LEFT – Peter Bergen
RIGHT – David Sterman


Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at the New America Foundation and the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.” David Sterman is a research associate at the New America Foundation.



U.S. officials are claiming that the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is “now a credible alternative to al Qaeda.”

But what does that really mean in terms of ISIS’ potential threat to the United States? After all, al Qaeda hasn’t pulled off a successful attack in the States since 9/11, or indeed anywhere in the West since the London transportation bombings in 2005.

This month, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, criticized the airstrikes in Iraq ordered by President Barack Obama directed at ISIS as too limited, telling CNN’s Candy Crowley, “That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem which is metastasizing as we speak. Candy, there was a guy a month ago that was in Syria, went back to the United States, came back and blew himself up. We’re tracking 100 Americans who are over there now fighting for ISIS. ISIS is attracting extreme elements from all over the world, much less the Arab world. And what have we done?”

The case McCain alluded to was that of Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, and who conducted a suicide bombing in Syria in May on behalf of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. According to The New York Times, Abu-Salha had returned to the United States after being trained by Nusra and then went back to Syria to conduct the suicide operation in which he died.

McCain asserted on CNN that 100 Americans were fighting with ISIS. In fact, according to U.S. officials, 100 is the total number of Americans believed to have fought or attempted to have fought with any of the many Syrian insurgent groups, some of which are more militant than others, and some of which are even aligned with the United States.

According to a count by the New America Foundation, eight people from the United States have been indicted with crimes related to trying to join ISIS or the Nusra Front. (By contrast, some 240 U.S. citizens and residents have been indicted or charged with some kind of jihadist terrorist crime since 9/11.)

Some of the Nusra Front cases are far from threatening. On April 19, 2013, Abdella Tounisi, an 18-year-old American citizen from Aurora, Illinois, was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to Nusra. However, he was caught in a sting operation anddescribed his fighting skills thusly: “Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any.” Tounisi pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

Other cases appear more serious. In December, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, a U.S. citizen from Southern California, pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to provide material support to al Qaeda. Between December 2012 and April 2013, Nguyen had traveled to Syria, where, he stated, he fought alongside the Nusra Front. On his return, Nguyen discussed with an informant his intent to participate further in jihad.

In August 2013, Gufran Mohammed, a naturalized American citizen living in Saudi Arabia, was charged with attempting to provide material support to the Nusra Front in Syria, by facilitating the recruitment of experienced fighters from al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate to Syria.

He pleaded guilty last month.

Yet so far no U.S. citizen involved in fighting or supporting the Nusra Front or ISIS has been charged with plotting to conduct an attack inside the United States despite the fact the war in Syria is now in its fourth year and the war in Iraq is in its 11th year. Indeed, some Americans who have traveled to Syria have ended up dead apparently because they have no combat experience to speak of; for instance, Nicole Mansfield from Flint, Michigan, was killed in Syria last year by forces loyal to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Further, ISIS’ predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, never tried to conduct an attack on the American homeland, although it did bomb three American hotels in Jordan in 2005.

And it’s also worth noting that in none of the successful terrorist attacks in the States since 9/11, such as the Boston Marathon bombings last year or Maj. Nidal Hasan’s massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, did any of the convicted or alleged perpetrators receive training overseas.

Returning foreign fighters from the Syrian conflict pose a far greater threat to Europe, which has contributed a much larger number of foreign fighters to the conflict than the United States, including an estimated 700 from France, 450 from the United Kingdom and 270 from Germany.

Unlike in the United States, European countries have reported specific terrorist plots tied to returning Syrian fighters. Mehdi Nemmouche, a suspect in the May 24 shootings at a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium, that killed four people, spent about a year with jihadist fighters in Syria, according to the Paris prosecutor in the case. But Nemmouche’s case is the only instance of lethal violence by a returning Syrian fighter in the West.

Still, the United States must consider European foreign fighters returning from Syria as more than a European problem because many of those returning are from countries that participate in the U.S. visa waiver program and can enter the States without a visa.

