Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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The Challenge for Afghanistan’s Next Leader

Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

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Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

But let’s not get overly euphoric. Recall that in Iraq President Bush welcomed each election which took place, claiming that the very fact of voting would help to restore order and allow American troops to leave responsibly. It didn’t work out that way. In fact in Iraq elections reinforced, rather than resolved, sectarian divisions.

How things work out in Afghanistan remains far from clear. Now that ballots have been cast, there is a major challenge to count them fairly. Fraud is still possible in the counting stage. Beyond that there is the paramount issue of who will emerge on top in the voting. 

The three leading candidates are said to be Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and Zalmai Rassoul. All three men, who have served at various times in Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, are qualified for the top job and reasonably friendly to the United States. All three have indicated they will sign the Bilateral Security Accord that Hamid Karzai negotiated. But there is a huge question as to whether any of them will be up to the job of improving one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional governments on the face of the earth and defeating one of the most potent insurgencies in the world.

The success or lack thereof of this election is ultimately going to be judged not based on whether the balloting was reasonably fair (although let us hope that it has been), but on whether the resulting government can get results for the people–namely to improve the abysmal delivery of services and to curb rampant corruption. The fact that all three leading candidates for president have had to cut deals with warlords to get ahead suggests it will be tough for any of them to break with the corrupt power structure which has looted the country over the past decade and driven many ordinary Pashtuns into the arms of the Taliban as the less-corrupt alternative. But maybe, just maybe, there is a Konrad Adenauer or Alvaro Uribe lurking in the mix.

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The Reality of Returning Veterans

The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

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The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little link between combat experience and the tendency to commit suicide: “Depression and other types of mental illness, alcohol problems and being male – strong risk factors for suicide among civilians – were all linked to self-inflicted deaths among current and former members of the military. But the researchers found deployment and combat did not raise the risk.”

A more wide-ranging Washington Post survey of veterans did find cause for concern. Among its findings: “More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans…. One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.”

However, the Post also found that “the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.”

What that suggests is that, while many combat veterans are understandably struggling with the stress of their experiences, they do not see themselves as victims–and neither should society. Nor should we see them as potential criminals, much less likely rampage killers. In fact, as might be expected, rates of crime are much lower among military personnel than among civilians.

Specialist Lopez was being treated for a variety of mental health problems. It stands to reason it was those problems–and not his experience in Iraq per se, whose details are still not clear–that triggered his fatal outburst. Vast numbers of soldiers have spent far more time “down-range” than he did, seen far more combat, been wounded, and returned home to live productive and happy lives. We should remember the “silent majority” of veterans instead of focusing on a tiny number of outliers like Lopez.

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A Tale of Two Terror Resolutions

On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

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On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

Still, problems remain that will continue to undercut any real progress in the fight against terrorism. First is the lack of any universally-recognized definition of terrorism. Here, the United States could take the lead but making any counterterrorism assistance granted to allies contingent on their acceptance of a definition of terrorism put forward by the United States.

Second is the continued attempt by Iran, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to criminalize “Islamophobia,” by which they mean the association of Islam with terrorism. The problem isn’t Islam per se, but rather the interpretation of Islam embraced by radical factions, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis. The battle is not one of civilizations, but rather one of theological interpretations. Denying that, and criminalizing debate, will only exacerbate terrorism rather than contain it.

Lastly, the United States must recognize that countries it has long considered top partners in the region—Qatar and Turkey—are now those, alongside Iran, who do the most to fan the flames of terrorism rather than contain it. Diplomatic nicety should not be a substitute for progress in fighting the scourge of terror. Perhaps rather than treat Turkey and Qatar with kid gloves, it is time to work through countries like Iraq and Morocco who recognize the problem and are no longer willing to sit by and ignore it.

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Prosecute Jihadists, Not Travelers

Beginning my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, I stopped by the U.S. embassy in Ankara to talk to some of the diplomats who watched Iraqi affairs out of that embassy at their urging. The diplomats were quite talented and we had a useful back-and-forth about a region that was then isolated under a double embargo: The UN embargo against Iraq, and the Iraqi central government’s blockade against Iraqi Kurdistan itself. While I was by no means working on behalf of the U.S. government—I was funded at the time by a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs grant—the American diplomats urged that I keep in frequent touch and relay observations in a region difficult to cover from afar. As an afterthought, they asked that I stop by and “register” with the consular staff at the embassy.

