Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

Obama Needs a New ISIS Strategy

“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

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“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

For one thing, a rethink would have to begin with the acknowledgment that the current strategy isn’t working. But although the White House is now willing to grudgingly concede that the fall of Ramadi is a “setback” (government-speak for a “defeat”), White House spokesman Josh Ernest still claims that “overall”  the president’s anti-ISIS strategy is still working. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” Ernest truculently demanded. In a similar vein, the Journal quotes a “senior defense official” as saying: “The Department believes the current course of action is the right one.”

As long as the White House and Pentagon remain in a state of denial, they are unlikely to radically rethink their failing strategy. And indeed the Journal article offers scant evidence of such a rethink. It simply says that the White House “is poised to accelerate the training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters” and to deliver “1,000 shoulder-held rockets” to Baghdad. In other words, pretty much more of the same strategy that hasn’t been working.

What would it take for the US strategy to be more successful? I laid out some ideas in this Council on Foreign Relations policy memo. Among other points, I suggested lifting the prohibition on “boots on the ground”—i.e., allow US military personnel to accompany Iraqi forces on operations—and also increasing the size of the US force from the current 3,000 to 10,000 to 25,000 personnel.

In a similar vein, the military analysts Fred and Kim Kagan wrote yesterday: “A few thousand additional combat troops, backed by helicopters, armored vehicles and forward air controllers able to embed with Iraqi units at the battalion level, as well as additional Special Forces troops able to move about the countryside, would certainly prevent further gains [by ISIS]. They could almost certainly regain Ramadi and other recently lost areas of Anbar, in cooperation with local tribes. They might be able to do more.”

Beyond the military dimension there is an important political component missing in the US anti-ISIS strategy. Obama is expecting that Baghdad will arm Sunnis. But Iran has a de facto veto in Baghdad and it has no interest in arming any Sunnis. Iran also has no real desire to defeat ISIS—the existence of ISIS gives Iran a good excuse to grab power in the Shiite regions of Iraq following the strategy it has previously used in Lebanon and Syria. As long as we subordinate our anti-ISIS strategy to Baghdad/Tehran, it is bound to fail.

The US needs to make a major effort to bolster the power of independent Iraqis such as Prime Minister Abadi and to decrease the power of Iranian agents such as Hadi al-Amari, head of the Badr Organization, the largest Shiite militia. Such an effort would have to start at the top, with President Obama, and would involve sending more dynamic senior military and civilian representatives to Baghdad. The US needs to engineer a political deal to give Sunnis some degree of autonomy, guaranteed by the US. Otherwise, Sunnis will refuse to fight ISIS if they fear that by doing so they will simply be subordinating themselves to radical Shiite domination.

The US is not entirely powerless in Iraq even now, as the administration showed last year by orchestrating the toppling of Nouri al Maliki as prime minister. But ever since then, the White House seems to have ignored Iraqi politics, figuring that its work had been done. As a result, while prime ministers have changed, the underlying reality of Iranian dominance has not.  Indeed, even out of office, Maliki continues to exercise considerable power while Abadi’s own authority is considerably limited.

Reversing the losing course of the war against ISIS will require taking some difficult steps in both the military and political arenas beginning with the dispatch of more US troops. But alas there is no sign that the administration is truly open to the kind of fundamental recalculation that would be needed.  And as long as the strategy remains the same, expect more of the same results: which is to say, more gains by ISIS and the Shiite militias. And those gains will come not only in Iraq but also in Syria and as far afield as Libya.

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The White House Deploys Spin and Denial in Response to Setbacks in Iraq

If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

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If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

“Ramadi has been contested over the last 18 months. We’ve always known the fight against ISIS would be long and difficult, particularly in Anbar Province,” White House Deputy Press Sec. Eric Shultz conceded on Monday. “There’s no denying that this is, indeed, a setback.”

Apparently, Schultz’s boss resented his deputy’s demoralizing candor. On Tuesday, he went about offering a variety of dubious claims designed to tamp down speculation that the president’s strategic approach to the war against the Islamic State was in shambles.

