Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

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The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires isn’t much less of a fantasy than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretensions. Yet the news that Russia is sending aircraft to the government of Iraq as well as expert personnel to help deploy them is yet another indication that Moscow’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage is no empty boast. Like the Russians’ opportunistic efforts to cozy up to an Egyptian government that has become thoroughly alienated from the United States and its successful aid program that has helped prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the Russian foothold in Iraq is just the latest indication of what happens when the United States makes a conscious decision to abandon its responsibilities.

The delivery of a dozen jets won’t alter the balance of power in the region or probably even improve the Iraqi government’s faltering military efforts. Nor does this one move, even when placed in the context of Russia’s other attempts to worm its way back into international relevance, give Putin the kind of power that Leonid Brezhnev once wielded. At this moment, the U.S. is not discouraging efforts to aid the cause of the Baghdad government even if it means Iran or even Syria is attempting to exploit the implosion of Iraq.

Moreover, the confusing and shifting alliances of the factions fighting in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to see any foreign interventions as signifying anything more than a chaotic scrum in which the United States has no real friends or much to gain.

But what must be understood about these developments is that they all stem from the power vacuum that has developed in the region as the Obama administration tried to ease itself out of a conflict in which it no longer believed. The abandonment of Iraq by the U.S. was depicted as President Obama “ending” a war that wearied and depressed Americans. The war had been essentially won by the time Obama took office by means of a surge that the president had claimed could never work. But he and his vice president happily took credit for President Bush’s decision and then proceeded to bug out, just as they seem prepared to leave Afghanistan now.

But wars don’t end just because Americans and their presidents want them to be finished. Similarly, just because this administration thought that it could back away from American interests and allies without paying a cost, that didn’t mean that the implementation of such a policy would not wind up setting the stage for chaos.

Liberal thinkers thought the post-American Middle East would be one in which a healthy multilateralism would replace cowboy diplomacy to produce a more stable world that would no longer be dominated by the U.S. But the result of this pullback has created the opposite result. In the absence of a strong U.S. presence, Iraq has disintegrated. Iran is more powerful than ever and, via its Syrian and Lebanese surrogates, is causing Arab moderates to fear for their future even as insurgents like ISIS are having the same effect. The decision of the Russians to parachute into this disaster is just one more indication of how bad things have gotten.

After years of dithering, measures like Obama’s decision to fund Syrian opposition factions won’t repair the damage that his previous prevarications have caused. When you create a vacuum like the one that the U.S. created in the last few years, all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant things are bound to happen. Iraq’s would-be worldwide caliph will provide fodder for American comics but, as Putin seems to understand, the trouble that was created by Obama’s desire to pull back from the world stage is just getting started.

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The Great War at 100

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

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The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

The conflict swept away the entire Ottoman and Habsburg empires along with the governments of Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia, and other states. It led to the creation of the modern Balkans and the modern Middle East. Nazism, fascism, and Communism–all the great ideological ills of the 20th century–would never have become as virulent as they did absent the devastation wrought by the 1914-1918 conflict. There would have been no Stalin in power, no Hitler, and there would have been no World War II–and hence no Korean War or Vietnam War. It is impossible to imagine how history would have gone otherwise but it would have been incomparably different–and probably for the better.

Even now, with those terrible “isms” having all but disappeared (mercifully!) and with some of the post-World War I states either gone (Yugoslavia) or on the verge of extinction (Syria, Iraq), the legacy of the war lives on. It can be seen not just in the long, depressing rows of crosses to be found in military cemeteries from the Somme to Verdun, nor in the statues of Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Pricip now to be found in Sarajevo. It can be found, still, in the map of Europe and the Middle East which, for all of the recent turmoil, largely reflects the legacy of World War I. And it can be found in the way that warfare is waged, running the spectrum from terrorism (of the kind perpetrated by Princip and his comrades in the Black Hand) to the use of tanks and airplanes and fast-moving mechanized infantry maneuvered by radio–all technologies introduced during the First World War.

