Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Is There Something Worse Than Hamas?

Critics of the Pentagon, and indeed of all defense establishments, have often quipped that the term “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. As a general rule, that sort of comment is as inaccurate as it is unfair. But Lt. General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, bolstered this assumption by declaring that the destruction of the Hamas terrorist government of Gaza would lead to something worse.

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Critics of the Pentagon, and indeed of all defense establishments, have often quipped that the term “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. As a general rule, that sort of comment is as inaccurate as it is unfair. But Lt. General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, bolstered this assumption by declaring that the destruction of the Hamas terrorist government of Gaza would lead to something worse.

General Flynn warned that if Israel is seeking to either decapitate Hamas, remove it from power, or to eliminate it altogether, that might not be a smart move. He asserted that Hamas would be replaced by something far more radical and, by definition, more dangerous to both Israel and the rest of the world.

As Reuters reports:

“If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse,” Flynn said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there … something like ISIS,” he added, referring to the Islamic State, which last month declared an “Islamic caliphate” in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.

Is he right?

It is a reliable rule of existence on this planet than whenever you think things can’t get worse, they often do become even more unbearable. But that piece of general life wisdom aside, the argument that behind Hamas lurks more dangerous groups is not only unsubstantiated; to believe it you have to ignore everything we already know about Hamas.

As far as the possibility of more radical Islamists replacing Hamas, there is no question that the prospect of al-Qaeda-related groups becoming the address for Palestinian “resistance” to Israel’s existence would be scary for the West. Perhaps this fear is based on an assumption that they would not be content with slaughtering Jews as Hamas and Islamic Jihad attempt to do but would instead concentrate on killing Americans. But does anyone in the U.S.—even the spooks in the Pentagon—really believe that al-Qaeda types in the Middle East are not already doing their best to attack America right now?

Any group that replaced Hamas as the Islamist rival to the more secular Fatah would be competing in the same Palestinian political universe that grants credibility to groups that attack Israel, not Western targets. Whatever followed Hamas would not be a freelance Islamist terror group such as those in the Arabian Peninsula or North Africa but a Palestinian entity that would seek to escalate the fight against the Jewish presence in the country, not a scattered campaign against the West elsewhere.

But leaving that issue aside, the problem with Flynn’s thinking is that the more one looks at Hamas’s behavior, the harder it is to argue that there could be something that would be qualitatively worse in terms of conflict escalation or human rights.

For example, it was reported today that Hamas executed 20 Palestinians who had the temerity to launch an anti-war protest in Gaza. The protesters were branded as traitors. Would a successor group seek to repress dissent or govern Gaza with more brutality than Hamas?

Hamas has funneled much of the humanitarian aid sent to Gaza into its “military” infrastructure, constructing an underground city of shelters and tunnels for its armaments and fighters and to facilitate terror attacks on Israelis. As Tablet magazine reported, 160 Palestinian children employed as laborers were killed during the course of the building of these tunnels. Would an ISIS-clone do anything worse than that?

Hamas’s purpose, as detailed in their charter and regularly reaffirmed by both their military and political leaders, is to destroy Israel and to ethnically cleanse it of its Jewish population. Would ISIS or al-Qaeda favor a more gentle form of genocide?

To study Hamas’s actual behavior and its beliefs undermines any notion that its elimination would result in the radicalization of Palestinians and their supporters. Hamas is already so radical in terms of its intransigence against peace and Israel’s existence that any more extreme shift under a successor would be purely cosmetic and result in no tangible increase in the threat level to the region.

More to the point, anyone who truly desires a two-state solution to the conflict must understand that the only hope for that outcome—and, admittedly, it is a slim hope—is for Hamas to be eliminated, giving a chance for the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza and to make peace with Israel.

Given the difficulty and the cost of a campaign that would completely eliminate Hamas or to replace it as the government of Gaza it may well be that Flynn’s nightmare will never be realized. Hamas thinks it is in no danger and statements such as that of the general and the willingness of the U.S. to embrace cease-fire proposals that would grant it an undeserved victory only strengthen their conviction that they can continue to fight with impunity. But using this argument to bolster Hamas’s hold on power is a terrible error. The only way to end the conflict is to demilitarize Gaza. The only way to do that is to eliminate Hamas.

