Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurds

The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Is Kobane 2014 Warsaw 1944?

This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

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This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

When the Polish partisans rose up, they expected the Red Army to sweep into the city and liberate it from the Nazis. Instead, the Red Army stayed put while the Nazis gained the upper hand, slaughtered the Polish nationalists, and then razed the city. While the United States embraced Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as an ally in the realpolitik world of World War II, too often whitewashing his racist and murderous proclivities, Stalin himself had a plan for post-World War II Europe, and strong Polish nationalism had no place in it. What I had not known until I had visited the museum was the multiple requests to the United States and its allies to provide air support or airdrop supplies to the partisans who were slowly being starved between Nazis and the Red Army. No air support was forthcoming; the allies did not want to irk Stalin. When it came to other supplies, what came was too little, and much too late.

Fast forward 70 years. The Islamic State (ISIS) is surrounding the majority Kurdish town of Kobane, an enclave which has also taken in thousands of displaced Christians and Arabs. The United States has for months ignored the advance, and only in recent days provided some aerial assistance. Those fighting in Kobane are wedged between ISIS and, just a kilometer away, the Turkish Army. The Turks refuse to provide assistance to the Kurdish defenders, even as they watch hundreds of thousands flee, and thousands killed or wounded.

Many Turkish citizens—both ethnic Turks and Kurds—recognize the cynicism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom outreach toward Kurds is consistently just a pre-election ploy. This is why, as the fall of Kobane to ISIS has neared, Kurds have taken to the streets inside Turkey to protest. In the last couple days, this has led to more than a dozen deaths inside Turkey and the Turkish government imposing curfew on six cities. The analysis and observations of “the radical democrat” are well worth reading.

The Kurdish resistance first toward sl-Qaeda and then toward ISIS started out strong. But, as ISIS has enriched itself through the seizure of equipment and a flow of foreign militants and, perhaps, some support for Turkey as well, it has grown strong. At the same time, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and ISIS have blockaded the Syrian Kurds. The State Department demand that the Syrian Kurds forfeit their claim to federalism and subordinate themselves both to the Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups of the official opposition who live in Istanbul and control nothing on the ground and to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who, because of corruption and the antics of their sons, are hugely unpopular is short-sighted and ridiculous. That Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to watch thousands slaughtered, raped, or enslaved in order to drive this point home is a poor reflection on what America stands for.

How sad it is that history is repeating, with the Syrian Kurds playing the part of the Warsaw partisans and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan playing the part of Stalin. The Americans, alas, are once again recognizing pending tragedy but refusing out of cynicism, misplaced diplomacy, or simple incompetence to do anything about it. The freedom-seeking world should be better than it was in 1944, as the freedom fighters of Warsaw perished. Unfortunately, events are showing it is not.

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ISIS Withstanding U.S. Counteroffensive

The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

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The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

Actually it’s worse than that–far from giving up ground, ISIS continues to take fresh territory. There are recent reports that “the black flag of ISIS was raised on the outskirts of the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani on Monday afternoon”; that ISIS fighters “have become a major presence in Abu Ghraib,” a town only 15 miles from Baghdad International Airport; and that ISIS fighters have also “seized weapons and besieged hundreds of Iraqi soldiers after overrunning … the Albu Aytha military camp, 50 miles outside of Baghdad.”

And the situation could get more dire still: “With U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq failing to halt the advance of the Islamic State, opposition forces in neighboring Syria warn that the Obama administration risks losing the Iraqi capital of Baghdad unless Washington helps the rebels open up new fronts against the militants in both countries.” Actually it’s unlikely that Baghdad will fall anytime soon to ISIS simply because there are so many Shiite residents of the capital, but it is quite plausible to expect a battle in the streets that will increase the already high death toll.

What is to be done about all this? Robert Ford, who resigned in disgust as Obama’s ambassador to Syria, offers useful suggestions. These include: “The United States and its partners must supply more ammunition and equipment to moderate groups in northern and southern Syria…. We must support a unified Syrian command structure by channeling our assistance through it, and we need to insist that our Arab allies do the same… We should be doing more to coordinate our attacks with opposition commanders.”

All good ideas. Beyond that, Obama needs to relax his prohibition on “boots on the ground.” While there are undoubtedly some Special Operations and CIA forces already running around Iraq and possibly Syria, a much larger commitment of Special Operators and advisers is needed to work as combat advisers alongside Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes, and select units of the Iraqi army and Free Syrian Army. This will make it possible to push back ISIS from the town of Kobani, whereas if the U.S. doesn’t have eyes on the ground it will be hard to bomb accurately.

