Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

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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While West Dithers, ISIS Creates Facts on the Ground

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

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“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

So wrote my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Janine Davidson on July 24. And that was before this weekend’s reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had routed Kurdish fighters from the town of Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border–one of the few border posts it did not already control–and that it may have taken control of the Mosul dam, which if blown up could flood much of northern Iraq with a 65-foot wave.

Other reports indicate that ISIS has taken control of a Syrian oil field near Homs. As the Washington Post notes in a very comprehensive round-up of depressing news: “Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.” Oh and ISIS also just staged an attack in yet another country–Lebanon.

In short, the news is about as bad as it could be. The question that remains is: What is the U.S. doing about it? So far President Obama has dispatched 825 military personnel to Iraq to make a survey of the situation and to conduct some liaison work with the Iraqis in two headquarters. That’s about it, aside from some fiery rhetoric from Washington denouncing ISIS excesses. One wonders if the president is once again assuming that denouncing something is the same thing as doing something about it.

There are no air strikes, no Special Operations raids, no attempts to rally Sunni tribesmen to resist their new overlords. Granted, one should not rush willy-nilly into action before gaining an accurate assessment of the situation and deploying the resources necessary to be successful. That is why, for example, the Bush administration did not start bombing Afghanistan until weeks after the 9/11 attacks. But one fears that this time around the U.S. is not preparing a devastating response–or any meaningful response at all–to the alarming expansion of Islamist terrorist control in Iraq and Syria.

One fears that Washington is busy analyzing while ISIS is altering facts on the ground. And that eventually we will hear about Iraq the same thing we have been hearing about Syria: that the situation is so grim that there is nothing we can do about it. That, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy–the less we do, the worse the situation gets, and the less likely we are to intervene in any form.

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Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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The Media’s Political Tendentiousness Cloaked in Moral Self-Righteousness

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote about a subject that has long interested me. It has to do with which issues we decide to get morally outraged about, and which we ignore. In this case, why the intense focus on the Gaza crisis but so little on what’s happening in Syria, where the death toll is so much higher (more than 170,000) and the scale of suffering so much worse? Mr. Goldberg, in sorting through this matter, writes this:

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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote about a subject that has long interested me. It has to do with which issues we decide to get morally outraged about, and which we ignore. In this case, why the intense focus on the Gaza crisis but so little on what’s happening in Syria, where the death toll is so much higher (more than 170,000) and the scale of suffering so much worse? Mr. Goldberg, in sorting through this matter, writes this:

The American media takes at least some of its cues on Syria from the intensity of coverage in the Arab world. The Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, Joyce Karam, was one of the few people to notice the weekend death toll in Syria. She tweeted, in reference to anti-Israel protests in Pakistan, “Syria is essentially Gaza x320 death toll, x30 number of refugees, but no protest in Pakistan…”

I asked her why she thought this is so. Her answer: “Only reason I can think of is Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs.”

But why on earth should this be the case? Why is it the case that Arabs killing Arabs on a mass scale is virtually ignored while they focus so much attention on the far fewer Palestinians being killed in the conflict with Israel? Moreover, why does the Western and American media set up their coverage in a way that is meant to indict Israel, even though it’s Hamas which is using innocent Palestinians as human shields in the hopes of increasing the death toll?

The question, I think, virtually answers itself. It is rooted in part in a deep animus toward Israel. Many journalists seem to believe they are moral crusaders in applying heat to Israel. They are, at best, morally confused and, at worst, morally dissolute. It’s quite an indictment of the Western journalists that so many of them direct their outrage at Israel, which is conducting this war with an astonishing degree of humanitarian care, while they are so relatively untroubled by the war crimes and malevolence of Hamas.

We might as well name things for what they are. What’s really going on here isn’t so much compassion for the plight of innocent Arabs; it is using the death of innocent Arabs to advance a political and ideological agenda. If the death of innocent Arabs is a cause that so deeply touches their hearts, Western and American journalists would be paying far more attention to what is happening in Syria (and not just Syria) than what is happening in Gaza. They’re not. Which tells you all you need to know.

Political tendentiousness is bad enough; when it’s cloaked in moral self-righteousness, it’s even harder to take.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Obama and the New Global Instability

Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

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Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

The story went on to say this:

In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.

Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.

The Journal story should be read along with this story from the New York Times published earlier this month that reports this:

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants from ISIS have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective.

About these stories, I want to make several points, starting with this one: Mr. Obama said that if elected his approach would be characterized by “smart diplomacy.” The result would be that he would “remake the world” and “heal the planet.” And during the first summer of his presidency, Mr. Obama said his policies would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”

Some new dawn.

