AEIdeas » Marc Thiessen The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute Mon, 01 Sep 2014 21:56:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gen. Dempsey’s ISIS reversal, and his dangerous Yemen analogy Mon, 25 Aug 2014 18:51:43 +0000 read more >]]> Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey was crystal clear about the danger posed by ISIS. Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, he declared:

[The Islamic State] is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated. Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.

It appears Dempsey’s assessment was too forward-leaning for the Obama White House.  So, the Associated Press reports, he clarified his views over the weekend:

[T]he chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that right now, he still believes the insurgent group is still more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.

This was more in tune with the official White House line, as articulated by Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken that:

Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their [ISIS’] focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.”

This is a dangerous thing for a senior administration official to be saying.  But unfortunately Dempsey went even further during his “walk back” interview, comparing ISIS’s regional focus to that of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, which has attempted several attacks on the homeland.  Writes the AP:

He contrasted the Islamic State group to the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted and attempted attacks against the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes against the group within Yemen.

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

One problem with that:

This was precisely the Obama administration’s assessment of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – that it was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking America – back in 2009 … right before it sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Later, in the aftermath of that attack, the Obama administration admitted it did not know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had developed the capability and intent to strike the American homeland.

Now they are claiming that ISIS has not developed the capability or intent to hit America.

As Winston Churchill put it in his book, The World Crisis, “Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.”

They were wrong once. Disaster was averted only because the bomb malfunctioned.  The next time, we might not be so lucky.

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Obama on Iraq: A tale of two press conferences Thu, 21 Aug 2014 13:43:37 +0000 read more >]]> Contrast President Obama’s press conference yesterday following the execution of American journalist James Foley in Iraq with the one he gave on Iraq two days before.

Yesterday, August 20, Obama said that the Islamic State is “killing unarmed civilians,” committing “torture and rape and slavery,” declaring “their ambition to commit genocide,” and has “no place in the 21st century.” America would be “relentless” in dealing with the threat.

Tough words. But two days before, he was singing a different tune, more concerned about stopping “mission creep” than stopping the Islamic State. Here is the president’s statement of resolve on Monday, August 18:

We’re not the Iraqi military, we’re not even the Iraqi air force. I am the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and Iraq is gonna have to ultimately provide for its own security.

Translation: Not my problem. America will help at the edges – stopping a Yazidi genocide, protecting our diplomatic facilities, taking back a dam. But that’s it. We’ve got nation-building here at home to worry about.

That attitude – that reluctance to lead – is why the Islamic State has been able to take control of a swath of the Middle East the size of Belgium and carry out all the horrific acts we are seeing today – from burying women and children alive, to crucifixions, to the beheading of an American citizen.

Yet even after that horrific act, Obama continued to downplay the threat poses by the Islamic State. He said yesterday:

They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.

They don’t claim they are at war with America, they are at war with America. Taking an American hostage and beheading him on global television is an act of war. It is a terrorist attack. And for the Islamic State, it is only the beginning.

Worse still, Obama declared that “People like this ultimately fail” – as if the Islamic State was going to somehow magically collapse on its own accord.

People like this don’t “fail.” They have to be stopped. Nazi Germany didn’t fail. It was defeated.

The Islamic State won’t be defeated until the president of the United States understands that.

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Why the Foley beheading will force Obama to continue US airstrikes Wed, 20 Aug 2014 17:08:25 +0000 read more >]]> President Obama’s decision to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq was made with deep reluctance. He resisted calls from the Iraqi government for such strikes for a year. And when he finally did authorize them, he made clear that the US campaign would be limited in scope – only to prevent the Islamic State from overrunning US diplomatic facilities in northern Iraq (for fear of another Benghazi), massacring Yazidis and controlling the Mosul Dam.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, the success of those initial strikes has created pressure on Obama to expand the American air campaign.

In an article titled “US Airstrike Success Spurs Push for More Iraq Attacks,” the Journal reports:

The US military’s recent success in weakening Islamic State extremists and pushing them away from a key dam in Iraq is creating momentum for a broader campaign that could take American air power to the militant group’s heartland northwest of Baghdad.

