Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Time for a Deal with Iran is Now

Kudos to Thomas Friedman for his piece in today's NY Times (quoted, in full, below).  With all the boo-hooing about how such a deal would be a betrayal of our Israeli and Saudi "allies," as Friedman notes, a deal that might lead to a detente with Iran would be a huge boon to US interests across the Middle East.

On the other hand, the imposing of a new, crippling round of sanctions on Iran - one that might completely eliminate Iran's ability to export its oil - could very likely stop negotiations in their tracks and in so doing, deal a potential death-blow to any chance of averting war with Iran or securing Iran's help in bringing an end to the holocaust that is Syria (and that threatens to engulf Lebanon and Iraq as well).  Yet the GOP-dominated House of Representatives is aching to impose those sanctions, as are some of the usual suspects in the Senate.  (I'm looking at you, Lindsey Graham - and you ought to be embarrassed by your bogus comments that if we do it just "right", sanctions can work even better.  Ask the people of Iran about that. For that matter, ask the people of Iraq about how that worked out for them.  Or just go read some of Joy Gordon's reports on how wonderfully sanctions have worked, in both countries.)

The NYT reports that AIPAC and its ilk are wearing out the carpets in Congressional offices, insisting that harsher sanctions go forward.  Other of the usual suspects have hastened to the dailies to pound the same point: WINEP honcho Patrick Clawson (in the WashPo) hastens to remind us that "Israel, the Gulf states and Iranian democrats will be reassured only by vigorous U.S. actions to address their concerns" - and that besides, and despite evidence to the contrary, all that Iranians really want is regional "hegemony" (not, of course, that the US and Israel have ever aspired to that).  The ever-pesky Elliott Abrams, hoping to drive his own nail into the coffin into which Bibi's amen chorus wants to put the negotiations,  also chimes in (likewise in the WashPo) with a reminder of how nasty the Iranian government has been to the Baha'is.  No argument; they have been brutal; but, gee, why did Abrams pick this particular time to make that point?

To my mind, none of this carping is enough to override Friedman's point: detente with Iran can serve US interests much better than would ratcheting up sanctions.  And along the waym detente just might lead to a more stable, more peaceful Middle East.  So . . .

I'm reminded of the oft-used expression about how one should "lead, follow, or get out of the way."  Congress is both too divided and too discredited (shut-down, anyone?) to lead.  As Bibi knows, though, they're good at following.  But where Bibi wants to take them, American interests - and, I should think, those of the planet - won't be well served.  That leaves only one option.

Get out of the way. Please.


November 12, 2013

What About US?


It goes without saying that the only near-term deal with Iran worth partially lifting sanctions for would be a deal that freezes all the key components of Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, and the only deal worth lifting all sanctions for is one that verifiably restricts Iran’s ability to breakout and build a nuclear bomb.


But there is something else that goes without saying, but still needs to be said loudly: We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests in not only seeing Iran’s nuclear weapons capability curtailed, but in ending the 34-year-old Iran-U.S. cold war, which has harmed our interests and those of our Israeli and Arab friends.


Hence, we must not be reluctant about articulating and asserting our interests in the face of Israeli and Arab efforts to block a deal that we think would be good for us and them. America’s interests today lie in an airtight interim nuclear deal with Iran that also opens the way for addressing a whole set of other issues between Washington and Tehran.


Some of our allies don’t share those “other” interests and believe the only acceptable outcome is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and keeping Iran an isolated, weak, pariah state. They don’t trust this Iranian regime — and not without reason. I don’t begrudge their skepticism. Without pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the global sanctions on Iran they helped to spur, Iran would not be offering to scale back its nuclear program today.


But that pressure was never meant to be an end itself. It was meant to bring Iran in from the cold, provided it verifiably relinquished the ability to breakout with a nuclear weapon. “Just because regional actors see diplomacy with Iran as a zero-sum game — vanquish or be vanquished — doesn’t mean America should,” said Karim Sadjadpour, the expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment.


Why? Let’s start with the fact that Iran has sizable influence over several of America’s most critical national security concerns, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation. Whereas tension with Iran has served to exacerbate these issues, détente with Tehran could help ameliorate them. Iran played a vital role in helping us to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and can help us get out without the Taliban completely taking over again.


 “Iran has at least as much at stake in a stable Iraq, and a stable Afghanistan, as we do — and as an immediate neighbor has a far greater ability to influence them, for good or ill,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, the Iranian-American co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners and a former top aide to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.


There is a struggle in Tehran today between those who want Iran to behave as a nation, looking out for its interests, and those who want it to continue behaving as a permanent revolution in a permanent struggle with America and its allies. What’s at stake in the Geneva nuclear negotiations — in part — “is which Iranian foreign policy prevails,” argued Mousavizadeh. A mutually beneficial deal there could open the way for cooperation on other fronts.


Moreover, there is nothing that threatens the future of the Middle East today more than the sectarian rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This rift is being used by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Hezbollah and some Arab leaders to distract their people from fundamental questions of economic growth, unemployment, corruption and political legitimacy. It is also being used to keep Iran isolated and unable to fully exploit its rich oil and gas reserves, which could challenge some Arab producers. But our interest is in quelling these sectarian passions, not taking one side.


The Iran-U.S. cold war has prevented us from acting productively on all these interests. It is easy to say we should just walk away from talks if we don’t get what we want, but isolating Iran won’t be as easy as it once was. China, Russia, India and Japan have different interests than us vis-à-vis Iran. The only man who could unite them all behind this tough sanctions regime was Iran’s despicable previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new president, Hassan Rouhani, is much more deft.  “Our sanctions leverage may have peaked,” said Sadjadpour. “Countries like China won’t indefinitely forsake their own commercial and strategic interests vis-à-vis Iran simply to please the U.S. Congress.”


All this is why the deal the Obama team is trying to forge now that begins to defuse Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and tests whether more is possible, is fundamentally in the U.S. interest. “The prize of détente with Iran is critical to allowing the U.S. a sensibly balanced future foreign policy that aligns interests with commitments, and allows us to rebuild at home at the same time,” said Mousavizadeh. There are those in the Middle East who prefer “a war without end for the same tribal, sectarian, backward-looking reasons that are stunting their own domestic development as open, integrated, pluralist societies,” he added. “They can have it. But it can’t be our war. It’s not who we are — at home or abroad.”





Friday, November 8, 2013

Bibi Pissing in the Geneva Punchbowl

With growing signs (John Kerry has flown to Geneva to take part) that a deal between Iran and the US-led P5+1 is steadily being pieced together, Mr. Netanyahu's attempts to demean and trash the process are becoming more insistent.  As reported at WashPo, Bibi "utterly rejects" the deal that seems to be emerging.  (Of course, we hoi poloi are not privy to the details, but we can assume that Bibi is being kept abreast of where things stand.)

Kerry, however, seems content to fob him off with some comments to the effect that the US is going into any deal with its "eyes open" and is looking for results, not just words.  He has gone a step further by putting Bibi on notice that the Israelis need to give ground in the current negotiations with the Palestinians, or else, as Kerry warned, face a "third intifada."  Such an eventuality seems a bit less remote now, what with Palestinians' patience running out, West Bank settlers' shameless destruction of Palestinian olive groves increasingly exposed, and troubling new evidence suggesting that former PA president Yasser Arafat's death was the result of massive polonium poisoning.  At this point, the Israelis are the only logical perpetrator - especially in light of recent reminders of how much former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon hated Arafat and would have loved to have had him liquidated.