The U.S. must also recommit to toppling Assad–a move that could finally entice President Erdogan of Turkey to commit Turkish troops to carve out safe zones in northern Syria where the more moderate Syrian opposition can begin to govern and thus offer an alternative to the terror of both Assad and ISIS.

In short, Obama needs to overcome his illusions and understand the limits of air power. Bombing is a good first step, but by itself it is not going to roll back the fanatical empire that ISIS is constructing.

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Beheading Shows Just How Bad U.S. Intelligence Has Become

The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

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The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

Still, as the United States prepares military action, if President Obama is to be believed, the beheading of Haines reinforces just how bad American intelligence has become in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The terrorist murdering Haines refers to British pledges to support the Kurdish peshmerga against ISIS as well as bombing of the Haditha dam a week ago. This suggests that Haines was not killed at the time of previous ISIS videos, but rather in the last couple days.

This suggests that neither the United States nor United Kingdom has much of an idea about where its citizens are being held hostage. Given the importance to ISIS of its propaganda campaign, this means in turn that the United States and United Kingdom likely have little to no idea about where high-value ISIS targets are. (Turkey may have some idea. When I was in Syria earlier this year, almost everyone—opposition and regime—used Turkish cell phone signals which mysteriously penetrated deep into Syria. That those are not monitored beggars belief; that Turkey would not share its intelligence with Western democracies does not.)

In effect, while air power can strike at some ISIS hardware or permanent encampments, the United States is fighting blind.

Time may resolve this. Intelligence insight increases with greater and contiguous presence. The longer the United States remains committed, the better our intelligence penetration should be.

Let us hope that future presidents learn a lesson: The United States based its withdrawal from Iraq and its coming retreat from Afghanistan on two pillars: That armies we trained could control ground and that the United States could provide “over-the-horizon” security from naval aircraft or from bases outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Both assumptions were false: The training of the Iraq army, Afghan army, and Kurdish peshmerga were a multi-billion dollar fiasco, and the United States has been able to do very little from over-the-horizon, largely because we blinded ourselves with our withdrawal.

By withdrawing completely, however, and severing so much of the military-to-military and intelligence relationships, the United States blinded ourselves to events just as surely as we had shoved a hot poker into our eyes. Our human intelligence slowed to a drip, and then dried up completely. Once hard-won capabilities are forfeited, they cannot be restored with a wave of a magic wand or presidential rhetoric.

Perhaps had we not packed up and gone home but left the residual force which the Iraqis expected, we would not have been so blind as to ISIS’s rise and the whereabouts of its assets and our captured citizens.

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Not All Peshmerga Are the Same

Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

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Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

The peshmerga—literally “those who face death”—have a vaunted reputation as agile guerrilla fighters who harassed Saddam Hussein’s forces and survived months if not years up in the mountains. One of my best memories of Kurdistan was in March 2001, accompanying a peshmerga veteran from the fight against Saddam in the 1980s to the mountain marking the southern boundary of Duhok city: He showed me Assyrian carvings that expats who have transited Duhok for years don’t know exist; afterwards, we gathered some of the greens and roots that peshmerga lived on when they could not make it down to a village to have for our dinner.

But in the years after the 1991 establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the peshmerga came down from the mountains; many demanded government positions to which they felt they were entitled, but scarcely qualified.

Kurdistan’s political factionalism made matters worse. The peshmerga were and, alas, still are organized more as party militias than as a professional military. Between 1994 and 1997, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga (supported by Iran) and Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga (supported, at times, by Saddam Hussein) fought it out because of revenue sharing disputes between the two main Kurdish parties. Kurds say that 3,000 prisoners remain missing from that time, presumably executed by the rival peshmerga forces.

While the Iraqi Kurds have, since around 2001, made efforts to “unify” the peshmerga, the peshmerga forces—like the corollary party intelligence services—are unified more on paper than in reality. Take, for example, recent fighting: It was the PUK peshmerga that seized Kirkuk, tying that city closer to Sulaymani, where the PUK and its offshoot Gorran predominate. The KDP peshmerga were those fighting to retake the Mosul dam after ISIS forces briefly took it.

