Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Drop in the Bucket

From today's Washington Times; it seems the government is stepping up efforts to reduce illegal immigration along our southern border. In the coming months, more than 500 additional border patrol agents will begin working in southeastern Arizona, where thousands of illegal immigrants enter the U.S. each year.

I wish I could muster some enthusiasm for this initiative, but the addition of 500 agents is just a drop in the bucket. Border Patrol agents do their best, but they've never received the resources--or political support--needed to do their job. We may see a decrease in border crossings in Arizona, but the illegals (and their "coyotes") will simply find another entry point.

With more than a million illegal immigrants entering the U.S. each year, we need to federalize our southern border. Sadly, no politician--Democrat or Republican--has the backbone to support such a plan. That will come only after terrorists launch a major attack on U.S. soil, after entering our country from Mexico. And, given the present lax security along the border, such an attack is not a matter of "if" but "when."

Good News From the Front

The U.S. may begin reducing troop levels in Iraq later this year, if insurgent attacks remain low, according to Lt Gen Lance Smith, Vice-Commander of U.S. Central Command.

As reported in this blog weeks ago, the number of attacks against coalition forces have dropped dramatically since the Iraqi elections in late January. Contacts in the intel community report a 45-55% decline over the past six weeks. Overall, insurgent activity is at its lowest levels in the past eight months.

Make no mistake: it's still too early to declare final victory in Iraq, and it's possible that insurgents are husbanding resources for a new offensive in the spring. But it's also true that the terrorists have suffered setbacks in recent months. The capture of key Zarqawi operatives have yielded timely, actionable intelligence, as evidenced by the recent assault on an insurgent training camp that resulted in the deaths of 85 terrorists. Additionally, the Iraqis are taking a greater role in securing their freedom. Iraqi security forces--notably their naescent special forces teams--are displaying great skill in tactical operation, and ordinary Iraqis are providing more information on the insurgents and their activities, generating even more intelligence information.

But most of the credit for the improving security situation goes to the U.S. military. Since the fall of Saddam, they have battled a resourceful and tenacious foe in an urban setting--a nightmare for any military. Characteristically, our Soldiers and Marines have adapted and persevered, slowly gaining the upper hand. They are the real heroes of this war. Perhaps some day, where that statue of Saddam once stood, the Iraqi people will dedicate a monument to the brave Americans who won the war, and (eventually) the peace.

A personal note: I once served under General Smith, now the CENTCOM Vice-Commander. He is an exceptionally gifted officer, respected and revered in both the Air Force and the joint community. With the USAF now facing a leadership crisis (more on that later), General Smith is the right man to restore confidence and integrity at the highest levels of command.

Friends and Allies

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the U.S. might have been a bit too forceful in selling the case for military action against Iraq. In an interview with a German magazine, General Powell opined that we were too loud, too direct, perhaps we made too much noise. "That certainly shocked the Europeans," he continued.

Wait a minute. Reviewing the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, I don't recall U.S. officials being too direct or overbearing in advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein. Of course, I'm a bit prejudiced (being an American and a former military officer) but I recall the case for war developed over many months, after failed UN resolutions and endless diplomatic efforts. If that can be construed as "too loud," or "too direct," perhaps Foggy Bottom is operating under a different definition.

The interview also highlights the well-known struggle within the Bush cabinet over military action against Iraq. General Powell told the German publication that he argued for a diplomatic solution in Iraq, opposing other Administration officials (notably Vice-President Dick Cheney) who advocated a military solution. Powell also observed that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's comments about "old Europe" did not ease European concerns about U.S. policy in Iraq.

While I respect and admire Colin Powell, his comments suggest an undue influence from the diplomatic elite at the State Department. As described in the late, lamented "Diplomad" blog, the foreign service corps were, by in large, opposed to the Bush Administration and its policies. Given this political bias, it is no suprise that the "career professionals" at State favored a continuation of diplomacy, despite its dismal record in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, the German interviewer apparently fails to ask what diplomatic solution might have worked? The road to war with Saddam Hussein was papered with failed UN resolutions and other diplomatic initiatives. Saddam made it very clear that the only "acceptable" solution was an end to economic and military sanctions, positions supported (to some degree) by the Russians, Chinese and the French. Was Mr. Powell prepared to support that approach, which would have virtually guaranteed a resurgent Iraqi military and WMD programs? Once again, the interview fails to answer that essential question.

