Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Obama Is Wired All the Wrong Way

Our own Max Boot, whose commentary has been indispensable on all things national security related, wrote this earlier today:

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Our own Max Boot, whose commentary has been indispensable on all things national security related, wrote this earlier today:

What is needed now is not strongly worded condemnation of [James] Foley’s murder, much less a hashtag campaign. What is needed is a politico-military strategy to annihilate ISIS rather than simply chip around the edges of its burgeoning empire. In the Spectator of London I recently outlined what such a strategy should look like. In brief, it will require a commitment of some 10,000 U.S. advisors and Special Operators, along with enhanced air power, to work with moderate elements in both Iraq and Syria–meaning not only the peshmerga but also the Sunni tribes, elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Free Syrian Army–to stage a major offensive to rout ISIS out of its newly conquered strongholds. The fact that Nouri al-Maliki is leaving power in Baghdad clears away a major obstacle to such a campaign. Now it is simply a matter of resources and resolve on the part of the U.S. and its allies. That, of course, remains the big unknown–how far will President Obama go?

That is, I think, the operative question. I dearly hope Mr. Obama will do what’s necessary, and go as far as he needs to, given the stakes involved. I will admit I’m quite skeptical. That skepticism is based on the entire arc of the Obama presidency, which is itself the manifestation of Mr. Obama’s deepest convictions. All of his training and education, all his political and moral reflexes, all his actions as president, indicate he won’t do what is needed at this moment in time. He is simply not up to the challenge.

Mr. Obama is the most dogmatic person to serve as president that I can name. He seems arrogantly settled in his ways, always alert to invent an excuse for his multiplying failures. So far he’s shown he doesn’t have the cognitive flexibility, the proper regard for empirical data, or the wisdom to change as circumstances do. For Mr. Obama to meet the rising threat of the Islamic state, as well as the disorder sweeping the world, will require him to reverse course, to re-examine his core suppositions, to alter his most cherished beliefs (the most important one being that Obama was right from the start).

We’re asking him to do what I don’t think he is emotionally able to do. He’s wired all the wrong way.

I hope I’m proved wrong. I rather doubt I will be.

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Does Obama Want a Political Solution–Or a Talking Point?

Most presidents are stubborn and self-confident. They wouldn’t have gotten into office otherwise. In fact it takes an almost superhuman level of stubbornness and self-confidence for most aspirants to imagine they have what it takes to win the Oval Office. But, like with most good traits, if carried to extremes stubbornness and self-confidence can become self-destructive. We saw that with George W. Bush’s unwillingness to change course in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. We are seeing it now with President Obama’s unwillingness to rethink his misbegotten timeline for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

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Most presidents are stubborn and self-confident. They wouldn’t have gotten into office otherwise. In fact it takes an almost superhuman level of stubbornness and self-confidence for most aspirants to imagine they have what it takes to win the Oval Office. But, like with most good traits, if carried to extremes stubbornness and self-confidence can become self-destructive. We saw that with George W. Bush’s unwillingness to change course in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. We are seeing it now with President Obama’s unwillingness to rethink his misbegotten timeline for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

The disastrous situation in Iraq today shows what happens when U.S. forces leave prematurely from a fragile state. Yet the president appears to be sticking by his politically imposed timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. While he is willing to keep 10,000 troops next year (a bare minimum to meet military requirements), he will reduce U.S. forces by half, to just 5,000 troops, by the end of 2015 and pull them out altogether by the end of 2016.

The New York Times quotes an anonymous Obama aide saying: “People have said, ‘Doesn’t this [situation in Iraq] show that you should never take the troops out of Afghanistan?’ He said, ‘No, it actually points to the imperative of having political accommodation. There’s a limit to what we can achieve absent a political process.’ ”

Huh? The very reason why the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan was so harmful was that it made it much harder for the political factions to pursue accommodation because they feared that, in the absence of U.S. troops, politics had become a winner-takes-all death match. Thus Nouri al-Maliki pursued a vendetta against Sunnis which created the soil for ISIS to spring up. By contrast, accommodation had been possible after the success of the surge in 2007-2008 which gave politicos some breathing room to compromise.

Has Obama truly learned nothing from history? Is he willing to let Afghanistan go down in flames as Iraq has been doing simply so that he can leave office bragging that he “ended” wars? If so, that goes beyond stubborness and into the realm of hubris for which, according to Greek mythology, there is inevitably a reckoning. That price will be paid in Obama’s historical reputation and, even worse, in the loss of American strategic objectives and the lives of Afghans who, like many Iraqis, foolishly trusted American promises of support.

