Commentary Magazine


Topic: Middle East

ISIS Opens New Front in Egypt

As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

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As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

Last month, on the heels of a Saudi raid that reportedly rolled up a nearly 100-member strong ISIS cell inside the Kingdom, ISIS-linked suicide bombers twice targeted Shiite Mosques with attacks amid Friday prayers. Last week, this style of attack was replicated in Kuwait. 27 worshipers packed into Kuwait City’s Al-Sadiq mosque were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device amid a Friday prayer service. The bodies were still being removed when an ISIS-linked video claiming responsibility for that attack was posted online. On that same day, a radical Islamic gunman attacked a Tunisian hotel where he killed 38 and injured 39 more. Most of the casualties were British citizens, making this assault the deadliest terror attack targeting Britons since the 2005 bus bombings. “ISIS has claimed responsibility for that attack, as well, though this claim may be more tenuous,” CNN reported. Simultaneously, in France, the manager of a local transportation company was found beheaded at a United States-owned factory. His body was discovered alongside two banners bearing Islamic writing.

Whether all or some of these attacks are directly linked to ISIS or were merely inspired by the organization and its affiliates, it’s clear that the terrorist organization’s reach extends well beyond the fluid borders of its nascent caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the most daring example of ISIS’s ability to project force across the region occurred this week on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The strategic land bridge between Egypt and Africa was turned into a battlefield on Wednesday when ISIS executed a coordinated military assault against Egyptian military personnel.

The New York Times report from the front lines of the assault reads like a dispatch from a war zone rather than the scene of a terrorist incident:

Dozens of Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles. The Egyptian Army responded with warplanes in the area around the town, Sheikh Zuwaid, 200 miles northeast of Cairo, near the Gaza Strip.

The attack was the most audacious and deadliest yet for the Egyptian militants who have affiliated with the Islamic State, the extremist group that has emerged as the most potent jihadist force convulsing the Arab world. The group has established itself in Syria, expanded into Iraq and has strong footholds in Libya.

By nearly 5 p.m. local time, the attack that had begun in the early morning hours was still ongoing. Cairo boasted that its military had killed over 100 militants while just 10 of its soldiers had lost their lives, but local media outlets placed the military’s casualty rates as much as four times higher.

The attack also marked a shift in tactics by Islamic State fighters. “Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsula – most notably this January and last October,” wrote The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley. “But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.”

To what extent Isis had succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsula’s southern tourist resorts.

But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.

In a thoughtful analysis of the spiraling violence in eastern Egypt, Michael Rubin observed that this assault came just hours after the assassination of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. “Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013,” Rubin noted. He added that Egyptian media made short work of blaming regimes perceived to be sympathetic toward ISIS, like that of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of being complicit in the attack – or worse.

Despite almost a year long, U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the group’s capabilities have not been appreciably disrupted. In fact, they are expanding their ability to destabilize the region either directly or through surrogates.

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Will Obama Throw Lifeline to Bankrupt Iranian Media?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made little secret that his primary motivation in talks with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program is rescuing Iran’s anemic economy. The White House subtly acknowledges this fact, arguing that the Iranian government will use its unprecedented financial windfall — equivalent to 20 times the annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to relieve the dire economic circumstances of the Iranian people. This, of course, is nonsense. Read More

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made little secret that his primary motivation in talks with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program is rescuing Iran’s anemic economy. The White House subtly acknowledges this fact, arguing that the Iranian government will use its unprecedented financial windfall — equivalent to 20 times the annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to relieve the dire economic circumstances of the Iranian people. This, of course, is nonsense.

Rather, the financial windfall that Iran will receive will be pumped directly into its efforts to export its revolution, a concept which might seem foreign to effete politicians and diplomats like John Kerry, but which is nevertheless enshrined in both the Iranian Constitution and the founding statutes of the IRGC.

Some of Iran’s efforts to export its revolution occur through its various militias, such as Lebanese Hezbollah or Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Other efforts occur through supposed charity work, conducted through such organizations as the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, some of whose branches the U.S. Treasury Department have designated terrorist entities. Cold, hard cash also plays a role. Iranian officials, for example, have long pursued a strategy to cultivate Africa. Tehran has sought to buy the votes of non-permanent African members of the UN Security Council and members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, for example, beyond seeking logistical bases for its military and potential uranium exporters.

Tied into its Africa efforts has been its expanding media presence. Iranian-sponsored media saturates Bahrain and Iraq and has become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Suffice to say, Iran relies on its media not only to get its message out to a susceptible audience, but also to provide cover for Iranian agents conducting espionage, surveillance, and engaged in terrorism.

Tehran’s economic mismanagement, however, has taken a toll, as have international sanctions. In January 2015, Tabnak, a news agency affiliated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reported that all its television and news-gathering bureaus save four — London, Baghdad, Damascus, and New York — would close because of financial constraints.