That meeting was a shocker: I expected little more than a consular official to photocopy my passport and take down emergency contact information. Instead, I got a lecture from a pedantic bureaucrat who did not appear as if she had ever stepped foot outside the expatriate circle about how what I was planning to do was illegal for a U.S. citizen and could land me in prison since, she said, the United States strictly prohibited travel to Iraq. I explained that Iraqi Kurdistan was not governed by Saddam Hussein, but she said she could care less. I ignored her, and went anyway. Illegal or not, various folks at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, and White House sought debriefings when I returned: While the consular official could not see the forest through the trees, others in government understood the big picture even if, by the letter of the law, the consular official was right.

Fast forward 14 years: Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman, has proposed a bill that would effectively ban Americans traveling to Syria and would impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years for traveling to that war-torn state without first getting government permission. The problem Wolf hopes to address is real: the flight of jihadists into Syria and the certainty that some Americans have now moved to that war-torn state to join up with al-Qaeda. But does he expect those fighting in Syria to be honest on their entry forms when they return to the United States? And does Wolf believe that the only indication U.S. intelligence would have of Americans fighting in Syria would be their honesty on such forms?

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Beginning my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, I stopped by the U.S. embassy in Ankara to talk to some of the diplomats who watched Iraqi affairs out of that embassy at their urging. The diplomats were quite talented and we had a useful back-and-forth about a region that was then isolated under a double embargo: The UN embargo against Iraq, and the Iraqi central government’s blockade against Iraqi Kurdistan itself. While I was by no means working on behalf of the U.S. government—I was funded at the time by a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs grant—the American diplomats urged that I keep in frequent touch and relay observations in a region difficult to cover from afar. As an afterthought, they asked that I stop by and “register” with the consular staff at the embassy.

That meeting was a shocker: I expected little more than a consular official to photocopy my passport and take down emergency contact information. Instead, I got a lecture from a pedantic bureaucrat who did not appear as if she had ever stepped foot outside the expatriate circle about how what I was planning to do was illegal for a U.S. citizen and could land me in prison since, she said, the United States strictly prohibited travel to Iraq. I explained that Iraqi Kurdistan was not governed by Saddam Hussein, but she said she could care less. I ignored her, and went anyway. Illegal or not, various folks at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, and White House sought debriefings when I returned: While the consular official could not see the forest through the trees, others in government understood the big picture even if, by the letter of the law, the consular official was right.

Fast forward 14 years: Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman, has proposed a bill that would effectively ban Americans traveling to Syria and would impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years for traveling to that war-torn state without first getting government permission. The problem Wolf hopes to address is real: the flight of jihadists into Syria and the certainty that some Americans have now moved to that war-torn state to join up with al-Qaeda. But does he expect those fighting in Syria to be honest on their entry forms when they return to the United States? And does Wolf believe that the only indication U.S. intelligence would have of Americans fighting in Syria would be their honesty on such forms?

If intelligence indicates that a person is fighting in Syria, then they should be prosecuted for their links to al-Qaeda (or to the Assad regime or Hezbollah) rather than simply for being in Syria. For what it’s worth, when I returned from Syria at the beginning of February, I listed on my entry forms that I had been in Iraq and Syria, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at Dulles airport didn’t give me a second glance.

Wolf and his colleagues might also better support the security of the United States and its regional allies if he instead pushed efforts to force Turkey to stop allowing its borders to be a revolving door for jihadists. A CNN International documentary recently showed how jihadists simply pay Turkish border police $40 to cross into Syria unmolested. Some of the traffic goes two ways: Recent travelers through the Istanbul airport have overheard transiting jihadis chatting about fighting in Syria as they wait for their return flights to their countries of origin to visit family.

The problem is that there is plenty of reason to travel to Syria that has nothing to do with jihadism. Just as Iraqi Kurds effectively carved out a statelet in Iraq that was the polar opposite of what Saddam Hussein sought in Iraq, so too have Syria’s Kurds created a calm and relatively placid region that seeks to be both secular and democratic. Just as it was ridiculous for any U.S. official to punish assistance to the Iraqi Kurds in 2000, so too would it be counterproductive to prosecute assistance to the Syrian Kurds when what they seek coincides with U.S. interests. Wolf might argue that Americans could simply receive a Treasury Department waiver for travel into Syrian Kurdistan, but in practice officious employees uninterested in the fact that not all Syrians are the same would be more likely to sit on applications or say no rather than risk saying yes.