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The Fabled Non-Anti-Semitic Gaza Protests

Last week, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Italy released an unusual joint statement. They banded together, they explained, to denounce their own countries. Specifically, they wanted to denounce the rank anti-Semitism that has exploded throughout Europe, where the public used the Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza as a pretext to rally in support of the destruction of the Jewish state and in some cases the extermination of the Jewish people on the whole. The main source of disagreement among Europe’s pro-Hamas demonstrators is the desirable extent of the anti-Jewish genocide.

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Last week, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Italy released an unusual joint statement. They banded together, they explained, to denounce their own countries. Specifically, they wanted to denounce the rank anti-Semitism that has exploded throughout Europe, where the public used the Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza as a pretext to rally in support of the destruction of the Jewish state and in some cases the extermination of the Jewish people on the whole. The main source of disagreement among Europe’s pro-Hamas demonstrators is the desirable extent of the anti-Jewish genocide.

It’s a difference in degree, not in kind. And while at first glance the foreign ministers’ joint statement might appear to be laudable, such goodwill evaporates when you realize that they are talking instead of doing. Anti-Semitism is often a lagging indicator of state rot, and it is no different here. The foreign ministers are essentially pleading with the world to withhold judgment for their states’ respective failures. In France, the state has given up on protecting its Jews; “France’s Jews are staying indoors for fear of their lives,” a resident of Paris told the Algemeiner recently. In Germany–in Germany–protesters called for the Jews to be gassed. And the best the German state can come up with is to sign a joint letter denouncing such hateful barbarism.

The joint statement is a white flag. European governments have no idea what to do. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, took to the pages of the New York Times on July 10 to declare: “France Is Not an Anti-Semitic Nation.” Three days later, an attempted pogrom broke out in Paris. The France of Laurent Fabius’s imagination is clearly a wonderful place. The one that actually exists is descending into madness.

All this is drawing attention to another aspect of the world’s discomfort with Jewish self-defense. We are constantly told that you can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic; this is undoubtedly true. Israeli officials are criticized in Israel as much as anywhere else. But the demonstrations claim to be in protest of Israeli policy or in the name of peace. That sounds awfully nice in theory. In practice, the demonstrators aren’t keen on making such distinctions.

It’s not just in France, Germany, and Italy, of course. A pro-Gaza protest in London called for the elimination of Israel. Here’s the Daily Beast on how protests in the Netherlands have become outright rallies in support of ISIS, the too-violent-for-al-Qaeda terrorist offshoot carving up Iraq:

Many of the demonstrators covered their faces with Palestinian scarves or balaclavas. “Anyone who doesn’t jump is a Jew,” someone shouted as the whole group started jumping in a scene that might have been ludicrous if it weren’t for the hateful message. “Death to the Jews!” the crowd shouted in Arabic.

This scene last Thursday came in the wake of an earlier demonstration supposed to defend the Palestinians suffering in Gaza, which turned quickly into a hatefest targeting Israel, with people carrying placards that screamed “Zionism is Nazism.” But while the comingling of pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment has become all too common in European protests in recent weeks, that the battle flag of the Islamic State waved in the streets of The Netherlands on July 24 is something new and particularly dangerous.

Read that last sentence again: “the battle flag of the Islamic State waved in the streets of The Netherlands.” I’m sure behind that black flag is just genuine concern for the humanitarian needs of Gaza City. America has not been immune to this phenomenon, in which protesters insist they care about Palestinian statelessness so they can push thoroughly disgusting anti-Jewish blood libels. Here is a picture our own Abe Greenwald took at a rally in Manhattan. Above scenes of blood-soaked children are the words “This is Bloody Israel! These are Bloody Jews!” And then, if you still didn’t get the point, in parentheses: “Blood Suckers.”

It’s not subtle, and it’s not about humanitarianism. The anti-Israel rallies around the world have been marked by consistency. We are told of the existence, or of the possibility at least, of pro-Palestinian rallies or protests against Israeli policy that are not about pushing a medieval hatred of Jews. We should not have to take it on faith, or make do with Laurent Fabius’s deepest apologies.

