Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

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Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

The same thing holds true with regard to foreign affairs. When the United States engages militarily, it is often quite direct. Bill Clinton did not send American troops into Somalia or Bosnia secretly, nor did he try to hide the fact that he had ordered a cruise missile strike on Sudan and Afghanistan in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings. George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism, which combined not only the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also deployments to the Philippines. Likewise, Barack Obama has announced the deployment of American forces to places as far afield as Uganda, Iraq, and Liberia.

Many other countries obfuscate when they send troops into harm’s way. Hence, Russia has consistently denied that its troops were fighting in Ukraine, even as Russian journalists uncovered graves in Pskov, home of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, of Russian special forces based there but whom the Ukrainian government had announced killed over the previous weeks in Ukraine.

Likewise, the Iranian government has long denied that its forces are actively fighting in Syria. When the Syrian opposition has captured Iranians inside Syria, Tehran has dismissed its culpability saying that the young, fit, military-age men were simply pilgrims. This, of course, is nonsense. Heading into the midst of war-torn Syria on religious pilgrimage is like going to Acapulco for the cross-country skiing.

It seems with the United States projecting weakness and with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their team willfully blind, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stopped hiding its direct involvement in the Syrian fighting, at least in Persian. Hence, this story in the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency today, which announces the death of one Hoseyn Tabesteh which it identifies as a member of the “10th of Moharrem” IRGC Unit. Qasem Malekdar, the head of the Martyrs Foundation of Semnan Province, told the news agency that Tabesteh would be buried today in Semnan’s Shahrud county with several parliamentarians and provincial officials in attendance.

It is absolutely necessary to counter ISIS, wherever it might be—in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon. At the same time, journalists and analysts are right to ask whether targeting ISIS inside Syria is simply going to empower Bashar al-Assad and his noxious regime. The answer, of course, is not necessarily: there are more than two forces fighting inside Syria. While I am dubious about the Free Syrian Army, its moderation, and its capabilities, the Syrian Kurds are a more capable force than their Iraqi counterparts and have a far better track record against both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The problem is, though, that the White House and Pentagon continue to see Syria as an isolated, contained problem. President Obama’s strategy assumes the United States will act, and that no one else will interfere in the sandbox.

But if this story from Iran’s conservative press is to be believed—and there is no reason why it should not—then the IRGC will do its darnedest to ensure that once U.S. strikes against ISIS begin in Syria, Iran will be in a position to seize maximum advantage for Assad. This is not a reason for inaction against ISIS; rather, it is long past time that the White House and the Pentagon make clear that the IRGC inside Syria cannot expect immunity from American action regardless of the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians may culturally be indirect, but America should not be. To ignore the reality of Iranian action and strategy will simply empower Iran to augment its strategic position on the back of U.S. force, again.

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Iran Promotes 9/11 Conspiracy on Anniversary

A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

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A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

Now it seems that Rouhani’s Iran is doubling down on noxious. On yesterday’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—attacks that the Islamic Republic facilitated by allowing the hijackers transit to and from their Afghanistan training camps—the state-controlled, official Iranian media went full-blown conspiracy, blaming 9/11 on Jews led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger:

…It was on September 11th that he committed two of his most memorable outrages: The murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and installation of the torture-loving Pinochet junta in 1973; and the explosive demolition of the World Trade Center, and massacre of nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington in 2001…

Kissinger’s close association with the fanatically pro-Israel, anti-Iran neoconservatives since September 11th, 2001 has surprised some observers, who traditionally viewed the former National Security Advisor as a realist rather than an ideologue.

Why did Kissinger turn neocon? Some speculate that as his mind deteriorates he is rediscovering his tribal roots and experiencing a Zionist second childhood. Evidence supporting this view includes his petulant statement to the New York Post that “In ten years there will be no more Israel.” Apparently Kissinger has fallen victim to the kind of Zionist existential anguish that lies at the root of the radicalism of such neocons as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Dov Zakheim, and others of that ilk.

But there may be another reason for Kissinger’s succumbing to what Gilad Atzmon calls Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That reason, in a nutshell, is Kissinger’s complicity in the neoconservative coup d’état of September 11th, 2001. By helping design the 9/11 shock-and-awe psychological warfare operation, Kissinger appears to have indelibly wedded his own fate to that of the neoconservative September criminals.

How do we know Kissinger was involved in the 9/11-anthrax operation? Because President Bush, acting under orders of Dick Cheney and the 9/11 perpetrator cabal, appointed Kissinger to head the 9/11 Coverup Commission. Only a person with intimate knowledge of what needed to be covered up, as well as a strong grasp on the crumbling “19 hijackers led by a dying man in a cave” cover story, could have been entrusted to head the Commission.

