Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

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Islamism’s Appeal to the Discontented

There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

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There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.

One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.

But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.

History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.

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Accountability for Military Contractors

That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

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That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

That is a step forward in holding contractors accountable for their conduct on the battlefield, but only a small step. After all, it took seven years to conclude this case–not that it’s concluded now since the defendants are likely to appeal. That is hardly the definition of expeditious justice. But it’s more than prosecutors have been able to accomplish in the past since only eight other individuals have been charged under statutes designed to hold contractors accountable for their battlefield conduct.

There is an imperative to do better because as the U.S. military continues its unfortunate downsizing it will have to remain reliant in the future on contractors–but their actions can detract from mission objectives if they alienate locals in the process of delivering goods or dignitaries from Point A to Point B. In the new issue of Foreign Affairs I suggest a possible reform as part of a larger look at “lessons learned” from twelve years of nonstop war:

One possible model is the way that U.S. commanders exercise authority over foreign troops. Just as the troops from contributing nations plug into a U.S.-led command structure, contractors could, too. In the future, the U.S. government should write its contracts differently. Security firms working for any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department and USAID, and operating on a battlefield where the U.S. military is present should fall under the operational control of a senior U.S. military officer who has the power to revoke their contracts and prosecute their employees in case of misdeeds.

I am open to other ideas. But clearly something needs to be done to ensure that contractors in the future are held to the same standards as U.S. soldiers because in the places where they operate, locals do not make fine distinctions between different types of armed Americans.

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Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

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Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

Well, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent quip that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict motivated ISIS recruits, perhaps it’s about time to revise that slogan to “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Now, I don’t mean to actually call John Kerry stupid. Just as someone needs to be valedictorian of the summer school class, Kerry might just as well be considered the valedictorian of the Obama administration. If his competition is Chuck Hagel or Joe Biden or possibly even President Obama himself, Kerry might as well be a shining star.

But the notion Kerry embraces that terrorism is motivated by grievance rather than ideology is politically correct nonsense. One of the biggest academic proponents of this argument has been University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In recent years, he has doubled down on the argument that grievance rather than ideology (let alone religious ideology) motivates terror. The problem is that, as Martin Kramer has exposed, Pape shamelessly massaged and cherry picked his statistics to support a thesis which flies in the face of evidence. No wonder that Pape apparently worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group which apologizes for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has been an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism finance trial, in order to inflate his book sales. But, then again, let’s not condemn Pape for hiding such things: His career has been built on obfuscating motives.

The simple fact is that reality flies in the face of Kerry’s assertion and Pape’s theories. First off, let’s not forget that even the United States intelligence community recognized the threat posed by Islamist radicalism in the years before the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, nor does the radicalism of those attacking women and minorities in the suburbs of Paris, or targeting homosexuals on the streets of London, have anything to do with Israel.

Secondly, the most oft-cited grievances—poverty and lack of education—have no statistical link to terror. Suicide bombers tend not to be those with the least opportunities; rather, they tend to be those from educated, middle-class backgrounds. In the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, recruitment occurs in the schools. Nor do we see a rash of terrorists and murders arising from the ten poorest countries on earth. With tongue in cheek, if the United States were to base its counterterrorism policy solely on statistics, then its counterterrorism policy would seek to increase poverty and decrease education. At least we can be grateful, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t simply classified ISIS as perpetrators of “workplace violence.”

Thankfully, Katie Gorka through the Council on Global Security has now published a new white paper entitled, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Policy,” in which she provides both historical context to the cost of focusing on grievance as the motivator of terrorism and demonstrates how ignoring Islamist ideology costs lives. The whole report is worth reading. Obama and Kerry may be too set in their ways and more inclined to make excuses that question progressive doctrines, but let us hope that those who seek to take their place after the next election will read Gorka’s work. The cost of not doing so and continuing to tilt at politically correct windmills will be paid in lives.

