Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Considering Iran on the 25th Anniversary of Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a momentous event that unleashed a cascade of tragedy that included those who died in Kuwait’s occupation by the Saddam Hussein and then its liberation to the tremendous suffering that Iraqis experienced in subsequent years.

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a momentous event that unleashed a cascade of tragedy that included those who died in Kuwait’s occupation by the Saddam Hussein and then its liberation to the tremendous suffering that Iraqis experienced in subsequent years.

What is worth considering with the hindsight of history, however, is to consider what if anything might have prevented the Iraqi invasion. Contemporaries poured scorn on April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who famously told Saddam during a meeting before the invasion that the United States had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” To single out Glaspie, however, would be to scapegoat her for representing a policy which, however flawed, had been embraced by a far greater portion of officialdom. Indeed, from the Reagan years onward, it had been the consistent policy of the White House and State Department both to seek rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

In December 1983, President Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld, at the time retired from government and in the private sector, as a special envoy to meet with Saddam in Baghdad. The State Department reported that Saddam was pleased with Rumsfeld’s visit: “His remarks removed whatever obstacles remained in the way of resuming diplomatic relations, but did not take the decision to do so,” a diplomatic cable from the time read. Rumsfeld himself recalled in his memoirs, “I began to think [during the meeting] that through increased contacts we might be able to persuade the Iraqis to lean toward the United States and eventually modify their behavior.” Of course, it did not. Shortly after, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and, less than five years after Rumsfeld’s initial meeting, Saddam would order the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The Iraqi leadership may have been slaughtering Iranians, Kurds, and other Iraqis, but elite Washington society then as now treated engagement with rogues as chic and sophisticated. To object to rapprochement with Saddam’s regime was to privilege Israeli interests over those of America, diplomats and journalists suggested. Just as today journalists rush to secure interviews with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, 30 years ago the new Iraqi ambassador Nizar Hamdoon was the toast of the town. In December 1985, the Washington Post Magazine gave a swooning account of a dinner party Hamdoon hosted. It was the first of many.

Rapprochement continued into the George H.W. Bush administration. On October 2, 1989, Bush signed a national security directive declaring, “Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests,” and calling for the U.S. government to provide economic and political incentives to increase influence and encourage Iraq to moderate its behavior.

It didn’t work. Saddam Hussein executed a British-Iranian journalist and then bragged, “Mrs. Thatcher wanted him. We’ve sent him in a box.” Still, proponents of engagement refused to give up. Senator Arlen Specter traveled twice to Baghdad to meet Saddam. He was so impressed with what he interpreted as Saddam’s sincerity that he helped block military sanctions on Iraq. “There is an opportunity, or may be an opportunity, to pursue discussions with Iraq,” he explained, adding, “I think that it is not the right time to impose sanctions.” Less than two months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Fast forward a quarter-century. Few argue that Saddam Hussein should have been a partner to the United States. Whether for or against Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, most diplomats and historians understand that Saddam Hussein was mercurial, cruel, and completely untrustworthy. During the Bush administration, progressives repeatedly castigated Rumsfeld for his efforts at diplomatic engagement with a rogue leader like Saddam. Now the same figures seek to lift military sanctions on Iran, reach out to Iranian leaders with blood on their hands, and argue that Iran can be moderated through trade and careful diplomacy. Just as diplomats once waved off Saddam’s rhetoric calling Kuwait his 19th province as hyperbole meant for a domestic audience, today Secretary of State John Kerry does similar dismissing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s calls for Israel’s annihilation and ‘death to America’ as meant for a domestic constituency (as if Iran were a democracy).

Alas, it almost seems that a quarter-century since Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States has learned nothing about the perils of appeasing rogue regimes or the dangers of facilitating their military build-ups.

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The Unavoidable Costs of Inaction in the Middle East

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times. Read More

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times.
From the Los Angeles Times:

Islamic State militants’ attempts to inspire Americans to launch attacks at home pose a bigger threat to the U.S. than Al Qaeda, the head of the FBI said Wednesday.

From The Hill:

The Army’s top officer said Tuesday it was “frustrating” to watch the gains U.S. troops helped achieve in Iraq unravel with the entrance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and that the chaos “might have been prevented.”

“It’s frustrating to watch it,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Fox News in an exclusive interview weeks away from his retirement after 39 years in the Army.

“I go back to the work we did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and we got it to a place that was really good. Violence was low, the economy was growing, politics looked like it was heading in the right direction,” he said.

Odierno, who commanded at various levels in Iraq during the war, said “I think it would have been good for us to stay,” when asked by Fox News if it was a mistake to pull out.

There you have it: The biggest terrorist threat we face was created, in no small measure, by President Obama’s pullout from Iraq, which was hardly necessary; all indications were that if the president truly wanted to reach a deal to keep U.S. troops, he would have been able to do so. That, combined with Obama’s failure to intervene early on in Syria’s civil war, created the conditions under Islamic State has become such a potent threat.

That is worth keeping in mind the next time that Obama slams the Iraq War or claims that his political adversaries are warmongers. (Which, by my watch, should occur in the next five minutes.)

Yes, it’s true that sometimes getting involved in a war is a mistake, and (based on what we now know in hindsight) the Iraq War was one of those times. It was true, too, that the war was terribly mismanaged until the surge (which Obama opposed), resulting in much needless death and destruction. But what Obama’s tenure in office has shown is that not getting involved in a war — or ending our involvement in a war prematurely — also carries terrible costs. We are seeing those costs now with the rise of ISIS, and also the rise of Iran. Heaven knows what will happen in Afghanistan if the president carries out his pledge to withdraw entirely before he leaves office.

Getting involved in the Middle East carries costs, true. But what we are now seeing is the heavy cost of nonintervention, and it is Pollyannaish to imagine that the price will be paid exclusively by Iraqis or Syrians, or even by the Israelis and Turks, the French and British. Americans, too, will pay the price for the president’s tragically misguided foreign policy which is inadvertently aiding the rise of our enemies

 

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Cementing Iran’s Hold on Iraq

After the Iran deal was announced, my old boss Leslie Gelb (who is well connected with the Obama administration) confirmed what Michael Doran and I have been writing for a while. “According to top administration officials,” Gelb wrote, “Mr. Obama has always been after something much bigger than capping Iran’s nuclear program, and he got it — the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to ‘friend.'” Read More

After the Iran deal was announced, my old boss Leslie Gelb (who is well connected with the Obama administration) confirmed what Michael Doran and I have been writing for a while. “According to top administration officials,” Gelb wrote, “Mr. Obama has always been after something much bigger than capping Iran’s nuclear program, and he got it — the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to ‘friend.'”

Such naive hopes should have been dashed by the Supreme Leader’s response to the Iran deal.

“Our policy regarding the arrogant U.S. government will not change,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised address on Saturday, while his supporters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” “We don’t have any negotiations or deal with the U.S. on different issues in the world or the region.”

For good measure, he added, “We will not give up on our friends in the region.” That would be “friends” like Bashar Assad whose forces are now said to be dropping naval mines — the kind designed to destroy warships — on civilian areas. Or like Hezbollah, which is not only fighting to preserve the brutal Assad regime but also stockpiling at least 50,000 missiles aimed at Israel. How many more missiles will Hezbollah be able to afford when it receives its share of Iran’s $100 billion first-year windfall, one wonders?

Yet the Obama administration seems blithely untroubled by evidence – both in rhetoric and action – showing that Iran has no intention of giving up its mantle as the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Instead, the U.S. is acting as if Iran is really our de facto ally not only in nuclear arms control but also in fighting terrorism.

The latest evidence of the administration’s misguided faith in the Islamic Republic is its decision to deliver the first four F-16s to Iraq, which it did just before the Iran deal was signed. Thirty-two more F-16s are scheduled to arrive in Iraq eventually. Assuming that these advanced warplanes are not captured by ISIS (as has been the case with many Humvees, MRAPS, and even Abrams tanks that the U.S. has provided to Iraq), they will be operated by an Iraqi regime that has been thoroughly subverted by Iran’s agents and proxies.

The most powerful man in Iraq is not the ineffectual prime minister but rather Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who (in yet another boost for Iranian regional designs) will be taken off the European and U.N. sanctions lists by the terms of the Iran deal. The second most powerful man is probably his close ally, Hadi al-Ameri, the minister of transportation and head of the Badr Corps, the Shiite militia that has become more powerful than the Iraqi armed forces. As a Sunni politician said earlier this year, “Iran now dominates Iraq.”

It is more than a bit shocking that the Obama administration is willing to deliver such advanced aircraft to an Iranian-dominated regime. That makes no sense unless the administration thinks the airplanes will be used to fight ISIS, a battle in which the US and Iran supposedly have a common stake. It may well be that the aircraft will be used to bomb ISIS. Or perhaps they will be used to randomly bomb Sunni population centers, as Assad’s aircraft do on a daily basis in Syria.

