Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Embrace, Don’t Cut off Iraq

Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

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Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

I certainly share Max’s concern with regard to Iranian efforts to infiltrate and influence Iraq’s government, but I disagree with his conclusions, first with regard to his reading of sectarianism, and second with regard to the meaning and purpose of the bilateral U.S.-Iraq partnership.

Iraq is unfortunately sectarian, but sectarianism is neither one-way-only, nor should it be exaggerated. The roots of Sunni extremism are not any particular grievance suffered at the hands of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, though his rule was far from perfect and enlightened. Rather, it is the ethnic and sectarian chauvinism of the Baath Party and its evolution into partnership if not symbiosis with the Islamic State. The bombs which, until recently at least, terrorized Baghdad were the work of Sunni sectarian groups. That Abadi has restored a modicum of security to Baghdad, and that Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, and Christians are now restoring the (admittedly, less alcohol-centric) night life for which Baghdad was once known, is a sign that there is progress.

This past fall, I visited the Shi‘ite holy city of Karbala as a guest of the Imam Hussein shrine. Driving from the Najaf International Airport north toward Karbala, the main highway was flanked by refugees from the al-Anbar Governorate which, then as now, the Islamic State threatened. They had taken refuge in the Husainiyahs (Shi’ite meeting and prayer halls) that dot the roadside between the two cities to, in normal times, cater to pilgrims. They had opened their doors instead to Sunni refuges who were fed, clothed, and their kids educated in ordinary Iraqi schools. Many displaced Anbaris seemed to feel better treated in largely Shi’ite southern Iraq than in Iraqi Kurdistan, where ethnic discrimination Arabs face trumps the sectarian discrimination Sunnis might feel elsewhere in Iraq.

At any rate, the complex I stayed in played host not only to Sunni refugees from Fallujah, but also to Shi’ite volunteers who had answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call. I would see teens and men ranging in age, by my own estimate only, from 15 to 60 years old, get off the bus, ready to begin their 30-day crash training course. Few if any I met were fighting on behalf of Iran or actually cared about the geopolitical competition; most simply wanted to defeat the scourge of the Islamic State. That is not to say that the Iranian government has not tried to co-opt some of the volunteers, but if there’s one thing that has become clear over the past decade-plus of U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraq, it is that Washington constantly overestimated the psychological impact of occupation, whereas Tehran consistently underestimates the importance of Iraqi nationalism.

Certainly, militias like Asa’ib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah represent important exceptions which cannot be tolerated. And, where Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani goes, death and destruction follow. Besieged Shi’ites will accept help from whomever offers it—and the Iranians offer it more consistently and with greater sustained attention than does the United States—but Iraqi Shi‘ites are also realistic enough to know that Iran is not an altruistic power. Max Boot is correct to fear Iranian ambition in Iraq.

The danger, however, is that walking away from a military partnership with Iraq because of fear of Iranian influence will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Iran gets to consolidate control over Iraq. That smaller, weaker states in the Middle East maintain their independence by playing larger, stronger rivals off each other is Arab statecraft 101. Kuwait balances its interests against Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Iran as well. Qatar famously plays the United States and Iran off each other, as does Oman and even the United Arab Emirates. Iraqi Shi’ites are not Fifth Columnists. While the war against Iran was unjust and initiated by Saddam Hussein, when called to military service, Iraqi Shi’ites fought with honor against the Iranians.

In southern Iraq, Shi’ites from both the ruling party and many opposition groups are desperate to win American investment and bolster the American presence in order to balance out Iranian inroads. Maliki changed in Baghdad and became increasingly deferential to Iranian demands once he recognized that the White House was determined to withdraw U.S. forces. As Maliki told me once in a meeting after the U.S. military withdrawal, the White House and State Department simply would not take yes for an answer. (It was the White House that insisted that immunity for U.S. forces be passed through the Iraqi parliament, a political non-starter; had they accepted an executive guarantee, it was a done deal.) The worst thing that ever happened, as far as many Iraqi Shi‘ites are concerned, was the precipitous withdrawal which pulled the carpet out from the Iraqi government’s ability to tell Tehran, “We’d love to comply with your demands, but we have to consider the Americans.”