Always the loyal soldier, perhaps General Powell feels a sense of loyalty to the State Department he ran for the past four years. Perhaps his world view changed during his time at Foggy Bottom, like that of another general-turned-diplomat, George C. Marshall. But General Powell's belief that diplomacy could have solved the Iraq crisis in 2002 is a bit simplistic, even naive. We should wish him a prosperous and happy retirement, and be thankful that Condolezza Rice is now running the State Department.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Her Body, My Self

I feel a profound sense of sadness on this Good Friday. At this hour, Terri Schiavo is slipping closer to death, after a legion of state and federal judges have turned down appeals to reinstate her feeding tube, and consider petitions that might extend her life.

I'm not a lawyer, but I cannot comprehend the legal logic behind the Judge Greer's decision that set this ghastly process in motion. Yes, Michael Schiavo is still Terri's husband (in the loosest possible definition of that word), and has a voice in her care. But in siding with Schiavo's wishes, the Judge Greer--and the jurists who have reviewed his decision--have ignored compelling testimony and affidavits, suggesting that Michael Schiavo has other motives for allowing his wife to die. If Terri is allowed to expire, we can only hope that Florida police resume their investigation that began when she collapsed in 1990.

Why is Mr. Schiavo so insistent in this matter? The American Digest has an interesting run-down on Michael's potential profit from his wife's death. Remove the feeding tube, make a few million. Scott Peterson must be green with envy.

One final thought: the MSM is running ad nauseum stories about the need for a living will, to avoid this type of tragedy. But that's not the lesson of the Terri Schiavo case. Instead, this situation speaks volumes about the Culture of Death of today's America; in a society that aborts one million babies a year, it's relatively simple to kill a single, disabled woman who can't defend herself. These days, you don't need a gun or knife to kill an unwanted family member. All you need is a diagnosis of a "permanent vegitative state, a realitive professing to know your wishes, and a willing lawyer and judge.

The Enemy Within?

Meet Sadeq Naji Ahmed. He's going on trial in Detroit next week, for lying on a job application to become an airport security screener.

It seems that Mr. Ahmed forgot to mention that he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in September 2001, after making statements sympathetic to Osama bin Laden.

Ahmed's lawyers claim the indictment is government overkill, citing his military record and his performance as a baggage screener for a contractor at the Detroit Aiport. Mr. Ahmed ran into trouble when he filled out an application to join the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in a similar capacity. He was conditionally appointed to the TSA in October 2002, contingent upon passing a background check, which included the application form.

I'm sure Ahmed's legal counsel will continue to paint his client as a victim. But there's more to this story than meets the eye. First of all, the Air Force says Ahmed made troubling statements over a period of more than two years, beginning in 1999. During that time, he reportedly epressed support for bin Laden; said he was neither for nor against the 9-11 terrorist attacks; said the United States deserved to be attacked, and stated he would not fight if the U.S. took military action in Iraq.

Alarmed, the Air Force yanked his security clearance and access to classified materials on September 11, 2001, and discharged him 11 days later. That's a remarkably fast discharge, and suggests the USAF was anxious to get him out of Eglin AFB, where he served as an information systems analyst. During a 20-year military career, I watched more than a few airmen languish in legal limbo for months, while commanders and lawyers decided their fate. Ahmed's speedy discharge suggests the Air Force discovered statements and patterns of behavior that made the airman a potential security threat.

But there are more than a few disturbing questions about this case. Ahmed reportedly made questionable statements for more than two years, but he was recognized as "Airman of the Year" for Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing in 1999, and "Airman of the Year" for the entire installation one year later. How can Ahmed's superiors justify rewarding an airman who clearly had sympathies with our enemies? And, why did it take the TSA more than a year to discover Ahmed's lie, and fire him? This episode demonstrates (once again) that federal agencies don't share information on a timely basis.