Whatever the case, of one thing we can be sure: The aircraft will further increase the power not of Iraq’s moderate Sunnis, Kurds, or even Shiites, but rather the power of the Iranian-backed radicals who are in de facto control in Iraq. The aircraft could even wind up in Iranian hands, allowing Iran to get a head-start on breaking the arms embargo that is due to expire in no more than five years anyway.

From the American standpoint, that is about as self-defeating a strategy as it possible to imagine. As I’ve argued repeatedly, any increase in Iranian power actually redounds to the benefit of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni radicals who can then posture as defenders of their communities against “Persian” aggression. We should be arming and supporting real and potential partners such as the Kurds and the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. Instead, we are assisting Iran in extending its growing empire.

Even if Congress can’t stop the Iranian nuclear deal, it should stop further F-16 deliveries to Iraq as long as Iran continues to dominate in Baghdad.

 

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Investors Turn Sour on Iraqi Kurdistan

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however. Read More

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however.

The KRG consistently has reneged on payments to oil conglomerates and on commitments to investors, often blaming Baghdad for failing to remit its portion of Kurdistan’s budget and, more recently, the strains of fighting the Islamic State.

Blaming Baghdad is often a successful strategy to deflect public blame away from the true costs of corruption and mismanagement. After decades of discrimination and worse, Kurds readily accept the narrative that the fault lies in Baghdad. But not only is a Kurd now Iraq’s finance minister, he is also Masoud Barzani’s uncle; he treats KRG with transparency. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also struck an oil deal with the KRG shortly after taking office. When Kurdish salaries were not paid in December 2013 in Sulaymani, for example, the reality was that Baghdad had transferred the money to the KRG, but the money had somehow gone missing between Erbil and Suleimani. And while the cost of fighting the Islamic State is high, a portion of that expense is money siphoned from the treasury and paid to ‘ghost’ peshmerga; troops which exist on paper but not in reality. Indeed, the ghost employee scam is one reason why the KRG is so reluctant to embrace modern banking and electronic transfer of salaries.

The KRG regularly disparages any independent Kurdish journalist who writes about corruption or nepotism and, like the Iraqi government under the Baath party, regularly interrogates Kurds returning from travel abroad — including State Department-organized International visitor programs — to ensure they have not spoken to analysts or journalists whom the KRG fears would report critically about the situation in the KRG. Conversely, the KRG showers former U.S. government officials, retired military officers, and think tank analysts with gifts, contracts, and cash in order to sing the KRG’s praises.

Journalists may be superficial — they parachute in and out of a region quickly — but responsible investors and the international markets are not so easily swayed by rhetorical flak. They want to know the facts, see the books and, in areas where opacity is the rule, be convinced that the government line is rooted in reality.

Well, as cash has dried up, the KRG has recently tried to tap international debt markets for a five year, one billion dollar bond.  The market told them it would cost 12 percent.  In comparison, Ivory Coast debt with a much longer maturity — December 2032 — yields 6.43 percent, and Iraqi government debt with a 2028 maturity trades at 8.2%.  Twelve percent for a five-year paper is a slap in the face and a sign of complete lack of confidence in the KRG’s stewardship. Indeed, while the Kurdish government drops hints about its desire for a referendum leading to independence — hints it drops every few years but upon which it never acts — the international market now signals that the Kurds are very close to insolvency and that they believe the KRG has driven the Kurdish economy into the ground. Indeed, it says a great deal that international investors now have far greater confidence in the future of Iraq than in the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

If Kurdistan were truly as democratic as its representatives say it is, it is long past time for the Kurdish parliament to ask very tough questions about the president and premier’s stewardship of the economy, investor relations, and rule-of-law.

 

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Iran’s Nukes are Iraq’s Moment of Truth

Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shortly after I returned to Iraq in July 2003, I had driven with Iraqi friends down to see the marshes which Saddam Hussein had ordered drained in order to try to extinguish the Marsh Arabs’ thousands-year way of life. On our way back, we stopped at a roadside fruit and drink stand on the outskirts of Kut. Peeking out from behind a bunch of bananas was a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. A month later, I stopped unannounced at a tribal leader’s house in al-Amara. When I had scheduled a visit with him through local Coalition Provisional Authority officials a week before, he was obsequious to the Americans; when I came back unannounced, there in his reception room where he had served us tea a week before was a huge portrait of Khomeini. Then, of course, there was the time in Baghdad when I was visiting an Iraqi politician. It was getting late and so I took his offer to sleep on a couch in his living room rather than traverse Baghdad after curfew. On the other couch when I woke up? An Iranian official, who had even more reason to avoid getting caught by the American army breaking curfew. And then, there was the time when I was exploring Basra in December 2003. I stayed at a local hotel, and was wandering along the trash-strewn local canals which decades before had made Basra the “Venice of the Gulf.” Sharing the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) office was Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy. Read More

Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shortly after I returned to Iraq in July 2003, I had driven with Iraqi friends down to see the marshes which Saddam Hussein had ordered drained in order to try to extinguish the Marsh Arabs’ thousands-year way of life. On our way back, we stopped at a roadside fruit and drink stand on the outskirts of Kut. Peeking out from behind a bunch of bananas was a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. A month later, I stopped unannounced at a tribal leader’s house in al-Amara. When I had scheduled a visit with him through local Coalition Provisional Authority officials a week before, he was obsequious to the Americans; when I came back unannounced, there in his reception room where he had served us tea a week before was a huge portrait of Khomeini. Then, of course, there was the time in Baghdad when I was visiting an Iraqi politician. It was getting late and so I took his offer to sleep on a couch in his living room rather than traverse Baghdad after curfew. On the other couch when I woke up? An Iranian official, who had even more reason to avoid getting caught by the American army breaking curfew. And then, there was the time when I was exploring Basra in December 2003. I stayed at a local hotel, and was wandering along the trash-strewn local canals which decades before had made Basra the “Venice of the Gulf.” Sharing the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) office was Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy.

The irony here is that, for all the attempts Iran made to infiltrate Iraq — successfully in some cases — most Iraqi Shi’ites resented them or soon came to due to the Iranian leadership’s arrogance and its deaf ear to Iraqi nationalism. The bulk of the Iraqi Army at the front lines during the Iran-Iraq War were Shi‘ite conscripts who fought honorably to defend Iraq; they neither defected to Iran out of sectarian loyalty nor were they in position to question the justice of a war which Saddam Hussein started. On January 6, Iraqi Shi‘ites alongside Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis commemorate Iraqi Army Day, celebrating the institution, not the previous regime that often abused it. Within hours after the war began, Iran violated an agreement struck between its UN ambassador (now Foreign Minister and chief negotiator) Mohammad Javad Zarif and American diplomats Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad and inserted a number of proxies and its own men into Iraq. One of their missions was to seize personnel records in the Defense Ministry and then proceed to hunt down and kill any veteran pilot from the Iraq-Iran War on the assumption that they had bombed Iran. The Iranian Red Crescent participated in this assassination wave, providing yet one more reason why the Iranian government and its NGOs should not be taken at their word.

Ever since President Barack Obama ordered a complete withdrawal from Iraq in order to fulfill a 2007 campaign pledge, Iranian influence has grown in Iraq. The reason for this has less to do with the hearts of Iraqis than their minds: Because they could no longer balance American and Iranian influence and demands in order to preserve their independent space, they needed to make greater accommodation to Tehran. It’s one thing to push back on over-the-top Iranian demands when several thousand American troops are garrisoned around the country. It is quite another to tell Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to shove his demands where the sun don’t shine when he has the wherewithal to kill anyone who stands in his way and every Iraqi regardless of sect or ethnicity knows that the United States really does not have their back. Hence, Iraq allowed some Iranian overflights to support and supply Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria (the same regime to which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry now appear prepared to accommodate). And Iraqis also traveled to Syria to support the Assad regime against Jabhat al-Nusra and/or the Islamic State (again, which the United States now appears to be doing, having demanded that ‘moderate’ Syrians whom U.S. forces train not target Assad). More recently, Americans have criticized the role that Iranian-backed militias play in the Iraqi security forces. This concern is certainly warranted, although every time a politician, journalist, or think-tank analyst recommends arming Sunni tribes directly, they simply drive the Iraqi public away from moderates like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been solicitous of American interests and concerns, and into the hands of harder-line pro-Iranian politicians.

