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The Rational Ayatollah Hypothesis: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2015— Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot? Barack Obama thinks so.

You Want Hypotheticals? Here’s One.: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, May 21, 2015 — Ramadi falls. The Iraqi army flees. The great 60-nation anti-Islamic State coalition so grandly proclaimed by the Obama administration is nowhere to be seen.

Islamic State Eyes Damascus: Eyal Zisser, Israel Hayom, May 25, 2015 — One year after seizing vast areas of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has once again reared its head.

As the Mideast Burns, Obama Talks About the Weather: Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post, May 25, 2015— It’s commencement season, a time when the great and the good come to campus to encourage the graduates to strive not only for greatness but for goodness, too.


On Topic Links


‘Look … It’s My Name on This’: Obama Defends the Iran Nuclear Deal: Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, May 21, 2015

How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess: Margaret Coker, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2015

Can the Islamic State Survive?: Ross Douthat, New York Times, May 23, 2015

The Last Battle?: Dr. Mordechai Kedar, Arutz Sheva, May 8, 2015




THE RATIONAL AYATOLLAH HYPOTHESIS                                                                                   

Bret Stephens                                                                                                       

Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2015


Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot? Barack Obama thinks so. So we learn from the president’s interview last week with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg—the same interview in which Mr. Obama called Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi a “tactical setback.” Mr. Goldberg asked the president to reconcile his view of an Iranian regime steeped in “venomous anti-Semitism” with his claims that the same regime “is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality.”


The president didn’t miss a beat. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s strategic objectives, he said, were not dictated by prejudice alone. Sure, the Iranians could make irrational decisions “with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool.” They might also pursue hate-based policies “where the costs are low.” But the regime has larger goals: “maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their country,” and getting “out of the deep economic rut that we’ve put them in.” Also, Mr. Obama reminded Mr. Goldberg, “there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country,” to say nothing of Europe. If the president can forgive us our trespasses, he can forgive the ayatollah’s, too.


Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a man with an undergraduate’s enthusiasm for moral equivalency (Islamic State now, the Crusades and Inquisition then) would have sophomoric ideas about the nature and history of anti-Semitism. So let’s recall some basic facts. Iran has no border, and no territorial dispute, with Israel. The two countries have a common enemy in Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups. Historically and religiously, Jews have always felt a special debt to Persia. Tehran and Jerusalem were de facto allies until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and 100,000 Jews still lived in Iran. Today, no more than 10,000 Jews are left.


So on the basis of what self-interest does Iran arm and subsidize Hamas, probably devoting more than $1 billion of (scarce) dollars to the effort? What’s the economic rationale for hosting conferences of Holocaust deniers in Tehran, thereby gratuitously damaging ties to otherwise eager economic partners such as Germany and France? What was the political logic to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls to wipe Israel off the map, which made it so much easier for the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions? How does the regime shore up its domestic legitimacy by preaching a state ideology that makes the country a global pariah?


Maybe all this behavior serves Tehran’s instrumental purposes by putting the regime at the vanguard of a united Shiite-Sunni “resistance” to Western imperialism and Zionism. If so, it hasn’t worked out too well, as the rise of Islamic State shows. The likelier explanation is that the regime believes what it says, practices what it preaches, and is willing to pay a steep price for doing so.


So it goes with hating Jews. There are casual bigots who may think of Jews as greedy or uncouth, but otherwise aren’t obsessed by their prejudices. But the Jew-hatred of the Iranian regime is of the cosmic variety: Jews, or Zionists, as the agents of everything that is wrong in this world, from poverty and drug addiction to conflict and genocide. If Zionism is the root of evil, then anti-Zionism is the greatest good—a cause to which one might be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, up to and including one’s own life.


This was one of the lessons of the Holocaust, which the Nazis carried out even at the expense of the overall war effort. In 1944, with Russia advancing on a broad front and the Allies landing in Normandy, Adolf Eichmann pulled out all stops to deport more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in just two months. The Nazis didn’t even bother to make slaves of most of their prisoners to feed their war machine. Annihilation of the Jews was the higher goal.


