Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 7, 2013

Telling the Truth About Iraqi Kurdistan

A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is truly a humbling experience. Both 13 years ago, when I first visited the region, and now it’s easy to be impressed with all that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. Indeed, Fouad Ajami—who recently spent a couple days in the region—wrote eloquently about his most recent visit, with a paean to policymakers in Washington to side with the Kurds in their dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

I seldom disagree with Ajami, but his praise of Kurdistan seems incongruous with his previous work. In effect, he comes perilously close to embracing dictatorship over democracy, especially coming alongside regional President Masud Barzani’s announcement delaying elections on the curious logic that he need not adhere to his two-term limit if his second term never formally ends.

Read More

A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is truly a humbling experience. Both 13 years ago, when I first visited the region, and now it’s easy to be impressed with all that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. Indeed, Fouad Ajami—who recently spent a couple days in the region—wrote eloquently about his most recent visit, with a paean to policymakers in Washington to side with the Kurds in their dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

I seldom disagree with Ajami, but his praise of Kurdistan seems incongruous with his previous work. In effect, he comes perilously close to embracing dictatorship over democracy, especially coming alongside regional President Masud Barzani’s announcement delaying elections on the curious logic that he need not adhere to his two-term limit if his second term never formally ends.

Ajami is correct to note what an oasis the American University of Iraq-Sulaymani has become, but he ignores the grumbling of many locked outside the gate: AUI-S has taken tens of millions of dollars in Kurdish government funds as public universities in the region are increasingly starved for cash. In effect, AUI-S represents the opposite of Robin Hood: Stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Nor is AUI-S as free from Kurdish politics as some of its students and supporters once hoped.

I was troubled by Ajami’s praise for Stran Abdullah, whom he describes as “one of Kurdistan’s most informed and talented journalists.” Mr. Abdullah may be a good journalist and an honorable man, but it is strange to omit that Abdullah works for Kurdistan Nwe, the official organ of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not an independent newspaper. There is no mention of the dozens of Kurdish reporters working for independent newspapers that face harassment, arrest, and, in some cases, even death. Praising Abdullah exclusively is akin to praising a reporter for Pravda, rather than the stringer for Radio Free Europe.

Regarding Kirkuk, Ajami writes:

Kirkuk alone should suffice to sober up those who rush into the breach—it is a city as rich in oil as it is in political troubles. One doesn’t have to be terribly imaginative to foresee catastrophe in that tinderbox: ethnic cleansing, a Kurdish victory in Kirkuk matched by the eviction of Kurds from the Sunni Arab side of the dividing line.

Kirkuk, however, is thriving. It has been remarkably calm over the past couple years, as Najmaldin Karim, its governor, has shown that politicians who spend the resources allocated to them to the benefit of all communities bring good will, and the resulting local confidence amplifies economic development further. Indeed, Kirkuk has transformed itself from trouble spot to proof that Iraq can work when its leadership does.

Ajami reserves his true animus for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he writes:

The Kurds remain the most pro-American population in this swath of broad Middle Eastern geography. Yet Washington spurns the Kurds as it courts a strongman in Baghdad who has cast his lot with the Iranian theocracy and the Syrian dictatorship. In December 2011, as President Obama boasted of his strategic retreat in the region and of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he held up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq.” Never mind that Mr. Maliki was hard at work intimidating the opposition, consolidating power and warning the Kurds that all oil proceeds must run through Baghdad.

Maliki’s government faces many challenges—and certainly the prime minister is an imperfect man—but Ajami is not being accurate when he characterizes Maliki as a strongman and Barzani as some sort of democrat. If Maliki is a strongman, then he is a curious sort: Maliki governs over an unwieldy cabinet that constantly checks him as he tries to implement his agenda. His picture may hang in a few government offices, but on the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and any other major Iraqi city, it is often absent. Investors enter the Iraqi market without being forced into partnership with Maliki. In the last elections in Baghdad and Basra, Maliki’s man lost out to the opposition and, in both cases, stood down gracefully. Contrast that with the “democrat” Barzani: His photograph is ever present in Kurdistan; he has appointed his nephew prime minister and his son presides over the security services and national security agency, and people quickly find themselves in prison for criticizing the great leader. The last journalist killed in Kurdistan? His crime was questioning Barzani nepotism. U.S. policy should be to pressure for transparent elections not only for Maliki, but also for Barzani. Alas, only Barzani believes that he need no longer bother with public accountability.

As for Iranian influence? The amount of Iranian outreach to both Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan is troubling. The recent summit in Erbil between Barzani and Maliki was not done at the behest of America, but rather on the instructions of Qods Force commander Qasem Suleimani, a man whom Iraqis jokingly refer to as Iran’s “real president.” That said, if Professor Ajami has the opportunity and desire to travel through the entirety of Iraq rather than simply the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Sulaymani and Erbil, he will find that Iranian commerce is much more overt and plentiful in Kurdish Iraq than in southern, Shi’ite Iraq.

