Never Again?

Giulio Meotti’s book about Palestinian terrorism tells a truth many Westerners don’t want to hear.

“A New Shoa: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism,” is a hard read. Not because it is badly written; it is clear, precise, and eloquent. It is a hard read because it is deeply moving—many times, I had to stop reading and catch my breath, wipe away the tears. Giulio Meotti, an Italian author and journalist, has written a monumental study of pain and grief, of mourning and remembrance, of hatred and love.

The book’s title is well-chosen. From the very first pages, Mr. Meotti makes clear that he considers Palestinian terrorism and Arab hatred of Israel and the Jews the continuation of Nazi anti-Semitism. He shows that Palestinian and Arab rhetoric is focused on Jews—not just Israelis. The dream of the Islamists is to destroy the Jewish people, not just the sliver of land called Israel.

This is not a matter of opinion but of facts, which Mr. Meotti’s well-researched book provides in abundance. Take just this recent example from a public speech by Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, aired on Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV on November 5, 2010:

“Allah willing, their [the Jews’] expulsion from Palestine in its entirety is certain to come. We are no weaker or less honorable than the peoples that expelled and annihilated the Jews. The day we expel them is drawing near. . . .

“There is no place for you [Jews] among us, and you have no future among the nations of the world. You are headed to annihilation.”

These words move far beyond a conflict about territory—the underlying emotion is genocidal rage. Mr. Meotti’s list of murderous anti-Semitism by Palestinian leaders and media is exhausting. But it is a list the Western media ignore as it would destroy the prevailing narrative that the Mideast conflict is about land and Palestinian suffering. It isn’t. It is about that old sickness, Jew-hatred.

Mr. Meotti’s other great achievement is to record the stories of the Jews who died as a result of this hatred and preserve their memories. He recalls victims who were trying to lead an ordinary life in a unique country. They were on their way to work, to the market, to see friends when the murderers crossed their paths, themselves dying in the fires they unleashed.

The roll of victims is long. “This is the Ground Zero of Israel, the first country ever to experience suicide terrorism on a mass scale,” Mr. Meotti writes, “more than 150 suicide attacks carried out, plus more than 500 prevented. It’s a black hole that in 15 years swallowed up 1,557 people and left 17,000 injured.”

It must have been almost unbearable to write this book. Mr. Meotti gave the Jewish victims names and faces and, amid all that horror, packed his book also with descriptions of hundreds of acts of human kindness and dignity.

“There is a long, heartbreaking list of teenage Jewish girls whose lives were cut off in a moment by a suicide bomber,” Mr. Meotti writes. “Rachel Teller’s mother decided to donate her daughter’s heart and kidneys: ‘That is my answer to the hyena who took my daughter’s life. With her death, she will give life to two other people.’ Rachel wore her hair very short and had a wistful smile. Her friends remembered the last time they saw her. ‘We said bye-bye, a little bit bored, like it was nothing. Instead, it was the last time we said goodbye to Rachel.'”

The book is filled with these moments of intense pain, but this 400-page study of Jewish love of life is indispensable for anybody who wants to understand Israel’s position in the world and the tragic position of the Jews in history.

There is the story of Massoud Mahlouf Allon, who was an observant Jewish immigrant from Morocco. “He was mutilated, bludgeoned and beaten to death while giving poor Palestinians the blankets he had collected from Israelis,” Mr. Meotti recounts.

Or the disabled Arnad, who was blown up in the seat of his motorized wheelchair in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.

Or Nissan Cohen, who was a teenager when he fled from Afghanistan. “During the day he helped handicapped children, and at night he studied the Gemarra, the commentary on the Law. A bomb killed him at the entrance to the Mahane Yehuda market.”

This book doesn’t dumb down evil. It doesn’t try to understand terrorists as victims of their socio-economic circumstances, doesn’t miscategorize them as poor or uneducated (they are often middle class) or driven allegedly to despair by the very same people they murdered. No, in “A New Shoah,” the terrorists remain what they are, the executors of a hate-filled religious ideology. This is a truth too many Westerners still don’t want to hear.

My own Dutch publishing house, the distinguished De Bezige Bij, born out of the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, refused to publish this amazing book. It had no qualms, however, about publishing a book of anti-Zionist rants by Dries van Agt, the former Dutch prime minister and Hamas apologist.

In a Continent stuck in denial about both Palestinian anti-Semitism and Europe’s own resurgent Jew-hatred, hidden behind the label of anti-Zionism, Mr. Meotti’s hard read is a breath of fresh air.

Mr. de Winter is a Dutch novelist. His latest book is “The Right of Return” (De Bezige Bij ,2008).


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The Trouble With Talking to the Taliban

As in Vietnam, compromise is not in the insurgents’ playbook.

So the U.S. has now given safe passage to senior Taliban commanders for parleys with the Afghan government in Kabul. That’s good for Hamid Karzai, who must look to his own post-American world, good for the Obama administration, which wants a politically graceful exit from Afghanistan, and excellent for the Taliban, which seeks to return to power. Too bad it also risks turning Afghanistan into another Vietnam.

By late 1967, the U.S. had been fighting in Vietnam for seven years, combat deaths were at the 10,000 mark, and pundits and policy makers (though not yet the public) were concluding the war was unwinnable. The Johnson administration had undertaken a bombing campaign of the North but had refused to go after communist sanctuaries in neighboring Laos or Cambodia, or to disrupt the supply of Soviet arms. Nor would the U.S. invade the North out of a misplaced fear of Chinese intervention.

Under those restrictive conditions, the war really was unwinnable. But rather than change the military strategy, the administration opted to change the diplomatic one. In September 1967, Johnson announced his willingness to halt the bombing in exchange for “productive discussions” with the North. Productive meaning what? Hanoi’s idea of diplomacy was first to object to the shape of the negotiating table, and then to insist that the U.S. collude in overthrowing the government of South Vietnam.

It would be another five years before an agreement was reached. It was less the product of the talks themselves than of a series of sharp military reversals for the North. And even then the agreement proved meaningless: The North refused to honor its terms, and the U.S. lacked the political will to enforce them. And so Vietnam was lost.

What, then, did the talks accomplish? Politically, they were supposed to demonstrate that the U.S. wanted peace. The antiwar movement was not impressed. Strategically, they were supposed to offer the U.S. an alternative to a victory that U.S. policy makers had concluded was beyond reach. But as Henry Kissinger would later observe, “Hanoi’s leaders had launched their war in order to win, not to cut a deal.”

On the other hand, what the talks did do was provide the North with innumerable opportunities to pocket U.S. concessions, forestall U.S. military actions, and manipulate U.S. public opinion. If negotiations were, for Washington, an effort to end the war, for Hanoi they were a form of warfare by other means.

Now to Afghanistan. Plainly the war there is not Vietnam redux. The Taliban has a more limited base of popular support and no superpower patron. Their sanctuaries in Pakistan are nothing like North Vietnam itself. The U.S. military has internalized the lessons of counterinsurgency doctrine. American combat deaths over nine years of war are barely half of what the U.S. lost in May 1968 alone. The war remains eminently winnable.

But all that is put at risk the moment the U.S. embarks on the same talk-and-fight strategy it adopted in Vietnam. If winning over the Taliban’s “reconcilables” were the goal, we could simply adopt an amnesty strategy on the same generous terms Colombia offered FARC deserters. High-level negotiations are another story.

How shall we expect the Taliban to negotiate? Their first tactic—disavowing that the commanders who went to Kabul speak for the Taliban itself—is straight out of the guerrilla’s playbook: By creating the illusion of a gap between their negotiators and fighters (think Sinn Fein and the IRA), they permit the negotiators to maintain a veneer of credibility without compromising their military options.

Second, they will make maximalist demands, in the expectation that Mr. Karzai or the U.S. will moderate their own negotiating stance. This was the experience of the U.S. in Vietnam, just as it is now between the West and Iran.

Third, they will seek to exploit latent divisions between Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration. What happens in the event that Mr. Karzai is prepared to accept terms unacceptable to the U.S., such as sharing power with Mullah Omar? Ultimately, we are in Afghanistan to defend core U.S. interests, not the whims of its capricious president.

Fourth, the Taliban will create security problems that it will then offer to “solve” at the price of this or that concession. Kim Jong Il is the master of this style of bargaining.

Finally, the Taliban will never honor any agreement it makes. Like most modern insurgencies, its grievances are all pretexts: What it seeks is absolute power, exercised without restraint. We know how that movie ends.

There’s one way—and only one way—the U.S. could get the Taliban to come to terms: a series of decisive military blows that give them no other option. At that point, who would want to rehabilitate them? Surely not an administration intent on avoiding, as this one so keenly is, “another Vietnam.”

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Lethal Force Under Law

The Obama administration has sharply expanded the shadow war against terrorists, using both the military and the C.I.A. to track down and kill hundreds of them, in a dozen countries, on and off the battlefield.

The drone program has been effective, killing more than 400 Al Qaeda militants this year alone, according to American officials, but fewer than 10 noncombatants. But assassinations are a grave act and subject to abuse — and imitation by other countries. The government needs to do a better job of showing the world that it is acting in strict compliance with international law.

The United States has the right under international law to try to prevent attacks being planned by terrorists connected to Al Qaeda, up to and including killing the plotters. But it is not within the power of a commander in chief to simply declare anyone anywhere a combatant and kill them, without the slightest advance independent oversight. The authorization for military force approved by Congress a week after 9/11 empowers the president to go after only those groups or countries that committed or aided the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s distortion of that mandate led to abuses that harmed the United States around the world.

The issue of who can be targeted applies directly to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen, who officials have admitted is on an assassination list. Did he inspire through words the Army psychiatrist who shot up Fort Hood, Tex., last November, and the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas? Or did he actively participate in those plots, and others? The difference is crucial. If the United States starts killing every Islamic radical who has called for jihad, there will be no end to the violence.

American officials insist that Mr. Awlaki is involved with actual terror plots. But human rights lawyers working on his behalf say that is not the case, and have filed suit to get him off the target list. The administration wants the case thrown out on state-secrets grounds.

The Obama administration needs to go out of its way to demonstrate that it is keeping its promise to do things differently than the Bush administration did. It must explain how targets are chosen, demonstrate that attacks are limited and are a last resort, and allow independent authorities to oversee the process.

PUBLIC GUIDELINES The administration keeps secret its standards for putting people on terrorist or assassination lists. In March, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, said the government adheres to international law, attacking only military targets and keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust,” he said in a speech, without describing them.

Privately, government officials say no C.I.A. drone strike takes place without the approval of the United States ambassador to the target country, the chief of the C.I.A. station, a deputy at the agency, and the agency’s director. So far, President Obama’s system of command seems to have prevented any serious abuses, but the approval process is entirely within the administration. After the abuses under President Bush, the world is not going to accept a simple “trust us” from the White House.

There have been too many innocent people rounded up for detention and subjected to torture, too many cases of mistaken identity or trumped-up connections to terror. Unmanned drones eliminate the element of risk to American forces and make it seductively easy to attack.

The government needs to make public its guidelines for determining who is a terrorist and who can be targeted for death. It should clearly describe how it follows international law in these cases and list the internal procedures and checks it uses before a killing is approved. That can be done without formally acknowledging the strikes are taking place in specific countries.

LIMIT TARGETS The administration should state that it is following international law by acting strictly in self-defense, targeting only people who are actively planning or participating in terror, or who are leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban — not those who raise funds for terror groups, or who exhort others to acts of terror.

Special measures are taken before an American citizen is added to the terrorist list, officials say, requiring the approval of lawyers from the National Security Council and the Justice Department. But again, those measures have not been made public. Doing so would help ensure that people like Mr. Awlaki are being targeted for terrorist actions, not their beliefs or associations.

A LAST RESORT Assassination should in every case be a last resort. Before a decision is made to kill, particularly in areas away from recognized battlefields, the government needs to consider every other possibility for capturing the target short of lethal force. Terrorists operating on American soil should be captured using police methods, and not subject to assassination.

If practical, the United States should get permission from a foreign government before carrying out an attack on its soil. The government is reluctant to discuss any of these issues publicly, in part to preserve the official fiction that the United States is not waging a formal war in Pakistan and elsewhere, but it would not harm that effort to show the world how seriously it takes international law by making clear its limits.

INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT Dealing out death requires additional oversight outside the administration. Particularly in the case of American citizens, like Mr. Awlaki, the government needs to employ some due process before depriving someone of life. It would be logistically impossible to conduct a full-blown trial in absentia of every assassination target, as the lawyers for Mr. Awlaki prefer. But judicial review could still be employed.

The government could establish a court like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes wiretaps on foreign agents inside the United States. Before it adds people to its target list and begins tracking them, the government could take its evidence to this court behind closed doors — along with proof of its compliance with international law — and get the equivalent of a judicial warrant in a timely and efficient way.

Congressional leaders are secretly briefed on each C.I.A. attack, and say they are satisfied with the information they get and with the process. Nonetheless, that process is informal and could be changed at any time by this president or his successors. Formal oversight is a better way of demonstrating confidence in American methods.

Self-defense under international law not only shows the nation’s resolve and power, but sends a powerful message to other countries that the United States couples drastic action with careful judgment.

Editorial, New York Times


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Your move, Mr. Abbas

The prospects are dim but the process is right. The Obama administration is to be commended for structuring the latest rounds of Middle East talks correctly. Finally, we’re leaving behind interim agreements, of which the most lamentable were the Oslo accords of 1993.

The logic then was that issues so complicated could only be addressed step by step in the expectation that things get easier over time. In fact, they got harder. Israel made concrete concessions — bringing in Yasser Arafat to run the West Bank and Gaza — in return for which Israel received growing threats, continuous incitement and finally a full-scale terror war that killed more than a thousand innocent Israelis.

Among the victims was the Israeli peace movement and its illusions about Palestinian acceptance of Israel. The Israeli left, mugged by reality, is now moribund. And the Israeli right is chastened. No serious player believes it can hang on forever to the West Bank.

This has created a unique phenomenon in Israel — a broad-based national consensus for giving nearly all the West Bank in return for peace. The moment is doubly unique because the only man who can deliver such a deal is Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — and he is prepared to do it.

Hence the wisdom of how the Obama administration has shaped the coming talks: No interim deals, no partial agreements. There are no mutual concessions that can be made separately within the great issues — territory, security, Jerusalem, the so-called right of return — to reach agreement. The concessions must be among these issues — thus if Israel gives up its dream of a united Jerusalem, for example, the Palestinians in return give up their dream of the right of return.

Most important is the directive issued by U.S. peace negotiator George Mitchell: What’s under discussion is a final settlement of the conflict. Meaning, no further claims. Conflict over.

What’s standing in the way? Israeli settlements? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s most nationalist politicians, lives in a settlement and has said openly that to achieve peace he and his family would abandon their home. What about the religious settlers? Might they not resist? Some tried that during the Gaza withdrawal, clinging to synagogue rooftops. What happened? Jewish soldiers pulled them down and took them away. If Israel is offered real peace, the soldiers will do that again.

The obstacle today, as always, is Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state. That has been the core issue of the conflict from 1947 through Camp David 2000, when Arafat rejected Israel’s extraordinarily generous peace offer, made no counteroffer and started a terror war (the Second Intifada) two months later.

A final peace was there to be had. It remains on the table today. Unfortunately, there’s no more sign today of a Palestinian desire for final peace than there was at Camp David. Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants such an agreement (doubtful but possible), he simply doesn’t have the authority. To accept a Jewish state, Abbas needs some kind of national consensus behind him. He doesn’t even have a partial consensus. Hamas, which exists to destroy Israel, controls part of Palestine (Gaza) and is a powerful rival to Abbas’s Fatah even in his home territory of the West Bank.

Indeed, this week Abbas flatly told al-Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper, “We won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” Nice way to get things off on the right foot.

What will Abbas do? Unable and/or unwilling to make peace, he will exploit President Obama’s tactical blunder, the settlement freeze imposed on Israel despite the fact that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had gone on without such a precondition for 16 years prior. Abbas will walk out if the freeze is not renewed on Sept. 26. You don’t need to be prescient to see that coming. Abbas has already announced that is what he’ll do.

That would solve all of Abbas’s problems. It would obviate signing on to a final settlement, fend off Hamas and make Israel the fall guy.

The trifecta. Why not walk out? The world, which already condemns Israel even for self-defense, will be only too eager to blame Israel for the negotiation breakdown. And there is growing pressure to create a Palestinian state even if the talks fail — i.e., even if the Palestinians make no concessions at all. So why make any?

