I read Ben Carson’s plan to defeat global jihad so you don’t have to

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson attends a 'Building the New Puerto Rico' event in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, November 8, 2015. Carson said he supports Puerto Rico becoming the 51st U.S. state in Fajardo on Sunday. REUTERS/Alvin Baez - RTS61WA
That’s how I feel about it too.

Thanks to the miracle of social media I learned today that Ben Carson has rolled out a “comprehensive plan” to defeat ISIS and rid the world of the scourge of ISIS and global Islamic jihad once and for all. Given that foreign policy is widely considered Carson’s weakest of weak points, I figured I would give it a read to see if he’s stepped up his game any.

Yeah, not so much.

I could go through it all for you (all six pages, two of which are full-page portraits of the humble doctor), picking each bit apart and showing that his ideas are: 1) impossibly vague; 2) uninformed by any knowledge of the region, its history, or cultures; 3) disconnected from any understanding of military strategy or actual diplomacy; 4) vows to do what the Obama administration is already doing; 5) empty platitudes; or 6) some combination of all of the above.

Why though? If you’re inclined to vote for him for president because he seems to be a nice guy who isn’t tainted by politics then nothing I write here is going to change your mind. You’re also highly unlikely to be reading my blog …

If you care about having a serious debate about American foreign, the unseriousness of Carson’s big strategy reveal will just frustrate and annoy you.

But if the masochist in you wants to check it out to take in the sheer audacity of its badness, then by all means, click away.

Congress and the art of the empty gesture

Mitch McConnell has introduced a measure authorizing the use of force against ISIS.
Mitch McConnell has introduced a measure authorizing the use of force against ISIS. No, he really did.

 

Congress may, just may, finally take up a joint resolution authorizing President Obama to use military force against ISIS.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly introduced just such a measure on Wednesday, and with so little fanfare that the move surprised even his own colleagues:

When the National Journal asked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to comment on the fact that McConnell had introduced the resolution, he replied, “He did?”

Here’s the text of the operative part of the proposed authorization. The full resolution can be read here:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, its associated forces, organizations, and persons, and any successor organizations.

But look what’s missing here:

  • There’s no expiration date for the authorization.
  • There are no imposed geographical limitations in terms of authorized theater of operations.
  • There’s no limitations imposed in terms of states, groups, or individuals who can be targeted militarily.
  • And most importantly, there are no limits placed on the extent of military force that the president can employ, including as many American “boots-on-the-ground” as this, or any future president, thinks is necessary.

In short, under the McConnell proposal, this president, and his successors, will be authorized to use any level of force, anywhere in the world, for as long as he or she wants, so long as a link to ISIS can be asserted. It’s the 9/11 authorization all over again, just with the names changed.

As I wrote back in November, up until now the Obama Administration had been relying on that post-9/11 authorization to use force against Al Qaeda for the legal authority to drop bombs on ISIS and to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria, including with special forces units. And Congress, until now, had shown no appetite for putting itself on the hook by giving the president a new authorization, despite Obama’s explicit request for one back in February 2015.

So this new measure is a step in the right direction in terms of assigning real responsibility for policy toward ISIS and creating a framework of accountability for its outcome. All of which is why its not likely to make any real difference.

Because one thing that we have long known is that Congress really doesn’t like having to answer for military operations. If they authorize something and it goes disastrously wrong they don’t want the blame. If they tie the president’s hands by refusing to authorize and something catastrophic happens later, they don’t want to have to explain that either.

Congress wants to be able to hold presidents accountable for how they use military force, but doesn’t want to take responsibility itself. From Congress’ perspective it’s just easier, and safer, to let the president go his own way so that they can cheerlead or snipe as they see fit and as the political winds blow.

So it is unsurprising that McConnell, having introduced a joint resolution, seems in absolutely no hurry to schedule a vote. The Atlantic report cited at the top of this post sums the situation up nicely:

The president’s undeclared war on ISIS puts Republicans in an awkward spot. GOP leaders don’t want to look as though they have ceded authority, a perception Republicans risk if they fail to act as a check on the administration’s power to deploy military force. But if Congress does authorize military force, such an action might be construed as a stamp of approval for the president’s broader foreign-policy objectives, making it harder for the GOP to credibly level criticism against the administration as it fights the Islamic State.

For now, McConnell can point to the resolution as evidence that Republicans are working to hold the president accountable, and perhaps convince the administration to take a harder-line in the fight against ISIS. The measure also gives the majority leader a chance to paint a picture of a more assertive brand of Republican foreign policy compared to a more constrained approach from the administration.

ISIS comes to Paris

 

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I haven’t written about Paris yet. It’s not that my training, or the expertise I’ve developed over many years of teaching about terrorism, or the research I’ve done on political violence aren’t somehow relevant. After all, I was perfectly happy to spend 15 minutes recording an interview with the local Detroit news radio station Friday evening when much of what was known was largely speculative.

I’m not alone in this reticence to blog about Paris. My friend and fellow academic blogger Steve Saideman (who I both credit and blame for encouraging me to start blogging) likewise has held back, and for many of the same reasons as I have.

I don’t have a lot to say that others haven’t said. Yes, the coordinated series of attacks in Paris represent an evolution of ISIS strategy, adding a transnational component to what has heretofore been an essentially regional campaign. It potentially represents the development of new capabilities as well. Up until this point ISIS has been content to inspire and encourage lone wolves to act in the movement’s name.

Couple Paris with the downing of a Russian airliner flying out of Egypt and we have something that looks new. Beirut not so much, given that ISIS has struck targets in neighboring states before now. But Daniel Byman of Georgetown has covered this terrain already, and the media has picked up the thread here and here. I have little to add.

The inevitable question is whether the United States could be next. The easy and obvious answer is yes. It could happen here. But that’s not a new either. No society as open as ours will be able to prevent every possible terrorist attack indefinitely.

There will be a response to the attacks in Paris, and it will be a military one. In fact strikes have already begun. France has not been shy about using force, and doing so unilaterally, against Islamist movements. It’s one reason France has been in the crosshairs of groups like ISIS and other extremist groups.

In short, I have no new wisdom to add here. And I will confess, as an academic my tendency would be to focus my thoughts and comments on all the well-worn pathways of dispassionate political and strategic analysis alluded to above.

But frankly there’s more than enough of that to go around. What is sorely lacking, and which I’m not comfortable providing, is something more emotionally meaningful, more humane, than what people like me will typically deliver.

So instead, let me give you something else. Let me leave you with the words of a friend of mine from Belfast, Colm Mac Aindreasa, who earlier today posted the following on social media:

Just a thought.

As the dust settles and the tears flow, the atrocities of Paris, Beirut, Gaza, Syria and a raft of others brought numbing shock, followed by fear, and finally anger. On our tvs, radios and social media feeds, angry people spout hatred, and cry for bloody vengeance. And through it all runs fear. Fear and suspicion. Suspicion of strangers, fear of difference. From Francois Hollande’s calls for a pitiless response, to the most illiterate keyboard warriors and their calls for carpet-bombings, it is clear that IS has achieved its goal. Fear and distrust now rule the land.

The foul deeds of IS and others doesn’t just close borders, it closes hearts and minds as well. That persistent clicking you hear is keyboards calling for blood, guns being loaded and doors being locked as we retreat into isolation and fear. And just as the bombers intended, behind locked doors and twitching curtains our humanity withers.

Humanity can always be judged by how we treat others. And I don’t want my humanity to succumb to atrophy. So here’s what I suggest. Take your humanity out and give it some exercise. Whether your neighbours are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jedi or atheist, be thankful that they give you such a rich life to live. Talk to your neighbour, don’t just hunch your shoulders and nod as you pass. Ask those around you how they are. How are their families? Offer help if you can, and encouragement if you can’t. Share a sandwich. Lend a book. Borrow a book. Help carry that heavy shopping bag. Complain about the weather. Share a joke, a smile, a laugh.

Think of this as taking your humanity to the gym. Your humanity is strengthened and reaffirmed. Your life is richer and so is your neighbour’s. That sends a clear an unequivocal message to IS and to the dark powers that created them. And the message is “You failed. I’m still human”.

Syria solved!

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After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.