Washington needs to recognize, as the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant said at a recent panel discussion, that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi is effectively offering the United States the right of first refusal on Baghdad’s future direction. But if Washington falls short on his requests, then he might just as easily seek what Iraq needs in Tehran or Moscow. American policymakers should never forget that the United States and Iraq are not the only players in the sandbox.

So now we come to the training of the F-16 pilots. It is an irony of diplomacy that sometimes the best diplomats reside in Defense Ministries rather than Foreign Ministries. Diplomats rotate in and out of countries and strike up relations that are as often characterized by fakeness as friendliness. But when military officers undergo training, they develop lifelong relationships with their colleagues of the same rank who are in the trenches with them around the clock. As they rise through the ranks, they often constitute an important backchannel when a crisis strikes. During the 1998 Kargil Crisis between Pakistan and India, the Clinton administration ended up relying disproportionately on the relationships which American officers had struck with their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, relationships which were far deeper and more mature than corollary ties between diplomats. To cut off the training relationship—or undercut the ability of Iraq to defend itself—would represent a self-inflicted wound by which the Iraqis conclude they have no choice but to cast their lot with Iran. That would be the greatest gift the United States could give to the Islamic Republic, given how the Iranians struggle to win hearts and minds inside Iraq.

So, what might be done instead?

  • It’s time to dispense with the simplistic sectarian narrative which Gulf allies whisper into the ears of American officials and which, by osmosis, has become the dominant narrative in CENTCOM and CENTCOM circles as well. It’s all well and good to talk about re-Baathification and forcing undemocratic concessions under terrorist fire, but that would simply throw the baby out with the bathwater and convince the more than 60 percent of Iraq which is Shi’ite that the United States seeks to disenfranchise them. Rather than pursue a sectarian strategy which pits Sunni vs. Shi’ite, the United States should embrace a nuanced strategy which seeks to win Shi‘ite hearts and minds by protecting their freedom of conviction against an Iranian government which seeks to subordinate it to Tehran’s will while at the same time concentrating on the real problem, which is the Qods Force and a small minority of Shi’ite militiamen among a larger corpus of volunteers.
  • Rather than walk away from the Iraqi government, it’s time to double down on the military-to-military relationship so that the United States has leverage to exert pressure to increase the space between Baghdad and Tehran. A diplomatic conference builds relations for the duration of the conference; a military training program cements ties for years. It is time to recognize the importance of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on its own terms rather than only through the lens of Iran policy.
  • Make no mistake: I won’t downplay the threat Iran poses, but the proper way to counter the Iranian threat is to, well, counter the Iranian threat. There needs to be a strategy to undercut the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, if possible, even grab Qassem Soleimani, a man responsible for the murder of hundreds of Americans, more than any other living terrorist.

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Southern Iraq Bypassing Kurdistan in Democracy

Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

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Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

The whole panel might be worth watching for a sense of the breadth of the issues beyond the Iraq-U.S. headlines, but there was one topic addressed which might be surprising, and that is the trajectory of democracy and democratization inside Iraq.

For much of the past two decades, Iraqi Kurdistan has laid claims to being not only the most stable, secure region of Iraq, but also the most democratic. This traces back to May 1992 when, in the vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal of central government forces from Iraqi Kurdistan (Saddam hoped to starve the Kurds into submission), the Kurds held an election in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masud Barzani, topped the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, 45 percent to 44 percent, with smaller and proxy parties taking the remainder. The two parties agreed to divide power equitably and, when this led to a violent struggle, they simply divided territory between them.

While there have been elections in Iraqi Kurdistan since, their outcome has seldom impacted control of Kurdistan. Indeed, Barzani is now serving the 11th year of his eight-year presidency. Given a choice between the democratic visions of Nelson Mandela or Bashar al-Assad, Barzani chose the latter. He embraced the imagery of democracy (remember Assad as the Western-educated reformer?) while imposing dictatorship. The top ranks of Iraqi Kurdish political life are dominated by an older political class and, when young blood is infused into the system, it is limited to the immediate family, hence the prime minister is Masud’s nephew and the national security council chair is Masud’s son. Ditto the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party which once prided itself on ideology but now essentially revolves around a few families. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of former President Talabani, maneuvered to marginalize able party official Barham Salih because she felt he disrespected her family, but placed her young, articulate, but relatively inexperienced son as deputy prime minister.

