NYT Op-Ed Calls ISIS “A Militant Group” – Talk About Understatement

WASHINGTON – Charles M. Blow, NYT columnist, in an article, (Obama and the Warmongers, August 31, 2014), points out how America may be dragged once more into a Middle East conflict on account of the hysteria generated by ISIS, (the newest and most violent version of Islamic radicalism).

US response?

Well, intelligent people may and will differ on what should be the most appropriate US response (and that may include doing nothing at all) to this new chapter of conflict in the Region. Blow seems to be on the side of caution, although he sees that the “party of war” is gathering strength.

That said, I notice that in his piece there is very little about what ISIS (also known as ISIL and now Islamic State, or IS) has done so far, and what its leaders claim they will do.

Bad definition

In what I would call a most carefully crafted euphemism, Blow calls ISIS “a militant group President Obama described as barbaric”. The significant concession to truth is in reporting that Obama calls ISIS “barbaric”. Blow also clearly mentions the fact that ISIS beheaded James Foley, a US journalist previously kidnapped by them.

Basic facts not mentioned

Other than that, however, not a word in Blow’s piece about the mass executions of both Syrians and Iraqis, the almost daily crucifixions, the beheadings, the open persecution of religious minorities, and finally declaring itself the modern era Caliphate, coupled with  openly aired plans to kill Americans.

A “militant group”?

Sure, Blow reports that President Obama calls ISIS methods “barbaric”; and this should help set a proper context. But the problem is that Blow sets the tone at the very beginning of his article by defining ISIS a mere “militant group”. Therefore a superficially informed reader may get this picture.

“Here we go again. There is yet another small bunch of nuts in the Middle East. And these people apparently do some really crazy stuff. They just killed an American in a ghastly way. But, hey, while this is terrible, this is no reason for getting into another war over there. Let’s stay calm and think this over, before rushing in and getting ourselves into another sectarian mess we cannot control”. 

Just a few people?

While Blow’s piece may appear even-handed, it is not. He implicitly dismisses ISIS’ threat by calling it “a militant group”. The term “group” suggest a few people. Dozens, at most a few hundred members.

“Yes, they use horrible methods. But  they all  do it . Besides, it is all happening “over there”. Sure, they killed an American. This is bad. But, with all due respect, it is only one. And, after all, it is only a group. Are we going to go after all groups of bad guys around the world?”

Nothing about ISIS’ real strength

Not even a hint in his piece about other well-known facts. There are tens of thousands of ISIS fighters. This may not amount to an army, but it is a powerful, well-organized, disciplined fighting force.

Besides, while other terror groups or insurgents are engaged in surprise attacks here and there and then disappear, ISIS holds large portions of territory in Syria and Iraq. It controls large cities like Mosul, (664,000 inhabitants). Now the leaders renamed the territory they control the “Islamic State”. ISIS  has modern weapons and lots of cash.


Given all this, calling ISIS a “militant group” is rather disingenuous. This toned down definition is aimed at minimizing and obfuscating the extent of a real threat to the Region and to the West represented by a very large number of politically organized Islamic radicals who openly claim to be at war with all non believers.

They are there. They have a state. Worst of all, this Caliphate will become a magnet for many other misguided Islamic radicals from all over the world who will want to join this jihad.

At least let’s define the threat properly

If ISIS is only “a militant group”, then Adolf Hitler was a conservative politicians, Vladimir Lenin was a leftist political organizer, Pol Pot an agrarian reformer, and the Ku Klux Klan was a social club created to uphold cherished American traditions.

As indicated above, reasonable people may differ on what should be done about ISIS.

But at least we should be able to agree on this: we are dealing with something a lot more dangerous than yet another “militant group”.

What Will Obama Do About The Crisis In Iraq? Not Much

WASHINGTON – America should respond swiftly and massively against the political and military threat represented by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, now established in Northern Iraq and parts of Syria. We should use force in our self-interest and in the interest of stability in the Middle East.

The threat

We should do so in order to show to the resilient Sunni Islamic radicals, within ISIS and beyond, that they do not have a chance to ever see their crazy dreams of a resurrected Caliphate come to life.