One more note: in his Air Force job, Ahmed had access to various military computer systems. So did Marine Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, who disappeared near Fallujah last year, only to resurface at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. After returning to the states, Hassoun was charged with desertion, but never placed in the brig. Allowed to go on leave, Hassoun hopped a plane to Lebanon, where he now resides. Let's see...two Arab Americans join the military, gain access to sensitive computer systems, then express terrorist sympathies, or in the case of Hassoun, go AWOL with their knowledge and expertise.

Does anyone see a pattern here?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Pass the Rubber Hoses

Iraq's #1 TV show isn't Lost, Desperate Housewives, or Baghdad Idol. In fact, it's a reality show, best described as a combination of Cops and the War on Terror.

It's called Terrorism in the Hands of Justice, and it runs six nights a week on the state-run Iraqiya television network. Since its debut a month ago, the program has become a runaway hit, a fixture of conversation in Iraq's living rooms and cafes. The format is simple; Terrorism in the Hands of Justice features taped confessions from captured members of the insurgency.

The Boston Globe--no friend of the Bush Administration or the new Iraqi government--calls the show "distressingly reminiscent of the bad old Iraq," noting that many of the confessors appear bruised, as though they've been beaten or tortured.

But the program also seems to provide a morale-lifting boost for the Iraqis. Insurgents are no longer depicted as jihadists or freedom fighters, but rather as thugs and street criminals who attack Americans and Iraqis for pay. The show also depicts Iraqis striking back at the terrorists, reinforcing the impression that police and security forces are slowly gaining the upper hand, and that justice will be served. "I expect to see [my son's] killers on TV," one man told the Globe reporter.

The program does raise some disturbing questions. Some of the confessions seem a little too pat; virtually all of the men claim they joined the insurgency for pay, and many admit to homosexual acts, conduct considered particularly shameful in Iraq's culture. The channel which airs the program is run by American contractors, who sidestep questions about how the confessions are elicited.

But the Globe--predictably--misses an important point. Iraq's struggle against terrorism has a critical psychological component. For far too long, the terrorists and insurgents were depicted as holy warriors or freedom fighters (particularly in the western press), giving them a veneer of legitimacy that was hardly deserved. Terrorism in the Hands of Justice presents another--if slightly skewed--picture of the insurgency, depicting the criminals and opportunists who signed on with the terrorists, in search of a pay check, and the opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on the Iraqis.

Psychological warfare is a brutal, dirty business. During World War II, the U.S. mounted an intense campaign against the Japanese, depicting them as sub-human. Even Hollywood got into the act; just watch any war film made between 1942 and 1945, and you'll see Japanese soldiers depicted as savages, war criminals, or worse. The U.S. government justified such depictions on the "need" to marshal and focus public opinion against our enemy.

As Terrorism in the Hands of Justice illustrates, similar efforts are underway (and perhaps necessary) in Iraq. The U.S. should discourage Iraqi authorities from using torture, but the idea of "exposing" the insurgency is effective, even brillant. Is it working? Hard to say, but attacks in Iraq are down more than 55% in the past two months. Terrorism in the Hands of Justice can't claim sole credit for that decrease, but it is a valuable--and perhaps necessary--psychological technique.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Remembering John Barron

From NRO's John Miller, an appreciation of the life and career of former Reader's Digest senior editor John Barron, who passed away last month at the age of 75. In the 1970s and 80s, Barron authored a series of ground-breaking best sellers on the activities and tactics of the KGB. Barron, more than any other journalist of his era, exposed the pervasive reach of the Soviet spy agency, and the threat it posed to our national security. Mr. Barron won some recognition for his work, but never the credit he truly deserved.

It's ironic that Barron died on the same day as Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist, who was once described as a "drug addict impersonating a reporter." Thompson's death was front-page news in some locales, while Barron's passing received little notice. I believe the judgment of history will be kinder; Barron's fearless reporting will be remembered long after the rantings of "Dr. Thompson" become a distant blur.

The Renegade Province

China's so-called "Parliment" passed a law yesterday, authorizing the use of force to "reunify" Taiwan with the mainland, in the event Taiwan declares its independence.

Beijing has made these threats for years, but the measure marks the first time the PRC government has given them legal standing. It underscores China's willingness to use military force to bring Taiwan "into the fold," if Taipei ever crosses the independence threshhold.