The juxtaposition between Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq is striking. Like Kurdistan, southern Iraq is booming. Najaf and Karbala are as dynamic as the cities of Kurdistan were a decade ago, and investment continues to pour in. While most of the parties in power in southern Iraq are Islamist in character, the experience of the past decade has shown many Iraqis that religious rhetoric does not substitute for competence. Incumbents have been ousted, and a new generation of politicians have now risen through the ranks of Da’wa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and smaller parties. The point is this: Kurdish leaders continue to repress the new generation. Family trumps competence. In southern Iraq, however, competence trumps family.

Among Iraq’s most chronic problems are capacity and management. Iraqis still have far to go in both categories, but there is a growing cadre of technocrats and bureaucrats in southern Iraq who have proven themselves and have begun to rise through the ranks. They have raised the bar of competence on what it takes to be a politician or a civil servant. They know they must deliver, and that holding office is not simply about collecting a monthly salary and an inflated pension. The same is not true in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the competent must either acquiesce to an artificially low glass ceiling, or leave their country to pursue their careers outside Iraq. That is becoming a tragedy for which Kurds might soon pay a major price.

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Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

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The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Kurdish Infighting Threatens Kirkuk, Gains Against Islamic State

Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

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Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

In the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, most analysts believed that Kirkuk would be a flashpoint between Kurds, whom Saddam had forced from the city and who called Kirkuk their “Jerusalem,” Arabs who claimed a majority in the city and its environs, and Turkmens, whose numbers the government of Turkey exaggerated and which Ankara sought to use as a wedge for its own interests.

The reality of post-liberation Kirkuk turned out to be more placid. There was tension, and Kurdish parties maintained their claims, but generally speaking, ethnic and sectarian violence within Kirkuk city was more the exception rather than the rule. After all, many of the Arabs who had replaced Kurds in recent years wished to return to the cities of central and southern Iraq, where they either had living family or the graves of family long since deceased. And many of the Kurds whom Baathist forces had expelled from the city of Kirkuk were not landowners in the first place, but tenants.

The real trouble was in the farmland outside the city, where Kurdish farmers expelled from their fields wished to return immediately, but Arab farmers who had invested their savings in crops were loath to depart before harvesting them. Men like then-Col. (now Lt.-Gen.) William Mayville did a brilliant job working with farmers on a case-by-case basis to resolve such problems in a fair and equitable way.

Still, Kirkuk remained a contested city until late last spring, when Kurdish peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) consolidated control over the city. Even then, under the stewardship of PUK-affiliated governor Najmaldin Karim, the Kurds were careful to ensure that Kirkuk remained a city for all ethnicities and religions; ethnic chauvinism played no part in governance and, if taxi drivers are considered good barometers, then both Turkmen and Arabs acknowledge that they have as much if not greater access to resources and investment.

Not surprisingly, then, ISIS has worked constantly over the past several months not only to destabilize Kirkuk, but to control it altogether. After ISIS threatened Iraqi Kurdistan last August, many countries responded to calls to support Kurdistan and help the Kurds defend themselves. The United States offered airstrikes and training, but still declines to provide the Kurds directly with heavy and advanced weaponry out of deference to Baghdad and to avoid encouraging Kurdish separatism. The Europeans, however, have not hesitated to answer the Kurdish requests for weaponry.

Here’s where Kurdish disunity undercuts the fight against ISIS and risks Kurdistan’s security. Kirkuk is central to the ISIS efforts now to attack and destabilize Kurdistan. While the minister of Peshmerga Affairs is from the Gorran Movement, an opposition group which has since relegated much of its reformist calls to rhetoric only and struck a bargain with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), most weaponry delivered to the Kurdistan Regional Government is directed into the hands of the KDP peshmerga. None of it has found its way to Kirkuk, largely because the Kurdish leadership in Erbil is upset that Kirkukis repeatedly vote for an independent-minded governor and not for the KDP.