What Netanyahu means by "utterly rejects" will become clear very soon.  What we all ought to fear, though, is that the troops at AIPAC, the brain trust at WINEP (and, of course, Elliott Abrams at the Council on Foreign Relations), and the pastors aligned with the Rev. John Hagee and the useful idiots of CUFI will be rallied to the halls of Congress, websites at Foreign Policy, and pulpits of Christian Zionist congregations across the land in a crusade to stop the negotiations in their tracks.

Mr. Obama will likely need to play all the cards in his grasp, and any new ones he can draw, to win this hand.  The stakes are enormous.  If Bibi and pals succeed in derailing this train, they may also succeed in blowing up the tracks leading to any peaceful and timely resolution, not only of the issue of Iran's nuclear program, but also the issue of the horrific war in Syria, and the rekindled civil war in Iraq.

Elliott Abrams and Hasan Rouhani's siren song

My latest at Your Middle East.  Here's the tease:

Elliott Abrams' intention – as is Mr. Netanyahu's – is to do whatever he can to sabotage any chance of a diplomatic accommodation with Iran that might leave that country any shred of a nuclear program - and, for that matter, any shred of dignity on the international stage, writes John Robertson.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On the Hubris of American Syria Hawks

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic - with an assist from Dan Larison at American Conservative - excoriates Michael Totten for his recent essay proposing that the US first align itself with the Syria jihadists against Assad, then once Assad is out, turn on the jihadists.

Totten and other Syria hawks predictably ignore the deaths of thousands and the misery of millions of Syrians. His entire argument smacks too much of the atrocity of Condi Rice's "birth pangs of a new Middle East" comment in 2006. As long as Arabs dying serves the ends of preserving American and Israeli pre-eminence in the Middle East, no problem. Except in this case, Totten is recommending a most cynical and brutal inducing of that birth at a time and pace purely to suit US interests. The whole thing reminds me of why I stopped taking Totten seriously years ago.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Negotiations with Iran

Nicholas Burns (in the Boston Globe) provides his assessment of US negotiations with Iran (including a rather chest-thumping thumbs-up for devastating of Iran's economy via sanctions), and concludes with the following:

Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if Republicans as well as Democrats stood by the president as he executed this very challenging diplomatic endgame on the most critical war and peace issue of 2014? Or is that too much to expect in the hyper-partisan Washington that brought us the shutdown?

Uh huh, it would be extraordinary - and I wouldn't count on it.  The GOP-controlled House wants to take down Obama any way it can, and I can only imagine how much the Tea Partiers want payback for their humiliating defeat over ACA/"Obamacare."  Just for those reasons, stymying Obama's attempts to work with Iran would be, if nothing else, wicked fun.

Meanwhile, if any more promising signs emerge after negotiations resume, Mr. Netanyahu will surely pull out a fire-hose to drench it all in very cold water.  That dozens of senators and Congressmen - especially GOP, but including some powerful Dems like Chuck Schumer - have sworn fealty to Bibi over the issue of Iran's nuclear program (not to mention Israel's strategic domination of the Middle East in general) can only mean that Obama is likely to find it impossible to get Congress's support for any deal that Iran could accept - or should even be asked to accept.  And, of course, even if Congress can be convinced to hold off on imposing new sanctions (which Bibi wants), it probably will not agree to significant sanctions relief - which by itself could deep-six any chance of a meaningful deal with Iran.

All of which is a shame . . . and shameful . . . because without some major compromise and breakthrough in these negotiations, the odds of war with Iran will increase almost exponentially.  That spells disaster, and ruin, any way you look at it. . . . for Iran certainly, but Israel, and the US, will pay a huge price as well.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

New Strategic Realities in the Middle East

Jim Lobe (IPS) provides nicely researched overview of the new strategic realities facing the US in the Middle East.  And it's especially nice to see him quote Chas Freeman, an experienced and well-informed former diplomat whose views on US-Israeli relations and on US Middle East policy in general got him into hot water with the D.C. establishment.  Both Lobe and Freeman point out that the US ties with two long-term allies - Turkey and Saudi Arabia - are on the skids.  The Saudis are more than irritated by the US's attempts at detente with Shi'ite rival Iran; Erdogan's Turkey has decided to buy its new missile-defense system from China, even though its technology doesn't jive with the ordnance of NATO - of which, of course, Turkey is one of the militarily more powerful members.

Freeman sums it up very well indeed:

“The simple world of colonial and superpower rivalries is long vanished. . . .  The notion that one is either ‘with us or against us’ has lost all resonance in the modern Middle East. No government in the region is prepared now to entrust its future to foreigners, still less to a single foreign power. So the role of great external powers is becoming variable, complex, dynamic, and asymmetric, rather than comprehensive, exclusive, static or uniform.”

On the other hand, one of the people whose views REALLY count - because he forks over huge sums of money to support politicians who actually influence policy decisions - continues to speak of the US's evidently rightful prerogative to throw its weight around in the Middle East as it pleases, especially when it comes to Israel.  I speak of Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich's sugar-daddy and political life-support during the 2012 campaign.  Mondoweiss reports (with video) on Adelson's comments at a forum at Yeshiva University after the moderator (Rabbi Shmuley Boteach) raised the issue of US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program:

What are we going to negotiate about? What I would say is, ‘Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.’ You pick up your cell phone, even at traveling rates. You pick up your cell phone, and– what are they called– [Boteach: roaming charges] Roaming charges. You pick up your cell phone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘OK let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon, goes over ballistic missiles, the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever.


And then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. [Applause] You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all, and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, energy purposes.’

Adelson goes on to say that American strength "is the only thing they understand."

That, of course, is the same kind of assumption of US military omnipotence that brought us Afghanistan, Iraq, and the knee-capping of America's economic future and global credibility.

On the other hand, Adelson's comments reportedly received fulsome applause.

Betcha Bibi would have been clapping right along, had he been there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tea Party's Obamaphobia

I don't generally post comments I've seen from other sources - in this instance, a comment appended to an article in today's WashPo.  But this one was too good to pass up:

To Tea Party Republicans: Please note that the Community Organizer; the Tan Man in the Black House; the wet-behind-the-ears innocent who has never worked a day in his life; the illegal alien who is ineligible for the presidency; the crook who lied about his educational background since he actually flunked out of college and only squeaked through law school on Affirmative Action; the happy-go-lucky boy who just wants to have a good time riding around on Air Force One while white people run the country; the Monkey Man who lives only to take goods from hard-working white people and hand it over to the darkies; Buckwheat, who should be cleaning the Oval Office and not sitting in it:
PS: Every one of my descriptions above was taken from an online post about the President of the United States, who, it turns out, has earned a descriptor you-all Tea Party folks forgot: statesman.