Moreover, experienced al Qaeda operators are present in Syria. As one senior U.S. intelligence official put it to us, these are veteran members “with strong resumes and full Rolodexes.” The wars in Syria and Iraq allow such longtime fighters to interact with members of other al Qaeda affiliates. For example, in July, the United States adopted enhanced security measures at airports based on intelligence that bomb-makers from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were sharing their expertise in making bombs capable of evading airport security with members of the Syrian Nusra Front.

Despite these dangers, however, the threat to the United States from foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq remains only a potential threat.

The administration’s airstrikes in Iraq are properly focused upon the more imminent threats to U.S. government employees and American citizens in the Kurdish city of Irbil who are threatened by ISIS advances and the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the Yazidi population in areas controlled by the militant forces.

The last time there was a similar exodus of American citizens and residents to an overseas holy war was to Somalia following the U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces in 2006. More than 40 Americans subsequently went to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated group.

Opinion: ISIS beheading — what should U.S. do?

Just as is the case today in Syria, for a good number of the Americans who went to fight in Somalia it was a one-way ticket because 15 of the 40 or so American volunteers died there either as suicide attackers or on the battlefield.

In 2011, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, then-chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned of Americans fighting in Somalia. “With a large group of Muslim-Americans willing to die as ‘martyrs’ and a strong operational partnership with al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and in Yemen, al-Shabaab now has more capability than ever to strike the U.S. homeland.”

As it turned out, those Americans who returned from the Somali jihad did not attempt or carry out any kind of terrorist attack in the States.

Now King is back at it again, telling NBC last week, “ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America. … They are more powerful now than al Qaeda was on 9/11.”

ISIS is surely a major problem for Iraq, and its tactics and strategy are abhorrent, as demonstrated by the beheading of American journalist James Foley, its use of crucifixions and its genocidal attacks on the small Yazidi minority. But that doesn’t mean it is a serious threat to the American homeland.



Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and chief executive of the New America Foundation,
was director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.

FOR the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail. We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Suddenly, however, in the space of a week, the administration has begun considering the use of force in Iraq, including drones, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has been occupying city after city and moving ever closer to Baghdad.

The sudden turn of events leaves people like me scratching our heads. Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria — and a hideous civil war that has dismembered Syria itself and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan and now Iraq?

I suspect White House officials would advance three reasons.

First, they would say, the fighters in Iraq include members of Al Qaeda. But that ignores recent history. Experts have predicted for over a year that unless we acted in Syria, ISIS would establish an Islamic state in eastern Syria and western Iraq, exactly what we are watching. So why not take them on directly in Syria, where their demise would strengthen the moderate opposition?

Because, the White House might say, of the second reason, the Iraqi government is asking for help. That makes the use of force legitimate under international law, whereas in Syria the same government that started the killing, deliberately fanned the flames of civil war, and will not allow humanitarian aid to starving and mortally ill civilians, objects to the use of force against it.

But here the law sets the interests of the Iraqi government against those of its people. It allows us to help a government that has repeatedly violated power-sharing agreements in ways that have driven Sunni support for ISIS. And from a strategic point of view, it is a government that is deeply in Iran’s pocket — to the extent, as Fareed Zakaria reported in his Washington Postcolumn last week, that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would not agree to a residual American force because the Iranians forbade it.

The third reason the White House would give is that America fought a decade-long war in Iraq, at a terrible cost. We overturned a stable, strong but brutal government, although far less brutal than President Bashar al-Assad’s has proved to be, and left a weak and unstable government. We cannot allow our soldiers to have fought in vain, the argument goes, so we should now prop up the government we left in place.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

President Obama should be asking the same question in Iraq and Syria. What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people? What course of action will be most likely to stop the violence and misery they experience on a daily basis? What course of action will give them the best chance of peace, prosperity and a decent government?

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

On the legal side, we should act in both countries because we face a threat to global peace and security, precisely the situation the United Nations Security Council was established to address. If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power.

This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.





Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor +
a Fellow at the New America Foundation.





JUL. 31, 2014


To defeat your enemy, you should know your enemy. If the heart of today’s challenge in Iraq is the Islamic State, then we must neutralize it. But, how?

The Islamic State’s rise was not sudden. Even at its nadir, it was one of the most active terrorist organizations in the world. We simply did not pay enough attention. The lesson of what to do now with Islamic State today is as much about the past as it is about the future.