So what can Iraq do to signal that it is not simply an Iranian proxy like so many of its critics say? Taking a public stance against the Iranian nuclear program would be a good first step. Under no circumstances, can the Iranian nuclear program be an Iraqi interest. Forget the Washington talking points: Everyone in the Persian Gulf, Arabs and Persians alike, know that the deal currently being finalized secures a path to an Iranian nuclear breakout. They also have a far more realistic assessment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) than the Obama administration. Not only is it unlikely that the IRGC will abide by any agreement, but it is also likely that if Iran does acquire a nuclear capability, it will find itself so overconfident behind its own nuclear deterrence that it will further erode Iraqi sovereignty.

Iran may not like Iraq siding, in this instance, with almost every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council but Oman (which feigns neutrality), but certainly it must expect that any Iraqi government — even one which reflects the Shi‘ite majority of Iraq — will stand up for Iraqi national interests and oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions with the same cautionary statements heard from Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti diplomats and officials.

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The Price of Sycophancy

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time. Read More

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time.

Nor is Barzani’s desire for family rule going as smoothly as he planned. Barzani has led the Kurdistan Regional Government since his return from exile against the backdrop of Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S.-led effort to create a safe-haven in 1991. He agreed to a two-term limit from 2005; that expired in 2013. He received a legally questionable two-year extension on his second term back in 2013, but that is soon to expire. Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he maintains autocratic control has been working to extend his rule indefinitely but has been facing increasing resistance from the two other major regional parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Goran. Harem Karem and Kamal Chomani, two of the most professional independent Kurdish journalists, have an excellent piece in the Kurdistan Tribune discussing the crossroad which Kurdistan now faces between democracy and autocracy. Needless to say, neither Barzani nor the KDP is happy with any resistance. A KDP parliamentarian, for example, attacked a Goran parliamentarian for speaking against the extralegal extension of Barzani’s term. An undisclosed medical emergency which sidelined Barzani a couple weeks ago — and forced him to cancel all appearances — only added fuel to the debate, given Barzani’s efforts to lay the groundwork for dynastic succession.

Finally, despite all the hype about Kurdistan’s oil potential, Kurdish officials find themselves perhaps $17 billion in debt, without any explanation as to where the money — owed to the oil companies for their share of the royalties — have gone. Apparently, Barzani’s government is gambling that the oil companies have invested too much already in Kurdistan to pull of stakes and accept their loss. While such a strategy might enrich some officials in the short-term, it is corrosive to long-term investor confidence in Kurdistan. This has forced Kurdistan to seek a $5 billion loan just to keep afloat.

Clearly, not all is going well for Barzani either in Kurdistan, in the United States or with investors. That he seems so surprised, however, illustrates one of the greatest Achilles’ heels of dictatorships: Sycophancy.

Barzani surrounds himself with yes-men. Those who parrot his line 100 percent are friends; those who only agree with him 90 percent of the time he and his staff consider enemies. He lives on a mountain top complex, which was once a public resort before Saddam Hussein seized it for himself. That Barzani appropriated it after Saddam was forced from the region was problematic. His staff argue that he needs it for security, but the optics have always been horrible and the cynicism of ordinary Kurds palpable. When living a couple dozen kilometers from the people he claims to represent, and when he seldom circulates among people, he might as well be ruling Kurdistan from the moon.

The problem of distance and sycophancy is compounded by the behavior of his staff. Why did they so greatly underestimate the atmosphere in Washington, D.C.? Last month, when Barzani visited Washington, his staff insisted host organizations run their invitation list past the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure there would be no attendees who might ask difficult questions. The Center for New American Security (CNAS), on whose board a lobbyist for Kurdistan sits, systematically disinvited multiple analysts, writers, and academics whom they feared might ask difficult questions. (In a Washington Post piece earlier this week, CNAS President Richard Fontaine and Chief Executive Michèle Flournoy repeat the trope that Baghdad does not provide Kurdistan weapons in a timely matter. As the White House, Pentagon, and, increasingly, Congress know, this complaint has no basis in reality, and so it is curious that CNAS continues to repeat it. The Atlantic Council, where the daughter of Barzani’s chief-of-staff works, likewise ensured an ingratiating audience. It certainly crosses a line to allow a foreign entity to control the audience in the middle of Washington, D.C.

As a result, Barzani was confronted not with questions about governance, oil policy, or press freedom, but rather with statements about what a most amazing man he was. His aides might consider that a successful trip, but it reflected as much the reality of Washington, as Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole reflected the garden party above.

Nor is Barzani able to understand reality by reading critical columns in the Kurdish press. After being peppered with lawsuits by the Kurdish government claiming unfair criticism, Awene, one of the region’s most respected independent newspapers, is about to close. Security forces controlled by Barzani’s eldest son Masrour have beaten and even allegedly murdered writers for other independent newspapers. Most parties publish their own organs which simply amplify party propaganda in the belief that if repeated enough, it must be true. Parties and individual politicians control television stations. When any government suffocates the press, it loses perhaps the most important mirror to reflect true public concerns short of holding free and fair elections.

Now, I don’t mean to single out Barzani or the Kurds — it’s simply the sharpest example of a true disconnect between government perception and reality. The same has held true of Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan eviscerated the press, sought to control audiences not only in Turkey but also while traveling abroad, including in the United States. Think tanks which hold theoretically open and academic events in Istanbul systematically exclude the Turkish opposition, even if they represent half the population; they understand that is the price of Ankara’s cooperation and any minister let alone Erdoğan himself showing up. Turkey has gone beyond even the Kurds, trying to silence foreign critics with ultimately irrelevant lawsuits filed in Turkish courts. The Turkish embassy, meanwhile, long ago stopped representing Turkey and today represents only the ruling party. Fortunately, other Turkish parties have sent their own representatives and often do their outreach better than the professional Turkish diplomats.

I am supportive of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite his path to power. While critics abound in Washington, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to the sincerity of his desire for reform. But, as he increasingly limits press freedom, constrains civil society, and uses the judiciary as a tool against opposition, he risks losing touch as he is no longer able to escape the bubble created by his sycophants. At some point, he will reach a tipping point when public opinion shifts against him. If he only discovers that months or even years after the fact, the resulting violence can be extreme.

Against this backdrop, what should the United States do? It’s important to support free press among both friend and foe. It should be the position of the United States always to support free speech abroad so long as it does not incite violence or genocide as during the dark days of the Rwanda genocide or wars resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, while systems may be indispensable, leaders never are. And while entourages may like to shield leaders from the reality of public opinion at home, it should not be the job of any truly independent or academic organization in the United States to aid and abet that bubble. One thing is certain: When rulers insulate themselves behind layers of yes-men, the result is never the adulation of the people or an accurate sense of one position in the world. Rather, it is often quite the opposite.

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Obama Cedes Iraq to Iran

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli LakeRead More

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli Lake

It is all part and parcel of the Obama policy of tilting toward Tehran that has been evident for several years now — a trend that Michael Doran and I noted in January 2014 in this New York Times op-ed and that Doran had identified even earlier. This strategy has been evident at least since the president’s decision in the fall of 2013 not to bomb Iran’s client, Bashar Assad, for violating a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama reached a deal with Assad for the peaceful removal of his chemical weapons — a deal that has made the U.S. complicit in Assad’s continuance in power even as Assad has continued to drop chlorine gas and barrel bombs on civilians.

Since then, the administration has bombed in Tikrit in support of an offensive mounted, for the most part, by Iranian-backed militias rather than Iraqi troops. It has cut funding to anti-Hezbollah Shiites in Lebanon. And, of course, it has continued to make crippling concessions to Iran in order to get a nuclear deal — even if the terms of the deal only increase Iran’s breakout time from two months to three months.

The administration is not vocal about what it is up to, but it is consistent: It is trying to realign the strategic chessboard of the Middle East so that Iran becomes a de facto partner of the U.S. rather than its adversary. Amazingly enough, the president does not seem to be deterred by the meager returns on his strategy so far: a region in flames.

There is every indication to believe that, as Doran and I predicted, the administration outreach to Iran is only exacerbating the sectarian divide and emboldening extremists of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion. The problem will become much more severe once a nuclear deal is concluded with Iran, because that could well spur Saudi Arabia to seek its own nuclear weapons and it will provide billions of dollars more that the mullahs can use to subvert their neighbors.

It is still not too late for the administration to reverse course — to demand more of Iran at the negotiating table and to take actions against Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. A good beginning would be to ground Assad’s air force and declare safe zones along the borders where the moderate opposition can organize. But the intertwining of U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Iraq makes such a decision more dangerous because it will be all too easy for Iranian militias to attack U.S. forces again as they have in the past. Not that it matters: Obama has shown no desire to check Iranian designs. As long as that’s the case, the Iranian militias will happily coexist with U.S. troops because they will perceive, correctly, that the American presence is actually aiding their power grab.