Obama and Kerry may believe Iran has changed, but the Islamic Republic—increasingly cocky against the backdrop of America’s weakness—seems intent on demonstrating that it is not. Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei take pleasure in humiliating the United States. How ironic it is that so many proponents of outreach to Iran suggest that the Islamic Republic expressed its revulsion about the 9/11 attacks. This, of course, is nonsense. While the Iranian people mourned, Iran’s leaders gloated. Mehdi Karrubi, a reformist politician, blamed “Zionists in Israel” for the attacks, and the state-controlled press promoted wild conspiracy theories. According to Kayhan, a paper which serves as the voice of the supreme leader, “The super-terrorist had a taste of its own bitter medicine.”

When I debated Ambassador Tom Pickering, a leading proponent of striking a deal with Iran, last April at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Pickering quipped in the face of so many Iranian statements suggesting past insincerity something to the effect of, “That was then, this is now.” It seems that the Iranian regime hasn’t changed its spots, however. Any government that celebrates 9/11 should never be entrusted with nuclear power, nor should any regime which 13 years after that horrendous act still promotes the most noxious conspiracy theories. Then again, why should they not seek to humiliate and insult the United States and the victims of 9/11 when Obama and Kerry project such desperation?

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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Iran Negotiations Are Bearing Fruit (for Iran)

President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

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President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

When it comes to the Iranian economy, however, the negotiations have been nothing but positive. According to Iran’s Central Bank, the Iranian economy contracted by 5.4 percent in the Iranian calendar year ending on March 20, 2013. Obama’s team promised Iran perhaps $7 billion in sanctions relief just to come to the table to negotiate. Such relief was strategically inept, the equivalent of giving a little kid desert first and then inviting him to the table to eat his spinach. If the Iranian leadership’s goal was economic relief, they achieved it even before talks began.

The Obama administration has assured that sanctions relief was reversible, and if Iran didn’t play ball, they’d be back in the same dire position they had put themselves into before. That, of course, was nonsense. Momentum matters in international relations, as does greed. Once sanctions were loosened, it would be near impossible to ratchet up significant pressure again.

For Iran, the decision to talk rather than to compromise is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider the latest headlines:

  • Iran has announced that in the first five months of the Iranian year (March 21-August 21, 2014), trade volume has increased 136 percent.
  • The deputy finance minister announced yesterday that foreigners’ willingness to invest in Iran has increased 500 percent. In addition, Iran has announced that they have received more than 300 European and Arab trade delegations.
  • Iranian officials singled out Qatar, the tiny, gas-wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that increasingly finances terrorist groups and encourages the growth of radical Islamism abroad, for its willingness to invest in Iran.

Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled. At the same time, the price of oil quintupled. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As Iran redoubles its investment in its military, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs, the region will be paying the price for years to come for allowing Iran such a cash windfall without winning anything in exchange.

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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Obama, Kerry Ignore Law on Cemetery Desecration

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

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Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

The Islamic Republic of Iran—a country which President Obama increasingly treats as a diplomatic partner—now presents the first challenge to the new law. From the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has resumed its destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the city of Shiraz, while a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President earlier this month – known as the “Protect Cemeteries Act” – makes this type of cemetery desecration a sanctionable religious freedom violation. The Guard began excavating the site in April 2014, but temporarily suspended its activity following an international outcry. The cemetery is the site of 950 Baha’i graves, including those of 10 Baha’i women who were hanged in 1983, the youngest of whom was 17 years old. In June, the Guard held a public celebration of its progress in clearing the site, which it plans to turn into a cultural and sports complex. Reports from Iran indicate that the Guard has now removed human remains from some 30 of the 50 graves in the cemetery and placed them into an open canal.

In my recent study of engaging rogue regimes, one of the clear costs of such diplomacy—in almost every single example—is augmented abuse of religious freedom by the targets of America’s diplomacy. Rogues know that once the White House or State Department starts a process, it is loath to criticize rogue regimes for fear that they will walk away from the negotiating table. American outreach is akin to a free pass on accountability for any domestic repression.

The Obama presidency has been marked by disdain for the checks and balances inherent in the American system. Obama may be frustrated that he cannot achieve his agenda in the face of a recalcitrant Congress or dubious court; in this he would be joined by his 43 predecessors. But while the president may feel the end justifies the means as he bypasses laws that he did not support or sign, the “Protect Cemeteries Act” is a law which the president supported and which he signed just two weeks ago. Laws should be more than simply about a photo-op at a signing ceremony; it’s time for the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to stand up and sanction Iran for its clear and blatant violation of the amended International Religious Freedom Act, and for Congress to demand the president uphold the law he signed, and use its power of the purse both to make its displeasure felt and simultaneously to stand up for religious liberty.