First, the past: How did the Islamic State become so powerful? The Islamic State is the current incarnation of al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI), which was created when Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October 2004. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared in October 2006, four months after a U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi. This was not just a naming convention: according to its organizers, AQI ceased to exist at that point, as the ISI was intended to be a governing institution independent from al-Qaeda and a practical step toward ultimately declaring a Caliphate.

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That intent of the ISI was easily overlooked because the group was weak: in 2007 the Sunni Awakening and the Surge undermined it almost immediately.

The Surge and Awakening did not, however, defeat the ISI. The group retreated to northern Iraq near Mosul, where it survived by capitalizing on tension between Arabs and Kurds, utilizing the logistics networks it had long cultivated to move foreign fighters through Syria, and continued dissatisfaction among Sunnis with sectarianism in the Maliki government.

Despite the setbacks, the ISI remained a capable terrorist organization: between 2008 and 2010 the National Counterterrorism Center tracked more terrorist violence in Iraq than any other country in the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When the uprising against  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in the summer of 2011, the ISI did not have to build networks in the Syria. They were already there, and had been supporting its smuggling and foreign fighter operations for years.

The Islamic State is not a flash in the pan. It will remain a significant threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

In January 2012 the ISI established an organization in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusrah. But Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani looked to al-Qaeda Central for strategic guidance rather than ISI Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who asserted his own authority. As a result of this disagreement, the ISI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in April 2013, which reflected a de facto severing of ties with Nusrah and a reaffirmation of its split with al-Qaeda. In June 2014, after finally capturing its former safe-haven, Mosul, the group was clearly the strongest jihadi entity in the world and declared a Caliphate, with supposed authority from North Africa to South Asia.

There are other reasons for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda split. Despite shared lineage and ideology, the two organizations disagree on three basic things: First, whereas al-Qaeda prioritizes attacks against the U.S. homeland and Western Europe, the Islamic State prioritizes establishing political authority in the Middle East. That does not mean, however, that the Islamic State poses no threat to Western Europe and the U.S. homeland. The group is so large and multifaceted that it would be surprising if some sub-groups influenced by al-Qaeda propaganda did not intend such strikes. More than 11,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria, including up to 3,000 from Western Europe and North America. Here, it’s important to remember that the Islamic State is not just a terrorist organization. It is proto-state—think the Taliban pre-9/11—that can offer safe-haven to other militants with more global agendas.

The Islamic State is not a flash in the pan. It will remain a significant threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

Second, the Islamic State uses a much looser understanding of takfir than al-Qaeda, which means that it is more willing to kill Muslims—a fact that is reflected in its battles with other militants. Lastly, the Islamic State believes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Caliph and the supreme authority for all Muslims. Al-Qaeda has not formally responded to this claim yet, but the designation has been rejected by many senior jihadi ideologues.

The Islamic State has tenuous alliances with other Sunni factions. In both Iraq and Syria these are based on compulsion and opposition to existing regimes rather than a shared vision of governance. These alliances can be broken.

None of the U.S. policy options toward the Islamic State are particularly attractive. But considering its strengths and weaknesses, U.S. strategy should aim to contain the Islamic State while strengthening governance in the region such that local actors can collaborate effectively to engage it decisively. That means:

  • Bolstering allies on the Islamic State’s periphery such as Turkey and, in particular, Jordan, which is the most likely new target of the Islamic State.
  • Supporting vetted Syrian rebels with appropriate military equipment, so long as that assistance will be sustained. Better not to provide military assistance at all then drop weaponry into a shifting battlefield and then withdraw.
  • Providing limited military assistance to Iraq. Blunting the Islamic State’s military success is likely to encourage dissension among its coalition partners.
  • Pursuing a long-term strategy to improve governance in Iraq and Syria. The goal should be to reduce ungoverned territory however possible, including supporting actors like the Kurdish Regional Government and even Sunni factions that seek increased autonomy from Baghdad or Damascus.