Now it seems that, as of June 29, Iran was knocked off the air in Africa because of non-payment to Arabsat, the main regional satellite broadcast operator.

Now, that may not seem like much, but it is emblematic of just how much potential leverage the United States has over Iran and how much President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s coterie of negotiators have bungled the negotiations that are nearing conclusion. When Iran starts to shut down operations that should be a good thing; unfortunately, rather than permanent silence a source of hate and conspiracy, Obama and Kerry will throw a lifeline to an otherwise failing regime and enable it to amplify its prestige and footprint worldwide.

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Iran Predicts 2015 to be Year of Collapse for U.S. Allies

A common theme of Iran’s influence operation campaign is that states in the region may like the United States better, but that the United States does not have staying power and Iran will always be their neighbor. No U.S. president has done more to affirm the Iranian narrative than Barack Obama who has undercut U.S. allies across the region.

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A common theme of Iran’s influence operation campaign is that states in the region may like the United States better, but that the United States does not have staying power and Iran will always be their neighbor. No U.S. president has done more to affirm the Iranian narrative than Barack Obama who has undercut U.S. allies across the region.

Siyasat-e Rooz (Politics Today), a hard line Iranian newspaper, provides perhaps the best recent example of this in a column entitled “Sal-e Saqut” or “Year of Collapse.” (I have excerpted a fuller Open Source Center translation). It reads:

Who are the leaders and countries that are currently meddling in the region and threatening the security of West Asia? Has Iran taken any such action? The interference of Al-Saud forces in Bahrain and the mobilization of that regime’s military forces to that country in order to repress its people, military attack on Yemen’s soil, violation of the sanctity of a country and the slaughter of thousands of the innocent people of Yemen, financial and military support of terrorist-takfiri forces in regional countries such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Middle Asia and the Caucuses that are all being carried out through the support of America and the Zionist regime, have forced the Persian Gulf and West Asia regions to face widespread insecurity… The anger and hate of the Muslim people of the region, especially the countries that have experienced instability and war as a result of the meddling of Al-Saud, America, and the Zionist regime, is increasing significantly and even the people of reactionary Arab countries have become aware and have awakened from the heavy sleep imposed on them by their respective countries’ absolute dictatorial systems and this awareness is in the process of speeding up the process of the collapse of the leaders of reactionary countries. Al-Saud is at the head of these developments and even the meeting between the heads of Persian Gulf littoral countries with US President Obama in Camp David cannot save them from collapse or lead to Islamic Iran being controlled. 2015 is the year of the collapse; collapse for many of the dependent and reactionary Arab leaders of the region, including Al-Saud.

So, in short, the Iranian government is predicting not only will Yemenis, Syrians, and Iraqis ‘turn to’ Iran, but so too will Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Afghanistan and, by allusion, perhaps Azerbaijan as well.

Iranian predictions about geopolitics are sort of like an arsonist’s prediction about where the next forest fire will break out; it pays to take heed. What is clear is that Iran is, quite literally, on the warpath. The notion that Iran hasn’t invades any country in 200 years so often voiced by apologists for the Islamic Republic’s behavior not only discounts facts (for example, Iran’s 1856 invasion of Afghanistan) but, more importantly, its asymmetric way of war. Not every act of aggressions against another states requires columns of tanks, airplanes bombing, or ships shelling enemy targets. Sponsoring insurgency and war by proxy can be just as devastating and just as aggressive. Regional countries should be on alert. Far from moderating, Iran senses itself on the cusp of revolutionary victory throughout the region.

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The Roots of ‘Crazy’ in the Middle East

When it comes to bizarre and buffoonish behavior among leaders in the world, Kim Jong-un might be the leader of the pack, but the talent is deep in Middle East: Muammar Gaddafi would rant and rave. His UN speeches were feats of endurance for the audience as much as for Gaddafi himself. He surrounded himself with female bodyguards and his physical transformation rivaled only Michael Jackson. Gaddafi’s son Hannibal was a chip off the old block: After he and his wife beat two servants in a Swiss hotel, they arrested him. The resulting vendetta culminated with Gaddafi calling for a jihad against Switzerland.

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When it comes to bizarre and buffoonish behavior among leaders in the world, Kim Jong-un might be the leader of the pack, but the talent is deep in Middle East: Muammar Gaddafi would rant and rave. His UN speeches were feats of endurance for the audience as much as for Gaddafi himself. He surrounded himself with female bodyguards and his physical transformation rivaled only Michael Jackson. Gaddafi’s son Hannibal was a chip off the old block: After he and his wife beat two servants in a Swiss hotel, they arrested him. The resulting vendetta culminated with Gaddafi calling for a jihad against Switzerland.