These clowns have wasted billions of dollars, slowed down the economy, deprived thousands of federal workers of badly needed paychecks.  They claim to have done all of this as a matter of reclaiming some sort of high ground, in defense of regular Americans. For some of them, perhaps such considerations reflect their true motives.  But for many of them, and for thousands of their Confederate-flag waving, race-baiting, gay-hating, Jesus-is-my-strength supporters, it was all about an irrational, visceral hatred of a black president with an Arab middle name.

Shame on all of them.  And shame on us as a nation if we permit people of their ilk ever again to bring this country to such a low point. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thomas Friedman Misses the Elephant in the Room

Thomas Friedman's column "Hassan Does Manhattan" (catchy title, no?  Whoever created it seems intent on reminding us that Tommy has always been the brightest boy in the room) is all about Iran's politics, Tommy's chats with members of Mr. Rouhani's entourage, and what "we should do."  And what he suggests - in terms of what kind of deal Obama should offer Iran - is fine --- well within the mainstream of ideas that various onlookers have suggested.  But it what's Friedman leaves out that blows me away.

Not once - nowhere - in his essay does Friedman mention either of two words: "Israel" and "Netanyahu." Yet anybody who's been paying attention (and  I want to assume that Friedman numbers himself among that crowd) knows that Mr. Netanyahu is going to have a lot to say about all of this, and that what he's likely to say is not going to jive well with what Friedman thinks "we should do."  The last thing Netanyahu wants is a rapprochement between the US and Iran that leaves Iran with any semblance of political stature and respect on the world stage, and especially in the Middle East - which, in Bibi's mind and in the minds of Israel's hard-right establishment, is rightfully and properly Israel's stage, if not Israel's court.

Recently, Daniel Levy wrote a brilliant piece that Friedman really ought to read - or ought to have read before writing his latest.  I quote:

At the moment . . .  Netanyahu is signaling that there is no realistic deal that would be acceptable to Israel. For instance, a consensus exists among experts and Western officials that Iran's right to enrich uranium -- in a limited manner and under international supervision -- for its civilian nuclear energy program will be a necessary part of any agreement. Netanyahu rejects this.


If Iran is willing to cut a deal that effectively provides a guarantee against a weaponization of its nuclear program, and that deal is acceptable to the president of the United States of America, why would Netanyahu not take yes for an answer?


The reason lies in Netanyahu's broader view of Israel's place in the region: The Israeli premier simply does not want an Islamic Republic of Iran that is a relatively independent and powerful actor. Israel has gotten used to a degree of regional hegemony and freedom of action -- notably military action -- that is almost unparalleled globally, especially for what is, after all, a rather small power. Israelis are understandably reluctant to give up any of that.


Israel's leadership seeks to maintain the convenient reality of a neighboring region populated by only two types of regimes. The first type is regimes with a degree of dependence on the United States, which necessitates severe limitations on challenging Israel (including diplomatically). The second type is regimes that are considered beyond the pale by the United States and as many other global actors as possible, and therefore unable to do serious damage to Israeli interests.


Israel's leadership would consider the emergence of a third type of regional actor -- one that is not overly deferential to Washington but also is not boycotted, and that even boasts a degree of economic, political, and military weight -- a deeply undesirable development. What's more, this threatens to become a not-uncommon feature of the Middle East: Just look at Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Egypt before the July 3 coup, or an Iran that gets beyond its nuclear dispute and starts to normalize its relations with the West.


There are other reasons for Netanyahu to oppose any developments that would allow Iran to break free of its isolation and win acceptance as an important regional actor with which the West engages. The current standoff is an extremely useful way of distracting attention from the Palestinian issue, and a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran would likely shine more of a spotlight on Israel's own nuclear weapons capacity. But the key point to understand in interpreting Netanyahu's policy is this: While Obama has put aside changing the nature of the Islamic Republic's political system, Israel's leader is all about a commitment to regime change -- or failing that, regime isolation -- in Tehran. And he will pursue that goal even at the expense of a workable deal on the nuclear file.


Netanyahu's maximalism does not represent a wall-to-wall consensus within the Israeli establishment. There is another Israeli strand of thinking -- notably among retired security elites like former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin -- that holds that the challenges posed by Iran can be managed in different ways at different times. Others inside Israel's establishment acknowledge that the current period of unchallenged hegemony is unsustainable and that adjustments will have to be made. Some understand the efficacy of having an Iran more tied into the international system rather than isolated from it -- a deal on Iran's nuclear program, for instance, could also have its uses in limiting the maneuver room of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.


But Netanyahu has rejected these positions. The prime minister is nothing if not consistent: He was similarly intractable when the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League put forth pragmatic proposals. While the PLO's leadership accepts Israel's existence, the 1967 lines, and an accommodation on Israeli settlements (including in East Jerusalem) by way of land swaps, Netanyahu has shifted the goal posts -- rejecting the 1967 lines and refusing to take yes for an answer. With the Arab League's "Arab Peace Initiative" offering recognition of Israel and comprehensive peace in exchange for withdrawal from the occupied territories, Netanyahu is again following this pattern of rejectionism.


Netanyahu is a deeply ideological leader with an unshakeable belief in a Greater Israel and regional hegemony. If this reading of him is accurate, it bodes ill for Israel's reaction to the nascent diplomacy between the United States and Iran. In the coming weeks and months, Netanyahu will likely dedicate himself to derailing any prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough.


In that mission he is, of course, not alone. He will be joined by American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent. Their efforts will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve -- intentionally, one has to assume -- to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.



Of course, the Iranian forces ranged against Rouhani's pragmatism do not need encouragement from Washington. But absent encouragement, they are not in the ascendancy -- and crucially, Rouhani appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his diplomatic outreach. Currently, the difference among the three capitals -- Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem -- is that only in Jerusalem does a representative of the hard-line faction, rather than the pragmatic camp, hold the most senior political office.


None of these considerations receive any mention in Friedman's wide-eyed prattling about democracy breaking out in Iran.  Yet it beggars belief to assume that none of them occurred to him.  The fact of the matter is that Netanyahu may indeed want to bully Obama into backing away from Iran - at least far enough, and for long enough, that Khamenei and Iran's still-powerful hard-liners get fed up and decide to rein in Rouhani.  

And Bibi has a bunch of bullies lined up alongside him.  I speak, of course - and Levy mentions them as well - of the Obama-baiting, Iran-hating GOP congressmen in his back-pocket.  They are already poised to bring the federal government to a shut-down and heap the blame on Barack Hussein Obama.