In effect, after decades of demanding that Kirkuk should be returned to Kurdistan, once it has been, the political narrow-mindedness of the Kurdish leadership in Erbil seems to prefer to risk Kirkuk’s fall to ISIS rather than see its Kurds choose a political figure from a party other than Masoud Barzani’s party. True, the KDP will use some of the weaponry to prepare for the coming fight in and around Mosul, although at present the Syrian-based Popular Protection Units (YPG) seem to be doing much of the heavy-lifting rolling back ISIS around Sinjar.

Let’s hope that rather than simply heed the Kurdish call for arms and assume such arms will go where needed, European states donating to the Kurdish cause ensure their assistance goes where it is needed and, indeed, refuse to provide arms unless they first receive a firm commitment the arms will fight ISIS rather than be stockpiled for the benefit of a single party or family.

Kurds often complain that they have been victims of history. Alas, as the military abandonment of Kirkuk on the part of the KRG suggests, too often they have been victims not only of outside powers, but also of the short-sightedness of their own political leadership.

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

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The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

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Beyond ISIS, Kurdistan Faces Internal Crisis

More often than not, when Iraqi Kurdistan enters into U.S. discussion, it is simply in terms of its status as a U.S. ally and frontline force against the Islamic State. Of course, every so often, the human-rights abuses of its leadership will make international headlines, for example when the security forces run by President Masoud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour apparently decide to kill a young journalist for the crime of penning a poem condemning Barzani family nepotism. An appreciation for irony, it seems, is not a Barzani family trait.

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More often than not, when Iraqi Kurdistan enters into U.S. discussion, it is simply in terms of its status as a U.S. ally and frontline force against the Islamic State. Of course, every so often, the human-rights abuses of its leadership will make international headlines, for example when the security forces run by President Masoud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour apparently decide to kill a young journalist for the crime of penning a poem condemning Barzani family nepotism. An appreciation for irony, it seems, is not a Barzani family trait.

But with the Islamic State threat checked, at least for the moment, a larger problem now threatens Iraqi Kurdistan which, alongside Israel and the Gulf states, appears the last bastion of stability in the Middle East. And it is a problem of its own making: poor governance, corruption, and bureaucratic bloat. While high oil prices enabled regional governments to avoid reform, and short-term exigencies led Kurdistan’s allies to turn a blind eye toward its internal problems, sustained low oil prices have now contributed to a crisis which increasingly few inside or outside Kurdistan can or should ignore.

Kemal Chomani is among the most talented Kurdish journalists of his generation. Writing in the Kurdistan Tribune, Chomani notes that Iraqi Kurdistan is now $17 billion in debt:

The KRG has been undergoing severe financial crises for a year. Qubad [Talabani, son of the former president] forgot that KRG debts have reached 17 billion dollars. State employees are not getting their monthly salaries…. So surprisingly, and unashamedly, he said they have been able to manage paying employees’ wages by “begging”. He clearly degrades the dignity of our nation. He should tell us where they have begged for us. Is it their duty to beg or work? In the meantime, securing loans from the oil companies, their own companies and Turkey doesn’t mean they have been successful in resolving financial crises. As Mala Yasin, chief of Dealers of Kurdistan, has said, due to the financial crises more than 300,000 KRG workers have been made redundant. In the past three years, thousands of students have graduated from universities and yet you can hardly find one who might have got a job. Even though there’s no statistics to show the real unemployment rate, by having just a few conversations with the youth in the streets one can easily realize how high it is in the Kurdistan region.

Such indebtedness is especially curious given how, according to analysis by Kurdistan Tribune editor Harem Karem and Chomani, Kurdistan has reaped at least $100 billion in the last few years alone. Where this money has disappeared to is unclear, although some senior Kurdish officials have become fabulously wealthy.

In my last several trips to Iraqi Kurdistan, friends from across the Kurdish political spectrum have complained that salary payments are months in arrears and rumors abound that the Kurdistan Regional Government had late last year taken out a $500 million loan simply to make payroll. So what is the regional government’s response, even as oil prices plummet? According to Chomani, writing on his Facebook page, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Finance Ministry has announced the addition of 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Talabani’s party) to the state payroll, even though they work in party and not state offices. This would be analogous to President Obama deciding to add Democratic party operatives continuing to work in offices belonging to the Chicago Democratic Party to the federal payroll, without actually requiring them to take federal jobs or abandon their party activist role.