Empowering government to restrict travel in such ways simply undercuts liberty. That does not mean Americans should have free range to conduct illegal activities while abroad: Traveling to Iran with dual-use equipment in one’s suitcase should be illegal, as should be violating Cuba sanctions. Working with any al-Qaeda-affiliated group, be it in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, or Somalia, should be illegal. But travel itself should not be. If U.S. intelligence capabilities are falling flat, then it is best to address that problem head on rather than recommending the legislative equivalent of slapping a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. Even the best intentions should not be an excuse to constrain American liberty.

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America’s Credibility from Bad to Worse

No doubt, the George W. Bush administration botched the intelligence that justified much of its push into Iraq. The narrative of “Bush lied, people died,” is nonsense of course. The problem was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bluffed his own generals and aides. When Americans tapped into their phone calls, they heard Saddam’s lieutenants discussing such weapons as if they had them, and when American spies debriefed their Iraqi counterparts, there was no sign of deception because many of the defectors believed the information they conveyed. Nevertheless, critics of the Iraq war are absolutely correct to say that the fact that the intelligence turned out to be wrong undercut American credibility on the world stage. The next time some future Colin Powell goes before the United Nations to reveal a case for war or for anything else utilizing American intelligence, conspiracy theorists will have a field day.

When it comes to lost credibility, the corrosive effect of the Iraq WMD debacle is an order of magnitude below the damage to American credibility caused by America’s callous disregard for its allies. In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless. So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense. The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments. I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis, too, express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.

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No doubt, the George W. Bush administration botched the intelligence that justified much of its push into Iraq. The narrative of “Bush lied, people died,” is nonsense of course. The problem was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bluffed his own generals and aides. When Americans tapped into their phone calls, they heard Saddam’s lieutenants discussing such weapons as if they had them, and when American spies debriefed their Iraqi counterparts, there was no sign of deception because many of the defectors believed the information they conveyed. Nevertheless, critics of the Iraq war are absolutely correct to say that the fact that the intelligence turned out to be wrong undercut American credibility on the world stage. The next time some future Colin Powell goes before the United Nations to reveal a case for war or for anything else utilizing American intelligence, conspiracy theorists will have a field day.

When it comes to lost credibility, the corrosive effect of the Iraq WMD debacle is an order of magnitude below the damage to American credibility caused by America’s callous disregard for its allies. In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless. So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense. The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments. I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis, too, express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.

What self-described realists misunderstand when they pursue their cost-benefit analysis without emotion or regard for principle is that friendship and trust have value. In one chapter of Dancing With the Devil, I explore the history of intelligence politicization. Iraq may now be the marquee example upon which many progressives seize, but intelligence politicization occurred under every president dating back at least to Lyndon Johnson, if not before (the scope of my book was just the past half-century or so). Iraq intelligence was flawed, but the world will get over it, especially since it was consistent with the intelligence gathered by almost every other country and the United Nations. The betrayal of allies, however, is a permanent wound on America’s reputation that will not be easy to overcome.

If only those who condemned Bush’s flawed case for Iraq on the basis of the damage it did to American credibility would speak up now about the importance of keeping promises, then perhaps they could help pressure a White House with whom they are friendly to stop the hemorrhaging of American credibility. That they now remain silent as trust in America plummets, however, suggests that their concern was less America’s credibility and more capitalizing on flawed intelligence to score cheap political points.

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Why Does the U.S. Call Kurds Terrorists?

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

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Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

That said there is reason why the United States might once have designated the PKK to be terrorists. The PKK certainly engaged in violence, and killed a number of civilians for their ideological transgressions.

Recently, the continued designation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations under the Immigration and Naturalization Act has raised the issue again, although KDP leader Masud Barzani is not being truthful when he says he cancelled a recent visit to Washington because of the issue. (Rather, Barzani was upset that he did not get a meeting with President Obama and that his second son, Mansour Barzani, had trouble getting a visa; regardless, eldest son Masrour traveled to Washington against the backdrop of the supposed boycott on Washington so that his wife could deliver their baby at Sibley Hospital).