Military planners are considering new airstrikes to prevent militants with the Islamic State from taking control of another strategic site, the Haditha Dam, which lies in Iraq’s Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province, US officials said Tuesday….

The prospect of expanding America’s role has set off debate within the Obama administration and the military…. It isn’t clear how American airstrikes in Anbar would fit under Mr. Obama’s stated rationale for renewed military operations in Iraq. Earlier this month, the president said the US military was launching strikes to protect American military and civilian personnel working in Iraq and to prevent Islamic State forces from wiping out the Yazidis.

Obama’s natural instinct would be to resist this pressure to expand the US military role in Iraq, and even to curtail the current air campaign once the limited objectives he set out have been met.

But now, thanks to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, Obama cannot curtail US military action, without appearing to give in to terrorist demands.

In the video they released showing Foley’s brutal execution, they force him to read a statement blaming Obama’s airstrikes for his death. And they threaten to behead another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, depending on Obama’s “next decision” with regard to the air campaign.

This sinister threat makes it impossible for Obama to scale back US airstrikes. If he does, the terrorists will believe that their brutal execution tactics worked. The world will believe it as well, sending a signal of American weakness in the face of terrorist threats. And it will create incentives for the Islamic State to capture more Americans, whose lives they can threaten to deter US military action.

In other words, Obama really has no choice but to continue the American air campaign – whether he wants to or not.

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The (latest) Obama Doctrine: ‘No victor/no vanquished’ Thu, 14 Aug 2014 13:35:07 +0000 read more >]]> It’s been hard to keep up with all the Obama Doctrines that have emerged over the past five years.

First, the Libyan war gave us the doctrine of “leading from behind.”

Then, in Syria, we saw the birth of a new Obama Doctrine: military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked” (though, Obama backed off of even those miniscule strikes, taking that one out of contention).

Then earlier this year, Obama claimed the guiding principle of his foreign policy was “Don’t do stupid shi*t.”

Now, in an interview with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Obama unveiled yet another Doctrine – one, he says, that guides both his domestic and foreign policies: “No victor/no vanquished.” Said Obama:

We have so many things going for us right now as a country — from new energy resources to innovation to a growing economy — but we will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that we’re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together.

It’s hard to fathom just how inane – and hypocritical – this is. Domestically, Obama didn’t exactly follow the “no victor/no vanquished” approach when he controlled both houses of Congress and rammed the stimulus and Obamacare through on party-line votes. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor gave President Obama a list of modest proposals for the stimulus at a White House meeting, but Obama told the assembled Republicans that “elections have consequences” and “I won.” In other words, he was the “victor” and they were the “vanquished.” Deal with it.

Internationally, does he really believe that we should follow a doctrine of “no victor/no vanquished” when it comes to the fight with the Islamic State – a movement so radical it has been crucifying its opponents? Apparently so. For a year, he rejected repeated calls by the Iraqi government for drone strikes to prevent the advance of the Islamic State. Now that the Islamic State has taken control of large swaths of Iraq, Obama has launched limited strikes – only to protect US diplomatic facilities in northern Iraq (for fear of another Benghazi) and prevent the massacre of Yazidi minorities, but not to defeat the Islamic State or drive it from its strongholds.

So it seems our policy when it comes to the Islamic State is a hybrid of the Obama Doctrines: “no victor/no vanquished” and strikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked.”

That explains a lot.

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The New York Times and the ‘plain-English’ meaning of torture Tue, 12 Aug 2014 13:53:03 +0000 read more >]]> New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has declared the soon-to-be-released report on CIA interrogations prepared by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats the “most definitive accounting of the program to date.” Of course he has not read it. No one has. It’s still classified. But why wait for the details? It comes to the right conclusions, from the Times’ perspective, so let’s declare it “definitive.”

So convinced is Baquet by the report he has not read, that he recently announced that the Times will henceforth refer to the techniques used by the CIA as “torture.” After all, President Obama recently declared that “we tortured some folks.” And Obama never says anything that is untrue.

