Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

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 the 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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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

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The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

Both sides had been prepared to talk until Sunday, the informal deadline for the negotiations. But two diplomats have told The Associated Press the talks will probably wind down Friday, because the differences won’t be bridged by Sunday.

The diplomats demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge confidential information. One said the two sides opposed going on until the final hours of the informal deadline because they felt that would give the impression they were desperate for a solution.

Two things we learn from that excerpt. One, the two sides are so far apart that they have no hope of meeting the deadline. Two, they don’t want to “give the impression” they’re desperate for a deal because, let’s face it, this process is pretty much just for show–hence the two sides being so far apart as to make continued talks meaningless in the near term.

Why might that be? We know, from Kerry’s past experience letting the Iranians run circles around him, that the American side would like some kind of deal–something that kicks the can down the road but produces a piece of paper the Obama White House can pretend solves a problem. But going by the administration’s talking points, the Iranians should want a deal far more. After all, despite President Obama’s best efforts, the Congress has instituted some sanctions, though Obama has worked assiduously to delay them or water them down.

Well, about those sanctions. Eli Lake has some bad news:

As U.S. and allied negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran this week in Vienna, they will have less economic leverage on their Iranian counterparts than they had a year ago.

That is the conclusion of a new study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, two groups that have analyzed Iran’s economy—and the international sanctions imposed on the country’s banks, oil exports and leading regime figures.

Their report concludes that in the last year as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease some of the sanctions on Iran as an inducement to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian economy has begun to recover.

The recovery of Iran’s economy is a good thing for the Iranian people, who suffered a currency in free-fall, staggering inflation and a contraction of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But at the same time, the economic sanctions that President Obama has credited with forcing Iran to begin these negotiations have appeared to lose their bite, according to the study that is scheduled to be released Monday.

The administration has made this mistake elsewhere. When Kerry decided he wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he found a Palestinian leadership hesitant to even come to the table. In order to get negotiations started, Kerry pressured the Israeli government to make concessions, which included releasing terrorist murderers.

Everyone not born yesterday understood what would come next: the Palestinians would accept the concessions, come to the table, and with the deadline approaching find some pretext to walk away, pocketing the concessions without giving anything up and without coming close to a deal. When the talks collapsed, there was a high degree of probability that a Palestinian faction would instigate violence. And that’s exactly what happened.

The idea of “preconditions for negotiations,” in whatever form, is usually counterproductive. There are always exceptions, of course. But generally speaking anyone who needs concessions to even come to the negotiating table doesn’t really want to be at the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, unless their leadership feels squeezed economically time will be on their side.

Obama and Kerry had leverage: economic sanctions. They used up much of that leverage just to get the Iranians to the table, and now the Iranian leadership wants to run out the clock. Thanks to the weakening of the sanctions, and the lack of stronger sanctions to begin with, they’re in a position to do so. And Kerry seems prepared to play along.

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Obama and the New Global Instability

Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

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Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

The story went on to say this:

In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.

Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.

The Journal story should be read along with this story from the New York Times published earlier this month that reports this:

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants from ISIS have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective.

About these stories, I want to make several points, starting with this one: Mr. Obama said that if elected his approach would be characterized by “smart diplomacy.” The result would be that he would “remake the world” and “heal the planet.” And during the first summer of his presidency, Mr. Obama said his policies would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”

Some new dawn.

President Obama has not only not achieved what he said he would; the world may well be, as Senator John McCain put it this weekend, “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Mr. Obama’s role in this turmoil depends on the particular case we’re talking about, but it’s certainly the case that (a) his policies have amplified and accelerated some of the problems around the world while failing to mitigate others and (b) measured against his own standards, the president has failed miserably.

Beyond that, though, his underlying philosophy–non-intervention, ending America’s involvement in wars instead of winning them, “leading from behind,” consciously making America a less powerful force in the world–has been tested in real time, against real circumstances. And it’s fair to say, I think, that not only has Mr. Obama failed (in part by being exceptionally incompetent at statecraft), but so has his left-leaning ideology, his worldview.

Finally, what Mr. Obama should have learned by now is that his confidence in his abilities were wildly exaggerated, based on nothing he had actually achieved. That the world is vastly more complicated than he ever imagined. And that being a successful diplomat is harder than being a community organizer. One might hope that Mr. Obama would be a wee bit chastened by now and learn something about modesty and his own limitations. But I rather doubt it, since he appears to me to be a man of startlingly little self-knowledge.

