Book Review: Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014)

Robert Ames did not join the Central Intelligence Agency in 1960 with a plan to go to the Middle East, a region that had already stirred his interest. Yet, it was the best place for him. Ames’ own positive approach toward individuals and his training and mentoring coalesced magnificently. He wanted to help the people of the region while promoting US interests.

In The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014), Kai Bird tells the story of the immense life of Robert Ames of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a “good spy,” Bird makes it clear that Ames is not a cliché of romantic US spy lore. He was indeed a unique individual. Bird deftly sheds light on his character and his brand of tradecraft in the clandestine profession. Regarding his “life and death,” Bird brilliantly details Ames life from birth on March 6, 1934 into humble beginnings of a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia to the moment he was killed at 49, in the April 18, 1983 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. He left behind a wife and six children. Looking back at Ames life, it is hard to imagine how Ames could have been happier, or could have been better suited for any job, anywhere other than with CIA in the Middle East. Ames accomplished much. Bird proffers a view held by Ames former colleagues that he ignited the Oslo Peace Process due to his close relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s intelligence and security chief. Bird believes, if Ames had lived, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Bird was never an US intelligence officer. He is a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Yet, Bird writes The Good Spy with incredible insight into the life of a case officer living in the Middle East. Perhaps his perspectives may have been enhanced by recall of his own experiences as the son of a US Foreign Service officer who was posted primarily in the region. Bird grew up in some impressive spots in the region to include: Jerusalem, Israel, Beirut, Lebanon; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Cairo, Egypt. Moreover, as an adolescent, Bird actually met Ames while his father was posted in Dhahran. Ames was using the official cover of a Foreign Service officer at the US consulate and for three years his family lived across the street from Bird’s home. In his research, Bird was able to interview more than forty officers, both clandestine officers and analysts from CIA’s operations and intelligence directorates were willing to share their memories of Ames. Interview of others were also conducted with relevant sources in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Ames` wife spoke with Bird and shared her small collection of photographs, correspondences, and a family scrapbook. Bird skillfully used those unique resources, making his biography a profound, edifying discussion of Ames and his career.

Ames loved God, his country, his family, and the Middle East. While some colleagues and managers were perhaps indifferent or often confused about the region, Ames spoke with vividness and a certain whimsy about it. He steeped himself in Arab culture and language and Islam enough to be called an Arabist and become a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the time of his death. Ames discovered in the field how to navigate through a myriad of situations and manage complex intertwinings in the region. Those skills were refined by experiences and by people willing to serve as his mentors and advisors. Bird provides readers with enough information to realize that long before he came to CIA, Ames was implanted with an ability to engage people in a natural way and establish genuine friendships. What was worthy about people he met, he tended to appreciate and embrace. He would shuck off what was not. He did not suffer fools lightly or conceit to evil. He could discern the wicked from the righteous. Unlike many he dealt with in the field and CIA, Ames, himself, engaged in what would be viewed as “moral behavior’; some might say he was boring. He rarely drank and avoided the distractions of the most intriguing and lively locales. This contrast with colleagues and foreign contacts is made apparent in The Good Spy, but its discussion does not come off as an exercise in moralism.

The Good Spy can be read at many levels. For example, it is a history of CIA activities in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. It can be viewed as an enhanced history of US diplomacy and the often mangled process of communication during that tempestuous period in the Middle East. It also can identified as a history that sheds clear and revealing light on the nature of US relations with Arab States. Indeed, The Good Spy contributes to the record of the US experience in the Middle East, but dozens of books have already been written on that topic. What makes The Good Spy most exciting is the story of the man, Robert Ames.

Bird shows that there were indications of Ames’ potential as an intelligence officer even from his earliest years. However, Bird also deftly shows how his interactions with certain individuals were significant enough to help Ames hone his capabilities and allow him to become something that he might not have been without them. Often those having such an influence on him were extremely impressive individuals in their own right. They availed Ames with treasure troves of knowledge and experience from which to learn. In addition to mentioning Ames was raised in the working-class Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, Ames and his two sisters, spent summer months on the New Jersey shore with their maternal grandparents, who made certain they knew their family history and that the children, themselves, were a part of that history. The children knew who they were and had a strong self-image. Their grandparents were Catholic just as their mother. Although their father was Methodist, they likely provided some spiritual grounding through Catholicism, too. There was a challenge to that self-image for Ames came after he joined the varsity basketball team at La Salle College along with his friend, Tommy Gola. In high school, Ames was a great player, and a tremendous athlete. He worked hard at perfecting his skills, and became his high school team’s leading scorer, but at La Salle, Ames never made the starting line-up. Meanwhile his friend Gola became the team’s star. The young Ames never reacted negatively. He took the situation with good humor, putting a good face on it. Nonetheless, skilled, ambitious, and competitive, the situation was very difficult. Playing basketball was important to Ames. He was proud to be on the 1954 NCAA Basketball Champion varsity team. The coach at La Salle could see that Ames deep down was disappointed, but he would not change the situation. For Ames, showing humility in such an unfavorable situation, made him more mature, stronger. Ames learned first-hand what it was like to be blocked from making full use of one’s capabilities. He knew what it was like to be the underdog. Ames also knew what it was like to not have the ear of anyone who could change his situation for the better. From this experience, Ames was able to be authentically sympathetic to others in the world who felt they were in a similar position.