Regardless, the Tier III designation is wrong. The PUK and KDP—both U.S. allies—fought an insurgency and killed many civilians. But at its root, they were engaged in insurgency rather than terrorism. Lest anyone forget how violent the KDP insurgency could be, here’s a blast from the past: A young and svelte-looking Hoshyar Zebari—now Iraq’s Foreign Minister—narrating a propaganda video showing a KDP attack on what appears to be a civilian truck. Zebari seems to suggest that their goal is to disrupt Iraqi oil flow. In addition, both the KDP and PUK murdered several thousand civilians and captured opponents during the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war.

Most American policymakers understand the Tier III designation of the KDP and PUK to be a mistake, the result of a poorly worded law. But as the United States considers its terror designation of our Iraqi Kurdish allies, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether the PKK’s activities differ considerably from those of the PUK and KDP, other than in the length and breadth of their insurgency that, at any rate, is now suspended as peace talks continue.

The PKK is certainly not non-violent, and its roots in hard left doctrine certainly were dangerous in the context of the Cold War. But the PKK—like much of its leftist brethren—has evolved with the recognition that communism was a failed ideology. The information at the root of the PKK designation certainly should also be re-examined to ensure that information contributed by Turkey is reliable and that the KDP’s corroboration of that information is based on subjective evidence rather than a desire to drag the United States into an intra-Kurdish tribal struggle.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on a broader Kurdish strategy and policy, one that reflects the 21st century reality of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and recognizes that the United States and regional Kurds have many mutual interests and can benefit from partnership.

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The Enemy Still Gets a Vote

A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

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A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

Of course that argument sounds silly–even if it once sounded rational enough in the 1920s when the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war, the proud achievement of the Coolidge administration, was signed. But if it’s silly to expect that wars will cease, it is only marginally less silly to expect that whatever wars we confront can be dealt with by a small force–with an army at its smallest size since 1940–augmented by “Mr. Hagel’s proposed increase in investment in special operations, cyberwarfare and rebalancing the American presence in Asia.”

If only America’s enemies would cooperate with the assumptions held by the Obama administration and the New York Times, then everything will work out just fine. But the nature of enemies is that they operate on different assumptions and seek to exploit vulnerabilities when they occur. And, make no mistake, being unprepared to fight a major conventional war–much less two conventional wars, the strategic construct which governed force structure for decades–creates a major vulnerability, whether we want to prepare for occupations or not.

What is truly alarming and hilarious is the trust that the Times editorialists place in “Pentagon planners”–trust which is not forthcoming from the Times when it comes to how the military deals with sexual abuse, gay rights, or other hot-button social issues, or when the military asks for a large force commitment to execute counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. When it suits its assumptions, however, the Times apparently believes “Pentagon planners” are infallible.

As it happens, however, the Times is confusing and conflating “administration political appointees” with “Pentagon planners.” Sure, some officers in the Pentagon believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed. They’re by and large in the Air Force and Navy–services that are desperate to take resources away from the Army in a time of declining budgets. But few Marine or Army officers believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed; they’re simply not being vocal about their real views because they’ve been told to do so would be seen as an act of disloyalty by the administration.

Even if there were unanimity among “Pentagon planners,” those planners could easily be wrong. How many of them anticipated in the 1950s America’s involvement in a big ground war in Vietnam? How many anticipated in the 1990s (the decade of high-tech “network centric” warfare) major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As former defense secretary Bob Gates has accurately warned:

When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

The upshot of Gates’s remarks is that we need to prepare for a wide array of contingencies–something that the current budget cuts make impossible. Alas Gates’s wisdom is being disregarded on Capitol Hill, at the White House, in the Pentagon–and now in the headquarters of the New York Times.

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The Defense Budget vs. History

Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

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Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.

Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.

That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.

If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.

Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.

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Iraq’s Sectarian Slide

It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

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It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

The Washington Post quotes one Asaid Ahl al-Haq commander as saying, “We have to be much more active. Those who are trying to incite sectarianism, we have to deal with them,” while “drawing his hand over his throat like a knife.”