Qaddafi, of course, was not alone. Saddam Hussein might have been evil, but he was not crazy: he was cold, calculating, and ruthless, but he was positively sane next to his eldest son Uday Hussein. Uday’s exploits are well-known: He was a rapist, murderer, and psychopath. When Iraq’s national soccer team lost a game, he would beat them. Torture was for him an amusing game.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has inherited Gaddafi’s mantle for the flamboyant and bizarre. He is unrepentantly corrupt, thinskinned, and conspiratorial. Whereas many rulers can be dictatorial and/or adversarial, Erdoğan increasingly seems simply unhinged.

The Saudi royal family is notoriously cloistered, but some of the princes are hardly bastions of virtue behind the scenes. A single Saudi prince killed 2,100 endangered birds while on vacation in Pakistan. Heck, taking a vacation to Pakistan is hardly evidence of sound mind. And other Saudi royals stand accused of worse.

Even in Iraqi Kurdistan, normally thought of as an oasis of stability, there is quite a lot of crazy. Former President Jalal Talabani effectively exiled his eldest son Bafil to London as his behavior grew erratic, and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s eldest sons Masrour and Mansour are giving Uday’s reputation a run for its money. Not everyone would consider attacking a family rival in a Virginia dentist’s office wise, and even fewer would act on their impulse.

Why is it that the Middle East has become not only a region of dictatorships, but also a region of crazy? Under Saddam there was a joke about the sycophancy and the infallibility of rulers: Tariq Aziz was giving a press conference in which a reporter asked him whether elephants could fly. He answered “Of course not,” but then another journalist pointed out that Saddam said elephants could fly. Without missing a beat, Aziz said, “Ah, yes, but only very slowly.” In such a situation, Erdoğan has become Saddam’s successor as the master of flying elephants; no journalist would tell the sultan he has no clothes lest his newspaper be closed and he or his family imprisoned.

There are other reasons as well, especially when it comes to the children. As open and democratic as some leaders claim their countries to be, family remains paramount. Rulers surround themselves with sycophants who affirm their every move. To have been a Gaddafi, Barzani, or Saudi from the right line was to never have to say sorry. There were two sets of rules, mutually exclusive: That of the country and society and that of the family. Countries were mere playgrounds where even the most horrific abuse could be covered up with money. Money, power, and fame can be a volatile combination when mixed.

Leaders like Gaddafi and Barzani might consider themselves great thinkers or statesmen, but they tend to be poor fathers, allowing their children to grow up surrounded by servants who cater to their children’s every need and confuse respect for the leader with absolute deference to the child. Limits are arbitrary and ephemeral, and morality optional.

There is no hard-and-fast rule, and of course the individual matters. Qusay may have been bad, but he was not Uday; Qubad has not followed in Bafil’s footprints; and for every Saudi prince who becomes a psychopath, there are dozens who are merely massively spoiled.

An oddity of the odious is an obsession with Hollywood. Kim Jong-un, for example, is famously obsessed with Hollywood. First Lady Asma al-Assad pow-wowed with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. King Abdullah II of Jordan doesn’t fit the same moral mold, but he is a dictator—and a notorious trekkie. Perhaps, then, a good analogy to the crazy infusing the Middle East are Hollywood’s child stars. Being famous young and surrounded by sycophants has famously taken its toll on some child stars but not all. For every Lindsay Lohan there is a Mayim Bialik; and for every Macaulay Culkin there is a Ron Howard. Culture, upbringing, and values matter.

How tragic it is then that beyond war, terrorism, and potential recession, so much sycophancy, corruption, and impunity has transformed so many current and next generation leaders in the Middle East to the political equivalent of the cast of Different Strokes.

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What Will it Mean if Sub-Saharan Africa Surpasses the Arab World?

At the root of many Islamist and so-called Islamist modernist movements was a recognition that the ‘world of Islam’ had fallen behind the West in terms of power, access to technology, and economy. This was hard to rectify with the theological belief that Muslims had received the perfect and last revelation, one meant to supplant what Jews and Christians let alone peoples from other faiths embraced.

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At the root of many Islamist and so-called Islamist modernist movements was a recognition that the ‘world of Islam’ had fallen behind the West in terms of power, access to technology, and economy. This was hard to rectify with the theological belief that Muslims had received the perfect and last revelation, one meant to supplant what Jews and Christians let alone peoples from other faiths embraced.

As late as the middle of the twentieth century if not well into the 1960s, many Arab countries were poor and relatively underdeveloped, but they weren’t much worse off than some countries in East Asia, the Pacific, or Central and South America. In 1960, for example, Egypt had a higher GDP than either Columbia or South Korea, and Morocco had a higher GDP than Ireland, let alone Hong Kong. African countries populated the bottom of such charts. By 2012, Egypt trailed behind Columbia and South Korea, and Morocco was well behind Ireland. Many Sub-Saharan countries were still in the basement, but economies in African powerhouses like South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, and Ghana had taken off. Of course, GDP isn’t the only or even best measure of success. The Middle East and North Africa were dead last in terms of per capita GDP growth over the last few decades. Figure 1 in this paper shows how Asian countries and Latin America and the Caribbean have overtaken the Middle East in real GDP per capita. And the Arab Human Development Report presents a number of indicators in which sub-Saharan Africa beats or is closing the gap on Arab states.

