Political rhetoric and the jihadists

Every terrorist attack on a Western target presents the self-styled saints in Washington and other western capitals with an opportunity to engage in perfectly staged grandiose rhetoric. Employing borrowed words, identical sound bites, and first-cousin cliches designed to curate their images, conceal their ignorance and ignore realities on the ground, world leaders’ pontificate about destroying ISIS.

But there is precious little explanation of what defeating ISIS really means or how it will be accomplished.

Our leaders’ mandarin rhetoric is reminiscent of Queen Gertrude’s admonition to Polonius in Hamlet: “More matter with less art.” In contemporary parlance, this is translated as more substance with less style. More content without the rhetorical ornamentation and digressions. The political classes in God’s menagerie talk until their mouths bleed and reassure the public that they will defeat the terrorists without a hitch like an Ocean’s Eleven heist.

Best to recall the truth of George Orwell’s comment that “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” blurring the boundaries between the fake and the real. It is a reminder that the moment to be wariest of political rhetoric is precisely when elite opinion is lined up on one side of the boat.

Those politicians talk about destroying ISIS, but what about other radical Islamic terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Jabhat al-Nustra, and Boko Haram, that have proliferated all over the globe partially facilitated by the information revolution?

Does victory over ISIS mean taking the fight to their doorstep in Iraq and Syria? If it means beating them militarily, that is a silly question. If the American public has the stomach to support boots on the ground with the collateral damage to civilians, the world’s mightiest military could go through ISIS in Syria and Iraq to take a phrase from General Patton, “like excrement through a goose.” But the American people will not touch this approach with a barge pole.

The U.S. military did not start bombing ISIS’ oil infrastructure and their fleet of tanker trucks because the Obama administration was worried about civilian casualties and environmental damage. You have to wonder whether the allies would have won World War II if they had to submit their bombing targets to the White House for approval.

Is defeating ISIS militarily, stopping its propaganda machine, blocking its revenue sources sufficient to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism? ISIS and other jihadists ‘ initial goal is to create a caliphate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and the Palestinian territories. After that, they want to recreate the caliphate of old and then spread Islam over the entire planet. A global caliphate achieved through a global war. Other than that, they have modest ambitions.

Does it mean making their ideas go away? Does a grand strategy have to deal with the challenge of overthrowing a religion, a belief system? Even if we defeat the extremist militarily, we are still going to be dealing with the sons and daughters of jihadists 20 years from now. The fight against terrorism could become like the endless war on crime, or poverty or cancer.

To reduce and manage the terrorist threat, mainstream Muslims themselves must come out forcefully against the jihadis who are trying to hijack their religion. Political rhetoric comes with the speed of light, while developing and executing a successful strategy to deal with the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism comes with that of sound.

originally published: January 2, 2016

How Americans became soft targets

Americans can add concerns about their physical safety to a list of worries that already includes job insecurity, record economic inequality, and trust in government reaching an all-time low.

The San Bernardino shootings show that terror attacks on soft targets are not confined to Europe. The premeditated slaughter of innocent civilians by radical Islamic terrorists (dare I say the name) in Paris was followed by promises of similar attacks in other “crusader cities” including Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The most recent attacks are a reminder that American foreign policy blunders have caused chaos in the Middle East, where Islamic State outposts are gaining strength in Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Americans understand you cannot underestimate ISIS, as President Obama did when he characterized them as a junior varsity team that has been contained as a local actor and did not represent a national security threat.

American troops exited Iraq at the end of 2011, completing a deployment that cost nearly 4,500 American lives, left more than 32,000 wounded and cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. The president said the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” Iraq.

Instead, the exit left the door open for the Islamic State’s land grab. All the gains made following the “surge” from 2007 to 2011 were washed away, with Islamic State terrorists taking territory and committing mass killings.

The President did not help matters in 2012, when he warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Yet when Assad did just that in 2013, Obama did nothing. The inaction undermined America’s credibility and exasperated our allies.

The blunders did not start with President Obama. Common sense has gone on holiday among the worthies in Washington since 9/11, beginning with a feckless decision to invade Iraq that was a precipitating event in the unraveling of the Middle East and creation of one of the worst refugee crises since World War II.

The American-organized coalition invaded in 2003 because of Saddam Hussein’s alleged connections to terrorism and the potential threat posed by Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that Iraq did not have WMDs; Hussein’s links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups were equally illusory.

The invasion was also supposed to transform a country benighted by decades of dictatorship into a Western-style free-market democracy that would be a model for other Middle East nations. Instead it opened Pandora’s Box and promoted Iran’s metastasizing regional hegemony.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by massive civil disorder, including the looting of public and government buildings, as the country slipped into anarchy. There was no plan for what to do after the victory and little recognition given to religious, ethnic, and political complexities among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Dissolving the army put several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no jobs and firing government employees, mostly Sunnis linked to the Hussein regime, transformed the country into a breeding ground for the very terrorism the invasion was supposed to combat.

By the fall of 2003 these blunders and the lack of enough American troops to establish security for the Iraqi people contributed to the growth of insurgency.

America allowed the old order to topple without a viable alternative in place – a reckless act with no precedent in modern statecraft. Now we are faced with the monumental challenge of picking up the pieces.

Today you need a scorecard to keep track of what is happening in the Middle East. For example, the Kurds have been a strong American partner. But Turkey, an equivocal NATO ally, claims that the Syrian Kurds are a terrorist group and have been bombing America’s most reliable ally in Syria and Iraq while ISIS brokers black market oil in Turkey to fund itself.

Sadly, the effects of these blunders aren’t limited to the Middle East. Here in the United States, Americans now live in fear of their physical safety.