The talks are well designed. Unfortunately, Abbas knows perfectly well how to undermine them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Our distracted commander in chief

Many have charged that President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan 10 months from now is hampering our war effort. But now it’s official. In a stunning statement last week, Marine Corps Commandant James Conway admitted that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.”

A remarkably bold charge for an active military officer. It stops just short of suggesting aiding and abetting the enemy. Yet the observation is obvious: It is surely harder to prevail in a war that hinges on the allegiance of the locals when they hear the U.S. president talk of beginning a withdrawal that will ultimately leave them to the mercies of the Taliban.

How did Obama come to this decision? “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” an Obama adviser told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

If this is true, then Obama’s military leadership can only be called scandalous. During the past week, 22 Americans were killed over a four-day period in Afghanistan. This is not a place about which decisions should be made in order to placate members of Congress, pass health care and thereby maintain a president’s political standing. This is a place about which a president should make decisions to best succeed in the military mission he himself has set out.

But Obama sees his wartime duties as a threat to his domestic agenda. These wars are a distraction, unwanted interference with his true vocation — transforming America.

Such an impression could only have been reinforced when, given the opportunity in his Oval Office address this week to dispel the widespread perception in Afghanistan that America is leaving, Obama doubled down on his ambivalence. After giving a nod to the pace of troop reductions being conditions-based, he declared with his characteristic “but make no mistake” that “this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

These are the words of a man who wants out. Most emphatically from Iraq, where Obama has long made clear that his objective is simply ending combat operations by an arbitrary deadline — despite the fact that a new government has not been formed and all our hard-won success hangs in the balance — in order to address the more paramount concern: keeping a campaign promise. Time to “turn the page” and turn America elsewhere.

At first you’d think that turning is to Afghanistan. But Obama added nothing to his previously stated Afghan policy while emphatically reiterating July 2011 as the beginning of the end, or more diplomatically, of the “transition.”

Well then, at least you’d expect some vision of his larger foreign policy. After all, this was his first Oval Office address on the subject. What is the meaning, if any, of the Iraq and Afghan wars? And what of the clouds that are forming beyond those theaters: the drone-war escalation in Pakistan, the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the danger of Somalia falling to al-Shabab, and the threat of renewed civil war in Islamist Sudan as a referendum on independence for southern Christians and animists approaches?

This was the stage for Obama to explain what follows the now-abolished Global War on Terror. Where does America stand on the spreading threats to stability, decency and U.S. interests from the Horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush?

On this, not a word. Instead, Obama made a strange and clumsy segue into a pep talk on the economy. Rebuilding it, he declared, “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.” This in a speech ostensibly about the two wars he is directing. He could not have made more clear where his priorities lie, and how much he sees foreign policy — war policy — as subordinate to his domestic ambitions.

Unfortunately, what for Obama is a distraction is life or death for U.S. troops now on patrol in Kandahar province. Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does. Obama needs to accept the role. It’s not just the U.S. military, as Baker reports, that is “worried he is not fully invested in the cause.” Our allies, too, are experiencing doubt. And our enemies are drawing sustenance.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Obama’s ‘Come Home America’ Speech

A dangerous world needs stronger U.S. leadership.

At times Tuesday night, it sounded as if President Barack Obama didn’t know what kind of speech he wanted to give. Was it a foreign policy address aimed at assuring a world-wide audience of America’s resolve in the war against militant Islam? Or was it an election stump speech to confirm to voters that the economy is job No. 1 for this president and his party?

The speech’s best moments were those praising the commitment, courage and sacrifice of America’s military. The president powerfully said that “our troops are the steel in our ship of state,” and all who serve join “an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar.”

For someone who had been such a vocal war opponent, he was generous in acknowledging what our troops accomplished—defeating “a regime that had terrorized its people” and helping “Iraq seize the chance for a better future.” Because of our troops, he said, “Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”

As a foreign policy address, however, the speech missed the mark. While Mr. Obama did acknowledge that the U.S. “intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership” in the world, most foreign observers will probably remember the president’s tone of haste, withdrawal and even retreat. His phrase, “It is time to turn the page,” caught many an ear around the world—and not to America’s advantage.

Mr. Obama’s was not the confident voice of Harry S. Truman promising to protect Europe and Japan against “outright aggression and . . . the threat of further armed attack.” Nor did the president sound like the determined Dwight Eisenhower explaining America’s commitment to South Korea’s transition to democracy after the Korean War by saying, “We may not now relax our guard nor cease our quest.”

Instead, Mr. Obama’s address was more reminiscent of Sen. George McGovern’s plea in the 1972 presidential campaign to “Come home, America.” It sounded like he couldn’t head for the Iraq exit door quickly enough.

Imagine if after World War II, America had left Europe in the face of the aggressive Soviet threat. What would Asia look like now if, following the Korean War, the U.S. had set a quick date for withdrawal from the peninsula?

As much as he may wish, Mr. Obama cannot ignore Iraq or withdraw prematurely from Afghanistan. He has ownership of both wars; it’s part of his job description. He will share in the wars’ success or be blamed if they are lost. And he will have a better chance of succeeding if our friends and enemies sense resolve, rather than weariness.

The world needs a determined United States. It is in the security, diplomatic and economic interests of our nation to provide to Iraq and Afghanistan the same patient leadership we provided in Europe and Asia. We face new threats from Iran. China and Russia are both flexing their muscles. Telegraphing to the world that America is no longer a dependable ally is the worst possible message a president can send.

Tuesday might have been better spent visiting not just Fort Bliss but other military installations as well to honor all the services. Then Mr. Obama could have given an Oval Office address when the new Iraqi government is formed, pairing progress on security with political success.

Mr. Obama suggested that a trillion dollars had been squandered to no good purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Are removing murderous regimes that were threats to peace and stability, catalyzing change in the Arab Middle East by expanding democracy, dealing a brutal blow to al Qaeda, protecting the American homeland, and diminishing the threat of transnational terrorism really of so little value to the president?

Speaking of trillions, have we prospered because of the trillion dollars Mr. Obama is spending on stimulus? Are we more confident of our country’s future because Mr. Obama will lay out two-and-a-half trillion dollars in ObamaCare’s first decade of operation? Do back-to-back-to-back deficits under this president—each of more than a trillion dollars—give us comfort about his fiscal leadership?

All issues pale compared to the question of U.S. leadership. America can either shape the world’s agenda, or wait for direction from international organizations.

Suggesting that only by withdrawing from the world can a president “jump-start industries,” reform education, and make “tough decisions” about issues at home leaves the impression that Mr. Obama has little interest in being commander in chief, that his real passion is domestic issues and his goal to mold America into a European-style social democracy.

Presidents can simultaneously pursue international and domestic agendas. In dangerous times, it is vital that the president use America’s power to shape the world.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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Time stands still in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Say what you will about the Arab world, it’s hard to earn its gratitude. President Obama went to Egypt and not Israel. He demanded that Israel cease adding new settlements in the West Bank. He treated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a chilling disdain. For all of that, though, Obama’s approval rating in Arab countries has sunk. Unlike almost a fifth of Americans, the Arab world clearly knows Obama is no Muslim.

The polls show some startling numbers. When this spring the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked residents of Islamic countries what they thought about Obama, he got good marks when it came to such matters as climate change. But when the question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the numbers not only declined in Indonesia and Turkey, they nearly went through the floor in the three Arab countries polled. In Jordan, 84 percent disapproved of the way Obama was handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Egypt, the figure was 88 percent and in Lebanon it was 90 percent.

For Obama, the figures must be disheartening. They strongly suggest that his attempt to woo the Arab world, to convince it that America can be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has dismally failed. In fact, the extent of this failure is most stark in Lebanon. There, 100 percent of Shiite respondents — in other words, Hezbollah and others — have no faith in Obama and his good intentions. This may be a setback for Obama, but it is paradoxically a success for American values.

What the Arab world seems to appreciate is that America will never agree to what the Arab world most wants — an Islamic state where a Jewish one now exists. This entirely reasonable conclusion is based on what has long been American policy — not what the State Department wanted but what the American people supported. America has always liked the idea of Israel. The Arab world, for totally understandable reasons, has always hated it. Nothing has changed.

A fundamental document in this area — a once-secret CIA analysis from 1947 — was unearthed (to my knowledge) by Thomas W. Lippman and reported in the winter 2007 issue of the Middle East Journal. The CIA strongly argued that the creation of Israel was not in America’s interests and that therefore Washington ought to be opposed. This was no different than what later diplomats and military men (most recently, David Petraeus) have argued and it is without a doubt correct. Supporting Israel hurts America in the Islamic — particularly the Arab — world and, given the crucial importance of Middle Eastern oil, makes no practical sense.

The CIA further argued that the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict would soon widen to become an Israeli-Islamic conflict — another bull’s-eye for what was then an infant intelligence service. That process was already underway, which is why some non-Arabs (Bosnian Muslims, for instance) fought the creation of Israel, and has only intensified as radical Islam, laced with healthy doses of anti-Semitism, has gotten even stronger.

But where the CIA went wrong — and not, alas, for the last time — was in predicting that the Arabs would defeat Israel and that the state would not survive. The CIA was pretty sure of the outcome, what a later CIA figure might have called a “slam dunk.”

What neither the CIA nor, for that matter, the anti-Israel State Department recognized in the late 1940s is that America’s interests are not always measurably pragmatic — metrics, in the jargon of our day. Sometimes, our interests reflect our national ethic, an affinity for other democracies, sympathy for the underdog. These, too, are in America’s interests and they may be modified, but not abandoned, for the sake of mere metrics.

This is why Obama’s overture to the Arab world, clumsily executed, was never going to succeed. America can please some Arab governments — Egypt and Jordan, for instance — but not the Arab people. What they want, and what they have been told repeatedly they deserve, is a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel and control over all of Jerusalem. These are both out of the question as far as Israel is concerned. It is not willing to give up its capital and, in a relatively short time, its Jewish majority.

This week, Palestinians and Israelis will once again talk peace in Washington. But until both sides, particularly the Arab peoples, give up on what they really want, the clock will remain where it has been. Those Pew polls show that’s around 1947.

Richard Cohen, Washington Post


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Defining the Afghan Deadline Down

The president’s advisers agree: We’re not leaving next July.

If you are among those who think Barack Obama gives too many speeches, you may not be tuning in this evening when the president takes to the airwaves to speak to the American people about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

If you do tune in, and you are hoping for some encouragement about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, you may go away more alarmed than reassured. For when it comes to war speeches, President Obama likes to combine his firm statements of purpose with even firmer statements about heading for the exits. In other words, expect the usual quotient of wince-inducing moments.

Here’s the good news: The Obama policy is better than the Obama rhetoric.

Only three months ago, President Obama told us that Afghanistan today is “no less important than it was in those days after 9/11.” As a candidate who became a Democratic contender largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, however, Mr. Obama has used his speeches to shore up his left flank. He knows that the left doesn’t want to hear anything about Afghanistan unless it has to do with deadlines and departure dates.

That’s probably one reason he simply doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. If you want an eye-opening sign of administration priorities, go to the White House website and search in “speeches and remarks” for “health care.” You’ll find 400 items since he took office. Now plug in “Afghanistan” and you’ll find just 202.

The rhetorical detachment is provoking second thoughts among many who otherwise support the president’s surge in Afghanistan. Their logic is unassailable. If the president is not fully committed to victory, does it not become absurd, even immoral, to continue to send Americans there to die?

One answer is that his actions may be a better indicator than his words. Notwithstanding his uncertain oratorical trumpet, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy began with more troops. He has escalated the drone strikes against the enemy hiding in neighboring Pakistan. When the McChrystal flap put him in the position of relieving his top general in Afghanistan, he replaced him with an even stronger one: David Petraeus. As if to underscore the point, he put Gen. Jim Mattis—a Marine’s Marine—at Centcom. It’s hard to think of a better team.

It’s true that these good decisions have been undermined by his rhetorical aloofness, as well as by his announcement that we would begin withdrawing troops next July. Indeed, only a few days ago, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, said that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” Though this president is not likely ever to admit that setting this date was a mistake, he and his team have done the next best thing: defined the deadline down.

It’s not only Gen. Petraeus. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs (“conditions on the ground will determine the slope of that withdrawal”), Vice President Joe Biden (“conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership”), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“it’s a conditions-based withdrawal”), and Defense Secretary Bob Gates (“the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground”) have all made similar comments walking back the deadline.

The point is that there are withdrawals, and there are withdrawals. Back in 2007, when Gen. Petraeus famously testified before Congress about the progress in Iraq, we forget that the first, post-surge withdrawal of troops—2,200 Marines from Anbar—had already begun. Likewise next July marks only a beginning, and the administration can define that drawdown however it wants.

Gen. Petraeus says we can prevail in Afghanistan. Surely he has earned the chance to try, as well as the trust that he will speak up if he finds himself shortchanged on time or resources. Even Gen. Conway, who was so blunt about how talk of a withdrawal has emboldened the enemy, was quick to add that the Taliban is likely to be extremely disheartened when the date comes and goes and most of our forces are still there.

When it comes to war rhetoric, manifestly Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. Yet having arrived at the Oval Office, he appears to have discerned a truth that continues to elude other members of his administration: However weary Americans may be of long wars, they don’t like losing them. In the same vein, whether this president goes down as a new FDR or a new LBJ will likely be determined by how the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

On issue after issue, President Obama stands accused of a huge gap between word and deed. In the long run, this contradiction is not sustainable, especially for a war president. At least for the short term in Afghanistan, however, it’s our best case for hope.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal


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Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang

Back to the same old North Korean games.

The first time Jimmy Carter travelled to North Korea, in 1994 to negotiate a nuclear deal, we wrote that “every demarche from Pyongyang will be entertained by other governments in light of the fear that North Korea wields a nuclear threat.” Fast forward 16 years to the second Carter visit, and we may be at the beginning of another such cycle.

Mr. Carter and Obama Administration officials were quick to call last week’s trip to rescue 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes, a prisoner of the North Korean regime since January, a “private” humanitarian visit. The U.S. had legitimate concerns about his health, given the North’s infamous prisons.

But Mr. Carter wouldn’t have been able to travel to North Korea without official permission, and he stuck around for an extra day in the hopes of seeing Kim Jong Il, who was travelling in China with his third son, his presumed heir. Kim snubbed Mr. Carter, yet his number two told the former President the North wants to resume the six-party talks. China’s nuclear envoy carried the same message to Seoul, and U.S. doves like former State Department official Joel Wit echoed that call in the New York Times.

Aijalon Gomes and former President Jimmy Carter

This sudden outbreak of diplomatic fervor isn’t a coincidence; the North and its allies are good at preaching the virtues of negotiation when Pyongyang is at its most vulnerable. The Clinton Administration was preparing sanctions on the North when Mr. Carter negotiated what became the 1994 Agreed Framework. In that deal, the U.S. gave the North financing for two light-water nuclear reactors, security guarantees and energy. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program.

In 2006, when Bush Administration financial sanctions started to bite, North Korea tested a nuclear device, and the U.S. again caved, agreeing to return the dirty money in exchange for more talks. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program. See a pattern here?

Returning to the six-party talks now would again reward bad behavior. Unlike the U.S., the North has shown no willingness to keep its promises. Since talks stalled the North has conducted another nuclear test; launched missiles near Japan; sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; seized political prisoners; expropriated South Korean assets and threatened a nuclear attack.

This is a sign of vulnerability, not strength. On the economic front, a botched currency reform last year created hyperinflation and resulted in rare public protests. Floods this month have devastated agriculture. On the political front, Kim is reportedly getting ready to transfer power to his son at next month’s rare party conference, even though Kim Jong Eun is seen as young, inexperienced and possibly unable to control the military.

All of this raises questions about what diplomacy might achieve. The six-party talks benefit the North by giving Pyongyang global legitimacy and a sanctions reprieve, and they benefit China by giving Beijing free diplomatic leverage in a process in which it is the North’s main enabler. Do the U.S. and its allies really want another Agreed Framework?

Rather than entertain fantasies about the North’s intentions, the better strategy is to keep the sanctions pressure on with the goal of hastening the regime’s demise and, as South Korea is already doing, preparing for the collapse.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Special Forces Ratchet Up Fight Against Taliban

Aggressive Tactics in Afghanistan

US Army Special Operations Forces: Progress reported in fight against Taliban

Through nighttime attacks and drone strikes, special forces led by the United States have massively ratcheted up their hunt for Taliban. In the past three months alone, the highly secretive forces have eliminated 365 insurgent commanders.