How did this cataclysm come about? The most popular interpretation, advanced by the most popular account of the war’s origins (The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman) claims it was an accident that no one wanted. That outlook, while still held by some, has been convincingly refuted by a host of historians including many influential German scholars who refused to accept a whitewash of their country’s responsibility for starting the First World War as well as the Second. The excellent British historian Max Hastings marshaled much of the evidence in his recent book “Catastrophe 1914″ (which I reviewed here).

He writes: “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”

There is an important implication to this conclusion: namely that wars are not generally the result of “arms races” or “misunderstandings” that can be prevented with international mediation. Rather they are usually the result of deliberate policies by capricious regimes which may not want to fight but are willing to risk conflict in order to achieve their power-hungry aims. It stands to reason that the best bet for preventing future conflict is not in sponsoring more diplomatic negotiations but rather in the forces of freedom keeping their powder dry.

That is something that Great Britain, the guardian of international order in the pre-1914 world, singularly failed to do: London was willing to maintain the greatest fleet in the world but its army was so small that it was not reckoned to be a serious factor in continental calculations and its willingness to stand up to German aggression was in doubt. This hesitancy and unpreparedness on the part of London gave Imperial Germany the opening it was seeking to launch a preemptive campaign of conquest against both France and Russia–something that even the German General Staff, arrogant as they were, might not have dared had they been certain of massive and timely British intervention.

Alas, today, the enemies of freedom, from Moscow to Tehran to Pyongyang, can no longer be certain in the readiness and resolve of the greatest champion of freedom in today’s world–the United States. Our president has allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity and our defense capabilities are deteriorating because of mindless budget cuts. That is a dangerous situation. We are unlikely, thank goodness, to see another conflict on the scale of World War I, but we are courting lesser conflicts that can still prove deadly and dangerous–like the wars now engulfing Iraq and Syria, those progeny of World War I.

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Iraq’s Lessons for the Jordan Valley

If Israeli-Palestinian peace talks weren’t already dead, the Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of the radical Sunni group ISIS might well have killed them. After all, one of the key disagreements that emerged during the nine months of talks was over Israel’s military presence in the Jordan Valley, which Israel insisted on retaining and the Palestinians adamantly opposed.

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If Israeli-Palestinian peace talks weren’t already dead, the Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of the radical Sunni group ISIS might well have killed them. After all, one of the key disagreements that emerged during the nine months of talks was over Israel’s military presence in the Jordan Valley, which Israel insisted on retaining and the Palestinians adamantly opposed.

The Obama administration’s proposed solution was to let Israeli troops remain for a few years and then replace them with U.S.-trained Palestinian forces, perhaps bolstered by international troops. But as Israeli officials bluntly told officials in Washington earlier this week, if U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers weren’t willing to fight ISIS to protect their own country, why should anyone think U.S.-trained Palestinian soldiers in the Jordan Valley would be willing to fight fellow Arabs to protect Israel? And with a well-armed, well-funded jihadist army having taken over large swathes of Syria and Iraq and now even threatening Jordan (ISIS seized the main Iraq-Jordan border crossing just this week), how can anyone confidently assert such fighting won’t be necessary?

U.S. officials responded by setting up a straw man: They passionately defended General John Allen, the man responsible for both security training in Iraq and drafting U.S. security proposals for Israeli-Palestinian talks, as if Israel’s main concern were Allen’s competence. But Allen’s competence is irrelevant. The real issue is that no matter how competent the trainer is, no amount of training can produce a functional army if soldiers lack the will to fight. U.S.-trained Iraqi Sunnis aren’t willing to fight ISIS to protect their Shi’ite-dominated government. U.S.-trained Palestinian Authority forces weren’t willing to fight Hamas to retain control of Gaza in 2007. And international troops have repeatedly proven unwilling to fight to protect anyone else’s country.

This isn’t exactly news. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, when Egypt demanded that UN peacekeepers leave Sinai so Egyptian troops could mass on Israel’s border unimpeded, the UN tamely complied. UN peacekeepers stationed in south Lebanon since 1978 have never lifted a finger to stop Hezbollah’s cross-border attacks. Nor is this problem unique to Israel. As the Washington Post reported in January, the UN has sent record numbers of peacekeepers to Africa in recent years, and African regional groups have contributed additional thousands, yet these troops “have failed to prevent fresh spasms of violence.” Indeed, they are frequently ordered explicitly not to fight unless they themselves are attacked–rendering them useless at protecting the people they’re ostensibly there to protect.