Of course, more broadly, it would also be good for America to support the political integration of peaceful Sunnis into the Iraqi political system, something that Prime Minister al-Maliki has failed to do. In fact, as we know, rather stupidly he has done exactly the opposite. As a Shiite, al-Maliki has openly worked to marginalize the Sunnis who used to rule Iraq until the demise of Saddam Hussein in March of 2003.

But this is political work for tomorrow. Right now we have to defeat ISIS –quickly and decisively. And for this military response to send the right signal to all would-be jihadists, it better be a mortal blow. The message should be: “You do not stand a chance”.

No sense of urgency

But I do not see any of this happening. As ISIS progresses in its spectacular advance into southern Iraq, President Obama for a few days said nothing. Did he have the information? Do our intelligence services see what’s going on? Do they report it to the White House? Apparently yes; but Obama did not nothing anyway.

Advice to al-Maliki

Now that he has spoken, we see that he intends to do little, or very little. For starters, Obama blamed publicly Prime Minister al-Maliki for his ill-advised discriminatory, anti-Sunni policies. He advised him to change course. Nice opening: start by blaming your ally for having caused the crisis. (I suggest that the President should have done this in private, and not as a public scolding).

As for what the US may do to reverse this Iraqi strategic debacle, well, stay tuned. We are probably going to do something –added Obama– but not much, and not very soon.

This is not an American problem

What is the direct and indirect message here? The way I read Obama’s preliminary assessment of this sudden tragedy is that this unprecedented military and political crisis affecting Iraq is really no big deal from the standpoint of America’s national interest.

This is an Iraqi domestic problem –we are told by Obama– in large part caused by the ill-advised sectarian policies pursued by the al-Maliki government. They should change course. They should become more inclusive regarding the Sunni minority, and this would help deflate the support that regular Sunnis seem inclined to give to ISIS at this point.

This is a bit like responding to someone having a heart attack by giving them a nice list of healthy food they should start eating.  This is all very well and good. But right now there is an emergency. And this requires swift action, not advice.

ISIS is no threat to America

But, again, does ISIS represent a problem for America’s security? Apparently not. Are we concerned that the establishment of something like an Islamic radical state in significant regions of Syria and Iraq may have negative consequences? Apparently not, even though this radical core may attract other radicals who from that base may over time resume plotting attacks against America and other Western interests. Does the history of al Qaeda and how it got itself established in Afghanistan teach us anything at all?

Well, it would appear that ISIS does not represent a threat to  America. This is an Iraqi problem. Mercifully Obama got us out of the Iraqi mess back in December 2011. And we have no intention of revisiting that nightmare. Besides, all opinion polls indicate that Americans would not support any US intervention in any Iraqi fight, whatever the motives.

Follow the polls

So, President Obama is correctly interpreting the popular sentiment. In the spirit of our times, he believes that leadership is just this: follow what the polls say. So, he is prepared to give al-Maliki advice; but not much else.

As to the fact that al-Maliki is already getting military help from Iran, a country that (in theory) we would like to contain given its dangerous hegemonic aspiration, apparently this does not matter either.

This is America’s foreign policy in an age of myopia and retreat, rationalized as superior wisdom.

The Iraq Crisis Proves That America Needs Better Intelligence and A Truly Bipartisan Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON – Beyond the severity of the crisis, there are at least two things emerging out of the Iraq debacle that worry me.

Caught by surprise

The first one is that America’s leadership did not see any of this coming. Mind you, this is Iraq, a country where we had a major military campaign that lasted for several years. A country where we invested blood and treasure for almost a decade.  A country where, despite the unfortunately cool relations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, America still has an enormous US Embassy, and countless other assets on the ground.

And yet we are left with the distinct impression that our key policy makers were not aware of ISIS’ –a Sunni radical Islamist organization once affiliated with al Qaeda– real strength and of the inability/unwillingness of Iraqi soldiers to fight them.

A vast intelligence apparatus did not see any of this coming?