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Drawing Conclusions From the Myth of Middle East Moderates

In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

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In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

Zakaria is merely stating what has long been obvious to critics of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. In that toxic environment, “moderation” is political poison and extremism, especially of the Islamist variety has become mainstream. As Zakaria rightly notes, the dynamic that has brought ISIS to the brink of overrunning Iraq has been manifested throughout the Middle East over the last generation as Islamists have become more powerful and their so-called moderate opponents have become less moderate as well as unpopular.

The purpose of this Obama cheerleader’s detour into reality is not, however, to debunk the fantasy that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen their moderates. Nor is he seeking to pour cold water on those promoting the delusion that Iran’s leaders are becoming more moderate and that justifies American appeasement of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are two fallacies that Zakaria is perfectly happy to continue promoting in his writing and on the bully pulpit he occupies on CNN.

No, the only reason that Zakaria is interesting in shooting down the idea of Arab moderation is because that is a convenient way to defend the Obama against the criticisms lodged against him by Hillary Clinton last week in her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton rightly noted that an early and vigorous Western intervention in Syria would have probably toppled the brutal Assad regime. But even more importantly, the chaos that stemmed from the protracted civil war there led to the rise of ISIS, a vicious Islamist terror group that has overrun parts of Syria and much of Iraq.

But Zakaria is determined to absolve Obama and therefore declares that there were never any real moderates in Syria and that any Western intervention would have been in vain. Like the president, whose alibi for a record of almost unbroken foreign policy failure during his time in office is that the world is a complicated and confusing place he can’t be expected to do much about, let alone fix, Zakaria’s response to Syria is to throw up his hands and to say that nothing could be done.

To be fair, the Syrian opposition was never very impressive and is now totally overshadowed by the extremists in the field against Assad. But to assert that inaction was the only reasonable option in Syria is to promote a different kind of myth. History is fluid, not set in stone. As uncertain as the situation in Syria was three years ago, there’s little doubt that Assad was on the ropes and, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, would have fallen if Obama (who kept predicting the demise of that regime) had acted. While it is possible the country would have descended to chaos as was the case in Libya where the president’s lead from behind style led to disaster, could it have been worse than what is happening now, with the country divided between Iran’s ally Assad and Islamists who are also threatening to take over Iraq?

But even if we leave the Syria out of the discussion, what’s most disappointing about Zakaria’s truth-telling about the missing Muslim and Arab moderates is that even as he tries to debunks Clinton’s criticisms of Obama, he refuses to connect the dots between his thesis and the president’s Middle East policies that he has supported.

Zakaria insists that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine moderate. But, if he was being consistent or had a shred of intellectual integrity, he would note that the same dynamic that has driven other moderate regimes to extremism has applied to Abbas as well. Abbas talks like a moderate at times when speaking to Westerners or left-wing Israelis. But his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to denounce Palestinian Islamists gives the lie to the talk about his moderation, although even the Israeli government regards him as a necessary evil these days.

Zakaria also distorts the truth when he says the reason why there have been no Palestinian elections in recent years (Abbas is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year presidential term) is that the Israelis and the West have postponed them. That is nonsense even though he’s right when he says there is good reason to believe the Hamas terrorists might win. The autocratic and utterly corrupt Fatah run by Abbas needs no prompting from the Israelis or the Americans to act to protect themselves from the trappings of democracy.

But the main failing of Zakaria’s piece is that he refuses to draw the proper conclusion from his correct diagnosis about the failure of Arab moderation. If it is a fantasy to imagine that there are no moderates who can make peace with the Jewish state and live with the West without resorting to terror or nuclear blackmail, then it behooves the U.S. to stop trying to hammer the Israelis into making dangerous concessions that will only strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would also be good reason for Obama to sober up about the prospects of détente with Iran and to realize that rather than loosening sanctions on Tehran, tougher ones along with a credible threat of force is the only way to avert the nuclear threat.

For Zakaria, Arab and Muslim moderation is a myth. But only a myth when it serves the purpose of absolving Obama from his responsibility to lead, not when it comes to pressuring Israel or appeasing Iran.

Update: This afternoon, The Washington Post responded to complaints such as the one I made about Zakaria’s wrongly blaming Israel for the failure to hold Palestinian elections. It reads as follows:

An earlier version of this column erred in stating, “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.