The international troops in Afghanistan this year, under the command of the United States, have massively stepped up the hunt for top Taliban by special forces. The units, which operate secretly and are kept apart from the normal troops, have conducted hundreds of operations in recent months in an intensity not seen before in an effort to breakdown the Taliban’s resistance, weaken its leadership ranks and to eliminate networks of bomb planters.

Insiders have long known about the increased deployment of the special forces, but for the first time in the history of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, concrete figures about the deployments — which neither NATO nor the US military speaks about publicly — have been named. During the second week of August, leaders of the NATO troops under ISAF Commander David Petraeus were given a classified briefing on the massive anti-Taliban offensive, which began at the end of 2009, and progress that has been made.

SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned from reliable sources that the four-star general and his staff informed diplomats and top military officials that in the past three months alone, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders have been killed — mostly through targeted operations by the special forces, comprised of heavily armed elite soldiers from all branches of the US military. In addition, 1,395 people, including many Taliban foot soldiers, have been arrested.

The briefing on the latest progress in the war, which covered the period between May 8 and August 8, provides a rare glimpse into an aspect of the Afghanistan war that up until know has only been known by the US government and a few top politicians from other NATO member states. The military officials reported that the commanders and those arrested had been “taken out of the game.”

Special Forces Mostly Strike at Night

Since the briefing, the details have driven internal discussions about the future of the mission within the international community present in Kabul. Although the military leadership is speaking in a conspicuously cautious manner about its first small successes in the fight against the Taliban, the special forces’ actions could complicate cooperation with the Afghan government. Diplomats are concerned that the elimination of the Taliban hierarchy could conflict with the declared goal of reintegrating some members of these groups.

Above all, the spectacular statistics show one thing: The will of the military leadership to reach a turning point in Afghanstan in the coming months. The sheer number of the operations strikingly underscores that General Petraeus, like his predecessor Stanley McChrystal, wants to use the special forces to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan.

It’s the first time in the US military-led invasion of the country in which Taliban leaders have been sought in such a targeted manner. It’s also the first time so many insurgents have been arrested or assassinated in targeted killings. Western diplomats who have been briefed in recent days say that the current force of 145,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan is acting “with maximum force” right now.

For their part, military officials are taking a more sober view of the progress. Since US President Barack Obama approved an increase of 30,000 troops and announced a new strategy for the Afghanistan war in December 2009, the number of clandestine troops in the special forces has increased massively. By the summer of 2010, the number of special forces soldiers had tripled, according to the military progress report. Other details in the briefing included:

  • the fact that, in almost all instances, 82 percent, the elite soldiers struck at night
  • the special forces’ main target were Taliban structures in the southern part of the country, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s terror network in the east and foreign fighters with connections to al-Qaida
  • regional Taliban commanders, heads of so-called IED-cells (who attack alliance troops with explosives) and al-Qaida contact persons, have been the subject of targeted air strikes or they have been killed during arrest attempts.
  • the special forces, including the successor to the US military’s notorious Task Force 373, always act together with Afghan soldiers they had trained.

There are differences of opinion over the success of the special forces’ offensive. High-ranking US officers and NATO commanders are cautiously stating that they have had their first successes in limiting the freedom of movement of the Taliban leadership ranks. But it is still too early to draw any qualitative conclusions, an intelligence officer on Petreaus’ staff said.

In the district of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, intelligence workers say, no one has been willing to step up into the role of at least one Taliban shadow governor who was targeted and eliminated by the special forces. “The leaders of the Taliban shura had appointed a successor, but the man is remaining in Pakistan,” one officer reported.

Karzai Criticizes Hunting of Taliban

But diplomats have expressed doubts over whether the robust military strategy can be reconciled with the one agreed to at a number of international conferences to find a solution through negotiating politically with the Taliban. “In the military leadership, people like to say that the best way to negotiate with the Taliban is when they are at rock bottom,” one European diplomat said after a meeting with the ISAF leadership. “But perhaps the operations have the effect of providing additional motivation for the insurgency movement.”

Most operations take place in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Taliban strongholds. But another important battleground is the Kunduz area in the north where Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are in command. In Kunduz, where Germany has a base with 1,400 soldiers, and in Baghlan, the special forces were and continue to be deployed on missions almost every night. Dozens of insurgents have been captured or killed in targeted killings. Military officials recently reported that a senior member of al-Qaida had also been eliminated.

So far, German troops have not taken part in the deadly hunt against top Taliban. Germany’s own special elite force, the KSK, has also stayed out of the operations by the American units. But that doesn’t mean the Germans aren’t aware of what is going on. In Mazar-i-Sharif, an American serves as the deputy head of the regional command for the north. He informs his boss, Brigadier General Hans-Werner Fritz of the Bundeswehr, of his plans and the execution of the missions. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has also been briefed in detail. So far, the German troops have merely looked on as the US forces have gone into battle.

The aggressive approach has already stirred up resentment at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. In talks with European politicians in recent days, President Hamid Karzai has regularly criticized the robust hunt for Taliban. Karzai has warned that the battle against the Taliban must not be waged in the villages and he claims that he regularly receives reports of dishonorable behavior amongst the units.

But military officials say they are doing everything they can to prevent civilian casualties. According the progress briefing, civilians in the period observed only died in 1 percent of the special forces actions. But that is the kind of collateral damage the Karzai likes to use as an opportunity to criticize the foreign troops and win public support.

The bloody progress made by the special forces could trigger similar reflexes in Karzai.


Full article and photo:,1518,714016,00.html

The Twenty Years’ War

Defeating Saddam took 19 years too long.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Two decades later, on Aug. 18, 2010, the U.S. withdrew its last combat brigade from Iraq. Throughout those years U.S. military operations went under a variety of names—including Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War in Iraq—but over time they will be seen as part of an unbroken thread.

It ought to be called the Twenty Years’ War. That was probably 19 years too long.

It matters what we call our wars, lest we fail to understand them—and lest we repeat them, because we failed to understand. When the Great War came to be spoken of as “the war to end all wars” (a line variously attributed to David Lloyd George, H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson) it underscored how ill-prepared that generation was to prevent the next great conflict.

Similarly in Iraq. In 1991, the first Bush administration failed to understand that its war was not against what Saddam had done in Kuwait. It was against Saddam himself, his regime, and the forces of Arab radicalism he typified and championed. Desert Storm, it turned out, proved an apt name for a military operation that had been blinded to its own real purposes.

Thus Kuwait was liberated but Saddam stayed on for another 12 years, supposedly—as Madeleine Albright notoriously put it—”in a box.” In that box, he killed tens of thousands of Iraq’s Shiites, caused a humanitarian crisis among the Kurds, attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush, profited from a sanctions regime that otherwise starved his own people, compelled a “no-fly zone” that cost the U.S. $1 billion a year to police, defied more than a dozen U.N. sanctions, corrupted the U.N. Secretariat, evicted U.N. weapons inspectors and gave cash prizes to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

All this was war by another name, which meant that when the question of invading Iraq arose after 9/11, the choice was not between war and peace. Rather, as former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote in these pages at the time, it was “between sustaining a military effort designed to contain Saddam Hussein and a military effort designed to replace him.” For Mr. Kerrey, “the case for the second choice [was] overwhelming.”

It says something that the invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom—a better approximation of its aims than the ill-founded claims about WMD that nearly proved the war’s political undoing. Still, war aims are not only what a nation fights for, which, as Lincoln discovered, could change with the course of war. War aims are also about what a nation fights against.

In that sense, Iraq was invaded so that Saddam and his henchmen, Iraq’s ultimate weapons of mass destruction, would hang. To hang them meant serving the interests of justice, and satisfying a justified impulse for revenge. It also meant making an example of a uniquely aggressive Arab tyrant who thought he could defy and manipulate the West with impunity.

One of the more popular raps against the war is that it discredited the United States and the exercise of American power. That’s unlikely, since the world has a way of constantly re-discovering the benefits of that power: Think of the Balkans in the 1990s, or East Asia today in the face of China’s assertiveness.

What the war did accomplish was to discredit a cult-of-personality style of Arab politics pioneered in the 1950s by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. (His pharaonic successor, Hosni Mubarak, is on the way out.) More, the war led to what has been called “the eclipse of the Arab world.” Today the world’s leading Muslim states—Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey—are all non-Arab. Not since the 1930s have the Arabs counted geopolitically for so little.

Ironically, this eclipse has somewhat dimmed the broader significance of Iraq’s democracy, at least for the time being. The U.S. has bequeathed Iraqis exactly what the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia bequeathed Americans: A republic, if they can keep it. If they do, it could be a Muslim model of democratic governance and ethnic and sectarian pluralism. It may be achievement enough to have an Iraqi government that threatens neither its own people nor its neighbors, and for the rest of the Arabs to be on their guard against future Saddams.

For the U.S., the achievement would be greater if it led to a military and diplomatic alliance with Baghdad as a counterweight to Iran. But that depends on whether the Obama administration chooses to interpret the war as a complete misadventure or as a potentially fruitful opportunity.

One thing is clear: The Twenty Years’ War lasted as long as it did because the first Bush administration failed to finish it when it could, and because the Clinton administration pretended it wasn’t happening. Should we now draw the lesson that hesitation and delay are the best policy? Or that wars are best fought swiftly to their necessary conclusion? The former conclusion did not ultimately spare us the war. The latter would have spared us one of 20 years.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Mideast Sirens

Grounds for a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace don’t seem to exist.

Henry Kissinger once wrote that “when enough bureaucratic prestige has been invested in a policy it is easier to see it fail than to abandon it.” So it is with the Obama Administration’s latest efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The prospects for success are bleak, but everyone still wants to give it that old State Department try.

The hopeful news, to the extent some exists, is that both sides will engage in “direct” talks after nearly two years of “proximity” sparring. The U.S. will host and presumably midwife the early September talks in which the two sides will have to confront their major differences face to face. Optimists suggest that this could be another 1979 moment, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat both took an unlikely leap against their own histories and signed an Israeli-Egyptian peace.

The fundamentals today argue against such a joint leap. Israel is less secure now than it was then, especially with the rise of Iran as a menacing regional power. Tehran has supplied its proxy, Hezbollah, with 45,000 rockets aimed at Israel from across the border in Lebanon—despite Condoleezza Rice’s assurances that the U.N. would stop the rocket supply after the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Iran also arms Hamas, which now controls Gaza and is sworn to Israel’s destruction. Syria is as much part of Iran’s orbit as it was two years ago, despite much U.S. pleading and high-profile visits to Damascus by John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi.

These realities understandably make Israel determined to keep a military presence on the West Bank border with Jordan as part of any new Palestinian statehood—to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Lebanon or Gaza. Israel also wants a long phase-in of any withdrawal from the West Bank, again as a way of building confidence in long-term security.

This will all be difficult for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to accept. Even if he does, Hamas will denounce any peace treaty and use violence to sabotage it. Hamas abruptly ceased its reconciliation talks with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, merely because the PA agreed to participate in the September direct talks with Israel.

Mr. Abbas also wants a Palestinian exile “right of return” to Israel that no Israeli government can accept, lest it guarantee a majority Palestinian future on its soil. Then there’s the dispute over dividing Jerusalem, the Israeli capital that Israelis also won’t cede to the PA to the extent Mr. Abbas is seeking.

The U.S. will no doubt try to squeeze both sides to compromise, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has the kind of hawkish credibility that might let him sell concessions to the Israeli public. But he also leads a balky left-right coalition that could break apart if he concedes too much.

Rather than squeeze peace from these stones, the U.S. might make more progress with both Israel and Mr. Abbas if it stopped Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power. Israelis and Arabs saw on the weekend that Iran began loading fuel into its (ostensibly civilian) nuclear reactor at Bushehr, with the help of Russian fuel rods and no objection from the U.S. Russia says it will control the rods and return them to Russia, but any rods that disappear could be turned into weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran’s march to nuclear status is the security threat that dominates the region because it would instantly transform every nation’s strategic calculations. Israel is less likely to cede more territory for promises of peace if it knows that Hamas and Hezbollah are suddenly backed by an Iranian bomb. A diminished Iran with a shuttered or damaged nuclear program wouldn’t guarantee that Israel and the Palestinians could agree to a peace, but it would improve the chances.

The White House and U.N. officials argue that, whatever the long odds, there is no harm in trying. But sometimes there is harm in trying and failing. Mr. Obama is putting his own prestige on the line, and that supply is not unlimited. A loud failure might weaken Mr. Abbas’s political position among the Palestinians, while inflaming anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere. We certainly hope for the best, but the White House and Pentagon should prepare for the consequences of failure.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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‘The Invasion of Iraq Was Wrong, Unjust and Damaging’

The World from Berlin

A column of armored vehicles belonging to the last combat unit to leave Iraq approaches the border with Kuwait on Thursday morning

Has American credibility been severely damaged by the Iraq War? One day after the last US combat unit left the country, some in the German press say that it has. Commentators are pessimistic about Iraq’s ability to cope alone.

It has been seven and a half years since Shock and Awe, the military campaign launched by US and UK forces to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. On Thursday, the last US combat unit crossed the border into Kuwait with far less fanfare than when those first coalition forces arrived in March 2003.

Just before dawn on Thursday morning the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division passed through the border posts at the Khabari Crossing to Kuwait. One soldier, Luke Dill, now a staff sergeant, had been part of the initial invasion back in 2003 when he was just 18 years old. Now aged 25, he told the Associated Press that he would proud for the rest of his life that “I came in on the initial push and now I’m leaving with the last of the combat units.”

Yet the cost of the war has been enormous both financially and in terms of human lives. Over 4,400 US troops and 100,000 Iraqi civilians died during the conflict. And the country is by no means completely pacified, with sectarian and ethnic tensions still present and insurgents thought to be regaining strength.

US President Barack Obama had pledged to bring the troops home during his election campaign. And by Aug. 31 there will be just 50,000 US troops in the country, a contingent which is to take on a non-combat role. Yet doubts persist that Obama can fulfil his promise to have all the soldiers out of the country by the end of 2011.

Filling the Vacuum

While the violence that raged during the sectarian warfare of 2006-2007 has dropped significantly, there are still suicide bombings and attacks by Islamist insurgents. And five months after the elections in March, there is still no sight of a stable government. There are fears that sectarian violence, pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Arabs against Kurds, could return to fill the vacuum left by the Americans’ departure.

According to a US-Iraq military pact from 2009, US troops must be out of the country by Jan. 1, 2012 yet last week Robert Gates, Obama’s defense secretary, said that if a new Iraqi government is formed “and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we’re obviously open to that discussion.”

Those comments are not likely to have been welcomed by much of the Democratic party, which faces tough midterm elections in November. The US public is weary of almost a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Obama, who is up for re-election in 2012, will have to tread carefully.

Just last week Iraq’s military commander, Lieutenant-General Babakir Zebari, caused consternation when he said his troops would not be in a position to protect the country until 2020 and that Washington should keep its forces in Iraq until then.

The German press on Friday takes a look at the costs and consequences of the war, both for Iraq and for the US.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“The US could wage this war because after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the country was prepared for and even expected a large armed conflict. … The Bush administration believed that a war would give the country back its authority as the global super power. But the US could only wage the war because Iraq was so weak and easy to defeat.”

“The invasion of Iraq was wrong, unjust and damaging.”

“For the Iraqi people one inscrutable, violent regime has been replaced by another. And the promises of freedom and democracy are worthless if they can’t run a generator or help buy food.”

“This practical disillusion is paired with the strategic defeats that America has suffered… Because the invasion of Iraq broke international law, it reduced the meaning of that law for regulating how states deal with one another and damaged the UN’s legitimacy, which is responsible for enforcing it.”

“But the US has also weakened itself, where it was classically strong: as a hard power. America showed itself to be helpless during the worst years of the Iraq civil war and incapable of dealing with the complex insurgency. … America still plays an important role in the Middle East but Iran’s intractability and the polarization of the Sunni and Shiite worlds can be blamed on the Iraq War.”

“America’s claim to leadership is broken, its credibility severely damaged. The world has become more confusing and less safe. That is the legacy of this war.”

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

“The Iraqi Army is hardly in a position to provide security. The people will have to suffer much bloodshed in the future because the roots of terrorism have not been dealt with. Iraq is not able to deal with this by itself. It still doesn’t have a functioning government after the elections in March. This double vacuum provides a fertile breeding ground for extremist groups.”

“Washington has suffered terrible damage to its image in the Middle East. Iraq is not pacified and the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan because the US concentrated its military capacity in Iraq. Neighboring Iran is playing cat and mouse on the nuclear issue while peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is out of reach.”