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Assessing Shi’ite Militias in Iraq

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere. Read More

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere.

Zarif, of course, either lied or was powerless to prevent the IRGC from acting autonomously (it is ironic, therefore, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are so willing to trust Zarif despite his previous refusal to uphold diplomatic agreements). Even Iranian journalists remarked about how quickly the IRGC inserted itself and militias like the Badr Corps into Iraq. Meanwhile, for all the chatter about why Washington policymakers erred by working with Iraqi politicians who had spent some time in exile, the most powerful insider, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sought power by leveraging a militia equally anti-American, violent toward other Iraqis, and engaged in criminal enterprise.

During the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces just as often found themselves in conflict with Shi‘ite militias as with Sunni insurgents. Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods Force operative who worked as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, oversaw the smuggling into Iraq of explosively-formed projectiles used to kill hundreds of Americans. Then, in 2007, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-sponsored militia, kidnaped five American soldiers, and then tortured and executed them. They and Kata’ib Hezbollah still undermine rule-of-law and government authority in Iraq.

In the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)and the collapse of several units of the Iraqi army, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for volunteers to help defend Iraqi Shi‘ites (and non-Shi’ite Iraqis) and protect both the shrine cities and the capital from ISIS’ advance. The resulting Popular Mobilization Forces (alHashd al-Shaabi) are often treated almost cartoonishly among many Western commentators. They describe them as uniformly Shi‘ite (they are not, even if Shi’ites make up the vast majority) and Iranian proxies (certainly, Iranian officials would like to co-opt them and perhaps do some but most are at heart Iraqi nationalists). Contrary to some reports, there was no widespread abuse, looting, or burning of homes in Tikrit when the volunteers defeated ISIS.

At any rate, if the goal is to fight and defeat ISIS and if Iraqis cannot rely on outside powers to help with any consistency, then they would be foolish to sit around and wait to conduct full military training, nor do many ordinary Iraqis have any wish to make a three-year commitment to the Iraqi army. The training program announced by President Obama for Syrians to fight ISIS has gone nowhere, but perhaps that was the point, and so the Hashd has become an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Does that mean the United States, Iraqis, or others should be sanguine about the Hashd? No. They are a short-term solution which will pose a long-term threat to Iraq, as many will expect a reward or patronage position for their service.

Norman Cigar, perhaps the most skilled and precise linguist and military analyst of the Middle East (whose work I have previously cited here) is out with a new publication through the United States Army War College Press entitled “Iraqi Shi’a Warlords and Their Militias,” which is a free .pdf here. It’s probably the most complete, nuanced, and realistic take to date on both the various militias and the issues raised by their existence, especially in the post-ISIS order. He addresses key questions such as how the militias are mobilized, and the breakdown between those used to fight versus those deemed unfit and perhaps instead relegated to guard duty. He breaks down the numbers in each militia and, for all the talk about leveraging tribes, he discusses how various tribes delivered volunteers for the militias. He also addresses training, equipping, maintaining, and feeding the militias, the logistical elements seldom discussed.

Looking to the future, Cigar is realistic. Iraqis will continue to embrace the militias unless there is a significant foreign military force that can supplant them to counter the Islamic State challenge. Americans like to condemn the militias, but at the same time there is no appetite in the White House or Congress for a significant military deployment back into Iraq. That means the militias are here to stay. The Kurds provide no substitute. Not only is Cigar realistic about the capabilities of the Peshmerga, but he also recognizes the political limitations given Kurdish disunity and disinterest in combatting ISIS in territories in which the Kurds have no interest. Then the question turns into how the militia reality might impact future organization. Will, he ponders, the militias be folded into an organization much like Iran’s Basij? Indeed, for better or worse, this might be the model that most Iraqis are familiar. And if, alternately, there is demobilization, how will that occur?

A decade ago, no one foresaw the rise of the Islamic State or, conversely, of the Hashd. And while the Islamic State needn’t be a fact-of-life if the United States and regional powers were serious about defeating it, the Hashd are now here to stay. Simply condemning them all as Iranian agents is neither accurate nor productive. Rather, it’s time to confront the new reality and craft policies to accommodate or perhaps alter it. Either way, Cigar’s monograph is unique, essential, and a great place to start.

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Anbar Sleeps Once More

For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

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For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

One of the great gains of the Surge is what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.” In late 2006 and into 2007, Sunni Arab leaders in the restive western Anbar Province that had once tolerated the heavy hand of al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to prevent encroaching Shiite influence united against their oppressors. Contrary to the popular mythology espoused by al-Qaeda leadership, the United States had demonstrated that it was a Middle Eastern power. It would not simply retreat amid a slow bloodletting at the hands of the insurgency. As Bing West observed, the American military showed that it was “the strongest tribe,” and the region’s leaders were prepared to throw their lots in with America.

Today, with the fall of Ramadi to ISIS apparently representing a new status quo, there is no doubt about who is the strongest tribe in Anbar. Many of the region’s Sunni clerics and tribal leaders who resisted ISIS’s advance were exiled or slaughtered by the renewed insurgency. Those who remain have now accepted their overlords. “A number of Sunni tribal sheikhs and tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group,” Al Jazeera reported earlier this month. “The sheikhs and tribal leaders made the pledge on Wednesday in Fallujah in a statement read out by Ahmed Dara al-Jumaili, an influential sheikh, after a meeting.”

The gains of the Surge are lost. Anbar is again asleep.

Compounding the impression among Anbar’s Sunni elites that a Shiite conspiracy is afoot that will only further undermine their influence in their home governorate is the fact that the United States has so flagrantly traded expediency for strategic competence by, reportedly, inviting Iran-backed Shiite militias into Anbar. Not only are militias loyal to Tehran operating inside Anbar, they are doing so alongside U.S. service personnel and within the same base.

“Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported. “Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.”

As galling as that last sentence may be — and it is galling — it is even more disheartening to know that the Sunni leaders in Anbar now have even more reason to tacitly or even openly welcome the ISIS insurgency, regardless of how brutal it might be. It’s hard to square the revelation that American troops and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s September 2014 contention that “we are not coordinating military operations or sharing intelligence with Iran.” The direct communication between forces that take orders from the Pentagon and those that are loyal to Tehran is now overt.

What’s harder to comprehend, however, is how this strategy would lead to a lasting victory against ISIS in Iraq. What seems more likely is that it would sow the seeds of a new civil war, and a real one, in the vacuum that would follow ISIS’s retreat and America’s second withdrawal from Iraq.

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Saudi Wikileaks a Reality Check on Iraq

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers. Read More

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers.

One Saudi cable, for example, depicts how Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, sought to intercede with Iran to force then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to concede to the Kurds additional oil rights. Maliki refused to listen to the Iranians, however. Perhaps the former prime minister did put Iraqi interests first and foremost. The Saudis weren’t willing to put all their eggs in Barzani’s basket, however; the cables also reveal that in 2012, the Saudis contributed $500,000 to the Islamic Movement, Kurdistan’s more radical and sometimes violent Islamist movement.

Then, of course, was this cable in which the Saudi Foreign Ministry urged the Saudi King to host Barzani to encourage Barzani’s continued opposition to Maliki. Of course, when the Saudi king hosts a regional leader from whom it wants something, it seldom involves letting that politician return home absent a significantly augmented bank account. Iraqi politicians are seemingly unwilling to compromise post-election. Perhaps the problem was Shi‘ite intransigence after all. The cables also suggest that Barzani led a press campaign against Maliki on behalf of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Saudi dalliance in Iraqi politics was not simply limited to the Kurds. Ayad Allawi has long been a darling of certain diplomatic and military circles in Washington even though he has declining credibility in Baghdad, where he has cultivated a reputation for being lazy and for wanting to be coronated as Iraqi leader through the political intervention of regional states rather than working, campaigning, and competing in the democratic arena along with everyone else. Indeed, there’s an Iraqi joke about how Maliki once confiscated Allawi’s “Green Zone” pass, but Allawi didn’t realize it for seven months (the implication being he never showed up in Baghdad). Well, now it seems that Allawi was on the Saudi payroll as well: The documents appear to show that the Saudis gave Allawi 2,000 Hajj permits which he could distribute. (Not everyone can simply board a plane and show up for the Hajj; as part of their crown control, the Saudis allocate a quota to each country. Some countries distribute these by lottery, others sell the permits, and some simply use them as patronage). If Allawi sold his permits, he could reap quite a windfall.

Over the course of the last decade, the Iraqis have been resilient, surprising almost all diplomats and analysts who predicted doom and gloom. And while many of Iraq’s current political problems may be self-inflicted, the Saudi revelations show that a major reason why Iraqis seem unable to coalesce is that Saudi Arabia has given prominent politicians favors if not money in order to undermine any consensus. How ironic it is then that so many pundits continue to insist that the current or former leadership in Baghdad is the problem, while they put forward the very politicians that appear to have an unhealthy and unethical relationship with the Saudis as a solution.