Every president learns that it’s easier to give speeches than to govern well, to criticize others than to help build a peaceful and ordered world. But no president I’m aware of has suffered from a wider gap between what he said and what he has been able to produce. We’ve entered a perilous moment in world affairs, and we have as chief executive a man who is wholly out of his depth. These are not good times for this exceptional nation.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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ISIS Seizes Nuclear Material from Iraq

Danielle Pletka, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, draws my attention to the following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) press statement today:

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Danielle Pletka, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, draws my attention to the following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) press statement today:

The following is a statement attributable to IAEA Spokesperson Gill Tudor on reports that Iraq has notified the United Nations that nuclear material has been seized from Mosul University: ‘The IAEA is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details. On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk. Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.’

True, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cannot build a traditional nuclear bomb with nuclear material seized from a university, where perhaps it was used in medical research or medical technology. But terrorists are creative and often do not care if they can build a warhead equivalent to that in the arsenal of nuclear powers. Rather, ISIS could just as easily build a dirty bomb they could use to terrorize those populations or people whose lives and liberty they despise. A dirty bomb in Baghdad, London, or New York—or on an airplane—would make headlines, allow the group to recruit more supporters, and create international panic. It’s all well and good for the IAEA—or, perhaps the White House—to downplay the seizure of the material. But remember the concern this past December when thieves made off with radioactive hospital waste in Mexico.

For too long, the White House turned its back on Iraq. It seemed that President Obama believed that Iraq was the original sin: he disagreed with the intervention launched by President Bush and cynically figured that he could withdraw and if Iraq went to heck, then he could simply blame Bush and more broadly the Republican Party. Playing politics with national security has consequences and it is the responsibility of the White House to manage national security issues even if they disagree with their genesis (any successor to Obama will have to address the reverberations of the president’s attempts at deal-making with Iran). Obama may have dispatched 350 men to shore up the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and Baghdad International Airport, but the consequences of the vacuum which have developed in Iraq are grave and growing and should no longer be ignored.

Being president means being a leader and re-engaging even if unpopular. As a second-term president, Obama has the luxury of not needing to stand for election again. He has so far used that position in the domestic arena, but he has yet to use it to contribute to international security and ensuring America’s best defense. Let us hope that Obama and his advisors will come to recognize the reality of what the United States now confronts.

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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The Complexities of Kurdish Secession

Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

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Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

Statehood, however, will be not the end of the story but rather its beginning, both within Kurdistan and in the region.

Within Kurdistan, Kurds will have to address a government which is both disorganized and often acts in its own self-interest rather than that of its supposed constituents. That can be dismissed as an internal matter. Ultimately quality of government is an internal Kurdish matter, though, and one which Kurds will eventually resolve whether it takes months, years, or decades. Despite Kurdistan’s impressive development over the past decade, it still lacks basic financial infrastructure. That has helped ruling party members get rich because it enables them to better hide ghost employees or skim money from those under them who owe their jobs to their patron’s influence. Kurds might also need to standardize their language and alphabet, although that too is an internal issue.

Kurdistan’s formal birth, however, will also have international reverberations. While the West sees Kurdistan moving closer to Turkey, Kurdish leaders cultivate Iran as enthusiastically for balance. Whether the United States can sway the balance or not with bases of its own is an open question, although one which President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will defer given budget constraints and a lack of appreciation of American force projection abroad.

Then there’s water: The Euphrates bypasses Kurdistan, going from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq in al-Anbar. But the Tigris (or its tributaries) cuts across Kurdistan, traverses Turkey and forms part of the Syrian-Turkish border, before it heads into central Iraq. The negotiations over its flow were complex at the best of times, when the water only needed to be divided between three countries. A fourth will only add additional complexity. That’s not Kurdistan’s problem, as they get the water before the rest of Iraq does, but as one Iraqi told me in Jordan, “We Sunnis can make nasty neighbors if you make us mad enough.”

If Kurdish independence eventually spreads beyond Iraq’s current borders, the implications will be greater. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member. It hosts a major airbase in Diyarbakir, which many Kurds see as a future capital. Even if Turkey becomes a federal, biregional state, the implications are the same as Kurds there would seek a division of resources and infrastructure.

None of this is a reason for the United States to oppose Kurdish nationhood. But it should mean planning for the day, week, and months after. None of this planning or more than the most superficial considerations has apparently yet occurred.