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Abadi, Maliki, Da`wa and Iraqi Reality

Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

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Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

Da`wa—the political movement to which both Maliki and Abadi belong—has always been fissiparous. And years of exile simply made it worse. Back in 2008, Iraqi-British scholar Sama Hadad published an excellent analysis of the impact of the separate exiles in a report on Arab dissident movements for AEI; you can download it here (Sama’s chapter begins on page 32), but the key section—with footnotes removed—is here:

In 1958, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with support from other young scholars, established the Islamic Da’wa Party, which, up until his execution, was the only Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Party. Al-Sadr was the key architect of the party and was its intellectual driving force. The party established most its leadership force from the educated middle class and Al-Sadr tried to instill within them the ideas he was developing. The Ba’athist government in Iraq, however, deemed membership in or association with the Islamic Da’wa Party to be a capital offense. Many Da’wa members fled Iraq, mainly to Iran.

For the thousands of Iraqis who had found sanctuary in Iran, the nostalgia for their homeland and their desire for an Islamic state mixed in with the sense of revolution that was still prevailing in Iran, attracted them to wilayat al-faqih[the philosophy of guardianship of clerical jurists espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini]. For some in the Da’wa Party this fascination did not last long. During the 1980s the Iranian government measured any group’s commitment to the revolution by their belief in wilayat al-faqih. The Revolutionary authorities censored or banned any group that challenged the concept of wilayat al-faqih. This placed Da’wa in a tight spot, unable to publicly exchange ideas with their members other than those that conformed to wilayat al-faqih.

Iranian authorities sensed growing disagreement among leading Da’wa members as to how pro- wilayat al-faqih they should be. Capitalizing on this disagreement, Iran sought to fragment the party and establish groups more loyal to wilayat al-faqih. The Da’wa party attempted to salvage the situation by not challenging wilayat al-faqih, but throwing out any members who publicly supported it.

The most prominent group to emerge from the fragmentation of the Da’wa party, under the guardianship of Iran, was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Led by Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, SCIRI fully embraced wilayat al-faqih.

Da’wa members fled Iranian repression and regrouped in London. The discord of the 1980s and 1990s, however, meant that Da’wa did not significantly extrapolate from Al-Sadr’s theories.

The most significant step taken was the publication in London of ‘Barnamajuna’ (Our Program). Barnamajuna emphasized the need for democracy, free markets, and abandoned the call for an Islamic Republic in Iraq, perhaps as a backlash from their negative experience in Tehran. There was a clear shift from the belief of the early 80s in the will of the faqih (scholar) over the people, similar to wilayat al-faqih, to the belief in the superiority of the will of the people.

A senior Da’wa Party political source stated at the time, “[al-Da’wa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public.” This marked a clear re-affirmation of Al-Sadr’s wilayat al-ummah [rule by the community].

A relevant point brought out further in the essay is that Da`wa’s intellectual development in the United Kingdom was more dynamic, but still restrained by the fact that the Iranian regime more or less held the majority of Da`wa activists hostage in Iran. Should Da`wa activists in London grow too vocal in proposing alternate interpretations of governance than espoused by Khomeini and his successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then Da`wa exiles in Iran might suffer. When I visited Iran for my second time in 1999, I met a number of Iraqi Shi‘ite exiles in the center of that country, and they had nothing good to say about the Iranian repression they suffered and the indignities Iran put upon their children.

Iraq’s liberation, however, provide an opportunity for the two main Da`wa communities to reunite; a renaissance in exegesis took place. Much of this was not to Iran’s liking. When it came to governing philosophy and religious interpretation, differences that might have existed between those who spent their exile in Iran versus those who lived those decades in Britain disappeared with time, Da`wa might split personalities, ambitions, or portions of the debate but to suggest that Abadi is enlightened while Maliki was not is simply inaccurate. Enlightenment is relative, but the two men likely now share many of the same interpretations.

Enter Iran: Iranians know the Iraqi Sh‘ites do not particularly embrace Khomeini’s viewpoints. That does not make Iraqi Shi‘ites into American clones or necessarily pro-Western; rather, it makes Iraqi Shi‘ites, well, Iraqi Shi‘ites. The Iranian government has responded by sponsoring militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites. These militias remain a major problem, alongside their opposites on the Sunni side: radical Islamists sponsored by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; and ethnic and sectarian chauvinist Baathists embraced by Jordan. Alas, empty calls for an inclusive government do nothing to address this basic problem, nor would forcing all factions under a big tent lead to anything other than infighting and paralysis. Iraqis don’t insist that Jesse Jackson and Dick Cheney share a desk, or Samantha Power and Pat Buchanan; that we do the equivalent to Iraqis is unfortunate.