Against the backdrop of Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial woes, investor confidence is taking a hit as corruption scandals which the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would just assume ignore wind their way through foreign courts. The most recent case involving oil deals comes from Korea, where the Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) operations in Kurdistan have now become the stuff of recrimination, blackmail by the KRG, and revelations in South Korea about bribery allegedly involving a $31.4 million “signing bonus” for the Kurdish oil minister Ashti Hawrami.

Certainly, Iraqi Kurdistan is not alone in facing an unprecedented budget crisis, or in being hampered by corruption, although unrestrained KRG corruption makes for a poor comparison with Dubai, other Gulf States, or even Morocco, where other investors might look. The unwillingness of the government to address the problems—there was a fistfight in parliament the other day when an opposition parliamentarian raised questions of rule of law regarding the president’s extra-constitutional extension of term—raises question about what can be done.

Iraqi Kurdistan is too important to write off, but the tendency of former U.S. officials and perhaps current diplomats as well simply to sing the region’s praises does more harm than good. If Kurdistan is to remain stable, and if its leaders truly seek to continue down the democratic path, then it is time for a no-nonsense approach to governance and a serious response to corruption. Too many countries with oil have assumed they are indispensable to the world’s voracious energy appetite, only to realize that corruption, organized crime, and insecurity can do an investment in. Kurdish officials may feel two out of three isn’t bad. They’d be wrong.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

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The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

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Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

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The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

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General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

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America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

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Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

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Are the Iran Nuclear Talks a Hostage Negotiation?

With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

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With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

As Politico’s sources within the administration make clear, U.S. officials are worried that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could lead to attacks against Americans in Iraq from Shiite militias or others doing Iran’s bidding. Iran has become a de facto ally of the United States in the battle against ISIS. But as problematic as relying on an Islamist regime that sponsors terrorism to fight Islamist terrorists may be, this arrangement also leaves the 3,000 U.S. personnel sent to Iraq as advisers and trainers for the forces fighting ISIS vulnerable to Iranian revenge if the president doesn’t do as they demand in the nuclear talks.

The reason why President Obama has given Iran little reason to worry about his willingness to pressure them in the nuclear talks is a function of his weak negotiating style, but it is also rooted in his objectives. Though he has consistently said he will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, he has proven that he is just as interested, if not more so, in détente with the Islamist regime. But while Obama conceives of this as a way for Iran to “get right with the world,” the Iranians have other intentions. They welcome the president’s effort to find an excuse to end their economic and diplomatic isolation but intend to use it as a cover to proceed toward their own goal of regional hegemony.

With their allies winning the Syrian civil war and keeping Bashar Assad in power, Tehran views the fighting in Iraq as a way to consolidate their influence over a Baghdad government that no longer can count on U.S. forces. With the Iranians directing operations against ISIS in Tikrit and elsewhere in the country, a tacit alliance with the United States has now become an open one. Though that aids the fight against ISIS, it also puts Iran in a position to exact revenge on the U.S. if the administration finds its backbone in the nuclear talks.

Washington may argue that Iran’s stake in Iraq and Syria gives it an incentive to play ball in the nuclear talks since they have a lot to lose if the West were to try to oust Assad or to toss them out of Iraq. But the facts on the ground argue in the other direction. It is the administration that needs Iran, or thinks it does. Iran has made itself both indispensible to the fight against ISIS and created a situation in which the U.S. may think it has no choice but to tread carefully whenever Tehran’s interests are placed in jeopardy. That’s not so much an unavoidable tradeoff that is a standard part of diplomacy as it is an occupational hazard for nations that try to do business with terrorists and their state sponsors.