But even without such orders, how many soldiers really want to die in a far-off country in a quarrel that isn’t theirs? I can’t blame a Fijian for being unwilling to die to prevent rocket fire from Lebanon on Kiryat Shmona; why should he consider that worth his life? And for the same reason, it’s hard to imagine any non-Israeli force in the Jordan Valley thinking it’s worth their lives to stop, say, ISIS from marching on Tel Aviv. Only Israeli troops would consider that worth fighting and dying for. And that’s without even considering the fact that ISIS already has a Palestinian contingent, so any attempt to attack Israel through the territory of a Palestinian state could count on enthusiastic local support.

As even left-wing Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit admitted this week, it was one thing to propose leaving the Jordan Valley back when the eastern front appeared to pose no threat. But it’s quite another now, when ISIS poses a serious threat.

In a region as volatile as the Middle East is today, the idea that Israel should abandon defensible borders in exchange for “peace” with a state that could collapse as suddenly as Syria and Iraq both have is folly. And anyone who thinks U.S.-trained or international forces can replace defensible borders should take a long, hard look at the Iraqi army’s collapse.

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The Talking Secretary of State

Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

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Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

Most recently Kerry has been doing the rounds in Iraq and Egypt—two countries beset by turmoil and the strife stirred up by Islamic fanaticism. In neither case does the Obama administration have the faintest idea as to what to do and in both cases mixed signals and a complete weakness of resolve from Washington has only exacerbated existing problems. Particularly abysmal were Kerry’s ventures in Iraq. There he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to discuss the possibility of the formation of a national unity government that would bring more Sunnis into his cabinet, although—given that Maliki’s pro-Shia factionalism has in no small part contributed to driving Iraq to its present position, teetering on the edge of a cataclysm—perhaps a resignation would be more in order.

Kerry should have had some leverage here. Mr. Maliki no longer controls most of his own country. The Kurds have significantly increased the chunk of Iraq that they control while ISIS have captured huge swaths of the northwest and are steadily moving toward Baghdad where at one point it looked as if Maliki would soon find himself under siege. Only a few days ago the Iraqi government was pleading for American assistance, but given that the Obama administration is unlikely to offer any more than its beloved drones, and that Iran is now stepping up its offers of support, Maliki suddenly finds that he is not so beholden to Kerry’s demands after all. Unsurprisingly then, Kerry and his requests were promptly dismissed.

On Sunday Kerry had been in Egypt, and in return for the significant financial and military aid that the U.S. is providing Egypt’s military government with, Kerry was to ask the generals if they wouldn’t mind laying off on the human-rights abuses a bit. The Egyptians took about as much notice of Kerry as the Iraqis. By Monday Kerry had his answer when Egyptian courts sentenced three foreign journalists to prison, with the government refusing to bow to outside pressure to intervene.

And this pattern of simply ignoring American begging has been repeated throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. Kerry’s strategy of talking has failed to yield results with the Assad regime in Syria, with the Israelis and Palestinians in the course of those ill-fated negotiations (that against all advice Kerry insisted upon wasting so much time, energy, and air miles on), with Putin over the Crimea, and now with Iran and the negotiations over its illegal nuclear enrichment program. There has been much talk of these latest negotiations being extended, although by all accounts a draft of an agreement with the Iranians is now being pieced together. But many are convinced that the deal will be a bad one and Iran’s neighbors are getting nervous. So they should be: Russia is currently in talks with the Iranians about assisting with the construction of a vast network of nuclear reactors.

Obama and his government washed-up at the White House with all kinds of grandiose ideas about the efficacy of soft power. Influence, it has been said, is simply so much more interesting than power. Well, the Middle East is certainly looking more interesting than it has in a long time, just not in a good way. The truth is that time and again America—the world’s only hyperpower when Obama took office—now has almost no influence at all, even over parties as weak as the Palestinian Authority. But then that’s the thing about soft power, in the end it is just soft. Kerry talks and talks, and initiates one round of fruitless negotiations after another. Yet those he is talking to are quite right in their assessment that they need only nod and smile politely and then not listen to a word the secretary of state has to say. When America is too timid to back up its words with any concrete actions, who needs to worry about what the United States thinks about anything anymore?