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

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My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

This does not mean creating three new states. That won’t work for many reasons including the fact that cities like Baghdad and Mosul contain a mixed population, that the Sunni areas of Iraq lack much oil revenue, and Sunnis have an emotional attachment to Baghdad and the Iraqi state. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that Iraq can be put together as a strongly centralized state without a larger commitment of U.S. troops than is likely in the future.

The Kurdish region is already de facto autonomous; in fact it’s almost an independent country but one that still has representation in Baghdad and gets a share of the country’s oil revenues. We need to think strongly about whether opposing de jure Kurdish independence is even in our interest anymore–would it be so bad if the Kurds realized their age-old dream to have their own state? In theory a new Kurdistan could emerge as America’s second-strongest ally in the region (after Israel with which the Kurds would likely establish ties), one that would be happy to host U.S. troops and aircraft.

Whatever happens with the Kurds, I think that it now makes sense to offer Sunnis an autonomous region of their own in return for fighting against ISIS. Indeed it may be the only way to get them to take up arms since they have no desire to be subordinate to Shiite sectarians in Baghdad who still control the government even if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. (The appointment of a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia, as interior minister is evidence of that.)

But while important, federalism is not by itself the solution to Iraq’s woes. Whether the Sunnis have autonomy or not, they will still need to be trained and armed and motivated to fight against ISIS–and that won’t be easy to do no matter what political arrangements are promised since they have felt betrayed in the past by the U.S. and the Baghdad government. So the onus is still on the Obama administration to ramp up its anti-ISIS efforts which, despite some recent gains in Kobani, seem on the whole to be rather anemic. But the incentive of federalism can be one of the carrots dangled before Sunnis to get them to participate in a larger counterinsurgency campaign should one ever develop.

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Re: NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

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A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

A USA Today article from 2004 states: “A report from U.N. weapons inspectors to be released today says they now believe there were no weapons of mass destruction of any significance in Iraq after 1994[.]” That report represented a doubling down on the UN’s previous position that Saddam had no active WMD programs, but might still have had unaccounted for chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Americans were beginning to discover and suffer harm from those nonexistent weapons. So much for the reliability of UN inspections.

At the Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports that Karl Rove was the main figure behind the Bush administration’s low-key approach to finding Saddam’s old WMD. The article makes clear three important points. First, many Republicans and Iraq War supporters desperately wanted the administration to go public about the weapons because their discovery constituted an intelligence victory.

Second, according to Dick Cheney’s former advisor David Wurmser, when the WMD were initially uncovered, the administration “quite properly asked it be kept quiet until they track down the source of the weapons so that they can secure it and not tip off Sunni insurgents to go and retrieve them themselves.” Good policy.

Third, as time passed, the administration thought it imprudent to venture a victory lap over this partial victory. In Wurmser’s account, Karl Rove said, “Let these sleeping dogs lie; we have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” To what fight was Rove referring? It was obviously not the fight over the WMD Saddam was hiding. Indeed, as Lake notes, Wurmser,  Rick Santorum, and others were incensed because they wanted this accomplishment to be well known.  No, the administration had lost the fight over the public perception of the war and of the reasons behind it. The antiwar side, including the UN, had successfully revised history in order to pronounce anything but the discovery of an active WMD program a failure. So while Saddam’s old chemical weapons had always been one casus belli, the public had become disinterested. (Similarly, even though Bush’s freedom agenda had been a fundamental element of Iraq’s liberation from the start, the antiwar crowd managed to paint that as an insincere ad-hoc cause once no WMD programs were found.) Was the administration correct in downplaying the chemical weapons? It’s hard to say. With so much else going wrong in Iraq at the time, boasting about this one issue would probably not have played well. But this was no “covered-up” mistake; it was a quiet achievement.