Originally Published: December 12, 2015

Why should Americans trust refugee process?

Everyone loves a good argument and few questions are more likely to start one right now than “should we allow Syrian refugees into the United States?” Answering the question requires balancing competing concerns. First and foremost is the moral imperative of protecting American citizens versus the humanitarian concerns of providing for refugees.

But that isn’t the only set of competing concerns. What about the question of whether the United States should be helping its own -thousands of homeless veterans, for example -before helping others who may represent a unique security threat? Should America’s self-interests be sacrificed in the pursuit of high ideals. And in the 21st century, that self-interest is threatened by the specter of global jihad.

The Obama administration plans to increase refugee admissions for fiscal 2016 to at least 85,000, with 10,000 of the refugees coming from Syria, despite the horrific Paris attack in which at least apparently one of the attackers is believed to have posed as a Syrian migrant to get into France. The plan would move these refugees to the front of the immigration line, ahead of “undocumented” immigrants and those on the “legal” immigration list.

White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes employed the usual self-assured bureaucratic rhetoric, saying that the government has a “very careful vetting process” for all Syrian refugees. Still further, he argued that these refugees are tragic victims; women, children and orphans of the Syrian civil war that has raged since 2011. Put like that, who could disagree with the canonical view of the administration?

The director of the FBI, for one. James B. Comey testified before Congress in October that his agency has neither the resources nor the necessary information to fully vet Syrian refugees. He could not offer assurances that terrorist fighters could not slip in by posing as refugees. Nobody can guarantee ISIS could not use the Syrian diaspora as a way to kill Americans and serve as an ISIS Trojan Horse. There are no solid background records available to confirm that refugees are who they say they are.

All this should not be surprising given that we are dealing with refugees from a broken country in the midst of years-long civil war.

Overlooked in the discussion are security risks presented by the estimated 40 percent of the 11-to-12 million unauthorized residents who came here legally, then stayed after their student, business, or tourist visas expired. Lest Americans forget, on 9/11, 19 foreign terrorists came through America’s front door on legitimate visas, hijacked four planes and murdered almost 3,000 innocent people. On the day of the attack, four of them were continuing to live in the shadows even thought their visas had expired.

If the federal government has not been able to track the arrival and departure of foreign visitors, why would Americans believe their government can effectively screen Syrian refugees. To put it nicely the average American lacks confidence in the competency of their government to identify covert operatives. That is not irrational.

All it takes is one terrorist to get through the screening process. In other words, the government agencies conducting the screening have to be perfect. If you believe they are capable of such behavior, it is likely you think it’s possible to fight a war without collateral damage to civilians.

It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It is a definition Americans should remember as we consider the issue of allowing Syrian refugees into the United States.

Originally Published: November 28, 2015

An inconvenient fix to America’s immigration problem

Most of the discussion about our broken immigration system centers on those who enter the country illegally over the porous 2,000-mile southwest land border that stretches over four states. But that is only a partial picture of illegal immigration in the United States.

Overlooked in the discussion are the security risks presented by the estimated 40 percent of the 11 to 12 million unauthorized residents who came here legally, then stayed after their student, business or tourist visas expired. In other words, these immigrants did not jump a fence, cross a river, or pay to be smuggled into the country. To borrow Vice President Biden’s words, “This is really a big deal.”

The number of visitors who come to the United States legally each year but pose a potential national security or public safety threat is unknown. Under current law, those who overstay their visas are committing only a civil violation of federal law, while those who sneak across the border are committing a federal crime.

Addressing the large number of foreign visitors who have entered the United States legally but then overstayed has been a long-standing challenge. Tracking the arrival and departure of foreign visitors is an essential part of protecting Americans from those who would do us harm.

While the Department of Homeland Security takes fingerprints and photos of foreigners who enter the United States, their ability to track immigrants who stay past their visa expiration in real time is severely limited, especially when you consider that any state with an international airport is a border state.

Perhaps it is time to simply issue people American Express cards because they seem to have no problem tracking their customers. The persistent problems of visa overstays are not given the same priority in allocating resources as efforts to blockade the border states. It may be because overstays don’t make for good 10-second sound bites like those who cross the Rio Grande river in search of a better life do. These Mexican immigrants are building houses, not bombs.

The government has known for some time that the visa process is vulnerable to terrorist exploitation. The General Accounting Office has reported that 36 of the roughly 400 people convicted of terrorism­ related charges since 2001 overstayed their visas.

In 2007, Hosam Smadi arrived from Jordan on a 90-day tourist visa but never left. Two years later he plotted to blow up a Dallas high-rise with a car bomb.

Another tourist, 29-year old Moroccan Amine El Khalifi, overstayed his visa and conspired to detonate a bomb at the U.S. capitol in 2012.

Lest Americans forget, on 9/11, 19 foreign terrorists came right through America’s front door on legitimate visas, hijacked four planes and murdered almost 3,000 innocent people. On the day of the attack, four of them were living in the shadows even though their visas had expired.

Fifteen of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, but that did not dissuade the federal government in January 2013 from adding the country to the U.S. Global Entry trusted traveler program, which streamlines the airport screening process.

With the United States at war against terrorism, it may be time to consider Michael Corleone’s  11th commandment: Protect your family at any cost. Even if it means antagonizing those such as the airlines and tourism industry concerned about reduced travel to the United States or those who worry about the privacy issues involved in cracking down on visa overstays with increased monitoring of visitors.

If the United States is ever going to get serious about fixing our broken immigration system, we need to be willing to take on some of the interests who might be inconvenienced by the fix.

originally published: April 1, 2015