Whereas once Africa was synonymous in the public mind with wars, AIDS, corruption and starvation, failed states like Somalia have begun to turn around and, instability in the Sahel and Nigeria notwithstanding, recent economic growth seems more the rule than the exception. Indeed, as Bloomberg observed this past summer:

A two-decade surge in growth in Africa suggests the poorest continent is starting to come to grips with its challenges and has raised the prospect of the “African lions” emulating the “Asian tiger” economies in the 21st century. Africa’s advantages include vast untapped resources, a youthful population and an expanding middle-class.

Success is not certain. As Bloomberg continued, “Offsetting these are rampant poverty and inequality, a rise in Islamist militant violence and appalling infrastructure.” Nevertheless, Africa is booming. Meanwhile, the core challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa remain. The decline in the price of oil may hurt some countries in Africa, but it will be devastating to the Middle East.

Despite declarations to the contrary by those that say Islam creates a color-blind brotherhood, the Middle East can be quite racist—far more than anything most Americans experience. To be overtaken or beat by sub-Saharan Africa will be a hard blow to many in the region who might still harbor supremacist attitudes. For those who look toward the golden age of Islam, it will be a hard blow not only to be behind the West but, indeed, the entire globe. The question for those in the region will be whether in response, many who have blindly embraced a more orthodox interpretation of religion will double down, or whether some may recognize that Islamism does not present any panacea. Will they realize that the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism, Al Qaeda, and Erdoğan-style Islamist authoritarianism is less an answer than the problem. I won’t hold my breath—it is always easier to blame outsiders for the ills of the Middle East than look internally at local culture—but it does seem that falling into the basement of the world while still years off might do as much to shake-up the region as other watersheds: Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and subsequent colonialism. With Al Qaeda spreading and the rise of the Islamic State, it might seem that radical Islamism is out-of-control. It is. And while such challenges cannot be ignored, perhaps the Middle East’s descent relative to other geographical groupings will have a silver lining.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy After the Midterms

In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

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In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

He should, especially in national security which I am convinced was as important a factor in this election as it was in the 2006 midterm when, in the midst of Iraq War debacles, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. The president did himself incalculable damage when he set a “red line” for Syria last year but failed to enforce it. That created an image of weakness and indecision which has only gotten worse with the rise of ISIS and Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.

The question now is whether the president will overcome his initial denials and squarely face the message that the voters were trying to send: He needs to change course. I will leave it to others to spell out what such a course change will mean in domestic policy, but when it comes to national-security policy he would do well to take all or some of the following steps:

  • Save the defense budget from the mindless cuts of sequestration, which are already hurting readiness and, if left unabated, risk another “hollow” military.
  • Impose tougher sanctions on Russia, freezing Russian companies entirely out of dollar-denominated transactions, while sending arms and trainers to Kiev and putting at least a Brigade Combat Team into each of the Baltic republics and Poland to signal that no more aggression from Putin will be tolerated.
  • Repeal the 2016 deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and announce that any drawdown will be conditions based.
  • Increase the tempo of airstrikes against ISIS, and send a lot more troops to Iraq and Syria to work with indigenous groups–we need at least 15,000 personnel, not the 1,400 sent so far. This isn’t a call for U.S. ground combat troops, but we do need a lot more trainers, Special Operators, and support personnel, and they need to be free to work with forces in the field rather than being limited to working with brigade and division staffs in large bases far from the front lines.
  • Make clear that any deal with Iran will require the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities–not just a freeze that will leave it just short of nuclear weapons status.
  • End the rapprochement with Iran that has scared our closest allies in the Middle East, and make clear that the U.S. will continue its traditional, post-1979 role of containing Iranian power and siding with the likes of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE over Tehran. A good sign of such a commitment would be launching airstrikes on Iran’s proxy, Bashar al-Assad.
  • Get “fast track” authority from Congress and finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.

Sadly, the odds are that Obama won’t do any of this except for TPP. That will leave a Republican Congress seething in frustration but its ability to compel presidential actions in foreign policy will be highly limited–even with the addition of knowledgeable lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and with Senator John McCain, the GOP’s leading foreign-policy voice, taking over the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers can demand that Obama submit any deal with Iran for Senate approval as a treaty and, if he refuses, they can vote to keep sanctions in place that Obama will try to suspend unilaterally–but in practice achieving this outcome will be very difficult because it will require veto-proof majorities in both houses. Democrats are happy to talk tough about Iran, but will they vote against their own president on an issue where he is sure to lobby hard? Lawmakers can also push for increases in the defense budget but this will undoubtedly require a deal with the White House in which the GOP would have to swallow higher domestic spending and/or tax increases that will be a hard sell on the right.