The United States should not be indifferent to Kurdish aspirations, but the best possible way to do so would be to confront the reality of Kurdistan’s declining human rights, not pretending it to be Xanadu. And while many of us are and have been friends with prominent Kurdish politicians, it is important to recognize that everyone in Iraq has an agenda, even in Kurdistan.

Read Less

Yes, Mujahedin al-Khalq Is a Dishonest Cult

Back in the 1990s, when I was working on language study and then dissertation research in Iran, it was apparent that the vast majority of Iranians did not care for their government. While many Iranians readily acknowledged their own participation in the revolution against the dictatorial shah, they also realized that Ayatollah Khomeini played them for fools when he had promised them “Islamic democracy.” Within six months, they recognized that what they got was neither, but it was too late as Khomeini consolidated control.

Iranians are politically engaged—even if not within the system—and did not hesitate to talk. Many spoke of their desire for alternatives. Some asked about the son of the late shah, living in exile in the United States. Others would speak more theoretically about a desire for a republic, a parliamentary democracy, or other alternative. The only thing on which Iranians agreed was their dislike of the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO). Several years ago, I wrote a piece outlining their history and ideological evolution. Long story short, the group’s involvement in terrorism that killed not only regime officials but ordinary Iranian citizens, as well as their willingness to accept aid and shelter from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the years after Iraq’s invasion of Iran, delegitimized the group in the face of the public they claim to represent.

Read More

Back in the 1990s, when I was working on language study and then dissertation research in Iran, it was apparent that the vast majority of Iranians did not care for their government. While many Iranians readily acknowledged their own participation in the revolution against the dictatorial shah, they also realized that Ayatollah Khomeini played them for fools when he had promised them “Islamic democracy.” Within six months, they recognized that what they got was neither, but it was too late as Khomeini consolidated control.

Iranians are politically engaged—even if not within the system—and did not hesitate to talk. Many spoke of their desire for alternatives. Some asked about the son of the late shah, living in exile in the United States. Others would speak more theoretically about a desire for a republic, a parliamentary democracy, or other alternative. The only thing on which Iranians agreed was their dislike of the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO). Several years ago, I wrote a piece outlining their history and ideological evolution. Long story short, the group’s involvement in terrorism that killed not only regime officials but ordinary Iranian citizens, as well as their willingness to accept aid and shelter from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the years after Iraq’s invasion of Iran, delegitimized the group in the face of the public they claim to represent.

The Clinton administration designated the MKO to be a terrorist group, but after years of lobbying—and buying support by paying huge honoraria to a bipartisan array of senior officials—the MKO was delisted in 2012. No longer being considered a terrorist group does not make the MKO democratic, however, as anyone who has ever studied their internal workers can attest. It is against this backdrop that this diary, written by a Kyrgyz student recruited to attend an MKO rally in Paris, is so interesting. It seems that the MKO leaders must now not only pay speakers to sing their praises at their rallies, but also the audience members. The MKO is not only a creepy cult, and willing to say anything to buy support regardless of the group’s record, but an empty shell as well. Let us hope that one day their remaining congressional supporters will recognize that if they truly want to bring change to Iran’s odious regime, they would best reach out to the Iranian people and not associate with groups which repel them.

Read Less

The Safest Place to Be

Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco cost two people their lives while several passengers remain in critical condition. While tragic, that’s a remarkably low death toll for a crash that destroyed the plane, demonstrating how efficient evacuation procedures have become.

What is perhaps most remarkable here, however, is how very long its been since the previous fatal crash of a commercial flight in the United States. That crash, which cost the lives of 49 people on the plane and one on the ground, took place on February 13, 2009, almost four and half years ago, near Buffalo, New York.

Read More

Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco cost two people their lives while several passengers remain in critical condition. While tragic, that’s a remarkably low death toll for a crash that destroyed the plane, demonstrating how efficient evacuation procedures have become.

What is perhaps most remarkable here, however, is how very long its been since the previous fatal crash of a commercial flight in the United States. That crash, which cost the lives of 49 people on the plane and one on the ground, took place on February 13, 2009, almost four and half years ago, near Buffalo, New York.

In 2012 there were more than 9 million regularly scheduled commercial flights in the United States and those 9 million flights carried 642 million passengers. That means there were 40 million flights between the doomed Buffalo flight and the one in San Francisco yesterday, 40 million flights that did not crash and which carried 2.8 billion people.

An average of 37 people a year are killed by lightning in the United States (a number that has also declined sharply in recent decades). So one person in 8.8 million is killed by lightning every year. That’s an order of magnitude greater than the chances of boarding a plane that is destined to crash.