During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest urged reporters to “maintain perspective” when reporting of the fall of the capital of Anbar Province, a key city situated just 70 miles from Baghdad. Though he hinted that the president might entertain a “tweak” or two to his strategic approach to the war, Earnest insisted that the West’s tactical approach to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is regularly modified according to circumstances on the ground.

“We have seen important progress that has been made, but there have also been periods of setback,” Earnest insisted. When pressed on whether the president believes that the war against ISIS is generally a success, Earnest insisted, “overall, yes.”

Courting the charge of insensitivity, Earnest mocked reporters for engaging in figurative self-immolation over the fall of a second major Iraqi city to the ISIS insurgency. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time there’s a setback?” the exasperated press secretary said of the Sunni militia’s efficacy on the battlefield, perhaps failing to recall that this terrorist organization is composed of a number of proficient arsonists.

If the White House’s communications team set out to abate their humiliation over the abject and empirical collapse of America’s halfhearted war fighting strategy in the Middle East, they failed rather spectacularly. Not only are these comments reflective of a dangerous frivolousness on the part of this administration, they are indicative of the unsettling reality that the White House views the trifurcation of Iraq along ethno religious lines as a political challenge to be messaged away.

It is not merely the military front in the war against ISIS that is collapsing. The fall of most of Anbar has given way to a bloody purge of government officials and anyone who ever worked closely with U.S.-allied institutions in Iraq. Officials in Baghdad believe that some 500 civilians and soldiers have been murdered while another 5,000 were displaced since Friday, when ISIS began its final assault on Ramadi. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Shiite militias loyal to Tehran to descend on a military base near the occupied provincial capital in preparation for a counterassault, despite the White House’s concerns that a Shiite-led attack on a Sunni-dominated city could ignite a sectarian civil war.

The war on ISIS’s assets is equally bereft of successes. Despite a successful mission conducted by U.S. Special Forces which resulted in the death of a figure described as the Islamic State’s CFO, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that ISIS’s finances are generally healthy.

“The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that researches public policy,” the Times revealed. “The group minimizes costs by looting military equipment, appropriating land and infrastructure, and paying relatively low salaries. The group also limits its vulnerability by shifting operations, transitioning between expanding its territory and fueling terrorist activity.”

Given all this, the administration has the temerity to blame House Republicans for setbacks in Iraq by failing to pass a new authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria – a measure that, as written to the White House’s specifications, would constrain coalition military planners and limit the freedom of action they presently enjoy.

In early February, American military planners trumpeted ill advisedly their intention to mount the assault to liberate Iraq’s second city, Mosul, from ISIS terrorists in the late spring. That optimistic plan has been subject to some revision in the interim. With another major city in ISIS’s hands, the portions of that country in need of liberation are accumulating rapidly.

Even before Earnest’s buck-passing escapade, it was clear to most observers that the White House was focused more on managing public opinion than safeguarding Iraqi security. Today, there should be no doubt about the president’s priorities.

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America Needs a Commander-in-Chief, Not a Historian

In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

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In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

Over the course of the last week, political reporters have been consumed with re-litigating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would be unfair to blame this new myopia entirely on the media’s penchant for like-thinking tunnel vision. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s inexplicably poor footing on the legitimacy of the Iraq War invited a duplicative review of distant history in which the country is again engaged. But quite unlike the media’s fascination with parochial social matters, the GOP’s introspection on the issue of Iraq is of some value.

Bush’s stumbles over whether his brother’s signature achievement in office was justified have sparked a deluge of retrospection and self-criticism from the 2016 field of GOP candidates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has taken the opportunity to promote his peculiar brand of paleo-conservative detachment from global affairs. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) asserted that, today, “everyone accepts” that the invasion was imprudent. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have made note of the fact that Congress would never have authorized the Iraq War if the pre-war intelligence had not mistakenly augmented Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. “A dozen years later,” the Associated Press averred, “American politics has reached a rough consensus about the Iraq War: It was a mistake.”