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Islamic State’s Reality Check on Dhimmitude

Dhimmi are non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state who are allowed to remain in exchange for paying the jizyah, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. As the Prophet Muhammad conquered a new empire, large numbers of Christians, Jews, and others found themselves living under the Islamic Empire’s rule, subject to the jizyah and the limitations of dhimmi status.

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Dhimmi are non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state who are allowed to remain in exchange for paying the jizyah, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. As the Prophet Muhammad conquered a new empire, large numbers of Christians, Jews, and others found themselves living under the Islamic Empire’s rule, subject to the jizyah and the limitations of dhimmi status.

Fast forward almost 1,400 years: Academics today who cover Islamic civilizations and history almost uniformly teach that early Islamic rule was enlightened. If they cover the jizyah and “dhimmitude” at all, they are soft-pedaled. Rather than conquer by the sword, most residents of those areas brought into the Islamic Empire joined voluntarily, it is said.

Certainly, a few authors have taken on the notion of dhimmitude and the whitewashed narrative peddled in Islamic studies courses and texts. Egyptian-born British writer Gisèle Littman, for example, writing under the pseudonym Bat Ye’or, penned Islam and Dhimmitude back in 2001, providing a precise and critically acclaimed study of the subjugation of Jews and Christians in Islamic lands. Likewise, Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad provides crucial context and fills out the historical record by including non-Arabic sources which describe subjugation from the point of view of those suffering under Islamic domination. Nevertheless, Bat Ye’or and Bostom remain rare on university syllabuses in courses taught by professors who prefer not to challenge the dominant narrative. Others prefer to seize upon controversial or careless remarks by those focused on the treatment of religious minorities in Islamic history to disqualify the author’s entire body of work. Critics do this deliberately when they cannot counter effectively the historical facts cited or sources revealed.

Perhaps if there’s any silver lining to events in Mosul, where the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, has demanded Christians pay the jizyah, convert, or die, it will be to force scholars to rethink the benevolent narrative which they often embrace of early Islamic conversions and successive caliphates and Islamic empires’ treatment of minorities. There is nothing benevolent, enlightened, or non-violent about denial of religious freedom or liberty, nor is forcing religious minorities into second-class status on the basis of their faith ever anything other than oppression, plain and simple.

It would be wrong to castigate the Islamic empire and reign of Muhammad, his successor rashidun caliphs, or the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties completely. But it is as wrong to whitewash them. Perhaps it is time for a little less hagiography toward Islamic history in American and European institutions, and a little more common sense.

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ISIS Seizes Nuclear Material from Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the Real Story of the U.S. and Maliki?

Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

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Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

Khedery’s column comes just a few months after Dexter Filkins wrote a lengthy profile of Maliki in the New Yorker based on numerous interviews with American officials.

Enter Reidar Visser, an astute Norwegian Iraq analyst, who has compared the two narratives and pointed out some inconsistencies. First, Khedery writes that it was he and Jeffrey Beals who promoted Maliki’s candidacy within the embassy and U.S. government. Filkins, however, credits a CIA officer whom he doesn’t name. As Visser notes wryly, “Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.” In this case, the answer might simply be both are right. U.S. policymaking is marked by huge bureaucracies. Independent strains coalescing to a common purpose shape outcomes, but it is the nature of the beast that each independent strain believes that they were the ones who mattered: it’s like the old parable of the blind men describing the elephant, but in this case, two of the blind men were describing its legs, albeit separate ones.

Visser then identifies two problems in which the open sources seem to contradict Khedery’s narrative. The first was with regard to Maliki’s use of the de-Baathification committee against opponents in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. Visser quotes Khedery as writing, “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections,” and then Visser himself notes, “This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies [like Adel Abdel Mehdi] who, with considerable Iranian assistance, had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer.” Indeed, Visser notes, Maliki had to fight off de-Baathification committee attempts to disqualify some of his own political allies. It was only after the elections that Maliki sought to use de-Baathification to disqualify some election winners.

