Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Obama Approves Air Surveillance of ISIS in Syria
WASHINGTON — President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a precursor to potential airstrikes there, but a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.
Defense officials said Monday evening that the Pentagon was sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes. Mr. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said.
The flights are a significant step toward direct American military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war.
Administration officials said the United States did not intend to notify the Assad government of the planned flights. Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently.
As a result the Pentagon is drafting military options that would strike the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria. The administration is also moving to bolster American support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Mr. Assad as their main foe.
On Monday, Syria warned the White House that it needed to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.” But it signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against the militants.  
The reconnaissance flights would not be the first time the United States has entered Syrian airspace without seeking permission. In July, American Special Operations forces carried out an unsuccessful rescue attempt for hostages held by ISIS, including the journalist James Foley, whose death was revealed last week in an ISIS video.
Mr. Obama met Monday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other advisers to discuss options, but the White House said Mr. Obama had not yet decided whether to order military action in Syria. The White House made clear that if the president did act, he had no plans to collaborate with Mr. Assad or even inform him in advance of any operation.
“It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIL,” he said, using the group’s alternative name, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Still, administration officials acknowledge that the sudden threat from ISIS to Americans — several of whom are still held by the militants in Syria — had complicated the calculus for the United States in a conflict Mr. Obama has largely avoided.
“There are a lot of cross pressures here in this situation,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters. “There’s no doubt about that. But our policy as it relates to pursuing American interests in this region of the world are actually really clear, that we want to make sure that we are safeguarding American personnel.”
Under plans being developed by the administration, a senior official said, the United States could target leaders of the militant group in and around their stronghold, the northern city of Raqqa, as well as in isolated outposts to the east, near the Iraqi border.
While the Syrian government has the capability to partly defend its airspace from American warplanes, American fighter jets can fly close to the border and fire on targets in Syria using long-range precision weapons.
The American military could also jam Syria’s air-defense systems by sending signals that would make it difficult or impossible for radar to pick up American fighter planes entering Syrian airspace. Such a move would give fighters a limited amount of time to hit ISIS targets or camps before leaving Syria. The military could also use B-2 stealth bombers, which are almost invisible to radar, or could fire at stationary targets in Syria using Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from ships at sea.
On Monday, even as he warned the Obama administration against unilateral strikes in Syria, Walid Muallem, the foreign minister, said, “Syria is ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism.” Mr. Assad has long tried to rally support by portraying the insurgency against him as a terrorist threat. He has made little headway with the West or his Arab neighbors.
Syria’s strategy, some former administration officials say, carries a risk for the United States, particularly if the moderate opposition is squeezed out by ISIS. 
“We’re going to find ourselves maneuvered into a very uncomfortable position,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria policy. “We’re unconsciously walking into an ambush.”
The White House is betting that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria might help moderate Syrian opposition groups, which are opposed to the Assad government — and which are also fighting ISIS themselves, in Aleppo. The Free Syrian Army, which the United States has provided with training and equipment, is at risk of losing access to aid and other supplies from Turkey to ISIS militants.
A spokesman for the rebel coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, said,  “The Free Syrian Army commanders on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Syria have declared their readiness to coordinate with the U.S. in striking ISIS.”
The Free Syrian Army has nowhere near the firepower or ground strength as either the Kurdish pesh merga fighters who have worked with the American military against ISIS in Iraq, or even the Iraqi Army. And the weapons and ammunition that the administration have been supplying to the rebels have so far failed to tilt the battle in their favor.

In an interview on Monday, however, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Secretary Hagel was “looking at a train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army.” 
Some experts noted that the administration had another strong incentive not to do anything to help Mr. Assad. A central element of its strategy is to assemble a coalition in the region against ISIS, enlisting partners like Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“Any hint that our actions might further reinforce Assad’s grip on power would make it hard to build that coalition,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. “They all want to see him go.”
ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — Gen. Martin Dempsey said Sunday that once he determines the Islamic State militants in Iraq have become a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, he will recommend the U.S. military move directly against the group in Syria.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that right now, he still believes the insurgent group is still more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.
Speaking on a military plane en route to AfghanistanDempsey provided more detail into his thinking about the Islamic militants who have stormed across Iraq, operating out of safe havens in Syria.
Dempsey did not rule out strikes for any other critical reasons, but listed a homeland threat as one of the key triggers for any military action in Syria.