To be fair, however, while there is no serious suggestion that the Saudi document cache is fraudulent, it is important to remember the parable of the blind men each describing different parts of the elephant. Saudi malfeasance does not mean exculpation of Iran, for which there is overwhelming evidence of bribery, extortion, and other methods of coercion. When I was preparing to do my Ph.D. at Yale, the faculty unofficially but persistently promoted a 30-year-rule: no serious academic work could be conducted without the passage of decades and without access to the full array of documents shaping those events. To do otherwise would simply be journalism rather than scholarship. The leak of Saudi documents shows once again that academics or journalists who believe they have written the history of the Iraq war and post-war period absent a full array of documents show how faulty their premise to be.

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Iraq Myths Lead to Bad Policy

Against the backdrop of recent Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) gains in Ramadi and Palmyra, a number of American diplomats, pundits, and military analysts have argued that U.S. interests would be better served bypassing Baghdad and supplying arms directly to Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish Peshmerga. Other pundits have even gone so far as to revive then-Senator Joseph Biden’s proposal to divide up along ethnic and sectarian lines. Both such proposals are wrong-headed, and not only detrimental to Iraqis, but they would also be disastrous for U.S. national security. Some of these proposals are based on myths, and others simply misunderstand Iraqi politics and society. Sometimes, it’s necessary simply to debunk falsehoods:

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Against the backdrop of recent Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) gains in Ramadi and Palmyra, a number of American diplomats, pundits, and military analysts have argued that U.S. interests would be better served bypassing Baghdad and supplying arms directly to Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish Peshmerga. Other pundits have even gone so far as to revive then-Senator Joseph Biden’s proposal to divide up along ethnic and sectarian lines. Both such proposals are wrong-headed, and not only detrimental to Iraqis, but they would also be disastrous for U.S. national security. Some of these proposals are based on myths, and others simply misunderstand Iraqi politics and society. Sometimes, it’s necessary simply to debunk falsehoods:

First, is Iraq an artificial country? Those who suggest dividing Iraq often suggest it was an artificial country, merely the result of British diplomats and adventurers drawing lines on map after World War I. The actual situation is more complicated. Even if its borders were haphazardly drawn, the concept of Iraq, much as the concept of Syria, Egypt, or Yemen, dates back centuries if not millennia. Nineteenth century Persian diplomatic correspondence references Iraq, but the name Iraq dates back to before the coming of Islam, and often appears in medieval Arabic literature. Regardless, even if a Western diplomat or historian wanted to label Iraq a completely artificial country, the fact of the matter is that it has existed within the same set of borders for nearly a century; 95 years of a common history within common boundaries builds identity.

Second, why not divide Iraq anyway? Recently, some pundits have revived the idea of dividing Iraq. Let’s pretend that ethnic and sectarian divisions are clear cut (they’re not) and that division wouldn’t Certainly, the Kurds want independence, but Iran—fearful of how that precedent might impact Iran’s own restive Kurds—have made clear that they will spare no means to sabotage that ambition. As for the Sunnis, how would division and independence resolve the problem of the Islamic State? Simply put, it wouldn’t: Rather, a Sunni entity would simply normalize the Islamic State. And if the fear is Iranian dominance of Iraq, then stripping away the Sunnis and the Kurds simply makes Iranian dominance over a Shi‘ite rump state easier.

Third, isn’t the Islamic State the result of political failures in Baghdad ? No. There have been failures in Baghdad, but the Islamic State neither formed in a day in reaction to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s raid on a protest camp in Al-Anbar, nor would a broad-based government that incorporates everyone to their maximum demands resolve the problem. Sure, some Sunni political activists feel disenfranchised by the largely Shi’ite political order? Certainly, but there are many outlets for political discord. Enslaving women, burning children, defenestrating gays, and filling mass graves are the symptoms of psychopathy, not legitimate political protest. Nor do proponents of the idea that Baghdad causes the Islamic State consider that group’s presence in countries like Libya where sectarianism is not a concern. Simply put, political grievance isn’t the common denominator; rather, an extreme reading of Sunni Islam is.

Fourth, why support Iraq when its army doesn’t fight? Ashton Carter is probably the secretary of defense with the best command of defense issues in a generation, but his remark that the Iraqi Army had “no will to fight” at Ramadi was not only factually incorrect but also insulting and tone deaf. After all, the Iraqi Army (and the hashd, the popular mobilization forces) had fought in Ramadi for months before their collapse amidst an Islamic State assault involving multiple truck bombs. While the Kurdish Peshmerga had anti-tank missiles, the United States had not provided them to the Iraqi army. It had nothing in its arsenal to take out the armored trucks before they put Ramadi’s defenders in the kill zone. And as for American airpower? At the critical moment it was nowhere to be found. So much for all the assurances from the Obama administration that, post-withdrawal, the United States could (and would) provide security or gather adequate intelligence.

Fifth, Did Baghdad betray “the Surge?” No. The surge was good military strategy in the short-term, but it ensured long-term political instability. When assessing the surge, it’s crucial not to allow hagiography for some of the American commanders trump the reality of what the surge meant for Iraqi politics. The problem was that the surge was based on the notion that violence could bring both financial reward and political power. Rather than demand that Sunni politicians accept the post-2003 order, it empowered them absent any permanent acceptance on their part of the post-Saddam political order. Many of the entities the surge created were just as sectarian and contrary to the constitution as the Popular Mobilization Forces are today. As for the Sunni tribes, there’s often a conceit in America that when they work with American forces, it is because of a match of mind and heart but when they work with terrorists, radicals, and insurgents, it is something else entirely. The fact of the matter is that allegiance is transient for many tribes, and that it is poor policy to assume that any amount of political concession can permanently recruit them onto the right side. At the very least, the surge as with de-Baathificaton created a political Trojan horse and, more likely, set the stage for a bidding war for loyalty that the United States could never win.

Sixth, but wasn’t Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pro-Iranian after 2010? Sure, Nouri al-Maliki began leaning evermore toward the Iranians after the White House announced its intention to withdraw from Iraq, and he grew more sectarian as he had to fend off challenges from various Shi‘ite parties that accused him of being too moderate. But, why should that surprise? Iraqi politicians are, well, politicians. Why can Secretary of State John Kerry be for something before he was against it and not expect Iraqi politicians to be equally venal and opportunistic? The same holds true for Ahmad Chalabi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Masoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani. It really is amazing that American politicians feel they can scapegoat foreign counterparts and just expect them to take it.

Seventh, why not give arms directly to Sunni tribes or the Kurdish Peshmerga? Given the rapidly changing loyalties of the Sunni tribes, arming them directly would be akin to arming Al Qaeda. It’s the same quixotic quest as searching for moderate Syrian opposition four years after their betrayal. Iraqi forces fleeing the Islamic State abandoned weaponry, and that’s bad. But many Sunni tribesmen and former regime elements simply joined the Islamic State. And, as for the Kurdish Peshmerga: First, the Kurds have been acquiring weaponry directly for several years and, second, Kurdish leaders continue to stockpile that weaponry for their own political benefit rather than deploy it where it’s needed. To work outside of Baghdad and arm the Sunnis and Kurds directly is the single best action to take if the goal is to undercut Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and give the pro-Iranian factions the perfect talking point to bash anyone that suggests considering let alone deferring to the American position.

Eighth, why not work with Iran to defeat terrorism in Iraq? Make no mistake: Iran is just as much of a threat to Iraqi sovereignty and regional security as is the Islamic State. If the Iranian government were really so antagonistic to the Islamic State, however, then perhaps in the years before the United States became involved in an air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, then Tehran would have had its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, use his air force to bomb the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa rather than use his then-uncontested control of the skies to drop barrel bombs on civilians. Even if Iranian leaders have come to recognize the threat the Islamic State poses, they are not an altruistic power. It is the Qods Force—and not ordinary Iraqi volunteers joining the fight against the Islamic State—that promulgate corrosive sectarianism. It should be the goal of the United States to ensure Iraqi sovereignty and defeat all extremism, not simply swap one flavor for another.

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Obama Embraces Hope But Little Change in Iraq

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained? Read More

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained?

The administration is apparently pinning its hopes on the passage of a law authorizing a National Guard composed of Sunni tribesmen, but Iraqi officials have been promising to pass that law for at least a year and haven’t delivered because sectarian Shiites have no interest in arming Sunnis. Perhaps that will suddenly change. And perhaps 450 additional trainers will somehow make a difference when the previous deployment of 3,000 personnel hasn’t done much to stop the ISIS onslaught. Perhaps the administration will get lucky, but hoping to fill an inside straight isn’t a good basis for policymaking.

