supposedly insult Islam. The headline on the article: “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away — Defend the Prophet Mohammed.” Mercifully, the Kouachi brothers are now said to have been killed by French police but the problems besetting Yemen will not be eliminated so quickly or easily.

AQAP is actually only one of the major problems undermining the “Yemen model.” The other major problem is the Houthis, a terrorist group whose members are Zaydis (a Shiite offshoot). They are supported by Iran’s Quds Force. They are making major territorial gains as well, coming close to controlling the entire state even if they don’t control all of its territory. Yemen, in fact, is coming apart at the seams in the same sort of violence between Shiite and Sunni extremists which has also devastated Syria and Iraq.

And what is the U.S. doing about it? For years U.S. Special Operations Forces and the CIA have maintained a small, below-the-radar presence in Yemen, working to train government security forces and to carry out drone strikes on terrorist suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the AQAP ideologue who was killed by a Hellfire missile in 2011.

Such isolated, pinprick strikes may be necessary in the war on terror but they are hardly sufficient. They have not turned the tide in Yemen, nor will they do so in Iraq and Syria. A much more substantial effort is needed, as some of us have been arguing for some time.

In this Policy Innovation Memorandum released by the Council on Foreign Relations in November, for example, I laid out the steps needed to defeat ISIS which involve, inter alia, relaxing the restrictions on U.S. “boots on the ground” and doing much more to mobilize the Sunni tribes. The overarching need is for the Obama administration to end its flirtation with Iran which only alarms Sunnis throughout the region and drives them into the arms of extremists such as AQAP and ISIS. Sunnis must be offered a political endstate that will mobilize them to fight–and that hasn’t happened so far.

Until the Obama administration steps up its game, alas, jihadist groups of both Sunni and Shiite ilk will continue advancing, making further mockery of the “Yemen model” for fighting terrorists.

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Obama’s Irresponsible Gitmo Plan

To the list of unilateral second-term moves, we can now add President Obama’s determination to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in the face of both public opinion and congressional intent. The New York Times reports that the administration has accelerated the release of terrorists detained at Gitmo: “Now 127 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, down from 680 in 2003, and the Pentagon is ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks; officials will not provide a specific number. President Obama’s goal in the last two years of his presidency is to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.” Obama appears hell-bent on emptying Gitmo before he leaves office, to fulfill a campaign pledge from 2008, no matter the consequences.

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To the list of unilateral second-term moves, we can now add President Obama’s determination to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in the face of both public opinion and congressional intent. The New York Times reports that the administration has accelerated the release of terrorists detained at Gitmo: “Now 127 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, down from 680 in 2003, and the Pentagon is ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks; officials will not provide a specific number. President Obama’s goal in the last two years of his presidency is to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.” Obama appears hell-bent on emptying Gitmo before he leaves office, to fulfill a campaign pledge from 2008, no matter the consequences.

This is in spite of the fact that 66 percent of Americans oppose closing the detention facility and even though the Senate voted 90-6 in 2009 not to provide the funds necessary to close Gitmo and transfer the detainees to stateside prisons. Obama still can’t bring the detainees to the American mainland so he is shipping them home–even if home is a chaotic place like Yemen where these terrorists are likely to reenter the fight. The Times writes, chillingly: “In one example of the administration’s eagerness to speed the releases, the White House is no longer waiting for security improvements in Yemen before transferring Yemeni prisoners.”

This cavalier attitude raises the risks of recidivism, which were already high to begin with. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes that, as of July 15, 2014, 29.7 percent of former Gitmo detainees are confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist activities. There are reports that some 20 to 30 former Gitmo detainees have joined ISIS or other radical groups in Syria and that another former Gitmo detainee was behind the attack which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

We are virtually assured of more such terrorists on the loose if Obama continues with his plan to close Gitmo without having any plan in place to keep the detainees locked up. It is the height of irresponsibility to continue releasing detainees without any idea of what they will do next. Congress needs to step in to pass legislation making sure that suitable safeguards are in place before any further detainee releases occur.

Alas, Congress cannot force Obama to send newly captured terrorist suspects to Gitmo–which means that there is effectively no way to process them unless there is near-certainty that they can be convicted in a federal criminal court. This means that U.S. forces, both military and CIA, operating oversees have a de facto preference for killing terrorist suspects rather than imprisoning them–especially now that the U.S. no longer has the right to run its own detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is of a piece with the marked increase in drone strikes under the Obama presidency, which is certainly a defensible policy but not if it comes at the expense of capturing and interrogating terrorists who can provide valuable information. It’s hard to see why it’s considered humane to blow up a terrorist suspect with a Hellfire missile (and in all likelihood a number of innocent civilians who happen to be in his vicinity) but inhumane to hold that same suspect in Gitmo where conditions are far better than in any maximum-security prison used for normal convicts.