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Obama’s Syria Shift

President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

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President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

If only he had acted sooner. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011. At one time it looked as if Bashar Assad would fall as quickly and easily as Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Obama was so certain of this that in August 2011 he declared, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That time quickly passed, however, because Obama refused to do much to bring Assad down, treating his demise as a historical inevitability. Not even when Assad brazenly violated Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons did the U.S. ramp up its efforts to topple him.

U.S. inaction, which held back American allies as well, allowed Assad to recover from his early stumbles. With the aid of the Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah, he launched a murderous counterattack that resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Syrians and that produced a stalemate which endures to this day. Out of this hellish civil war have arisen extremists on both sides–the Quds Force/Hezbollah on the pro-government side and the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the rebel side. The Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the more moderate nationalist opposition, has gotten weaker and weaker. In fact it’s not clear if they have sufficient strength left to benefit from Obama’s delayed offer of aid.

Meanwhile the extremists have gotten so strong that ISIS has surged across the border to take most of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, from Fallujah and Al Qaim in the west to Mosul in the north.

At this point it is far from clear that extra U.S. aid and training will be sufficient to turn the tide. American airpower and raids by the US Special Operations Command seem to be called for as well before the divisions of Iraq and Syria harden into the permanent establishment of Shiite and Sunni terrorist states. But that would require an even greater acknowledgement on Obama’s part that the “tide of war” is not “receding” and that the U.S. does not have the luxury of “pivoting” away from the Middle East. The best that can be said for his small, half-hearted moves in Syria and Iraq are that they may be the prelude to a wider reconsideration of his disastrous policy in the Middle East.

Or at least so we can hope. Obviously no one wants to get more deeply enmeshed in the region’s violent politics, but the only thing worse than American involvement, we are now learning, is American non-involvement.

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Hold Turkey and Saudi Arabia Accountable

The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

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The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

Since the current ISIS/Baathist uprising in Iraq started, Turkey’s behavior has been absolutely reprehensible. There have been photographs circulated in Turkey of an ISIS commander recovering at a Turkish hospital in Hatay. While Turkey claims medical treatment for ISIS terrorists wounded in Syria (or Iraq) is a humanitarian act, the same Turkish government prosecutes doctors who treat protestors wounded in demonstrations against the Turkish government’s authoritarianism in Istanbul.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu complained that the media was portraying ISIS unfairly. Turkey may finally have declared the Nusra Front a terrorist group—only after the group stopped obeying Turkish direction—but it has apparently yet to impose the same designation on ISIS, a group too radical even for al-Qaeda. Iraqi press reports suggest that Iraqi forces have arrested four Turkish officers helping train ISIS in Iraq; while the Turks have denied that accusation, it seems there’s some fire causing that smoke. If any Turkish officer took part in training a terrorist group that has reportedly summarily executed more than 2,000 soldiers, then it is hard to conclude that Turkey does not have blood on its hands.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no angel, but to blame Iraq’s Shi’ites or a democratically elected government that includes Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and Christians, men and women is unfair. The current strife in Iraq is not because of Shi’ite intolerance but rather because of intolerance of the Shi’ites. Those who say the uprising could have been averted if only Maliki had given more perks, positions, and goodies to Sunni Arabs misunderstand the fact that what Iraqis are fighting against is a noxious and hateful ideology, not simply grievance.

Never again will Iraq be dominated by a small Sunni minority. Nor should it. Shi’ites cannot be expected to sit idly by when Saudi- and Turkish-supported radical groups brag about their plans for genocide against the Shi’ites. It’s important to check Iranian ambitions and to reinforce that Iran does not represent all Shi’ites. If the United States truly wants to encourage peace in Iraq, however, it is time to acknowledge that Shi’ites too have legitimate grievances and face a deadly challenge, one embarrassingly that has a return address in Riyadh and Ankara.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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Remember Previous U.S.-Iran “Cooperation” in Iraq?

Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

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Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

A major theme of my recent book was that while the U.S. military constantly examines its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department does not engage in lessons-learned exercises. Secretary of State John Kerry is absolutely right that the United States and Iran have a shared interest in Iraq. Then again, firefighters and arsonists have a shared interest in fires.

Let us hope that President Obama understands that it is a lot easier to bless Iran’s entrance into Iraq than achieve its exit. If he has any doubts, he can just as the Lebanese, who have been struggling against an Iranian-created proxy group if not IRGC advisors for almost 32 years or, if charitable, for 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

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Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq

Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

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Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

This is not an outcome remotely in American interests. As Doran and I argued, the increasing Iranian prominence will only drive Sunnis, who constitute the region’s vast majority, into greater militancy. Do you honestly think Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE will stand by and watch Iran and its stalking horses take control of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Not a chance. They will amp up their aid to ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups and you will see the murderous Syrian civil war spill over into Iraq.

