Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Degrade ISIS’s Capabilities, Avoid Mission Creep

In a primetime address Wednesday evening, President Obama will announce that he will authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria as part of his larger strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS. This represents a marked escalation of U.S. action against the notorious group that now controls large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. According to the New York Times, the president’s strategy will be “a long-term campaign far more complex than the targeted strikes the United States has used against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

In advance of his speech, I have written a piece for Reason in which I urge the president to listen to the American people.

A majority of Americans support a military response – though not U.S. troops on the ground. Very few are content with allowing ISIS to spread its influence with impunity, especially after the brutal killing of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group has effectively declared itself an enemy of the United States, and there is growing support for action against the group before it even attempts an attack on the U.S. homeland (something that it appears only to be aspiring to, as opposed to actively planning for).

In the article, I also warn against mission creep, the possibility of which is all too real.

The hawks on both the left and right believe that a large U.S. ground presence is required because they don’t want to limit the mission to merely hitting ISIS – they want to restore stability and order in Iraq, exclude Iranian influence from Iraqi politics, and topple Bashar Assad in Syria. In other words, they want us back in the nation-building business, but now in two countries racked by civil war and sectarian hatreds, instead of just one.

To avoid being drawn into such a scenario, the president needs to clearly answer two particularly relevant questions: how large a response is justified; and what end state is acceptable? The president should resist sending in a large number of ground troops and be content to degrade ISIS to the point that it can be contained by the many enemies that directly surround it.

Read the whole thing here.

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

U.S. Need Not Defend Turkey From Islamic State

Apparently Washington believes its allies to be wimps and weaklings.  Why else would NATO officials promise to defend Turkey from the Islamic State?  Surely this well-armed U.S. ally can hold off a few thousand Islamic irregulars, some of whom Ankara allowed to enter Syria next door.

The rise of the Islamic State has led to much nonsense from Washington officials who speak as if the group was capable of conquering America.  ISIL is made up of dangerous fanatics, but in the form of the Islamic State they are largely powerless to harm the U.S. 

Their conventional capabilities are minimal compared to those of the U.S.  Moreover, so long as the Islamists are attempting to conquer territory they cannot afford to launch terrorist attacks on America, which would bring down the full wrath of the U.S. military on the return address they had so thoughtfully provided.

Among the states really threatened by ISIL is Turkey.  This led NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to promise to defend Ankara:  “If any of our allies, and in this case of course particularly Turkey, were to be threatened from any source of threat, we won’t hesitate to take all steps necessary to ensure effective defense of Turkey or any other ally.”

However, Ankara is partly to blame for ISIL’s rise.  The Erdogan government decided to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allowed opposition fighters from all sides, including ISIL, easy access to the battlefield. 

Washington Should Stop Praising Military Tyranny in Egypt

CAIRO—Egypt’s capital is crowded, busy, confused, and messy.  Security isn’t obvious, until you get close to a sensitive site, such as the Interior Ministry. 

The military has taken firm control, elevating its leader, Abdel Fata al-Sisi, to the presidency.  The army permitted dictator Hosni al-Mubarak’s ouster by street protests in 2011 because he planned to turn military rule into a family dynasty.

If ousted president Mohamed al-Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood been defeated in a future election, they would have been discredited peacefully.  However, the coup turned the movement’s members into angry victims.  In Cairo they took over Rab’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares, just as the anti-Mubarak and anti-Morsi crowds had done in Tahir Square. 

The military government responded with a campaign of premeditated murder.

In a new report Human Rights Watch detailed the junta’s crimes.  From the beginning the military used deadly force with no concern for casualties.  In fact, the army began using live ammunition against protestors just two days after the coup. 

The most horrific episode occurred when the regime deployed soldiers, APCs, bulldozers, police, and snipers to destroy a vast tent village in Rab’a Square.  Explained HRW:  “security forces used lethal force indiscriminately, with snipers and gunmen inside and alongside APCs firing their weaponry on large crowds of protestors.  Dozens of witnesses also said they saw snipers fire from helicopters over Rab’a Square.” 

In roughly 12 hours HRW figured that at least 817 and likely more than 1000 people were slaughtered.  Since then, said HRW:  “Security forces have continued to use excessive lethal force against demonstrators.” 

Moreover, the regime moved against liberals and other critics, including youthful leaders of the revolution against Mubarak.  Bahey al-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, argued that military control “is more horrible than the old regime.” 

In fact, by its own count the government has arrested 22,000 people, many of whom have been tortured.  When meeting a visiting delegation organized by the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights of which I was part, Ayaalaa Hosni, spokeswoman for a women’s anti-coup group, complained that you can’t demonstrate without a warrant but if you “go to ask for a warrant you get arrested.”

Outside assessments are uniformly negative.  David Kramer, president of the group Freedom House, declared in June:  “the human rights situation has worsened compared to what it was at any point under Hosni Mubarak.”   His organization reported that Egypt had gone from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” after the coup, with significant deterioration across the board. 

In a separate study Freedom House rated Egypt’s media “not free.”  An organizer for press freedom told our delegation that ten journalists had been killed.  Scores had been shot and injured, more than 100 had been assaulted, and scores more had been arrested.  Another reporter said simply:  “Journalism has become a crime.”

Yet repression is unlikely to deliver stability.  Terrorism may be seen by more than jihadists as the only way to challenge a regime which bars peaceful dissent.  Mubarak’s jails helped turn Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri into al-Qaeda’s leader. 

There isn’t much the U.S. can do to change Cairo.  But the Obama administration could stop intervening constantly and maladroitly.  In fact, Washington’s influence is extremely limited.