Visser also takes Khedery to task for his treatment of the Iraqi supreme court which ruled in May 2010 that blocs could shift and merge after the election, in effect building coalitions to change the election outcome. “Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup,” Visser notes, “but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed.”

Both Khedery and Visser skim past the arrest warrant which the Maliki government issued for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Visser does note that Khedery “conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi [sic], the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way.” The problem with this statement is that it seems to imply that the arrest warrants were somehow wrong. Even many Sunni Arab Iraqis acknowledge substance behind the accusations against Hashemi. And, as the Iraqi government points out, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of his victims if there were no victims? The criticism that should be made of the Maliki government is not that it sought to bring Sunni officials complicit in terrorism to justice, but rather that it was selective and did not pursue many Shi‘ite officials (Muqtada al-Sadr, for example) with the same energy or enthusiasm.

There are other issues of context which should be acknowledged and understood when reading Khedery’s narrative. Khedery is forthcoming in acknowledging his post-government role with Exxon, where he helped that oil company begin operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. What is important to note, however, is that the Iraqi government considered this a shot across its bow, corrosive to Iraqi integrity, and deeply illegal. Indeed, Maliki subsequently exerted great pressure on Exxon and lobbied the White House furiously to accept Baghdad’s position in the conflict and, indeed, this is what the Obama administration did. The Kurds have lobbied tirelessly against Maliki, and it bears observation that Khedery’s change of mind coincided with his joining of Exxon and its attempts to do business with the Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq is a complicated story. After leaving the Pentagon, I was approached by many Ph.D. students who wanted to interview me as they wrote about the decisions to go to war. Because of my own bias as a historian–the old Yale adage that was drilled into us that to try to write a history of recent events for which there hasn’t been adequate declassification of documents from all sides isn’t history but rather journalism–I turned them down. I had my own opinions and observations, but absent declassified documentation, no Ph.D. student would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in his sourcing and would likely simply go with his or her bias. To re-read today some of those journalists—George Packer and Tom Ricks, for example—who sought to write a first draft of the Iraqi war’s history is to recognize how superficial, self-serving, and inaccurate some of their sources were. Khedery, Filkins, and Visser are more the real deal. And each of their writings is worth reading in order to better illustrate key decisions and their reasoning.

That said, one of the problems—and this is especially true in Filkins’s piece—is that American officials tend to re-write their legacies and exaggerate their importance. It is unbecoming, and it reinforces the notion that American officials cannot and should not be trusted. Too often, writers also assume that the United States shapes the playing field, and that Iraqis don’t simply nod their heads, make the American feel important, and then pursue their own politics. It is also unbecoming—and very damaging to American interests—to bash a democratically-elected leader like Maliki simply because he has pursued policies which do not always conform to what the United States would like to see. After all, Maliki’s constituency is Iraq, and not the American embassy. Some American analysts and, indeed, Iraqis can be frustrated with what they perceive as Maliki’s sectarianism, but they might also recognize that Maliki was put in a precarious position when American generals made promises to some Sunni tribal leaders that they had no ability to keep. In effect, these generals traded long-term stability for short-term calm. Of course, the problem isn’t just with these generals: Many Sunni tribal leaders heard only what they wanted to hear from their interlocutors and when what they wished to be the case did not become their reality, they grew bitter and disenfranchised.

Maliki won the largest share of votes in Iraq’s most recent elections, but he also faces unease within his own party, especially in the wake of the joint tribal and Baathist uprising, and ISIS terror campaign that erupted in its wake. It is the vanguard of this uprising that is truly sectarian. To suggest that Maliki is somehow responsible for the sectarian radicalism of the Islamic State is to blame a battered spouse for the aggression of her partner. It is still a testament to Iraq’s system, as convoluted and dysfunctional as it can be, that Maliki may not get the third term he desires for the simple reason that his opponents have coalesced around him.

As to who is responsible for Maliki, let’s stop treating the man as a puppet: Maliki has a far greater role in his rise than outside forces did and even if he got a boost at some strategic points, it is well-past time to stop pretending that Iraqi politicians are puppets that can be controlled by Foggy Bottom or Langley. The more we engage in that self-deception, the more detached from reality we will become, and the worse the outcome will be for U.S. interests in the country.