In the end Obama will retain tremendous discretion as commander-in-chief. We can only hope he will use his authority to stop the dissipation of American power and prestige that has occurred in recent years. He would do well to borrow a page from Jimmy Carter who became a born-again hawk after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But given Obama’s history of stubborn adherence to ideology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Arab World’s Paradigm on Israel Has Shifted, but Obama’s Hasn’t

The inaugural session of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate took place last week, with scholars coming from around the world to participate in two days of discussion on a plethora of topics. Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya News, subsequently published a lengthy summary of the proceedings on Al Arabiya’s website, and reading it, I was struck by the absence of certain topics one might expect to feature prominently. Egypt, Iran, oil, ISIS, Turkey, Russia, the U.S., and Islamic extremism were all there. But in 1,700 words, the Palestinians weren’t mentioned once, while Israel appeared only in the very last paragraph–which deserves to be read in full:

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The inaugural session of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate took place last week, with scholars coming from around the world to participate in two days of discussion on a plethora of topics. Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya News, subsequently published a lengthy summary of the proceedings on Al Arabiya’s website, and reading it, I was struck by the absence of certain topics one might expect to feature prominently. Egypt, Iran, oil, ISIS, Turkey, Russia, the U.S., and Islamic extremism were all there. But in 1,700 words, the Palestinians weren’t mentioned once, while Israel appeared only in the very last paragraph–which deserves to be read in full:

Finally, it was fascinating to attend a two day conference about the Middle East in times of upheaval in which Israel was mostly ignored, with the only frontal criticism of her policies delivered by an American diplomat.

And this explains a lot about the current U.S.-Israel spat. President Barack Obama entered office with the firm belief that the best way to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world was to create “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, and for six years now, he and his staff have worked diligently to do exactly that. Nor was this an inherently unreasonable idea: Even a decade ago, Arab capitals might have cheered the sight of U.S. officials hurling childish insults at their Israeli counterparts.

The problem is that the Arab world has changed greatly in recent years, while the Obama administration–like most of Europe–remains stuck in its old paradigm. Granted, Arabs still don’t like Israel, but they have discovered that Israel and the Palestinians are very far down on their list of urgent concerns. The collapse of entire states that were formerly lynchpins of the Arab world, like Syria, Iraq, and Libya; the fear that other vital states like Egypt and Jordan could follow suit; the rise of Islamic extremist movements that threaten all the existing Arab states; the destabilizing flood of millions of refugees; the fear of U.S. disengagement from the region; the “predicament of living in the shadows of what they see as a belligerent Iran and an assertive Turkey” (to quote Melhem)–all these are far more pressing concerns.

And not only has Israel fallen off the list of pressing problems, but it has come to be viewed as capable of contributing, however modestly, to dealing with some of the new pressing problems. Last month, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute published his impressions from a tour of the Mideast, including of Israel’s deepening strategic relationships with Egypt and Jordan. “Indeed, one of the most unusual moments of my trip was to hear certain Arab security officials effectively compete with one another for who has the better relationship with Israel,” he wrote. “In this regard, times have certainly changed.”

In fact, in this new Middle East, a U.S.-Israel spat probably generates more worry than glee in Arab capitals. Once, it was an Arab article of faith that America cared little about Arabs but greatly about Israel. Thus to the degree that Arab and Israeli concerns overlapped, as they do now on issues ranging from Iran to ISIS, America could be trusted to deal with the threat. Now, the Obama administration still appears to care little for Arab concerns; it seems hell-bent on striking a grand bargain with Iran and withdrawing from the Mideast. But the Arab world’s former ace in the hole to prevent such developments–Israel’s influence in Washington–suddenly looks more like deuce.

Yet all these shifting winds seem to have blown right by the Obama administration: It still acts as if America’s position in the Muslim world depends on showing that it hates Israel, too. And thus you reach the farce of a two-day conference in Abu Dhabi where “the only frontal criticism” of Israel’s policies was “delivered by an American diplomat.”

When it comes to Israel, the Arab world has moved on. But the Obama administration remains stuck in the last century.

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The Root of Middle East’s Economic Woes

I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

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I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

Indeed, whereas a couple decades ago, the Middle East was on par with most Asian economies and well above sub-Saharan Africa, now Arab economies trail well beyond their East Asian counterparts, and may soon find themselves in the basement as stable economic development takes root in sub-Saharan Africa, fears of Ebola in West Africa notwithstanding.

Rohac argues clearly and with much evidence that “extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon in some Arab countries for the government to control half the GDP.

Not all Arab countries are the same, of course. As Rohac demonstrates, some countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) have undertaken large-scale and serious privatization over the last two decades while Lebanon has never had large government ownership of the economy. Government enterprise continues to dominate Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, despite the latter’s Mubarak-era reforms. The issue isn’t simply the gas and oil industries, but also utilities, banks, and, in some cases, broader manufacturing.

