Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jalal Talabani

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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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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How to Cheat Americans in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

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Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

Corruption remains a huge problem across the region, perhaps greater than terrorism even, and it remains a huge impediment in Kurdistan both for its own democratic development and for the bilateral relationship between Erbil and Washington. How sad it is, in effect, that so many family members of senior Kurdish politicians would mortgage the future of their region (and, perhaps one day, country) for the sake of a quick buck. Or a couple million of them.

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Where in the World Is Jalal Talabani?

Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

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Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

There is something very, very wrong with a situation in which a president is quite literally kept on ice, but normal isn’t normal in the Middle East. It should not, however, pass without comment in the U.S. press. Talabani was once a favorite source for U.S. journalists, and he is head of state. That he has effectively disappeared for nine months and journalists simply take his immediate family’s testimony as fact is a fundamental betrayal of basic journalism. From a policy perspective, it is also unfortunate since it suggests that a single person is more important than a constitutional system.

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Will Iraq Have a Female President?

While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.

Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.

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While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.

Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.

Hero Khan has long been a major power within Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Her power is based not only on her marriage, but also her pedigree and frankly her intellect and ability. Her father, Ibrahim Ahmad, was a famous Kurdish writer whose split with Masud Barzani’s father ultimately led to the PUK’s creation. Many Westerners are impressed with her for her obvious independence and intelligence. I first met the chain-smoking Hero more than 12 years ago, when she gave me a tour of the television studio she ran in Sulaymani. She came in wearing a t-shirt and jeans to serve me coffee as I waited, and it took me a moment to realize that she was—at that point—the PUK’s first lady. She also has established a number of “non-governmental organizations” in Iraqi Kurdistan, most notably Kurdistan Save the Children.

Kurds, however, will also point out her dark side: She is a ruthless businesswoman—who has not hesitated to use her position, skirt the law or have competitors hurt in order to score triumphs. Independent Kurdish journalists suggest she is unforgiving, defensive and, at times, spiteful against those she feels have wronged her. (Barham Salih can thank Hero Khan’s interference for his earlier failure to become foreign minister. To a lesser extent, I have suffered her cold shoulder when, ironically at her son Qubad’s suggestion, I wrote a long essay detailing the growing problem of corruption in Kurdistan.) Her NGOs are among the most partisan; political independents need not apply. Kurdish medical professionals visiting the United States on exchanges say she is also a manic depressive. She will replicate the best aspects of Jalal Talabani’s personality when she is riding high, but may allow the darker sides of her personality shine through when not.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK, based on their previous agreements, are insistent that the presidency should not only be reserved for a Kurd, but for a member of the PUK. (Many Arabs dispute this.) In the wake of Jalal Talabani’s stroke, the internally popular Kosrat Rasul has become provisional head of the PUK, and the externally popular Barham Salih has become deputy PUK head. That leaves Hero Khan—arguably the PUK’s most powerful member—left floating, a strange outcome unless she has her eye on something bigger.

The presidency is ceremonial—the speaker of parliament wields more power—and both Iraqi Kurds and Iraq Arabs say that the next president will be more constrained by the limits of the presidency than was Talabani, whose gregarious personality and the goodwill of Iranians and Americans allowed him to assume greater power than his position merited.

Should Hero Khan assume the presidency, the results will be mixed. Traditionally, she has been more willing to stand up to the KDP than her husband. The symbolism of a female president in Iraq will be positive, especially against the backdrop of Muqtada al-Sadr’s fierce Islamism–though her accession will also reinforce the worst aspects of Iraqi wasta.

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Looking Beyond Talabani

Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

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Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

Herein lies the problem for U.S. policy: Rather than build a system that does not rely overwhelmingly on one or two individuals, too often U.S. diplomats and generals build policy around a personality. In Afghanistan, it is Hamid Karzai. In Pakistan, it was for too long General Kayani. In Iraq, it has been Jalal Talabani. In Egypt it is, unwisely, Mohamed Morsi. Stability might seem a noble goal in the short term, but the ultimate stability comes from constructing a system in which no man is indispensable. Some indispensable figures like Hamid Karzai will embrace corruption, calculating that they are immune from international accountability because diplomats can find no alternative.