If the administration were really serious about defeating ISIS, it would have to lift the rules that prevent American personnel from going into battle with Iraqi forces and calling in air strikes. It would also have to be prepared to order US Special Operations Forces to engage ISIS directly, staging regular raids like the one that recently killed an ISIS mid-level leader in Syria. In addition, it would have to mount a major political initiative to give the Sunnis a reason to fight ISIS by assuring them that they will not again be subjugated to extremist Shiite rule. Oh, and the administration would also have to come up with some strategy for fighting ISIS in Syria — and in far-flung lands such as Libya, where the Islamic State is now expanding.

If the administration has any plans to address these issues, they are well-concealed secrets. What we can tell from public statements and leaks is that the president is willing to tinker around the edges with the current strategy, much in the way that President Bush did during 2003-2006. But, unlike Bush in 2007, Obama is not willing to question the flawed assumptions on which his current strategy is based. Until that happens don’t expect to see much success in rolling back the Islamic State.

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Obama Plays Analyst-In-Chief in Fight Against ISIS

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be. Read More

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be.

The president also neatly dodged the issue of whether he would be prepared to commit more U.S. forces. Asked about that, he replied, “I think what is fair to say is that all the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraqi security forces if they feel like that additional work is being taken advantage of.” That reveals muddled thinking on two levels. First the question wasn’t just about more trainers—it was about more US forces, period. Trainers alone will never be very effective; what are needed are more advisers, tactical air controllers, and special operations personnel to work alongside Iraqis in battle to call in precision air strikes and to bolster their professionalism. With his answer, Obama revealed a willful refusal to even consider this kind of commitment even though most military experts agree it is the only one with any shot of success.

The second problem with Obama answer is that he is once again putting the onus on Iraqis to get their house in order before the U.S. will do more assist them. Obama was right that the effort to enlist Sunnis to fight ISIS “has not been happening as fast as it needs to.” He was right, too, that “the political agenda of inclusion remains as important as the military fight that’s out there. If Sunnis, Kurds, and Shia all feel as if they’re concerns are being addressed, and that operating within a legitimate political structure can meet their need for security, prosperity, non-discrimination, then we’re going to have much easier time.” But what if anything is President Obama himself going to do to break through the political log jam, to provide a check on Iranian influence, and to push for the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s governing structure? Here is the entirety of his answer: “And so we’ve got to continue to monitor that and support those who are on the right side of the issue there.”

What was missing was any pledge by Obama that he was going to roll up his sleeves and work on this personally or even that he would send a high-profile envoy to Baghdad, of the kind the administration has employed on other issues. All we got was pretty much more of the same — more a description of the problem than a pledge to find a solution. Once again, the president is showing himself to be more analyst-in-chief than commander-in-chief. But dispassionate analysis will not defeat a determined organization like ISIS. That requires a massive effort that is plainly not forthcoming from this administration.

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Obama’s Contemptibly Casual War on ISIS

It was the gaffe so good, he made it twice. Apparently, the president does not see his shamelessly lackadaisical approach to conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a failure of which his administration should be ashamed. After conceding that he didn’t have a comprehensive ISIS strategy, much less one that would result in unambiguous victory, last August, President Barack Obama reiterated that admission on Monday.  Read More

It was the gaffe so good, he made it twice. Apparently, the president does not see his shamelessly lackadaisical approach to conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a failure of which his administration should be ashamed. After conceding that he didn’t have a comprehensive ISIS strategy, much less one that would result in unambiguous victory, last August, President Barack Obama reiterated that admission on Monday. 

The president’s admission in August, exactly 20 days after the start of renewed airstrikes in Iraq targeting ISIS, that “we don’t have a strategy yet” was met with shocked gasps and myriad disapproving opinion pieces. Many saw the fact that the commander-in-chief did not have a clear and executable strategy for victory even after sending American forces into combat as the height of irresponsibility. Today, exactly 10 months after the beginning of new coalition combat operations over Iraq, the president said that he still has no clear vision for victory in the war against ISIS.

“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said at a press conference at the G-7 gathering in Germany, “because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”

It was deplorable that an American commander of the armed forces did not have a plan for victory after the fall of a major Iraqi city to a terrorist organization, but it is simply reprehensible for the president to continue to cling to a failing war plan even amid cascading losses. Obama may, however, benefit from Americans’ reduced expectations of him. 20 days into the new campaign against ISIS, it was revelatory to learn that Obama had no strategy. Today, after so many setbacks, that might not come as much of a shock.

The president did his best to shift blame for his failure of leadership onto Pentagon commanders. Obama claimed that Defense Department officials had not yet presented to him a “finalized” plan for victory in Iraq that consists of relying on Iraqi Security Forces to serve as the primary ground combat forces. But what if the plan that the president wants is simply unfeasible? The U.S. was reportedly caught “off guard” by the spectacular implosion of the ISF in the summer of last year, as waves of ISIS forces poured over the Syrian border and sacked city after city including Mosul, the second largest urban center in Iraq. By November of 2014, U.S. troops began speeding the training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for an assault on that city that never came. Now Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province and a city located just 70 miles from the seat of Iraqi governance, has also fallen to ISIS. The return on American investment in the ISF seems a long way off.

And while it is simply inexcusable that the President of the United States has so far refused to craft an achievable strategic plan for victory in Iraq and Syria nearly one year after committing American personnel and material to the fight, it’s perhaps more galling that his apparent intention is to bequeath his war to the next president. It would be a unique political failure if Obama, a president elected with a mandate to withdraw from Iraq, were compelled to again commit U.S. ground forces to combat operations in Iraq as a direct result of the premature pursuit of that agenda item. Obama appears content to do his best to contain ISIS insofar as it is possible and let the next president make the inevitable case that Western forces must again return to Iraq before the nascent caliphate can export terrorism abroad.

In this way, Obama does have a strategy that he has applied to fighting ISIS in Iraq. It is not, however, a strategy designed to achieve a victory.

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By Embracing ‘Nation-Building,’ Rubio Conveys a Hard Truth

Marco Rubio has caused a kerfuffle with his comments about nation-building on Fox News. Here is what he said: Read More

Marco Rubio has caused a kerfuffle with his comments about nation-building on Fox News. Here is what he said:

RUBIO: I think we have a responsibility to support democracy. And if a nation expresses a desire to become a democratic nation, particularly one that we invaded, I do believe that we have a responsibility to help them move in that direction. But the most immediate responsibility we have is to help them build a functional government that can actually meet the needs of the people in the short- and long-term, and that ultimately from that you would hope that would spring democracy.

FOX NEWS HOST: That sounds like nation-building.

RUBIO: <strong>Well, it’s not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation.</strong> We have a vested interest in doing that. The alternative to doing that is the chaos we have now. Because in fact what happened in Iraq under this administration is they rallied around [former Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki, a Shia leader who used his power to go after Sunnis, and that created the environment that was conducive for ISIS to come back in and create all these problems.

Rubio is now being mocked by the likes of Paul Begala for essentially trying to insist on a distinction without a difference. Fair enough. Rubio was uncharacteristically clumsy in trying to dis-associate himself from the emotive phrase “nation-building,” but the bigger story here is that he was endorsing the underlying concept — and he was right to do so.

It’s too bad that “nation-building” has become such a negative term among both Republicans and Democrats — right up there with “world’s policeman,” another duty that we need to perform in our own self-interest even though nobody wants to admit it. It was precisely the nation-building that we did in Germany, Japan, Italy, and South Korea that ensured lasting victories after World War II and the Korean War. When we have failed to do “nation-building” after a war — e.g., Germany after World War I — the results, more often than not, have been disastrous.

The Bush administration learned that for itself: It came into office prejudiced against “nation-building” which Republicans wrongly viewed as a Clinton project. As a result the administration failed to prepare for nation-building in either Iraq or Afghanistan, allowing insurgencies to develop. The Obama administration repeated the same mistake in Libya where it did no nation-building after the fall of Qaddafi. The result is that Libya is now in the grip of rival militias and ISIS is gaining strength there. As Rubio rightly put it, the alternative to nation-building is chaos.

Given that reality, we shouldn’t run away from the imperative to help our allies build strong states capable of defeating terrorists and extremists—which is what nation-building is all about. We should get better at it. And getting better at it means improving our civilian capacity, not sending large numbers of troops all over the world. USAID, for example, should be retooled into a nation-building agency staffed by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that will never happen until we overcome our childish and ill-advised aversion to the very idea of “nation-building.”