Through his studies at La Salle, Ames sought to answer questions he had about the world. The school was run by the Christian Brothers. Ames was always open to new things, making him child-like to some degree, but not childish. He majored in sociology, and enhanced his course of study with classes in psychology, philosophy, as well as prelaw. Ames believed studying prelaw would help him secure a position as a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent. That was all put on hold when Ames was inducted into the military after college. He was assigned to the US Army Middle East Signals Communications Agency’s base at Kagnew Station in Ethiopia in 1956. From the base, the US intercepted the military and diplomatic communications of Egypt and other Arab states. Ames worked in a supply company that kept track of spare parts for transmitters and receivers. It was an introduction to the world of Intelligence for Ames. Moreover, it was an introduction to Catholicism and the Middle East. On the way to Kagnew, on stopovers in Tripoli, Libya and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he heard Arabic for the first time. Ames was struck by what he saw. As would be the norm, Ames did not frolic with his comrades in arms in the nearby town of Asmara. He exercised with weights, studied about the Middle East, religion, and learned Arabic. He spent enough time with the Catholic chaplain on base to choose to convert to Catholicism. He went on trips to the Holy Land, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock and walking through the Old City. He also visited Cairo, Egypt, and toured the Great Pyramids at Giza. Ames experiences compelled him to learn more about the Middle East and to study Arabic. After serving over two years in the Army, Ames let his parent know that as a career goal, he wanted to see the world and tried to enter the US Foreign Service but he failed to pass the examination. In the end, he settled on a career at CIA which hired him in 1960.

During the same year, Ames married Yvonne Blakely, the beautiful daughter of a Lutheran pastor and former career naval officer. That led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. His love for her was that strong. However, the Catholic Church was truly an important part of who Ames’ identity, and he arranged for his return to it. After completing his training in 1962, Ames was selected for service in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Plans—known today as the National Clandestine Service. Ames did not join CIA just to return to the Middle East. Ames also did not join CIA to engage in development work. Indeed, CIA was not then, and is not now, a humanitarian aid or charitable organization. Yet, when given the chance to work for the Agency, Ames apparently made the calculation that he could go to the Middle East, and make life better for the people in the region while ultimately serving US interests.

Ames first posting was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where he received encouragement from his boss, James Critchfield. Critchfield was a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA in World War II, and was known as an Agency “Baron” from the action oriented era of the 1950s. Yet, despite having that reputation, Critchfield wanted to end the cowboy culture and bring a greater degree of knowledge and sophistication to the Agency’s activities in the region. That included going back to basics of recruiting spies.

During his training Ames was taught how to recruit by the manual. Bird describes it as a subtle exercise in peeling away an individual’s loyalties and transferring them from one cause to another. Bird notes that recruitment happens rarely. It usually occurs when the recruiters can make it seem only natural and fitting that the target should be talking to the case officer. Invariably, according to Bird, the recruited spies want to be recruited. Most spies are walk-ins, meaning they volunteer to serve in some fashion. Otherwise a genuine recruitment happens through a long intellectual seduction. The case officer shows empathy and shares his heartfelt views of his target.   He invites him or her to dinner and eventually offers something, even innocuous material rewards. When the opportunity presents itself, the case officer asked the target to sign on as a knowing agent with a written agreement. While the recruitment of sources would place a feather in the war bonnets of case officers, Ames would rather establish a relationship that could result in reliable source of accurate information that might be actionable.

Bird mentions that early on Ames caught the attention of Richard Helms, an OSS operations veteran. Helms was promoted to deputy director of Plans as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Helms believed the clandestine collection of secret intelligence by case officers was an important task and risky covert operations interfered with that work around the world. New means such as U-2 spy planes and the electronic surveillance of communications were being touted by some the wave of the future and replacements for the spy. When in contact with Ames, Helms impressed the need for human intelligence upon him. Helms, who would eventually become CIA director, thought very highly of Ames and supported his progress at CIA.