Bibi would be glad to give them a two-fer.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Stabilizing Syria Means Engaging Iran

Both al-Monitor and Barbara Slavin (at al-Jazeera America) have published analyses that make it clear: In the absence of any effective military option, the only possible path to calming the situation in Syria is negotiations.  And those negotiations must include Iran.  As al-Monitor notes, 
Unless the US commits all-out to regime change in Syria, which Obama said he has no intention of doing, a strategy to end the war necessarily involves diplomacy with adversaries as well as allies. The NATO air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, often and rightly considered successes for US policy, included intensive direct diplomacy with all parties, including Yugoslav dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. You need a cease-fire by all sides to stop the killing. It was the Yugoslav government, after the Kosovo war, which arrested Milosevic and transferred him to the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia. There should be several lessons here for Syria.
Terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and maybe even Egypt would likely continue to surge even after a US strike absent a diplomatic strategy to end the war and address the now-rejuvenated terrorist threat in Syria.
It is the continuation of the war, the destruction of Syria, the rise of jihadists, the spread of terrorism to Syria’s neighbors and the waves of refugees that are the threats to US interests, and these are best handled by an immediate cease-fire and the start of negotiations — not by taking sides in the war. 
The administration could seize the opportunity of the congressional debate to lay out the endgame in Syria with some clear benchmarks, beyond missile strikes in response to chemical weapons use, including: a channel with Iran; calling out both the Assad regime and the opposition, and especially their respective regional patrons, to enact a cease-fire immediately; urgently convening the Geneva II conference to include both the Syrian government and non-jihadist opposition forces, no exceptions; and a crackdown and some accountability on those US allies which directly or indirectly support the flow of jihadists to Syria. . . .
Iran, more than any other power in the region, is the “dynamo” and broker of either war or peace.  It is time to put Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the test and bring the Syria war to a close.

But bringing Rouhani (and, by extension, of course, Khamenei) into a negotiation can happen only if Mr. Netanyahu is willing to give Mr. Obama the political space to reach out to Iran.  As the two reports note above make clear, some of that outreach has already begun.  But it can only go as far as Netanyahu and his confederates - both in Jerusalem and in D.C. - will let it.  Bibi has invested enormous energy and cubic-yards of hot air in demonizing Iran (even referring to Rouhani recently as a "wolf in sheep's clothing") and its "existential threat" to Israel.  Any attempt by Obama to bring Iran into putative cease-fire negotiations over Syria automatically lends respectability and legitimacy to the Iranian regime.  It also undercuts not only Bibi's demonizing of Iran, but also his insistence that the threat of a military strike against Iran needs to remain unholstered.

Yet, as is becoming clear, damping down Syria's violence and refugee flow - both of which have destabilized the countries bordering Israel and threaten thereby to impact Israel itself - is going to require Iran's acquiescence at the very least.  That means reaching out and offering Iran some kind of role partnering with other countries that are interested in restoring some modicum of stability within which Syria - or whatever "Syria" is to become - can be sorted out.

Is Bibi up to keeping his finger off the bash-Iran button?  Giving Iran a chance to help restore some peace to the heart of the Arab world just might win Israel a few friends therein.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Syria Needs a Political Solution, Not John Wayne

Excellent post, with links, at Qifa Nabki on the uselessness of trying to use military force to impose a settlement in Syria.  I might add:

1. Obama needs to walk back his "red line" misspeak . . . and the commentariat needs to let him, even encourage him, to walk it back.  He screwed up, and I'll bet he knows (and has been reminded umpteen times by his staff) that he screwed up.  That a lot of innocent Syrian people are likely to be made collateral damage just because a president chose his words poorly is a war crime in itself.

2. John McCain and any putative nuevos amigos need to get it through their heads: this is no longer a John Wayne America.  The US has no duty or prerogative - or, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed, capacity - to "get into the fight" and make the world right.  Too many of my generation still have their heads shrink-wrapped around the heroic World War II America of "Sands of Iwo Jima" or the crusading (early) Vietnam War America of "The Green Berets."  Asad is neither Tojo nor Ho Chi Minh (nor are Asad's backers - Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - Leonid Brezhnev).  The US can't "fix" Syria with military might.  

But what it could do - if certain parties would allow Obama the domestic political space - is lead an effort to get all parties to come together and make some hard deals.  That means Iran, and Russia, and the Saudis, as well as Asad's people and representatives from the Syrian opposition, both Arabs and Kurds, both Islamists and not.  It means the UN.  It means the Arab League.   Optimally, it ought not mean hard-line jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS/ISIL (what exactly IS the appropriate acronym?), but with their presence now so firmly entrenched it would be difficult to shut them out completely.

And especially, it means the neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, including reps from the KRG) that are now straining under the humanitarian burden and responsibility of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugess.  Syria's fragmentation is probably too far along for even the most skilled political negotiations and daring compromises to patch together a unitary country.  Notwithstanding, the focus now needs to be on ending the violence, from all sides, damping down sectarian anger, and healing devastated bodies, spirits,  and communities.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On the Destruction and Revival of the Egyptian Revolution

At Pandaemonium, Kenan Malik publishes a superb piece that locates the 3 July military coup that overthrew the government of Muhammad Morsi, and Al-Sisi's crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, within the long history of the Muslim Brotherhood's treatment at the hands of Egypt's series of military-backed regimes since Gamal Abdul Nasser.  

He sums up:

So what of the future for Egypt?  What the past few weeks have revealed is the weakness of all sides.  The Muslim Brotherhood is being crushed without too much resistance, exposing its lack of popular support. Liberal secularists, organizationally weak and politically incoherent, having failed to topple on Morsi on their own, have put faith in the military to do the job for them. The USA, and other Western powers, have discovered that they no longer possess much leverage over Cairo.  The power of the Egyptian military has certainly been entrenched, but largely because of the weakness of other social forces.


The revolution might have been strangled, but the yearning for democracy and freedom remains. If that yearning is eventually to be harnessed to help create a new, democratic Egypt, revolutionaries must learn the lessons of the current debacle. The real destruction of the Egyptian revolution did not come when the military seized power. It came when liberals and secularists backed the coup and justified the repression that followed. Democracy and freedom cannot be wielded in a sectarian fashion. And no one but the people themselves – not the military, not a foreign power – can be the harbinger of change.

Indeed.  But it has been well noted that Hosni Mubarak's overthrow by "the people" in 2011 was "allowed" by the military, who were concerned that he was grooming as his successor his son Gamal, whose penchant for neo-liberal economic reforms would have imperilled their well-entrenched domination of parts of the Egyptian economy.  Now "the people" need to regroup if they are to have any hope of reviving their revolution.  Yet the Islamist element of "the people" have been labelled "terrorists" and are being systematically crushed by al-Sisi and his junta - as Malik notes, largely courtesy of liberals/secularists who'd two years ago been their compatriots in Tahrir Square.  It stands to reason, does it not, that if they now - very belatedly - try to organize against the junta, the liberals/secularists will in their turn be smacked down.

So much for that "harbinger of change"?


Saturday, August 3, 2013

John Robertson: Why Kerry's "peace talks" will go nowhere

My latest essay for Your Middle East . . .


John Robertson: Why Kerry's "peace talks" will go nowhere

"There's no way Kerry/Obama can insist on halting the settlement/colonization enterprise"

 Daniel Kurtzer and Gilead Sher have co-authored in LA Times an essay subtitled "It's hard to resolve Israeli-Palestinian disagreements without the U.S. defining a path."

You know what's driving me nuts about this entire enterprise? The fact that they're absolutely right, but also that there's no way the US can (or rather, will) do that at this point. Why?  Because, at the very least, if this "peace process" is to have any chance to succeed, Israel has to stop - COMPLETELY - its ongoing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (And in a truly just and righteous world - a world that actually abided by…what do you call it? Oh, yeah, international law - it would also uproot every Jewish settlement, including the massive settlements blocs, from the West Bank and bring all those settlers inside the 1967 borders. But let's not go any farther down that path right now.)  