By abandoning Iraq after the surge had secured the victory that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve, President Obama set a series of events in motion that led to both the rise of ISIS and an unholy alliance with Iran. It has also created a situation where Americans and U.S. interests throughout the region are now hostages that can be threatened if Iran wants to squeeze Obama. Given the president’s eagerness to be fleeced at the nuclear talks by Iran, that may not be necessary. But if the Islamist regime were ever worried about President Obama meaning what he says about not signing a bad nuclear deal, their potential for mayhem in Iraq makes it unlikely that the U.S. will surprise us and stand its ground over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

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Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

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For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

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What Obama’s Rush to Iran Détente Means

The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

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The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

As Diehl rightly put it, the U.S. strategy in the talks isn’t really so much about a nuclear issue on which the Americans have essentially punted on efforts to stop the Islamist regime from obtaining nuclear capability. During his 2012 foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama pledged that any deal with Iran would ensure that it gave up its nuclear program. Yet the U.S. offer to Iran will allow it to keep its nuclear infrastructure in the form of thousands of centrifuges, a nuclear fuel stockpile that could easily be reactivated and a sunset clause that will end any restrictions on Iranian activity after an unspecified period. This will allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear power with Western approval and to easily evade restrictions to build a bomb if they want. Even worse, once sanctions are eventually lifted and the West moves on from this confrontation, Iran might well be able to build a bomb by actually observing the agreement.

Any sort of agreement, no matter how weak or unlikely to achieve the goal of preventing an Iranian weapon, will be portrayed by the White House as a great achievement. But as Diehl noted, those who are concentrating solely on the back-and-forth in the talks or the anger about the letter from Senate Republicans warning that a deal won’t be binding if Congress doesn’t ratify it, misses the real objective of the administration to find a partner to help resolve problems in Iraq and Syria.

The administration seems to view Iranian actions in those two countries as being helpful since its forces are fighting ISIS in Iraq and have helped prop up its ally Bashar Assad against Islamist rebels. That helps explain why Obama dithered for years about taking action in Syria even as he continued to call for Assad’s ouster or spoke about its atrocity crossing “red lines.” It also explains why, despite the fact that U.S. officials have rightly labeled Tehran as the leading state sponsor of terror in the world, both Iran and Hezbollah were left off a list of terror threats prepared by Director of National Intelligence James Klapper.

What the president seems to want is to create an era of cooperation in which Iran will have a free hand to protect its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries dominate, will ensure that ISIS doesn’t get too strong. But this scares both Israel and moderate Arab regimes that rightly sees Iran as every bit as dangerous as ISIS.

The result of such an alliance will not only be détente with Iran that will undermine resistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also allow it to achieve the regional hegemony that it has wanted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Thus, while we do well to try and point out the terrible consequences of the nuclear deal, its real implications go farther than just the question of how quickly Iran can get to a bomb. If this deal goes through without being checked by Congress, future administrations will not just have to deal with an Iran that is closer to a bomb but the fact that President Obama is giving a Western seal of approval to Iran’s regional ambitions.

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The Politics of Obama’s Afghanistan Plan

A casual reader might be misled by the headline on this Associated Press article: “Officials: US to keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan.”

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A casual reader might be misled by the headline on this Associated Press article: “Officials: US to keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan.”

Does this mean that President Obama has abandoned his self-defeating plan to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before he leaves office in 2017? Not quite. As the article notes, all that Obama may be doing (“no final decision on numbers has been made”) is possibly slowing down their rate of withdrawal. Originally Obama had announced plans to cut the U.S. force roughly in half, from some 10,000 today to 5,500 by the end of the year–a way station on the road to zero by 2017. Now, assuming the AP report is accurate, the administration may consent to leave more than 5,500 troops after 2015–a change urgently requested by the top U.S. commander, Gen. John Campbell, and President Ashraf Ghani, both of whom know how destabilizing a rapid U.S. withdrawal would be. But there is no indication that Obama is seriously rethinking his plan to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office.

We’ve seen this movie before. When Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, he promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq at the rate of one or two brigades a month, pulling all of them out within 16 months. Once in office, he slowed down the pace of the drawdown, at the request of U.S. commanders, but he still wound up pulling all of the troops out by the end of 2011 after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq–and not trying very hard to achieve that goal.