The Islamic State is not a flash in the pan. It will remain a significant threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.  Its strength is derived from the chaos caused by our inability to resolve a whole range of related challenges – including whether to oust Bashar al-Assad, how to balance our concern about Iranian influence with the threat from Sunni jihadi groups, and even the degree to which jihadis will attempt to capitalize on the current violence in Israel and Gaza. We can contain it as I have described, but it can only truly be destroyed in conjunction with credible local governments that do not currently exist. The best approach for now is to bolster allies, strengthen our political leadership in the region, creatively undermine the Islamic State, and build for the future.




Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor +
a Fellow at the New America Foundation.




Out of the crucible of the Syrian civil war and the discontent in Iraq’s Sunni regions, something new is emerging.  The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is no longer a state in name only.* It is a physical, if extra-legal, reality on the ground.  Unacknowledged by the world community, ISIS has carved a de facto state in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq.  Stretching in a long ellipse roughly from al-Raqqah in Syria to Fallujah in Iraq (with many other non-contiguous “islands” of control in both Iraq and Syria), this former Al Qaeda affiliate holds territory, provides limited services, dispenses a form of justice(loosely defined), most definitely has an army, and flies its own flag.  The United States has reacted to this reality indecisively, with policy split in half by the official, if no longer functional, internationally recognized border between Syria and Iraq.  But the reality of a de facto jihadist state is not a state of affairs that can be long tolerated.

This is an interesting evolution for ISIS.  ISIS is, of course, the linear descendant of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was formed in the immediate aftermath of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death and is now led by Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi.  In 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq published a veritable “Federalist Papers,” titled “Informing the People about the Islamic State of Iraq.”  In this document, the author, Uthman Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, claims that the state existed despite having no contiguous territory, despite providing minimal services (“Improving their [the people’s] conditions is less important than the condition of their religion”), and despite not having a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force—the traditional sine qua non of a state.

Al-Tamimi claimed that instead the Islamic State of Iraq was based around pseudo-feudal alliances, “pure” ideological goals, and judicial proceedings.  This was a controversial position, even and especially within the jihadi movement.  Foreshadowing the conflict between ISIS and Al Qaeda today, the jihadi community was deeply divided over the legitimacy and wisdom of declaring a state, not least because of confusion over whether a “state” would be accountable to Al Qaeda’s central leaders or vice versa.  Drawing mostly on the Prophet Muhammad’s experience in Medina, al-Tamimi argued—primarily to a jihadi audience—that despite the jihadi state’s tangible weaknesses, it was legitimate.

The ISI was a significant entity for jihadis starting in 2006. But from a Western perspective, while al-Tamimi’s arguments were interesting, they were not particularly meaningful.  It was never taken seriously other than as the nominal political wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Despite its internal philosophical justification, the Islamic State never held significant amounts of territory, and what little they did control was not contiguous.  Further, from 2006-2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was dangerous, but did not resemble an army.  They were accomplished terrorists, spies, saboteurs, and murderers, but seldom fought as organized units using traditional military tactics.  Especially after the U.S. Surge and Awakening movement defeated the ISI tactically and effectively suppressed the group, the Islamic State of Iraq’s lasting impact on the wider jihadi movement barely registered a ripple as a priority for Western policymakers.

When we fast forward to 2014, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq’s descendant—has taken a very different form.  Without disavowing its founding documents, ISIS controls territory on a grand scale, and appears far more capable of securing it.  In Syria, ISIS greatly overshadows its rival group the Al-Nusrah front, the official Al Qaeda franchise that also allies with the Free Syrian Army.  And, ironically, Iraq is now without an official Al Qaeda branch, with ISIS’ only real competitors coming from the neo-Baathist JRTN and the more nationalist 1920 Revolutionary Brigade.

At its core, the most fundamental difference between Islamic State of Iraq and ISIS today is power: ISIS has a real army (indeed, as once said about the Prussians, it may be less a state with an army than an army with a state) and contains a much more robust capability to defend and expand its territory in both Iraq and Syria.  Before beginning its open offensive in Anbar province in Iraq, ISIS had been fighting against the forces of the Assad regime in Syria (and their Hezbollah/Qods Force auxiliaries).  It is obvious from the very sophisticated tactics displayed against the Iraqi security forces this year that ISIS learned a great deal from this traditional, if dispersed, urban combat.  U.S. government officials have testified thatISIS is now equipped with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, and .50 caliber sniper rifles.  From their safe havens inside their de facto state, ISIS cadres are able to continue to recruit, train and equip their highly motivated volunteers, and push them against both the Baathist Assad regime in Syria and the elected Shi’a majority government in Iraq (where, in both cases, they also often work and fight alongside more indigenous jihadist groups).