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Time to Annihilate ISIS; Here’s How

The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley reveals both the barbarism and the weakness of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

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The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley reveals both the barbarism and the weakness of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

The barbarism is obvious: how else would one describe the carefully choreographed and televised murder of this innocent reporter who had been kidnapped in Syria? This merely confirms what Army Colonel Joel Rayburn, one of the most astute observers of Iraq around, has previously said: that ISIS is a Middle East version of the Khmer Rouge. It is, in short, a death cult that will commit unimaginable crimes against humanity unless it is stopped.

What of ISIS’s weakness? That too was revealed by the video, which was a poor response to the military setbacks ISIS has suffered in the past week as Kurdish peshmerga militia have managed to retake Mosul Dam with the assistance of American firepower (and most likely U.S. Special Operations Forces, although their involvement has not been publicized). Recall the last time that al-Qaeda publicly murdered an American journalist. That would have been my former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl, who was killed in early 2002 at a time when, thanks to the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was on the run. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Pearl for the same reason some ISIS fanatic killed Foley: to convey an impression of strength. But such desperate measures instead telegraph, well, desperation–and far from cowing anyone they are only likely to redouble the resolve of the civilized world to smash this group of genocidal jihadists.

What is needed now is not strongly worded condemnation of Foley’s murder, much less a hashtag campaign. What is needed is a politico-military strategy to annihilate ISIS rather than simply chip around the edges of its burgeoning empire. In the Spectator of London I recently outlined what such a strategy should look like. In brief, it will require a commitment of some 10,000 U.S. advisors and Special Operators, along with enhanced air power, to work with moderate elements in both Iraq and Syria–meaning not only the peshmerga but also the Sunni tribes, elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Free Syrian Army–to stage a major offensive to rout ISIS out of its newly conquered strongholds. The fact that Nouri al-Maliki is leaving power in Baghdad clears away a major obstacle to such a campaign.

Now it is simply a matter of resources and resolve on the part of the U.S. and its allies. That, of course, remains the big unknown–how far will President Obama go? He has been willing in the last few weeks to apply a liberal interpretation of his original mandate for U.S. forces in Iraq, which was to protect Americans in Erbil and Baghdad. But beyond protecting the Yazidis and retaking Mosul Dam we still need a strategy to annihilate ISIS. It can be done–and if done right it will be the best, indeed the only worthy, response to James Foley’s barbaric demise.

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U.S. Commitment Needed in Iraq

Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

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Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

This raises the issue of why, if this tactic is effective in Iraq, it can’t also be utilized in Syria where the Free Syrian Army is also eager to attack ISIS as well as the Assad regime? ISIS cannot be beaten on one side of the border alone; we need a coordinated strategy to take it down in both Iraq and Syria.

And it is not just the Kurds and Free Syrian Army we should be helping. There are major limitations to how far the Kurds, in particular, can go in northern Iraq. If they try to dominate primarily Sunni areas, they will risk a pro-ISIS backlash from Sunnis. While the Kurds are great allies, we need allies among the Sunni tribes to really retake Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.

Two of the best observers of Iraq–Colonel Joel Rayburn of the U.S. Army and Ali Khedery, a former political adviser to various US ambassadors and commanders in Iraq–had op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times respectively this weekend pointing out how difficult this will be–how much Nouri al Maliki’s sectarianism has frayed the bonds of trust necessary to hold Iraq together. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will have his work cut out for him convincing the Sunnis that, if they take up arms against ISIS, they will not be betrayed as they were after the surge. The betrayal was not only on the part of Maliki; it was also on the part of the United States which promised to stand by the Sons of Iraq (as the Sunni militia was known) and then pulled all of our troops out, leaving them to the mercies of sectarian Shiites.

It is hard to imagine the Sunnis being mobilized again without a great deal of U.S. assistance–and perhaps not even then. Welcome as recent tactical advances are–and they do show what the U.S. can achieve with only a little commitment–they are a long, long way from where we need to be, which is to be destroying ISIS, an organization that Rayburn rightly likens to the Khmer Rouge in the Middle East.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abadi, Maliki, Da`wa and Iraqi Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maliki’s Exit Doesn’t Change a Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what must be done?