China's threats are more than just talk. Buoyed by a booming economy, PRC military spending has increased dramatically over the past decade. Beijing is investing in all types of advanced military hardware, including new fighter jets (Russian-made SU-27/30 FLANKERS), advanced submarines, modern surface-to-air missiles, and (most ominously) large numbers of surface-to-surface missiles.

A few years ago, China vowed to have "hundreds" of ballistic missiles opposite Tawian in just a few years. And Beijing has lived up to its promise. Various Pentagon estimates suggest that the PRC now has more than 500 short-range ballistic missiles (mostly CSS-6 and CSS-7) aimed at Taiwan, which it regards as a "renegade province." These missiles, capable of carrying chemical, biological, or nuclear warheads, could easily overwhelm Taiwan's PATRIOT surface-to-air missiles, killing millions of its citizens, and making resupply/reinforcement of the island extremely difficult.

Along with missile strikes, the PRC would also use its growing submarine force to cut sea lanes to the island, and its modernized fighter force to control the skies over the Taiwan Strait. Collectively, these measures would result in an air and sea blockade of the island, slowly pounding and starving the island into submission. True, China lacks the amphibious forces to mount an effective invasion of Taiwan (wags have likened it to a "million-man swim"), but as Beijing improves its missile, air and naval forces, that capability becomes less important.

And that creates an interesting dilemma for the U.S. As you'll recall, the U.S. Congress passed a measure in 1979, vaguely promising support for Taiwan if it is ever attacked by the PRC. The Taiwan Support Act is not a mutual defense treaty, so there's no guarantee of military support. But it is difficult to imagine the U.S. standing idly by and allowing the PRC to attack Taiwan. Indeed, students at various U.S. military war colleges have "war gamed" the PRC-Taiwan scenario many times in recent years. Those students under the difficulties associated with defending Taiwan, particularly in light of China's recent defense build-up.

War between Taiwan and the PRC isn't inevitable. But China clearly hasn't abandoned the military option, and they're acquiring the muscle required to back up their resolution. In that regard, the measure passed by Beijing's Parliment is hardly an empty threat.

One Day in Beirut

It was the largest demonstration in Lebanon's long history; more than 800,000 people--roughly one out of every four Lebanese-- crowded into Martyr's Square in Beirut, protesting Syria's continuing military presence, and domination of Lebanese affairs.

The protest rally was, in a word, stunning. It came only days after 500,000 pro-Syrian demonstrators, led by the terrorist group Hizballah, gathered in the same square. After that demonstration, some pundits speculated that Hizballah's presence, backed by Syrian military muscle in the nearby Bekka Valley, would intimiated the Lebanese opposition.

Quite the contrary. The throngs that gathered for anti-Syria rally were roughly 60% larger than the rent-a-crowd turned out by Hizballah's thugs. And the protestors made their message perfectly clear: Syria's presence in Lebanon must end, and end quickly.

Meanwhile, the Syrians are supposedly working on phase one of their military withdrawal. Damascus is moving key units to new positions in the Bekka Valley, and Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) has been observed vacating its Beirut headquarters.

While these developments are clearly encouraging, it's worth remembering that Syria won't give up its position in Lebanon without a struggle. There are literally dozens of Syrian military garrisons in Lebanon, and withdrawal activity has not been observed at all locations. Additionally, many SMI agents may attempt to stay in Beirut (and other locations) by "going native," and continuing to gather intelligence and exert influence.

The world community needs to sustain pressure on Damascus, and demand a complete--and verifiable--withdrawal from Lebanon. Democracy is finally on the march in Lebanon, and Syria should not be allowed to derail the movement.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Wither Hizballah?

There's a continuing debate over the potential consequences of Syria's planned pull-out Lebanon. Several bloggers, including your humble correspondent, have argued that the withdrawal will weaken Syria, and its terrorist ally, Hizballah.

However, other analysts paint a different picture. NRO has an interview with Barbara Newman, who is an expert on the terrorist group, its organization and its deadly history. Ms. Newman argues that Hizballah has grown increasingly stronger over the past 10 years, and could easily fill the power vaccum created by a Syrian withdrawal.

I concur with Ms. Newman on a couple of points. First, it is unlikely that Syria will ever completely leave Lebanon. A total withdrawal would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in Damascus (and elsewhere), and Bashir Assad's days would be numbered. There are alreay indications that Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) is making plans to preserve their presence in Lebanon, as a means for influencing events.