While we have little sympathy for the Assad regime and recognize the shortcomings of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi state in which the U.S. government has invested vast resources is gravely threatened—in terms of stability, not their imminent overthrow—by the ISIS army, which seeks to further expand its territory.  However, aside from U.S. interests in Iraq, there are at least three further issues generated by the de facto ISIS state.

First, ISIS’ expansion and rejection of Al Qaeda’s central leadership represents a new evolution in jihadi extremism.  The near-extinction of Al Qaeda’s core—the organization constructed by Osama bin Laden and now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri—has created space for new and more extreme forms of jihadi militancy.  In 1999, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi challenged Osama bin Laden’s ideological direction because he considered Al Qaeda too accommodating to Shia Muslims.  Fifteen years later, Zarqawi’s ideological and organizational descendants have the power to confront Al Qaeda’s leadership more thoroughly. At the core of Zarqawi’s ideology were two ideas: that commanders close to battle had ultimate political authority and that purity in the movement was paramount.  In its interaction with Al Qaeda, ISIS embodies both ideas and, not surprisingly, has quite famously been expelled from Al Qaeda, ostensibly for insubordination, but perhaps also for acting like the sovereign state that is has de facto become.

Second, the existence of ISIS as a de facto state presents an incredible challenge in terms of safe haven for terrorists with transnational ambitions.  While ISIS remains focused on immediate and local threats at present, it has made no secret of its longer term ambitions to strike against the United States and Europe.  Its predecessors struck outside of Iraq more often than commonly acknowledged.  ISIS is said to have at least hundreds of members carrying EU passports, both second and third generation children of immigrants from Islamic countries and also native European converts (see reports by the London-based ICSR on Western foreign fighters inSyria).  ISIS has created a multi-ethnic army; almost a foreign legion, to secure its territory.  These cadres—trained, indoctrinated, networked, equipped and funded—will doubtless present a challenge for Arab and Western security services in the coming years, all the more so if not dealt with in the very near future.

Finally, this new reality presents a challenge that rises above a mere counter-terrorism problem.  ISIS no longer exists in small cells that can be neutralized by missiles or small groups of commandos.  It is now a real, if nascent and unrecognized, state actor—more akin in organization and power to the Taliban of the late 1990s than Al Qaeda.  Unless ISIS collapses on itself, which is a long tradition in jihadi circles but looks increasingly unlikely, neutralization of the group will require significant ground combat by someone, with the support of airpower.  Such an outcome is increasingly likely as the flow of funds and recruits to ISIS continues despite conflict with Al Qaeda and other militants in Syria.  To date, the geographic location of ISIS and the reticence of Western governments to be involved in the nominal territory of either Iraq or Syria (though for very different reasons for each), coupled with the weakness of both the Iraqi and Syrian armies (and the latter fighting against numerous opponents of varying alliance with the West), has prevented an effective challenge to ISIS.

And yet ISIS presents a clear and present danger to American and European interests.  The group does not have safe haven within a state.  It is a de facto state that is a safe haven.  Arguably, ISIS presents an even more vibrant incubator for international terrorism than did pre-9/11 Afghanistan.  It would be the greatest of historical ironies if just at the moment when the operation in Afghanistan to banish Al Qaeda safe havens is concluded, an even more dangerous sanctuary emerges in the deserts between Baghdad and Damascus.


* ISIS is also known as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and is also referred to by its Arabic acronym, DAASH—all are equivalent terms for the same organization.




Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor +
a Fellow at the New America Foundation.




The apparent beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a stark reminder of the group’s terrible brutality and the seriousness required to counter them. Unfortunately, much of the political discourse about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is counterproductive to good policy. Many of the basic facts are wrong and the arguments—whatever the merits of the policies they prescribe—tend to be political, overly personal, and hyperbolized. President Obama’s policies in the Middle East have failed in numerous ways, but he is right that the paucity of our political debate