Hillary Clinton's 'Mission Impossible' Doctrine
On foreign policy, the presumptive presidential candidate responds to hard choices by fake-punting.

The new battle against evil

 Opinion writer August 21
The propagandists of the Islamic State must have imagined that their brutal video of the beheading of journalist James Foley would intimidate and terrorize the world. But people aren’t built that way, not in Muslim countries or anywhere else. When they see sadistic, uncivilized behavior, they are disgusted — and angry.
President Obama spoke Wednesday with special precision and moral clarity in reacting to the video’s release. The Islamic State, he said, “speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
The videotaped beheading was a sign of the Islamic State’s weakness, not its strength. “People like this ultimately fail,” Obama explained. “They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.” He spoke, as a president must, about the consequences of killing U.S. civilians: “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
The life and death of Osama bin Laden illustrate why the terrorist strategy is destined to fail — if civilized nations maintain their will. Obama authorized the mission that pursued the al-Qaeda leader to his lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But in the months before his death, bin Laden knew he had failed.
Documents taken from his hideout show that, in his final days, bin Laden was haunted by the mistakes al-Qaeda had made. The organization’s wanton killing had appalled and alienated Muslims, to the point that bin Laden wondered whether the group should rebrand itself as a less toxic force. He even suggested 10 alternative names that might sound better to the world’s ears.
Bin Laden reflected in a draft letter about “miscalculations” and “unnecessary civilian casualties” that were hurting the jihadist cause. “Making these mistakes is a great issue,” he said, noting that taking “Muslim blood” had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation [of Islam].” Local al-Qaeda leaders should “apologize and be held responsible for what happened.”
This week’s macabre executioner, robed in black, traces his jihadist lineage to the very people bin Laden was condemning, the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Call their successor ISIL or ISIS or the Islamic State — the group has chosen to debase itself with the most extreme and bloodthirsty version of Muslim revolt. Its actions and boasts are a kind of jihadist fantasy, celebrating the pornographic violence of religious killing with beheadings and crucifixions and genocidal assaults on Shiite Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and dissenting Sunnis.
We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer. But stopping that evil is a harder task. As the United States has witnessed over the past decade, the obsession to counter terrorism can drag a country into unwinnable wars and immoral acts.
For months, Obama has been struggling with how to get it right this time — how to contain and eradicate the Islamic State without making the United States the Muslim world’s enemy. Obama’s voice could have been clearer and more emphatic, early on, but I think the basic course of his policy has been correct. He has moved strategically, step by step, gathering the tools that will be needed to confront this malignancy.
Consider how this policy has come together: Knowing that Iraqis must lead the fight against the killers in their midst, Obama refused to provide American air support until Iraqis had endorsed a more inclusive government. Recognizing that the mission should have limited initial goals, he focused on rescuing the Yazidis trapped atop Mount Sinjar. Calculating that Iraqi Kurdistan would be a crucial platform for U.S. projection of power, he pledged to defend Irbil.
A crucial turn was the campaign to win back the Mosul dam. Understanding that jihadist control of the massive dam amounted to a dagger at Iraq’s throat, Obama said Aug. 9 that “there’s key infrastructure inside of Iraq that we have to be concerned about.” Few noticed. This month, 57 of the 90 U.S. airstrikes have been in support of Iraqi forces at the Mosul dam.
Knowing that the jihadists were holding U.S. journalists hostage, Obama ordered a raid this summer to free them. This bold action failed, but it was correct. Even though he knew that European governments had paid huge ransoms to free their hostages, Obama refused.
Those were difficult but sound decisions, and a principled start to a long campaign against brutal killers.