“The Iraqis have few grounds for optimism. The US is not only leaving behind a security gap, but also a political mess. The institutional structures are too weak and the army too inexperienced to prevent the country from descending into chaos and anarchy.”

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

“President Barack Obama wants to make clear that he is sticking to one of his most important election promises and is bringing the troops back home. There is nothing much more to it. The war is far from over, never mind won.”

“Around 50,000 American soldiers are staying in Iraq and contrary to what the government seems to be suggesting, they are fullfledged soldiers who will attack if need be.”

“The Iraqi soldiers and police are not able to provide security everywhere in the country … and the number of terrorist attacks has increased recently, while five months of attempts to form a government have failed so far.”

“In such a volatile situation, the US cannot simply stubbornly stick to its withdrawal plans. … Instead of fixating on a date, the US should set concrete goals. The Iraqi security forces need better training so that they will be able to cope one day without American help.”

“Above all the Americans have to ensure that the Sunni minority is protected and well integrated in the political system. Otherwise there is a danger that radical Shiites — possibly with support from Iran — could take sole control.”

The conservative Die Welt writes:

“After years of being on the defensive and of strategic drift the US military proved itself capable of learning and turned around a war that hardly anyone thought was winnable. An amazing achievement.”

“It is now up to the Iraqis to make this experiment in Arab democracy work. The political elite are not creating a good image at the moment due to their inability to reach a compromise. And one of the region’s favorite sports is blaming the Americans for every ill in the Arab world. The Iraqis will not have this excuse if they waste this opportunity for freedom that the Americans have given them — one that many Iraqis have paid for with their lives. Freedom means deciding one’s own fate. And Iraq’s politicians must finally accept this responsibility.”

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

“The Anglo-American war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation was a severe breach of international law. The collected justifications by the Bush and Blair governments for the war were lies from the beginning. A later attempted justification was the deposing of Saddam Hussein, a dictator who the West and the Soviet Union had backed in the late 70s and armed for his war against the Islamic revolutionary regime in neigboring Iran.”

“What price was paid for the overthrow of Saddam? Over 100,000 civilians have died as a direct consequence of the war and other acts of violence since March 2003.”

“In Iraq 4,419 US soldiers lost their lives and tens of thousands came home injured or with terrible trauma. The Pentagon budget since 2003 for the war and occupation was over $740 billion. Some experts put the actual cost for the US economy at $3 trillion. Yet despite these huge costs and victims, Iraq is neither pacified in the long-term nor politically stable.”


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‘The War in Afghanistan Reveals Obama’s Impotence’

Anti-war activists could have a longer wait for the end of the deployment in Afghanistan than expected: The commander of the US troops believes 2011 may be too soon to leave.

General David Petraeus was supposed to perform the same magic in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq, and turn the course of the seemingly endless war. But now the US general has suggested that Barack Obama was too optimistic in setting a 2011 withdrawal date. German commentators argue that Petraeus is simply being realistic.

When United States President Barack Obama appointed General David Petraeus as the US commander in Afghanistan, he was hoping that the man widely credited with turning around Iraq could perform the same job in Afghanistan, where America and its allies have been at war for almost nine years.

But if the president was hoping for quick results, then he will likely be disappointed. In a series of interviews given at the weekend, Petraeus suggested that Obama’s July 2011 target for beginning to withdraw troops from the war-torn country might be premature. “I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions-based,” Petraeus told NBC television, referring to the possible drawdown. He also left open the possibility that he might advise the president to delay the withdrawal.

Obama set 2011 as a target date for the withdrawal in December 2009 when he approved the deployment of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan. In his NBC interview, Petraeus said progress in the country had only begun this spring, when the extra forces arrived in Afghanistan.

Observers have interpreted Petraeus’ remarks as something of a broadside aimed at Obama. The commander, who knows he is indispensable to the president, may be wary of tarnishing his dazzling reputation gained in Iraq through failure in Afghanistan, and is therefore pushing for more time to finish the job.

In a further sign of what may turn into an intense political battle in the US over the future of the Afghanistan war, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Los Angeles Times there was “no question in anybody’s mind” that the US would begin reducing troop levels in 2011. Gates also suggested in a separate interview with the magazine Foreign Policy that he would leave office in 2011.

Petraeus took over as commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan at the beginning of July, after his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was fired over unflattering remarks he had made about the Obama administration to Rolling Stone magazine.

Taking a look at Petraeus’ remarks on Tuesday, commentators in Germany’s main newspapers argue that the commander’s attempt to manage expectations is a shrewd move. They are divided, however, over the question of whether Obama or Petraeus will prove to be right about the actual withdrawal date.


“Petraeus’ call for a conditions-based withdrawal instead of a rigid timetable almost seems like a truism about the future of the international mission in Afghanistan. Any layperson can understand that the NATO force will hardly be able to withdraw if the situation in Afghanistan does not significantly improve. … Nevertheless, Petraeus’ comments have made headlines. The date 2011 had become so deeply entrenched in many people’s minds as the beginning of the withdrawal that the general’s assessment of the situation appears sensational.”

“In reality, Petraeus is simply a realist. He knows that the military situation in Afghanistan looks bleak.”

“Just as during his time as commander of the US forces in Iraq, he is looking for the turning point, and he wants to begin the withdrawal at some point. But he does not want to take responsibility for a withdrawal if it means that the whole country will shortly afterwards slide back into chaos.”

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

“The White House is unlikely to find Petraeus’ comments amusing. The new commander in Afghanistan doubts whether the withdrawal can start next year. … The general has taken a stance in direct opposition to the president.”

“But General Petraeus is in a strong position. His reputation as a strategist is enviable, and he has strong support in Congress. In the struggle for power within the US administration, he will take advantage of the fact that Obama can not afford to lose another commander in Afghanistan — especially not one of Petraeus’ stature.”

The conservative Die Welt writes:

“The timeframe originally set by Obama was unrealistic and overly ambitious. It is therefore correct if Petraeus gets the war-weary public in America used to the idea that the current sophisticated strategy in Afghanistan, which combines military, political, diplomatic and civilian efforts, needs more time to bear fruit. In addition, the American withdrawal date is currently the most persuasive reason for Afghans to not side too clearly with the Western allies.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear that it was also a risk for Obama to send this intelligent and politically savvy general to Afghanistan. The president cannot afford to lose another commander, especially one of such caliber. Petraeus therefore knows that Obama is depending on him, and he clearly already stipulated when he was appointed that he should be able to stretch the withdrawal schedule a little. … Petraeus is apparently willing to use all his political weight in order to get what is needed to bring the war to a successful end. That is also good news for America’s allies in Afghanistan.”

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Petraeus has his own interests which are totally reasonable. He does not want to leave Afghanistan as the commander of an unsuccessful force. He wants a military victory. Additionally, he had forged political plans even before his deployment to Kabul — his success in Iraq has created political opportunities for him. After a shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan, those chances would be lost. Hence, he has let the president know that he needs more time and that he can do without a debate over withdrawal dates. If Obama decides to go ahead and pull out, then the president will bear part of the responsibility.”

“But Petraeus will not succeed with his strategy. The withdrawal will begin, because the voters want it. That may be unwise, but it’s too late to change the general public’s opinion. Mistakes were made in Afghanistan over a period of years. It’s now time to pay the price.”

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

“Petraeus and other members of the military have always called the withdrawal date into question. Many Republicans see the general, who does not belong to a political party, as their preferred candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Obama had cleverly removed him from politics by making him the US commander in Afghanistan. But the troubleshooter is now firing broadsides at Obama from Afghanistan. And the president can not defend himself.”

“The war in Afghanistan doesn’t just reveal the impotence of the Americans — It also shows the impotence of President Obama.”


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Netanyahu’s warning

When Israel declared independence in 1948, it had to use mostly small arms to repel attacks by six Arab armies. Today, however, Israel feels, and is, more menaced than it was then or has been since. Hence the potentially world-shaking decision that will be made here, probably within two years.

To understand the man who will make it, begin with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s belief that stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program is integral to stopping the worldwide campaign to reverse 1948. It is, he says, a campaign to “put the Jew back to the status of a being that couldn’t defend himself — a perfect victim.”

Today’s Middle East, he says, reflects two developments. One is the rise of Iran and militant Islam since the 1979 revolution, which led to al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. The other development is the multiplying threat of missile warfare.

Now Israel faces a third threat, the campaign to delegitimize it in order to extinguish its capacity for self-defense. After two uniquely perilous millennia for Jews, the creation of Israel meant, Netanyahu says, “the capacity for self-defense restored to the Jewish people.” But note, he says, the reflexive worldwide chorus of condemnation when Israel responded with force to rocket barrages from Gaza and from southern Lebanon. There is, he believes, a crystallizing consensus that “Israel is not allowed to exercise self-defense.”

From 1948 through 1973, he says, enemies tried to “eliminate Israel by conventional warfare.” Having failed, they tried to demoralize and paralyze Israel with suicide bombers and other terrorism. “We put up a fence,” Netanyahu says. “Now they have rockets that go over the fence.” Israel’s military, which has stressed offense as a solution to the nation’s lack of strategic depth, now stresses missile defense.

That, however, cannot cope with Hamas’s tens of thousands of rockets in Gaza and Hezbollah’s up to 60,000 in southern Lebanon. There, U.N. Resolution 1701, promulgated after the 2006 war, has been predictably farcical. This was supposed to inhibit the arming of Hezbollah and prevent its operations south of the Litani River. Since 2006, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has tripled and its operations mock Resolution 1701. Hezbollah, learning from Hamas, now places rockets near schools and hospitals, certain that Israel’s next response to indiscriminate aggression will turn the world media into a force multiplier for the aggressors.

Any Israeli self-defense anywhere is automatically judged “disproportionate.” Israel knows this as it watches Iran.

Last year was Barack Obama’s wasted year of “engaging” Iran. This led to sanctions that are unlikely to ever become sufficiently potent. With Russia, China and Turkey being uncooperative, Iran is hardly “isolated.” The Iranian democracy movement probably cannot quickly achieve regime change. It took Solidarity 10 years to do so against a Polish regime less brutally repressive than Iran’s.

Hillary Clinton’s words about extending a “defense umbrella over the region” imply, to Israelis, fatalism about a nuclear Iran. As for deterrence working against a nuclear-armed regime steeped in an ideology of martyrdom, remember that in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini said:

“We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

You say, that was long ago? Israel says, this is now:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, says that Israel is the “enemy of God.” Tehran, proclaiming that the Holocaust never happened and vowing to complete it, sent an ambassador to Poland who in 2006 wanted to measure the ovens at Auschwitz to prove them inadequate for genocide. Iran’s former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is considered a “moderate” by people for whom believing is seeing, calls Israel a “one-bomb country.”

If Iran were to “wipe the Zionist entity off the map,” as it vows to do, it would, Netanyahu believes, achieve a regional “dominance not seen since Alexander.” Netanyahu does not say that Israel will, if necessary, act alone to prevent this. Or does he?

He says that CIA Director Leon Panetta is “about right” in saying Iran can be a nuclear power in two years. He says that 1948 meant this: “For the first time in 2,000 years, a sovereign Jewish people could defend itself against attack.” And he says: “The tragic history of the powerlessness of our people explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.” If Israel strikes Iran, the world will not be able to say it was not warned.

George F. Will, Washington Post


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Netanyahu, the anti-Obama

Two photographs adorn the office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Together they illuminate a portentous fact: No two leaders of democracies are less alike — in life experiences, temperaments and political philosophies — than Netanyahu, the former commando and fierce nationalist, and Barack Obama, the former professor and post-nationalist.

One photograph is of Theodor Herzl, born 150 years ago. Dismayed by the eruption of anti-Semitism in France during the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century, Herzl became Zionism’s founding father. Long before the Holocaust, he concluded that Jews could find safety only in a national homeland.

The other photograph is of Winston Churchill, who considered himself “one of the authors” of Britain’s embrace of Zionism. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stated: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Beginning in 1923, Britain would govern Palestine under a League of Nations mandate.

Netanyahu, his focus firmly on Iran, honors Churchill because he did not flinch from facts about gathering storms. Obama returned to the British Embassy in Washington the bust of Churchill that was in the Oval Office when he got there.

Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, courting the Arab world, may have had measurable benefits, although the metric proving this remains mysterious. The speech — made during a trip when Obama visited Cairo and Riyadh but not here — certainly subtracted from his standing in Israel. In it, he acknowledged Israel as, in part, a response to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Then, with what many Israelis considered a deeply offensive exercise of moral equivalence, he said: “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”

“On the other hand”? “I,” says Moshe Yaalon, “was shocked by the Cairo speech,” which he thinks proved that “this White House is very different.” Yaalon, former head of military intelligence and chief of the general staff, currently strategic affairs minister, tartly asks, “If Palestinians are victims, who are the victimizers?”

The Cairo speech came 10 months after Obama’s Berlin speech, in which he declared himself a “citizen of the world.” That was an oxymoronic boast, given that citizenship connotes allegiance to a particular polity, its laws and political processes. But the boast resonated in Europe.

The European Union was born from the flight of Europe’s elites from what terrifies them — Europeans. The first Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which ratified the system of nation-states. The second Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1945, convinced European elites that the continent’s nearly fatal disease was nationalism, the cure for which must be the steady attenuation of nationalities. Hence the high value placed on “pooling” sovereignty, never mind the cost in diminished self-government.

Israel, with its deep sense of nationhood, is beyond unintelligible to such Europeans; it is a stench in their nostrils. Transnational progressivism is, as much as welfare state social democracy, an element of European politics that American progressives will emulate as much as American politics will permit. It is perverse that the European Union, a semi-fictional political entity, serves — with the United States, the reliably anti-Israel United Nations and Russia — as part of the “quartet” that supposedly will broker peace in our time between Israel and the Palestinians.

Arguably the most left-wing administration in American history is trying to knead and soften the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. The former shows no understanding of the latter, which thinks it understands the former all too well.

The prime minister honors Churchill, who spoke of “the confirmed unteachability of mankind.” Nevertheless, a display case in Netanyahu’s office could teach the Obama administration something about this leader. It contains a small signet stone that was part of a ring found near the Western Wall. It is about 2,800 years old — 200 years younger than Jerusalem’s role as the Jewish people’s capital. The ring was the seal of a Jewish official, whose name is inscribed on it: Netanyahu.

No one is less a transnational progressive, less a post-nationalist, than Binyamin Netanyahu, whose first name is that of a son of Jacob, who lived perhaps 4,000 years ago. Netanyahu, whom no one ever called cuddly, once said to a U.S. diplomat 10 words that should warn U.S. policymakers who hope to make Netanyahu malleable: “You live in Chevy Chase. Don’t play with our future.”

George F. Will, Washington Post


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Portrait of a revolutionary

Locked up in an Egyptian prison in the early 1960s, Sayyid Qutb wrote a book that has inspired succeeding generations of radical Islamists

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. By John Calvert. Hurst & Co; 256 pages; £25.

PRE-EMINENTLY among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today’s global jihad. As John Calvert argues in a persuasive new biography, Qutb’s reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it does less than justice to a complex and enigmatic figure.

One of the challenges any biographer faces is to explain Qutb’s evolution from romantic nationalist to mainstream Islamist, and finally to ardent revolutionary. Mr Calvert’s answer is to place his subject firmly on Egyptian soil. Like countless others in the years that followed the first world war, Qutb was a child of rural Egypt who migrated to Cairo as a young man to join the swelling ranks of the effendiyya, the new urban educated class. An intense, proud, rather melancholy man, he worked as a civil servant. In his spare time he struggled to establish himself as a writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism.

In this early phase Qutb, a Muslim who had come under the spell of Sufism, subscribed to the essentially secular nationalism of the day, the focus of which was opposition to British rule in Egypt and to Zionist colonisation in Palestine. But by the late 1940s, disillusioned with the failings of the nationalist parties, he had become an Islamist and—as exemplified in his first important book, “Social Justice in Islam”—an Islamist of originality and power.

Shortly after finishing the manuscript, Qutb set off for the United States on a visit that was to last almost two years. The trip affected him deeply. Although he was impressed by America’s material accomplishments (and confessed to liking “Gone with the Wind”), he felt an abiding contempt for the materialism, racism and sexual promiscuity of what he saw as a debased Western culture. Was the encounter with America, as some have argued, the turning-point in Qutb’s radicalisation? Did the sight of scantily-clad women on the dance floors of Greeley, Colorado, turn the sexually repressed Egyptian into an Islamist zealot? Mr Calvert doubts it; the visit, he believes, confirmed the radical turn in Qutb’s thinking, rather than inspiring it.