While many Kurds sing the peshmerga’s praises, there is tension beneath the surface. ISIS may have caught the West by surprise, by the Yezidis living in and around Sinjar had been asking the KDP peshmerga for weaponry and reinforcements for weeks before ISIS took Sinjar and slaughtered hundreds of men and enslaved hundreds of women and girls. The KDP refused to send reinforcements, and most Yezidis—and many other Kurds—are bitter. The reasons given for why the KDP peshmerga refused reinforcements range from incompetent leadership to corruption (the resources had been embezzled or spent elsewhere) to more cynical desire to trade on the Yezidi suffering for weaponry. Regardless, Reuters last week published an account of a 14-year-old who escaped ISIS captivity; she had been given as a gift to fighters on the frontline. Her tale is tragic, but her redemption is important:

“When [the militants] left us I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I saw a bag full of cell phones and I called my brother,” Shaker told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a camp for internally displaced people in Iraq. On the phone, her brother Samir told her to go to a nearby house and ask for help and directions to reach the border where fighters from the Kurdistan State Workers Party (PKK) were battling Islamic State militants. He said the PKK would help her reach safety… The two girls set off toward the front lines. “I couldn’t walk straight, my legs were shaking and my heart was beating so fast. We ran and walked and we never looked back,” Shaker said. After two hours on the road they heard gunfire. As they got closer, they saw a group of PKK fighters and started running towards them. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” she said. “We were free.”

Too often when Americans talk about the peshmerga, they forget the Popular Protection Units (YPG) which have fought—and defeated both ISIS and the Syrian regime—long before the KDP and PUK peshmerga joined the fight. I had visited Syrian Kurdistan at the beginning of the year, and wrote about my observations here. More recently, Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou have written along similar lines in the New York Times.

It remains incredible to me that the United States continues to blockade and boycott the only section of Syria that is controlled by a secular group committed to both the destruction of ISIS and one which has given refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians (and now Iraqis) without reference to their religion or ethnicity. We do so because Turkey historically has demanded the United States consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, even as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched peace talks with the group. The United States should not be more Turkish than the Turks, nor deny the space to an effective secular group that otherwise would be controlled by ISIS.

Certainly, despite its democratic rhetoric, the PKK remains a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Then again, despite its democratic rhetoric, the KDP remains also a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around Masud Barzani, the son of its founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Just as the KDP once fought the PUK over resources, much of the antagonism fed to the West about the YPG today traces back to either Turkey or the KDP. In the latter case, it’s again about resources.

When the United States first became involved in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, various Iraqi political actors took advantage of the U.S. military’s lack of understanding of the political terrain in order to get the United States to target rivals and internal adversaries. When it comes to the ISIS threat today, the same pattern is repeating as Kurdish peshmerga seek U.S. help to empower them against not only ISIS but also their rivals. The United States should not get sucked into such a game: If the Pentagon plans to support the peshmerga, it should support all of them with an emphasis on providing the most support to those actually doing the bulk of the fighting. In such a case, it’s time to support the YPG without any further delay. It should also insist that the Kurds professionalize the peshmerga, unify the Iraqi peshmerga, and take them out of family hands. There is no reason to insist on a different standard of professionalism in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the rest of Iraq.

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Any ISIS Strategy Has to Starve its Finances

Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

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Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

Nevertheless, the Iraq Energy Institute estimates ISIS currently produces about 30,000 barrels per day in Iraq and 50,000 in Syria. At the black market price of $40 a barrel, this equates to $3.2 million a day, or $100 million each month. ISIS militants, however, are hardly specialists in oil production. Even if ISIS managed to take over the Baiji refinery, they would need to hire technical staff or coerce its existing workers. The ISIS oil distribution network is primitive: a coordinated system of 210 trucks carrying oil along ISIS-controlled smuggling routes. Transporting oil via trucks may be far less efficient than using pipelines, but it’s also much harder to track and it still turns a profit.

ISIS cannot export its oil without the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, or perhaps Jordan. Jordan, of course, was the biggest buster of Saddam-era sanctions, largely because it wanted Iraqi oil regardless of the price. Queen Rania has a reputation as a profligate spender whose needs sometimes trump responsible governance and, in this case, diplomacy. When it comes to ISIS, however, Iraqi Kurds are potential middlemen. Kurds have seldom hesitated to do business with anyone, even their sworn enemies. When I sat down with former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani more than a decade ago for a Middle East Quarterly interview, he admitted readily the Kurds’ economic relations with Saddam Hussein, who just 13 years previous had used chemical weapons against a village loyal to Talabani. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam, they found numerous photos and videos of current Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani meeting and discussing business with Saddam Hussein or his young sons. Turkey, of course, can’t even bring itself to call ISIS a terrorist group.

ISIS is a problem that has steadily metastasized. And while President Obama will on Wednesday outline a military strategy to address the ISIS problem, it’s important to recognize that the military component should only be one part of a broader strategy. No end to pressure should be brought to bear on Turkey, which has allowed ISIS free movement across its borders. Turkey’s double game on ISIS and terrorism in general has quickly transformed the putative U.S. ally into “Pakistan on the Med.” And naming and shaming any country buying or selling ISIS oil should also be a no-brainer. There should be no end of efforts to starve ISIS of all oxygen which it requires to exist.