The indispensable man often also maintains his position by ensuring that no competent rival emerges from the bureaucracy; the most able men are cut off at the knees. Karzai’s firing of Defense Minister Wardak falls into this category. Talabani spent his later years trying to undercut Barham Salih, the relatively young wunderkind who emerged from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Let us hope Talabani recovers. But if he does not, the political chaos that might emerge should be a reminder that any system dependent on one man is not one upon which the United States can ever depend.

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Iraq Sends Condolences to Bashar’s Sister

The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq certainly has taken a toll in terms of influence. A day after a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the hated Assef Shawkat, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has sent his condolences (google translation here) to Bushra Assad, Bashar Assad’s sister. That’s right: After years of terror sponsorship—including helping orchestrate an underground railroad for suicide bombers into Iraq, Assad and his inner circle now orchestrate a campaign of massacres and sectarian cleansing. After the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, a bomb kills one of the chief perpetrators. And Talabani sends condolences on the death of the man who competes to have the most blood on his hands.

Talabani’s actions are par for the course but, alas, it is a course that Obama and his top Middle East advisers do not understand. It does not matter how pro-American someone says they are, nor does it matter how pro-American they may be in their hearts. If the United States indicates that it is weak, it does not have staying power, or that it is afraid to stand up to evil, then everyone who lives in the region will begin to make their accommodation with evil simply because they will do what they need to do to survive. Obama washes his hands of Iraq? Then it is only natural Talabani will do what it takes to stay on the good side of Iran and Assad.

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The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq certainly has taken a toll in terms of influence. A day after a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the hated Assef Shawkat, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has sent his condolences (google translation here) to Bushra Assad, Bashar Assad’s sister. That’s right: After years of terror sponsorship—including helping orchestrate an underground railroad for suicide bombers into Iraq, Assad and his inner circle now orchestrate a campaign of massacres and sectarian cleansing. After the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, a bomb kills one of the chief perpetrators. And Talabani sends condolences on the death of the man who competes to have the most blood on his hands.

Talabani’s actions are par for the course but, alas, it is a course that Obama and his top Middle East advisers do not understand. It does not matter how pro-American someone says they are, nor does it matter how pro-American they may be in their hearts. If the United States indicates that it is weak, it does not have staying power, or that it is afraid to stand up to evil, then everyone who lives in the region will begin to make their accommodation with evil simply because they will do what they need to do to survive. Obama washes his hands of Iraq? Then it is only natural Talabani will do what it takes to stay on the good side of Iran and Assad.

Let us hope that we do not sacrifice Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, and Bahrain to the same short-sightedness that now permeates the White House and State Department.

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Outreach to Egypt?

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

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It’s the Everything, Stupid

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up. Read More

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up.

What happened could not have been predicted: the campus progressivism and the incompetence fused. Obama pushed through an enormous fiscal stimulus and a calamitous healthcare policy, both of which were not only unapologetically redistributive but structurally unsound as well. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron said of the stimulus, “even the components with a plausible justification were designed in the least productive and most redistributionist way possible.”  A labyrinthine bureaucratic architecture and a tangle of regulatory loose ends similarly doomed ObamaCare.

On foreign policy, the same thing happened. President Obama not only approached foreign provocateurs with harmful progressive notions of Western guilt and omni-directional empathy; his green foreign policy team bungled overtures and gambits, so that world leaders ceased to take America seriously, even as an apology nation.  While antagonists forged greater alliances, friends complained about the un-seriousness of American policy. The world took the measure of the commander in chief and pronounced him a lightweight.