On his return home, Qutb openly identified with Egypt’s main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, although he did not formally join it until 1953. Two years after his homecoming, nationalist army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power, overthrowing the British-backed monarchy. Qutb and the Brotherhood initially welcomed the coup and worked enthusiastically with its leaders. But after an assassination attempt against him in 1954, Nasser cracked down on the Brotherhood, and Qutb was caught up in the mass arrests that followed.

Imprisonment and torture turned him into an impassioned and embittered revolutionary. His book “Milestones”, written in prison to chart a future course for his crushed and demoralised movement, became an internationally influential manifesto of the Islamic revolution—not least because in 1966, two years after it was published, Qutb was hanged for treason, becoming a martyr for the cause.

Part of the originality of “Milestones” was Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya to depict the abject condition of the Muslim world. Literally meaning ignorance, the term was originally used to describe the benighted condition of Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. But Qutb used it to condemn Muslim governments and societies which, in his eyes, had been corrupted by Western culture and secularism to the point where they had abandoned Islam.

Mr Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.

But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.


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The Enemy of My Enemy

Facing the threat of a nuclear Iran, the hostile Arab-Israeli relationship is giving way to a more complex picture

An Israeli F-16i jet fighter.

Being an Arab leader has its rewards: the suite at the Waldorf-Astoria during the United Nations General Assembly, travel in your own plane, plenty of cash, even job security—whether kings, sheiks or presidents, with or without elections, most serve for life.

But the advantages must seem dwarfed by the problems that face the Arab world this summer. The Shia in Iran seem to be building a bomb, Iran’s ally Syria is taking over Lebanon (again), Yemen is collapsing (again), Egypt’s President Mubarak is said to be dying and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is back on the front pages.

George Mitchell, U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Mr. Abbas with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Mr. Hariri with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Mitchell with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with Mr. Assad.

King Abdullah with Mr. Hariri.

King Abdullah with Mr. Mubarak.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Mr. Assad.

What’s more, no one is sure who’s in charge these days. The American hegemony, in place at least since the British left Aden in 1967 and secured through repeated, massive military operations of its own and victories by its ally Israel, seems to be fraying. Who will stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Arabs wonder; they place no faith in endless negotiations between earnest Western diplomats and the clever Persians.

Israel is the enemy of their enemy, Iran. Now, the usual description of Arab-Israeli relations as “hostile” or “belligerent” is giving way to a more complex picture. Following the joint Arab military efforts to prevent the formation of the Jewish State in 1948, and the wars that followed in 1956, 1967 and 1973, this is a bizarre turn of events. Israel is as unpopular in the Arab street as it has been in past decades (which is to say, widely hated), but for Arab rulers focused on the Iranian threat all those the Israeli Air Force jets must now appear alluring. The Israeli toughness the Arabs have complained about for over a half century is now their own most likely shield against Iran.

The Arab view that someone should bomb Iran and stop it from developing nuclear weapons is familiar to anyone who meets privately with Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf. Now, the curtain is being pulled back: Just last month, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, spoke publicly of a “cost-benefit analysis” and concluded that despite the upset to trade that would result and the inevitable “people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country,” the balance was clear. The ambassador told an Aspen audience, “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’ my answer is still the same: ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.’ I am willing to absorb what takes place.” By speaking of “an outside force,” Ambassador Al Otaiba did not specifically demand U.S. action; he left the door open for volunteers.

And two weeks ago, the Israeli press carried reports of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Gen. Meir Dagan, chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency; Gen. Dagan is the point man on Iran for the Israeli government. This follows stories in the Times of London two months ago claiming that the Saudis would suspend their air defense operations to permit Israeli fighter planes to cross Saudi air space en route to an attack on Iran.

All this will be denied, of course, as it has always been, but Arab-Israeli (and for that matter, Arab-Palestinian) relations remain far more complicated than headlines suggest. Even in states where there are no politics as we know it—there are no elections or the outcomes are decided by fiat in the presidential palace—all politics is local, and concerns about the Palestinians take a back seat to national and personal interests. The minuet now being conducted by Arab foreign ministers with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is illuminating.

The issue is whether the Palestinians should move to direct negotiations with Israel, in place of the desultory “proximity talks” that have been led by U.S. envoy George Mitchell. Mr. Abbas has been very reluctant to make this decision, fearing venomous criticism from Hamas and wondering if direct talks would actually lead anywhere except to a further crisis down the road if and when they break down. Mr. Abbas has been laying down preconditions that make talks harder and harder to begin, asking in essence that the U.S. guarantee an outcome he likes on the central matters (refugees, borders, Jerusalem) before he will sit down at the table. Despite heavy American and European pressure, Mr. Abbas has been unwilling to decide anything. In fact, reversing years of effort by his predecessor Yasser Arafat to escape the tutelage of Arab states, he threw the ball to them. He would do whatever the Arab League told him to do.

But the Arab foreign ministers, meeting two weeks ago in Cairo, proved to be as wily as he. They decided to endorse direct talks, but with preconditions—and they left the timing to the Palestinians, thus leaving Mr. Abbas on his own. Their decision was to make Mr. Abbas bear any blame associated with the decision, while they ducked and returned to their hotel suites. They are for peace and talks with Israel, and they are helping the Americans, and they are backing their Palestinian brothers, unless of course things go sour, in which case it will be clear that Mr. Abbas made the wrong decision to enter (or not to enter) direct talks. All this under the guise of “Arab solidarity.”

There isn’t much solidarity this summer. For Syria, the only issue right now is regaining hegemony in Lebanon, and Syria is aligned with Iran and Hezbollah. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Beirut a week ago for the first time since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005—a fitting symbol of the return of Syrian power.

But Syria’s border with Israel remains dead quiet, for the regime seeks no direct confrontation. The last time it moved to assert a leadership role in the region, by the secret construction of a nuclear reactor with designs supplied by North Korea, Israel bombed the site to smithereens in September 2007. So Syria arms Hezbollah, menaces the Lebanese and watches to see how the Americans will handle Iran. There will be no serious negotiations over the Golan Heights until the Iran issue is settled, for any Golan deal would require that Syria break with Iran—and such a move depends entirely on whether the regime there is rising or falling in influence.

For Lebanon, divided as ever among Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze, the main concern is the forthcoming decision of the international tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Will it name Syria or Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist group that controls much of the country? And how will Hariri’s son Saad, now prime minister, balance the need for stability against the desire for justice?

The fact that Mr. Assad of Syria arrived a week ago in a Saudi jet and accompanied by the Saudi King, Abdullah, shows Lebanese that Saudi support for their independence is a thing of the past. The Saudi message was clear: Make your own arrangements with Damascus and do not count on us. Until this week, the Lebanese border with Israel had been quiet since the 2006 war—Hezbollah and its Shia supporters were hurt badly enough to avoid a repetition. For months there have been rumors of war this summer along the Israeli-Lebanon border, but that was never in the cards. Hezbollah, whose well-trained terrorists and rockets aimed at Israel’s cities are supplied or financed by Iran, could attack Israel if Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear sites. Thus Hezbollah’s forces are both a deterrent to an Israeli attack, and a way for Iran to strike back at Israel if an attack occurs—an Iranian second-strike capability. The ayatollahs need Hezbollah intact and ferocious to scare the Israelis, so another Israel-Hezbollah war that might badly wound the Shia group is the last thing Tehran wants right now.

The incident last Tuesday, when Lebanese Army snipers shot into Israel, killing one Israeli officer and wounding another, is still not fully understood. It appears to be the work of the Lebanese commander in that area, a Shia considered close to Hezbollah. Perhaps the attack was his own nasty idea; perhaps Hezbollah ordered him to do it, using the Lebanese Army to change the subject away from the tribunal. Either way it is a reminder that Lebanon is not a normal country with an army under government control. It is a battlefield largely controlled by Syria and Hezbollah, and unable to determine its own fate.

For Egypt, there is one worry: Mr. Mubarak’s health. With a presidential election coming in the fall of 2011, will his 30 years in power (since Sadat’s assassination in 1981) end with a free election, or will the ill, 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak demand another term or the installation of his son Gamal as his successor? Meanwhile, Egypt’s dominance of Arab diplomacy and its overall influence in the region are declining steadily. The Arab League is still headquartered there, but it was symbolic of Egypt’s diminished status that the key figure in the foreign ministers’ meeting held there last week was Hamad bin Jassem of Qatar, the rich Gulf sheikdom with about 350,000 citizens, not Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, with a population of 80 million.

At stake in the succession crisis in Egypt is not simply who will rule the country, but whether a new president will maintain Egypt’s chilly but reliable peace with Israel. Here too there are shared enemies, in this case Hamas and other Palestinian radical and terrorist groups; Israel and Egypt have maintained together (though with Israel shouldering 99% of the blame) a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas coup there in 2007.

The Egyptian regime feels no love for the Israelis, but there is significant security cooperation between the two countries; Egypt’s rulers see the Shia in Iran, not the Jewish state, as the more dangerous threat to Arab power in the region. Egypt’s decisions in late July to bar an Iranian Red Crescent ship carrying aid to Gaza from entering the Suez Canal and to prevent four Iranian parliamentarians from crossing the border into Gaza are the most recent proof of this Egyptian attitude.

Whatever Egypt’s concerns about Iran, fears are far greater in the Gulf. Seen from those shores, the Palestinians are a constant drain on the pocketbook and, with Al Jazeera stirring things up through constant broadcasts depicting Israeli violence and Palestinian misery, a source of popular dissatisfaction. Israeli-Palestinian violence is poison for regimes that are concerned above all else with survival, and the “peace process” is a much-sought antidote. Everyone loves conferences that suggest “progress,” though as the decisions at the recent Arab League meeting show, everyone will seek to avoid the hard decisions that serious negotiations might necessitate.

The Palestinian issue has been with them for decades and may last decades more; the rise of Iran is new and pressing, given its proximity—and the existence of a Shia majority in Bahrain and a significant Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern province. It is not difficult to think of Iranian pressure, money and even guns leading to riots and violent uprisings.

The Gulf regimes have long relied on American protection, and the U.S. maintains large bases in the UAE, Bahrain (the Fifth fleet’s headquarters), Qatar and Kuwait. For these regimes and for the Saudis, Iran is a constant threat and the issue of the day is who will be, to use the old British phrase, “top country” in the region. Repeated American offers to negotiate with Iran, and statements from Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates respectively that an attack on Iran would be “incredibly destabilizing” or “disastrous” do not reassure them. They want Iran stopped. They are not sure the need to do that is understood as well in Washington as it is in Jerusalem—and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, if he is an Israeli pilot. In that case, all gestures of friendship will be forsaken or carefully hidden; there will be denunciations and UN resolutions, petitions and boycotts, Arab League summits and hurried trips to Washington. But none of that changes an essential fact of life well understood in many Arab capitals this summer: that there is a clear coincidence of interests between the Arab states and Israel today, in the face of the Iranian threat. Given the 60 years of war and cold peace between Israel and the Arabs, this is one of the signal achievements of the regime in Tehran—and could prove to be its undoing.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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Iran starts feeling heat

They [the United States and Israel] have decided to attack at least two countries in the region in the next three months.

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, July 26

President Ahmadinejad has a penchant for the somewhat loony, as when last weekend he denounced Paul the Octopus, omniscient predictor of eight consecutive World Cup matches, as a symbol of decadence and purveyor of “Western propaganda and superstition.”

But for all his clownishness, Ahmadinejad is nonetheless calculating and dangerous. What “two countries” was he talking about? They seem logically to be Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah in Lebanon has armed itself with 50,000 rockets and made clear that it is in a position to start a war at any time. Fighting on this scale would immediately bring in Syria, which would in turn invite Iranian intervention in defense of its major Arab clients — and of the first Persian beachhead on the Mediterranean in 1,400 years.

The idea that Israel, let alone the United States, has the slightest interest in starting a war on Israel’s north is crazy. But claims about imminent attacks are serious business in that region. In May 1967, the Soviet Union falsely told its client, Egypt, that Israel was preparing to attack Syria. These rumors set off a train of events — the mobilization of Arab armies, the southern blockade of Israel, the hasty signing of an inter-Arab military pact — that led to the Six-Day War.

Ahmadinejad’s claim is not supported by a shred of evidence. So what is he up to?

It is a sign that he is under serious pressure. Passage of weak U.N. sanctions was followed by unilateral sanctions by the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union. Already, reports Reuters, Iran is experiencing a sharp drop in gasoline imports as Lloyd’s of London and other players refuse to insure the ships delivering them.

Second, the Arab states are no longer just whispering their desire for the United States to militarily take out Iranian nuclear facilities. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington said so openly at a conference three weeks ago.

Shortly before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Pat Buchanan famously said that the “only two groups” that wanted the United States to forcibly liberate Kuwait were “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” That was a stupid charge, contradicted by the fact that George H.W. Bush went to war leading more than 30 nations, including the largest U.S.-led coalition of Arab states ever assembled.

Twenty years later, the libel returns in the form of the scurrilous suggestion that the only ones who want the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities are Israel and its American supporters. The UAE ambassador is, as far as ascertainable, neither Israeli nor American nor Jewish. His publicly expressed desire for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities speaks for the intense Arab fear, approaching panic, of Iran’s nuclear program and the urgent hope that the United States will take it out.

Third, and perhaps even more troubling from Tehran’s point of view, are developments in the United States. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden suggested on Sunday that over time, in his view, a military strike is looking increasingly favorable compared to the alternatives. Hayden is no Obama insider, but Time reports (“An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table.” July 15) that high administration officials are once again considering the military option. This may reflect a new sense of urgency or merely be a bluff to make Tehran more pliable. But in either case, it suggests that after 18 months of failed engagement, the administration is hardening its line.

The hardening is already having its effect. The Iranian regime is beginning to realize that even President Obama’s patience is limited — and that Iran may actually face a reckoning for its nuclear defiance.

All this pressure would be enough to rattle a regime already unsteady and shorn of domestic legitimacy. Hence Ahmadinejad’s otherwise inscrutable warning about an Israeli attack on two countries. (Said Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Fox News: “Who is the second one?”) It is a pointed reminder to the world of Iran’s capacity to trigger, through Hezbollah and Syria, a regional conflagration.

This is the kind of brinkmanship you get when leaders of a rogue regime are under growing pressure. The only hope to get them to reverse course is to relentlessly increase their feeling that, if they don’t, the Arab states, Israel, the Europeans and America will, one way or another, ensure that ruin is visited upon them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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The Missing Word in Our Afghanistan Strategy

Neither the British prime minister nor the U.S. president is talking about ‘victory.’

What President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t say during last week’s joint news conference may have mattered more than what they did say. The omissions could lead to a grave setback in the war on terror and deadly results for the Afghan people.

The president and prime minister declared their solidarity on the Afghanistan war. Both leaders “reaffirmed our commitment to the overall strategy,” in Mr. Cameron’s words. Mr. Obama said that approach aimed to “build Afghan capacity so Afghans can take responsibility for their future,” a point Mr. Cameron called “a key part” of the coalition’s strategy.

All well and good. But neither leader uttered the word “victory” or “win” or any other similar phrase. They made it sound as if the strategic goal was to stand up the Afghan security forces, leave as soon as that was done, and hope the locals were up to keeping things together.

Neither man called for the defeat of the Taliban or declared its return to power unacceptable. Instead, Mr. Obama offered a lesser goal, namely to “break the Taliban’s momentum.” That is hardly a strategy that will galvanize people—as the King James Bible expressed it, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

Nor did Messrs. Obama or Cameron emphasize, as their predecessors did, the importance of liberty and human rights in Afghanistan. One of the remarkable achievements of the removal of the Taliban was the emergence of a nascent (if still imperfect) Afghan democracy, one that respects the rights of Afghan women. It would be a brutal betrayal to allow these rights to be extinguished.

Wars involve tactical shifts and adjustments. But they also involve “red lines”—and in Afghanistan, the red line must be to defeat al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, and to keep them from seizing power again.

The American and British people who are being asked to support this costly effort must know that is our objective. So must the Afghan people, who have seen much the last year to raise doubts about our resolve. And so must the Taliban and al Qaeda. America’s enemies need to understand one thing above all else: They cannot outlast us and, if they try, they will be broken and defeated.

Victory in Afghanistan requires two things: the right strategy and the resolve to see it through. Mr. Obama wisely recruited Gen. David Petraeus to head the Afghan campaign. There is no one better equipped to execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign. He is both the father of the “surge” in Iraq and the person most responsible for implementing it. If Gen. Petraeus has the time and support he needs, he can bring similar success in Afghanistan.