Rohac goes further, however, and discusses various case studies and methods of privatization, recognizing that one size does not fit all and the devil is often in the details. Certainly, after all, part of the problem with Egypt’s privatization was that while it spurred growth, it also retrenched its kleptocracy as political and military connections trumped competence and further convinced the broader Egyptian public that government was accountable and responsible to only the few.

That said, I’d go even further than Rohac in one aspect which is crucial to opportunity and building a stable middle class beyond simply the issue of state-owned enterprises: In too many Arab countries, whether monarchies or republics and regardless of whether oil-rich or oil-poor, there are franchise and sector monopolies that discourage competition. For example, Mercedes or McDonalds or any other big-name Western company may grant contracts to partners and work exclusively with one business. While in the United States, there are dozens of franchisees for big chain restaurants and hundreds for automobile dealerships, this is a rarity in the Middle East. One person will gain the contract for “McBurger King Hut,” for example, and will never have to face competition in the country for which the license was granted. This, in turn, means that international companies most often will deal exclusively with a country’s top and most politically-connected businessmen. In Kurdistan, for example, forget working with anyone who’s not connected to the Barzani family or former President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Khan. And, in Bahrain, any businessman worth even a thousandth of his income will partner with an al-Khalifa. (I’ve already written about the problem of the Middle East’s first sons, here.)

For the soft drink companies, fast food joints, car manufacturers, or any large company, it’s often easier to deal with a single businessman. But so long as various country’s legislatures in the Arab world allow such concessionaire monopolies, they will be undermining the growth of their middle class and constraining opportunity which ultimately would contribute to greater stability.

Democracy needn’t be a lost cause in the Middle East. But, demanding radical political change without catalyzing growth and opening economic opportunity to grow the middle class is to repeat the mistakes of the last three years. It’s time to get serious about Arab economic reform.

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At Yale: Embrace Assad But Boycott Israel?

That the academy today has become a source of moral inversion is, unfortunately, becoming ever more clear. There are any number of examples, with the latest involving anthropologists who have announced their boycott of Israeli universities. A number of anthropologists from very prominent schools have signed the call to boycott. But are these anthropologists really motivated by a desire to advance human rights and social justice?

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That the academy today has become a source of moral inversion is, unfortunately, becoming ever more clear. There are any number of examples, with the latest involving anthropologists who have announced their boycott of Israeli universities. A number of anthropologists from very prominent schools have signed the call to boycott. But are these anthropologists really motivated by a desire to advance human rights and social justice?

Take Harvey Weiss, a professor of archaeology at Yale who signed the boycott statement. Weiss has worked for decades inside Syria, not only during the so-called “Damascus Spring” that occurred subsequent to Bashar al-Assad’s rise to the presidency, but also during the dark days of his father Hafez al-Assad’s murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Hama. None of this stopped Weiss from interacting with Syrian academics or working with Syrian universities which, for what it’s worth, are not independent from the government like the Israeli universities the good Yale professor seeks to boycott.

Then, of course, there’s Narges Erami, an anthropologist who focuses on Iran, a country which has repeatedly purged Baha’i students and professors from universities simply because of their religion, and a regime that takes pride in executing homosexuals. No boycott there. But interact with Israeli academics? That’s a bridge too far for that Yale professor. Zareena Grewal is a religious studies professor at Yale. She has concentrated her fieldwork in Cairo, Amman, and Damascus, none of which are known for their respect of human rights or intellectual freedom. Speak up? Better to just boycott universities where Jews teach, it appears. The irony here, of course, is she took to twitter to brag about being invited to a private meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who has embraced terror groups, engaged in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and transferred Turkey into the world’s largest prison for journalists.

Make no mistake: Yale and its students and faculty should conduct research and interact with Syrian, Iranian, and Egyptian counterparts. They should interact with all academics and, for that matter, non-academics regardless of in what political category they hold them. That doesn’t mean that the results of such research should be beyond reproach: academic freedom doesn’t mean freedom from criticism.

Back to the boycott: Yale University has long prided itself on its embrace of area studies. If it sees itself as a center for free inquiry and a space that embraces free discourse, it is kidding itself. While Yale hosts many faculty committed to research and the expansion of knowledge, a growing core apparently does not. The shock is not that in a field as politicized as Middle Eastern studies some faculty would sign a petition calling for boycotts based on national origin, but rather that they would be so smug and secure in the politicized atmosphere that has become Yale University that they would embrace their personal bigotry and hypocrisy so openly. Then again, that may be the idea. For while these faculty—especially Weiss, who has held senior departmental posts—wear their hatred of Israel and its citizens as a badge of honor, at the same time Yale University has increased its efforts to raise money from those repressive Middle Eastern regimes—Qatar, for example—that have become the antithesis of tolerance, human rights, and intellectual inquiry. Coincidence? Probably not. It seems that for Yale, either money now trumps tolerance and education, or bigotry is to be celebrated. Which is it, President Salovey?