There are lots of things to worry about in this “vale of tears” called life, but air travel isn’t one of them. Indeed, a commercial airplane is about the safest place you can be.

Read Less

Obama’s Second Chance on Egypt

In the past year, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government appeared set to take that country down the road to Islamist despotism, there were no signs that the Obama administration had any second thoughts about its role in these events. With the now deposed President Mohamed Morsi assuming dictatorial powers in the fashion of Hosni Mubarak, there was no acknowledgement that Obama’s eagerness to dump the former dictator might have been a mistake. Nor was there any indication that the president understood that the aggressive manner with which the U.S. pressured the Egyptian military to allow the Brotherhood to take power last year and the way our ambassador to Cairo seemed to cozy up to Morsi might not have been the smartest policy.

But almost miraculously after American policies had played a small but crucial role in enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to seize total power in the world’s most populous Arab country, President Obama has received a rare but precious gift: a second chance. The massive demonstrations protesting Morsi’s misrule that led to a military coup have given the president a chance to reboot American policy toward Egypt in a manner that could make it clear the U.S. priority is ensuring stability and stopping the Islamists. The question is, will he take advantage of this chance or will he, by pressuring the military and demonstrating ambivalence toward the possibility of a Brotherhood comeback, squander another opportunity to help nudge Egypt in the right direction?

Read More

In the past year, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government appeared set to take that country down the road to Islamist despotism, there were no signs that the Obama administration had any second thoughts about its role in these events. With the now deposed President Mohamed Morsi assuming dictatorial powers in the fashion of Hosni Mubarak, there was no acknowledgement that Obama’s eagerness to dump the former dictator might have been a mistake. Nor was there any indication that the president understood that the aggressive manner with which the U.S. pressured the Egyptian military to allow the Brotherhood to take power last year and the way our ambassador to Cairo seemed to cozy up to Morsi might not have been the smartest policy.

But almost miraculously after American policies had played a small but crucial role in enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to seize total power in the world’s most populous Arab country, President Obama has received a rare but precious gift: a second chance. The massive demonstrations protesting Morsi’s misrule that led to a military coup have given the president a chance to reboot American policy toward Egypt in a manner that could make it clear the U.S. priority is ensuring stability and stopping the Islamists. The question is, will he take advantage of this chance or will he, by pressuring the military and demonstrating ambivalence toward the possibility of a Brotherhood comeback, squander another opportunity to help nudge Egypt in the right direction?

Like many in the chattering classes that have commented on the situation in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have mixed feelings about what happened in Cairo last week. After a year of embracing the Brotherhood government, the U.S. quickly bailed on it as Morsi’s excesses made his fall inevitable. But there is also a sense that the coup could potentially discredit not only the cause of democracy but allow America’s critics and enemies to once again associate the United States with authoritarian governments. But while we should always worry about the false perception that democracy is only suited to the West, there should be no doubt about where America’s sympathies are when it comes to a struggle between Islamism and its foes.

The problem with so much of what has been said in the past few days about Egypt is the misperception that what was going on in Cairo before the coup was somehow more democratic than what happened after it. It cannot be repeated too often that there is more to democracy than merely holding an election that enabled the most organized faction to seize power even if it is fundamentally opposed to democracy. That was exactly what occurred in Egypt in the last year as the Brotherhood won a series of votes that put it in a position to start a process by which it could ensure that its power would never be challenged again. Understood in that context, the coup wasn’t so much a putsch as it was a last ditch effort to save the country from drifting into a Brotherhood dictatorship that could not be undone by democratic means.

Thus, rather than setting deadlines or delivering ultimatums to the interim government that has replaced Morsi and his crew, the United States should be demonstrating that it will do whatever it can to help the military snuff out the threat of Islamist violence and then to proceed to replace Morsi with a more competent government. In the absence of a consensus about democratic values, democracy is impossible and that is the case in Egypt right now. Americans should have no illusions that what will follow Morsi will be Jeffersonian democracy or even a reasonably attractive facsimile. But it can be better than Mubarak. That should be enough for Obama.

Rather than act as if something terrible has happened, we need to acknowledge that the Brotherhood’s fall is a good thing for both Egypt and the United States. That may not win over the majority of Egyptians who not unreasonably concluded that Obama was supportive of the Brotherhood, but it will begin the process by which that awful image can be improved. But if, instead, President Obama repeats the mistakes he made in the past two years and concentrates his fire on the military in the coming days and weeks and forces them to step back from measures intended to ensure that the Brotherhood cannot institute a rebellion to reinstate Morsi, he will have squandered the second chance that fate has given him. 

Read Less

Chilling in Basra

I can’t say I was looking forward to starting my Iraq trip last month in Basra. I hadn’t been to the southern Iraqi city in a few years, but traditionally the weather there in June can be miserable. February or March is one thing, but June and July can be quite another. Not only can Basra be hot, but it can also be humid and miserably dusty.