But Republicans are wandering into a trap by attempting to assuage the journalistic establishment’s insatiable desire to see Republicans repent for the last GOP president’s nation-building exercise in Iraq. It is a fortunate accident of fate that the media has decided to review the legacy of the Iraq War and the Republican Party’s prosecution of that conflict at precisely the same moment that Middle Eastern country is coming apart. After more than nine months of U.S-led coalition airstrikes targeting the virulent Islamic State militia, the culmination of that effort has been the fall of a second great Iraqi city. Just 70 miles from Baghdad, the American servicemen and women who bled over Ramadi appear to have fought and fallen in vain.

Despite the protestations of self-satisfied scolds for whom no metric could satisfy their desire to see the American project in Iraq fail, uniting Iraq’s political and tribal leaders against Islamist insurgents in their midst was a historic victory. The West’s hard-won achievement in Iraq has been sacrificed by President Barak Obama’s eternal pursuit of the path of least resistance.

The Republican Party’s presidential aspirants now have a political opportunity that they would be careless not to exploit. For the better part of a week, the press has been reviewing the Iraq War’s legacy. As the Iraq Security Forces retreat to defensible positions around Baghdad and Iran consolidates its grip on the Iraqi capital and the nation’s Shia-dominated regions, Republicans would do well to make a compelling case for their approach to warfighting as commander-in-chief.

Contrary to all his fatuous self-pity, President Obama inherited a relatively pacified Iraq when he took the oath. His successor will not be so lucky. The 45th President of the United States will prosecute a brutal conflict against the richest terrorist organization in human history. The next commander-in-chief must convince the American public to back the prosecution of a war against an unimaginably brutish entity with an unbroken hold on territory ranging from Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad. The war in which the public must invest is one that is characterized by the battlefield use of chemical weapons, has become yet another proxy conflict between the region’s great Sunni and Shiite powers, and is typified by genocide and the deliberate destruction of humanity’s collective heritage.

The present spate of collective handwringing over how the events of the last decade might have been better managed is the historian’s prerogative. The United States is not electing a lecturer; the public will not make that mistake again. America will need a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who will effectively and efficiently prosecute this conflict to which the country is already committed.

It is not merely in Iraq but in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Southeast Pacific that challenges to global security are proliferating. Both state and non-state actors threaten the international order that replaced retreating Soviet-style communism not a quarter-century ago. The press will be satisfied with nothing less than a denunciation of a robust defense of American interests overseas from the GOP’s presidential aspirants, if only to retroactively validate Obama’s vacillating and diffident approach to the application of American hard power. Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to turn the tables on their duplicitous interlocutors.

Rather than issue obsequious mea culpas for the imagined sins of their long-retired fellow party members, Republicans should be using this renewed media interest in the last war in Iraq to remind the public we are busily losing the present one. President Obama will bequeath the next president a Middle East in tatters. The media isn’t interested in that inconvenient subject; it will be up to the GOP to comprehensively outline what is at stake in Iraq.

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Who’s Stopping Kurdish Independence?

Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, visited Washington, DC, earlier this month to meet with President Barack Obama. Barzani came knowing his chance of success–he wanted direct provision of weaponry–was poor. Kurds could read it in the tea leaves: When Barzani feels he’s going to get what he wants, he brings only his sons and a few hangers-on from his political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he presides with an iron first. That way, he can claim all the credit for himself, his family, and the party. When he knows his trip isn’t going to be successful, however, he includes in his entourage token members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Goran Movement, the region’s other major parties, so that he doesn’t need to shoulder blame himself.

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Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, visited Washington, DC, earlier this month to meet with President Barack Obama. Barzani came knowing his chance of success–he wanted direct provision of weaponry–was poor. Kurds could read it in the tea leaves: When Barzani feels he’s going to get what he wants, he brings only his sons and a few hangers-on from his political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he presides with an iron first. That way, he can claim all the credit for himself, his family, and the party. When he knows his trip isn’t going to be successful, however, he includes in his entourage token members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Goran Movement, the region’s other major parties, so that he doesn’t need to shoulder blame himself.