Secondly, Ms. Newman is correct in noting that Hizballah's strength has increased steadily in recent years, and it is capable of defeating local militias and the Lebanese Army. But without an active Syrian presence, Hizballah would face an increasingly hostile populace, and the prospect of possible Israeli military action. While many Israelis have bitter memories of the 1982 Lebanese invasion, those concerns would be trumped by an unpalatable prospect: a Hizballah-controlled state on their northern border. There's also a large American military presence in the region, and those assets could also be employed against Hizaballah, should the group launch attacks inside the U.S.

Hizballah is a formidable terrorist threat, but it is not unbeatable. And any loss of Syrian support in Lebanon would weaken the group's position on its home turf, the very place where it cannot afford a loss of support or power. If that happens, Hizballah could strike at our homeland. But that would be a grave mistake. Hizballah will find the U.S. is a different adversary than the one it faced in the 1980s, when it blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, and murdered American hostages with relative impunity. The times are changing, and not necessarily to Hizballah's benefit.

Tragedy in Atlanta

I've spent a good part of the day watching news coverage of the Atlanta courthouse shootings. WSB-TV, the dominant local news operation in that city, has excellent streaming video of its live coverage. CNN has been making extensive use of the WSB feed, enhancing their own coverage. For some reason, Fox News channel has been relying on pictures from WGCL, the local CBS affiliate. WGCL is something of a joke in the Atlanta market, and I can see why. At one point early this afternoon, the Channel 46 helicopter was panning wildly across the Atlanta freeways, as if they were trying to check every car from 3,000 feet.

As they discuss these tragic shootings, most of the talking heads have focused on courthouse security, and the challenge associated with protecting those inside. I'm sure terrorist groups are taking note, but the pundits, in passing, actually touched on an even more pressing security concern. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, at least four schools in the area remained on lockdown in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, our schools represent an even more lucrative target for potential terrorist strikes, and comparatively little has been done to make them more secure.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Here We Go Again

From today's edition of The New York Times:

"A commission due to report to President Bush this month will describe American
intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgements about Iran's nuclear
weapons program, according to people who have been briefed on the panel's
The inference is clear. President Bush is running off half-cocked again, making
judgments about a country's WMD program, based on faulty intelligence. It is a familiar refrain for the Times, echoed time and time again in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

Is the criticism valid? Perhaps. It doesn't take Porter Goss (or a presidential commission) to understand that there are always gaps in our intelligence database, particularly when it comes to rogue states like Iran. Tehran has expended considerable effort to cloak its nuclear program, dating back to the late 80s and its first, clandestine development efforts. Those efforts continue to this day, and it's doubtful we'll ever have a complete picture of the Iranian nuclear program, no matter how much effort is devoted to intelligence collection and analysis.

But there's another issue here, one that Times story conveniently sidesteps. Reporters Doug Jehl and Eric Schmitt note that U.S. intelligence suffered a severe setback in the late 1980s, when Tehran's counter-intelligence service penetrated a U.S. spy ring in Iran. The loss of those resources, according to the Times, reverberated inside U.S. intelligence until the 1990s.

So why was nothing done to plug this intelligence gap? The NYT never answers that one, but that admission underscores one of the most lasting--and dangerous legacies--of the Clinton Administration. Throughout the 1990s, Mr. Clinton and his national security team refused to make the necessary investment in intelligence systems, personnel and resources, resulting in severe information gaps that precipitated 9-11, our failure to detect North Korea's covert nuclear efforts, and now, a lack of information on Iran's WMD programs.

Intelligence gaps don't happen overnight; they occur over a period of years--even decades--are are often the cumulative product of mismanagement and neglect. The seeds of our Iran problem were sown long ago, and it will take a long time to remedy the problem. We should be thankful that the current administration is willing to make the investment to fix past mistakes. Unfortunately, closing the gap is a race against time and, as Iran moves toward a nuclear capability, time may be running out.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Wrong Side of History..