While Ames preferred to avoid the US corporate employees working in Dhahran, he managed to befriend Richard Metz, a veteran of both the OSS and the CIA. Metz and Ames would talk at length. Metz tutored Ames on the intricacies of tribal politics and helped Ames navigate in the region. He made Ames better able to work with the members of the royal family. Ames discovered that his efforts to learn about the region would pay off, together with being 6’3” handsome, being personable, and speaking fluent Arabic, Ames quickly gained a reputation wherever he went as being an American with whom one could talk. Metz showed Ames the invaluable skill of having fruitful conversations to strengthen connections with the Arabs in particular. Metz’s advice, along with his own experiences in Saudi Arabia, reinforced Ames view that good friendships with key players, and well as merchants in the suq and maintaining a positive reputation would be key to development of potential sources and contacts and the development and performance of his tradecraft in the region. Ames was always learning, and never became a victim of pride. He never indicated any sense of knowing it all.

An intriguing consideration about Ames’ approach to the people of the Middle East was the fact that at the same time when he was creating deep meaningful connections with Arabs he met in the 1960s, within his own country, there was significant racial discord. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a Civil Rights Movement, supported by Freedom Riders, and thousands of volunteers for marches and sit-ins, who struggled for an end the racial segregation and equal rights for all US citizens. There were no efforts made toward multiculturalism and diversity within CIA at that time. In CIA, Ames was one of the few special individuals who were not simply tolerant of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. He truly respected the people he encountered in the Middle East. It was very apparent. Ames often heard colleagues overseas use derogatory terms while discussing the Arabs. Bird writes that Ames was disappointed. even discouraged when he heard some of his managers express very intolerant, and indeed, racist views of the same people whose friendship he valued and the company in which he truly appreciated being.

There were two contacts that Ames developed which received considerable attention from Bird. Through the story of those contacts, Bird shed valuable light on the nature of Ames’ utilization of friends to collect vital information. One was Mustafa Zein, a young Shi’a Muslim, and successful business consultant to US and local firms, well-connected through the region, residing in Beirut. Zein was born in to some means and was educated not only in US schools in Beirut, but lived as an exchange student in Naperville, Illinois and graduated from the town’s North Central College run by the United Methodist Church. He had also been involved with the Organization of Arab Students. After Zein’s organization came in contact with the National Student Association, a organization funded by the CIA to help spot individuals for potential recruitment, Ames was eventually instructed to meet him. Ames scoured Zein’s file but knew understanding him in the abstract would not be as valuable actually interacting with him. Another CIA case officer in Dhahran set the meeting in motion by telling Zein to look up Ames the next time he was in Beirut. When they met in late 1969, Ames complimented Zein on being able to work with powerful figures. Zein expressed concerns about the US policy, the resulting Soviet progress in the region, and the plight of the Palestinians, and Ames listened closely. Ames thought Zein was ideal for recruitment, but Zein wanted no part of that. He did want to help, but, informally, in his own way. When he next saw Ames, Zein agreed to do things to advance relations between the US and the Arab people, but not for money. Zein also asked Ames that they pledge to be truthful to each other. For Ames, working with Zein professionally meant having an access agent, who could help spot and recruit other spies. However, Zein was much more than that for Ames. In addition to meeting intelligence requirements from headquarters, Zein’s knowledge of people and events, helping Ames keep a finger on the region’s pulse and support his continued learning process. Zein would introduce Ames to his second most important contact, Ali Hassan Salameh.

Salameh, a friend of Zein, was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, allowing him the ear of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and leader in Fatah’s Revolutionary Security Apparatus which he was nurturing into a rudimentary intelligence bureau for the PLO, later called Force 17. Salameh was quite cosmopolitan and living the lifestyle of a playboy, breaking many mores of the Arab World. Ames claimed that he was given instructions from US President Richard Nixon to create a line of communication to the PLO. He had Zein introduce him to Salameh. Ames believed the PLO should be encouraged to transform into a real political party, and wanted to support that effort. Salameh saw some benefit having an important channel to the US. Ames and Salameh, complete opposites, became friends. Professionally, each would be the most significant person in the others life. Salameh was an incredible source of information and insight for Ames. However, soon enough, Ames managers wanted to recruit Salameh, not to collect information, but to use him as a means to gain control of the PLO’s activities. Ames wanted no part of it. CIA sent another field agent to meet Salameh in Rome, using Zein’s help. The agent’s recruitment pitch made to Salameh was for him “to coordinate activities with your organization with our organization,” for $300,000 a month. In a meeting with the agent the next day, Zein, rejected the offer on behalf of Salameh who was present, in a unique way. He stated Salameh would accept his terms “to finance the PLO to the tune of $35 million a year—and recognize the PLO.” Zein also explained to the field agent that “He’s [Salameh] already sent a coded message to Arafat. The Chairman is very pleased.” The field agent hastily left the meeting place, and blamed Salameh for the failed recruitment pitch. The effort evoked negative responses from Zein and Salameh. They were insulted by it. Ames eventually managed to patch things up with both. A line of communication between CIA and the PLO was created through Salameh. It survived the years of chaos and conflict in the 1970s Middle East. Salameh would die violently in the region in 1979.

Before hearing of this book, many may have been completely unaware of Ames. Reading it, they will learn of his amazing life and his considerable achievements. They will also discover how much Ames valued others and his value to humanity. He lost his life in the Middle East, a land which to him was a great treasure. A man of integrity, Ames had a strong moral center, an abundance of goodwill, and always the best intentions. He made the best impression possible of himself and his country with everyone he met.

There is much, much more about Ames in this exciting book. Readers of greatcharlie.com are likely working through their summer reading lists. Hopefully, they will be able work The Good Spy in among their selections. Without using distortion or exaggeration, it is a book that will take the reader on a journey through the Middle East and halls of power in Washington, DC. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as humility and honor. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward which is an emphasis of greatcharlie.com’s commentaries. Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends The Good Spy to all.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Zarif’s “Meet the Press” Interview Offers Insight into His Thinking on the Nuclear Issue; US Critics Responded Harshly

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ministry has been Iran’s lead agency on the nuclear negotiations, would like to see a final agreement reached with the P5+1 countries.  Yet, he knows constructing a final deal would require a transformation in thinking among all parties at this late stage.  Given that, a final deal appears less likely.

On the July 13, 2014 episode of NBC News “Meet the Press”, a US Sunday morning news program hosted by David Gregory, a special feature presented was a recording of Gregory’s earlier interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna. Presented in a truncated manner, the taped interview covered an array of topics including Iraq, Syria, and why Iran wants an extensive nuclear capacity and whether it wants a nuclear bomb. Afterward on the program, Gregory asked a bipartisan guest panel of both Republican and Democratic political commentators to critique Zarif’s statements. Representing the Republican perspective was former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. The Democrats present were former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press. With a synoptic view, the commentators rejected Zarif’s statements with harsh remarks, expressing considerable mistrust over Iran’s intentions. They viewed Zarif’s statements as unhelpful, and highlighted what they felt was his shortsightedness and equivocation. However, the commentators’ examinations of Zarif’s statements were quite superficial. Their accusations that Zarif was insincere and that the Iranians were untrustworthy were already pretty well-worn.

It was initially difficult to fathom why Zarif would make the effort to provide an interview for the mainstream US news media when the nuclear negotiations were at a critical point. The issues surrounding the negotiations are not simple. Zarif has articulated Iran’s positions superbly. Perhaps he wanted to share insights to impact views of the negotiations in the US. Yet, the “Meet the Press” interview format did not allow him to truly delve into the matter. He could only touch the surface of important aspects. The interview turned into a shallow entrapment for Zarif. Heightened skepticism could have been expected from the commentators given the current uncertainty over where the nuclear negotiations are headed and the history of uncongenial relations between the US and Iran since 1979. However, Zarif’s remarks should have been looked at beyond the surface. Their value could be revealed only through a deeper, profound consideration of them.

Zarif’s Remarks

Among his most noteworthy comments, Zarif explained: “I think what we have said should give confidence to people that were not looking for nuclear weapons. We have said that our entire nuclear energy program can fit in a very clear and well defined picture. That is, we want to produce fuel for our own nuclear reactor. Nuclear power reactor! And we have a contract that provides us fuel for that reactor. But that contract expires in seven or eight years.”

Gregory asked Zarif how he “could not see the benefit in having a nuclear weapon, particularly as a Shi’a state surrounded by Sunni states, many of whom are your enemies.” Zarif responded by saying such calculations were wrong. He explained: “In fact, we need to go out of our way in order to convince our neighbors that we want to live in peace and tranquility with them, because the politics of geography, the fact that we’re bigger, the fact that we’re stronger, the we’re more populous, the fact that we have a [sic] better technology, the fact that our human resources is [sic] by far more developed than most of our neighbors. All of these provide us with inherent areas of strength that we don’t need to augment with other capabilities.”