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Maliki and America’s Bad Bet

The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

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The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

How did we get here? There is no better answer than this lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Ali Khedery. He is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an immensely influential behind-the-scenes player in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. A young and personable Iraqi-American who spoke fluent Arabic, Khedery served as aide to a succession of U.S. ambassadors and Central Command chiefs. He worked closely with all of Iraq’s political leaders as well as with America’s representatives in that country.

Indeed he was one of the first Americans to suggest in 2006 that Maliki would make a good leader for Iraq, but by 2010, witnessing Maliki’s dictatorial and sectarian tendencies, Khedery changed his mind. Following the Iraqi election of that year, in which Maliki’s slate finished in second place behind Ayad Allawi’s party, Khedery urged his American superiors to withdraw their support from Maliki in favor of Adel Abdul Mahdi, another Shiite leader who had served as finance minister. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears. As Khedery recounts, Vice President Biden, during a visit to Baghdad, “said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, ‘I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,’ referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.”

As Khedery recounts it, he was joined in his opposition to Maliki by Generals Jim Mattis and John Allen at Central Command and by Ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey. Even senior Shiite clerics in Iraq weighed in against Maliki. “But all the lobbying was for naught,” Khedery notes. “By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki.”

As Khedery notes, “catastrophe followed”: Maliki pursued a sectarian agenda leading to a Sunni backlash which has enabled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to take control of much of the Sunni Triangle from Fallujah to Mosul. Perhaps the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq might have restrained Maliki’s sectarian tendencies but of course, as we know, the Status of Forces Agreement was not renewed in spite of Biden’s unwarranted certainty that Maliki would endorse it.

Khedery doesn’t have much to say about those negotiations because he had already left government at that point, but he is right to highlight the Obama administration’s disastrous decision to back Maliki in 2010 as one of the American moves that set Iraq on the path to disaster (the others being the decision to let the Syrian civil war rage unabated and the decision not to push harder to keep U.S. forces in Iraq).

The implication of Khedery’s article is clear: We must today rectify the mistake of 2010 and push as hard as we can for Iraq’s parliament to select someone other than Maliki as prime minister. Too bad we have so much less leverage than we did in 2010 because today we have fewer than 1,000 troops in Iraq, as opposed to some 50,000 back then.

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Don’t Overestimate the Islamic State

I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

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I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

Indeed, word from Mosul and elsewhere is that once ISIS passes through, the situation calms rapidly. There are still flights to Mosul listed on the departure board at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. And while there have been atrocities—against some Iraqi army members and, alas, Christians—many of the most gruesome claims, they suggest, are false: just re-posting of photos of Syrian atrocities relabeled to suggest that they had occurred more recently in Iraq. Women are staying home because they don’t necessarily understand what the new rules are or how they will be enforced but, beyond that, life is getting back to normal. The real problem right now, residents say, is that the Iraqi government has cut off salaries, water, and electricity to the city and so supplies are beginning to run out.

The former officers and tribal representatives suggest that Abu Baghdadi’s sermon on Friday in Mosul notwithstanding, they are unwilling to settle for ISIS domination but are willing to cooperate loosely with them for the time being with the full understanding that they will soon be fighting them directly. They also seem to suggest that they recognize that there will have to be negotiations with the Iraqi central government—they have no delusions of taking and holding Baghdad—but that they are unwilling to sit with Prime Minister Maliki, and instead say they will talk to his successor.

Fears of the Islamic State and the caliphate make headlines, but the reach and power of the Islamic State should not be exaggerated. The problem of this radical al-Qaeda off-shoot is real, but the current dynamics in Al-Anbar, Ninewa (Mosul), and Salahuddin (Tikrit) governorates are both more complicated but also perhaps more reconcilable.

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A Failure of Imagination

It’s ironic that Amos Yadlin expounded his proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank just one day before the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found there. Yadlin is one of Israel’s most respected former senior defense officials; aside from his record as a senior air force officer and head of Military Intelligence, he has scrupulously eschewed hyperbolic partisan attacks on Israel’s political leadership of the kind that have disenchanted mainstream Israelis with many of his colleagues. Yet he appears to share another of his colleagues’ fatal flaws–a complete inability to imagine that the security status quo could ever change.