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Fouad Ajami, American Patriot

Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

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Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in southern Lebanon, Ajami helped generations of Americans better understand the complex and tortured history of the Middle East. He was a prolific writer, having authored a half-dozen books and more than 400 essays on Arab and Islamic politics. From what I can tell, he never wrote a single sentence that was anything less than superb.

One of my jobs in the White House was to organize meetings between President Bush and scholars and public intellectuals. Fouad Ajami was a guest more than once. Being in this man’s company was among the highlights of my professional life; and developing a friendship with Fouad was a great personal privilege.

Prescient, generous, humane, lyrical and learned, Fouad Ajami was a man who seemed to belong to another, more civilized era. He was taken from us too early. The world will miss him; and so will I.

Requiescat in pace.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Obama’s Wishful Thinking

Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

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Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

This is wishful thinking, not a realistic assessment of U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the mullahs are more active than ever in backing violent proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other states. The problem is that the costs of Obama’s Iran gambit are considerable. As Doran and I noted, the less that the U.S. does to oppose Iranian designs, the more that Sunni states will do—and in the process they will wind up empowering extremists of the kind who currently roam freely through western Iran and northern and eastern Syria. But the president seems blind to the costs of his outreach to Iran, which is worsening a regional civil war, because he is so mesmerized by the prospect of an agreement that will secure his place in foreign-policy history.

At one point Remnick, who seems to be channeling the inner Obama (he claims, echoing the president, that the GOP is “fuelled less by ideas than by resentments”), writes:  “A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?”

The problem is that this is undoubtedly how Obama views the issue too—with the biggest threat coming not from an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons but from the “prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Because the mullahs know where he stands, and realize how little they have to fear from Obama now that they have succeeded in getting him to back off crushing sanctions, he is unlikely to achieve his ambition of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, much less his grand design of integrating Iran into a peaceful new equilibrium in the Middle East.

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Israel’s “Natural Allies”?

Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

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Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

The so-called “Arab spring” has created turmoil around Israel, casting doubt on the stability of Israel’s Arab partners. In turn, some analysts have argued that Israel should return to its earlier policy of cultivating minorities and states on the periphery, from Kurdistan to Greece. Ofir Haivry of the new Herzl Institute has made just that case at Mosaic Magazine. I’ve offered a response, arguing against alliances with the weak and suggesting other alternatives. Israel isn’t alone in worrying about American retrenchment, and that may open opportunities. (See also responses by Michael Doran and Efraim Inbar, my own “natural allies” of long standing.) After reading, be sure to check back later at Mosaic Magazine, where Haivry will have the last word.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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American Military Retrenchment and Nuclear Proliferation

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

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The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

That is a powerful testament to the growing doubts around the world about American power in the Age of Obama–even if the South Koreans and others would not put it that way. Surveys show widespread global admiration for Obama, but there is growing discomfort with the “lead from behind” doctrine that has come to be associated with his administration. Those doubts are only amplified by the sequester, which Obama dreamed up and has allowed to go into effect, thereby jeopardizing our military strength, because of his unwillingness to reach agreement with Republicans over any deficit deal that does not raise taxes.

It is not just South Koreans and other Asian allies who wonder if the U.S. will be there for them as they are threatened by North Korea–or by a China that is growing increasingly assertive in trying to expand it sovereignty over various islands claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other nations with little pushback from Washington. So, too, Middle Eastern allies worry as they see Washington failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program or to do more to stop Iran’s allies in Syria from trying to defeat a popular uprising using horrific violence.

So far those doubts are muted, but if present trends continue they will get louder over time–and we will see the world becoming a more dangerous place. Not just because American power serves to restrain our enemies but also because it restrains our allies–especially countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who could easily go nuclear if they choose. They have decided, thus far, to refrain from fielding their own nuclear arsenals because they have been sheltered under the American nuclear umbrella. But if that umbrella frays–because of nuclear cuts that Obama is trying to implement or because of a general weakening of our defense or simply a decline in our credibility–then they will do what they have to do to protect themselves and the world will become a much more dangerous place as nuclear arms races break out in the Middle East and East Asia.

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Does the Mideast Want an Isolationist U.S.?

Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.

It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).

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Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.

It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).

Mishra falls for the old Communist propaganda line that Ho Chi Minh was happy to work with the United States but that, in a fit of anti-Communist paranoia, we foolishly rebuffed his overtures: “As early as 1919,” he writes, “Ho Chi Minh, dressed in a morning suit and armed with quotations from the Declaration of Independence, had tried to petition President Woodrow Wilson for an end to French rule over Indochina.” Mishra seems blissfully unaware that just a year later, in 1920, Ho Chi Minh (or, as he was then known, Nguyen Ai Quoc) was a delegate at the Congress which founded the French Communist Party and just a few years after that he went to work as agent of the Russian-run Comintern (Communist International).