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

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

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Exit Maliki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Popularity, Leadership, and War Weariness

It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

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It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

A new Fox News poll continues the steady drumbeat of negative opinion surveys for the president. Though Americans approved of his decision to authorize air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq by an overwhelming 62-25 percent margin, the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance on virtually every foreign-policy category matches or even exceeds its disapproval of his domestic performance. On Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, and foreign policy in general a majority of Americans gave the president a thumbs down.

While one should be cautious in extrapolating approval for a larger intervention in the Iraq crisis, these numbers ought to sober up many on the left who still seem to think the public is incapable of re-evaluating U.S. policy on even as contentious an issue as the Iraq war. Though it’s doubtful many Americans are eager to revisit the low points of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the assumption that Obama can simply ignore the mess he helped create in the Middle East because Americans are war weary may be incorrect.

Of course, for some in the media it will always be 2006 as far as Iraq is concerned. The New York Times’s publication of a highly offensive “op-art” cartoon by R.O. Blechman mocked the plight of starving Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain while fleeing ISIS murderers illustrated the imbecilic nature of much of what passes for commentary in the liberal mainstream media. Like the way most Americans ignored the plight of the boat people forced to flee South Vietnam after the U.S. abandoned that country to its Communist conquerors, apparently the collateral damage from Obama’s decision to bail on Iraq doesn’t prick the conscience of the Times opinion page editors.

The same spirit was manifested on MSNBC yesterday in an interesting exchange between Rep. Peter King and MSNBC personality Thomas Roberts on the network’s Morning Joe program. The New York Republican was discussing his view that the U.S. needs to be doing more to stop the advance of ISIS terrorists in Iraq when the left-leaning station’s Roberts challenged him, claiming that the American people approved of the president’s bugout from Iraq and that to reverse that verdict in any way merely because of King’s views about the current situation there amounted to anti-democratic activity comparable to that of ISIS.

This is the sort of argument that is so stupid as to be almost not worth refuting, though King did so gallantly despite Roberts’ attempts to shout him down by rightly asserting that if popularity on an issue must dictate policy then Winston Churchill should not have warned Britons of the consequences of popular appeasement stands by their government.

But the problem with the new isolationism that is supposedly sweeping the nation and deterring the administration from taking decisive action to save Kurdistan ad the rest of Iraq from the clutches of ISIS is that to stick to that line you’ve got to ignore the pictures of those starving Yazidis on the mountaintop that the Times dismissed as a bunch of “Arabs” (sic) who had seized on a good tactic to get U.S. assistance.

Americans may not want to pay the full price of involvement in that war but they are also, as the poll numbers indicate, profoundly uncomfortable with the policies of a president who remains bent on facilitating a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

As King correctly said, leadership is not always doing what is popular. Staying out of wars is rarely the sort of thing that gets a politician in trouble. But to assume that standing by impotently as a nation that thousands of Americans died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and to keep out of the clutches of al-Qaeda terrorists is now lost to the same band of Islamist cutthroats is not as smart as the Times and MSNBC may think.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, allowing the so-called “caliphate” established in Syria and Iraq to remain in place unmolested (as opposed to merely saving the Kurds and Yazidis from further incursions) constitutes a profound threat to U.S. security comparable to the re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan as they were prior to 9/11.

Americans are always weary of, or wary of, war until they are attacked. Historians will debate the merits of the original decision to go into Iraq but even if we were to concede it was a mistake, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The focus of much of the post-9/11 U.S. security policy has been to ensure that the U.S. homeland remains safe. One needn’t be a neoconservative booster of a new Iraq war to understand that in this case apathy about the situation in that country is comparable to complicity in the creation of a new terror base. Preventing that from happening requires leadership. Which is to say that a president who is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom about Iraq or the need to resist a nuclear Iran is necessary to avert a catastrophe.

President Obama was reelected on a platform that asserted that it was OK to back off from the world stage because Osama bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda was defeated. As the Benghazi attack and current events in Syria and Iraq prove, that was a false assumption and increasingly Americans realize they were duped. A few opinion polls won’t reverse a decade-long trend but those who take it as a given that non-intervention in Iraq is synonymous with the will of the American people may be misinterpreting a natural reluctance a to re-engage in a difficult conflict. What they want is presidential leadership that will help keep them and the world safe, and that is exactly what they are not getting from President Obama.

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Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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It’s the Obama Optics, Not the Golf

President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

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President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

As Lawrence Knutson writes today in Politico, the president is never entirely on vacation wherever he goes. The occupant of the White House lives, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “above the store” and even when they leave it for ranches, beaches, or other retreats, they bring the business with them in the form of armies of aides who are there to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly. Presidents have been leaving the seat of government to spend time at either their own homes or resorts since the time of George Washington. And their critics have never shied away from abusing them for doing so, even when such comments are transparently partisan in nature. Democrats pile on Republican presidents for taking breaks and the GOP returns the favor with both sides conveniently forgetting their lack of outrage when one of their one was the target.