Baquet openly admits that both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments investigated and found the CIA had not violated US laws against torture. But, he says, there is a “specialized legal meaning” and a “plain-English” meaning of torture – and while the CIA interrogations did not meet the “legal meaning” they do meet this “plain-English” meaning.

When researching my book, “Courting Disaster,” I interviewed some folks who understand the “plain-English” meaning of torture a heck of a lot better than the editors of the Times – American servicemen who suffered actual torture in North Vietnamese prison camps.  Here is what these torture victims had to say about waterboarding.

Col. Bud Day, who passed away earlier this year, received the Medal of Honor for his heroic escape from a North Vietnamese prison camp. He suffered such excruciating torture at the hands of his captors that he became totally physically debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest task for himself. Here is what he told me about CIA waterboarding:

I am a supporter of waterboarding. It is not torture. Torture is really hurting someone. Waterboarding is just scaring someone, with no long-term injurious effects. It is a scare tactic that works.

When I asked Day in an e-mail what he would say to the CIA officer who waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Day replied immediately: “YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.”

Col. Leo Thorsness also received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during the Vietnam War.  During his captivity, his back was broken, and his body wrenched apart, by his North Vietnamese torturers. He says what the CIA did to al-Qaeda terrorists in its custody was not torture:

To me, waterboarding is intensive interrogation. It is not torture. Torture involves extreme, brutal pain — breaking bones, passing out from pain, beatings so severe that blood spatters the walls … when you pop shoulders out of joints … In my mind, there’s a difference, and in most POWs’ minds there’s a difference…. I would not hesitate a second to use ‘enhanced interrogation,’ including waterboarding, if it would save the lives of innocent people.

Another torture victim who supported waterboarding was the late Adm. Jeremiah Denton — the POW who famously winked the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code during a North Vietnamese propaganda interview. Denton later received the Navy Cross for this courageous and costly act of defiance, for which he paid dearly when his captors figured out what he had done. I asked Denton if he thought waterboarding was torture. He told me:

No, I think it’s persuasive…. The big, monstrous difference here is that the gentlemen we are waterboarding are people who swore to kill Americans. They will wreak any kind of torture just for the hell of it on anybody. When they are captured by the US, and we know or have reason to believe that they know of a subsequent event after 9/11, if you don’t interrogate them, more misery will take place…. Waterboarding is not an evil. Some of the things they did to us were torture. I passed out a dozen times from torture. We’re not exerting that kind of excruciation.

But of course, what do these actual victims of torture know about torture? The Times says the CIA committed “torture.” So, torture it is.

Here is a fact: more journalists have been waterboarded than terrorists. In undergoing the technique to see what it felt like, they were trying to prove waterboarding was torture. But they actually proved the opposite.

If someone had offered to attach electrodes to these journalists’ bodies, and then flip the switch, do you think even one of them would have tried it to “see what it feels like”? How about having their nails ripped off with pliers? Or having their teeth drilled without anesthetic? Or being placed on a rack until their limbs popped out of their sockets? Or having screws attached to their legs, crushing their bones?

Not a chance. But they tried waterboarding.

So here is a “plain-English” definition of torture for The New York Times: if you are willing to try it to see what it feels like, it’s not torture.

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Clinton and Obama go to war over Syria and Iraq Mon, 11 Aug 2014 13:35:14 +0000 read more >]]> If you want evidence that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is imploding, just look at how desperately one of its chief architects – Hillary Clinton – is distancing herself from it. In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton took a not-so-veiled swipe at Obama, declaring that his “failure” to support the moderate opposition in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Said Clinton:

The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled…. Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.

Obama quickly swiped back, telling The New York Times that idea that arming Syrian rebels would have stopped the rise of ISIS has “always been a fantasy.” Said the president:

This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.

This is absurd. As Gen. Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka explained a year ago, there is plenty the US could have done to stop the rise of ISIS.  As I argued last fall, Obama should have bombed both the Syrian regime and ISIS after Assad repeatedly violated Obama’s red line. Even after his failure to enforce his red line, Obama could still have hit ISIS with drones – as the Iraqi government was pleading with him to do. Instead, he stood by and did nothing while they massed their forces, marched into Iraqi cities, and proclaimed a radical Islamic state.