This is yet another ominous sign of how Iraq is sliding back toward the abyss from which it was only narrowly rescued in 2007-2008 by the U.S.-led surge. The crux of General David Petraeus’s strategy was to target al-Qaeda first in the expectation that, once its threat had receded, Shiites would turn away from militant groups claiming to defend them. This gamble paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Maliki targeted Sadrists in both Basra and Sadr City. Such a strategy could work again, but Maliki first would have to do a better job of recruiting Sunni sheikhs to his side to turn the tide against al-Qaeda and then he would have to show willingness to turn once again on his Shiite brethren.

In short, the onus is once again on the prime minister to show statesmanship and vision–neither, alas, one of his strong suits to judge by his record in office.

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Even the Kurds Are Turning Away from U.S.

Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

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Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

There are three main factions to the PUK: Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s wife; and former PUK Prime Ministers Barham Salih and Kosrat Rasul. Hero is heavily involved in both the transparent and opaque aspects of party purse strings and has sought to promote her sons within the party. Most observers see the Western-educated Barham—whom Hero dislikes immensely—as a reformer. Kosrat, whose health has declined in recent years, is most popular with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, as he was himself long a successful military leader.

That the three factions and their various followers have been unable to cooperate has paralyzed the PUK.

I spent part of last week in Sulaymani, Erbil, and Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds pointed out the significance of the fact that it was not the United States which brokered political compromise, but rather Iran which worked out—or some might say imposed—a formula in which Barham would become secretary-general of the party, with Talabani’s second son Qubad as one deputy and Kosrat’s son Darbaz as another deputy. Earlier this week, with Hero seeking seemingly infinite delays to a new PUK conference, both Barham and Kosrat resigned their PUK politburo positions sparking a new crisis. Again, the Iranians are coming to the rescue to set Kurdish politics straight.

How sad it is that America’s best friends in the region see the United States as devoid of meaningful influence. And what happens in Kurdistan does not stay in Kurdistan: Every other politician in the region has watched the crisis unfold and concluded that it is Iranian dictates which matter and not the demarches of the United States. And how sad it is, as well, that this is a legacy Obama’s successors will face for years to come.

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Syrian Opposition Pillages Heritage

I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

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I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

How different the reaction of so many in the American and European academic communities to the very real looting of Syria’s heritage, versus the inflated tales of the decimation of the Baghdad Museum and various archaeological and heritage sites around Iraq. On April 16, 2003, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a professional organization for U.S. archaeologists working in the Middle East, declared the Baghdad Museum looting to be “the most severe blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors,” never mind that much of the theft at the Baghdad Museum turned out to be an inside job, and that most of the artifacts there were recovered.

Regardless, condemnation for the looting at the Baghdad Museum was warranted, even if marred by hyperbole. But the relative silence for the far greater damage currently being done to Syria’s heritage suggests political agendas among America’s academics trump objective concern for preservation of the past. And that is tragic.

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No, Iraq’s Al-Anbar Protests Were Not Peaceful

The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

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The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

There is a narrative put forward by some diplomats and military analysts that the current problems in al-Anbar are simply the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoking those in al-Anbar. For more than a year, some local residents had sat in protest camps to protest unemployment, sectarian discrimination, and voice other complaints. While that was certainly the case with some young participants, al-Qaeda elements were a presence in the camps long before Maliki sought to clear them out. Here are a few examples

  • At around 48 seconds in this YouTube video, the preacher declares fealty to al-Qaeda.
  • This video shows al-Qaeda members openly displaying their flag in Ramadi last October.
  • Here is a march from last November in which participants declared their loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and quote Abu Masab az-Zarqawi.
  • And here is another protest from last autumn in which protesters raised the ISIS flag.

I spent a part of last week in Tikrit and Mosul, Iraqi cities with large Sunni Arab populations. Locals expressed a great deal of unease about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and what they saw as the sectarian character of his government. Unlike some analysts outside of Iraq, though, they did not downplay or dismiss the presence of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar long before Maliki’s raid on the protest camps. They recognize that al-Qaeda poses as much a threat to Sunni Iraqis as it does to Shi’ites.