President Obama has not only not achieved what he said he would; the world may well be, as Senator John McCain put it this weekend, “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Mr. Obama’s role in this turmoil depends on the particular case we’re talking about, but it’s certainly the case that (a) his policies have amplified and accelerated some of the problems around the world while failing to mitigate others and (b) measured against his own standards, the president has failed miserably.

Beyond that, though, his underlying philosophy–non-intervention, ending America’s involvement in wars instead of winning them, “leading from behind,” consciously making America a less powerful force in the world–has been tested in real time, against real circumstances. And it’s fair to say, I think, that not only has Mr. Obama failed (in part by being exceptionally incompetent at statecraft), but so has his left-leaning ideology, his worldview.

Finally, what Mr. Obama should have learned by now is that his confidence in his abilities were wildly exaggerated, based on nothing he had actually achieved. That the world is vastly more complicated than he ever imagined. And that being a successful diplomat is harder than being a community organizer. One might hope that Mr. Obama would be a wee bit chastened by now and learn something about modesty and his own limitations. But I rather doubt it, since he appears to me to be a man of startlingly little self-knowledge.

Every president learns that it’s easier to give speeches than to govern well, to criticize others than to help build a peaceful and ordered world. But no president I’m aware of has suffered from a wider gap between what he said and what he has been able to produce. We’ve entered a perilous moment in world affairs, and we have as chief executive a man who is wholly out of his depth. These are not good times for this exceptional nation.

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No Easy Answer in Gaza

Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Israel retaliating with air strikes and sometimes ground attacks into the Gaza Strip. The “international community” bemoaning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate” response and demanding an immediate ceasefire.

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Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Israel retaliating with air strikes and sometimes ground attacks into the Gaza Strip. The “international community” bemoaning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate” response and demanding an immediate ceasefire.

If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have. It’s been running on endless repeat like a cheesy late-night horror show ever since Israel pulled all of its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas took advantage of the Israeli evacuation to seize power from the corrupt and unpopular Fatah apparatchiks with whom Israel and the West prefer to deal. Hamas then began stockpiling missiles, smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt, which it unloads on Israel at periodic intervals. Israel naturally hits back and, because Hamas military installations are hidden in civilian areas, the predictable result is civilian casualties which can then be paraded before the television cameras to turn international opinion against the big bad Zionists.

After a while, both Hamas and Israel decide they have had enough–the former because it does not want to suffer any more damage, the latter because it does not want to reoccupy Gaza. Then the two sides agree to a ceasefire which lasts perhaps 18 months if we’re lucky (before today the last such round of fighting occurred in November 2012). Eventually, however, some fresh incident occurs (such as the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian extremists and the equally odious revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists) to trigger a fresh outbreak of conflict.

Is there no way out of what is known, with some justification, as a “cycle of violence”? Not that I can see.

The preferred solution of the U.S. and the European Union is an Israeli pullout from the West Bank. This is intended to hasten a “final settlement” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel will do no such thing because it has seen in Gaza the wages of withdrawal–not peace but rather more conflict.

But if the doves have no real answer to the threat from Gaza, neither do the hawks who urge that Israel annihilate Hamas. The only way this can happen is if Israel reoccupies the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, as has happened so often in the past, Hamas will simply regenerate itself after suffering some casualties.

The problem is that the Israeli public has no desire to assume the role of occupier in Gaza once again–which would undoubtedly reduce rocket attacks on Israel but increase casualties among the conscripts of the Israel Defense Forces. The fact that the Iron Dome system provides a fair degree of protection against Hamas rockets makes it all the more unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will take the drastic step of reoccupying Gaza.

It would be nice if Fatah were able to topple Hamas from power and install a regime in Gaza committed to peaceful co-existence with Israel. But this is unlikely on multiple levels, not least because even Fatah has not truly accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Perhaps things will change now that Egypt is unwilling and Syria unable to provide aid to Hamas. Perhaps Hamas will be weakened enough to be toppled by other Palestinian factions. But unfortunately Hamas’s successors may be al-Qaeda-style Salafists who would be no improvement.

So for the immediate future there appears to be no way out of the strategic impasse in which Hamas and Israel are trapped. Hamas would love to destroy Israel but is too weak to do so. Israel has the power to destroy Hamas but not the will. Both sides thus keep conflict within manageable bounds and preserve their resources for future battles.

There is, for the foreseeable future, no exit from this grim deadlock–and attempts to achieve one (by, for example, forcing Israeli territorial concessions) are only likely to make the situation worse.

