Belmont Club

Strike Two

The president blamed US intelligence for misjudging the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The Boston Globe writes, “President Barack Obama acknowledged that US intelligence agencies underestimated the threat from Islamic State militants and overestimated the ability and will of Iraq’s army to fight.”

The Obama administration has cited its intelligence weaknesses before.

At an August news conference, he said ‘‘there is no doubt’’ that the Islamic State group’s advance ‘‘has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates’’ suggested it would be.

US intelligence agencies, he said, did not have “a full appreciation of the degree to which the Iraqi security forces, when they’re far away from Baghdad, did not have the incentive or the capacity to hold ground against an aggressive adversary.”

But they are always somebody elses’ intelligence failures, never the president’s. The they-a culpa and headlines over US airstrikes in Syria overshadowed another possible failure of intelligence: Yemen.  The administration had touted Yemen as the template for how to fight a terrorism.  In late July Katherine Zimmerman in the Washington Post warned that the administration’s model wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

President Obama says the United States is looking to its Yemen policy as a model for what to do in Iraq and Syria. But what the president labels the “Yemen model” has not been as successful as the White House claims; indeed, it is in danger of collapse. Attempting to replicate it in much more challenging conditions in Iraq and Syria will almost certainly fail.

That warning proved prescient. Last week, Yemen’s capital was largely taken over by Shi’ite rebels. Saudi Arabia, widely viewed as the power behind the throne, decamped.  So did the most of the United States diplomatic mission. Those glaring facts did not diminish the administration’s faith in its own judgment.   Two days ago, Josh Earnest argued the fact that the US was evacuating the embassy didn’t mean the administration strategy wasn’t working.

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: In terms of decisive action by the president, how can you cite as a success Yemen when the country is falling apart?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: Because, Ed, what we have seen is the effective deployment of counter-terrorism strategy that involves building up the capacity of local forces, on occasion backed by American military forces, to counter extremist threats that are emanating from that country.

HENRY: If it has been so successful why are we pulling our embassy personnel out of there?

EARNEST: Ed, what we have been focused on is mitigating the threat from extremists and denying them the kind of safe-haven that would allow them to plot —

HENRY: The embassy said we are pulling out. We have to get our people out of there.

EARNEST: Ed, what we have seen in Yemen is the effective deployment of a counter-terrorism strategy to put continual pressure on extremist groups that seek to do harm to the United States.

HENRY: If there is so much pressure why are we leaving?

EARNEST: What that has done is it has prevented those extremist groups from having to plot and plan and carry out, successfully, attacks against the U.S. homeland. That requires vigilance. If we take a day off, they could build up capacity in such a way that would be very dangerous to the U.S. or our interests around the globe.

It was working alright — for Iran. With its Hezbollah-like militia largely in control of Yemen’s capital; its influence over Baghdad and ground presence in both Syria and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia’s humiliation, Iran had clearly become a power for the president to reckon with.  It’s offered Obama a deal, or rather an ultimatum: if you don’t let us have our nukes, we won’t give you a hand.

Fox News writes “the Iranian government appears to be steadily leveraging the Islamic State crisis by dangling the possibility of cooperation against the terror group in exchange for a favorable deal on its nuclear program — despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the issues are not linked.”

MSNBC writes “Rouhani wants ISIS fight on Iran’s terms”. Let us have our nukes and we will get you out of a jam.

Last week, an anonymous Iranian official reportedly told Reuters that the country would be willing to cooperate with America’s anti-ISIS campaign on the condition that western powers soften their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani avoided saying directly whether he was willing to trade membership in the American coalition for concessions on the nuclear program, and instead emphasized his belief that his government has “adhered to our duties as a responsible government in fighting terrorism.”

The message is the same in each case.  We’ll put down the gun if you hand over the keys to the jail cell. Events are so dire Tom Friedman can only explain it by suggesting that Reagan had it easier than Obama. He laments in the New York Times:

These days there is a lot of “if-only-Obama-could-lead-like-Reagan” talk by conservatives. I’ll leave it to historians to figure out years from now who was the better president. But what I’d argue is this: In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now.

The only problem with Friedman’s comparison is that Obama himself explicitly argued that Iran was a much easier opponent than the superpower Soviet Union. He boasted to a joint session of congress earlier this year that you couldn’t lose against a jayvee team like Iran when America had just beaten the Lakers.

“If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

‘How can I lose? How can I lose?’

But that was before his intelligence agencies failed him and his winning strategy in Yemen let him down. Now his problem is the reverse.  It’s no longer ‘how can I lose?’ but ‘where can I win?’ Alexis Knudsen of the AEI-related Critical Threat’s analytical group writes that worse defeats are in the offing.

The break-up of Yemen would devastate U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The U.S. relies on Yemen’s military to combat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an organization that has tried and will continue to try to attack the U.S. homeland. Most of the forces the U.S. trains and works with operate in the southern and eastern provinces of Yemen. These units will most likely be removed from fighting AQAP to keeping the Yemeni state together if Yemen moves toward repartition or even federation. Such a scenario would cripple the current U.S. strategaterproof leather, Nylon mesh liningy against AQAP, empowering a group that is one of the greatest threats to the American homeland.

Events in Yemen might devastate the US counterterrorism strategy, but it probably won’t change the conviction among the president’s supporters that he knows what’s best. They double-down on failure.  Libya’s a success. Egypt’s a success. Iraq is a success. Yemen is a success. Iran is a success. Syria’s a … Comparisons between this behavior and those of lemmings are unfair to the rodents. Recently scientists have discovered that lemmings don’t commit suicide. In footage showing this behavior, they were pushed.

Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.

In the public policy case, the launching turntable is the narrative. The media is to us as the launcher was to the lemmings in White Wilderness. On you go, over you go.


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