While some may take satisfaction from Sunni and Shiite extremists clashing, the problem is that they could both win–i.e., both sides could gain control of significant territory which will then become terrorist states. That is what has already happened in Syria and it is now likely to happen in Iraq as well. While the Iranians would prefer obviously that ISIS not control any territory in Iraq or Syria, they may well be willing to live with some ISIS control if the payoff for them is that their proxies consolidate control over what remains of those two states.

Put bluntly, the U.S. interest is in creating democratic, stable, and pro-Western regimes; the Iranian interest is in creating fundamentalist, terrorist-supporting, Shiite-extremist regimes. There is no overlap of interest except when we make the mistake of backing Iranian-aligned leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki. We made that mistake in 2010 when both the U.S. and Iran worked, after the last Iraqi election, to help Maliki win a second term as prime minister. Please, let’s not make that mistake again. The Iranians are pushing for a third term for Maliki. Let’s push for ABM–Anybody but Maliki. Iraq will not survive four more years of Shiite sectarian leadership.

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Iraq Requires U.S. Action, Not Observation

Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken Mosul and are advancing south toward Baghdad. Shiites are mobilizing to stop them in response to a call from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran is rumored to have sent fighters from its own Quds Force to assist Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kattaib Hezbollah in defending Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. An all-out civil war looms between Sunnis and Shiites.

Faced with this showdown, many Americans might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and repeat Henry Kissinger’s quip about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”  What interest is it of ours if various factions of Muslims want to duke it out?

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Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken Mosul and are advancing south toward Baghdad. Shiites are mobilizing to stop them in response to a call from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran is rumored to have sent fighters from its own Quds Force to assist Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kattaib Hezbollah in defending Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. An all-out civil war looms between Sunnis and Shiites.

Faced with this showdown, many Americans might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and repeat Henry Kissinger’s quip about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”  What interest is it of ours if various factions of Muslims want to duke it out?

Leave aside the humanitarian concern, which is real. A similar civil war in Syria has already killed more than 150,000 people, very few of whom are religious or political fanatics—mostly just ordinary people who want to live their lives in peace. A similar bloodletting now looms in Iraq, a country that the U.S. invaded in 2003 and for which we therefore assumed some moral responsibility.

I realize that kind of case is not likely to convince many people outside Human Rights Watch. So, fine, let’s put morality aside for a moment and just look at strategy. Can it possibly be in America’s interest to see another major country in the Middle East carved up between, essentially, Shiite and Sunni fanatics? That’s already happened in Syria and U.S. intelligence officials warn that Syria is now as dangerous a breeding ground for terrorists as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

Now the likelihood is growing that the same thing will happen in Iraq, the country with the fifth-largest crude oil reserves on the planet and the second-largest within OPEC. This will destabilize the international economic and security situations even if it stays confined to the borders of Iraq—but odds are it won’t. Already the civil war in Syria has spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and of course Iraq. A growing civil war in Iraq is likely to spill over into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and other neighboring states.

All you need to know about the current situation in Iraq is that the biggest beneficiaries are Iran and Al Qaeda—the two worst enemies of the United States in the entire world. It is imperative that the Obama administration do more than study the situation. It needs to roll up its sleeves and act to avert this disaster—not by staging meaningless, photo-op air strikes (which is what I fear will happen) but by getting involved in the nitty-gritty of Iraqi politics, as the U.S. did in 2007-2009, to nudge Baghdad in a better direction.

The Iraqi government needs to stop alienating Sunnis and start embracing them. If that were to happen the battlefield situation could reverse overnight as it did during the surge in 2007-2008. If Baghdad signals such a change of course, President Obama should offer copious military aid including Special Operations Forces, intelligence personnel, and military advisers. Air strikes without eyes on the ground won’t work—they will not hit the right people and not have the intended impact. Odds are high that U.S. airpower could be used by Maliki to pursue his sectarian agenda. Yet even at this hour of crisis Obama insists on ruling out any U.S. ground forces.

Nobody wants to get mired in Iraq again—and we certainly shouldn’t send an army to invade again. But in both Iraq and Syria the only thing worse than American engagement, we are now finding, is American disengagement.

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