Let us hope Abadi can rally Iraqis against ISIS but, to do that, he will have to defeat not only ISIS itself, but those who have given the group help and solace. Maliki saw the problem growing and begged the White House and visiting Senators like John McCain to understand how radicalized the Syrian opposition had become. To believe that Maliki and Abadi are respectively Satan and savior, or that they represent different Iraq’s or different philosophies is misguided. The two men are realists; it is the White House that too often is not.

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Maliki’s Exit Doesn’t Change a Thing

It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

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It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

Politicians react to events; they are seldom consistent over time. That Maliki became more sectarian with time is indisputable. So too is the reality that he was pushed into a sectarian corner. Many analysts point to the arrest warrant for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi issued on Maliki’s watch as evidence that Maliki sought to pursue sectarian vendettas. The evidence against Hashemi was pretty overwhelming, though. To absolve him of guilt simply because he was Sunni and the prime minister was Shi‘ite is ridiculous. And while former Finance Minister Rafi Issawi also found himself accused of capital crimes, those who would absolve Issawi ignore the fact that Issawi’s accusers were Sunni and he voluntarily has paid blood money to them. Maliki also cracked down on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi at times, suggesting his politics were more complicated than sectarianism. If a prime minister does not target terrorists then he is accused of failing to ensure security; if he does go after Sunni terrorists, he is accused of being sectarian, and if he goes after Shi‘ites sponsoring death squads, then he is accused of being authoritarian by cracking down on rivals. So is Maliki blameless? Absolutely not. His fault was not that his government pursued Sunnis accused of crimes, but that too often the decision about who to pursue appeared sectarian.

Iraqi Sunni figures are not without blame. Take Prime Minister Nouri l-Maliki’s raid on a protest camp in Ramadi late last year. It is absolutely true that most of those at the camps were young, unemployed local Sunni Arabs who were not prone to Al Qaeda. It is also true that the timing of the raid was motivated by politics. But it is just as true that Al Qaeda had a presence at the camp, as videos of sermons endorsing Al Qaeda and protestors waving Al Qaeda flags show. To also suggest that Al Qaeda was not present but materialized and seized Ramadi and Fallujah in outrage within days beggars belief. The simple fact is that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have long sought shelter in Iraq’s Sunni-led provinces, and Sunni politicians have allowed them to on the belief that they could be a useful wedge against the central government.

Indeed, too often it appears that Iraq’s Arab Sunni political leaders are the most sectarian in Iraq. The basic problem is that the majority of Sunni leaders refuse the legitimacy of any Shi‘ite-led central government. That Baathists and Sunni tribal leader colluded with the Islamic State is not so much the result of frustration, but rather of malice. They saw such collusions as a means to an end, the end being not winning greater compromise in Baghdad, but rather winning control in Baghdad.

But didn’t the surge present a model? Certainly it was militarily brilliant and had great success in the short-term. But it was politically and culturally Pollyannaish and, effectively, convinced those disdainful of Baghdad for sectarian reasons that they could win through violence what they could not win politically. Some Sunni tribal figures joined the surge so long as the money was right. Some prominent U.S. generals were willing also to promise them continued funding and then lay the bill at Maliki’s desk, regardless of whether they had the authority to do so or not. And while Baathists, too, have shown that they are willing to cooperate for a time; they are not willing to forfeit their basic animus toward Shi‘ites, whom they castigate as Fifth Columnists. That was why General David Petraeus’ empowerment of Baathists in Mosul was so shortsighted and disastrous, and led to countless deaths in the November 2004 uprising. The point is this: When Maliki—and almost every other politician in Baghdad—warn that the Sunni officer corps seeks a coup to change not just the prime minister but the entire system, they are not paranoid. Instead, they are right. To push for the restoration of so many former Sunni military officers into the Iraqi army would endanger the Iraqi state and justify the Iranian propaganda which suggests that Iraqi Shi‘ites might not like their Persian brethren, but have no choice but to accept their protection.

So what must be done?

