Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.
That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.
Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.
Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.
Mike O’Hanlon is absolutely right to argue that the U.S. needs to nurture a reformist successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president. I made the same point in this Council on Foreign Relations Policy Innovation Memorandum.
The suggestion that the U.S. should throw its weight behind a presidential candidate in the 2014 election will jar many who view this as antithetical to democracy. It is not. Indeed, nothing will do more to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy than if the U.S. were to stand by and let malign actors such as various warlords, drug traffickers, and Pakistani intelligence agents anoint their favored candidate, whoever that is, to succeed Karzai. They will have no compunctions about throwing their weight around; neither should we. With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan even after September, we will have a large say in what happens no matter what. Better to use that influence to try to push for the best candidate possible rather than stand by and let someone transparently dishonest or sectarian take power.
There are strong arguments for and against American military intervention in Syria. And everyone is weighing in. An editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward asks: ‘‘What is to be done about Syria,’’ and asserts that, ‘‘passivity [is] impossible.’’ And so the piece sets out to consider some of those arguments. However, its intention comes to naught, and instead the editorial finds itself reduced to precisely the equivocation that it claims is so unacceptable.
That alone wouldn’t be worth comment. But it gets worse: the editorial not only fails to confront the arguments seriously, but has the further audacity to criticize from its transcendent perch those who have actually staked positions on the matter. And not only that either: it ends with the self-righteous assertion that only the Forward’s editors really appreciate the true complexity of the issue. Their sentiments are best communicated in their own words, so here are the particularly offending concluding paragraphs:
But how should the international community channel this new indignation? Is the answer as simple as military intervention? It appears not. Even the human rights organizations are cautioning against such a move. Though the Holocaust and the genocides of the 1990s make passivity impossible, there are even more recent precedents that do and should give us pause: Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are those who, like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, offer cavalier solutions, such as providing arms to the fractious band of rebels. Others demand a NATO-led air war. But these hawks can’t answer basic questions about who exactly could take power in Syria after Assad, which of the various factions of warring opposition groups to even support, or how to avoid turning an intervention into a regional conflagration. Legions of experts keep making the same point that what worked for Libya won’t work in Syria. After the interventions of the past decade and their Sisyphean aftermaths, it would be irresponsible to imagine we could dip our toe into this conflict without considering the consequences.
But this complexity should not be an invitation to sit on our hands, nor is it acceptable to simply give Assad more time to kill by settling for half-measures like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s ineffectual peace plan or sending a few powerless UN observers.
What we can do is use this moment for the moral clarity it provides. If, before Houla, it was still conceivable for Assad’s remaining defenders to imagine they were witnessing in Syria an internal power struggle between pro- and anti-government forces, it should now be clear that Assad is a murderer, capable of ever worse brutalities and willing to cravenly exploit ethnic divisions to hold on to his power. This is now plain and simple to see. Perhaps if Russia and China — and, one can always hope, Iran as well — start to feel his bloody hands staining theirs, the path might be open to the sort of isolation that will make a difference.
Our responsibility, in the meantime, is now more apparent than ever. Don’t forget the massacred children of Houla, and don’t let the world forget them, either.
Against the backdrop of continued massacres in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” although neither she nor the White House has outlined a strategy to meet that goal.
President Obama prefers to work through allies. He has sought to bring Russian strongman Vladimir Putin around. If Putin does not care about human rights in Russia, however, it is doubtful he cares too much about ordinary Syrians, especially if it means undermining the regime which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. As in Libya, he also prefers to work from behind through other allies. How embarrassing it is for a superpower like the United States to take the backseat to the likes of Zimbabwe, which has announced it is training its troops in advance of a Syrian peacekeeping mission.
There are two wellsprings of class warfare in America. There is Barack Obama, whose reelection strategy is to taunt Americans about their rich neighbors. And there are the indignant loiterers of the Occupy movement, who married aimlessness to anarchism and produced a half-witted crime spree that boomer liberals then declared “meaningful.” Both want corporate bigwigs to pay up.
So does Brandon L. Baxter. We know this because in a recorded phone call about planning a terrorist bombing in Cleveland, Ohio, the 20-year-old Baxter allegedly said that “Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the … corporate big wigs a lot of money.” The plot was foiled this week by federal authorities who revealed that most or all of the five aspiring terrorists involved were “associated” with the Occupy movement.
In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.
None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.
Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales fell 7.1 percent from February. The March figures for home sales were the lowest in four months. Today, we learned that new orders for manufactured durable goods in March decreased $8.8 billion — or 4.2 percent — to $202.6 billion. And this comes after a jobs report that showed in March we produced only 120,000 new jobs, as more and more people continued to drop out of the labor force.
As this McClatchy Newspaper story puts it:
Rather than a breakout surge in economic growth, mainstream forecasters say, Americans should expect the U.S. economy to slog forward for another couple of years.
The economy grew at a subpar annual rate of 1.7 percent last year, down from 3 percent the year before. The consensus forecast for this year now is for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent.
The U.S. economy is expected to slow later this year… A spate of recent indicators punctuated fears that the economy is stalling. March delivered only 120,000 new jobs, and the latest manufacturing and real estate data softened.
Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.
Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.
The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.
“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:
The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.
But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?
I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.
There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.
Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.
Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.
Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.
David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.
Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.
This is big news, and not just because it refutes a lot of the skepticism that Canada would ever actually go through with its threats to sell its oil to China. It also shows there will be major consequences from what the Obama administration clearly believed was a harmless little political game it could play with the Keystone XL permitting. Even if the president backs down from his Keystone XL objections now – as Republicans have continued to urge him to do – Canadian PM Stephen Harper says it won’t make a difference.
Canada’s Sun News reports:
In a public one-on-one interview here with Jane Harman, head of the Wilson Centre think-tank, Harper said Obama’s rejection of the controversial pipeline — even temporarily — stressed Canada’s need to find other buyers for oilsands crude.
And that wouldn’t change even if the president’s mind did.
“Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets,” Harper told Harman in front of a live audience of businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and journalists.
“We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where our one and, in many cases, only energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that position.” Read More
In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.
It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:
Five years ago this coming Wednesday, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi defied President Bush’s request and his strategy isolating Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by going to Damascus. “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” the White House spokesman said. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror.”
Pelosi would have none of that. She had known evil and to her, he resided in the White House. The Syrian dictator, however, was a reforming, Western educated eye doctor. Bilateral problems might be real, but they might be resolved through dialogue. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she told reporters.
Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.
That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times: “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”
Ted Bromund’s post about the cringe-producing exchange of jokes between President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron reminded me — in a contrasting way — of the exchange between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 31 years ago, at a dinner at the British Embassy that capped Thatcher’s February 1980 Washington trip. She was the first foreign visitor during the Reagan administration; Reagan was in his first month and Thatcher in her first year.
The toasts were included in the batch of documents released last year by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, after the required 30-year delay. The exchange featured a good deal of historical humor, and a historical courage that can be more fully appreciated from our vantage point, three decades later. Here are excerpts from the toasts, followed by the concluding portion of Obama’s toast this week to Cameron: