James Traub

Bashar al-Assad and the Devil's Bargain

A new plan to stop the bleeding in Syria means agreeing to a limited truce with the regime in Damascus. It’s repugnant -- but is it wrong?

The Obama administration, as I wrote last week, has at least a hypothetical way forward in Iraq, but not in Syria, which it is currently treating as the rear sanctuary for Islamic State (IS) forces besieging Iraq. By the time its long-term plan to train insurgents to fight both IS and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad reaches fruition, there may be very little Syria left to save. Even that's assuming that the administration takes its own plan seriously, which past history suggests it will not.

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Double or Nothing on the Islamic State

In Iraq and Syria, the president is taking the kinds of risks he usually avoids. If he can -- somehow -- get Iran on board, he could leave office with something to be proud of.

Just before taking office, Woodrow Wilson told a friend: "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." Fate, of course, so decreed. Barack Obama must feel similarly ill-starred to find himself enmeshed in a war against terrorism from which he had hoped to extricate the United States. More than that: With the drubbing the Democrats endured on Tuesday and paralysis likely to descend on Washington, it's a reasonable guess that his only opportunity to do something really important in his second term in office will be in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

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The Arab War on Terror

Obama's Middle East allies are signing up for the fight against the Islamic State. But it's not for the reason you think.

Arab states have a new defining cause: the war on terror. Almost four years ago, popular uprisings across the region upended an old order and created a new set of aspirations and a new collective meaning. That was the Arab Spring; save in Tunisia, where the spirit survives, it lasted for two years at the most before giving way to chaos and violence, backlash and regret.

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Would American Money Have Saved James Foley?

European governments pay millions of dollars in ransoms to free their hostages. The White House needs to decide whether it’s willing to sacrifice principle for people.

The bloodthirsty jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) have murdered James Foley, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012. They also have threatened the life of Steven Sotloff, another American freelancer, who was seized last August, and who has written for Foreign Policy on three occasions. The executioner in the video warned President Barack Obama that Sotloff would die if the White House continues its bombing campaign in Iraq. I assume that the president has asked intelligence and special forces operatives whether Sotloff could be freed in a raid. I hope he determines that he can be, but it's very unlikely. According to the New York Times, a rescue attempt earlier this summer came to naught when commandos air-dropped into a remote region of Syria failed to find the hostages. The record of rescue attempts has not been good since American helicopters came to grief in the Iranian desert in 1980. And IS could be shuttling Sotloff anywhere in their vast "caliphate."

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Going to Ground

As Obama tucks further into his shell, I'm headed out again to see the world.

I am giving my thumb a rest. I have been sucking it for almost five years now. For the 30-odd years beforehand, I was a journalist, which is to say that I went to places and talked to people in order to gain direct knowledge of my subject. I developed what I think of as the journalist's heuristic: If you haven't seen it yourself, you don't know that you know it. So my resolve: less thumb-sucking, more direct experience. I will still be writing regularly for Foreign Policy, and I will continue to pontificate every now and again; but I will be spending more time in the world beyond my door, and beyond America's borders.

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