But there's no way Kerry/Obama can insist on halting the settlement/colonization enterprise, because they know that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives - as well as a large portion of the US Senate - would stand by it. Remember, this is the same US Congress that only a few years ago practically led Netanyahu into its august halls on the back of a donkey and strewing palm fronds and hosannas in his path. And the Israel lobby, AIPAC, CUFI, the Washington Post editorial board, the Council on Foreign Relations (well, Elliott Abrams for sure) would scream bloody murderer and label Obama, Kerry, et al. anti-Semites, mullah-lovers, new-Holocaust mongers . . . any and every of the multitude of awful names and characterizations that people have come up with for people perceived not to "stand with Israel."

Kerry's peace talks are a charade

And this, despite the fact that many of Israel's leaders - perhaps even Bibi himself - recognize that without the creation of a viable, prosperous Palestinian state, Israel itself has no chance of remaining a truly democratic, Jewish-majority unless it either simply forces West Bank Palestinian Arabs into apartheid status or else forcibly expels them.

The White House is facing a GOP-controlled House of Representatives whose members (especially those of the Tea Party extreme) nurture almost exuberantly an entrenched hatred of the president and the person that is Barack Hussein Obama, who must deal with their opposition - and must try to find a way forward - on issues ranging from health care, to immigration, to combating climate change.  Obama is not about to wave before their eyes the new matador's cape that a demand for complete stop to Israel's creeping annexation of the West Bank would be.

As part of his legacy, Obama will be able to say years from now that at least, via his secretary of state, he "tried" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps some of the Democratic faithful will even believe him.

But Kerry's peace talks are a charade. If he's lucky, the participants will close their talks with an announcement of some new "principles" or "understandings" for future discussion. 

Smiles, handshakes, expressions of gratitude and hope all around. But the beat(-down) for the Palestinians will go on. And the settlers will continue to grab their land.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Thoughts on Egypt's Coup, David Brooks, and Egypt's Countryside

This essay appeared in Your Middle East several days ago . . .

Egypt's Coup, David Brooks, and Egypt's Countryside

This Guardian piece (co-authored by the superb Martin Chulov) about the ouster of Muhammad Morsi and the crucial role of the Tamarod petition drive in bringing it about leaves me with more questions about what's happened.  It mentions that the Tamarod "coffee-shop" organizers were able to put on-line a petition calling for Morsi's removal.  People could then print it out, sign it, and then hand it over to a Tamarod volunteer.  Wonderful idea, no doubt.

But, what about the thousands of Egyptians with no access to a computer, or a printer?  I have to assume that many such people would have learned about Tamarod and then somehow found a way to have a copy printed for them.  But what about the hundreds of rural villages where, I assume, computer access - not to mention basic literacy - is in short supply?  Aren't these generally very traditional and conservative villagers among Morsi's - and the Muslim Brotherhood's - biggest supporters?  In all the euphoric coverage of Morsi's removal, are their voices being heard, their wishes accounted for?  Are any of those admittedly brave and intrepid reporters whose accounts and tweets have been sustaining us all getting any feedback from what the city-dwellers who are getting all the coverage might think of as the boondocks?  If I'm not mistaken, during the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, Islamist groups were bussing such people into Cairo, and they made their voices heard.  What about now?

And speaking of Islamists . . . .  David Brooks' ill-considered NYT diatribe against political Islamists leading governments has drawn lots of attention, much of it deservedly negative.  To assert that Turkey is among those cases that supposedly prove that "radical Islamists" cannot run a government is absurd; Erdogan is hardly a radical (if Brooks thinks so, he needs to get out more), and his base of support in the AKP consists largely of pious, God-fearing, middle-class businessmen - the same kind of people whom Brooks customarily identifies in an American context as the rock-ribbed foundation of our glorious republic.  But for Brooks to have taken it further and stated that Islamists don't have the "mental equipment" to run a government?!  That's just stupid (again, see Mr. Erdogan) - and, as some have noted, could be construed as racist.  Brooks might also note that some of the worthies currently serving in Congress are every bit as "Christianist" as Morsi is Islamist."  Some of them - Louie Gohmert and James Inhofe spring to mind - to my way of thinking lack the "mental equipment" to run a government, largely because they're "Christianist."  But could you imagine Brooks or his ilk lying down if someone said so in print?

Finally, the more I read, the more I'm inclined to conclude that the obituaries for Islamism - and the Muslim Brotherhood - as a political force, and for Islamists as potential leaders of a modern government, are decidedly premature.  Morsi's downfall seems to me largely the product of his own inexperience and political obtuseness - which add up to incompetence - and to the shambles of an economy and infrastructure that he inherited.  Egyptians have fallen on extremely hard times in recent decades.  Morsi and his people did nothing to make that better, but I don't see anyone waiting in the wings ready to sweep in and craft the brilliant policies and make the tough calls needed to resurrect the economy.  Egypt now has to import a major proportion of its all-important wheat supply; its educational system, especially at the university level, teeters on the brink; and its population is choked with millions of young people with inferior education and correspondingly dismal prospects.

Whoever might be elected president next will likely be permitted to come to power only if he can secure the generals' stamp of approval.  Nonetheless, he will be confronted with the same harsh realities, will be expected to fix them, will likely find the challenge insurmountable, and will fail to make much (if any) progress.  As recent events have made crystal-clear, the Egyptian people have run out of patience.  They know how to organize protests and make their presence felt in the streets and on the blogosphere.  But will the generals take kindly to their rising up against their approved man?

At times like this, I've become fond of channeling General David Petraeus' famous question.  I'll do it again. Tell me how this ends.

But I'd beware of anyone who says they know.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why is Libya Considered a Win in Obama-Land?

Paul Pillar's take on the elevations of Susan Rice and Samantha Power (inside whose head James Mann tries to crawl in this WaPo piece) raises a point that has dropped off Americans' collective radar: Why have we chalked up the Libya intervention as a win?

The notion that this intervention [which both Rice and Power supported] was wise appears to rest on the idea that the target was a dictator nobody particularly liked and that in the civil war that was then ongoing people were getting hurt, as is always the case in civil wars. The notion also rested on the myth, unsupported by evidence to this day, that Qadhafi was planning some sort of genocidal bloodbath in eastern Libya and that failure to intervene would mean Rwanda all over again. The dictator was swept aside with U.S. and Western help, at minimal material cost to the United States, and so the episode gets casually put in the win column.

The actual balance sheet on Libya is far more extensive than that. The disliked dictator had already, through an enforceable agreement with the United States and Britain, given up his unconventional weapons programs and gotten out of international terrorism. He was still a quixotically inconvenient and sometimes disagreeable cuss, but he was not a threat. What we have had since he was ousted is extremist-infested disorder in Libya that has given rise to a flow of arms to radicals in the Sahel and incidents like the fatal encounter at a U.S. compound in Benghazi. (If Rice were being nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation, this is the aspect of the Benghazi incident she ought to be grilled about, not some manufactured silliness about talking points.) We also have sent a very unhelpful message to the likes of the Iranians and North Koreans and have perversely affected their motivations regarding the possibility of reaching their own agreements with the United States.


It is remarkable that the Libyan intervention is so often considered a success. Let us hope that in the future when lessons are drawn from this episode—by either advocates or opponents of some future intervention—they will be drawn carefully, rather than in the simplistic manner that seems to have become respectable even among presidential appointees.