One can only conclude that Obama’s ideological and political animus against Gitmo–opened, of course, by the preceding president whom he loathes–is producing dangerous and nonsensical national security decisions.

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Rescue or Ransom? Obama Made Right Call.

This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

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This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

This is not the first time that U.S. policy has been called into question by the outcome of a terrorist kidnapping. Back in September, the family of James Foley, an American who was murdered by his ISIS captors after the U.S. refused to ransom him, criticized the government for not only not saving their son but also for their attempts to prevent them from negotiating a ransom. As far as the Foleys were concerned, the Obama administration had sacrificed their loved one in order to make a political point. The fact that earlier in the year, the same government had negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. solider who had been captured under suspicious circumstances, added hypocrisy to the charges.

But as much as the anguish of the Foleys and the Korkie family is understandable, the president’s decision to choose rescue rather than ransom was entirely correct.

Rather than approach this sad outcome as a human-interest story in which an uncaring government let innocents die to prove a point, our focus should remain on the fact that the West is engaged in a war with Islamist terrorists. Kidnapping is a major source of income for both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. These groups profit handsomely from trades for Western hostages and use the funds they acquire to not only kidnap more victims but to strengthen their ability to threaten vital Western interests. Simply put, without the sums they have extracted from European governments in exchange for their citizens, ISIS would not currently be in possession of much of Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

The war against Islamist terrorism has dragged on for more than a decade and no end is in sight. Part of the reason for that lies in the inherent difficulties in fighting a movement that can be an elusive if deadly target. Part of it also stems from foolish decisions by the Obama administration that weakened America’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But those problems notwithstanding, the president and his foreign-policy team cannot be credibly accused of indifference to the lives of Western hostages. Though the administration’s desire to abandon the Middle East and to move to détente with dangerous Iran is a colossal blunder, their commitment to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda is clear. Those who will blame the president for the deaths of Somers and Korkie need to remember that it is the terrorists who bear all of the responsibility for what happened, not an administration that did the right thing and refused to pay ransoms.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence

Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”

Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.

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Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”

Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.

Meanwhile, other al-Qaeda-associated organizations are gaining strength in Mali and Yemen, among other places. According to one report, Tuareg jihadists in Ansar al Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, both affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now control a region the size of France in Mali. And they are also making fresh inroads in Syria where the al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant has claimed responsibility for an attack on Tuesday by suicide bombers on an intelligence compound near Damascus.

This is an obvious election issue since President Obama keeps saying that “al-Qaeda is on its heels.” It is true that “al-Qaeda central”–the organization headquartered in Pakistan and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri–does appear to be on its heels; certainly it is less of a threat than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was alive. But al-Qaeda has managed to spread its tentacles to other corners of the greater Middle East, and its franchises and affiliates remain far from being on their heels. These groups are increasingly well-funded through criminal rackets such as hostage-taking for ransom. Daniel Cohen, the Treasury Department’s top official on terrorist-financing, has recently said that “the U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years.”

Part of the reason why al-Qaeda has been able to infiltrate Libya is because of the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi–a war that I believe was, on the whole, in our national security interests. But there has been too little follow-up to try to help the nascent, pro-American government in Tripoli establish its authority. In Iraq, AQI’s reemergence is tied directly to Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal of U.S. troops after half-hearted negotiations with the Iraqis to extend their mandate failed. In Syria, al-Qaeda has an opening because the administration refuses to do more to help the non-jihadist rebel groups overthrow Bashar Assad’s regime. And in Somalia and Yemen the group is finding traction because of the breakdown of state authority–conditions that the Obama administration can hardly be blamed for and that it is grappling with just as the Bush administration did. Overall, the resurgence of al-Qaeda shows the limitations of the Obama administration’s preferred response–drone strikes. They are a good idea, but insufficient to prevent extremists from gaining control of territory. That can only be done by bolstering state authority–something that is notoriously hard to do, especially in lands where the U.S. does not deploy large numbers of ground troops.

However this issue plays out in November, the resurgence of al-Qaeda is a worrisome trend that the next president will have to confront through a variety of mechanisms which will draw the U.S. even more closely into the morass of the Middle East. There is simply no other choice. If America retreats, our enemies advance.