As the Iraqi army begins its operations to clear al-Qaeda from Fallujah, many Iraqi Sunnis hope that long-term Anbari residents can wear the uniform of the Iraqi army to clean house in their own home province. No one but Anbaris have ever been welcome in Anbar in a military sense, and so tribal elements hope that they rather than Shi’ite recruits from distant provinces will be the ones who do what is necessary. Here, Iraqis hope the United States will play just a supporting role, ensuring the Iraqi army has a qualitative military edge over al-Qaeda, and recognizing that al-Qaeda exists because of its ideology and its foreign sponsors; it did not simply materialize because of some political grievance, nor had it been absent from the protest camps which some outsiders describe as pure and nonviolent.

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Non-Intervention Has a Price Too

According to David Remnick, Fareed Zakaria is a writer whom President Obama “reads and consults.” He is also a writer that I read and respect—but do not always agree with.  His latest column, is a case in point. It argues for a more hands-off American attitude to the Middle East in line with the president’s policies.

Zakaria argues that the current mess in the Middle East—with active wars going on in Iraq and Syria, terrorism worsening in Lebanon, a new military regime in Egypt, Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, etc.—is not America’s making. He blames instead the machinations of European powers who empowered minorities like the Syrian Alawites, “the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism,” and “the invasion of Iraq.”

Of the first two factors, there is not much debate—but it seems a bit of a stretch to ascribe events going on as far afield as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran to the ripple effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is, in fact, as much of a stretch as the mirror-image argument made by Bush partisans who claim, with equally scant evidence, that the invasion catalyzed the Arab Spring a decade later.

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According to David Remnick, Fareed Zakaria is a writer whom President Obama “reads and consults.” He is also a writer that I read and respect—but do not always agree with.  His latest column, is a case in point. It argues for a more hands-off American attitude to the Middle East in line with the president’s policies.

Zakaria argues that the current mess in the Middle East—with active wars going on in Iraq and Syria, terrorism worsening in Lebanon, a new military regime in Egypt, Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, etc.—is not America’s making. He blames instead the machinations of European powers who empowered minorities like the Syrian Alawites, “the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism,” and “the invasion of Iraq.”

Of the first two factors, there is not much debate—but it seems a bit of a stretch to ascribe events going on as far afield as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran to the ripple effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is, in fact, as much of a stretch as the mirror-image argument made by Bush partisans who claim, with equally scant evidence, that the invasion catalyzed the Arab Spring a decade later.

There is little doubt that the early years of the Iraq War created a disaster in Iraq—but the success of the 2007-2008 surge bought Iraq another opportunity to develop peacefully. The fact that this opportunity has been lost is, in no small part, due to America’s lack of follow-up. In particular, President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and his rubber-stamping of Nouri al-Maliki’s election to a second term after a hung election in 2010. At least that’s my analysis.

Zakaria will have none of it. He writes of this argument: “Not only does this perspective misunderstand the very deep nature of the conflict in the Middle East but it also fails to see that Washington choosing one side over another made matters substantially worse.”

But the fact that the Middle East has deep problems doesn’t mean that the U.S. and other outside powers can’t help to ameliorate them. (Isn’t this what Secretary of State John Kerry and others argue when they press for more American involvement in the “peace process”?) And in fact it is American non-involvement in Iraq that is empowering Maliki and his sectarian tendencies. When the U.S. was more actively involved in 2007-2009, we served as a bridge between Shiite sectarians in Baghdad and Sunni sheikhs in Anbar. Now that bridge is gone, and open warfare has erupted between the two camps. Lacking much influence, Obama has been reduced to fulfilling Maliki’s arms orders, which in fact does fuel the conflict.

None of this is to deny the very real costs of the Iraq War. But it is to point out that non-interventionism comes with a heavy price too, and that price is now being paid in blood in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

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Gates Defends the Troops from Harry Reid

The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

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The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

But, Gates continued, “When you have somebody like the Senate Majority Leader come out in the middle of the surge and say ‘this war is lost,’ I thought that was one of the most disgraceful things I’ve heard a politician say.”

“That sends a riveting message to kids who are putting their lives on the line every day that they’re doing it for nothing,” Gates noted, “and that was absolutely not the case.”

Indeed, it was certainly a disgraceful thing for Reid to say. It called to mind a time when Democrats in Congress openly slandered the troops in an effort to pander to their restive left-wing base. As a congressional leader of his party, Reid had a responsibility to try and rein in his party’s anti-military extremism. Instead, he joined in.