  • It’s essential to realize that sectarianism in Iraq isn’t a Shi‘ite against Sunni phenomenon but is often more acute the other way. I have never met a Sunni politician who, after a couple hours of discussion and maybe a couple whiskeys, didn’t acknowledge that they sought to restore Sunni control over the Shi‘ite population.
  • It’s also important to recognize that many Sunni leaders have their hands sullied by terrorism. Getting the Turkish or Qatari governments to vouch for their innocence is like getting Ted Bundy to assure the world of Jeffrey Dahmer’s innocence.
  • There should be no redemption for any figure that cooperated in anyway with ISIS or with the current uprising. Perhaps they thought they could use ISIS but retain control. That alone should disqualify their judgment into the future.
  • It’s long past time senior American military officers who have spent years in CENTCOM’s area of operation recognize that the clientitis that affects career State Department Arabists can also infect them. Generals interact with their effete and elite counterparts, and too often accept their complaints and adopt their biases. When it comes to anti-Shi’ite bias, how frustrating it is to see so many Americans more sectarian than Iraqis.
  • If the goal is to undermine Iranian influence, then it becomes essential to have a real presence in Iraq, one that Iraqis of all stripes can use to push back against Iranian Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani’s demands. Sometimes there is no substitute for a base, be it in Iraqi Kurdistan or in southern Iraq.
  • Likewise, if the goal is economic opportunity, then no effort should be spared to build and improve the Iraqi private sector. This should not be left at the hands of USAID. The staffers at that dysfunctional and wasteful organization don’t know the first thing about free market enterprise. Rather, it’s time to do what the Iraqis have been asking for all along: Send in American businessmen to invest in small projects: hotels, local manufacturing, etc.
  • Bolstering the private sector is also important since every Iraqi ministry has about ten times the employees it needs to function. Bloated state payrolls might work when the price of oil is high, but what goes up also comes down, and the bloated bureaucracy is a ticking time bomb.
  • And, finally, federalism needn’t be a dirty word. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States centralized the government in part because it was just easier for the State Department and Pentagon to handle that way. But, instead of building a huge bureaucracy in Baghdad, why not simply leave defense and foreign affairs in Baghdad, and distribute Iraq’s oil revenue not only to the provinces to decide what to do with, but directly to the districts. Let them compete for the best model, and replicate the tale of two cities—Kirkuk and Mosul—throughout the whole country. The key is that federalism should be based on administrative district, and not on ethnicity or sectarian identity.

Good luck to Iraq’s prime minister. He has huge problems to overcome. But let’s not make them worse by confusing Shi‘ism and Iran, or by incentivizing terror by forcing concessions in its face.

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Exit Maliki

It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

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It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

For one thing, although the U.S. undoubtedly played a role in forcing him from office (for which President Obama and Vice President Biden deserve credit), just as important if not more so was Iran, which refused to back Maliki after it became clear that large segments of the Shiite community, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, were disenchanted with the prime minister. If Iran and especially its Quds Force under the command of General Qassem Suleimani had continued to support Maliki, he would probably have remained in office. But the Iranians value Shiite unity above all and so they pulled out the rug from under Maliki.

That’s a positive development, but a disturbing reminder of the outside influence that Iran continues to exercise in Iraq–which itself is a large part of the reason why so many Sunnis, intensely hostile to the “Persians” (as they refer to Shiites, both Iraqi and Iranian), are willing to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

We know little about Maliki’s putative successor, Haider al-Abadi. What little we have heard is good–he is said to be less insular, less sectarian, and less conspiracy-minded than Maliki. It helps that, while Maliki spent long years of exile from Baathist Iraq in Syria and Iran, Abadi spent part of his exile in Britain where, one hopes, he gained greater appreciation for democratic norms than Maliki has exhibited. But Abadi comes from the same Dawa Party as Maliki, and that party is part of the Shiite establishment that backed Maliki as he was victimizing Sunnis in recent years. The challenge for Abadi, and it is a big one, will be to show that he is not Maliki Redux–that he is genuinely willing to share power instead of trying to set himself up as another autocrat.

Part of the challenge will be for Abadi to voluntarily give up some of the authority that Maliki accumulated in extra-constitutional fashion–never an easy thing for any politician in power to do. In particular Maliki set up the Office of the Commander-in-Chief to allow him to circumvent the normal command structure and directly order the armed forces to perform his bidding, which usually meant targeting Sunnis. Abadi, as a first step, must disband this office and promise to respect the chain of command.

He must also weed out sectarians that Maliki appointed to the officer corps and work to hand power back to a professional officer corps, many of whom will be Sunnis. Moreover, he must end Maliki’s reliance on Iranian-directed militias. And he must not horde for himself the security ministries–Interior and Defense–as Maliki did; he needs to appoint a prominent Sunni to at least one of these posts.

This will not be easy for Abadi to do even with the best of intentions–and we have little idea of what his intentions are. Much of the Shiite establishment is sure to resist any diminution of its power and in this it is likely to have Iranian backing. It is imperative that the U.S. make a bigger commitment to Iraq not only to fight ISIS directly but also to push Abadi in a moderate, inclusive, non-sectarian direction that will make it possible to woo Sunni tribes away from the terrorists.

The Third Iraq War is hardly won yet. It has, indeed, barely been joined. Much work remains to be done including the dispatch of much greater military forces by the U.S. and its allies to work with the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni tribes. And it is far from clear whether President Obama has the will to do that. At most one battle, albeit an important one, has just been won with Maliki’s imminent removal. The challenge now will be to consolidate this political beachhead. The greatest danger is giving in to excessive euphoria–to imagine that Iraq’s problems are now solved. Actually Iraq’s challenges are just beginning.