Now, with the waiting game over and with the midterm elections having hemmed in the administration, we have a president who is, halfway into his term, ineffective. At this point, he’s likely to pivot to foreign affairs where he’s less constrained by the conservative realignment in Congress. But look at how that’s going. During a 10-day tour of Asia, Obama failed to secure a key trade agreement with South Korea and got nowhere with China on its harmful currency devaluation. At the same time, Obama’s ill-conceived personal request that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani step aside and allow Iyad Allawi to become Iraq’s new president was immediately rebuffed. Even as our troops make progress in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai tells the Washington Post, “The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan… to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life.” A burst of military success is not enough in Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to be in for the long haul, so that our allies don’t cut survival deals with our enemies. If we’re not staying long enough to keep Afghanistan on course, Karzai wants his waiver too. Many pundits are misinterpreting Obama’s foreign policy headaches. It’s not that world leaders are responding to Americans’ midterm disapproval; it’s that they too are unimpressed.

No American should be pleased about any of this. Those who were initially afraid of Obama’s power and his ideological designs now have a new concern of equal importance: his powerlessness.  Recently, Walter Russell Mead wrote at his American Interest blog, “No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama.” If he keeps falling, he takes us with him. Waivers are a start, but the enormous work of reversal and restoration has not yet properly begun. We’d all do well to hope for a little of that early executive determination and sense of purpose.

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A Coalition Government Is Formed in Iraq

So it appears that a government is finally going to be formed in Iraq, after eight agonizing months of politicking.

As usual, Iraqi politicos waited until the 11th hour and a bit beyond to reach a deal, but that they finally managed to bridge their differences is a hopeful sign for that troubled country’s future as an emerging democracy.

It’s hard to know what took so long, since the deal that has finally been reached is not too different from what was envisioned in the beginning: Nouri al-Maliki remains as prime minister, but Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, which won the most votes, will get the speakership of parliament along with the leadership of a new committee that will oversee national security policy. The Kurds, meanwhile, retain the symbolic presidency, which will continue to be held by Jalal Talabani. There are more details to be ironed out, of course, including the exact distribution of cabinet seats; it will be important that the Sadrists be kept out of positions of responsibility.

However the posts are distributed, this will be an unwieldy coalition government that will hardly be a model of efficiency. But that’s preferable to the alternative. The wounds of civil war in Iraq are still too raw to risk having Allawi’s bloc go into opposition, as surely would have happened in a more mature parliamentary democracy. In Iraq, that would have risked giving Sunnis a feeling of disenfranchisement, which might have led them to take up arms again.

Painful as this government-formation process was, the good news is that Iraq hasn’t gone to pieces. There have been occasional, horrific terrorist acts, but overall violence has remained low. Economic development has continued, with the Wall Street Journal reporting today on how Basra has become an oil boomtown. Expect even greater oil riches to be tapped once the new government takes office and ensures some political stability.

That Iraq has continued to inch forward despite the paralysis of its politicos is a tribute to the good sense of the Iraqi people and to the growing competency of the Iraqi security forces — supported, lest we forget, by 50,000 U.S. troops who still remain. The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor.

The first order of business now is to ensure that the gains Iraq has made don’t evaporate in the future. That means negotiating a new U.S.-Iraqi security accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain post-2011 to train the Iraqi security forces and to act implicitly as a peacekeeping force to ensure that tensions don’t boil over into renewed violence.

So it appears that a government is finally going to be formed in Iraq, after eight agonizing months of politicking.

As usual, Iraqi politicos waited until the 11th hour and a bit beyond to reach a deal, but that they finally managed to bridge their differences is a hopeful sign for that troubled country’s future as an emerging democracy.

It’s hard to know what took so long, since the deal that has finally been reached is not too different from what was envisioned in the beginning: Nouri al-Maliki remains as prime minister, but Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, which won the most votes, will get the speakership of parliament along with the leadership of a new committee that will oversee national security policy. The Kurds, meanwhile, retain the symbolic presidency, which will continue to be held by Jalal Talabani. There are more details to be ironed out, of course, including the exact distribution of cabinet seats; it will be important that the Sadrists be kept out of positions of responsibility.

However the posts are distributed, this will be an unwieldy coalition government that will hardly be a model of efficiency. But that’s preferable to the alternative. The wounds of civil war in Iraq are still too raw to risk having Allawi’s bloc go into opposition, as surely would have happened in a more mature parliamentary democracy. In Iraq, that would have risked giving Sunnis a feeling of disenfranchisement, which might have led them to take up arms again.