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Obama’s Syria Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Obama’s Cognitive Inflexibility

Writing in the American Interest, the scholar Walter Russell Mead–who voted for Barack Obama in 2008–offered a withering assessment of the Obama foreign policy, saying

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Writing in the American Interest, the scholar Walter Russell Mead–who voted for Barack Obama in 2008–offered a withering assessment of the Obama foreign policy, saying

few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy. … Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.

Professor Mead adds this:

Now, from the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States and its allies (as well as countries like Russia and even China). It is a perfect storm of bad policy intersecting with troubled times to create the gravest threat to U.S. and world stability since the end of the Cold War.

And this:

So here, alas, is where we now stand six years into the Age of Obama: The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next… he must certainly ask himself some tough questions about why so many of his most cherished ideas keep leading him and his country into such ugly places.

You would think so, except that this president appears incapable of serious self-reflection and holding up his most cherished ideas to scrutiny. Mr. Obama’s mind is too inflexible, his ideology too gripping, and his vanity too overwhelming to rethink his assumptions and approach.

This comes despite the president’s self-conceit. “I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama is quoted as saying in a recent profile in the New Yorker. Elsewhere he assures us he’s “not a purist” and “I’m pretty pragmatic.” He added, “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity.”

That’s actually not true. What Mr. Obama is missing is what neuroscientists call cognitive flexibility. What the president suffers from, on the other hand, is rigidity, difficulty in adapting to changing environments and circumstances. He can do it now and then, but it’s usually late, slow, and insufficient. And when everyone else sees his policies in collapse, Mr. Obama seems unable to fully process things, to see reality for what it is. He reverts to his mental habits, which include blaming the outside world for his failures. That may be soothing to him, but it is tiresome to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the world burns.

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Iraq and the Immunity Dodge

President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

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President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

Not really. It turns out that such a parliamentary act isn’t actually required for US troops to deploy to Iraq. In fact in most places where U.S. troops operate they do so under agreements signed with the local government but not necessarily enacted by the local parliament. And that now includes Iraq too where Obama has decided to deploy 300 Special Operations troops to help stem the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

What about the supposed need for those troops to have immunity from prosecution? Apparently the White House has gotten the assurances it needs from an exchange of diplomatic notes with Iraq’s Foreign Ministry.

Why, one wonders, was it so necessary to get parliamentary immunity in 2011 but not now? The answer is pretty obvious: Obama really wants to send some troops to Iraq now but he really didn’t want to keep any troops in Iraq back then. Thus in 2011 Obama acceded to the concerns of administration lawyers who claimed parliamentary immunity was a must. He could just as easily have overridden those concerns as he has just done. As is so often the case, interpretations of the law, especially international law, can be twisted to justify whatever actions the executive wants to take.

Legal immunity, in the end, isn’t all that important anyway when it comes to Iraq. It never was. It’s more of an issue in countries like Germany or the Philippines where GIs are free to go off base and risk getting into legal trouble for assault, rape, and other offenses. In Iraq troops have always been confined to base except for military missions. And what protection from harm they have enjoyed has come not from legal documents but from the promise of swift and decisive military action against anyone who would seek to harm them.

By acting now to send U.S. troops back to Iraq, at least in limited numbers, without a formal Status of Forces Agreement in place, Obama is showing how that issue was all along a smokescreen. The real issue has always been Obama’s aversion to any involvement in Iraq. With ISIS solidifying its control over northern and western Iraq by the day, it is imperative that Obama overcome his hesitations before an Islamist caliphate–a terrorist state stretching across Syria and Iraq–becomes so entrenched that it is impossible to dislodge.

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How Obama Misread the Public

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

On the one hand Americans like the idea of letting others sort out their own problems, of pulling back, and focusing on “nation-building at home.” On the other hand Americans don’t like cutting deals with terrorists (to release Bowe Bergdahl), letting other states get invaded with impunity (Ukraine) or seeing a hard-won victory in Iraq unravel following American withdrawal.