What a surprise it was to spend a week there and find the weather downright pleasant. Certainly, it’s not Maine or California, but on most days the air was pretty clear, and the evenings cool and breezy.

The weather was a topic many Basrawis loved to discuss, especially when the alternative is more contentious issues relating to sectarianism or the tragedy of terrorism. While some Basrawis say that this year and last have simply been cooler, others credit the restoration of Iraq’s marshes. Truth be told, the United States can only claim indirect credit for the marshes’ return. True to the character of USAID, there was hemming and hawing and a lot of meetings and conferences studying whether to restore the marshes (as farmers had begun to cultivate the drained land) and how best to go about it. In some cases, former marsh dwellers finally took matters into their own hands to break the dykes. One Iraqi—Azzam Alwash—also did yeoman’s work to restore the marshes.

Read More

I can’t say I was looking forward to starting my Iraq trip last month in Basra. I hadn’t been to the southern Iraqi city in a few years, but traditionally the weather there in June can be miserable. February or March is one thing, but June and July can be quite another. Not only can Basra be hot, but it can also be humid and miserably dusty.

What a surprise it was to spend a week there and find the weather downright pleasant. Certainly, it’s not Maine or California, but on most days the air was pretty clear, and the evenings cool and breezy.

The weather was a topic many Basrawis loved to discuss, especially when the alternative is more contentious issues relating to sectarianism or the tragedy of terrorism. While some Basrawis say that this year and last have simply been cooler, others credit the restoration of Iraq’s marshes. Truth be told, the United States can only claim indirect credit for the marshes’ return. True to the character of USAID, there was hemming and hawing and a lot of meetings and conferences studying whether to restore the marshes (as farmers had begun to cultivate the drained land) and how best to go about it. In some cases, former marsh dwellers finally took matters into their own hands to break the dykes. One Iraqi—Azzam Alwash—also did yeoman’s work to restore the marshes.

I remember my first visit to the marshes in 2003, shortly after Iraq’s liberation and soon after the first marshes were re-flooded. I drove from Nasiriyah—near biblical Ur—eastward toward the marshes. It was hot and dusty, but soon after we passed Islah, the air cleared and it felt about ten degrees cooler: The wind off the marshes was like natural air conditioning. Perhaps Basra now is experiencing the same phenomenon: winds blowing from the north pass over the marshes and bring cooler air. That they pass over water and lush land rather than dusty fields also improves air quality. The benefit may be indirect, and Basra still has a long way to go, but it used to be the cultural capital of the Persian Gulf, and locals view the return of their former environment as a sign that Basra once again can reclaim its former glory.

Read Less

France’s Domestic Surveillance

The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

Read More

The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

One would hope that these revelations would spare us more mock outrage of the kind being heard from so many countries over NSA activities that are, if anything, limited and tame compared to what they routinely undertake. But rest assured, facts will not stand in the way of America’s critics who are looking for any excuse to kick Uncle Sam in the shins.

Read Less

Erdoğan’s Disdain Extends from Jews to Blacks

Every Tuesday, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cohorts. Speaking before a friendly audience, he often lets his guard down and lets the real Erdoğan shine through. Alas, increasingly it’s apparent that the real Erdoğan is not only an anti-Semite—ranting and raving about Jews or some amorphous “interest rate lobby”—but also a racist.

Criticizing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the center-left and secular Republican Peoples Party (CHP), Erdoğan declared, “Kılıçdaroğlu is striving every bit he can to raise himself from the level of a black person to the level of a white man.” The Turkish word—ZenciErdoğan used is often used in a derogatory way.

Read More

Every Tuesday, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cohorts. Speaking before a friendly audience, he often lets his guard down and lets the real Erdoğan shine through. Alas, increasingly it’s apparent that the real Erdoğan is not only an anti-Semite—ranting and raving about Jews or some amorphous “interest rate lobby”—but also a racist.

Criticizing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the center-left and secular Republican Peoples Party (CHP), Erdoğan declared, “Kılıçdaroğlu is striving every bit he can to raise himself from the level of a black person to the level of a white man.” The Turkish word—ZenciErdoğan used is often used in a derogatory way.

President Obama has described Erdoğan as one of the few leaders with whom he has developed bonds of trust. On a policy level, Erdoğan has worked to undercut sanctions on Iran and has embraced groups like Hamas and Hezbollah designated by the U.S. government to be terrorists. On a personal level, he has exposed himself as an anti-Semite and now a racist. Perhaps it’s time for Obama to explain just what he sees in the Turkish premier. And perhaps it’s time for the Congressional Turkey Caucus—several members of which are also in the Congressional Black Caucus—to ask Erdoğan just what he meant when he described his chief political opponent in decidedly racist tones.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.