We know that America has a massive and super-expensive intelligence system. Yes, we do have the National Security Agency, (this is the NSA made famous by Edward Snowden’s revelations), that allegedly listens to every phone conversation, while it reads every mail of any potential bad guy, (and may be yours too).

We have spy satellites whose ultra potent, high-resolution cameras can read the newspaper you are holding while sitting at a cafe in Paris or Damascus. And yet, apparently we could not see –let alone prevent– the successful march of ISIS into Northern Iraq.

This is astonishing. What do all the Arab speaking experts and analysts at the NSA, CIA, DIA and countless other US intelligence agencies do all day?

Foreign policy is all about scoring points in domestic politics

The second worrisome observation is about how US foreign policy is now totally politicized. Which is to say that the foreign policy positions of the current administration are used by the other side to discredit the President’s party politically, every time the opportunity presents itself.

This may be clever politics. But it has disastrous effects on our democracy. America should have a bipartisan foreign policy sustained by basic assumptions and principles that both parties openly support, without fears of any political backlash.

The national interest

I believe it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who said many years ago that the national interest of the United States of America does not change every four years, with a new electoral cycle, the inauguration of a new President and a new national security team put in place.

Indeed, during the Cold War, politics did stop “at the water’s edge”. There was a basic consensus shared by both Republicans and Democrats that the US was engaged in an all out effort to contain the Soviet Union. That included supporting multilateral security arrangements, such as NATO, and a lot more.

Of course, this consensus was not perfect. It fell apart with the open opposition to the War in Vietnam. There were also misgivings about “Detente”, as pursued by the Nixon-Kissinger duo. But overall there was basic understanding about who the bad guys were (the Soviets) and that we –as a nation– should be on the look out for any mischief they might have been concocting.

Foreign policy is about scoring points at home

Now we are in a different era. George W. Bush was called “delusional” and a lot worse by commentators on account of the War in Iraq. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat and Majority Leader, openly declared at some point that “the war in Iraq is lost”, a totally irresponsible statement, as tens of thousands of American soldierswhere still fighting there.

Partisan attacks

And now that Obama is in charge, the sniping continues. Here we are, confronted with a major international crisis enveloping Iraq, a country where we invested so much, a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world, a country bordering Iran and Syria, and what we see is mostly name calling, or predigested policy positions based only on ideological bias.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, rather unkindly said that as the Middle East is on fire, President Obama was taking a nap. Senator John McCain, (Obama’s Republican opponent in 2008), speaking on the floor of the US Senate, called for the wholesale firing of the entire Obama National Security Team, (including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Advisor, among others), as all these people have proven to be incompetent.

Does America have anything at stake in Iraq?

Last but not least, an otherwise intelligent political commentator said that she was against the war in Iraq from the beginning. And now that the US is no longer there with a military presence, it is no surprise to her that the country is falling apart. And there is nothing we can do about this –she added– because all polls indicate that most Americans are against sending more troops there. Really? Just like that? Foreign policy directed by opinion polls?

And what about a definition of the US national interest in Iraq? Are we agreed, as a nation, that whatever happens to Iraq, including the establishment of an Islamist, radical Sunni quasi-state on part of its territory is of no consequence to us? Are we really that stupid?

Obama now prisoner of his own politics

And President Obama is also caught in this web. “Getting out of Iraq” was sold to America as a political triumph back in 2011. Something like: “Irresponsible George W. Bush started wars. I end them. Our boys are coming home”. As the end of the US engagment in Iraq was officially a “success”, not much was said about the progressive deterioration of Iraq’s security, with terror attacks becoming more and more numerous and deadly in recent months.

Indeed, any notion of re-engaging in Iraq was out of the question, as it might have been viewed as a major admission of failed policies by this “peace President”. And, even now, with Iraq literally falling apart, the President hesitates. And the reasons have to do mostly with domestic politics.

Indeed, any US re-engagement would allow more Obama critics to come forward and argue that the decision to stop negotiating with the al-Maliki government back in 2011 was hasty and wrong. Because of that unwise choice, we left Iraq in a hurry and now….well, now look what happened.