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Obama Is Losing Iraq Just as LBJ Lost Vietnam

The Obama White House’s mental synapses must be short-circuiting right now. If the president were a robot (rather than just being a bit robotic), he would by now be repeating over and over: “Does not compute! Does not compute!” Neither of his basic operating assumptions about the anti-ISIS campaign are coming true; in fact, both are being refuted by reality in ways that suggest a fundamental flaw in the underlying mental software. Read More

The Obama White House’s mental synapses must be short-circuiting right now. If the president were a robot (rather than just being a bit robotic), he would by now be repeating over and over: “Does not compute! Does not compute!” Neither of his basic operating assumptions about the anti-ISIS campaign are coming true; in fact, both are being refuted by reality in ways that suggest a fundamental flaw in the underlying mental software.

Assumption No. 1 was that a US air campaign could degrade ISIS and allow its defeat by US allies on the ground. There is no question that the US air campaign has taken a toll. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken just bragged that 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the start of bombing in August. Yet this is hard to square, as Bill Roggio notes at Long War Journal, with previous CIA estimates that ISIS only had 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. If Blinken’s number is right, ISIS should have lost one-half to one-third of its fighters, yet somehow during that time it has actually gained ground in both Iraq and Syria — oh, and estimates of its overall strength have not varied.

This means that either previous CIA estimates were gross underestimates (Roggio believes ISIS had at least 50,000 fighters to begin with) or that it has managed to replenish its losses—or both. Either way, what we are seeing now is what President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland discovered for themselves in Vietnam: namely that it’s impossible to win a war of attrition against a foe that has a lot more will to fight and suffer losses than you do.

Assumption No. 2 can be summed up as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In both Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration calculated that Iran was the enemy of ISIS — after all, the Iranian regime is Shiite and ISIS is a Sunni organization. Thus the administration has tacitly embraced Iran’s allies — Iraqi Shiite militias and the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as the lesser evil in the expectation that they would do for us the dirty work of stopping ISIS. It’s a little hard to square this naïve assumption with the latest news, aptly summed up in a New York Times headline: “Assad’s Forces May Be Aiding ISIS Surge.” There are credible reports that Assad’s air force is making bombing runs in support of an ISIS offensive to capture Aleppo, a major city, from other rebel groups.

Why would Assad do this? Because he wants to reduce the battle in Syria to himself vs. ISIS on the assumption that with such an extremist foe, the rest of the world will be compelled to back him. By contrast, the more moderate rebel forces are viewed as a greater threat to his regime because they are capable of winning greater external backing. Iran is also relatively satisfied to have ISIS in control of Sunni areas in both Syria and Iraq because this gives Tehran the excuse it needs to consolidate its control over Alawite and Shiite areas — and Iran knows that it can’t rule over Sunni areas anyway.

There is nothing particularly novel about this development. There is a long history of reports suggesting deals between Assad and ISIS which range from a non-aggression pact to an agreement to cooperate in selling oil which has been captured by ISIS, while in Iraq it has long been obvious that Iranian militias are more interested in protecting Baghdad and the Shiite south than they are in pushing ISIS out of Mosul or Ramadi. The administration has just chosen to look the other way both in Syria and in Iraq rather than take on board facts that are at odds with its fundamental assumptions.

The Obama administration is now at a turning point in Iraq. It is roughly at the same place where the US was in Vietnam in 1967 and Iraq in 2006. In all those cases, the falsity of the assumptions under which we had been fighting had been revealed. The question was whether the president would execute a change of strategy. LBJ did not really do that, beyond his ineffectual bombing pauses and refusal to provide 200,000 more reinforcements to Gen. Westmoreland. It was left to Nixon and Gen. Creighton Abrams to transform the US war effort. By contrast, in Iraq in 2007 George W. Bush did execute a transformation of his strategy that rescued a floundering war effort.

Which way will Obama go now? Will he be another Johnson or a Bush? All signs, alas, point to the former. Thus it is particularly appropriate that to show progress (what used to be known as “light at the end of the tunnel”) the administration is now resorting to the discredited body counts of Vietnam days.

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Obama’s Bankrupt Anti-ISIS Strategy Confuses Even His Allies

At the risk of getting your work week off to a bad start, I thought I would share some of the latest articles on the fight against ISIS. The news is unrelievedly grim.

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At the risk of getting your work week off to a bad start, I thought I would share some of the latest articles on the fight against ISIS. The news is unrelievedly grim.

ISIS is expanding in Libya where it is pushing a rival militia out of the town of Misurata.

–In Syria, one of the major Free Syrian Army leaders whose 1,000 men have been designated for American training to fight ISIS is threatening to pull out of the program. “The issue: the American government’s demand that the rebels can’t use any of their newfound battlefield prowess or U.S.-provided weaponry against the army of Bashar al-Assad or any of its manifold proxies and allies, which include Iranian-built militias such as Lebanese Hezbollah. They must only fight ISIS, Washington insists.” As Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast notes, this “wouldn’t just mean the loss of a few fighters for the anti-ISIS army the U.S. is trying to assemble. It could mean a fracturing of the entire program—a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s plan to fight ISIS in Syria.”

–“Nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria returned to base without firing any weapons in the first four months of 2015, holding their fire mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence and raising questions about President Obama’s key tactic in pushing back an enemy that continues to expand its territory in the war zone.” Embedding forward-air-controllers with Iraqi units could provide much better targeting information but this is forbidden by the White House.

Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the large Iranian-directed militia in Iraq, says, “Iraqi forces will make no immediate attempt to recapture the city of Ramadi. “ He also brags about his influence: “We send the key points of the operation to the prime minister, and he agrees them,” he said. “Mr prime minister is a civilian. It is not his job to lay our plans.”

–“Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, has admitted that his government does not have full control of the predominantly Shia militia, the so-called Popular Mobilisation force.”

These news articles, randomly gathered during my reading today, suggest the utter bankruptcy of US strategy against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq—to say nothing of countries farther afield such as Libya. In Syria there is no ground force able to oppose ISIS and, in Iraq, the only credible ground force is composed of Iranian-directed militias such as the ones that Hadi al-Amaeri commands. Unfortunately, the Shiite militias cannot clear and hold predominantly Sunni areas without sparking a lethal backlash.

In light of all this, the New York Times editorial board has some sensible advice to offer today. While the Times editorialists are wrong to dismiss the possibility of beefing up the US military presence in Iraq, they are right to say “the Americans should consider working more directly with the Sunni tribes if Baghdad continues to refuse” to arm the Sunnis.

Alas there is no sense that the Obama White House is seriously considering this or other steps that would represent a significant modification of its failed policies in the struggle against ISIS.

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Obama Has Given Up on Iraq

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was busy yesterday commenting on the calamitous situation in Iraq—and in the process making it even worse. Read More

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was busy yesterday commenting on the calamitous situation in Iraq—and in the process making it even worse.

He told Fox News: “The United States is not going to be responsible for securing the security situation inside of Iraq.”

And then on NPR he rejected calls to send 25,000 or so troops to Iraq, saying:

We are unwilling to dedicate that kind of blood and treasure to Iraq again. We saw what the result of that previous investment was. And that is not discounting the bravery and courage of our men and women in uniform – they had a substantial impact on the security situation there. But the Iraqi people, and because of the failed leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, was not able to capitalize on it.

So our strategy right now is predicated on building up the capacity of those local forces and giving them another opportunity to control the security situation inside their own country and to do so with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. But we’re not going to be able to do it for them.

This comes only days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter excoriated Iraqi troops for their lack of will to fight. What does it say about the US will to fight when the White House spokesman is saying that Iraq is so unimportant that we will not take any responsibility for the outcome there? That we are not willing to dedicate American “blood and treasure” to defeat ISIS?

The obvious takeaway is that this White House has little will or desire to oppose ISIS — that this president doesn’t see the destruction of ISIS as an important US national security objective even though that is exactly what he pledged to achieve. Once again, there is a major disconnect between the president’s strong rhetoric (“we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” he promised on Sept. 10), and his anemic actions that can only cause a further loss of American credibility.

Another obvious takeaway is that not even the failure of Obama’s present strategy will cause him to rethink his approach. The loss of Ramadi has not shaken him out of his complacency. He’s willing to send 3,000 advisers and some warplanes under very restrictive rules of engagement, but that’s about it. Beyond that, the Iraqis are on their own. The White House just doesn’t care that much.

That’s quite a message to send to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been deployed to Iraq since 2003, and especially to the relatives of the 4,491 who gave their lives there (as well as the tens of thousands wounded, many severely). Obama, via his spokesman, seems to be saying that their sacrifices didn’t matter much because the US has no overriding security interest in Iraq.

That is also the message that Obama is sending, of course, to those US military personnel currently deployed to Iraq. One can only imagine what it does for their morale to hear the chief spokesman of their commander-in-chief — the man who sent them into harm’s way — explaining how unimportant their mission is.