Now, Obama tells the Times, “We’re not going to let [the Islamic State] create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq.” Too late, Mr. President, they already have. The only questions are how big that caliphate will get – and when it will train its sights on the American homeland.

No wonder Clinton is distancing herself from this Obama-created debacle in Iraq and Syria. But it’s not that simple. If she wants to achieve separation, she will have to answer some tough questions in the period ahead, such as: how hard did she really fight for arming and training the Free Syrian Army? Did she threaten to resign? What specifically did she advocate doing to help the opposition? Did she advocate air strikes against ISIS? And – most importantly – did she oppose Obama’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, which also “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled”?

And when she’s done answering those questions, she is going to have to figure out a way to disown her now disastrous “reset” of relations with Russia – which has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and helped separatists shoot down a civilian airliner. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In other words, Obama’s secretary of state is going to have a hard time separating herself from Obama’s foreign policy. But the fact that she is trying to do so shows just what a disaster it is – and how vulnerable it makes her in 2016.

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More military pink slips to troops in the field Tue, 05 Aug 2014 12:58:21 +0000 read more >]]> The Obama administration recently came under criticism for sending pink slips to 1,200 Army captains, including 48 who were on the front lines in Afghanistan. Now they are at it again.

Stars and Stripes reports:

About 550 Army majors, including some serving in Afghanistan, will soon be told they have to leave the service by next spring as part of a budget-driven downsizing of the service….

The Army declined to say how many majors will be notified while they are at the battlefront.

“The ones that are deployed are certainly the hardest,” [Gen. John] Campbell told reporters. “What we try to do there is, working through the chain of command, minimize the impact to that unit and then maximize the time to provide to that officer to come back and do the proper transition, to take care of himself or herself, and the family.”

Campbell said it’s difficult to avoid cutting deployed soldiers because of the timing schedules…

Those who are cut have nine months to leave the Army. And the soldiers who are deployed, including those in Afghanistan, will generally have about a month to move out of that job and go home to begin to transition out of the service.

The cuts have been difficult for many young officers, particularly captains, who tend not to have enough years in service to retire.

This is no way to treat the brave young men and women who have risked their lives to defend our country. And it is strategically insane to push out these battle-hardened officers, whose skills cannot be replaced once they are lost. It is easy to replace a weapons system. But you cannot replace combat experience. In the private sector, businesses go to great lengths to retain talent and experience. When it comes to our military, the Obama administration pushes both out the door.

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Obama refused ‘repeated requests’ since August 2013 for drone strikes against ISIS Wed, 23 Jul 2014 17:02:01 +0000 read more >]]> Breaking on Capitol Hill is the news that Iraqi officials began requesting almost a year ago for the US to carry out drone strikes against ISIS – but the requests were shot down by the White House. That stunning revelation came during a hearing on the situation in Iraq this morning.

The Hill reports:

During a hearing on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the administration knew six months ago that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) had established armed camps, staging areas and training grounds in Iraq’s western desert and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was threatening to attack the U.S.

“However, what the Administration did not say was that the Iraqi government had been urgently requesting drone strikes against ISIS camps since August 2013,” Royce continued.

“These repeated requests, unfortunately, were turned down,” he said. “I added my voice for drone strikes as ISIS convoys raced across the desert.”

The New York Times previously reported that in May 2014 Prime Minister Maliki had “secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas” and that “Iraq’s appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.”

But the fact that Iraqis have been begging for nearly a year for the US to strike ISIS with drones – and that those requests were repeatedly denied by Obama – was not previously known.

Obama regularly authorizes drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The White House even boasted that the president personally approves the “kill lists” himself.

Why on earth would he refuse to do the same in Iraq?  Was he hoping the problem would just go away?

This places culpability for the current fiasco in Iraq squarely on Obama’s shoulders. We already knew that the rise of ISIS was made possible by Obama’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, against the advice of his military commanders. But now we know that as ISIS was preparing its current offensive, Obama was warned of the coming danger–and refused Iraqi requests to strike ISIS before they recaptured American-liberated cities across Iraq.