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It’s ironic that Amos Yadlin expounded his proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank just one day before the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found there. Yadlin is one of Israel’s most respected former senior defense officials; aside from his record as a senior air force officer and head of Military Intelligence, he has scrupulously eschewed hyperbolic partisan attacks on Israel’s political leadership of the kind that have disenchanted mainstream Israelis with many of his colleagues. Yet he appears to share another of his colleagues’ fatal flaws–a complete inability to imagine that the security status quo could ever change.

Yadlin’s proposal has many problems; David M. Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center ably analyzed several of them yesterday’s Israel Hayom. But the one I found most astounding was one Weinberg didn’t address: Yadlin’s assertion that, having defeated terror, Israel could now afford to quit much of the West Bank.

It’s certainly true that Israel defeated the second intifada (2000-05), and some of the tactics it used, like the security barrier, would remain in place under a partial pullout like Yadlin proposes. But Israel’s most important counterterrorism tactic was boots on the ground: In 2002, the Israel Defense Forces effectively reoccupied most of the areas vacated over the previous decade under the Oslo Accords, and they never really left again. This enabled Israel to do the daily grunt work of counterterrorism: arresting suspects, interrogating them for leads, seizing weapons stockpiles, and so forth. As I’ve explained before, this ongoing effort is what ultimately dried up a supply of recruits that once looked limitless: Only when the likelihood of being arrested or killed became too high did terror become an unattractive proposition to most Palestinians.

Thus the minute the IDF departs, so will the crucial factor that has restrained terror over the last decade. And terrorist organizations will respond by escalating their activity. After all, as the Palestinians’ enthusiastic support for the teens’ abduction amply shows, their motivation to commit attacks hasn’t declined; what has declined is only their ability to do so.

But once Israel has withdrawn fully from the territory–not a mere troop redeployment as in the 1990s, but a full-scale evacuation, including the dismantling of settlements–it will be powerless to launch the kind of prolonged counterterrorism operations needed to suppress renewed terror: Anything more than brief incursions will become politically untenable, just as it has in evacuated Gaza.

Yet Yadlin appears incapable of imagining a recurrence of the second intifada’s deadly terror, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians. As far as he’s concerned, we’ve defeated terror; now it’s safe to withdraw.

This echoes former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s assertion in January that since “there is no eastern front” right now, Israel can safely withdraw from the Jordan Valley. The eastern front, as I noted last week, is now back in spades, revived by the Islamic State’s takeover of large swathes of Iraq. Dagan’s mistake was that he couldn’t imagine the possibility of such a change: As far as he was concerned, the eastern front was gone, so it would stay gone.

Both men exemplify a problem common to many defense professionals: They understand military tactics and capabilities, but they’re no better than anyone else–and often worse–at predicting political developments. Dagan was blind to the possibility that Syria’s civil war and the jihadi groups it spawned could affect Iraq’s stability, and perhaps even Jordan’s, while Yadlin seems blind to the possibility that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank could spark a resurgence of terror.

That’s why defense officials’ policy recommendations should always be treated skeptically. Making good policy requires an ability to imagine the likely consequences of both your own actions and those of other players. And defense professionals, at least in Israel, seem to be sadly lacking in that ability.

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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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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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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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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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Partition of Iraq Won’t Solve Terrorism

As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

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As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

The problem is that simply granting the Sunni state independent or functional autonomy wouldn’t solve the radicalism problem. The issue isn’t Sunnism; it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and any other Al Qaeda affiliate. If those promoting partition believe that changing borders resolves the danger posed by ISIS, then I have a unicorn to sell them. Simply granting ISIS a safe-haven in the guise of a state won’t make the problem go away, no matter how much American officials want to divorce themselves of Iraq. Nor will borders constrain ISIS. The group seeks not only Mosul, but also Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and ultimately Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Make no mistake: partition is an interesting proposal and sparks a useful debate, and the Iraqi constitution allows for strong federalism even if not explicitly partition, but secession is no substitute for a strategy to confront, roll-back, and defeat the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency which Iraq now faces.

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