Painful as this government-formation process was, the good news is that Iraq hasn’t gone to pieces. There have been occasional, horrific terrorist acts, but overall violence has remained low. Economic development has continued, with the Wall Street Journal reporting today on how Basra has become an oil boomtown. Expect even greater oil riches to be tapped once the new government takes office and ensures some political stability.

That Iraq has continued to inch forward despite the paralysis of its politicos is a tribute to the good sense of the Iraqi people and to the growing competency of the Iraqi security forces — supported, lest we forget, by 50,000 U.S. troops who still remain. The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor.

The first order of business now is to ensure that the gains Iraq has made don’t evaporate in the future. That means negotiating a new U.S.-Iraqi security accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain post-2011 to train the Iraqi security forces and to act implicitly as a peacekeeping force to ensure that tensions don’t boil over into renewed violence.

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Handshakes with the Enemy

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

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A Mesopotamian Love Triangle?

Diana West just emailed me her March 7 Washington Times column about Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s visit to Iraq. The article “Whose Side is Iraq really on?” was sent with the tag “Feedback welcome.” With Diana’s permission, I’ll use this space for my thoughts.

Diana is disgusted with Ahmadinejad’s seemingly warm welcome in Iraq. She compares the U.S.-Iraq-Iran relationship to a pulp fiction love triangle. “The good guy (us, natch), has been betrayed by the love object he supports and defends (Iraq), having been left to watch and stew as she gallivants with his rival (Iran).”

In describing the situation as fiction, Diana is more correct than she knows. Ahmadinejad’s celebrated tour of Iraq was, more than anything else, a PR coup staged by a small group of Iranian proxies. Troubling as it is to read that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said to Ahmadinejad, “Call me Uncle Jalal,” it hardly means that the U.S is in an unprecedented historical pickle. In fact, he’s simply known to all as “Uncle Jalal.”

Though at times maddening, Talabani is in some sense exactly what Iraq needs to move forward: a shrewd, pragmatic leader with a cool eye on long-term solutions. In a region that’s known only murderous realists or murderous idealogues, a man for whom occasional compromise is a means to just ends is a promising change.

Iraq and Iran share an enormous border. Iraq is in no position militarily to stop the mullahs to their east. Frankly that will come down to us or Israel, or no one. If Talabani thinks observing the hollow niceties of “diplomatic” jaunts can buy his country a little peace, he is being, in my estimation, disturbingly “realist” and surprisingly naïve. But he’s not going over to the dark side.

Talabani may have been willing to go through the motions because, as mentioned earlier, Ahmadinejad’s trip was ultimately a failure. Orchestrated by Iranian surrogates inside Iraq, the deck was stacked wherever he went. Former employees of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence greeted him in various locations, while hordes of Iraqis outside his caravan protested.

But Ahmadinejad was deprived of what he wanted most: a picture with Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This would have advertised solidarity between Shi’ite Iran and the most important Shi’ite in Iraq. Though Diana cites the fact that al-Sistani still has an Iranian passport as evidence of the Iran-Iraq romance, al-Sistani seems to feel otherwise. He cited “scheduling conflicts” and sent Ahmadinejad back to Iran with nothing but a very dull razor in hand. The U.S., however, is still in Iraq, fighting the good fight, forging legitimate ties with a potentially powerful ally, and reestablishing throughout the region what had all but disappeared: American credibility.

Diana recently wrote a book entitled The Death of the Grown-up. It’s a fascinating study of how the West now faces the most pressing issues with a dangerously adolescent worldview. Diana writes at the end of her Times piece: “I wonder whether we will ever walk out on these destructive relationships and recover our self-respect.” I must say, respectfully, to her: Relationships are work, Diana. Kids quit.

Diana West just emailed me her March 7 Washington Times column about Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s visit to Iraq. The article “Whose Side is Iraq really on?” was sent with the tag “Feedback welcome.” With Diana’s permission, I’ll use this space for my thoughts.

Diana is disgusted with Ahmadinejad’s seemingly warm welcome in Iraq. She compares the U.S.-Iraq-Iran relationship to a pulp fiction love triangle. “The good guy (us, natch), has been betrayed by the love object he supports and defends (Iraq), having been left to watch and stew as she gallivants with his rival (Iran).”