Wanted: a new bipartisan consensus

There has to be a good middle ground between unwise interventionism and equally bad wholesale retreat. As I said, no sane person can argue that America has no vital interests in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. The problem is that nobody seems capable of articulating what they are and how we, as a nation, can go about protecting them.

As America Was Distracted, Iraq Descended Into Chaos

WASHINGTON – With the benefit of hindsight we are all geniuses. Still, it would not have been too difficult to imagine the present scenario in which militant forces belonging to ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot fighting in the Syrian civil war, have now taken over the Northern part of Iraq. 

Festering conflict

By allowing the Syrian conflict to fester, Washington created the opportunity for a spill over into Iraq. And this is exactly what happened.

The Obama “hands off” approach regarding Syria’s civil war is in large part responsible for this “domino effect”. Of course, it was and still easy to say that it is prudent for America to stay out of the Syrian mess that started in 2011, simply “because there are no good options over there”. Sure enough, Assad is the bad guy; but so are the jihadists and other assorted religious militants who have flocked into Syria with the intent of replacing Assad’s dictatorship with their own Islamic kind.

Better do nothing

As for the pro-Western insurgents, not enough of them, claims the Obama administration. Besides, they are deeply divided and they do not like us Americans that much, anyway. Therefore we would have taken a big chance by helping them. The risk was and is that weapons supplied to them may end up in the hands of the jihadists. So, better to stay out of this conflict and do nothing. Besides, Obama argued that he had been elected and re-elected with the promise of ending wars. Therefore, starting yet another conflict in the Middle East would have been politically inappropriate.

ISIS expanded its reach

Indeed. Great strategy for winning elections. Except that the Syrian conflict, as we were not paying much attention, has become a powerful magnet for all sorts of foreign fighters. And Iraq, until recently just a transit point for militants headed to Syria, has now become part of the conflict. ISIS got a firm foothold in Northern Iraq and it can now claim that it controls territories and cities in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.

Now, this is serious business. Whatever your opinion about the costly Iraq War launched by then President George W. Bush in March 2003, I think we would all agree that it was and still is in America’s interest that the country left behind after all US troops left at the end of 2011 should be stable and at peace.

But now Iraq is a huge mess. This can have vast repercussions. Iran may get involved. Other Sunni Arab states may also get involved in order to reassert control and prevent Iran from expanding its sphere of influence.

What will Washington do?

And what is America prepared to do? As of today, not much; except from expediting delivery of assorted hardware to the Iraqi military.

But any observer can see that this is no solution to the crisis at hand. Iraq’s main problem is not lack of assets. Iraq’s problem is a poorly trained and poorly motivated military. The most discomforting reports describe Iraqi soldiers who simply threw their uniforms away, put on civilian clothes and fled, as the jihadists were approaching Mosul.

US-trained Iraqi forces

And here we go back to the way in which the Obama administration ended the US military presence in Iraq in 2011.

We know that there were thorny political issues. Washington and Baghdad could not agree on a new Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA). America wanted US forces in Iraq to be under US jurisdiction. Iraq resisted this. There being no compromise, Obama decided to have no deal and to withdraw all US forces.

In so doing, the administration took a big chance. But it declared to everybody that it had full confidence in the vastly expanded and –mind you– US-trained  Iraqi armed forces and police.

Indeed. Now we see how good the training really was. These Iraqi troops were not defeated in combat. Challenged by a brutal enemy, they abandoned their posts, discarded their uniforms and fled.

Caught off guard

Sadly, the worst part of the story is that the US did not see any of this coming. (“Iraqi Drama Catches US Off Guard”, says a WSJ June 12 headline). Indeed while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was spending hours on Capitol Hill on June 11, defending a questionable deal involving the swap of 5 Taliban leaders for 1 US soldier, Iraq was exploding.

New National Security Team?

Senator John McCain summed up this strategic debacle by calling for a brand new National Security team made out of serious professionals who know what they are doing. The current team is composed of people who look more at focus groups and polls than at America’s national security interests. They are not up to the task.

America needs a plan to save Iraq. And we need it now.