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Islamic State vs. Syrian Kurds

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

Largely out of deference to Turkey, the State Department has steered clear of Syrian Kurdistan, refusing to welcome its representatives to the ill-considered and ill-fated conferences in Geneva earlier this year, while choosing instead to bring in Syrian Kurdish politicians lacking any real constituency on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. position is both strategic and moral malpractice. The Assad regime has implemented, in the words of State Department official Stephen Rapp, “the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of course, has broken away from al-Qaeda because it considers that extremist group too moderate. Since renaming itself the Islamic State and taking over broad swaths of Iraq, its atrocities have been well covered by the media. That given the option between Assad or a radical Islamist group on one hand, and a secular, democratic-leaning entity on the other, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry place the United States against the secular, democratic-leaning entity says a lot about the current moral bankruptcy infusing U.S. policy.

For months, that lack of support made life difficult for Syrian Kurds, Christians, and other citizens within Rojava. What has not been covered, however, is the all-out battle now occurring between ISIS and Syrian Kurds. Tweets from residents of the region now under ISIS attacks have also reported that the Syrian opposition has been using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. See, for example, this account from July 9 and 10. Now, of course, just because someone tweets something does not make it true. But there is no indication the reports are false, and every indication they are true At the very least, this is a charge American and UN officials should investigate. How ironic that just over a quarter century after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds—and the Reagan administration remained silent because speaking up would be too diplomatically inconvenient—history seems to be repeating against Kurds once more. It’s a good thing there are now public intellectuals like Samantha Power who put their moral compass above ambition. Or not.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Willing

The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

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The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

Not exactly George W. Bush’s Multi-National Force—Iraq, is it? But Obama certainly has a coalition of the willing. Rosen quotes Michael Doran on our bumbling assist to bad regimes: “If you want to build up a non-jihadi Sunni force that is capable of commanding loyalty from people on the ground then you have to fight Assad and push against Iran, and you push back against ISIS and Iran at the same time. If you’re just fighting ISIS then you’re building an Iranian security system in the region.”

Obama employs dangerous half measures and sells them as prudence. He narrowed the war on terror to a fight against “core al-Qaeda,” and so a potpourri of new jihad groups exploded across the Middle East and Africa. He “led from behind” in Libya, where a weapons flea market sprouted up and Americans got killed. With his new half measures in Iraq, Iranian security will be backed by American military might, which in turn aids Bashar Assad, whose Syria is also partners with a rising Russia. The United States is no longer merely creating a global power vacuum. It’s filling it back up with an alliance of our enemies.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Is Turkey’s Partition Inevitable?

World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

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World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

I posted earlier regarding the possibility that Iraqi Kurds may soon declare their formal independence, a move with which even Iraqi Arabs have grown ambivalent. After all, Iraq’s real oil wealth is in southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Arabs would be fine keeping that for themselves.

Syrian Kurds have been coy about their future. The Kurdish administration in “Rojava,” an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, is relatively secure, organized, and functioning. Kurds there say they will settle for federalism within the confines of Syria, although the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in the areas surrounding Rojava suggests that events outside their region may ultimately determine the outcome, much as it has in Iraq.

For Kurds, however, Turkey is the real prize. That is where the bulk of Kurds live, and southeastern Turkey remains an incubator of Kurdish culture. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency and terror campaign against the Turkish state. The PKK has accepted a ceasefire and temporarily laid down their arms. While Erdoğan has hinted that he will offer the Kurds a reform package ahead of the August presidential elections (for which he wants Kurdish support), history should not give the Kurds much confidence: every outreach Erdoğan has made to the Kurds has come against the backdrop of elections, and after elections have passed, Erdoğan reneges on his promises. Fool me once, fool me twice, but few Kurds are prepared to be fooled a third time, except perhaps against the backdrop of a fight.

Herein lies the problem: If Erdoğan makes good on his reforms to the Kurds, then it sets Turkey down the path toward federalism, the way-point for independence. Turks must also prepare for Öcalan’s release. They may consider Öcalan a terrorist, but Erdoğan has made him the indispensable man. There is simply no outcome that won’t see Öcalan released first from isolation, and then from prison entirely, at which point Kurds and many others will celebrate him as a Kurdish Mandela.

Demography, too, is in the Kurds’ favor. Erdoğan may hope that religious solidarity will trump nationalism, but this is a naïve hope. Turkish Kurds can smell a state, and with Iraqi Kurds on the verge of achieving that dream, there will be no denying Anatolian Kurds the same outcome. The map is changing. Turkey is celebrating its 90th anniversary. When it marks its centennial, however, expect the map of Turkey to be much different. When that happens, perhaps Turks can celebrate Erdoğan as their Sultan. The new Kurdistan, however, should put Erdoğan on their currency alongside Öcalan and Barzani as a man who made it happen.

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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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The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great War at 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iraq’s Lessons for the Jordan Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Talking Secretary of State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Syria Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Step Forward for Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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