In describing the situation as fiction, Diana is more correct than she knows. Ahmadinejad’s celebrated tour of Iraq was, more than anything else, a PR coup staged by a small group of Iranian proxies. Troubling as it is to read that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said to Ahmadinejad, “Call me Uncle Jalal,” it hardly means that the U.S is in an unprecedented historical pickle. In fact, he’s simply known to all as “Uncle Jalal.”

Though at times maddening, Talabani is in some sense exactly what Iraq needs to move forward: a shrewd, pragmatic leader with a cool eye on long-term solutions. In a region that’s known only murderous realists or murderous idealogues, a man for whom occasional compromise is a means to just ends is a promising change.

Iraq and Iran share an enormous border. Iraq is in no position militarily to stop the mullahs to their east. Frankly that will come down to us or Israel, or no one. If Talabani thinks observing the hollow niceties of “diplomatic” jaunts can buy his country a little peace, he is being, in my estimation, disturbingly “realist” and surprisingly naïve. But he’s not going over to the dark side.

Talabani may have been willing to go through the motions because, as mentioned earlier, Ahmadinejad’s trip was ultimately a failure. Orchestrated by Iranian surrogates inside Iraq, the deck was stacked wherever he went. Former employees of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence greeted him in various locations, while hordes of Iraqis outside his caravan protested.

But Ahmadinejad was deprived of what he wanted most: a picture with Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This would have advertised solidarity between Shi’ite Iran and the most important Shi’ite in Iraq. Though Diana cites the fact that al-Sistani still has an Iranian passport as evidence of the Iran-Iraq romance, al-Sistani seems to feel otherwise. He cited “scheduling conflicts” and sent Ahmadinejad back to Iran with nothing but a very dull razor in hand. The U.S., however, is still in Iraq, fighting the good fight, forging legitimate ties with a potentially powerful ally, and reestablishing throughout the region what had all but disappeared: American credibility.

Diana recently wrote a book entitled The Death of the Grown-up. It’s a fascinating study of how the West now faces the most pressing issues with a dangerously adolescent worldview. Diana writes at the end of her Times piece: “I wonder whether we will ever walk out on these destructive relationships and recover our self-respect.” I must say, respectfully, to her: Relationships are work, Diana. Kids quit.

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The Worst since 9/11

Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

Read More

Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

Yet the terrorist attack that killed far fewer people at a tourist resort in Bali dominated headlines all over the world for weeks in October 2002. More recently, the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, which killed only one tenth as many, also created far more powerful shock waves. The world, it seems, is all but immune to al Qaeda’s shock and awe in Iraq. It has been a long time since mass murder in Mesopotamia has been news. Few still cry for Iraq. Hardly anyone has heard of Yezidis, the victims.

I know the Yezidis, however, and I can’t say I’m immune. I visited their capital, their “Mecca,” in Lalish, near Mosul, in 2005 and again in 2006. They are among the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. I went to see them because the president of Dohuk University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said, “but I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.” Some conservative Muslims libel the Yezidis as disciples of Satan, but they have a respected place in Kurdish culture. Kurdistan’s flag is unique among those of Muslims in that it includes a religious symbol, the Yezidi symbol—the sun, instead of a crescent.

The Yezidis have never declared war on anyone. They are the closest thing Iraq has to Quakers. Perhaps al Qaeda massacred the Yezidi refugees because they were a soft target, and because terrorists need body counts to be credible. Perhaps the Yezidis were killed because they are “infidels.” But does it even matter? Al Qaeda has no alleged grievances against the Yezidis, who have no political power and no militia, and who do not participate in sectarian Muslim rivalry. Even Saddam Hussein left them alone.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who himself is an ethnic Kurd, said the attack on the Yezidis’ refugee camp was genocidal. This is an overstatement. I can’t blame him, though, for reaching a bit. We need a new word for the instantaneous massacre of 500 innocents. The conventional and overused label of “terrorism” somehow doesn’t quite say it.

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