Modern Iran is not Nazi Germany, or so Iran’s apologists like to remind us. Then again, how different is the thinking of an Eichmann from that of a Khamenei, who in 2012 told a Friday prayer meeting that Israel was a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut”? Whether the Ayatollah Khamenei gets to act on his wishes, as Eichmann did, is another question. Mr. Obama thinks he won’t, because the ayatollah only pursues his Jew-hating hobby “at the margins,” as he told Mr. Goldberg, where it isn’t at the expense of his “self-interest.” Does it occur to Mr. Obama that Mr. Khamenei might operate according to a different set of principles than political or economic self-interest? What if Mr. Khamenei believes that some things in life are, in fact, worth fighting for, the elimination of Zionism above all?


In November 2013 the president said at a fundraising event that he was “not a particularly ideological person.” Maybe Mr. Obama doesn’t understand the compelling power of ideology. Or maybe he doesn’t know himself. Either way, the tissue of assumptions on which his Iran diplomacy rests looks thinner all the time.            




YOU WANT HYPOTHETICALS? HERE’S ONE.                                                                                  

Charles Krauthammer                                                  

Washington Post, May 21, 2015


Ramadi falls. The Iraqi army flees. The great 60-nation anti-Islamic State coalition so grandly proclaimed by the Obama administration is nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s the defense minister of Iran who flies into Baghdad, an unsubtle demonstration of who’s in charge — while the U.S. air campaign proves futile and America’s alleged strategy for combating the Islamic State is in freefall. It gets worse. The Gulf states’ top leaders, betrayed and bitter, ostentatiously boycott President Obama’s failed Camp David summit. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” laments Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief. Note: “were,” not “are.”


We are scraping bottom. Following six years of President Obama’s steady and determined withdrawal from the Middle East, America’s standing in the region has collapsed. And yet the question incessantly asked of the various presidential candidates is not about that. It’s a retrospective hypothetical: Would you have invaded Iraq in 2003 if you had known then what we know now?


First, the question is not just a hypothetical but an inherently impossible hypothetical. It contradicts itself. Had we known there were no weapons of mass destruction, the very question would not have arisen. The premise of the war — the basis for going to the U.N., to the Congress and, indeed, to the nation — was Iraq’s possession of WMD in violation of the central condition for the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. No WMD, no hypothetical to answer in the first place.


Second, the “if you knew then” question implicitly locates the origin and cause of the current disasters in 2003 . As if the fall of Ramadi was predetermined then, as if the author of the current regional collapse is George W. Bush. This is nonsense. The fact is that by the end of Bush’s tenure the war had been won. You can argue that the price of that victory was too high. Fine. We can debate that until the end of time. But what is not debatable is that it was a victory. Bush bequeathed to Obama a success. By whose measure? By Obama’s. As he told the troops at Fort Bragg on Dec. 14, 2011, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” This was, said the president, a “moment of success.”


Which Obama proceeded to fully squander. With the 2012 election approaching, he chose to liquidate our military presence in Iraq. We didn’t just withdraw our forces. We abandoned, destroyed or turned over our equipment, stores, installations and bases. We surrendered our most valuable strategic assets, such as control of Iraqi airspace, soon to become the indispensable conduit for Iran to supply and sustain the Assad regime in Syria and cement its influence all the way to the Mediterranean. And, most relevant to the fall of Ramadi, we abandoned the vast intelligence network we had so painstakingly constructed in Anbar province, without which our current patchwork operations there are largely blind and correspondingly feeble.


The current collapse was not predetermined in 2003 but in 2011. Isn’t that what should be asked of Hillary Clinton? We know you think the invasion of 2003 was a mistake. But what about the abandonment of 2011? Was that not a mistake? Mme. Secretary: When you arrived at State, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been crushed and expelled from Anbar. The Iraqi government had from Basra to Sadr City fought and defeated the radical, Iranian-proxy Shiite militias. Yet today these militias are back, once again dominating Baghdad. On your watch, we gave up our position as the dominant influence over a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” — forfeiting that position gratuitously to Iran. Was that not a mistake? And where were you when it was made?