Before he came to Washington, Barzani’s office told Kurds back in Iraqi Kurdistan that he would push Obama for independence. He actually didn’t talk about independence at the White House—he never does—but speaking later to a hand-picked audience at the Atlantic Council, where the daughter of his chief-of-staff works, he reiterated that he would steer Kurds to realize their dreams of independence.

The Kurds deserve independence, but Barzani will never deliver it. He has always used independence as a rhetorical tool around which to rally Kurds and increasingly he uses the lack of independence as an excuse against reform (he is currently serving the tenth year of his eight year presidency).

While it is the policy of the United States to oppose Iraq’s division (just like President George H.W. Bush once opposed the Soviet Union’s division), should the Kurds declare their independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, both the United States and Turkey would likely support them. For Obama, red lines are rhetorical only. There never will be a green light, but Barzani could run the yellow if he so chose.

But even if Barzani was willing to forgo the billions of dollars he receives from the Kurdish share of southern Iraq’s oil revenue, he knows deep down that he cannot declare independence. The problem is not Washington, but rather Tehran. When the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) seized Mosul, the Kurds unilaterally took control of Kirkuk and many other disputed territories. In short, by fait accompli, they possessed most of over what they once had negotiated. It was Iran that threw cold water on to the optimism Kurds felt.

On July 6, 2014, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian declared:

“This talk about breaking apart Iraq is a Zionist plot… We should not forget that in recent days, the only place that joyfully supported the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and urged the region to secede was Netanyahu. We will never allow the dreams of Netanyahu in Iraq and our region for the breaking apart of the critical region of West Asia to come true.”

Amir-Abdollahian’s comments, like so much that drives Iranian foreign policy, may be conspiratorial nonsense, but Barzani knows that the Qods Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with export of revolution and which has free reign over Iraqi Kurdistan, would sooner kill Barzani than allow any referendum to move forward let alone independence. The problem isn’t division of Iraq so much as the precedent for Iran. Just in the last week, mass protests have erupted in Iranian Kurdistan after an Iranian intelligence ministry employee attempted to rape a Kurdish maid in a Mahabad hotel. Iranian Kurds have a history of separatism, as do Iranian Azerbaijanis, Baluchis, and Arabs. That doesn’t mean the majority of Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs want to split from Iran—the sense of Iranian nationhood predates the ethno-nationalism around which so many countries organized themselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Iran has, however, been traumatized by separatist movements which today make it half the size many Iranians believe Iran should be if it were not for past ‘historical injustice.’

In short, Barzani can talk about independence all he wants when he’s in Washington, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. The true test of Barzani’s seriousness, however, will be when he talks about independence while in Iran. They are the real obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish independence, and no one else.

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Don’t Give In To Iranian Threats on Iraq

House Republicans have inserted language into the defense authorization act designating Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis as a separate “country” so that they would be eligible to receive at least a fourth of the $715 million that is earmarked for military assistance to Iraq. This has caused an uproar in Iraq, with condemnation coming not only from relative moderates such as Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi and Ayatollah Sistani but also from firebrands such as Muqtada Al Sadr who has issued a direct threat to the U.S.: “If the time comes and the proposed bill is passed, we will have no choice but to unfreeze the military wing that deals with the American entity so that it may start targeting American interests in Iraq and outside of Iraq when possible,” Sadr said.

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House Republicans have inserted language into the defense authorization act designating Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis as a separate “country” so that they would be eligible to receive at least a fourth of the $715 million that is earmarked for military assistance to Iraq. This has caused an uproar in Iraq, with condemnation coming not only from relative moderates such as Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi and Ayatollah Sistani but also from firebrands such as Muqtada Al Sadr who has issued a direct threat to the U.S.: “If the time comes and the proposed bill is passed, we will have no choice but to unfreeze the military wing that deals with the American entity so that it may start targeting American interests in Iraq and outside of Iraq when possible,” Sadr said.