What Americans really don’t like is when they perceive a lack of leadership in the Oval Office–when the U.S. does not look strong abroad and when our enemies are on the march. That is the case now.

President Obama is not doing what he’s doing in foreign policy because of the public opinion polls; he’s doing it because he really believes in the benefits of retreat and retrenchment. But no doubt he has been comforted in his decisions by the public opinion surveys which show large public approval of his most dovish actions. In retrospect that public support turns out to be illusory.

So now Obama should take with a grain of salt polls which show that the public opposes further involvement in Iraq. That may be the case but the public also opposes the establishment of terrorist states. Obama should have the courage to do the right thing in Iraq–as President Bush did during the surge which was initially unpopular–regardless of what the polls say today.

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But I Thought There Weren’t Any Weapons of Mass Destruction…

The latest bad news from Iraq now includes the reports that ISIS have captured one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons facilities at Al Muthanna 45 miles north of Baghdad. Naturally this has caused a certain degree of disquiet, but U.S. officials have reassured that they don’t believe the weapons there are usable and have stressed that it is unlikely that the rebels would be able to use the facilities to produce chemical weaponry. Indeed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki attempted to calm concerns that the Islamists could use the weapons by insisting that “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.” But who ever said jihadis are concerned with safety? If anything the volatility of this material—most of which is currently sealed away in bunkers—surely should only add to our concerns.

Nevertheless, aren’t we forgetting something here? It’s somewhat disorienting to have had ten years of a prevailing narrative that says the public was misled over the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction only to now be told that there are concerns that Saddam’s chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of a group too extreme even for the tastes of al-Qaeda. Perhaps it is quite true that the weapons stored at this site are now too old be used effectively, and perhaps it is also true that the rebels lack the means and the knowhow to convert these materials into something usable, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the Saddam regime couldn’t have eventually turned these facilities around to produce weapons of mass destruction once again.

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The latest bad news from Iraq now includes the reports that ISIS have captured one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons facilities at Al Muthanna 45 miles north of Baghdad. Naturally this has caused a certain degree of disquiet, but U.S. officials have reassured that they don’t believe the weapons there are usable and have stressed that it is unlikely that the rebels would be able to use the facilities to produce chemical weaponry. Indeed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki attempted to calm concerns that the Islamists could use the weapons by insisting that “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.” But who ever said jihadis are concerned with safety? If anything the volatility of this material—most of which is currently sealed away in bunkers—surely should only add to our concerns.

Nevertheless, aren’t we forgetting something here? It’s somewhat disorienting to have had ten years of a prevailing narrative that says the public was misled over the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction only to now be told that there are concerns that Saddam’s chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of a group too extreme even for the tastes of al-Qaeda. Perhaps it is quite true that the weapons stored at this site are now too old be used effectively, and perhaps it is also true that the rebels lack the means and the knowhow to convert these materials into something usable, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the Saddam regime couldn’t have eventually turned these facilities around to produce weapons of mass destruction once again.

This latest turn in the Iraq crisis further demonstrates a truth about the war in Iraq that can’t be stated often enough: There is a reasonable distinction to be drawn between the still robust case for the overthrow of Saddam and the less defensible matter of how the situation in Iraq was handled following that overthrow. Removing Saddam by no means made the following insurgencies and civil war inevitable. Yes, allied forces failed to fully anticipate what might happen in the wake of totally dismantling the Baathist regime and not adequately securing stability in the country after that. But even with all of that in mind, culpability for the violent sectarianism that now engulfs Iraq has to ultimately be placed with the violent sectarians. A Saddam-free Iraq is not by necessity a war of all against all; the people who live in that country did have another alternative before them.

The reminder of the extensive chemical-weapons facility at Al Muthanna should force us to consider what Iraq would be like today had there been no invasion in 2003. Is it really conceivable that the so-called Arab Spring would have simply passed Iraq by? North of the border in Syria things are just about as bad as they could be and that was without an invasion or any kind of Western military intervention. Indeed, Iraq’s most serious problem right now—ISIS—has mobilized from Syria. And given Saddam’s wild track record of suppressing internal uprisings (often with the use of chemical weapons) can anyone really say that right now Saddam would be showing any more restraint than Assad is?