From, Hizballah, the self-styled "Party of God" that defines modern terrorism, comes a vote for the status quo in Lebanon. Borrowing a tactic from the Democratic Party's "rent a crowd" playbook, Hizbollah staged a massive rally in Beirut today, "thanking" Syria for its 30-year occupation of Lebanon. Many of the protestors (conveniently) carried signs written in English, denouncing U.S. and French demands that Syria end its occupation, once and for all.

Hizballah's endorsement of Syrian occupation is no surprise. Over the past three decades, Syria's military presence has allowed the terrorist group to flourish. An end to Syria occupation could pose a threat to Hizballah, which uses Lebanon to train its operatives, and launch terrorist attacks against Israel.

It may take a while, but Hizballah (and the Syrian regime that protects it) will eventually wind up on the ash heap of history. Lest we forget, there were pro-communist rallies in the eastern bloc in the years and months leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A Checkpoint in Baghdad

"Old Europe," (to borrow Don Rumsfeld's phrase) and its compatriots in our mainstream press, are still atwitter over that recent shooting of an Italian journalist by U.S. troops in Iraq. The incident occurred shortly after the journalist had been freed by her terrorist kidnappers. The reporter in question, Giluliana Sgrena, claims that she was deliberately targeted, because the U.S. opposes negotiations with terrorists. In today's issue of the Washington Times, Rowan Scarborough puts the incident in an entirely different light. Seems that Ms. Sgrena's rescuer (an Italian intelligence officer who died in the shooting) failed to coordinate her escape with the U.S. military. Oops...

Roger L. Simon advanced a similar theory a couple of days ago. As a former spook, his idea sounds entirely plausible; it would be easy for the bad guys to arrange Ms. Sgrena's release, then pass word that a blacked-out, speeding car would target an American checkpoint. The result? A propaganda windfall for the terrorists, who have had little to cheer about lately.

Back in the Saddle

After almost two weeks on the road, it's nice to be back in front of my computer. During my travels to the left coast and Yoknapatawpha County, I made a conscious effort to stay away from cable news and the internet, spending time (instead) with friends, family, and especially, my four-year-old granddaughter. However, there were a couple of items that caught my eye, notably the recent events in Iraq and Lebanon.

Incidentally, I'm not much of a Faulkner fan; there's something about sentences that meander on for half a page that cries out for a touch of editing. But, I will give Bill his due. Along the way, he managed to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and establish himself as, perhaps, the definitive voice of southern literature. On the other hand, I still believe Thomas Wolfe was a superior writer to Faulkner, and would have enjoyed similar accolades, had he not died at the age of 38. I still read Of Time and the River on occasion, marveling in the sheer magic and imagery of his writing.

Both Faulkner and Wolfe led rather messy personal lives. Wolfe had a long affair with a married woman and expressed some admiration for Hitler's Third Reich in the years before his death. Faulkner's pursuits were more pedestrian. After becoming a Nobel laureaute, he returned to his hometown of Oxford, MS, and spent a fair amount of time drinking. A friend of mine in Oxford remembers, as a young child, seeing the great writer stumbling around town-- sometimes clad in his pajamas--knocking on doors and asking for whisky. Forty years later, Oxford has more than its share of watering holes, thanks largely to the presence of the University of Mississippi, where Faulkner briefly worked as campus postmaster. Judging from the number of inebriated college students stumbling around Oxford, Bill would be very proud.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Memo to Zarqawi

According to the Washington Post, Osama bin Laden has been in touch with his man in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, imploring him to expand his operations outside that country. U.S. intelligence recently intercepted a message from the Al-Qaida leader to his Jordanian-born surrogate, encouraging Zarqawi to strike American targets both overseas and here at home. That report led to renewed speculation about possible attacks, and a potential change in our terrorist threat level.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but I don't see this report as an indication of a resurgent Al-Qaida, or a harbinger of imminent strikes in the U.S. homeland. Instead, bin Laden's request paints a picture of an organization in serious trouble, with little hope for a short-term cure.

On the surface, bin Laden's message seems to depict a united Al-Qaida, with open channels of communication between senior leadership and its best-known field lieutenant, Zarqawi. It also suggests a new wave of terrorist attacks may be in the offing, utilizing the combined resources of Zarqawi's network and other, established Al-Qaida cells.