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Obama’s Bad-Faith Iraq Withdrawal

The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

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The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

Anyone who still believes this well-worn excuse should read Rick Brennan’s article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “Withdrawal Symptoms: The Bungling of the Iraq Exit.” Brennan, a RAND political scientist who advised the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011, provides copious detail to explode Obama’s alibi, which was that he had no choice but to withdraw troops because the Iraqi parliament would not provide our personnel with legal immunity and we cannot possibly station troops abroad without it.

Brennan points out that the 2008 agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to keep U.S. forces in Iraq did not have total legal immunity either: “Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities.” U.S. military commanders were comfortable with this language “since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission.” Indeed the Iraqis made no attempt to prosecute a single U.S. soldier between 2008 and 2011.

Yet Obama insisted that he could not possibly keep U.S. troops in Iraq without approval of immunity from parliament. Brennan writes that in September 2010 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns that Iraq’s parliament would approve an American presence but not grant “complete immunity.” “Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval.” But White House lawyers judged this language inadequate and Obama used this as an excuse to announce a pullout.

What makes this episode all the more astonishing is that now Obama has sent 1,600 and counting U.S. troops back to Iraq, as Brennan notes, “on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister—an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2010.”

Along with Obama’s decision to offer the Iraqis only 5,000 troops, rather than the 20,000 or more judged necessary by U.S. military commanders, this strongly suggests that the Obama administration was negotiating in bad faith: that the president was not really committed to maintaining troops in Iraq beyond 2011. We are now seeing the consequences of this monumental miscalculation as ISIS consolidates its control over much of northern and western Iraq. It is early days still, but it is likely that this mistake will haunt Obama’s historical reputation just as Bush’s mistakes in Iraq will continue to haunt his.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:   Read More

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:  

1. reveal that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs” in Iraq during this period;

2. document the six American injuries that resulted from dealing with these weapons;

3. make the case that because these were “old chemical munitions,”  and not new ones, they reveal the pre-war intelligence failures and false claims of the George W. Bush administration;

4. expose a Bush administration cover-up that led to the mishandling of found weapons and to insufficient care for the American troops exposed.

What to make of all this? First, the report neither broadly vindicates nor broadly refutes Bush’s WMD arguments for invading Iraq. Yes, many of Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were found (as has been public knowledge for about a decade). No, the U.S. did not uncover active WMD programs (which has also been squarely acknowledged throughout this period).

The article does, however, vindicate some administration claims. Chivers goes bizarrely wrong in writing, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” In truth, Saddam’s old chemical weapons were always cited as a danger in the run-up to the war. Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 UN speech making the case against Saddam is explicit on this point. Powell said:

If we consider just one category of missing weaponry–6,500 bombs from the Iran-Iraq war–UNMOVIC says the amount of chemical agent in them would be in the order of 1,000 tons. These quantities of chemical weapons are now unaccounted for. Dr. [Hans] Blix has quipped that, quote, ‘Mustard gas is not (inaudible) You are supposed to know what you did with it.’ We believe Saddam Hussein knows what he did with it, and he has not come clean with the international community. We have evidence these weapons existed. What we don’t have is evidence from Iraq that they have been destroyed or where they are. That is what we are still waiting for.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Colin Powell was obviously talking about the danger of old weapons.

What Chivers fails to relay is that it was the antiwar side of the debate that downplayed Saddam’s old weapons as any kind of problem. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, one of the most outspoken anti-invasion voices at the time, had said, “Even if Iraq had somehow managed to hide this vast number of [chemical] weapons from inspectors, what they are now storing is nothing more than useless, harmless goo.” In the years immediately following the invasion, antiwar figures and media outlets continued to dismiss found chemical weapons as pathetic war trophies.

This makes it hard to credit Chivers’s claim of the Bush administration’s embarrassment. The 5,000 undeclared chemical weapons constitute one of the administration’s few intelligence victories in Iraq. Why, then, the secrecy? Perhaps because Iraq was a leaderless country swarming with jihadists and roiled by civil war, and advertising the amounts and whereabouts of chemical weapons would have made things much worse.