But is Mr. Obama’s heart in this fight? The commander in chief has said stunningly little about the war. He rarely explains to the American people what is happening or asks for their support.

Some congressional Democrats are growing restive, speaking more often and more loudly against the war and now voting against its funding. Ordinary Americans will also come to question the mission if the goal is not victory. Mr. Obama needs to deal with this by making it clear that when it comes to Afghanistan, he’s all in.

Winston Churchill demonstrated that in war, words matter. They signal resolve or weakness, fortitude or doubt. Right now, the uncertain trumpet of Mr. Obama’s words—those he has said and those he has chosen not to say—is emboldening adversaries, alarming allies, undermining confidence in the U.S., and dispiriting those who fight in dark and dangerous places for our security and liberty.

The president can and must correct those impressions—beginning with an unambiguous statement that America will stay and get the job done. Only the president can reassure our partners and allies, and strike the fear of God into our enemies. The world is looking for him to act as a commander in chief.

Mr. Obama has acted impressively so far on Afghanistan. He changed strategy based on facts on the ground, increased our troops by tens of thousands, and picked exactly the right man to lead our military into battle.

The president has the right pieces in place. Now he needs to signal to the world that he believes in the cause with all his heart. Let’s hope he does.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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WikiLeaks ‘Bastards’

The website has endangered the lives of Afghan informants

Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks website that on Monday released some 92,000 classified military documents, has told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that he “loved crushing bastards.” We wonder if the “bastards” he has in mind include the dozens of Afghan civilians named in the document dump as U.S. military informants. Their lives, as well as those of their entire families, are now at terrible risk of Taliban reprisal.

The past decade has seen more than its share of debates about the government’s right to secrecy, the public’s right to disclosure, and where the line between them should be drawn: Think warrantless wiretaps, Swift bank codes and terror financing, Valerie Plame, Judy Miller. We’ve had our say on all of these issues.

But the WikiLeaks story is a new and troubling event. Our initial reaction was that the documents expose no big lies about the war and, judging from what we’ve seen so far, no small ones either. They reveal nothing that wasn’t already widely known about Iranian and Pakistani support for the Taliban. In other words, their value in terms of the public’s right to know is de minimis.

But the closer we and others have looked at the documents, it’s clear that the WikiLeaks dump does reveal a great deal about the military’s methods, sources, tactics and protocols of communication. Such details are of little interest to the public at large, and they are unlikely to change many minds about the conduct, or wisdom, of the war. But they are of considerable interest to America’s avowed enemies and strategic competitors such as Russia and China.

“If I had gotten this trove on the Taliban or al Qaeda, I would have called this priceless,” says former CIA director Michael Hayden. “If I’m head of the Russian intelligence, I’m getting my best English speakers and saying: ‘Read every document, and I want you to tell me, how good are these guys? What are their approaches, their strengths, their weaknesses and their blind spots?'”

In his defense, Mr. Assange dismisses concerns about harm to U.S. national security, calling it ridiculous. That may be his right as an Australian national, although Australia deploys some 1,500 troops to Afghanistan and has lost more than two dozen men in combat. But Mr. Assange also says he takes threats to individual safety seriously, and he boasts that he has withheld or edited thousands of documents as a precaution against potential harm.

If so, he hasn’t done a very good job of it. Yesterday, the Times of London noted that “in just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to U.S. forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.”

The newspaper goes on to note that “named Afghans offered information accusing others of being Taliban. In one case from 2007, a senior official accuses named figures in the government of corruption. In another from 2007, a report describes using a middleman to talk to an alleged Taliban commander who is identified. ‘[X] said that he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces, which is why he hides when we go into [Y].'” The deletions here were done by the London Times, not WikiLeaks.

Perhaps the various countries that host WikiLeaks’ servers can provide these informers and their entire families with refugee status now that their lives are in jeopardy. We’d say something similar about the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, which coordinated publication of the documents with Mr. Assange. The Times has made a show of seeking to corroborate the information it published, and to delete information the paper believed was especially sensitive (including the names of Afghan informants). It went so far as to urge Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents.

We don’t believe in prior restraint, but it is worth asking whether the Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel are really serving the public, much less allied security interests, in validating Mr. Assange’s methods by flying in publishing formation with him. “I don’t know, and I’ll bet they [WikiLeaks] don’t know, if publication of this mass of material is in some ways genuinely harmful to national security,” Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer, told the Journal yesterday. “That’s one of my problems with their modus operandi.”

Mr. Abrams went on to defend the behavior of the Times, which he credited for urging Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents. However, years after the Times exposed the Swift financing operation—an act we criticized at the time—we have still found no public benefit from that report. The most notable consequence is that Europe stopped cooperating with the U.S. on the program.

The Pentagon now says it is aggressively pursuing the source of the leak, and we hope the leaker is found and punished. As for Mr. Assange, governments should not be in the business of prosecuting publishers, a la Britain’s Official Secrets Act. But publishers should also understand that their rights to publish depend in part on publics that believe their media are doing a public service.

If American voters come to believe that newspapers or websites are cavalier about putting U.S. soldiers or allies at risk against our enemies, politicians will follow the public mood. The press will put its own freedom in jeopardy.

Wall Street Journal, Editorial


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Military Rule 2.0

Why bother with a coup when there are better ways to take control?

Over the past two decades, Mexico has been touted as a democratic success story. After decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, the country developed vibrant political contests, leading to the landmark election of several non-PRI presidents. But Mexico’s political system has also gone backwards in one key area: the role of its military. As the Latin American drug trade has blossomed and its neighbors have become less stable, the military has stepped in, and used its leverage to control an ever-widening sphere of the civilian political system.

In several Mexican states, in fact, the military essentially commands the area, dominating law enforcement and other civilian institutions. The Mexican armed forces now contain nearly 260,000 troops, an enormous leap from just 150,000 men in uniform in 1990. Military personnel now occupy hundreds of positions traditionally held by civilian personnel, especially those in law enforcement. “The military is becoming the supreme authority — in some cases the only authority — in parts of some states,” Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

The Mexican military’s quiet power grab is emblematic of a new and disturbing trend throughout the developing world. In the past, when the military took control, it was obvious. The armed forces claimed the entire government, forced out the president or the prime minister, and then either ran the country themselves or appointed a servile leader. In this way, General Alvaro Obregón used the Mexican military to oust president Venustiano Carranza at the end of the Mexican revolution. Throughout the 20th century, Mexico’s neighbors, from Guatemala to Chile to Argentina, experienced bloody coups as military leaders took control of the government by force. During the Cold War, in fact, the idea of military men running governments became almost commonplace, from Idi Amin in Uganda to Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan.

Now military leaders are increasingly controlling governments from behind the scenes. From 1950 to 1990, there were more than 100 coups or coup attempts worldwide. Since the 1990s, however, violent military takeovers have dropped in number, and there have only been eight coups since 2005.

Since the end of the Cold War, unconditional American support for military dictators has diminished and democracy promotion has taken center stage in US foreign policy, making putsches less acceptable. Militaries also have had to adapt to a world where foreign investment has made the image of a government more important and new forms of communication have made it harder to simply install a servile prime minister and crack down on the populace. Instead, militaries today find it is easier to function as kingmakers rather than kings, while still maintaining the fiction that the armed forces are neutral in politics. The armed forces walk this fine line by using their influence, in the background, to keep governments in power or topple them. At other times, the military uses its expertise in handling dangerous security threats like drug trafficking or terrorism to build up its power again.

Call it military rule 2.0. And as a result, in many developing countries the military is more powerful than it has been in years. Thailand, where the military once seemed to have retreated to the barracks, now finds the armed forces playing a critical role in the current political standoff. In Pakistan, which also appeared headed toward democracy a decade ago, the military has returned to its role as the central power base. From Mexico to Peru to Honduras, Latin America has over the past five years witnessed a weakening of civilian rule over the military, as the armed forces act with increasing impunity.

It’s a dangerous kind of power. Armies can commit abuses virtually unpunished, dragging down developing democracies that seemed to be beyond the era of military influence. And, by presenting themselves as the only institutions with long-term stability — even as they simultaneously undermine that very stability — the new generation of military men undermine civilian leaders in another way: They make themselves indispensable to foreign partners like the United States.

For decades, Thailand’s military played politics the old-fashioned way: When it wanted to run the government, it just took over. Between 1932, the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy, and today, the country has witnessed 18 coups or attempted coups. But after the last coup, which deposed the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, the army realized the old days were gone for good.

After a wave of anti-Thaksin protests by elites in Bangkok in 2006, the Thai military took over, forcing Thaksin out. But the army soon ran into setbacks. Its installed prime minister, a former general, appeared to have little idea how to manage Thailand’s complex and globalized economy. It threatened capital controls, which scared off foreign investors and precipitated a run on the stock market. It also failed to enact policies to boost Thailand’s global competitiveness, even as neighboring countries like Vietnam were attracting more investment. Two years after the coup, Thailand’s top military leader at the time, Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit, told reporters, “Under the current situation, problems in the country are too complex to be easily tackled by a coup.”

Thailand was hardly unique. In next-door Burma, the ruling junta, which seems to manage most of the economy, has essentially run a once-promising country into the ground, according to a study by Sean Turnell of Macquarie University in Australia. Indeed, as capital has become more globalized, major developing nations have become more dependent on trade, foreign investment, and tourism, and need far more sophisticated economic management than a few generals can provide. Over the past three decades, developing regions like East Asia and Latin America have enacted a range of free trade deals, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China agreement to the Mercosur trade deal in South America, all of which have had the effect of liberalizing trade among developing nations.

Compared to the 1960s or 1970s, too, militaries in developing countries can no longer effectively control the media, nongovernmental organizations, unions, or other avenues of dissent. New communications technology, including social networking, cellphones, and the Internet, allow the media in most countries to get around censorship; a flowering of nongovernmental organizations, many with links to the West, are much harder to control than the small number of nonprofits in developing countries in the 1960s or 1970s.

For example, following an attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002, supporters of Hugo Chavez were able to quickly link up and rally for him, helping install him back in power within 48 hours. And, after a military intervention in Bangladesh in early 2007, many private organizations that did not even exist during previous generations of military rule mobilized to fight the army takeover. Even in Burma, one of the most isolated countries in the world, local journalists in 2007 were able to get images of the military crackdown on monks’ “Saffron Revolution” out to international media outlets.

Of course, militaries can still effectively rule outright small, very poor nations like tiny Guinea Bissau in West Africa, which weathered a coup in early April, since these countries are less dependent on foreign capital and less connected to the global economy. The list of successful and lasting coups over the past decade consists mostly of small and poor African states, such as Mauritania, the Central African Republic, and Guinea.

During the Cold War, Washington was willing to sanction outright coups by military men who (at least theoretically) shared America’s anticommunist stance. Yet US policies often still aid militaries that seek more control of their governments. With Pakistan, the Obama administration, while rhetorically supporting the government of President Asif Ali Zardari — Obama’s envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, last year told Congress the White House “unambiguously” backs Zardari — has in reality conducted much of the relationship through Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, according to press reports in both the United States and Pakistan. In so doing, the White House seems to have bought into the Pakistani army’s line that civilian governments are inherently unstable and the armed forces alone can provide the continuity Washington needs.

From Mexico to Peru to the Philippines, armies have learned to portray themselves to beleaguered civilian leaders as the only chance to defeat the security challenges — so long as the government agrees to the military’s demands for greater funding, more autonomy, and a larger role in politics. In Pakistan, the armed forces last year grudgingly launched an offensive into Waziristan, an Islamist hotbed. And in so doing the army gained enough clout to sandbag several of Zardari’s major objectives, including better ties to India, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

In other cases, militaries have learned that by uniting behind a certain politician, or by threatening to withhold their backing for a government without actually staging a coup, they can control civilian leaders. For example, in Nigeria, according to a study by John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, a group of senior generals recently played a major role in maneuvering into power vice president Goodluck Jonathan, who took over for the ailing president Umaru Yar’adua. (Yar’adua died last Wednesday.) Similarly, because drug trafficking is a priority in US-Mexican relations, much of the relationship between the United States and Mexico has been built through their defense establishments. A majority of the $1.4 billion approved by Congress as part of the Merida Initiative will go to equipment and funding for the Mexican military. Coupled with a close training relationship between the militaries and frequent visits to Mexico by top US military officials, this aid gives the Mexican military even more leverage over civilian institutions.

The return of the men in green has many dangerous implications. In its latest report on the state of global freedom, monitoring group Freedom House noted that freedom and human rights declined in 2009, marking four years in a row of setbacks, the longest continuous slide in 40 years — and the result, in part, of weakening civilian control of militaries. And over the past decade, military spending worldwide has grown by over 45 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a sign of the renewed clout of armed forces. This decline of democracy is one of the most unsettling trends in the world today.

Wielding the power to make or break governments, armed forces also become virtually immune to criticism or critical investigations, allowing them to perpetrate abuses. In Thailand, the military in the winter of 2008-9 reportedly intercepted rickety boats carrying refugees from neighboring Burma, and then pushed many of these desperate men and women back to sea, where they died. No punishments were meted out. In perhaps the most egregious example, human rights groups accuse the Mexican military of disappearances, torturing suspects with electric shocks, and widespread extrajudicial killings. A recent report by Amnesty International chronicled a litany of human rights abuses by the security forces, conducted in an environment where, as one Amnesty interviewee says, “No one will do anything to us because we’re soldiers.”

Worse, behind-the-scenes military rule stunts the growth of other institutions that might be able to handle security threats more effectively. In Mexico, the militarization of the drug fight has not delivered many victories — Ciudad Juarez is now the murder capital of the world, and a blue ribbon panel led by former Latin American leaders last year reported that the drug war is a “failed war” — and that the militarization has marginalized the Mexican police and courts, which desperately need to be modernized, not ignored.

The return of military influence is not inevitable. In countries like Turkey and Indonesia, popular and politically savvy civilian leaders have drawn upon their popular appeal, and popular suspicion of the armed forces, to create laws restraining the armed forces and to finally convince some military officers that they are no longer needed as a stabilizing force in politics. Not coincidentally, Indonesia now has leapfrogged countries like Thailand to become the most vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia, while Turkey has in the past decade strengthened its democracy and become a major political player in its region. For now, though, Indonesia and Turkey remain very much the exception.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Shelby Leighton is a Research Associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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Terror — and candor in describing the Islamist ideology behind it

The Fort Hood shooter, the Christmas Day bomber, the Times Square attacker. On May 13, the following exchange occurred at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee:

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.): Do you feel that these individuals might have been incited to take the actions that they did because of radical Islam?

Attorney General Eric Holder: There are a variety of reasons why I think people have taken these actions. . . .

Smith: Okay, but radical Islam could have been one of the reasons?

Holder: There are a variety of reasons why people —

Smith: But was radical Islam one of them?

Holder: There are a variety of reasons why people do these things. Some of them are potentially religious-based.

Potentially, mind you. This went on until the questioner gave up in exasperation.

A similar question arose last week in U.S. District Court when Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square attacker, pleaded guilty. Explained Shahzad:

“One has to understand where I’m coming from . . . I consider myself a mujahid, a Muslim soldier.”

Well, that is clarifying. As was the self-printed business card of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, identifying himself as SoA: Soldier of Allah.

Holder’s avoidance of the obvious continues the absurd and embarrassing refusal of the Obama administration to acknowledge who out there is trying to kill Americans and why. In fact, it has banned from its official vocabulary the terms jihadist, Islamist and Islamic terrorism.

Instead, President Obama’s National Security Strategy insists on calling the enemy — how else do you define those seeking your destruction? — “a loose network of violent extremists.” But this is utterly meaningless. This is not an anger-management therapy group gone rogue. These are people professing a powerful ideology rooted in a radical interpretation of Islam, in whose name they propagandize, proselytize, terrorize and kill.

Why is this important? Because the first rule of war is to know your enemy. If you don’t, you wander into intellectual cul-de-sacs and ignore the real causes that might allow you to prevent recurrences.

The Pentagon review of the Fort Hood shooting runs 86 pages with not a single mention of Hasan’s Islamism. It contains such politically correct inanities as “religious fundamentalism alone is not a risk factor.”

Of course it is. Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism is not only a risk factor. It is the risk factor, the common denominator linking all the great terror attacks of this century — from 9/11 to Mumbai, from Fort Hood to Times Square, from London to Madrid to Bali. The attackers varied in nationality, education, age, social class, native tongue and race. The one thing that united them was the jihadist vision in whose name they acted.