But even if I agree that the routine carping about presidential vacations is hypocritical and off the point, there is something to the rumblings about the Obamas that goes above and beyond the normal grousing as well as the run-of-the-mill hysteria that he inspires in certain sectors of the political right.

The problem with the Obama vacation is both the habits of this particular president and bad timing.

While no one can say that Obama—or any president for that matter—doesn’t work hard, he has a habit of acting as if the normal rules of political behavior don’t apply to him. This president has spent more days golfing than any of his recent predecessors. While George W. Bush spent more days away from the White House—principally at his Texas ranch or at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, both of which functioned routinely as little White Houses—Obama has never shown he cares much about the optics of being seen recreating while terrible things are happening. Bush stopped playing golf in 2003 after the war in Iraq began principally because he believed it didn’t look right for the president to be strolling the links while Americans faced death abroad. Obama has no such compunctions.

The timing is also a problem. It can be argued that there is something bad happening somewhere on the globe every day of the year. But there is something particularly egregious about Obama loafing around while the successful outcome in the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush is transformed into a victory for Islamist terrorists.

As even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted this past weekend, the disaster in Iraq is a direct consequence of decisions that Obama has made. The rise and spread of the ISIS caliphate wouldn’t have been possible without Obama’s choice to bail on Iraq. For him to treat this catastrophe for both human rights and U.S. interests as not worth changing his schedule over—even as he ordered U.S. air crews into action to launch strikes against the terrorists—is simply bad optics.

It wouldn’t have cost him much to delay his trip, even for a day or two, to be seen consulting with military leaders and advisors over this issue. But like everything else about Obama, it appears that he believes his historic status means he doesn’t play by the same rules other politicians have to live by.

While, like all presidents, Obama is entitled to some vacation time, postponing the getaway would have demonstrated both sincerity and a willingness to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

Losing a round or two of golf just to show the world and an American people who have already begun to dismiss Obama as the lamest of lame ducks that he is on the job would not have been a tragedy for the president or his family. Moreover, given the cushy nature of presidential retirement, it’s not unfair to tell commanders-in-chief that they should postpone most of their time off to the period when they leave the White House and begin their permanent post-White House vacation. While the responsibilities they must shoulder are crushing, the perks of presidential life are such that no one need waste much sympathy on Obama giving up a bit of his free time to look like he cares about Iraq and the other international crises that is unable or unwilling to do much about.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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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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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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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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Explain Failures or Abandon Training Missions

The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

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The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

From the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom until September 2012, the United States spent approximately $25 billion to train the Iraqi army. Some of the most prominent (and press hungry) American generals took the job and spoke of their success. Martin Dempsey, currently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq between 2005 and 2007. Bush administration officials often exaggerated the numbers of competent trained forces (full disclosure: I served briefly in the Bush administration’s Pentagon but not in a capacity that involved troop training) and generals did not clarify. Part of the reason for this, it seems, is that some generals have either become too sensitive to political winds thereby corrupting their willingness to assess honestly, or that they self-censor in order to make themselves look more successful. In a way, it’s a return to the U.S. Army’s Cold War-era “zero defects” policy which at times contributed to inaccurately positive assessments.

American special forces trained the Kurdish peshmerga as well. Unlike with the Iraqi or Afghan armies, the peshmerga’s recent failures cannot be written off as the result of ethnic or sectarian discord within the ranks. Perhaps the problem here is hagiography: Kurdish leaders and the peshmerga itself have built up such a (well-deserved, admittedly) mythology about their prowess as mountain guerrillas that they have no tolerance for anyone who points out that the peshmerga of the 1980s is not the same as the peshmerga of the 2010s. Almost 15 years ago, Col. Norvell B. De Atkine penned a seminal article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars” in which, bringing years of experience as a military trainer to bear, he identified Middle Eastern notions of shame as an impediment most regional militaries have yet to overcome: If any criticism is a slight against personal honor and dishonoring commanders is disallowed, then it is impossible to learn from mistakes. The peshmerga, of course, are not Arab but the same factors come into play.