Saddam may not have had weapons of mass destruction good to go, but we have been reminded that he had maintained the facilities to quite rapidly produce such weapons. The fact that these sites and their lethal materials are now in the hands of ISIS, and indeed that ISIS is racing across Iraqi territory at all, is a sign of just how supremely irresponsible the Obama administration has been. To invade Iraq was in a sense a very great gamble, but arguably one necessitated by circumstance. But to then walk away from Iraq with the job barely half done, as Obama has, is unforgivable.

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A Step Forward for Iraq

President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

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President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

For this reason it is imperative that U.S. personnel work closely not only with the Iraqi military but also with the Kurdish peshmerga and whatever anti-ISIS forces can be cobbled together among the Sunnis–call it the Son of the Sons of Iraq (as the Anbar Awakening militia was known). Moreover, it is imperative that the U.S. not forget about the “S”–Syria”–in ISIS. We need to hit ISIS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which will require doing much more to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and possibly support their operations with air power.

But doing all this–partnering with Sunnis and Kurds and the Free Syrian Army as well as the Iraqi Security Forces; launching air strikes and Special Operations raids–will require a commitment much larger than 300 troops. I don’t have an order of battle worked out, but I’m guessing we are talking about a minimum of a few thousand troops–in other words at least the number that Obama was prepared to leave behind after 2011 if a Status of Forces Agreement had been worked out. Doing that, of course, would require the president to admit he was wrong to pull the U.S. troops out in the first place, but absent such an implicit admission it is hard to see how Iraq can be stabilized.

I don’t mean to slight the political element, which will ultimately be the most important. I have repeatedly argued and still believe that one of our primary objectives has to be Maliki’s removal and replacement with a more inclusive leader. I am happy to see the administration signaling that it agrees. But on the issue of tactics and timing I am becoming convinced that it is counterproductive to premise greater U.S. military action on political progress in Baghdad. We need to pursue both lines of operation, political and military, simultaneously. In fact the greater commitment we make militarily to Iraq’s future, the more say we will have in the formation of the next government.

This, by the way, is a task that Obama needs to stop delegating to Joe Biden and others. He needs to make the same realization that George W. Bush made, which is that the future of U.S. interests in the region–and of his presidency–are dependent on a successful outcome in Iraq and therefore it behooves the commander in chief to get more personally involved in all matters pertaining to Iraq. The president, whoever he is, brings more gravitas to the negotiating table than a vice president or an ambassador. Alas there is still no sense that Obama is giving Iraq–and Syria–the kind of focus and attention and resources that these countries deserve in their hour of crisis.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Why Hasn’t Kurdistan Declared Independence?

The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

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The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

Indeed, it does seem to be the Kurdish moment, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but elsewhere. An autonomous entity has emerged in Syrian Kurdistan. Indeed, today, “Rojava” is the only peaceful, functioning region in Syria. The Turkish government has initiated peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Having recognized PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan effectively as the representative of Turkish Kurds, it will be extremely difficult for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop a process that ultimately will result in Öcalan’s release from prison and a federal solution for wide swaths of southeastern Turkey.

The question then becomes why, with all the stars aligned in Kurdistan’s favor, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani hasn’t declared independence? He has always embraced robust Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, and there is nothing stopping him. Should he declare independence, there is little the Iraqi central government could or would do to stop him, and Turks seem to have come to terms with the idea of a Kurdish state as well, so long as it falls outside the borders of Turkey. Nor are there political impediments to Barzani: he is a Middle Eastern strongman in the traditional sense. He controls the parliament, the treasury, and his son runs the intelligence forces. His second and constitutionally last term as president ended several months ago, and yet he still retains his position. In short, if he wanted independence, he could declare it today.

I have long said as an analyst rather than as an advocate that Barzani was not sincere about Kurdish nationalism. Maybe I’m wrong, but increasingly it seems I wasn’t. After all, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guard into Erbil, effectively risking Kurdish autonomy for the sake of ensuring bullets in the necks of his Kurdish political opponents. (Today, more than 3,000 Kurds remain “disappeared” from the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war; neither Barzani nor Talabani have come clean with regard to their fate.) Barzani also seems to prioritize money over nationalism: Kurdistan not only exports its own oil, but received a portion of Iraq’s oil. While Kirkuk is often in the headlines, decades of exploitation and questionable management by Saddam Hussein’s government have left its fields in decline. The bulk—perhaps 70 percent or more—of Iraq’s oil comes from Iraq’s southern oil fields. If Kurdistan separates, Kurdistan loses its subsidies and Barzani no longer is able to maintain the lifestyle for him and his sons to which they have become accustomed.