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Iran Branches Out in Search for Proxies

One of the important subtexts that are often ignored in the discussion about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran is the way such weapons would allow Tehran to throw its weight around the Middle East without dropping any bombs. Iran has long employed auxiliary forces around the region to bolster its influence. Though Hezbollah has risen from a sectarian Shia terrorist group to a position where it is in virtual control of much of Lebanon, it is also a loyal follower of Iran. Hamas was deeply dependent on Iranian cash and arms for much of the last decade as it consolidated its control of Gaza. It seems to be willing to break away, but Iran has not lost hope of maintaining its influence among Palestinians via splinter groups as well as by efforts to get Hamas back in the fold. It is also hoping to back up a tottering but brutal Assad regime in Syria that has also been a faithful ally.

But just as troubling for the West is the news reported today by the New York Times that Iran is knee-deep in funding an insurgency in Yemen. While Yemen has been the site of proxy wars for the Muslim world for decades (Egypt’s Gamal Nasser regime came to grief there in the 1960’s), any such activity in a nation that borders a potentially unstable Saudi Arabia is bound to raise alarms in the West. It should also remind those foolish advocates for a policy aimed at containing or deterring a nuclear Iran that the ayatollahs have their own ideas about what the region will look like once they get their fingers on a nuclear button.

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One of the important subtexts that are often ignored in the discussion about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran is the way such weapons would allow Tehran to throw its weight around the Middle East without dropping any bombs. Iran has long employed auxiliary forces around the region to bolster its influence. Though Hezbollah has risen from a sectarian Shia terrorist group to a position where it is in virtual control of much of Lebanon, it is also a loyal follower of Iran. Hamas was deeply dependent on Iranian cash and arms for much of the last decade as it consolidated its control of Gaza. It seems to be willing to break away, but Iran has not lost hope of maintaining its influence among Palestinians via splinter groups as well as by efforts to get Hamas back in the fold. It is also hoping to back up a tottering but brutal Assad regime in Syria that has also been a faithful ally.

But just as troubling for the West is the news reported today by the New York Times that Iran is knee-deep in funding an insurgency in Yemen. While Yemen has been the site of proxy wars for the Muslim world for decades (Egypt’s Gamal Nasser regime came to grief there in the 1960’s), any such activity in a nation that borders a potentially unstable Saudi Arabia is bound to raise alarms in the West. It should also remind those foolish advocates for a policy aimed at containing or deterring a nuclear Iran that the ayatollahs have their own ideas about what the region will look like once they get their fingers on a nuclear button.

According to the Times, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are shipping weapons to the Houthi Yemeni rebels who, as followers of the Shia variant of Islam, are natural allies of Iran. In doing so, they are countering the influence of the Saudis, who have been intervening in Yemeni tribal and civil wars throughout the country’s history. Given the ability of the Saudis as well as the United States to weigh in with greater resources in Yemen, the Iranian threat there might be dismissed as not that significant. But the more foreign assets Iran accumulates, the greater its ability to strike out via terrorism against the West as well as the regime’s Arab foes.

More to the point, the balance in power in Yemen as well as every other country where Iran seeks to exercise influence will be thrown to the winds once the regime goes nuclear. Though there is a debate as to how “rational” Iran’s Islamist leadership truly is, there is no doubt about its willingness to use terror as a tactic to broaden their regional power base. Even if one is willing to gamble with the lives of millions of Israelis by sitting back and letting the Iranians achieve their goal, a nuclear Iran running an active Middle East terror network will be an entirely different and far more dangerous threat.

The Iranian foray in Yemen is just one more piece of a puzzle that points to the lethal nature of its rulers’ grand ambitions. Those in Washington and Europe who are inclined to keep talking about the problem rather than acting to forestall this peril need to remember that allowing the leading state sponsor of terror to go nuclear threatens not only Israel but the West and moderate Arab regimes as well.

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UN Clearly Not Serious About Syria

The Obama administration has staked its Syria policy on winning consensus at the United Nations Security Council, a near impossibility given Russia’s desire to protect Bashar al-Assad at all costs. Alas, it is not only the Kremlin whose resistance empowers Assad’s murderous regime.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reportedly appointed Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, a former Yemeni minister for human rights, to be his task force leader on Syria. The problem is that Amat was a representative and functionary for the brutal regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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The Obama administration has staked its Syria policy on winning consensus at the United Nations Security Council, a near impossibility given Russia’s desire to protect Bashar al-Assad at all costs. Alas, it is not only the Kremlin whose resistance empowers Assad’s murderous regime.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reportedly appointed Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, a former Yemeni minister for human rights, to be his task force leader on Syria. The problem is that Amat was a representative and functionary for the brutal regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

When the UN chooses a Qaddafi regime functionary to oversee human rights, an Islamic Republic of Iran official to handle proliferation concerns, and a representative of an Arab dictator to chair a task force handling the Assad’s “brotherly regime,” then it loses all credibility. The Syrian people deserve better.

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