If he had bothered to read William Duiker’s definitive biography, “Ho Chi Minh,” he would have found out that, while Ho was a dedicated nationalist, he was an equally dedicated communist–and one who did not hesitate to kill and lock up large numbers of domestic enemies. In other words, hardly an ideal American ally. Ho was willing to work with the U.S. in a common cause (fighting Japan) and he surely hoped for U.S. aid after the war–but then Stalin was willing to receive American aid too. That did not mean that he was a good bet as a long-term American ally. Neither was Ho. Ironically, Mishra goes on to write of the Middle East: “Given its long history of complicity with dictators in the region, from the shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, the United States faces a huge deficit of trust.” Apparently he does not consider what views of the U.S. would have been in Southeast Asia if we had spent decades cooperating with a Communist dictator like Ho or his even more brutal successor, Le Duan.

He seems to imagine that the Middle East will do as well as Vietnam did after the American defeat in 1975–conveniently ignoring the boat people of Vietnam, the reeducation camps, and the killing fields of Cambodia, all the direct result of American withdrawal. “Although it’s politically unpalatable to mention it during an election campaign,” he writes, “the case for a strategic American retreat from the Middle East and Afghanistan has rarely been more compelling. It’s especially strong as growing energy independence reduces America’s burden for policing the region, and its supposed ally, Israel, shows alarming signs of turning into a loose cannon.”

There are multiple levels on which one can object to this astonishing statement (what, exactly, has Israel, a true and not “supposed” ally, done to be termed a “loose cannon”–expressing alarm about the Iranian nuclear program?). But what is most striking to me is the way in which a self-styled spokesman on behalf of the Third World ignores what people in the Middle East are saying. What, exactly, is his evidence that the people of the Middle East want us to leave?

He writes: “It is not just extremist Salafis who think Americans always have malevolent intentions: the Egyptian anti-Islamist demonstrators who pelted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motorcade in Alexandria with rotten eggs in July were convinced that America was making shady deals with the Muslim Brotherhood.” But do the anti-Islamist activists in Egypt want the U.S. to sever our relations with their country? Hardly. They want a more active American role. So, too, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, does not want America to leave–he wants our aid, especially our financial aid.

The same case could be extended across the region–from the United Arab Emirates in the east to Morocco in the west, the Middle East is mainly made up of governments that desire close relations with the U.S. and are petrified of the consequences of American withdrawal, which they know will give a free hand to the Iranian mullahs, al-Qaeda, and other malevolent forces. Mishra might dismiss the desires of these governments because many of them are unelected, but even in Libya, the region’s newest democracy, the dominant desire is clearly to ally with the United States, which is why we saw anti-extremist demonstrations in Benghazi recently to protest the killing of the U.S. ambassador.

Mishra should not make the mistake of confusing his own desire (for a post-American world) with the actual views of the people he arrogantly claims to speak for.

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We Still Need to Protect Oil Interests

The Wall Street Journal has the umpteenth article today trumpeting the technological advances–primarily fracking–that are allowing oil companies to uncover and exploit vast, untapped fields in North America. This is leading a dramatic decline in our need for imported oil, especially oil imported from the Middle East. As the Journal notes:

By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 percent will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, oil shipments from the Middle East to North America “could almost be nonexistent,” the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently predicted, partly because more efficient car engines and a growing supply of renewable fuel will help curb demand.

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The Wall Street Journal has the umpteenth article today trumpeting the technological advances–primarily fracking–that are allowing oil companies to uncover and exploit vast, untapped fields in North America. This is leading a dramatic decline in our need for imported oil, especially oil imported from the Middle East. As the Journal notes:

By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 percent will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, oil shipments from the Middle East to North America “could almost be nonexistent,” the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently predicted, partly because more efficient car engines and a growing supply of renewable fuel will help curb demand.

Great news! We can all agree on that. But does this mean that in the future we will be able to ignore developments in the Middle East? That we will no longer have to spend some $50 billion a year (as estimated by Brookings’ Mike O’Hanlon) to protect the flow of oil? Were that it were so. In reality, as the article notes, oil is a global commodity, so supply disruptions in the Middle East–which our European and Asian trading partners remain reliant upon–would still drive up the cost of gasoline in the United States.

Another point worth keeping in mind, which goes unmentioned in this article: Much of the reason we remain concerned about the Middle East is because its oil supplies produce revenue streams that can be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes. Just think of the Saudis funding the promulgation of Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrines around the world–or of the Iranians building nuclear weapons. As long as oil is valuable–and there is scant prospect of that changing anytime in the foreseeable future–we will have to remain concerned about who controls it. And that means we will need to have a substantial military presence in the Middle East.

It’s not simply a defensive deployment either: Don’t forget that China is heavily dependent on the Middle East for its own oil. As long as our Navy can close its supply routes, we will hold a valuable cudgel that could be employed in the event of a crisis.

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