A Necessary Response to ISIS

The United States cannot go it alone in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the extremist group known as ISIS whose ruthlessness and killing has dumbfounded and horrified the civilized world.
American airstrikes and other assistance from the United States have brought some measure of relief to religious minorities and others that ISIS has threatened. But defeating, or even substantially degrading, ISIS will require an organized, longer-term response involving a broad coalition of nations, including other Muslim countries, and addressing not only the military threat but political and religious issues.
The recent persecution of Christians and Yazidis and the murder of James Foley, an American journalist, has brought ISIS’s savagery into full view. On Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ISIS posed an “immediate threat” to the West, in addition to Iraq, because thousands of Europeans and other foreigners who have joined the group and have the passports to travel freely could carry the fight back to their home countries — including the United States.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was equally emphatic. ISIS, he warned, is “beyond anything that we’ve seen” because it is extremely well-financed and has demonstrated sophistication and tactical skill in its campaign to impose an Islamic caliphate by brute force. Other analysts have gone so far as to describe ISIS as one of the most successful extremist groups in history because of its ability to seize and hold large sections of two countries — Iraq and Syria — with what seems like blinding speed.
While the group poses a risk to the United States and the West, those paying the biggest price are Muslims. That’s why President Obama was correct to argue that “from governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” Making this happen will take American leadership, but, so far, neither he nor America’s allies have laid out a coherent vision of exactly what this fight might entail or how to achieve success.
The response to the immediate crisis has been prudent. The United States has insisted that Iraq’s government and army set aside longstanding rivalries and work with the pesh merga militia of Kurdistan to back up American airstrikes by fighting ISIS on the ground. Germany, Italy, Britain and France have promised weapons.
The politics of Iraq, however, remain dangerously unsettled. The United States successfully pressed for a change from Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister in Iraq because only a more inclusive leader would have any chance of unifying the country against the ISIS threat. And, in a rare convergence of interests, Iran also withdrew its support from Mr. Maliki, resulting in the appointment of a new leader, Haider al-Abadi. But Parliament has yet to give final approval to the new government, thus prolonging political uncertainties that undermine the fight against ISIS.
The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is. But, like Iraq, they are mired in petty competitions and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions and many have their own relations with extremists of one kind or another. ISIS has received financing from donors in Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to Syrian rebels and didn’t care if they went to ISIS. Turkey allowed ISIS fighters and weapons to flow across porous borders. All of that has to stop.
Creating a regional military force may be required, including assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Turkey. It certainly will require money, intelligence-sharing, diplomatic cooperation and a determined plan to cut off financing to ISIS and the flow of ISIS fighters between states. France’s suggestion for an international conference deserves consideration.
No matter how many American airstrikes are carried out — Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria — such extremists will never be defeated if Muslims themselves don’t make it a priority. To their credit, some leaders are speaking out. Among them is Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti, who called ISIS and Al Qaeda the “enemy No. 1 of Islam.”

But they must go further and begin a serious discussion about the dangers of radical Islam and how ISIS’s perversion of one of the world’s great religions can be reversed.