But it isn’t just the troops Reid disdains; he feels that way toward their civilian leadership as well. He shot back at Gates: “I’m surprised he would in effect denigrate everybody he came in contact with in an effort to make a buck,” Reid said yesterday.

Gates’s response was pitch-perfect:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired back at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday night, quipping that “it’s common practice on the Hill to vote on bills you haven’t read, and it’s perfectly clear Sen. Reid has not read the book.”

Reid faulted Gates’s book in an interview with The Associated Press earlier in the day, charging Gates had denigrated him, Vice President Joe Biden and others “just to make a buck.” But Gates said he plans to donate most of what he makes to charities that work with wounded troops, and encouraged Reid and others to actually read his new memoir.

That doesn’t mean that Reid was wrong, however.

 “He will find I that do denigrate him, but I think he will find that, in fact, I have a lot of positive things to say about virtually everybody I wrote about,” Gates said. “As with myself, in the book, I’ve tried to critically appraise others. I call attention to mistakes I believe I made as secretary, things I could’ve done better, and I think I have positive things to say about virtually everybody else.”

In other words, Gates could find redeeming qualities in everyone he criticized–except Reid, apparently. Gates also defended himself against the accusation that he was being disloyal in releasing the book while President Obama was still in office:

“One of the charges is, that I’m hypocritical, that I’m speaking out about things now that I was quiet about when I was in office,” Gates said. “The reality is, if you talk with anybody in the administration, you’ll find I was as open in expressing my concerns directly, face to face, with the president, the White House chief of staff and other senior members of the administration about virtually every one of the issues I raised in the book. What I didn’t do was be disloyal to the president by taking those concerns public — or leaking.”

There’s plenty of room in there for honest disagreement–though, as I’ve written before, I don’t think the timing was particularly problematic and other suggested dates for release might have been more so. But it’s difficult not to sympathize with Gates’s defense of the troops and their mission in the face of Reid’s ignorant insults. The human element to the troops and their command is often forgotten or downplayed, especially since we have an all-volunteer army instead of a draft. Politicians are commonly told that the enemy can hear their statements. So can our troops, as Gates reminds us.

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Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

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No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.

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Is America More Sectarian Than Iraq?

The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

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The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

The sectarian narrative is simple to grasp, and many do. Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), John Nagl, and Emma Sky, all of whom served admirably in Iraq, blame Maliki for pursuing sectarian vendettas. While Sky is right to say that the prime minister has worked to remove and marginalize rivals, she continues:

The trumped up warrant against the former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December 2012 sparked widespread year-long protests by Sunnis aggrieved at their marginalization. A raid last April by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on a protest camp in Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis. Last month, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and horrific attacks against Shia civilians, Maliki ordered the ISF to raid an al Qaeda training camp in the deserts of western Anbar province. But when 24 Iraqi soldiers, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division, died in the raid, Maliki then ordered ISF into the city of Ramadi to arrest a Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed Alwani, and to close down the protest camps, which he accused of being occupied by al Qaeda.

While this creates a damning narrative, what she omits is also important: How trumped-up were the charges against Issawi when he himself has paid blood money to make settlement with the families of victims in whose murders he was complicit? Likewise, while the raid on Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis, Iraqi forces first went in with water cannons until they were fired upon with heavy weapons by the protestors. Only then did the raid turn violent. Hawija has for years been a hotbed of radicalism widely sympathetic to al-Qaeda and hostile to any Shi’ite or Kurd who might step foot in the town. It is true that the Iraqi government might have exaggerated the numbers of al-Qaeda present in the protest camps of Ramadi, but what is certain—at least according to YouTube videos of Friday sermons and rallies and Facebook declarations—is that al-Qaeda was present. That raises the question about how much al-Qaeda presence Maliki should tolerate and, just as important, how much al-Qaeda presence Sunni residents of Anbar should tolerate before being forced to react or expecting an Iraqi government reactions. To transpose that question to the United States, how much al-Qaeda presence should the United States tolerate in its midst before taking action?

Mansoor’s narrative is also one-sided:

Prime Minister Maliki, emboldened by the improvements in security, turned on his political enemies with a mailed fist. His first target was Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president of Iraq and longtime political adversary. Hashemi escaped the country, but Maliki had the courts try him in absentia and sentence him to death. The prime minister didn’t stop there. Faced with non-violent Sunni resistance to his increasingly authoritarian leadership style, Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into protest camps last April and again a week ago.