To deny this undeniable truth leads to further absurdities. Remember the wave of speculation about Hasan’s supposed secondary post-traumatic stress disorder — that he was so deeply affected by the heart-rending stories of his war-traumatized patients that he became radicalized? On the contrary. He was moved not by their suffering but by the suffering they (and the rest of the U.S. military) inflicted on Hasan’s fellow Muslims, in whose name he gunned down 12 American soldiers while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”

With Shahzad, we find the equivalent ridiculous — and exculpating — speculation that perhaps he was driven over the edge by the foreclosure of his home. Good grief. Of course his home went into foreclosure — so would yours if you voluntarily quit your job and stopped house payments to go to Pakistan for jihadist training. As The Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, foreclosure was a result of Shahzad’s radicalism, not the cause.

There’s a final reason the administration’s cowardice about identifying those trying to kill us cannot be allowed to pass. It is demoralizing. It trivializes the war between jihadi barbarism and Western decency, and diminishes the memory of those (including thousands of brave Muslims — Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan and Western) who have died fighting it.

Churchill famously mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. But his greatness lay not in mere eloquence. It was his appeal to the moral core of a decent people to rise against an ideology the nature of which Churchill never hesitated to define and describe — and to pronounce (“Nahhhhzzzzi”) in an accent dripping with loathing and contempt.

No one is asking Obama or Holder to match Churchill’s rhetoric — just Shahzad’s candor.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Espionage History and the ‘Russian 10’

The arrest of ‘sleeper agents’ on U.S. soil is the stuff of spy novels, not the Cold War.

The Justice Department’s arrest this week of 10 Russian spies posing as American citizens is not stranger than fiction; it mirrors fiction. Innumerable Cold War novels and films focused on “sleeper agents,” professional Soviet espionage officers superbly trained in language and culture who take on the identity of a native-born American to gain access to U.S. intelligence and policy making.

But in reality the most damaging Cold War spies were native-born Americans—Julius Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, Aldrich Ames, Richard Hansen—who for reasons of ideology, money or psychological perversity chose to betray their country.

Most Soviet espionage was supervised by “legal” KGB officers operating under official cover as diplomats who, when arrested, faced only expulsion, protected by their diplomatic status. Great Britain famously expelled 105 Soviet personnel linked to KGB intelligence in 1971. But none of them had been posing as a British citizen. The KGB also had “illegal” officers who had no diplomatic status, often used false identities and who usually functioned as covert liaisons with native-born traitors. Long-term sleeper agents, as these 10 appear to have been, are rare.

In the late-1950s, the U.S. government arrested, tried and convicted five Soviet illegals in connection with the Soble-Soblen spy ring: Jack Soble, his wife Myra, his brother Robert Soblen (the two brothers had anglicized their Lithuanian name, Sobolevicius, slightly differently), Jacob Albam and Mark Zborowski. None had diplomatic cover, but neither were they “deep penetration” agents. All used their true identities, simply pretending to be innocent immigrants.

Moreover, their espionage work was confined largely to “agent handling,” i.e., acting as liaison with native-born Americans, mostly Communists, who had been recruited as Soviet spies years earlier. Their major accomplishment was to infiltrate the American Trotskyist movement and the Russian emigré community, targets with no direct connection to the U.S. government. Soble and associates had no plans or prospects of entering American think tanks or other institutions with access to high-level American policy makers.

There were two Soviet illegals exposed in the late 1950s whose activities came a bit closer to the recently arrested 10. An illegal officer, KGB Col. Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher), entered the U.S. in 1948 and operated under a variety of false identities. He was finally exposed when his assistant and fellow illegal, KGB Lt. Col. Reino Hayhanen, defected in 1957. (Hayhanen, of Finnish background, had been sent to the U.S. using false papers identifying him as an American of Finnish ancestry.) Abel, who never admitted his real name, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

After only five years he was freed in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union on a CIA reconnaissance mission. While Hayhanen and Abel assumed false identities as Americans, their function was to maintain contact and pick up information from native-born Americans who spied for the Soviets. Abel’s initial task, for example, was to re-establish KGB contact with Theodore Hall, an American physicist and secret Communist who had provided U.S. atomic secrets to the USSR while working at Los Alamos. Hayhanen and Abel were illegals but not deep-penetration sleeper agents.

Thus, the FBI’s arrest of 10 Russian sleeper agents on U.S. soil has no precedent in Cold War history, even if fans of Walter Wager’s novel “Telefon” (later a movie staring Charles Bronson) find it familiar. Also unprecedented, and reassuringly so, is that FBI counterintelligence had identified these Russian sleepers early on, had been monitoring them for years, and finally decided that it had gained what it could from such surveillance and rolled up the Russian networks.

Deep-penetration agents are a very, very expensive investment. Not only the training of the professional officers themselves, but covertly supporting them, communicating with them, and supervising their activities is a major bureaucratic expense for any intelligence agency. The loss of 10 such agents and the resulting collateral damage makes this a catastrophe for Russian foreign intelligence. The FBI also identified a number of Russian “legal” officers who made surreptitious contact with the sleepers and, thus exposed, these Russian officers are now useless for intelligence fieldwork.

The SVR—Russian Foreign Intelligence, successor to the KGB—also cannot be sure that the FBI has disclosed all that it knows of the 10 agents’ activities (11 with the arrest of a confederate in Cyprus). Prudence dictates that the SVR must assume that any other Russian officers who had covert contact with the 11 may have been identified by American security. Use of these potentially compromised officers in future espionage field-work would be risky and foolish.

We don’t know what additional shoes will drop in this case. Will any of the 10 talk to avoid a long prison term? Rudolf Abel was defiant and refused any cooperation. Jack Soble, however, dodged the death penalty by fully confessing, telling all he knew of KGB operations in the U.S. and Western Europe, and even testified against his brother. These 10 (or 11, if we count the agent arrested in Cyprus) don’t face the death penalty but do face potentially long terms in prison, and there aren’t any Francis Gary Powers available for exchanges.

Messrs. Klehr and Haynes are co-authors, along with Alexander Vassiliev, of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” (Yale University Press, 2010).


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Afghanistan: Eyes Wide Shut

President Obama’s ambivalence toward the war is energizing our enemies and undermining our allies.

With a wink of its left eye, the Obama administration tells its liberal base that a year from now the U.S. will be heading for a quick Afghan exit. “Everyone knows there’s a firm date,” insists White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

With a wink of its right, the administration tells Afghanistan, Pakistan, NATO allies and its own military leadership that the July 2011 date is effectively meaningless. The notion that a major drawdown will begin next year “absolutely has not been decided,” says Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The winks are simultaneous. When it comes to Barack Obama’s “war of necessity,” pretty much everyone thinks he’s blinked.

Not the least of the ironies of the president’s decision to sack Stanley McChrystal in favor of David Petraeus is that, in the name of asserting civilian control over the military, the president has a commander in Afghanistan whom he cannot realistically fire. It isn’t just that St. Dave has, for the GOP, the potential political potency of Dwight Eisenhower. It’s that the president needs the general’s credibility in Afghanistan because he has so little of his own.

Wars are contests of wills. If our efforts in Afghanistan have an increasingly ghostly quality—visible to the naked eye but incapable of achieving effects in the physical world—it has more to do with a widespread perception that we just aren’t prepared to do what it takes to win than it does with the particulars of counterinsurgency strategy or its execution. Gen. Petraeus won in Iraq because George W. Bush had his back and the people of Iraq, friend as well as foe, knew it.

By contrast, the fact that we have been unable to secure the small city of Marja, much less take on the larger job of Kandahar, is because nobody—right down to the village folk whom we are so sedulously courting with good deeds and restrictive rules of engagement—believes that Barack Obama believes in his own war. The vacuum in credibility begets the vacuum in power.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that Pakistan is seeking to expand its influence in Afghanistan. “Coupled with their strategic interests,” noted the Times, “the Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai because, even before the controversy with Gen. McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty—’a lack of fire in the belly,’ said one Pakistani—within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight.”

The Times followed up the next day with a story about the effects of the Af-Pak rapprochement on Afghanistan’s minorities: “‘Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,’ said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. ‘If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.'”

Well, that would be bad, just as it would be bad if Pakistan reasserted itself in Afghanistan via its sometime “asset” in the so-called Haqqani network, which more recently has been an ally of al Qaeda but may yet want a seat in a future Afghan cabinet. But this is what inevitably flows when the U.S. can set no more ambitious a military goal for itself than the promise, as the president put it last week, “to break the Taliban’s momentum.” How about breaking the Taliban itself?

Perhaps the job-secure Gen. Petraeus could press the administration to stop talking about withdrawal schedules and start using the word “victory” with frequency and conviction. Or perhaps the general could, in his usual politic way, speak that way himself. Doing so would reassure our remaining Afghan friends and deter importuning outsiders. It might steady the unsteady Mr. Karzai. Above all, it would persuade the Afghans whose support we need that they won’t soon find themselves on the wrong end of a Taliban firing squad for having once sided with us.

But against these arguments must be weighed the president’s personal determination to end this war sooner rather than later. As Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter describes the president’s mind when he decided on an Afghan surge last fall, “this would not be a five- to seven-year nation-building commitment,” and July 2011 would mark the “beginning of a real—not a token—withdrawal.” The president, Mr. Alter reports, told his war council that “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years.”

No president would. Then again, few presidents would wage a war they weren’t fully committed to winning. This is where Mr. Obama finds himself now: seeking to calibrate some notional measure of “success”—how much Afghan “capacity” built; how much political “reconciliation” achieved, and so on—even as the rest of the world, the Taliban included, calls his bluff.

Gen. Petraeus will do what he can to turn things around, though he must know that every appearance of success will whet the administration’s appetite for a precipitous withdrawal. Maybe he can persuade the White House that this is a war without shortcuts, one that the U.S. has no choice but to win. Failing that, a president’s ambivalence will soon become a general’s nightmare. And that will be a tragedy for two countries.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Petraeus and Obama’s Uncertain Trumpet

There is a mismatch between the general’s Afghan mission and the president’s summons to his countrymen.

The chroniclers tell us that Lyndon Johnson never took to the Vietnam War. He prosecuted it, it became his war, but it was, in LBJ’s language, a “bitch of a war.” He fought it with a premonition that it could wreck his Great Society programs.

He had a feel for the popular mood. “I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less.” We know how that war ended, and the choreography of President Obama relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command notwithstanding, there is to this Afghan campaign a sense of eerie historical repetition. There is no need to overdo the analogy, but there is a good measure of similarity to that earlier ill-fated campaign. There is the same ambivalence at the top, a disjunction between the military battlefield and the political world at home.

So a beleaguered president has replaced a talented but indiscreet military commander with a talented, discreet successor. The large questions about the war persist, and there persists as well that unsettling sense that the president is prosecuting a war he can neither abandon nor fight to a convincing victory.

For Mr. Obama, this Afghan campaign doubtless bears the crippling impact of its beginnings. It was out of Mr. Obama’s desire to demonstrate that he was no pacifist that his commitment to the Afghan war had begun. It was in the midst of his run for the presidency that he was to draw a distinction between “stupid wars” (Iraq as the primary exhibit) and wars worth fighting.

Afghanistan became the good war of necessity. He was to sharpen the distinction between these two wars in the course of his first year in office. On the face of it, this was a president claiming a distant war, making it his own. But there was a lack of fit between this call on Afghanistan and the president’s overall summons to his country.

Mr. Obama’s is an uncertain trumpet. He had vowed to fight in Afghanistan while belittling the challenge that radical Islamism posed to American security. He had told his devotees that the anti-Americanism in the Islamic world was certain to blow over in the aftermath of his election. He had attributed much of that anti-Americanism to the Iraq war and to the ideological zeal of his predecessors. His foreign policy was to explicitly rest on a rupture with the foreign policy of the past. Like Jimmy Carter’s in the 1970s, this was to be a foreign policy of contrition for America’s presumed sins.

A big battle loomed at home, and this was where Mr. Obama’s heart and preferences lay—a struggle between economic freedom and the marketplace on one side and an intrusive, redistributionist state on the other. In this new climate of national introversion, Afghanistan was at best a sideshow. The war was going badly, and Mr. Obama feared that this war would overwhelm his presidency.

So last December, after a period of drawn-out assessment, Mr. Obama opted to split the difference. He who had opposed the Iraq surge when in the Senate launched a surge of his own. He would give his commanders additional forces, but this was a surge with an Obama twist. The announcement of a new commitment was at once the announcement of an exit strategy. The troops would be sent but American withdrawal would begin in the summer of 2011.

Mullah Omar in Quetta may not be schooled in the arcane details of American politics, but he had all the knowledge he needed: The Americans were not in this fight for long. He would wait them out and then make a run at the regime in Kabul.

Our “ally” in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, also made his own calculations. The faithlessness he has showed in recent months was the nervousness of a man who feared that his American patrons and protectors were on their way out, and that he, like so many Afghan leaders before him, would be left to the wrath of the mob. In Mr. Karzai’s ideal world, the Americans, with their guns and machines, and their vast treasure and contracts, would never leave.

In the phase to come, the deadline for the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, will stalk this military campaign. It will be fought in the inner councils of the Obama administration, and will, in time, become a matter of public disputation.

For the president and his vice president—and no doubt for Democrats in the House and the Senate—the July 2011 deadline will be what it is. For the U.S. military, and for the secretary of defense and the national security hawks, that deadline is, by necessity, flexible, meant to convey, as Gen. David Petraeus put it before the Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-June, a “message of urgency.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put it this way: The withdrawal will be determined by “the conditions on the ground.”

The “conditions on the ground” are a euphemism for the ability of the Afghan forces to assume the burden of security for their own homeland. After all, counterinsurgency requires a native regime that would hold its own against insurgents and defend its own homeland. No serious assessment holds out the promise of a capable Afghan regime and a devoted national army that would fight for the incumbent government. Afghanistan is what it is, a land riven by corruption and sectarianism, a population weighed down by illiteracy and hardened by years of betrayal and abdication. The “Afghanization” of the war is a utopian idea.

The history of the Vietnam War offers a cautionary precedent. Deadlines of withdrawal, once announced, take on a life of their own. In his incomparable recollection of the American “extrication” from Vietnam—his word—former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes that the promise of “Vietnamization” served to confirm Hanoi “in its course of waiting us out.” Withdrawal of American troops, Mr. Kissinger memorably observed, became like “salted peanuts” to the American public, “the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” If this pattern holds, the war at home over Afghanistan has only just begun.

We have a peerless commander on his way to the Afghan theater of war. He knows the ways of the East, and he has mastered them the hard way. In his time in Iraq he was fond of a maxim of T.E. Lawrence: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are there to help them, not win it for them.”

Gen. Petraeus takes that maxim with him to the land of the Afghans; he and his soldiers can do their best for them. But he can’t rid them of their historic afflictions. Nor can his mission end in success if our country isn’t in this fight for real. The East is merciless this way. It has an unsentimental feel for the intentions and the staying power of strangers.

Mr. Ajami is professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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Afghanistan: The 7/11 problem

President Obama was fully justified in dismissing Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The firing offense did not rise to the level of insubordination — this was no MacArthur undermining the commander in chief’s war strategy — but it was a serious enough show of disrespect for the president and for the entire civilian leadership to justify relief from his post.

Moreover, choosing David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal was the best possible means of minimizing the disruption that comes with every change of command, and of reaffirming that the current strategy will be pursued with equal vigor.

The administration is hoping that Petraeus can replicate his Iraq miracle. This includes Democrats who, when Petraeus testified to Congress about the Iraq surge in September 2007, accused him of requiring “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Sen. Hillary Clinton) or refused to vote for the Senate resolution condemning that shameful “General Betray Us” newspaper ad (Sen. Barack Obama).

However, two major factors distinguish the Afghan from the Iraqi surge. First is the alarming weakness and ineptness — to say nothing of the corruption — of the Afghan central government. One of the reasons the U.S. offensive in Marja has faltered is that there is no Afghan “government in a box” to provide authority for territory that the U.S. military clears.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after many mixed signals, eventually showed that he could act as a competent national leader rather than a sectarian one when he attacked Moqtada al-Sadr’s stronghold in Basra, faced down the Mahdi Army in the other major cities in the south and took the fight into Sadr City in Baghdad itself. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, President Hamid Karzai makes public overtures to the Taliban, signaling that he is already hedging his bets.