In every almost meeting with American officials, Kurdish civil society leaders have made the argument for independence. Rather than assume it is the United States holding them back, perhaps it’s time to recognize its their own leaders.

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Wondering Just How Much More Damage Obama Can Do

In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

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In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

As we’re seeing in Iraq, the broader Middle East, and many other areas of the world, as well as here at home, even a politically weak president is showing he has the capacity to do enormous, sustained damage. And low approval ratings aren’t slowing him down all that much. He is using his executive authority and pursuing what is in many respects a lawless agenda in order to implement his vision for America.

I happen to believe the Democratic Party will suffer once again in a mid-term election because of it. But the president doesn’t really seem to care all that much. He is a progressive in a hurry. He wants to bend history in a certain direction, even if the American people aren’t inclined to go along with him.

Mr. Obama is doing much of what he set out to do. The fact that there is such a high human cost in the wake of this extraordinarily incompetent and misguided man’s presidency doesn’t appear to bother him at all. He is someone seemingly incapable of honest self-reflection, at times wholly unable to see the world as it is. Yet he continues to wield power, making one massive error after another. And the rest of us are left to wonder just how much more damage one person can do.

The answer, I fear, is quite a lot.

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Iraq: What We Know Now and What We Knew Then

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

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Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

“Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” his indictment of Bush begins, but the only “given” in 2003 was the exact opposite. All fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States agreed “with high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” So did the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France.

“Given” also that the Democrats would later accuse Bush of lying about this, here is a (partial) list of Democrats who had previously joined in the consensus: Bill Clinton; his Vice President Al Gore; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; his Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In the Senate, there were Teddy Kennedy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, and Bob Graham–not to mention Nancy Pelosi, among scores of others, in the House, as well as liberal papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each and every one of them saw Saddam Hussein as a threat, and they all advocated taking action against him.

“Given” all this, I would go so far as to say that not only was George W. Bush justified in ordering the invasion, but that if he had failed to do so, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.    

As to the other items in George Will’s parade of horribles, they all belong to the period that followed the successful military phase of the invasion itself. I am willing to stipulate that many mistakes were made in the three years that followed, and that the entire operation would very likely have ended in defeat if Bush had not finally found in David Petraeus a general who wanted to win and knew how to do it. The upshot was that by the time Barack Obama took office, American casualties were all the way down, and that the Iraq turned over to him was a country largely at peace and living under a nascent democratic regime. So much for the case for blaming Bush.

Turning now to the case for blaming Obama, a commensurately eloquent one has been made by another old friend of mine, David Pryce Jones, the eminent British authority on the Arab world. After explaining why and how the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS has been able to capture city after city in Iraq and is now only about fifty miles from Baghdad, David flatly declares that “President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell. President Obama has opened those doors.”

Obama evidently now thinks that a de facto alliance with Iran—Iran!—is the way to close those doors, but such an alliance would only guarantee that they would open even wider than they are now. It would also solidify Iran’s influence over Iraq while giving a green light to an Iranian nuclear bomb. 

Alas, none of the other proposals for getting us out of this fix seems fully persuasive. Which means that it may be too late to prevent Iraq from joining Syria as part of a new Iranian empire. It is not too late, however, to keep that empire from building a nuclear arsenal, and neither is it too late to keep Afghanistan from reverting to the al-Qaeda haven it was before 9/11. The problem is that doing those things would require Barack Obama to acknowledge that his policies are exposing us to an infinitely greater danger than we were in before 9/11. In my opinion–and I express it with fear and trembling–it would take something close to a miracle for him to undergo so radical a change of heart and mind. God help us then.