But bin Laden's directive also reflects a more desperate Al-Qaida, scrambling to strike back at the U.S. and its allies. By encouraging al-Zarqawi, bin Laden seems to suggest that he and members of his inner circle, are still "heads down" along the Afghan-Pakistani border, unable to effectively plan or coordinate another major attack. Indeed, bin Laden's message appears to indicate that the organization is still in a de-centralized mode, with cell leaders and other lower-level commanders enjoying wide autonomy in selecting targets and carrying out attacks. While this approach has produced some successes (such as the Bali nightclub bombing and the train attacks in Madrid, Spain), it is not an operational system capable of producing a spectacular event, along the lines of 9-11.

Bin Laden's communique may also be a veiled warning to Zarqawi: get out of Iraq while you still can. While still a threat, the Zarqawi network has also suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks, with the arrest of several senior aides. General John Abazaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently told Congress that Zarqawi's days are numbered. He also hinted, vaguely, that U.S. intelligence may have penetrated the Zarqawi organization, suggesting "treason" within the ranks helped produce the recent arrests.

Reading between the lines, bin Laden's directive for Zarqawi is less an operational plan than a cry for help. And, thanks to the work of our military and intelligence community, Zarqawi is in no position to render that assistance.

Syria in the Crosshairs....

These days, Syrian President Bashir Assad probably wishes he'd passed on the family dictatorship and kept his opthamology practice in London. As you may recall, the younger Assad was an eye surgeon in London before returning to Damascus to succeed his late father, Hafez al-Assad, the former Air Force general who ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.

Sure, it was hard to pass on a chance to be El Supremo For Life. There are obvious perks (unlimited access to the national treasury; palatial accomodations, and the power to kill anyone who gets in your way). But there's also the danger that comes with any dictatorship, i.e. you tend to rub people the wrong way, and eventually, they want your scalp.

At last check, Mr. Assad's scalp was still intact, but his grip on power doesn't seem as certain as it once was. In recent days, both the U.S. and Israel have put Damascus on notice, for its role in the recent homicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Syria is in no position to challenge Israel militarily, and now finds its other major adversary (the U.S.) firmly ensconsed in neighboring Syria. Making matters worse, Syria is also next door to Turkey, another powerful country with little use for the Assad regime. Turkey almost went to war with Syria in the late 1990s, and maintains a strong military relationship with both the U.S. and Israel.

So what's a dictator to do? Well, for starters, Damascus has suddenly arrested Saddam's step-brother and more than two dozen other members of the former Iraqi regime, who had set up shop in Syria, and were (reportedly) playing a major role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq. In a police state like Syria, the presence of Saddam's henchmen was well known to intelligence and security officials, who allowed them to operate freely--until now. Why the change? Well, facing a possible visit from the Israeli Air Force (in response to the recent terrorist strike) and growing U.S. ire, the younger Assad decided it was in his interest to round up the Iraqi thugs. Eliminating a major source of funding and support is certainly bad news for the Iraqi insurgency, and Assad's own foreign policy, which is focused on reducing U.S. influence in the Middle East. But, in view of the "alternatives," Bashir was willing to weaken his own hand, and avoid possible military consequences.

Mr. Assad is also making nice in Lebanon, which has been under the Syrian thumb for almost 30 years. Damascus's recent assassination of a former Lebanese Prime Minister has produced an outpouring of anti-Syriun sentiment, unprecedented in that country's recent history. Thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets, demanding that Syria remove the 15,000 troops that still occupy their nation. In response, Assad has promised that his soliders will leave "in a matter of months."

Will Damascus make good on its promises? Only time will tell. But Mr. Assad is back-pedaling furiously, in an effort to keep his regime out of harm's way. Surrounded by powerful neighbors, and buffeted by demands for democracy, Syria is operating from a position of weakness, rather than strength. The U.S. would be well-advised to keep the pressure on President Assad in the months to come; holding him accountable is the most viable strategy for dealing with that rogue regime and minimizing Syrian mischief in the Middle East.

And the Answer Is...

Last week, I posted an Iraq quiz, testing your knowledge of what's really going on in that country. The answers to the quiz have been added to that original post. As you read the answers, compare them to the daily acounts of the situation in Iraq, as reported by our MSM. Then, send an e-mail to your favorite media outlet and ask them why these numbers never make it into their reports.