So too does corruption as well as nepotism. For Kurdish President Masud Barzani’s son Mansour, how nice it must be to have become a general in your 30s and command the region’s Special Forces. When nepotism trumps competence and experience, any training is a waste. Throw corruption into the mix, and the result is a disaster: If Kurds had spent on arms and training what they spend on real estate in London and Washington D.C., they might not be begging for assistance right now. Indeed, the word from Erbil is that many rank-and-file peshmerga are quipping that the “ones who took the money” should fight, and that ordinary fighters should not die so that others can enjoy their siphoned-off cash. Perhaps a red flag should have gone up a decade ago when American forces first saw that Kurdish authorities prioritized family over professionalism in their military.

In Afghanistan, the situation is no better. Afghans have never lost a war; they simply defect to the winning side. Already, defection rates are high within the Afghan security forces, and will grow higher as Afghans see the West abandon them. It’s all well and good to have the competence to fight alongside and with the support of foreign partners, but if training focused more on fighting than on logistics and intelligence, then failure will be just as inevitable. If the basis of partnership is trust, then the Taliban could find no better strategy than the green-on-blue attacks in which they now engage. And, of course, let us not forget that while the Western media looks at green-on-blue violence, the rate of green-on-green attacks is three times has high.

Now, certainly, some elite units in Iraq and Afghanistan remain coherent and effective. But then the danger becomes that these become little more than militias serving warlords, and predatory rather than peaceful.

Perhaps I am too harsh in my assessments. Or perhaps I am wrong in the reasons for the multiple failures of the forces American officials have trained at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. But, with training security forces a cornerstone of American strategy in the region, and with the results of those efforts dubious at best, perhaps it is time for the Pentagon—and Congress—to have a serious discussion about whether this is a mission the United States should undertake. Addressing the problem is more important than preserving the reputation of officials who sought to paper it over. The answer may lie within the military. Or it may also be found outside: When America shows a lack of staying power and the president shows commitments to American allies to be ephemeral, perhaps no amount of training could compensate. Regardless of the reason, however, the failure of American training programs is no longer a problem the United States can afford to ignore.

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Action Against ISIS Still Needs a Strategy

The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

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The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

And his actions provide much-needed relief for the besieged Yazidis who were in danger of dying under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as for the Kurdish peshmerga which were reeling under ISIS assaults.

But Obama’s directives raise more questions than they answer. One obvious question is why the humanitarian imperative in Iraq is compelling enough to justify American military action but not in Syria, where at least 170,000 people have been killed since 2011 and where ISIS is just as oppressive and threatening as it is in Iraq? One suspects that the answer is that it is easier to drop food and water to 40,000 Yazidis stuck on one mountaintop than it is to alleviate the more monumental scale of suffering in Syria. Yet how can we justify turning our backs of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which is so much worse?

Even in Iraq the Yazidis are hardly the only victims of ISIS. This group of fundamentalist savages is terrorizing all of northern and western Iraq, and while minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are its targets so are Shiites and Kurds. Even Sunnis are being oppressed and murdered. Indeed all of northern Iraq could be in grave danger if ISIS were to blow the Mosul Dam, which it has just captured. Don’t Iraqis other than Yazidis deserve some relief from this monstrous threat too?

It is still unclear how far Obama is willing to go in fighting back against ISIS. He drew an implicit red line by suggesting, in essence, that the U.S. would not allow ISIS to take Erbil or Baghdad–a red line that, one hopes, he will do more to enforce than previous red lines in Syria. And today two US Navy F-18s did bomb an ISIS position near Erbil, which suggests that Obama’s words are not entirely empty. But what is the logic of telling ISIS to stay out of Erbil and Baghdad but implicitly allowing it to consolidate its hold on western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria? Is the president basically saying that the U.S. is OK with a terrorist state as it now exists as long as it does not expand any further? Surely that is not the message the White House wants to send, yet it is the message that, I fear, is being received in the Middle East.

What is needed now is more than a few symbolic air strikes or food drops. What is needed is a strategy to roll back ISIS. In congressional testimony on July 29, I offered a few thoughts about what such a strategy should look like. I suggested that we need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS–and that we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border. It is possible that the events of this week are a small step in this direction, but it is also quite possible, even likely, that President Obama will not go nearly as far.

The danger in what he is doing now is that a few symbolic air strikes could actually bolster ISIS’s standing in the Muslim world as a fighter against the Great Satan without doing it serious damage. In for a penny, in for a pound: If we’re going to attack ISIS, let’s do it right. Let’s do it as part of a comprehensive, adequately sourced strategy that has a decent chance of breaking the group’s grip.

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