Opinion

The Great Debate

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude — we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda — don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! — and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa provinceBoots on the ground will be needed to retake the territory now under Islamic State control. But the president has said they will not be our boots. So whose?

His Iraq case is easier to address. Baghdad has a new government that may be capable of rebuilding its security forces and enlisting the cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and some Sunni tribes in Anbar province.

This is more a hope than a reality at this point. But it is crucial that an Iraqi presence on the ground be ready to confront Islamic State forces — especially when the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, comes into focus. It was the loss of Mosul, after all, that made these militants look so threatening, and it will be Mosul’s recovery that could signal Islamic State’s first major reversal of fortune.

Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, in Washington

“We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq,” New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote.  There, in the Land of the Two Rivers, he continued, the United States confronts the “core problem” of our era — “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”

Brooks is wrong. For starters, he misconstrues the core problem — which is a global conflict pitting tradition against modernity.

Traditionalists, especially numerous in but not confined to the Islamic world, cling to the conviction that human existence should be God-centered human order. Proponents of modernity, taking their cues from secularized Western elites, strongly prefer an order that favors individual autonomy and marginalizes God. Not God first, but we first — our own aspirations, desires and ambitions. If there’s a core problem afflicting global politics today, that’s it.

If U.S. joins Islamic State fight, how will it get out?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won’t be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.

The president is speaking to the American people — not to Congress. He may not even ask Congress to authorize the use of force. Just to fund it. Which they will do because they don’t want to undercut the U.S. military.

Obama’s key audience Wednesday is the American public. For his credibility with the public has gotten dangerously low. Obama was elected in 2008 as the un-Bush — a more thoughtful, less reckless leader. Yet the public always valued President George W. Bush’s resolve and decisiveness — qualities they don’t see in Obama. Qualities they are looking for now.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

Iraq airstrikes: You read the news, now get the context

Relatives mourn the death of a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter, killed during clashes with Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city of Rabia on the Iraqi-Syrian border, during his funeral in Ras al-Ain

Once you read the latest news about the U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian drops in Iraq, turn to commentary for the context you need to fully understand what is happening and how we got here. Here is a quick tour:

You can start with incisive background from Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at the Guardian. He provides additional framework for the Obama administration’s decision to use air power. It’s about far more than protecting U.S. advisers in Irbil, Ackerman says. He lays out why the White House felt compelled to protect the pro-U.S. Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Ackerman then looks at the possible military hardware involved. His reporting continues today with Dan Roberts here.

While you’re on the Guardian site, read the explainer about the Yazidis, the Iraqi religious minority sect besieged atop Mount Sinjar.

Nixon’s showbiz legacy

nixon in limo

The 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation comes just as politicians of both parties increasingly say the words “President Barack Obama” and “impeachment” in the same sentence. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has filed a lawsuit against the president, has also been quick to draw comparisons between the Nixon administration’s abuses of executive power and Obama’s use of executive orders.

Yet the critiques of Obama, which The Economist and CNN have dubbed “political theater,” recall another aspect of Nixon’s lasting legacy: the rise of an entertainment-driven politics that now defines the modern media landscape and the U.S. presidency.

nixon-&-elvis -- bestIt was Nixon who embraced “showbiz politics” in his efforts to salvage his political career, expand the electorate and rebuild the Republican Party. By capitalizing on a political tradition rooted in California politics and the Hollywood studio system, Nixon’s electoral successes convinced politicians across the ideological spectrum to deploy entertainment strategies from the Nixon media playbook.

Sanctions finally find Russia’s Achilles heel

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures as he chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama were reportedly engaged in a heated telephone conversation last Thursday when Putin noted in passing that an aircraft had gone down in Ukraine. The tragic crash of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held eastern Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, but it is important to remember what agitated Putin and prompted the phone call in the first place — sanctions.

Sanctions against Russia have been the centerpiece of the U.S. response to Putin’s interference in Ukraine. While they primarily have been directed against prominent friends of Putin and their businesses, the underlying target has been a weak Russian economy.  The sanctions have definitely found Russia’s Achilles’ heel, and with harsher sanctions looming in the aftermath of flight MA17, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to craft an effective reply.

Obama had raised the ante for Russia the day before the Malaysian airliner disaster by unexpectedly announcing a new round of sanctions. The designated enterprises included several major Russian banks (Gazprombank, VEB), energy companies (Rosneft, Novatek) and arms manufacturers. They were not, however, the full sectoral sanctions that Putin dreads the most. These would essentially exclude Russia from the international financial system and restrict major technological transfers. Though key Russian banks and energy companies are now prohibited from receiving medium or long-term dollar financing, U.S. companies are not otherwise prohibited from conducting business with them.

U.S. spying on Germany: Making enemies out of allies, and for what?

German Chancellor Merkel attends a session of Bundestag in Berlin

What were they thinking?

In the wake of last fall’s revelation that the National Security Agency had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the report of U.S. intelligence’s involvement in two other likely cases of spying on Germany is mind-boggling.

Now the story has taken a dramatic new turn, with Germany expelling the CIA chief of station in Berlin — an almost unprecedented step by an ally. This unusual action reflects how seriously the Merkel government takes these spying allegations.

What could the CIA hope to gain by infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, knowing there was a chance that the operation might be exposed? What was worth this risk?

Obama’s immigration implosion

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the economy in Denver

President Barack Obama is self-righteously grumbling that, having been stymied by Republicans in Congress, he’ll enact immigration reform on his own by voice vote in the West Wing. That is, via executive decree — his go-to method of governing given his crushing lack of success on Capitol Hill.

But Obama’s promised executive actions will likely entomb immigration reform, which is already dead for the year, in the great sarcophagus of permanently missed opportunities that houses much of whatever it is Obama wanted to do or should have achieved.

The demise of his immigration agenda was predictable because it was killed by the same incompetence and false assumptions that have characterized his entire presidency. Sure, with an immigration fiat, he’ll achieve some short-term goals. A whole new crop of poor immigrants, also known as larval-stage Democratic voters, will enter the country.

One more reason the Democrats may be toast this fall

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington

Democrats are apprehensive about this year’s midterm elections.

They should be.

Every indicator points to Republican gains in Congress. Two reasons are well known: President Barack Obama’s unpopularity and the historical record of midterm elections, when the president’s party almost always loses seats.

The third major reason is the two-four-six rule. Those are the different base years for different offices: two years for the House of Representatives, four years for most governors, six years for the Senate. These base years dictate how vulnerable each party is.

Here’s how it works: House members last faced the voters two years ago, in 2012, when Obama won re-election. With Obama’s strong voter turn-out, Democrats gained eight House seats. In the 2014 midterms, however, with their expected older and whiter electorate and Obama’s low poll numbers, Democrats are facing a tough November.

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