Pillar's take on the silliness of the (mostly GOP) hazing of Rice, Hillary Clinton, etc., in the wake of the Benghazi "scandal" is spot-on, and dovetails well with this Daily Beast report about how the GOP's stance on modernity - and its unending, give-no-quarter hectoring of the Obama administration - are costing it its future with the young, educated College Republican types whose support it surely needs to keep.  When a new GOP governor of Mississippi blames working mothers for illiteracy, and a  GOP senator from  Georgia attributes the US military's rape problem to hormones, can you blame the CR's for seeing what supposedly is their party as the party of stupid?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stephen Walt on Obama and NSA

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy nails it:

This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."

Boy George and his crew played this to the hilt after 9-11.  It gave us the disaster that was (and truly still is) Iraq, the slow-motion defeat that is Afghanistan, and a blow to American credibility overseas that will likely not be repaired in our lifetimes.

We also hoped for better - indeed, were promised better - by the shiny-bright Mr. Obama in 2008.  Instead, he has proved himself to be largely cast in the same mold as Mr. Bush, if not cut from the same faux-rawhide.  And to embellish the "if you knew what I know" trope to which Walt refers, Obama played the "gee, when I'm done as president, everyone's gonna want to see my emails - but do you see me whining."


Afghan Soldier Kills 3 Americans - and They Won't Be the Last

As reported via NY Times.  ISAF spokesman says they expect more such attacks to come.  Constantly puts me in mind of John Kerry's famous statement to Congress during Vietnam War - about no one wanting to be the last soldier to die in a lost war.

And for any service vets or hyper-patriot chest-thumpers who might want to comment otherwise: yes, it is indeed a lost war. Sorry.

Qusair Means a Longer, Bloodier Road Ahead

Rami Khouri, spot-on as ever, makes it clear that the Assad regime's retaking of Qusair means that both Syria and Lebanon face an even longer, bloodier road ahead - if "ahead" is even an appropriate adverb in this context:

As Syria and its battles rekindle old tensions and create new ones, Hezbollah reflects the dramatic and dangerous new directions in which many Middle Eastern actors navigate through crumbling edifices of Euro-manufactured statehood, battle each other for survival, and cling to older, indigenous identities of sectarianism, ethnicity, tribalism and other sub-national configurations.

One day, they will all have to manage the hard task of rebuilding credible, secure and legitimate states. But that day is down the road.

Now is the time to fight, it seems, and Qusair was only a hint of the stupidity and waste that lies ahead.


Khouri also spotlights, however, that Assad was able to reclaim Qusair, and this apparent victory, only because Hezbollah came to his aid, in force, and because he had the military support of Iran and Russia as well as Russia running interference for him in the UN Security Council.  This suggests strongly that Assad's days are indeed numbered, but that the number of days just got higher.

All of which spells ever more death, devastation, and misery for the people of Syria . . . and, I should think, Lebanon.  There have already been strikes against Hezbollah targets in Beirut itself.  With Hezbollah so obviously sided with Assad, it now seems only a matter of time before Sunni-salafist militants, both regional and jihadist, turn their attention to Lebanon.  And, of course, they already have Iraq squarely in their crosshairs.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, sits with his "Do Not Pass Go" card clenched in his fingers.  And although the ascension of Samantha Power to become the US rep at the  UN puts a striking - and strikingly R2P - face on the US presence there, she likely will amount to little more than window dressing for an administration that will speak eloquently of universal human rights and self-determination, but restrain itself to little more than jaw-jaw as the wider Middle East swirls the bowl.

Monday, April 22, 2013

George W. Bush and History

Great essay by Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy, pushing back against pro-W encomiums recently appearing as George W Bush Library opening looms.

Money quote:

At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events.  At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Missing from Iraq Retrospectives Ten Years After? Historians.

At History News Network, University of North Carolina history prof emeritus Michael H. Hunt points out that some very important viewpoints have gone missing in the collective examination of conscience and search for "lessons" ten years after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: those of professional historians who actually know something about the Middle East.  (In the vein of shameless self-promotion, and to point out that at least some reporters and editors "get it," I offer this piece in the Saginaw News, for which I and another historian - from Saginaw Valley State University - were interviewed.  They even included our PR pix!)  Hunt's essay bears extensive quoting:

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, March 20, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.


The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!


One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.


David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.


Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle East, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.


Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital, like the country more generally, “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).


Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.


But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?


Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Hunt's essay also reminds me that, before the invasion, the US State Department actually assembled a sizeable team of scholars and experts for what it called the "Future of Iraq Project."  (The team included Prof. McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, an eminent archaeologist/anthropologist who is one of the planet's premier experts on ancient Iraq and its antiquities; he's also an acquaintance of mine.)  They assembled a voluminous report, 13 volumes in fact, with many well-informed recommendations, only to see it shelved and ignored by the Bush administration.

Would that the New York Times and other newspapers "of note" had contacted and consulted some of the team members for their retrospective ten years after.  Would that Boy George and his entourage had bothered to consult them ten years ago.  Instead, neocon worthies like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and PW's former Dept of Defense  deputy  Douglas Feith continue to get interviews.  In Perle's case, on NPR, where in response to a question about whether the invasion - which he cheerleaded - has been the right thing to do, he replied, in effect, "Don't even ask" (as in, "stupid question!").   Douglas Feith - to whom General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, once referred as the "dumbest fucking guy on the planet") , went on to a faculty position at Georgetown, evidently because his expertise was deemed invaluable to foreign-service servants of the future.  (Shame on Georgetown for that one.)

So, it's left to us historians to try to pick up and reassemble the pieces for our students - some of whom are Iraq war vets, some of whom were hardly out of diapers when Bush had his "Mission Accomplished" moment and, if asked what Abu Ghraib was, might be as likely to answer "a Disney pixar-flick character"?

Meanwhile, as Peter Baker's recent NYT piece noted, Mr Obama had virtually no comment on the Iraq invasion 10 years after.

And the beat goes on.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More Thomas Friedman Post-Iraq Happy Talk

Amidst the veritable cornucopia of ten-years-after Iraq invasion retrospectives, Thomas Friedman of course has to weigh in.  In contrast to the "suck on this" tough-guyism that characterized his pre-war cheerleading, he's become more sweetness and light, especially as he warbles about the Iraqi university students who, in his take (based on his reading of a Financial Times piece by the much more sensible Roula Khalaf), care not about Sunni vs Shi'a.  Indeed, that's a sign that we may indeed hope for a brighter future for Iraqis.

But when TF writes of America's having contributed to that bright future by helping the Iraqis write a democratic constitution . . . well, that's a stretch.  I can't begin to count the number of observers who have made the point: that constitution, the writing of which was guided so much by US hands, essentially cemented in place a sectarian quota-bound parliamentary system - and division - that has kept Iraqis from building the "Iraqiness" that they so need if the country is to prosper, even survive as a unitary state.

I suspect that until the day he dies, Thomas Friedman will try to find ways to look back on his vile cheerleading of 2002 and 2003 and feel able to say, "there, there, I wasn't so bad.  It all worked out - and I helped make it happen."