Additionally, Zarif stated: “In fact, I believe nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region. It doesn’t help anybody.” “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security. Through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over is simply mad.” “And that is why this mentality that nuclear weapons makes anybody safe. Have they made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.”

The Political Commentators’ Criticisms

The responses of the political commentators on Zarif’s remarks were wholly negative. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal commented that the Iranian nuclear issue is “a good example of bipartisanship in Congress . . . both in the Senate and in the House. Democrats and Republicans, they don’t want to go backwards. They want tougher sanctions.” Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press commented, “I think anyone [sic] on the globe thinks that we don’t need more nuclear states in general. And we are certainly don’t need this state [Iran] which has shown itself to be responsive. The interview you heard earlier today shows how irrational the thinking is.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum stated “we were laughing at him [Zarif] saying, “He must have the toughest job. I wanna [sic] go after him lying, just bald face, irrational lying. No one believes him. Nobody on either side of the aisle believes that these folks [the Iranians] are trustworthy partners.” Former Governor Jennifer Granholm concurred about the group watching in the green room (the guests’ waiting room at the television studio) laughing at Zarif.

A Second Look

Unlike the political commentators, Zarif has been part of the nuclear negotiations. He has direct knowledge of the mystery of exactly where things are headed. By granting the interview, he provided policy analysts, academics, and political and business leaders in the US a delicate indication of a possible path to reaching some concordance on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif was not telling some Oriental tale full of distortion and exaggerations. Rather, his words were austere and natural sounding, stemming from deep thought and experience with the nuclear negotiation process. By their statements, the commentators seemingly sought to arrest Zarif’s efforts to share his insights.

Zarif does not proffer any illusions of assured success or narcissism for the nuclear negotiations as an enterprise. However, more percipient to him is the fact that the US is still fully engaged in the nuclear negotiations. It affirms the confidence the administration of US President Barack Obama, and the other P5+1 governments (The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), have in the process. They want a deal. Unlike Zarif, the “Meet the Press” commentators were apparently unaware that relations between the US and Iranian diplomats and officials have reached a more positive stage. The negotiations have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking. The improved understanding of their respective positions was further strengthened by back channel talks. The commentators remarks indicated that the nuclear negotiations are not as “fashionable” an issue as they were in the exhilarating days in July 2013 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Tehran, and in September 2013 when the first direct talks were held between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN and Obama and Rouhani spoke directly by telephone.

Zarif statements may have provided a hint of the discourse in Tehran on the nuclear negotiations at the most senior level, and he is the one individual capable, and apparently willing, to do so. Zarif would undoubtedly be positioned on the more moderate side of the nuclear issue relative to the Supreme National Security Council, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and other key political and religious organizations and senior leaders concerned with foreign policy. He has publicly advocated for continued negotiations to reach an agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear program before the Iranian Parliament. Perhaps Zarif was even presenting arguments he may have made in Tehran in sub rosa policy debates on the nuclear negotiations. He may very well have included in what he stated on “Meet the Press” points similar to those he has presented to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make the final decision for Iran on an agreement. The commentators heard those same words, but could not hear what Zarif said.

The Way Forward

All things considered, it appears, by providing the interview Zarif actually sought to “clear the air” with the US public regarding relations between the two countries. He sought to build confidence, eliminate some ambiguities about Iran’s positions, and quiet guessing over Iran’s actions, intentions, and motives. Looking through a lens untinted by the conviction that Iran is again engaged in a deception, Zarif spoke to the US audience with a certain kind of humility, not with an assertiveness that might be expected of a foreign minister speaking with certitude over his country’s positions. As the point man for Iran’s negotiation effort, under great pressure, Zarif appeared humble of heart. One would need to be humble of heart to hear what he was saying. The hardened heart would block the information. What is audible to the ear becomes incomprehensible. The “Meet the Press” commentators illustrated how hardened hearts react.

The prime way to understand the situation regarding the negotiations is by understanding human experience: history. Nearly every US president has had to take some major risk on foreign policy. Along with great achievements, there have been grand mistakes. Despite recent progress through talks between US and Iranian diplomats and officials in Geneva and Vienna, distrust lingers in their respective capitals after years of mutual loathing. All sides are very cautious. For a final agreement to be constructed, all sides must exhibit a requisite degree of generosity. That would mean risking much, making it less likely states engaged in the process would do such. If all sides cannot approach the process with this in state of mind, the desired outcome will not be reached. Everything achieved so far will likely fall by the wayside. The next debate will then begin on a way to move forward, as unpopular or undesirable as it may be.

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.