Events in Iraq, Syria and Russia further stoke debate about Obama’s worldview

 August 23
The week began with the breaking of the siege of Mount Sinjar in Iraq, thanks to U.S. bombing runs, and ended with the public beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria and renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The juxtaposition of military success and public human failure has caused a sense of whiplash around President Obama’s foreign policy and further stoked the debate about his worldview.
Obama’s detractors revived criticism that his foreign policy is based on retreat from the world, typified by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq three years ago, a lack of direct action in Syria and an economics-first approach to driving Russia’s military back from Ukraine.
His supporters argue that his approach has been consistent with his strategy of returning the United States — after post-Sept. 11 wars — to a foreign policy built around economic engagement rather than military intervention. The question, though, is whether he is contradicting the pledge embraced in his 2009 Nobel Prize lecture: “to face the world as it is,”not as he would like it to be.
“He thought he could change the tenor more easily than he could, and I think he thought the world would be more responsive to his desires than the world has proven to be,” said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now he faces the criticism that, whereas the Bush administration embarked on a war of choice in Iraq, he embarks on a series of skirmishes that are reactive and not of his choosing.”
Obama wanted to close the book on 9/11 America, pledging to end the nation’s “permanent war” footing. That has meant not only taking on the legacy of the attacks but also convincing worried allies in Europe and the Middle East that the country is not in retreat after more than a decade of war.
In place of the large military deployments, Obama has relied on smaller operations to manage, rather than resolve, many of the conflicts that have arisen during his time in office. The attempted rescue of Foley earlier this year from a camp deep inside Syria stands as the most recent example of that approach.
But smaller has not translated into peace or greater American influence.
After pulling troops from Iraq on the eve of his reelection year, Obama is now overseeing a military operation to protect Iraqi civilians threatened by the Islamic State, secure U.S. personnel in Kurdish Iraq, and advise the country’s U.S.-trained army.
Leaving behind an Iraq dominated by an organization al-Qaeda once disavowed as too extreme would cloud his legacy as the president who ended that war — and would bequeath his successor a difficult national security.
The Islamic State emerged from the pit of Syria’s civil war, overrunning the blurry border with Iraq and leading U.S. civilian and military policymakers to consider the two conflicts as one.
Obama called for the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government years ago, yet his primary goal has been to eliminate a chemical weapons cache that could be used against U.S. targets or allies if extremist groups take control of them.
The question of how best to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains — short of a boots-on-the-ground deployment Obama has ruled out — is one that he and the Pentagon must deal with.
“Containing the threat is the great challenge of the final 21 / years of the Obama presidency,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Senior administration officials say that as they confront the challenges in Syria and Iraq, however, they are unwilling to sacrifice either of Obama’s guiding principles.
“Iraq and Syria are very much within the goal preventing the threat of terrorism from emanating from outside the United States,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said last week. “That’s a core interest.”
At the same time, he said, Obama is not reconsidering his view that Iraq — and Afghanistan — must be primarily responsible for their own security.
“The basic premise still holds that we’re transitioning from wars in which the United States was on the ground in big numbers fighting to secure Afghanistan and Iraq to Afghans and Iraqis fighting on the ground to secure their own countries,” Rhodes said.
While Obama and his advisers see consistency in his actions, analysts and some supporters see more of a patchwork.
“This president has ignored the threat for a long period of time, and now we’re paying the price,” Sen. John McCain (R) told his home-town newspaper, the Arizona Republic. “The more [Obama] delays and the more he acts incrementally, the more [the Islamic State] adjusts and the more difficult they will become.”
Obama has contributed to the confusion, occasionally turning to vague phrasing and metaphors to explain his foreign policy.
Even former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that “Don’t do stupid stuff” — the president’s latest foreign policy credo — is not an “organizing principle.”
Obama recently told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that he learned an important lesson from the U.S.-led intervention in Libya when, after the death of Moammar Gaddafi, the United States and allies didn’t do more to rebuild the North African country, which is engulfed in an extremist uprising.
Now when he considers intervention, he always asks, “Do we have an answer [for] the day after?” he said.
At the same time, Obama said he did not regret the intervention in Libya, raising questions about why that was worth direct U.S. military action and Syria is not.
“Obama made the decision not to intervene [in Syria] and not to provide the support that the moderate opposition was asking for,” said David J. Kramer, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration and president of Freedom House.
“The problem for Obama is he often sets up these false choices between essentially doing nothing and sending in the 82nd battalion,” Kramer said.“And there are gradations about what one can do, including providing military support to forces that we should be supporting.”
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East expert at the Wilson Center, said the Libya experience was low risk for Obama, with support for the multinational operation from the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League.
“This was a humanitarian disaster reduced to a scale that Barack Obama could get his arms around,” Miller said. “He could actually preempt, prevent and rescue a large number of people.”
Adding to Obama’s challenges has been the crisis in Ukraine, which has deeply wounded U.S. relations with Russia, and the conflict in Gaza, which has dashed the administration’s hopes of securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Administration officials say Obama has put a lot on the line in both places, sanctioning Russian leaders and sending his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to invest tremendous amounts of time trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
But current and former administration officials see a big difference between what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and what’s happening in Ukraine and Gaza. Iraq and Syria fit into a framework of potentially threatening Americans. Solving the crises in Ukraine and Gaza appeals to U.S. principles of democracy and diplomacy, but they do not pose direct threats.
“Nations don’t have permanent friends and enemies anymore,” said Lawrence Korb, a national security analyst. “They have permanent interests, and that’s why it’s hard to get a principled one-word container to put everything in.”
In the end, Obama’s legacy might be defined by an issue that has lost attention as new crises have emerged: preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Mission Leap