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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U.S. Commitment Needed in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Explain Failures or Abandon Training Missions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back the Syrian Peshmerga

With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

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With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

Many suggest arming the Kurds. While there are merits and drawbacks to that proposal, the problem is that the image of the Kurdish peshmerga does not necessarily correlate to the reality of their capabilities. The peshmerga of a generation ago were adept at mountain fighting and gave Saddam a run for his money. Two decades of corrosive politics, however, have undercut the peshmerga as political loyalty trumped competence. Masud Barzani appointed his second son a general, even though he had little if any military experience to back that rank. Hagiography toward the peshmerga also distorts reality: it is hard for the peshmerga to correct its mistakes if any criticism is met with umbrage and a slight to honor.

The simple fact is that as ISIS advanced on Sinjar and other towns in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s peshmerga failed. Indeed, the peshmerga’s poor performance has shaken Erbil, which counts on the peshmerga’s image of strength to keep any Kurdish frustration at Barzani in check. It’s not clear that the peshmerga even need weaponry, nor is it certain that the KDP peshmerga have the skill to fight ISIS effectively. This is why I argue that it would be more effective for the United States to tackle the job themselves via forces hosted in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps in conjunction with a contingent based in southern Iraq. Kirkuk and Al-Tallil Airbases already have infrastructure to support U.S. forces, aircraft, and drones as need be. Bases need not be a dirty word, and returning jointly to both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq will bypass the sovereignty issue that Iraqis rightly brought up when I suggested a base in Kurdistan.

ISIS, however, is not just an Iraqi problem and the Iraqi Kurds are not the only community to have a peshmerga. Indeed, if the KDP peshmerga have disappointed, the opposite is true for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) formed in Rojava, as Syrian Kurds call the region they have carved out in northeastern Syria. The YPG has been the only group in Syria which has been consistently victorious against ISIS and the Nusra Front inside Syria. It has not fought over just a town or so, but has waged pitched battles against incredible odds and won. Their victory has come at a high cost—when I was in Syrian Kurdistan earlier this year, YPG graves were both fresh and numerous, and family members regularly visited shrines set up in towns like Qamishli to commemorate loved ones killed in battle.

If the Iraqi Kurdish government was so short on resources, the son of Masoud Barzani would not have purchased a $10 million residence in northern Virginia. There is both more need and fewer resources available in Syrian Kurdistan. Perhaps a better strategy would be not only to take advantage of Masud Barzani’s longstanding offer of a base in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to utilize weaponry Kurdish peshmerga are untrained to use and untrusted to possess, but also to provide more basic weaponry and ammunition to the YPG, effectively rewarding that group’s success.

Indeed, the YPG break the conundrum American policymakers currently face in Syria: the opposition with which we deal diplomatically has little sway on the ground, while the opposition on the ground are far from moderate. The YPG is not only moderate, but controls significant territory. The YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey should be immaterial. After all, the PKK poses no threat to the United States, is secular, and has reached a truce with the Turkish government. Regardless, American interests should trump Turkey’s obsession. It’s time to start arming the Syrian peshmerga. If the YPG—properly armed—can cut ISIS supply routes into Iraq, then they should be rewarded with recognition of Syrian Kurdistan’s federal status, recognition which is already long overdue.

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It’s Time for a Base in Kurdistan

Max Boot is absolutely right that the West cannot afford to dither while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash) expands its territory through north-central Iraq. Should the group seize the Mosul Dam, as was prematurely reported earlier this week, it could put millions at risk. And recent Islamic State victories show not that their fighters are that good, but rather than the reputation of both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga was and is much too inflated.

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Max Boot is absolutely right that the West cannot afford to dither while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash) expands its territory through north-central Iraq. Should the group seize the Mosul Dam, as was prematurely reported earlier this week, it could put millions at risk. And recent Islamic State victories show not that their fighters are that good, but rather than the reputation of both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga was and is much too inflated.

For all the lionization of the peshmerga, many of those in its ranks are there because of political patronage. Kurdish authorities have long inflated peshmerga numbers as well in order to attract greater subsidies and, perhaps in some cases, skim salaries of ghost employees. Political division also hampers the peshmerga: despite all the talk about unity, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan still distrust each other and act more as party militias than as a unified force.