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ISIS Can Win Without Baghdad

I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

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I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

Certainly the public pronouncements from the White House do not communicate the gravity of the situation. Instead administration leakers are claiming that urgent action is not needed because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stalled in its attack north of Baghdad, which is protected not only by Iraqi security forces but also by Shiite militias. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, ISIS continues to make important gains in the north, with the most recent news being that Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, has fallen to the terrorists. If they manage to continue operating the refinery it will result in a critical lost of revenue (and power) for Baghdad and a concomitant increase in money and power for ISIS.

Moreover ISIS does not have to take Baghdad, much less the Shiite heartland, to win. It wins if it can simply establish and maintain an Islamist emirate encompassing not only the Sunni Triangle of Iraq but also northern Syria–a goal it is well on its way toward achieving. Eventually ISIS rule will chafe on the people under its thumb, as happened previously in Anbar Province–and as seen earlier in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Fundamentalist jihadist rule is not very popular.

But that’s in the long run. In the short term a lot can and likely will happen if ISIS can consolidate its authority. It is likely, for example, to welcome a motley who’s who of international jihadists to its domain where they can be trained and, in some cases, exported to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands–including Europe and the United States.

Some will argue that I’m overstating the danger because it’s not in ISIS’s interest to directly target the U.S. or our allies because this is more likely to trigger American intervention. But the same thing could have been said about the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. For some strange reason the reasoning of Western faculty lounges does not always resonate with the hard men of the jihadist movement.

The longer that ISIS controls northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, the more its power will grow and the harder it will be to dislodge. This will likely harden the division of Iraq between a Sunni terrorist state and a Shiite terrorist state. This is or should be America’s worst nightmare–and it is why the president needs to act with greater dispatch and decisiveness than is his usual professorial pattern.

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Hold Turkey and Saudi Arabia Accountable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin Pounces Amid Iraq Distraction

One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

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One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

This is a significant escalation of the conflict by Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding his pro forma denials that he knows anything about what’s going on in Ukraine. Suffice it to say, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks are high-end pieces of equipment that aren’t available for sale in military surplus stores (where Moscow improbably claimed that the “green men” who seized Crimea got their uniforms from). Russia is escalating the conflict before Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko can succeed in rolling back the “rebels.” (I’m putting “rebels” in quotes to emphasize that this is not an indigenous uprising but rather one manufactured by the Kremlin.)

So what is Washington going to do about it? Apparently we are going to hurl some really strong rhetoric at the Russians. A State Department spokeswoman said, in response to the sighting of the Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory: “This is unacceptable. A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”

Uh-huh. Putin has heard that before–and he still hasn’t paid a significant cost for his aggression in Ukraine. What are the odds that he will have to pay a price now that Washington is distracted by the fresh crisis in Iraq?

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Obama’s Test

There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

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There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

As Fred Hiatt argues in the Washington Post, the collapse of Iraq invalidates the arguments of administration foreign-policy Minimalists led by Joe Biden who triumphed in internal councils over Engagers such as Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus who favored a more activist approach, especially in the Middle East. In recent years Obama has consistently taken the advice of the Minimalists in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and arguably Afghanistan too. In Syria the U.S. has avoided involvement in the civil war; in Iraq the U.S. pulled out its troops; in Libya the U.S. did little to aid a new government after Gaddafi’s overthrow; and in Afghanistan the White House announced timetables for American withdrawal.

As Hiatt notes: “Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become ‘the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,’ as Mr. Obama’s U.N ambassador said. Now Iraq is disintegrating.”

The question is: Will Obama rethink his approach now that it has backfired? He has offered some hints about doing more to help the Syrian opposition and possibly even launching air strikes in Iraq, but there is no sign of a fundamental recalibration so far. Indeed, when he addressed Iraq last week, pretty much the first words out of the president’s mouth were that we are not going to send ground troops–indicating that he is still more fixated on staying out of conflicts than on defending American interests in a vital region.

Obama is one of our smartest presidents so he must know how badly things are going. But he is also one of our most arrogant presidents so it will be especially hard for him to admit that what he’s done before simply isn’t working. How will this conflict resolve itself? Impossible to say but the answer to that question will determine whether U.S. foreign policy becomes more successful–or at any rate less unsuccessful–in the remaining two and a half years of the Obama presidency.

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