What this suggests is that Obama has some flexibility about the pace of withdrawals but he is much more determined to accomplish his larger goal of “ending” wars–meaning ending American involvement in wars even if our enemies benefit from our departure. He achieved the pullout from Iraq before the end of his first term and he seems determined to achieve the pullout from Afghanistan by the end of his second term, presumably so he can brag about how he pulled U.S. troops out of conflict–and never mind that the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq precipitated a civil war and forced Obama to send 3,000 troops back. It would be nice if the president were to apply in Afghanistan the lesson of Iraq–namely don’t leave too soon. But he is so stubborn and ideological that he may well be prepared to ignore the weight of evidence and continue with his politically motivated pullout, even if it risks subverting all that U.S. troops have fought to achieve on his watch.

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A Hollow Victory in Tikrit

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

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There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

But even if this “victory” stands up, our jubilation should be tightly controlled. Yes, it’s a good thing if ISIS is suffering defeats, but who’s winning? It’s not the United States and it’s not  the lawful Iraqi state led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The real victor here, if there is a victory, is Iran. Most of the fighters who are taking Tikrit are Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, not soldiers of Iraq. The real leader of this operation is not any general appointed by Prime Minister Abadi but rather Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who has been a high-profile presence on the front lines.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. With Iran and its proxies taking the lead in fighting ISIS, there is a real danger that U.S. support for the anti-ISIS drive will wind up delivering Iraq into the hands of Iran. This is, of course, the danger that many opponents of the Iraq War warned about, but it was a danger kept in check as long as there was a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The U.S. departure at the end of 2011, however, opened the floodgates for Iranian influence.

By focusing U.S. efforts solely on rolling back ISIS, President Obama is providing another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. This is a very bad development for two reasons: First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.

Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.

The U.S. desperately needs a plan not to just to roll back ISIS influence but also to roll back Iranian influence. The kind of plan implemented in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraues in Iraq, when U.S. forces targeted Iranian operatives for exposure and arrest. There is, alas, no sign of such a plan today–if anything, the U.S. seems to be tacitly conceding Iran the right to a dominant role in Iraq, Syria, etc., as part of a broader rapprochement that, Obama hopes, will include a nuclear deal.

This is a monstrous mistake. A victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.

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Giving Iran a Piece of Iraq

Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

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Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

“Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guard on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror,” he alliterated. “Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran. Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea.”

As if to illustrate his point, the Wall Street Journal has an important report about how Shiite militias and the Iraqi army are combining to attack the Sunni town of Tikrit. “In addition to supplying drones,” the Journal reports, “Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force has fighters on the ground with Iraqi units, mostly operating artillery and rocket batteries.” Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is apparently overseeing this operation in person.

At first blush this might sound no different from the kind of military aid that the U.S. provides to allied militaries but in fact, despite the superficial similarities, there is a major difference. U.S. advisers have always stressed to Iraqi and Afghan forces the importance of acting in an ethical and restrained manner, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because abuse of the civilian population risks driving them into the arms of the insurgents.

The Iranian-backed militias, whether in Syria or Iraq, have exhibited no such restraint. They became notorious in past years for kidnapping Sunnis and torturing them to death with power tools. More recently, under Iranian guidance, Bashar Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Such a blood-thirsty assault, even if tactically successful in Tikrit, will sow the seeds of strategic defeat by encouraging Sunnis to fight even harder against Shiite encroachments. That may well be what Iran wants: the more polarized Iraq and Syria become, the more that Shiites (or, in the case of Syria, the Alawites) will feel compelled to look to Iran for guidance and protection.

That is why the Obama administration is supremely ill-advised, not just for granting Iran concession after concession to win a nuclear deal, but also for looking the other way as Iran assumes an increasingly prominent role in the anti-ISIS fight. The Journal notes that in Iraq “a de facto division” is “developing between areas where Iran has the lead in assisting the fight against the Islamic State, and areas where the U.S. has the lead,” with both sides taking “steps not to interfere with one another’s operations.”

The Journal quotes an anonymous “U.S. official” cheerleading for Iran, saying, “To the degree that they can carry out an offensive without inflaming sectarian tension and can dislocate ISIL, it can be helpful.” The anonymous official might very well be Brett McGurk, the State Department point man on the anti-ISIS fight, who has been tweeting merrily in support of the Iranian-directed offensive against Tikrit (without acknowledging that it is Iranian-directed).