Naturally, faced with such threats, the administration is lobbying hard to take the offending language out of the bill. The White House is firmly committed to the fiction of Iraq as a unified country and it will not budge from it—especially not when Iranian-backed militias are threatening the U.S. if it starts arming Sunnis who are deadly enemies of the Shiite extremists. The threat is not an idle one—Sadr and his ilk spent years attacking U.S. forces with Iranian help during the Iraq War. But the threat should be not be debilitating either: the U.S. and its Iraqi allies beat the extremists once before and could do it again, if necessary.

It is disheartening if not surprising to see the administration so abjectly caving in to such threats. What the White House is doing is giving Baghdad a veto over U.S. policy in Iraq—and since Iranian agents are the most powerful actors in Baghdad, that means giving Tehran a veto over U.S. policy.

Now, the designation of Sunnis and Kurds as a “country” may be needlessly provocative—they are not independent countries and U.S. policy should not necessarily be to break up Iraq into separate countries. But, while the U.S. should not be trying to create multiple countries in the land area of Iraq, nor should it be hewing so closely to the ideal of Iraqi unity that we refuse to directly arm the Sunni tribes which offer the best, indeed the only way, to beat ISIS without allowing Iraq to fall entirely into Iranian hands. Instead of trumpeting the Sunnis as a separate “country,” the U.S. government would be better advised to quietly start providing them arms and training notwithstanding the disapproval of the Iranian-dominated Iraqi government. But Obama refuses to do this, which is why House Republicans have understandably tried to force his hand.

The larger issue is that at the moment the U.S. manifestly fears Iran and Iran does not fear the U.S. The Obama administration is deathly afraid of doing anything to offend Tehran, whether imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, which would ground the air force of Tehran’s puppet Bashar Assad, or directly arming the Sunnis of Iraq, which would break the Iranian stranglehold over the Iraqi security forces. The Obama administration is afraid not only that Iran might walk out of the nuclear talks but also that it might start once again using its terrorist proxies to target American interests—a strategy it has pursued for decades.

Those are not unreasonable fears, but let’s keep some perspective: the U.S. is the world’s only true superpower, a country with the mightiest military on the planet. Iran is a middle-tier power, a rogue state that is punching above its weight because we are not effectively opposing Iranian designs. The more we show fear in the face of Iranian intimidation, the more emboldened the mullahs become, and the less likely it becomes we will get a nuclear accord on any reasonable terms.

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Arm the Kurds to Fight ISIS? Try the YPG

Iraq Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been making the rounds in Washington. Chief among his demands is that the United States provide weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that, he argued at a speech yesterday, controls the equivalent of a nearly 1,000-mile border with the Islamic State (if one includes the peshmerga presence in disputed areas like Diyala).

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Iraq Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been making the rounds in Washington. Chief among his demands is that the United States provide weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that, he argued at a speech yesterday, controls the equivalent of a nearly 1,000-mile border with the Islamic State (if one includes the peshmerga presence in disputed areas like Diyala).

The Obama administration has resisted arming the KRG directly, despite some recent calls in Congress, and has instead argued that the United States should supply the Kurds through Iraq’s central government so as to reinforce Iraq’s unity. That may be a policy which most Kurds disagree with, but it is the firm position of the Obama administration. The fact that the White House consistently makes Vice President Joseph Biden articulate it only underlines the U.S. commitment to Iraqi unity, as Biden had previously been a leading voice for the tripartite division of Iraq.

The White House effectively shut down Barzani’s demand for direct provision of weaponry. Speaking to a friendly audience at the Atlantic Council (where the daughter of his chief-of-staff works), he simply said that so long as the Kurds receive weaponry, he doesn’t care about the process.