But the worst effect of Josh Earnest’s seeming sangfroid about the future of Iraq is the message that he sends to Iraqis themselves. They are caught between two blood-thirsty ogres: ISIS and Iran. The US is the only outside force that could conceivably bolster a third alternative — a more moderate alternative — that would have wide appeal to Iraqis. That’s what we were doing until 2012, and with considerable success. But Obama was not willing to play that role anymore. He pulled out US troops and not even the consequent rise of ISIS is causing him to making a serious commitment.

So what he is basically signaling to Iraqis is that they need to choose sides among the outside powers that, unlike the U.S., ARE willing to risk blood and treasure in Iraq. Inevitably that means Sunnis will choose to go with ISIS and Shiites with Iran’s Quds Force.

It’s astonishing that even after all these years in power President Obama and his aides still have not grasped the importance of displaying presidential will in warfare. The lack of that will has already undermined the US mission in Afghanistan (remember that 18-month timeline on the surge that Obama ordered in 2009?) and it is now making progress hard to imagine in Iraq, much less in Syria.

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The White House Treats a Foreign Policy Disaster Like a Political Crisis

Nearly one year after the ISIS hordes charged screaming over the Syrian border and sacked Mosul, they’ve repeated the feat in Ramadi – the capital of the restive Anbar province, and a city located just 70 miles from Baghdad. Simultaneously, ISIS forces launched an offensive to the north and captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the face of this humiliation more than nine months after the start of renewed coalition bombing missions over Iraq, the White House dubiously continued to insist that everything was going according to plan. Except, there never was any plan.

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Nearly one year after the ISIS hordes charged screaming over the Syrian border and sacked Mosul, they’ve repeated the feat in Ramadi – the capital of the restive Anbar province, and a city located just 70 miles from Baghdad. Simultaneously, ISIS forces launched an offensive to the north and captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the face of this humiliation more than nine months after the start of renewed coalition bombing missions over Iraq, the White House dubiously continued to insist that everything was going according to plan. Except, there never was any plan.

“Look, there were several things that surprised us about ISIL,” outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told PBS reporter Martin Smith in a recent exit interview. “The degree to which they were able to form their own coalition, both inside of Syria — and inside of northwestern Iraq; the military capability that they exhibited — the collapse of the Iraq Security Forces. Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises.”

The concession that the fall of Mosul was a source of astonishment for American military planners prompted former senior Iraq CIA officer John Maguire to demand Dempsey resign. While the Pentagon surely deserves some censure for the current state of affairs in the Middle East, it’s perhaps unwise to scapegoat Gen. Dempsey when it is the administration’s shortsightedness that merits criticism.

The New York Times revealed this week that the administration has steadfastly refused to shift tactics in response to ISIS’s shocking gains. The coalition air campaign over Iraq manages to conduct an average of 15 sorties per day; an embarrassingly small number of airstrikes compared to prior engagements that leaves the observer thinking that this war is being conducted in a perfunctory and halfhearted fashion. “The administration’s commitment or lack thereof sends a loud and clear signal to Iraqis: the US has little willingness to fight ISIS,” Max Boot noted. “And that message in turn undermines the fighting spirit of the Iraqis.”

By contrast, ISIS’s strategic approach to its war of conquest has been strikingly dynamic. “Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.” The report added that the ISIS forces are converting captured American armored vehicles into “megabombs,” each with the destructive force equivalent to one of the devices used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

What’s more, ISIS forces operate with virtual impunity outside the frontlines. Beyond the occasional special forces operation — admittedly inspiring feats of derring-do by American servicemen that yield tangible benefits — ISIS operatives apparently have little to fear from U.S.-led coalition airpower.

“[T]he sorties flown so far have been minimal, and damage inflicted still less, even as ISIS held a parade in broad daylight in Rutba, Iraq, last week,” former CIA case officer Kevin Carroll revealed in a recent Journal op-ed outlining some of the tactical shifts the U.S. needs to contemplate. “That is the kind of target our aviators dream of. Rules of engagement need to be loosened, U.S. air controllers sent to the front to call in strikes, and more combat aircraft put into the fight.”

In a lamentably predictable display of political spinning from this administration when faced with adversity, the White House’s response to ISIS’s victories in Iraq and Syria has been utterly incoherent. In response to the fall of Ramadi, the president contended that he does not believe “we’re losing” the fight. Though dispiriting — “not losing” is a far cry from winning — this was perhaps an attempt by the president to raise ebbing morale. Days later, however, a variety of administration officials shifted blame for the collapse of the anti-ISIS effort back onto Iraqis which, some contended, lacked the will to resist ISIS’s advance.

Finally, after a considerable amount of blame shifting and reluctance to address suboptimal realities, the White House has conceded that it needs to consider a shift in tactics. On Wednesday, White House Communications Director Jennifer Psaki conceded that they do need to “adapt our strategy” to contend with the ISIS threat. It is, however, possible that this was merely Psaki veering wildly off message. She did, after all, note that that tactical shift would consist primarily of arming, training, and equipping Iraqi forces that she maintained in the next breath have neither the will nor the competence to successfully beat back ISIS. Still, this modest moment of self-critical awareness is worthy of praise, even more so if it presages some concrete policy adaptations from this administration.

In the meanwhile, ISIS has begun the familiar process of cementing its hold over its newly acquired territories by first executing the irreplaceable Iraqis who cooperated with the government in Baghdad. At least 500 were killed, and another 25,000 displaced in the immediate wake of the fall of Ramadi – the new tide of refugees all swarming on the increasingly beleaguered capital. And still the administration treats this grave security threat as though it were a domestic political issue that would disappear if only the White House could settle on the right messaging.

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Damned Lies and Fact-Checkers

If Mark Twain were around he would have to modify his famous aphorism about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to add another category of lies–reporter’s attempts at fact-checking politicians. This practice has become prevalent in recent decades, but more often than not it is simply a way for reporters to sneak dubious editorializing into the guise of an ostensibly straight news story — to try to put forward their own spin and bias in opposition to the politicians’ spin and bias.

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If Mark Twain were around he would have to modify his famous aphorism about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to add another category of lies–reporter’s attempts at fact-checking politicians. This practice has become prevalent in recent decades, but more often than not it is simply a way for reporters to sneak dubious editorializing into the guise of an ostensibly straight news story — to try to put forward their own spin and bias in opposition to the politicians’ spin and bias.

Case in point is this article from the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler awarding Jeb Bush “four Pinocchios” for his alleged lack of truthfulness. What is it that Bush said that is so wrong? Did he claim that Obama was a secret Muslim? That one of his GOP rivals was a Ku Kluxer? That Hillary Clinton had ordered the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi?

Not quite. Here is the statement from Jeb that so offended Glenn Kessler:

“ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president.”

Kessler claims this is a lie because “to a large extent, the Islamic State of today is simply an outgrowth of al-Qaeda of Iraq,” and AQI came into being while George W. Bush was president. AQI even proclaimed an Islamic State in Iraq in 2006 after the death of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

It’s certainly true that ISIS is an outgrowth of AQI, but what Bush said was right, not wrong. While the chaotic conditions of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 allowed AQI to flourish, it was largely defeated during the surge in 2007-2008. Kessler cites a 2009 US intelligence assessment that AQI “is likely to retain a residual capacity to undertake terrorist operations for years to come.” But the rest of the report, which Kessler, to his credit, also cites, goes on to note:  “AQI, although still dangerous, has experienced the defection of members, lost key mobilization areas, suffered disruption of support infrastructure and funding, and been forced to change targeting priorities.”

I would go further and say that by the time the U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, AQI, while still in existence, was no longer a significant strategic threat to the well-being of the Iraqi state. It had, in a word, been defeated.

What happened next? A civil war broke out in Syria, the US did little to stop it, and the chaotic conditions which then prevailed in Syria allowed AQI to get a fresh lease on life. Soon it had metamorphosed into the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, and using Syria as its base, it expanded back into Iraq. In 2014 it proclaimed a caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq–a new Islamic State that never previously existed.

What Jeb Bush said, then, is certainly true: the Islamic State did not exist when George W. Bush was president, and al-Qaeda in Iraq was essentially defeated during his administration. It emerged stronger than ever in no small part because of Obama’s neglect of the region.

You can criticize Jeb for failing to note that it was his brother’s policies — specifically the failure to establish security in Iraq in 2003-2006 — that made AQI a threat in the first place, but what he said was truthful if not necessarily complete. To argue otherwise is tendentious — akin to calling a politician a liar for saying that the Republican Party was founded in 1854 because its predecessor, the Whig Party, had been founded in 1833.

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