Iraq is now a battlefield between the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State and the Shiite jihadists of Iran’s Islamic Republic. There is no viable center. We abandoned it. The Obama administration’s unilateral pullout created a vacuum for the entry of the worst of the worst. And the damage was self-inflicted. The current situation in Iraq, says David Petraeus, “is tragic foremost because it didn’t have to turn out this way. The hard-earned progress of the surge was sustained for over three years.” Do the math. That’s 2009 through 2011, the first three Obama years. And then came the unraveling. When? The last U.S. troops left Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011. Want to do retrospective hypotheticals? Start there.





ISLAMIC STATE EYES DAMASCUS                                                                                          

Eyal Zisser                                                                                                          

Israel Hayom, May 25, 2015


One year after seizing vast areas of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has once again reared its head. As it turns out, while Washington was busy eulogizing the organization and spreading rumors about the death of its leader, Islamic State was gearing up for the next round of fighting. Last week, Islamic State dealt a one-two punch to the Syrian and Iraqi regimes by seizing the Iraqi city of Ramadi, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of the capital of Baghdad, and the Syria city of Palmyra, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Damascus. It seems the Obama administration, which was convinced Islamic State was retreating and perhaps even on the brink of collapse, was the only one to be surprised by the group's success.


Islamic State's progress is resounding proof of the failure of the American strategy, which seeks to deal with the threat via airstrikes and covert commando raids. Moreover, the group's success is also resounding proof of how detached Washington is from the reality on the ground. The problem is that in their quest to get a better grasp of the situation, the Americans have decided to adopt the Iranian point of view, placing their trust in Tehran, and therefore in Hezbollah, to indirectly assist them in curtailing Islamic State's progress in Syria and Iraq.


The advances Islamic State has made in Iraq are disturbing, but it is doubtful the group is seeking to overrun Baghdad and the Shiite areas in southern Iraq, whose government, as everyone knows, has become defunct and no longer presumes to represent the Iraqi people. Essentially, all that is left of sovereign Iraq is the Shiite people, who enjoy the backing of the U.S. and the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They have come together to fight Islamic State over the Shiite territories in southern Iraq, but have neither the interest nor the ability to defend northern Iraq from the jihadi group.


As opposed to the complicated situation in Iraq, Islamic State fighters view the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria as easy prey. In overrunning Palmyra, Islamic State dealt a blow to Assad, whose regime is barely holding on as it is. Assad has virtually no military forces fighting for him in the hundreds of battlegrounds across Syria. What is left of the Syrian army is a group of exhausted soldiers who are outnumbered and unmotivated, and Assad can do little to assist them.


While Assad, assisted by several thousand Hezbollah operatives, is fighting a rearguard battle at the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syria-Lebanon border, Islamic State has been able to seize some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of Syria, and although most of this area is uninhabited, it still represent two-thirds of the country. Control of Palmyra affords Islamic State a springboard to the heart of Syria, toward Damascus in the south and Homs, which connects the northern and southern parts of Syria, in the east.


Assad's problems, however, go beyond Islamic State, as he must also contend with the Nusra Front, which is collaborating with several rebel groups backed by Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Unlike before, the rebel groups have joined forces and are threatening the Assad regime from the south, near the city of Daraa and on the Syrian Golan Heights, and from the north, where they have already taken the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. These groups are now threatening Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, as well as the regime's strongholds on the Alawi coast.


In this reality, the assistance Hezbollah lends the Assad regime is a drop in the bucket. It would take a miracle to save the regime, and despite Washington's illusions, Islamic State may soon become one of the entities filling the vacuum in Syria. This will pose a problem for Israel as well.





AS THE MIDEAST BURNS, OBAMA TALKS ABOUT THE WEATHER                                                    

Father Raymond J. de Souza                                                                                       

National Post, May 25, 2015


It’s commencement season, a time when the great and the good come to campus to encourage the graduates to strive not only for greatness but for goodness, too. Commencement speeches are meant to celebrate the graduates, but with carte blanche to say something important, they reveal rather a lot about the speakers, as well. Recent addresses have brought inspiration at home and foreboding abroad.


Ten days ago I was at the Royal Military College graduation, where the commencement speaker was the commander-in-chief, Governor General David Johnston. The day after sexual abuse in the military was the lead story in the news, he spoke eloquently about how the graduates need to have a solid moral code and how the military depends upon them for force of arms and integrity of life.