While the Kurds should be armed to fight the Islamic State, the goal of Senators Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to enable that with direct provision to the KRG may not be realized if they rely on Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government alone. Here’s why:

  • While the United States has not provided weaponry directly to Barzani and the KRG, many other countries have, for example, Iran and Germany. Rather than use those weapons where they were needed, Barzani stockpiled them and limited their distribution to those peshmerga controlled by his own political party. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), for example, has been working actively to destabilize Kirkuk, but Kirkuk has not received any of the donated weaponry. The problem? It elected a Kurdish politician as its governor who has spoken out against corruption and belongs to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party that has long been a rival to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Even at the moment of greatest crisis for the Kurds, Barzani has not been able to cast aside his political narrow-mindedness. It’s that provincialism which ISIS has exploited.
  • Corruption also undercuts Kurdish success against ISIS. Masoud Barzani appointed his eldest son Masrour to head both the intelligence service and chair the KRG’s National Security Council. Masrour’s attention, however, has been elsewhere. Back in 2010, Masrour apparently purchased an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia. While he initially denied that purchase—which came against the backdrop of the KRG defaulting on salary payments—he was so cocky that he subsequently held a birthday party for himself with KDP supporters in the house. If the Kurds are running short of guns and ammunition, they might consider how much they might purchase if their leaders used such funds for collective defense rather than personal luxury.
  • While the Iraq government has replaced generals (and its prime minister) and sought to regroup after the Iraqi Army’s disastrous showing against the backdrop of ISIS’ seizure of Mosul and its rapid advance across the heart of Iraq, there has been no similar soul-searching in the KRG. Most Yezidis are furious at Barzani for ignoring intelligence about the impending ISIS offensive against Sinjar, for his refusal to send reinforcement, for his refusal to send supplies, and for the peshmerga’s subsequent hasty retreat leaving Yezidi men and boys to be massacred and women and girls to be raped. Then, as ISIS forces advanced on Erbil, many senior KDP officials boarded planes and fled. Barzani has, to date, shielded the airplane manifests from the public or purged those who were prepared to abandon Kurdistan in its hour of need. More recently, the Kurds have exaggerated success. Here is Masrour Barzani announcing Sinjar’s liberation last December. Alas, public posturing aside, Sinjar is anything but liberated.

If the goal is to defeat ISIS, the Kurds should receive weaponry and support, but it should be the right Kurds. If Barzani is going to put family and tribal considerations ahead of Kurdistan’s security or the fight against ISIS, then the United States should supervision distribution of that weaponry to ensure that Baghdad and Erbil send it where it is most needed. Kirkuk shouldn’t be cut off just because Kirkukis didn’t support Barzani in the last election.

Likewise, the most successful Kurds in the fight against ISIS have been the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), the People’s Protection Units, which are basically the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga. They are the group that, with very little outside support, put up still resistance in Kobane, ultimately defeating the Islamic State. They are also the group to which the Iraqi Yezidis, disgusted with the KRG’s antics, have largely turned. They are the most powerful and successful secular group in Syria. Last year, I traveled to Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) where I was able to see firsthand the success built by the YPG and the sacrifices they have made. If the United States wants bang for its buck, perhaps the YPG should be the recipient of weaponry to cut off the retreat of ISIS members back into Syria (and onto Sinjar Mountain) in order to ensure that any Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish success doesn’t become the military equivalent of punching jello. The YPG may have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that waged insurgency in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s and, to some extent, the last decade as well. But the Cold War is over, there is an active peace process in Turkey, and the YPG, unlike the Turkish government, is on the right side of the fight against ISIS.

Barzani is right that the United States should support the Kurds. We should. But that does not mean that Barzani should have a monopoly over that support when he and his sons have shown themselves not fully up to the task. Support Iraq, support Iraqi Kurdistan, support the peshmerga and support the YPG. Boxer and Ernst have their heart in the right place, but lobbyists who peddle an inaccurate or incomplete narrative should not fool them; instead, they should ask their Kurdish interlocutors some very hard questions. It’s time to have a coherent strategy to defeat ISIS rather than being drawn cynically into a self-defeating Kurdish political game.

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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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