The question Mansoor does not address is whether Hashemi was guilty of terrorism and, indeed, it seems overwhelmingly that he was. A follow-on question would then be whether Hashemi’s sectarian preference should be a mitigating factor. The answer to that is clearly no. More complicated would be the question whether Maliki or others should decline to pursue those engaging in terrorism if they know the result of that pursuit might be violence. That is tricky, but to fail to pursue terrorists out of fear of violence would, in effect, be succumbing to blackmail. Again, it is useful to transpose the question to the United States: Should American police refuse to pursue cases against extremist militias for fear that prosecuting them might encourage revenge? Again, the answer to that question is no.

The Baghdad government should take steps to ameliorate the grievances of al-Anbar, so long as those grievances are not the democratic system itself: Too many al-Anbar residents and their politicians—including those who participate in the Awakening Councils—seem unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and that no amount of encouragement to their community from sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will return Iraq to its pre-2003 order.

It seems, unfortunately, that too many Americans have bit into the sectarian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Because Americans—especially those whose background is in CENTCOM, which has its own distinct culture and biases based on its operations and interactions with the militaries and governments of sectarian Sunni emirates, kingdoms, and republics—now wear sectarian blinders, many refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in which Sunni victims complain to a Shi’ite government about abuses by Sunni politicians, as was the case with both Hashemi and Issawi. Likewise, that Sunnis displaced from Anbar choose to take refuge in predominantly Shi’ite Karbala rather than neighboring (and largely Sunni) Ninewah governorate or Jordan says a lot about the complexity of Iraq today.

Sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism do exist in Iraq, but it is dangerous for Americans to base analysis on a narrative that may have been truer during their service many years ago, when the situation has evolved significantly since. When Americans are more sectarian in their judgments than many Iraqis, they risk reigniting sectarianism rather than ameliorating it. The United States should not accept blindly the narrative whispered by Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish diplomats and generals. More dangerous is the implication of such sectarianism in the Western narrative: to suggest that al-Qaeda has legitimate grievances in Iraq, as Politico’s introduction appears to have done, risks setting policy down a slippery slope that will nullify the war on terror not only in Iraq but far beyond.

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The Silly Attempt to Discredit Bob Gates

In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

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In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

The good news for Gates is that it is likely many people who clicked on the article stopped reading a few paragraphs in. That’s because Politico offers the first shaming quote to Sandy Berger. Yes, Sandy Berger–the Clinton administration official who pilfered national-security documents from the National Archives to protect his boss. Here’s what Sandy Berger has to say about a highly decorated public servant who is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“Cabinet members who don’t leave on principle ought to avoid undercutting the president while he’s still in office,” said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “I think they have that duty of loyalty to the president. It makes me uncomfortable to see Gates do this.”

Imagine that, you might say to yourself: the world has discovered behavior that makes Sandy Berger uncomfortable. But the larger point is just how difficult it is to tarnish Gates’s well-earned reputation. Gates must be chuckling to himself at being attacked by Sandy Berger.

Berger isn’t the only one quoted in the article, and the story goes on to mention James Byrnes’s post-Yalta memoir, though it is a far less relevant example than Lane’s. We hear from others as well in the story notes of disapproval about the timing of the memoir and the fact that it criticizes those Gates served. Berger’s critique is the least sensible of all: that Gates should have resigned to write this book or waited until Obama was out of office.

But think about that for a moment. Should Gates have resigned “on principle” to tell his story before President Obama’s reelection? How would that have been received? Surely many would have preferred to hear such criticism before casting their vote, but it would have been seen as an attempt to influence the presidential election.

Others in the story echo the claim Gates should have waited until Obama left office. But at that point, someone else criticized in the book might be taking office. How would it look if Gates released the book this time in 2017, just in time to ruin the inauguration of Obama’s successor?

Additionally, we are currently winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions have already been made, so this won’t change anything. It just enables the conversation about these changes to include Gates, surely one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country. The book’s actual impact, then, is going to be limited. It will mostly involve keeping the public better informed about the debate we’re now having. The attacks on Gates may have been predictable, but that makes them no less gratuitous or silly.

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The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

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When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

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