I wish I had been at the Mount Allison graduation to hear Kevin Vickers speak to the graduates about the events that took place on Oct. 22, when as sergeant-at-arms he defended Parliament against a terror attack. The mace-bearer brought force of arms to bear on the shooter, but never lost sight that the man he took down was just that, a man, with an eternal soul. Vickers, having exercised his duty to dispatch Michael Zehaf-Bibeau to his judgment, prayed that it might be a merciful one.


U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the graduation of the Coast Guard Academy last Wednesday. He listed the various vital tasks the smallest of America’s military academies prepares its graduates for — safeguarding ports against terrorism, disaster relief, interdiction of smugglers, whether trafficking in people or drugs. The Coast Guard is deployed globally, including in the Persian Gulf alongside the Navy, in West Africa to fight Ebola and in the Pacific to preserve freedom of navigation along key trading routes. But that is not what the American commander-in-chief thought most pressing.


“And this brings me to the challenge I want to focus on today — one where our Coast Guardsmen are already on the front lines, and that, perhaps more than any other, will shape your entire careers — and that’s the urgent need to combat and adapt to climate change. As a nation, we face many challenges, including the grave threat of terrorism. And as Americans, we will always do everything in our power to protect our country. Yet even as we meet threats like terrorism, we cannot, and we must not, ignore a peril that can affect generations.”


It turns out that on the very same day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also on service academy commencement duty, addressing the graduates at Imam Hussein Military University in Tehran. According to the New York Times, the ayatollah did not get around to climate change, but did have some pithy words about the nuclear negotiations with America: “Regarding inspections, we have said that we will not let foreigners inspect any military centre.” For good measure, he also had a pointed warning for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies not to make trouble for Iran, lest they suffer the consequences. Scimitar-rattling by a regional hegemon on the threshold of nuclear capability is even a less sunny graduation address than apocalyptic climate change.



It was a perfect, almost painful, juxtaposition. Obama spoke of how “confronting climate change is now a key pillar of American global leadership — a core element of our diplomacy.” The defiance in Teheran paints a rather different picture. American leadership looks rather less impressive in Teheran’s part of the globe. The Obama administration has been begging the Iranians for a nuclear deal for years. The Iranians have not yet decided the terms on which they will grant Obama his wish, though Khamenei’s speech indicates that it will include the capacity to violate any such agreement with impunity.


If climate change is a new core element of American diplomacy, it may be because the traditional priorities of diplomacy are not faring as well. Watching Obama’s humiliation in Syria, reversals in Iraq and capitulation to Iran, American allies in the Gulf are highly nervous. A few weeks back, Obama sought to reassure them with invitations to a Camp David summit. Three of the five heads of state took a pass on meeting the president, including the new Saudi king. The king of Bahrain opted instead to attend the Royal Windsor Horse Show with Queen Elizabeth. The petro-monarchies have more pressing concerns than climate change.


Commencement addresses are often forgotten by the graduates to whom they are delivered. Perhaps it was so last week, though one expects the malevolent powers around the world took careful note that as Ramadi fell to ISIS, and Iran sets a course for nuclear weapons, Obama spoke about the weather. 






On Topic


‘Look … It’s My Name on This’: Obama Defends the Iran Nuclear Deal: Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, May 21, 2015—On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry.

How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess: Margaret Coker, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2015—In late April, a commander for Islamic State said his forces were ready to launch an offensive to take Ramadi, and the group called for fighters to redeploy to Iraq from Syria.

Can the Islamic State Survive?: Ross Douthat, New York Times, May 23, 2015—The fall of an autocrat leads to foreign occupation and civil war. A revolutionary movement with a messianic vision capitalizes on the chaos to gain power.

The Last Battle?: Dr. Mordechai Kedar, Arutz Sheva, May 8, 2015 —The Kalamon mountains range from Mount Hermon northwards for tens of kilometers, overlooking the Lebanon Valley to the west. The official boundary between Lebanon and Syria runs along the crest of the mountain range, with the western slopes of the mountains part of Lebanon and the eastern slopes part of Syria. The Beirut-Damascus highway serves as the northern edge.