As I wrote in Forbes online:  “The U.S. should work with Cairo on issues of shared interest but otherwise maintain substantial distance.  In particular, the administration should stop using foreign aid to bribe Egypt’s generals.  They don’t have to be paid to keep the peace and shouldn’t be paid for anything else.”

Egypt appears likely to end up without liberty or stability.  Instead of pretending to be in control, Washington should step back from a crisis which it cannot resolve.

Religious Liberty in China: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

BEIJING—Today China’s big cities look much like urban areas anywhere in the world. There are lots of cars. What I didn’t expect was to see a Christian “fish” on an auto. 

Religion is “on the rise,” one U.S. diplomat told me.

It also is under attack by the Chinese government.  As I wrote in the American Spectator online:  “When it comes to religious liberty in the People’s Republic of China, there’s the (surprisingly frequent) good, (not so constant) bad, and (still too often) ugly.”

China turned hostile to Christianity after the 1949 revolution. The PRC has routinely been ranked among the worst religious persecutors. 

In its latest report on religious liberty, the State Department observed: “The government exercised state control over religion and restricted the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, including social stability. The government harassed, assaulted, detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents.” 

Nevertheless, the experience varied geographically:  “In some parts of the country, however, local authorities tacitly approved of or did not interfere with the activities of unregistered groups.”

The group China Aid, headed by Bob Fu, a former house church pastor, compiled a list of incidents. The authorities in Zhejiang Province have been particularly repressive, destroying churches and crosses. 

Provincial officials pointed to the zoning laws to justify this and similar actions elsewhere, but Renee Zia, of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, argued that it was just “an excuse for the current wave of clamping down on Christian churches.” The government’s real concern is Christianity’s growth. Provincial party chief Xia Baolong reportedly complained that Christian symbols were too “conspicuous.”   

Still, the situation in the PRC is far better than it was even a decade or two ago. The majority of persecution cases, wrote blogger Renee Riley, involved Christians who “were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders.” Open Doors reported that the government has “chosen not to strictly control Christian activities in most regions in China,” and that the majority of churches “are not registered, but tolerated.” 

The number of Christians was estimated in 2011 by Pew Research at 67 million and likely is much higher today. There already may be more Christians than Chinese Communist Party members. Yang figured there could be 247 million Christians by 2030. 

The PRC hopes to constrain Christianity by forcing it into a “patriotic” channel. Nevertheless, the PRC may not find it easy to create a Sinicized Christianity. I attended the 800-member Beijing Chaoyang Church. There were 70 baptisms on the day I attended. The church is state-sanctioned, but the sermon seemed orthodox theologically (simultaneous translation was provided for foreigners).

My friend Phil Sheldon, who regularly attends the church with his Chinese wife, spoke positively of his experience. He earlier wrote: “I have seen and heard Christianity expressed in public. I have been in restaurants with Christian music playing.”  And then there’s that car sporting a “fish”!

Even some CCP members recognize the challenge.  Admitted Wang: “If we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately ‘liberate’ people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect.” 

In the PRC today, people are ever less willing to worship the false god of communism.

Defeat the Islamic State by Allowing Syria and Others to Kill Radicals

Administration officials proclaim the Islamic State’s isolated experiment in 7th Century Islam to pose a dire threat to America.  After promising to strictly limit the military mission in Iraq, the president is preparing to expand the war to Syria, where the administration is working to overthrow the Assad government—which now blocks Islamic control over the entire country.  Instead, the administration should encourage other nations, starting with Syria, to kill ISIL radicals.

Iraq is a catastrophic failure.  Yet the Obama administration risks falling into war there again. 

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to address the Islamic State “on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria. 

However, Washington’s intelligence capabilities in Syria remain limited.  More important, the Obama administration has spent three years attempting to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime, which possesses an air defense system and warned that it would treat any attacks as “aggression.” 

The administration should reconsider its policy in Syria.  As I point out in Forbes online, “The Assad government is even more committed than Washington to eliminating the Islamic State as a geopolitical force.”

Yet America’s support for the opposition has weakened the Assad government’s ability to fight ISIL.  Washington’s preference for less radical groups also has discouraged Damascus from targeting the Islamic State, whose existence inhibits U.S. involvement. 

Reaching a modus vivendi with Damascus would encourage Assad to focus on ISIL.  Assad is no friend of liberty, but Washington must set priorities. 

The Interventionist Bias (on Both the Left and Right)

Over at Reason today, I have more to say (beyond here and here) about recent goings on in Iraq and Syria, and the debate over what, if anything, the United States might have done, or might do now, to change things.

As I note:

some commentators insist that the current chaos is a direct result of President Obama’s reluctance to intervene decisively in the multi-year conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Most notably, Obama’s own former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, suggested that Obama’s failure to aid the Syrian rebels led to the rise of [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Clinton claims “that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Inherent in that statement is the belief that there was a cadre of relatively liberal-minded opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside of Syria, and that American support would have been the decisive factor in ensuring that they would triumph over both Assad and the ISIL extremists. By this logic, if the United States had chosen to arm the “correct” anti-Assad rebels in Syria, we would not now be bombing ISIL in Iraq.

But experts, including George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, aren’t so sure. Others question how “moderate” some of the so-called moderates really are. Indeed, many so-called moderates, in turns out, are just “Caliphate, later” people. That is, unlike their “Caliphate, now” brethren, they are willing to use U.S. support to overthrow Assad. Once his regime is defeated, however, many will fight to implement an extremist government, one that is likely to be a thorn in the side of their regional neighbors, as well as the United States. That explains, in part, why we are now fighting in Iraq at least some of the people who we trained in Syria, And yet, the interventionist bias—do something—remains pervasive inside the Washington Beltway.