Good luck with that, TF.  Don't hold your breath.

Roman Empire's vs US's Decline

People have been debating for years the possible parallels between the decline of the Roman empire and the signs of US "imperial" decline.  Huffington Post publishes Barton Kunstler's musings on this theme.  One of the six parallels he highlights especially caught my attention:

4. Spread of escapist cults. Christianity was only the most successful example of the "exotic" cults that offered Romans solace when their own society, and thus its prevailing religion, began to fail them. Today, the U.S. is held hostage by those for whom carrying any weapon, anywhere, is a sanctified religious belief. We have members of Congress who don't believe in evolution, who are as literalist and intolerant about their religion as any ignorant 10th century rural priest. The entire globe suffers from the ravages of extreme, often violent, fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thought relies on pre-processed sound-bites that obstruct any considered address of real-world problems. It makes negotiation impossible. Part of the paralysis of our national government lies in the fanatical religiosity that many of our representatives bring to the political process.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Can't We Impeach Lindsey Graham?

. . . or, at least, can't we zipper his mouth?  Or at the very least, issue a restraining order that proscribes any contact whatsoever between him and Jennifer Rubin, or similar Israel propagandists?

Matt Duss's piece today makes it plain that this guy won't be satisfied until the US bombs the bejeezus out of Iran.   Duss makes another excellent point:  Congress may soon be collectively foaming at the mouth over an extremely poorly conceived resolution that the US support Israel even if Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran.  If they're thinking that acting deranged will impel Iran's leaders into submission, they may be sorely mistaken.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Steve Coll on the Terrorist Groups Formerly Known as al-Qaeda

At The New Yorker, Steve Coll makes the point that "al-Qaeda" has become strictly "yesterday."   Money quote:

This March marks ten years since the United States led an invasion of Iraq based on bad intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. That dark anniversary offers a reminder, if one is required, that in any conflict where a President claims war powers the Chief Executive’s analytical precision in describing the enemy is a grave responsibility. A franchise is a business that typically operates under strict rules laid down by a parent corporation; to apply that label to Al Qaeda’s derivative groups today is false. If Al Qaeda is not coherent enough to justify a formal state of war, the war should end; if the Administration wishes to argue that some derivative groups justify emergency measures, it should identify that enemy accurately.

Jihadist violence presents an enduring danger. Its proponents will rise and ebb; the amorphous threats that they pose will require adaptive security policies and, occasionally, military action. Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only.

Earlier in the piece, Coll points out that with the Obama administration's hammering on what has become a perpetual (and self-perpetuating) state of war with "al-Qaeda," the late medieval Hundred Years War may come to seem like child's play.  Yet as long as Obama and his successors can dangle before a largely ignorant and easily inflamed American public a Medusa-faced al-Qaeda, we as a nation will never be able to move completely on from the events of 11 September 2001.  More significantly, we may never be able to move off the path down which we have been headed these last years. That path ends with the US as global proconsul enforcing its will through an over-glorified military elite complemented by off-the-radar special forces inflicting instant - and sometimes unjustifiable - destruction from the skies.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Obama's Dilemma in Syria

For weeks, people like Elliot Abrams, Richard Cohen, John McCain, Lindsey Graham  - the list is long and, in a manner of speaking, distinguished - have been hammering Mr. Obama for his failure to bring the US "into the fight" in Syria.  We are warned repeatedly that "the rebels" are storing up resentment against the US for its refusal to supply them with heavier weapons to use against Asad's forces.  Meanwhile,wiser and cooler heads - among them, Marc Lynch at FP - have praised Obama for limiting the US's involvement in Syria.  For the most part, Israel has been depicted in this imbroglio as essentially a concerned and ambivalent onlooker - no fan of Bashar al-Asad (whose Syria for years has styled itself the spearhead of resistance to Israeli domination of the Middle East), yet wary of what Asad's demise might bring in its wake.

At least two recent articles, however, make plain another dimension of this situation.  Both Sheera Frenkel (for McClatchy) and Barbara Slavin (for IPS, posted also at New Atlanticist) report on how Israel is keeping careful watch over arms being shipped to the anti-Asad forces and is working to dissuade the Obama administration from changing its policy and sending advanced weaponry to the rebels.  

Why? Obviously, the Israelis are concerned that Asad's eventual ouster will lead to a new government likely dominated by Sunni Islamists whose military deterrent will comprise the various militias - some of them, like Jabhat al-Nusra, motivated by jihadism - now leading the rebellion.  The better-armed they become, the greater threat they will pose to Israel in the months ahead.

But, second, dissuading the US from sending weapons to the rebels leaves Israel with a hand much freer to intervene in Syria in any fashon Israel sees fit.  That could be with airstrikes or special forces, or even - as some have suggested - the creation of a "security zone" along its border with Syria, a la its security zone in southern Lebanon during the era of the Lebanon civil war.  No US weapons to the rebels means no possibility of hard feelings with the US if the IDF takes military action that might blow up those American-supplied weapons. 

Given these revelations, it will be interesting to see if the usual suspects begin to dampen down their demands that Obama send high-end weapons to Syria.

And for those who want the US to send in those weapons because of moral, humanitarian, R2P concerns for Syria's people, they ought not be surprised that Israel's interests supersede those concerns.  The people of the West Bank could tell them all about that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Where Iran Might Be Headed

At the National Interest, Yousaf Butt makes an important point: In recent history, when countries have suffered economic hardship due to sanctions or other external pressure/factors, they have tended to elect hyper-nationalist leaders in response.  Think Putin in Russia . . . and Adolf Hitler in Germany.

All of which goes to Butt's larger point: it's time for the US et al to make Iran a serious offer, with real compromises (dare we even say, concessions?) on its nuclear program and the current harsh sanctions.  Iran is not going to fold; and Obama would be an idiot to launch a military strike that would only imperil the US's slow-motion economic recovery as well as threaten the global economy with a severe downturn.

It stands to reason, of course, that with sequestration looming and the issues of immigation reform and gun control demanding his attention - and with Bibi soon to pin a medal on his chest - Obama may be content to nudge the Iran can slowly down the road.  But in doing so he may be making it even harder to reach a deal.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

More Thomas Friedman Nonsense re Iraq and Syria

OK, I'm supposed to be hunkered down with revising my way-way-overdue book manuscript (a history of Mesopotamia/Iraq - you can already find it advertised on - so I can't take time to take this latest Thomas Friedman piece apart the way I'd really like to.  But you'll find in it so much of what's wrong with Friedman's method and style as a commentator - and so much of why people who really have capacity for insight into Middle Eastern history and politics become so regularly infuriated both with him and with the underserved adulation he receives from so many quarters, including the White House.

His jumping-off point for telling us what India thinks about the mess in the Middle East is the opinion of one journalist, probably garnered over drinks at some high-end club. TF is not a streets-guy

He ascribes what's going on to deep, timeless histories that he vastly overgeneralizes, and to easy binary oppositions like Arab v Kurd and Sunni v Shia.  No room for nuance or complexity - which is probably why so many in the general public buy his books.  I mean, Gee, he makes things so easy to understand.  