The incompetence of this administration is simply mind-boggling.

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Americans support Obama’s foreign policy decisions, but not his foreign policy Tue, 22 Jul 2014 19:35:45 +0000 read more >]]> A new Politico poll finds that there is wide support for President Obama’s foreign policy choices:

  • Just 17% of Americans say the US should do more to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine (note: the poll was taken before the shoot-down of Malaysian Flight 17).
  • 77% support the current plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
  • 44% favor less involvement in Iraq’s “civil war” while just 19% favor more involvement – and a 51% majority said the situation in Iraq affects US national security “a little” or “not at all.”
  • 42% favor less involvement in Syria’s civil war while just 15% support more involvement.

Looks like Obama is doing pretty much everything Americans want – withdrawing from Afghanistan, and minimizing our involvement in places like Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. So Obama’s numbers should be rising in the polls when it comes to foreign policy, right?

Wrong. According to NBC News:

The percentage of Americans approving of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign policy issues has dropped to the lowest level of his presidency as he faces multiple overseas challenges, including in Iraq, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll….

The poll was crafted before the instability in Iraq grabbed headlines, so it doesn’t contain questions on that subject…. But it shows an American public that has grown dissatisfied with President Obama on foreign policy and national security decisions.

Just 37 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, which is an all-time low in the survey, while 57 percent disapprove, an all-time high.

So how can it be that Americans agree with the major decisions Obama is making, yet they disapprove of his foreign policy?

Because Americans judge the commander in chief not on his foreign policy choices, but on the results of his foreign policy choices. And right now the result of Obama’s foreign policy choices is global chaos.

Americans do not like to see their president flailing on the world stage. They do not like it when terrorists recapture cities that American forces died to liberate. They do not like it when tin-pot dictators like Assad and Putin thumb their noses at the United States. They do not like it when America projects weakness to the world.

There is a reason why strong presidents do not look at the polls when making difficult national security decisions. Good commanders in chief know they will be judged not on the individual decisions they make but the results they produce. So they do what they believe is right, explain their decisions to the country, and rally the nation behind their policies. And if they get the decisions right, the polls – and history’s judgment – will vindicate them.

Obama is doing what Americans seem to want – but he is producing results Americans clearly do not want. That is why, while Americans seemingly support his decisions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, they think he is an awful commander in chief.

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Why Obamacare is still not popular Thu, 17 Jul 2014 12:19:08 +0000 read more >]]> Despite hitting its marks for sign-ups, Obamacare is more unpopular than ever. A Fox News poll last month found that 55% of Americans “wish it had never passed,” while only 38% supported the law.

How can that be? Democrats were sure that once they got past the roll-out fiasco and hit their sign-up goals, popular opinion would stabilize.

Politico reports that, despite 357,000 sign-ups in North Carolina, Obamacare “remains a major liability for Sen. Kay Hagan, who faces one of the toughest election races for any Senate Democrat this year.” How can it be that so many North Carolinians have signed-up for Obamacare but still oppose it?

The individual mandate, and the threat of a penalty, drove many sign-ups. A polling report by Perry Undem, an opinion research firm that specializes in health care, found that 40 percent of people in one focus group say they might not have signed up without the mandate…

Teresa Mendez, 38, a stay-at-home mother in Carrboro, N.C., got covered to avoid the potential penalty. Now she questions the value of her $135 monthly premium for a single policy. She didn’t get any subsidies and says that no one ever told them they were available to her.

“President Obama said we needed to do it or we would be fined. I did it, perhaps, because of the fine,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter at a clinic in Carrboro, not far from Raleigh. “I feel like it doesn’t help me.”

Politico cites a Kaiser Family poll last month which found that nearly half of people with Obamacare plans say it is difficult to afford the plans today, while more than half fear they will become unaffordable in the future. In other words, just because the administration had success in signing people up does not mean that even those people are supporters of Obamacare. Many Obamacare participants feel coerced. And if premiums go up, their feelings will not grow more positive with time.

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