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Is It Over for Maliki?

It is hard to exaggerate the drama or the stakes of the leadership battle now playing out in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is desperately clinging to power, even summoning elite troops to the Green Zone where the government is based. Yet many in his own Dawa party are deserting him. Enough Shiite politicos have turned against Maliki that his own State of Law slate (a larger grouping of Shiite parties which includes Dawa along with others) has nominated another candidate–Haider al-Abadi–as prime minister. Iraq’s president has now asked Abadi to form a government, which he has 30 days to do.

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It is hard to exaggerate the drama or the stakes of the leadership battle now playing out in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is desperately clinging to power, even summoning elite troops to the Green Zone where the government is based. Yet many in his own Dawa party are deserting him. Enough Shiite politicos have turned against Maliki that his own State of Law slate (a larger grouping of Shiite parties which includes Dawa along with others) has nominated another candidate–Haider al-Abadi–as prime minister. Iraq’s president has now asked Abadi to form a government, which he has 30 days to do.

It appears that Maliki’s day may be done. There are rumors that even Iran, which in many ways is the strongest political actor in Iraq, at least on the Shiite side, is willing to see him leave office. If that’s the case then Maliki will find it impossible to mount a coup because the militias and sectarian military units he would need would be unlikely to march without the acquiescence of Iran. If, however, Maliki manages to cling to office somehow despite his rampant unpopularity, Iraq is unlikely to survive and all-out civil war becomes more likely. The Obama administration has been doing the right thing by pressing for Maliki’s departure and by standing behind the right of Iraq’s president to nominate a different prime minister.

Assuming that Maliki can be ushered out of office, this opens up a new opportunity for Iraq–and a new challenge for President Obama.

So far the president has justified his minimalist strategy for Iraq–he only ordered warplanes into action last week when Yazidis were in danger of being massacred–on the grounds that the U.S. does not want to help a sectarian regime dominated by Iran. Fair enough. I think that the U.S. on balance should have been doing more militarily against ISIS in cooperation with the Kurdish pershmerga and Sunni tribes and certain units of the Iraqi Security Forces. But Obama’s stance is understandable and perhaps justifiable.

What, however, will the president do if we no longer have Maliki to kick around? That will be the moment of truth. Will we stick to a minimalist containment strategy designed to prevent ISIS from taking Erbil and murdering the Yazidis? Or will we implement a much more ambitious strategy to enable the defeat of ISIS?

I believe the U.S. must opt for the latter option. We cannot tolerate the indefinite existence of a terrorist state like the Islamic State stretching across the borders of Iraq and Syria. But to defeat ISIS would require a much more substantial commitment–of advisers, Special Operations Forces, and aircraft–than Obama has hitherto been willing to make. Will Obama finally own up to the challenge of fighting ISIS and commit the commensurate resources for the task–or will he persist with the minimalist, nibbling-around-the-edges approach that he inaugurated last week?

That is the dilemma he will no longer be able to avoid if and when Maliki is gone from the scene.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

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Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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Iran’s Diplomatic Quagmire

The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

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The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

Indeed, last weekend, the date by which Iran and the P5+1 nations were supposed to have reached an agreement on ending Iran’s illegal nuclear enrichment program was extended by another four months, all without much comment or notice. In part the lack of reaction can be attributed to the fact that this turn of events was already widely anticipated. After all, the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton was talking about an extension to the talks before the first six months of negotiations had even started. But of course, events in Israel-Gaza have provided the perfect diversion for both the Obama administration and the Iranians to keep these talks going.

Extending the negotiations through to November suits almost everyone–everyone apart from those who are most concerned about the nuclear threat from Iran, that is. For the Obama administration in particular, reaching the July deadline empty-handed would have been a disaster. Obama’s only strategy on Iran’s nuclear program is now to try and talk the Iranians out of going for the bomb. If forced to walk away from the talks now Obama has left himself with no plan B. It seems clear that for this administration, the military option was never really on the table. What’s more, the sanctions regime painstakingly put in place by the international community has already begun to unravel as part of the P5+1 interim arrangements. It is hard to imagine that it would be possible to put the sanctions strategy back together again now, and at this late stage, when Iran is already on the cusp of nuclear breakout, putting sanctions back in place is unlikely to effectively deter the Iranians nor significantly slow them down at all.