But beyond indecision in Kabul, there is indecision in Washington. When the president of the United States announces the Afghan surge and, in the very next sentence, announces the date on which a U.S. withdrawal will begin, the Afghans — from president to peasant — take note.

This past Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reiterated that July 2011 is a hard date. And Vice President Biden is adamant that “in July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”

Now, Washington sophisticates may interpret this two-step as a mere political feint to Obama’s left — just another case of a president facing a difficult midterm and his own reelection, trying to placate the base. They don’t take this withdrawal date too seriously.

Problem is, Afghans are not quite as sophisticated in interpreting American intraparty maneuvering. This kind of Washington nuance does not translate into Pashto. They hear about an American departure date and they think about what will happen to them when the Americans leave. The Taliban will remain, and what it lacks in popular support — it polls only 6 percent — it makes up in terror: When Taliban fighters return to a village, they kill “collaborators” mercilessly, and publicly.

The surge succeeded in Iraq because the locals witnessed a massive deployment of U.S. troops to provide them security, which encouraged them to give us intelligence, which helped us track down the bad guys and kill them. This, as might be expected, led to further feelings of security by the locals, more intelligence provided us, more success in driving out the bad guys, and henceforth a virtuous cycle as security and trust and local intelligence fed each other.

But that depended on a larger understanding by the Iraqis that the American president was implacable — famously stubborn, refusing to set any exit date, and determined to see the surge through. What President Bush’s critics considered mulishness, the Iraqis saw as steadfastness.

What the Afghans hear from the current American president is a surge with an expiration date. An Afghan facing the life-or-death choice of which side to support can be forgiven for thinking that what Obama says is what Obama intends. That may be wrong, but if so, why doesn’t Obama dispel that false impression? He doesn’t even have to repudiate the July 2011 date, he simply but explicitly has to say: July 2011 is the target date, but only if conditions on the ground permit.

Obama has had every opportunity every single day to say that. He has not. In his Rose Garden statement firing McChrystal, he pointedly declined once again to do so.

If you were Karzai, or a peasant in Marja, you’d be hedging your bets too.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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McChrystal Forces Us to Focus

Now Petraeus owes us a candid assessment of the Afghan effort

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s greatest contribution to the war in Afghanistan may turn out to be forcing everyone to focus on it. The real news there this week was not Gen. McChrystal’s epic faux pas and dismissal but that 12 soldiers were killed on June 7-8, including five Americans by a roadside bomb, making that “the deadliest 24 hour period this year,” as The Economist noted. Insurgency-related violence was up by 87% in the six months prior to March. Agence France-Presse reported Thursday that NATO forces are experiencing their deadliest month ever.

There have been signal moments in this war since its inception, and we are in the middle of one now.

It has gone on almost nine years. It began rightly, legitimately. On 9/11 we had been attacked, essentially, from Afghanistan, harborer of terrorists. We invaded and toppled the Taliban with dispatch, courage and even, for all our woundedness, brio. We all have unforgettable pictures in our minds. One of mine is the grainy footage of a U.S. cavalry charge, with local tribesman, against a Taliban stronghold. It left me cheering. You too, I bet.

But Washington soon took its eye off the ball, turning its focus and fervor to invading Iraq. Over the years, the problems in Afghanistan mounted. In 2009, amid a growing air of crisis, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sacked the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan—institutional Army, maybe a little old-style. He was replaced by Gen. McChrystal—specials forces background, black ops, an agile and resourceful snake eater. “Politicians love the mystique of these guys,” said a general this week. Snake eaters know it, and wind up being even more colorful, reveling in their ethos of bucking the system.

Last August, Gen. McChrystal produced, and someone leaked, a 66-page report warning of “mission failure.” More troops and new strategy were needed. The strategy, counterinsurgency, was adopted. That was a signal moment within a signal moment, for at the same time the president committed 30,000 more troops and set a deadline for departure, July 2011. The mission on the ground was expanded—counterinsurgency, also known as COIN, is nation building, and nation building is time- and troop-intensive—but the timeline for success was truncated.

COIN is a humane strategy not lacking in shrewdness: Don’t treat the people of a sovereign nation as if they just wandered across your battlefield. Instead, befriend them, consult them, build schools, give them an investment in peace. Only America, and God bless it, would try to take the hell out of war. But the new strategy involved lawyering up, requiring troops to receive permission before they hit targets. Some now-famous cases make clear this has endangered soldiers and damaged morale.

The Afghan government, on which COIN’s success hinges, is corrupt and unstable. That is their political context. But are we fully appreciating the political context of the war at home, in America?

The left doesn’t like this war and will only grow more opposed to it. The center sees that it has gone on longer than Vietnam, and “we’ve seen that movie before.” We’re in an economic crisis; can we afford this war? The right is probably going to start to peel off, not Washington policy intellectuals but people on the ground in America. There are many reasons for this. Their sons and nephew have come back from repeat tours full of doubts as to the possibility of victory, “whatever that is,” as we all now say. There is the brute political fact that the war is now President Obama’s. The blindly partisan will be only too happy to let him stew in it.

Republican leaders such as John McCain are stalwart: This war can be won. But there’s a sense when you watch Mr. McCain that he’s very much speaking for Mr. McCain, and McCainism. Republicans respect this attitude: “Never give in.” But people can respect what they choose not to follow. The other day Sen. Lindsey Graham, in ostensibly supportive remarks, said that Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal’s replacement, “is our only hope.” If he can’t pull it out, “nobody can.” That’s not all that optimistic a statement.

The U.S. military is overstretched in every way, including emotionally and psychologically. The biggest takeaway from a week at U.S. Army War College in 2008 was the exhaustion of the officers. They are tired from repeat deployments, and their families are stretched to the limit, with children reaching 12 and 13 without a father at home.

The president himself is in parlous position with regard to support, which means with regard to his ability to persuade, to be believed, to be followed. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows more people disapprove of Mr. Obama’s job performance than approve.

When he ran for president, Mr. Obama blasted Iraq but called Afghanistan the “good war.” This was in line with public opinion, and as a young Democratic progressive who hadn’t served in the military, he had to kick away from the old tie-dyed-hippie-lefty-peacenik hangover that dogs the Democratic Party to this day, even as heartless-warlike-bigot-in-plaid-golf-shorts dogs the Republicans. In 2009 he ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghanistan. In his valuable and deeply reported book “The Promise,” Jonathan Alter offers new information on the review. A reader gets the sense it is meant to be reassuring—they’re doing a lot of thinking over there!—but for me it was not. The president seems to have thought government experts had answers, or rather reliable and comprehensive information that could be weighed and fully understood. But in Washington, agency analysts and experts don’t have answers, really. They have product. They have factoids. They have free-floating data. They have dots in a pointillist picture, but they’re not artists, they’re dot-makers.

More crucially, the president asked policy makers, in Mr. Alter’s words, “If the Taliban took Kabul and controlled Afghanistan, could it link up with Pakistan’s Taliban and threaten command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?” The answer: Quite possibly yes. Mr. Alter: “Early on, the President eliminated withdrawal (from Afghanistan) as an option, in part because of a new classified study on what would happen to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the Islamabad government fell to the Taliban.”

That is always the heart-stopper in any conversation about Afghanistan, terrorists and Pakistan’s nukes. But the ins and outs of this question—what we know, for instance, about the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, and its connections to terrorists—are not fully discussed. Which means a primary argument in the president’s arsenal is denied him.

It is within the context of all this mess that—well, Gen. Petraeus a week and a half ago, in giving Senate testimony on Afghanistan, appeared to faint. And Gen. McChrystal suicide-bombed his career. One of Gen. McChrystal’s aides, in the Rolling Stone interview, said that if Americans “started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”

Maybe we should find out. Gen. Petraeus’s confirmation hearings are set for next week. He is a careful man, but this is no time for discretion. What is needed now is a deep, even startling, even brute candor. The country can take it. It’s taken two wars. So can Gen. Petraeus. He can’t be fired because both his predecessors were, and because he’s Petraeus. In that sense he’s fireproof. Which is not what he’ll care about. He cares about doing what he can to make America safer in the world. That means being frank about a war that can be prosecuted only if the American people support it. They have focused. They’re ready to hear.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Those troublesome Jews

The world is outraged at Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey denounces its illegality, inhumanity, barbarity, etc. The usual U.N. suspects, Third World and European, join in. The Obama administration dithers.

But as Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, the blockade is not just perfectly rational, it is perfectly legal. Gaza under Hamas is a self-declared enemy of Israel — a declaration backed up by more than 4,000 rockets fired at Israeli civilian territory. Yet having pledged itself to unceasing belligerency, Hamas claims victimhood when Israel imposes a blockade to prevent Hamas from arming itself with still more rockets.

In World War II, with full international legality, the United States blockaded Germany and Japan. And during the October 1962 missile crisis, we blockaded (“quarantined”) Cuba. Arms-bearing Russian ships headed to Cuba turned back because the Soviets knew that the U.S. Navy would either board them or sink them. Yet Israel is accused of international criminality for doing precisely what John Kennedy did: impose a naval blockade to prevent a hostile state from acquiring lethal weaponry.

Oh, but weren’t the Gaza-bound ships on a mission of humanitarian relief? No. Otherwise they would have accepted Israel’s offer to bring their supplies to an Israeli port, be inspected for military materiel and have the rest trucked by Israel into Gaza — as every week 10,000 tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are sent by Israel to Gaza.

Why was the offer refused? Because, as organizer Greta Berlin admitted, the flotilla was not about humanitarian relief but about breaking the blockade, i.e., ending Israel’s inspection regime, which would mean unlimited shipping into Gaza and thus the unlimited arming of Hamas.

Israel has already twice intercepted ships laden with Iranian arms destined for Hezbollah and Gaza. What country would allow that?

But even more important, why did Israel even have to resort to blockade? Because, blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.

(1) Forward defense: As a small, densely populated country surrounded by hostile states, Israel had, for its first half-century, adopted forward defense — fighting wars on enemy territory (such as the Sinai and Golan Heights) rather than its own.

Where possible (Sinai, for example) Israel has traded territory for peace. But where peace offers were refused, Israel retained the territory as a protective buffer zone. Thus Israel retained a small strip of southern Lebanon to protect the villages of northern Israel. And it took many losses in Gaza, rather than expose Israeli border towns to Palestinian terror attacks. It is for the same reason America wages a grinding war in Afghanistan: You fight them there, so you don’t have to fight them here.

But under overwhelming outside pressure, Israel gave it up. The Israelis were told the occupations were not just illegal but at the root of the anti-Israel insurgencies — and therefore withdrawal, by removing the cause, would bring peace.

Land for peace. Remember? Well, during the past decade, Israel gave the land — evacuating South Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. What did it get? An intensification of belligerency, heavy militarization of the enemy side, multiple kidnappings, cross-border attacks and, from Gaza, years of unrelenting rocket attack.

(2) Active defense: Israel then had to switch to active defense — military action to disrupt, dismantle and defeat (to borrow President Obama’s description of our campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda) the newly armed terrorist mini-states established in southern Lebanon and Gaza after Israel withdrew.

The result? The Lebanon war of 2006 and Gaza operation of 2008-09. They were met with yet another avalanche of opprobrium and calumny by the same international community that had demanded the land-for-peace Israeli withdrawals in the first place. Worse, the U.N. Goldstone report which essentially criminalized Israel’s defensive operation in Gaza while whitewashing the casus belli — the preceding and unprovoked Hamas rocket war — effectively de-legitimized any active Israeli defense against its self-declared terror enemies.

(3) Passive defense: Without forward or active defense, Israel is left with but the most passive and benign of all defenses — a blockade to simply prevent enemy rearmament. Yet, as we speak, this too is headed for international de-legitimation. Even the United States is now moving toward having it abolished.

But, if none of these is permissible, what’s left?

Ah, but that’s the point. It’s the point understood by the blockade-busting flotilla of useful idiots and terror sympathizers, by the Turkish front organization that funded it, by the automatic anti-Israel Third World chorus at the United Nations, and by the supine Europeans who’ve had quite enough of the Jewish problem.

What’s left? Nothing. The whole point of this relentless international campaign is to deprive Israel of any legitimate form of self-defense. Why, just last week, the Obama administration joined the jackals, and reversed four decades of U.S. practice, by signing onto a consensus document that singles out Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons — thus de-legitimizing Israel’s very last line of defense: deterrence.

The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists — Iranian in particular — openly prepare a more final solution.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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The real thing

Salafists in Gaza

An extreme movement that makes Hamas look mild by comparison

SMUGGLERS complain that Egypt hampers three things imported through the blockade-busting tunnels that supply Gaza: weapons, dishwashers (their timers can double as detonators), and books. Of the three, the last may be the most regulated. One smuggler complained that the Egyptian authorities confiscated a delivery of 10,000 books, the bulk of them a classical commentary on the Koran. In the eyes of the impounders, the people of Gaza, who are governed by the Islamists of Hamas, are quite Islamic enough already.

Tunnel trouble is only one of the woes afflicting the book trade. The Hamas police are another. Gaza, a slither of land sandwiched between Egypt and Israel, has only three bookshops for its 1.5m people. Even these have empty shelves. In its drive for a monopoly over religious discourse, Hamas is forcing Islamists from other schools of thought to retreat to the web to publish their samizdat literature.

Of these the most prolific are the Salafists. Salafi literally means “disciple of the forebears” (the Prophet’s companions) but has come to refer to Muslim protestants who seek to slough off the corpus of Islamic tradition and return to the original purity of Islam’s early years. They particularly dislike the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab Islamist group, for making such 20th-century compromises as entering politics and campaigning in elections, a process they think usurps authority from God to man. They castigate Hamas, the Brothers’ Palestinian branch, for taking part in the territory’s 2006 elections (which they won), for failing to apply the sharia, or Islamic law, and most recently for suspending the armed fight against Israel.

Salafists arrived in Gaza when Palestinian exiles returned from Saudi Arabia dressed in their garb of ankle-length tunics. Most preach absolute subservience to a legitimate leader, deemed to be the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas kicked out of Gaza in June 2007. Most of Gaza’s Salafist leaders are university professors, doctors and graduates, who see themselves as an elite, a cut above those they view as the unprincipled populists of Hamas. But they have attracted broader interest among Gazans opposed to Hamas, not least Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction, which once ruled the strip but has been hamstrung by Hamas. Fatah’s fans flock to Salafist mosques on Fridays in part to spare them from having to recite a weekly prayer for Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

A few seek to revive the Salafist order by force. They declare the legitimate ruler to be not Mr Abbas but the global jihadist leadership. They dub Osama bin Laden their “righteous shepherd”. Some name their offspring after him. Many of them are barely literate, sprinkling their statements on the web with grammatical errors.

Their results have been patchy. Their most dramatic effort, a charge of three white horses with strap-on explosives last summer, ended when the cavalcade blew up before reaching its target, Israel’s border barricade. And though they profess to limit their jihad to the enemy outside, their most violent acts have been against other Gazans. To impose their Koranic writ they have bombed coffee shops, internet cafés and salons for women that employ male hairdressers. A spokesman for Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Muslim Community), the largest of the four armed Salafist groups, calls such acts “aberrations”.

The Palestinian authorities, Hamas and Fatah alike, have thumped them. Last August a Salafist leader publicly declared an emirate. In no time Hamas forces charged into his mosque in Rafah, a town on the border with Egypt, and killed him and 27 followers. Hundreds more were jailed. “In a democracy they would have been put on trial,” says Imad Falluji, a former leader of Hamas who abandoned it in the mid-1990s. “Under Hamas military rule they were simply tortured and executed.”

Most have since been freed, but only after renouncing their creed. A few hundred strong at most, they no longer strut the streets with their guns or blow up cafés but are lying low. After Hamas recently put up taxes, it was secular left-wingers, not Salafists, who protested most loudly. Salafists for now have lost the battle. But they have tarnished Hamas’s Islamist halo by daring to query it. Dissent in Gaza is rising.

The Salafists’ one source of succour could lie among malcontents within Hamas who were raised on a diet of ideological militancy but fear that their movement is selling out. Their most prominent member was Nizar Rayan, a university professor who taught the Prophet Muhammad’s life and times while doubling as head of Hamas’s military wing. But he was killed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in January last year.

His followers, however, remain. Sometimes they help Salafist prisoners of Hamas to get out of jail. They criticise Hamas for taxing such evils as cigarettes rather than banning them outright, as they do alcohol. And they wonder glumly what other ideological compromises the Hamas government may make in pursuit of power. If Hamas is booted out, Islamists could yet look to the Salafists as Gaza’s next force for renewal—and rejection of Israel.


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