As for the injured Americans, they are first owed our bottomless gratitude. If there is reason to believe that they were unnecessarily exposed to chemical agents or insufficiently treated for that exposure, there should be an investigation and, if necessary, restitution. But six non-fatal injuries in the course of handling 5,000 chemical weapons doesn’t immediately strike me as evidence of gross leadership incompetence.

Here’s what does: Barack Obama withdrew all American troops from Iraq knowing that degraded but dangerous chemical weapons would be left behind. If recent reports are accurate, ISIS has stumbled upon them. Yet Obama’s name appears nowhere in the 10,000-word article.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

* * * *

“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

* * * *

“After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

* * * *

“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

* * * *

“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

* * * *

“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

* * * *

“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

* * * *

“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

* * * *

“We don’t do stupid [stuff]” – President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

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Turkey, Kobani, and American Excuses

American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

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American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

Why isn’t he doing more? Partly it’s because he doesn’t want to collaborate with the Syrian version of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group which has battled the Turkish state for years. But partly it’s also because he doesn’t think there is any point in intervening against ISIS as long as President Obama isn’t willing to attack the root cause of the Syrian civil war–the Bashar Assad regime.

Erdogan deserves all the opprobrium he is getting for his inaction but, as the Washington Post editorialists astutely note, the U.S. doesn’t have the high moral ground here. The U.S., they write, “is poorly placed to pass judgment, having stood aside for more than three years while 200,000 Syrians died, most at the hands of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Another 3 million have become refugees, including 1 million who have alighted in Turkey — which, adjusting for population, would be the equivalent for the United States of more than 4 million Mexicans streaming across the border.”

Moreover, the Obama administration is still refusing to create a no-fly zone over Syria as Erdogan and the moderate Syrian opposition are urging. This American failure is allowing Assad to take advantage of the anti-ISIS campaign the U.S. is conducting to focus his attacks on western parts of Syria which are held by the moderate opposition.

Instead of pointing fingers at Erdogan, American policymakers would be better advised to act on his advice to stop Assad as well as ISIS.

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Why Kobani Might Fall

At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

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At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

RAND’s Benjamin Lambeth summed up the Afghan air campaign as follows: “[D]uring the 75 days of bombing between October 7, when Enduring Freedom began, and December 23, when the first phase of the war ended after the collapse of the Taliban, some 6,500 strike sorties were flown by CENTCOM forces altogether, out of which approximately 17,500 munitions were dropped on more than 120 fixes targets, 400 vehicles and artillery pieces, and a profusion of concentrations of Taliban and al Qaeda combatants.”

Now compare with the statistics on the current U.S. aerial bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. According to Central Command, in the 59 days between August 8, when the campaign started, and October 6, the U.S. has conducted 360 strikes utilizing 955 munitions.

That’s a big difference between dropping 17,500 munitions in Afghanistan and 955 in Iraq/Syria. So rare are U.S. strikes today that Centcom has actually taken to issuing press releases to announce the dropping of two 500-pound bombs.

The bare numbers understate the actual difference, moreover, because the U.S. was dropping heavier bombs from heavier aircraft such as the B-52 in Afghanistan which have so far not been utilized in Iraq/Syria. Moreover, the effect of strikes in Iraq/Syria is not as great because Obama has refused U.S. Special Operations personnel permission to go out into the field alongside indigenous forces to call in airstrikes as they did so effectively alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This is to say nothing of the fact that in neither Iraq nor Syria is there a ground force as effective and organized as the Northern Alliance capable of taking advantage of U.S. airstrikes to attack ISIS on the ground.

The lack of a ground force is a problem that will not be solved for a while because it will take time to train and organize fighters, although the process can be hastened by committing U.S. personnel as combat advisers. But even now there is nothing preventing the U.S. from mounting heavier air strikes as we did in Afghanistan. Nothing, that is, except the lack of will exhibited by the commander in chief who has claimed as his goal the eventual destruction of ISIS but refuses to commit the resources necessary to achieve that ambitious objective.

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