After six months of trying to reach an agreement on Iranian nuclear enrichment it seems unlikely that another four months of talks are really going to make any difference. The sides seem about as far apart on the issue of Iran’s centrifuges as they were when talks began. The Iranians were always eager to have the negotiation period extended–hardly surprising, since an extension means further relief from sanctions and all the while Iran can push ahead with expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Under the terms of the interim agreement Iran is obliged to keep its enrichment at a lower level than before and must allow a continuation of the inspections of its facilities. But with Iran having successfully hidden major nuclear sites from Western intelligence in the past, it’s perfectly conceivable that in such a large country, inspectors could miss some of the most crucial areas.

The major sticking point is the issue of the number of centrifuges that the international community will permit Iran to keep. Those in Iran’s immediate firing line—Israel and the Gulf states—would like to see an Iran that has no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. They’ve been told by the Obama administration that that’s “unrealistic.” Of course, it is unrealistic as long as Obama is unwilling to genuinely put all options on the table, but realistic or not, the fact is there are six United Nations Security Council resolutions in place that very clearly prohibit all nuclear enrichment by Iran.

What the powers seem to be haggling over now is how close to the nuclear precipice Iran should be allowed to step. Under such a strategy, whatever happens, the Iranian nuclear dagger is left hovering over the West and its allies; it’s just a question of how high. Watching all of this one can’t help but be reminded of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. Strict controls had been set on limiting any German military build-up and with the rise of Hitler those controls became all the more warranted. Unwilling to take a concrete stand against the German breaches of international law, the British argument at the time essentially went: better to reach an agreement with the Germans that allowed them some limited rearmament than to have no agreement and for the Germans to simply pursue unlimited rearmament. British officials dismissed French disquiet at all this as being “short sighted.”  Or as you might say in the parlance of  Obama administration; “unrealistic.”

When it comes to a nuclear Iran, the Obama administration doesn’t expect America’s allies, Congress, or the public to swallow this hog whole. But the prolonged negotiation period, discussing just how many centrifuges the mullahs can keep, is a process of softening us up. We’re being fed the hog bit by bit.

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Hamas and the New Middle East

The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

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The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

According to Ravid, the Israelis expected a visit from Kerry to be interpreted as pressure on Israel, a lesson probably learned from Kerry’s time as secretary of state thus far. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted to prove they could still play the role of mediator. But while that certainly could be true, it seems incomplete. The Egyptians, apparently, excluded Hamas from early deliberations to craft the truce. Whether the Egyptian leadership truly wanted a truce or not, it’s clear they were most concerned that the truce not undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas or the Israeli leadership in favor of Hamas. As Avi Issacharoff writes in the Times of Israel:

Hamas wants this in order to bring an end to the blockade on Gaza, open the Rafah Border Crossing, and in many ways to ensure its own survival.

On Tuesday morning, many people in Israel raised an eyebrow at Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire. But if we examine the crisis from the prism of Egypt-Hamas relations, we can see things differently.

Cairo offered the organization the same language it rejected from the outset: quiet for quiet. But for Hamas, the big problem was the way the Egyptian ceasefire was presented: At the same time that Razi Hamid, Hamas representative in Gaza, received the Egyptian document, the initiative was already being published in the Egyptian media.

This was a humiliation for Hamas, since no one thought to consult with its leadership. And still, as even senior Hamas officials admit, there is no other mediator in the region. Just like real estate agents who have a monopoly on a certain area, Egypt has a monopoly on Israel-Hamas relations.

At the very least, the Egyptian leadership does not seem to be in any rush to see Hamas given any breathing space. And neither does Abbas, whose leverage over Hamas has become all the more important in light of the recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas, arguably, had the most to lose in the continued Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas was able to essentially shut down the country, sending Israelis fleeing to bomb shelters and disrupting air travel and Israel’s economic activity and productivity. This is where Hamas’s relative weakness works to its advantage among its own people. Israel may have superior firepower, and both Israel and Fatah may have the United States in their corner, but Hamas can bring life to a (temporary) standstill in Israel at a moment’s notice. They can make the argument that Abbas’s cooperation with Israel and his participation in the peace talks has done nothing to bring about the ostensible goal of an independent Palestine.

Hamas doesn’t care about that, having made clear its objective has nothing to do with a two-state solution but with a genocidal war against the Jewish state. As such, its ability to disrupt and sabotage any attempts at a peaceful solution are crucial to its own raison d’être. By the same token, then, any weakening of Hamas helps both Abbas and any prospects, however remote, for a negotiated solution.

So while Egypt’s “failure” to step in and constructively play the role of mediator has been lamented, the priorities of the new regime in Cairo are actually geared much more toward those of the West. The defeat of Hamas, its diplomatic isolation, and the depletion of its terrorist capabilities are not just beneficial to Israel but also to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority structure in the West Bank, and America and its allies’ desire to limit Iranian influence in the region.

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