So how should the United States respond, assuming President Obama recognizes the threat and realizes that doing nothing will only cause the Islamic State problem to metathesize? Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurds might sound good on paper, but might not have the effect which the United States seeks.

There’s a huge discrepancy between Kurdish statements and Iraqi Kurdish public opinion on one hand, and the actions of the Kurdish leadership on the other when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kurds may like the United States, but Kurdish authorities recognize that Iran is their neighbor. Qods Force leader Qassem Suleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have as much influence (if not more) over the Kurds as they do with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and among the Shi‘ites in southern Iraq. Here, for example, is a recent report which, if accurate, suggests that the IRGC is actively intervening in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurdish government, therefore, is as replete with risks as giving weaponry to the Iraqi government: They could lose it in battle or through corruption and could share U.S.-provided intelligence with Iranian authorities, potentially exposing American capabilities or undercutting and burning American assets.

One of the reasons why Kurdish authorities have become so deferential to Iranian authorities is because the U.S. withdrawal forced Kurdish realists to accommodate Iranian interests. However, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani has repeatedly invited American authorities to establish a base in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps it’s time the White House and Pentagon take him up on his offer. Sometimes when faced with a security threat, the best option is to take matters into our own hands. Not only might a base be used to run drones or manned aircraft to combat the Islamic State and its advance in the region, but figuratively planting the flag would give Kurds reason to balance their outreach to Iran.

The biggest difference between left and right with regard to national security in the United States is that the left automatically demonizes power while the right understands that it can be used for good or bad. The Obama administration is distrustful of force projection, but sometimes projecting force is the best defense. Cutbacks or not, a base in Iraqi Kurdistan would be an important investment, one which would pay dividends far beyond its cost.

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Erdoğan’s Projection of Hatred

Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

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Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

Here, for example, is Erdoğan comparing Israel’s policy to Hitler’s, while accusing Israel of perpetrating state terrorism. The irony here is that it was under Erdoğan that Mein Kampf became a Turkish best-seller, apparently because of mysterious Turkish subsidies, and a Turkish film endorsed by Erdoğan’s wife brought blood libel to the big screen. There’s a reason why Turkey’s centuries-old Jewish community is now beginning to flee.

But what about the charge of state terrorism? Hamas, of course, is in violation of the Geneva Accords by hiding among civilians, eschewing uniforms, and placing weaponry in homes, schools, and mosques. Despite this, Israel, however, has bent over backwards to prevent civilian casualties. They are the only military force in the world to utilize roof-knocking, for example, to warn civilians to evacuate buildings in which Hamas built bomb factories or sheltered terrorists.

But what about Turkey? On December 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets fired at a column of unarmed Kurds near the border, killing 34, half of whom were children. While Erdoğan has claimed that Muslims don’t kill Muslims, dozens of widows, parents, and orphans beg to differ. And while Erdoğan claims that Israel pays money for the deaths of those on the Mavi Marmara, he has refused to pay compensation for the Kurds for whose deaths he is responsible. That’s certainly reflective of Erdoğan’s hypocrisy. But taken together, it creates a certain irony: a racist, hate-mongering ruler who censors the press, slaughters innocents on the basis of their ethnicity, and then accuses others of acting like Hitler. Perhaps when Erdoğan invokes such analogies, he projects a bit too much?

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Will Kurdistan Be the World’s Newest Dictatorship?

With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

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With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

That said, while it’s easy to cheer lead for Kurdish independence, it would be tragic to believe that the Kurdish struggle will end with the lowering of the Iraqi flag (if any still fly outside of Sulaymani and Kirkuk) and the raising of the old Mahabad flag adopted by Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdistan is still divided among oligarchs and tribal strongmen. And while it will be easy to welcome Kurdistan into the formal family of nations, it would do Kurds a disservice if the international community simply forgot about them then and ceased pressuring for Kurdistan to become the democracy that so many Kurds desire. Masud Barzani, the Kurdish Region’s president, unilaterally extended his second term so as to avoid the constitutional mandate to step down at its conclusion. He promotes a cult of personality, bases employment on party loyalty and family fealty, and uses his son’s security force against any who would pose him or his party any challenge whatsoever. He draws no differentiation between state resources, party resources, and the personal pocketbook. In other words, while Kurdish officials often brag about their democracy, Kurdistan has become about as democratic as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Let us hope that the Kurds win their freedom, but even as we celebrate that step it is important to remember that freedom and possessing a nation-state are not synonymous; indeed, a battle just as real for human rights and liberty may only just be beginning. In all the celebrations, it’s important to recognize that a Kurdish democracy can contribute to the advancement of the Middle East much better than just another Middle Eastern autocracy.

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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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