Netanyahu warned against this dangerous tendency when he said: “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America… When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Too bad the administration isn’t listening to him on this subject, any more than it is on the nuclear negotiations. Instead Obama appears to be pursuing a broader rapprochement with Tehran that would have the U.S. grant de facto acquiescence to the actions of Iranian proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

In other words, the state of U.S.-Iranian relations at the moment is even more worrisome than Netanyahu (anxious not to burn every single bridge to the White House) was able to explain.

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Jeb Bush’s James Baker Problem

Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

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Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

Jeb Bush gave a fine speech, even if a bit anodyne. Sure, Jeb criticized Obama’s “inconsistent and indecisive” leadership on the world stage, but that’s an issue of style and competence, not philosophy. Pretty much any successor to Obama, whether Democrat or Republican, will do better on the world stage. The same holds true for Jeb Bush’s insistence that red lines should matter. Few presidents would disagree, Obama being the exception. Calling for greater economic growth at home is also a no-brainer: Would any president really want moribund growth? Greater defense spending is a step in the right direction, as so many military and national-security experts and scholars across the partisan divide recognize.

While it may be commendable that Jeb Bush has hired folks who represent different sides of past policy debates, former Secretary of State James Baker who, alongside former Secretary of State George Shultz, is Jeb’s most senior and, perhaps because he is not fishing for a job himself, most influential advisor, has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants.

Baker was co-chair back in 2006 of the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission which, in the darkest days of the Iraq war, not only counseled the type of retreat which George W. Bush refused but also blessed the idea of unilateral retreat which Barack Obama implemented. Baker went further, however, and worked into the report a call for Israel to make concessions under fire and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to be rewarded. Both a latent hostility to Israel and a benign reading of the Syrian regime have long been characteristic of Baker’s philosophy, as they have been Obama’s. Remember, Obama came into office believing Assad was a reformer and, despite the horrific civil war in subsequent years, now appears ready to again legitimize Assad as a partner. Baker also sought to partner with Iran in order to resolve difficulties in Iraq, leading to this brilliant David Zucker parody featuring Baker.

If there’s one thing that the past decade should have made clear it is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not central to the divisions and problems which undercut Middle Eastern stability and American national security. The whole Iraq Study Group was a put-up job, with Baker and Lee Hamilton stroking the egos of those testifying all the while ignoring the substance of their input while aides wrote a pre-ordained report. As such, Baker should be held fully accountable for the report’s often counterproductive and self-defeating recommendations.

Alas, the Baker-Hamilton report was the rule rather than the exception. Against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, Baker traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he appeared to give an endorsement of the type of diplomacy with rogue regimes which George W. Bush shied away from, but which Obama had made the centerpiece of his campaign. Then, again, this merely restated the policy which Baker blessed as secretary of state with regard to North Korea. In The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989–1992, he explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” In reality, however, Baker pioneered a philosophy which Obama has now perfected; that is, a belief that a bad deal is better than no deal, even if it means turning a blind eye toward an enemy’s cheating. As the State Department negotiated with Pyongyang, Baker accepted North Korea’s insistence that limited inspections regarding North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure to sites “agreed upon between the two sides,” in effect giving Pyongyang a veto. Baker offered this concession even though the CIA had warned that North Korea was hiding parts of its nuclear program. Such a philosophy laid the groundwork for a process that culminated during the Clinton administration in “The Agreed Framework,” an achievement celebrated in Washington but treated disdainfully in Pyongyang as the North Korean regime pocketed associated aid and accelerated its drive toward a nuclear bomb. Baker, however, bragged in his memoirs (published after the Agreed Framework was signed) that “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North.”

Much of Baker’s positive reputation comes from how he and George H.W. Bush handled Operation Desert Storm. And, for this, they deserve plaudits. What is interesting, however, is how Baker was for Saddam before he was against him. On February 15, 1990, after the Voice of America broadcast an editorial into several Arab countries celebrating the collapse of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and castigating Iraq as belonging to a club whose leaders maintained power “by force and fear, not by the consent of the governed,” Saddam was furious. Rather than defend the premise and maintain moral clarity, the Bush administration apologized and decided that the secretary of state, James Baker, would personally clear future editorials. Again, instinct matters.

Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush. While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy.

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