But then, at the end, in his inimitably cutesy fashion, he sorta throws up his hands and resorts to a cheap out: "It's the Middle East, Jake."  For those of you not of a certain age, Friedman is stealing from the very last line in one of Jack Nicholson's early movies, "Chinatown."  Nicholson's client and love interest (played by Faye Dunaway) has just been gruesomely shot in her car, on a busy street in Chinatown.  Looking on is her father, played by John Huston, with whom she had had an incestuous relationship that produced a child, who's also looking on, screaming in horror while her father/grandfather tries to comfort her.  Surreal, no?  Nicholson's character (Jake) has just watched all this go down.  He is confused, angry . . . whereupon the police captain, his former colleague, tells him, "Go home, Jake; it's Chinatown" - the insinuation being that Chinatown is where things wacky and inscrutable have always gone down.   No way you can figure it out, Jake.  Why even try?

Just like in Thomas Friedman's Middle East.

As Belen Fernandez demonstrates in her masterful take-down of Friedman as an "expert" in international affairs (full disclosure: I reviewed her book, quite favorably, here and here), there's no other region on the planet upon which Friedman has lavished more attention, and for which he claims more "expertise," than the Middle East.  Yet, perhaps no other mainstream commentator has done more to relegate that region to the category of "Other" as far as the West is concerned.

By my lights, that hardly recommends him as an expert to whom Americans, or anyone else, ought to be turning for insight into the peoples of a region they so desperately need to  understand. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Where Iraq May Be Headed

As this analysis from Reuters makes clear, the Shi'a-led government of Nuri al-Maliki is under immense pressure. To the north of Baghdad, the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil is defying his demands that it quit making its own deals with foreign oil companies.  Erbil and Baghdad could also easily come to blows over the oil-rich, Kurd-coveted Kirkuk region, where the two sides' forces are already arrayed against each other.
But it's the recent Sunni protests in Anbar governate - combined with what is likely the death spiral of the Assad regime in Damascus - that may be grabbing most of Baghdad's attention now.   Sunnis in Falluja and Ramadi have been angry with the Maliki regime for years - and for good reason - but the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria is feeding the Sunnis of Anbar the ambrosia of empowerment.

As Reuters notes,

Increasingly, though, for the Shi'ite leadership, Syria's crisis is a key factor in Iraq's own stability.
Should Assad fall it would weaken the sway of Shi'ite Iran, Syria's main regional ally and a key supporter of Shi'ite Islamist parties in Maliki's coalition. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have backed Assad's foes.
After any Syrian collapse, Iraqi Shi'ite officials see Islamist fighters turning their weapons back on Baghdad. Their worst case scenario is a Sunni population in revolt against Baghdad and becoming a magnet for jihadists.
"Everyone is asking where are we heading, no one knows," said one influential Shi'ite leader. "Our biggest fear is that the regime in Syria collapses, then an Iraqi Sunni region will be announced next day, and fighting will erupt."

It's going to take all the political savvy and statesmanship that Maliki can muster if Iraq is to remain a unitary state.  In decades past, Saddam Hussein was able to apply oil monies as a band-aid to try to keep restive elements of Iraq's population in line.  In the end, though, that wasn't enough when the 1991 war weakened his hold.  Now, the Kurds have their own oil money, as well as a burgeoning partnership with Turkey in developing an oil pipeline to convey oil out of Kurdistan and fuel Erbil's further empowerment - and defiance of Baghdad.  It's difficult to see, down the road, anything short of war that might enable Baghdad to re-establish its sway in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for the Sunnis of Anbar, Maliki has consistently treated them as threats more than compatriots.  And given Maliki's longtime ties to the Shi'i Islamist Dawa party, it's difficult to imagine a government led by him doing anything to empower Iraq's Sunni minority, which until 2003 dominated  (and under Saddam, brutalized) the majority Shi'a.  That Syria's rebellion is being led by Sunnis - many of whom have kinship/tribal ties with Iraqi Sunnis - obviously worries Baghdad.  That the Syrian rebellion is being spearheaded by Sunni Islamists - especially Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda - may have many Iraqi Shi'a petrified.
And you can bet that all of this is knotting some stomachs in Foggy Bottom as well.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Lies Ahead in Syria?

Taking into account most reckonings and analysis I've seen, it seems pretty safe to bet that whether or not Syria remains a unitary state, there will be a long-term struggle for power between hard-core Sunni Islamists and other groups in this predominantly Sunni Muslim country who prefer a future political system (a) infused with, but not dominated by, principles enshrined in sharia and (b) incorporating elements of liberal-secular nationalism.  Whatever one's take on Baathism specifically, the fact of the matter is that late 19th-  and early 20th-century Syria was one of the hearths of secular Arab nationalism.

A report in today's NY Times limns the shape and dynamic of local political tensions that may dominate Syria's political life: hard-core jihadists (specifically, members of the Jabhat al-Nusrah) asserting their preference for strict adherence to what they view as properly Muslim conducr, versus local community members intent on determining the shape of local governance without jihadist interference.  The report makes very clear the potential for violent confrontation.

Some of this puts me in mind of the situation in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.  Al-Qaeda-type jihadists entered Sunni areas and were able to dominate local communties because they were well equipped and well organized.  But in enforcing their strict moral and legal codes  they also resorted to such brutality that the locals turned against them, with many of the locals later joining the Sunni sahwa ("awakening") militias that played such a huge part in ousting al-Qaeda (at least temporarily) and dampening down the general level of violence.  (That's the same dampening of violence that John McCain and his ilk insisted on crediting to the Petraeus "Surge" - which is the basis on which McCain speaks of Iraq as a US "victory.")

Of course, the Iraq situation was very different from that in Syria because the catalyst for so much of the violence there was the invasion and occupation by the US.  To be sure, the Nusra jihadists and others are serving as proxies for the Saudis and other hyper-Sunni regional players.  But my real point here is that as the writ of the Assad government in Damascus continues to shrink, and the rebel groups continue to be unable to come together to fashion a more centralized political solution, Syrian communities will be having to take matters into their own hands, on the micro-level.  The potential for conflict is obvious.

And what kind of "Syria" emerges from all of this is anybody's guess

Monday, January 21, 2013

As Syria's Civil War Drags On . . .

Among the more ominous reports from or about Syria today is one from the LA Times that middle-class, educated Syrians are becoming ambivalent about the anti-Assad rebels, especially given the increased evidence of jihadists among them.  

Hassan Hassan in The National also comments at length on the jihadis' presence among the rebels.  Although, he says, their presence is sometimes overhyped in the Western media, their ability to provide social services to people has enhanced their appeal.  But perhaps his most foreboding comment comes at the end:

The bottom line is this: the longer this crisis goes on, the more time radical forces from all sides will have to dig in.


Meanwhile, reports the NYT, the main opposition group in exile, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, met Saturday but was unable to fashion a transitional government.  The disconnect between this bunch and the rebels doing the actual fighting remains too broad.

Meanwhile, displacement and exile has rendered hundreds of thousands of Syrians miserable.  Hungry, wet, cold, impoverished, children and the elderly at risk of death by illness or exposure.  They have no prospects, can see absolutely no light on the horizon.  Hence, frustration, anger.

That's a perfect breeding ground for people preaching extreme solutions.  It's also lousy raw material with which to fashion a new political and social contract when the time for that comes.


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