Monday, August 4, 2014

Malice or Incompetence?

Published on July 29, 2014
U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICYMalice or Incompetence?
John Kerry’s ceasefire proposal for Gaza has probably destroyed what remained of the United States’ influence in the Middle East, at least for the duration of this administration’s tenure.

After a hectic day yesterday spent in large part seeing off my son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old grandson on a two-year sojourn in Berlin, I hastened this morning to my keyboard to comment on perhaps the most noteworthy piece of U.S. diplomatic idiocy in the Middle East that I’ve witnessed in several years (which is really saying something). It had been on my mind since expressing the essence of the matter to Richard Aldous on TAI’s weekly podcast in the morning, and repeating it privately over the telephone to a fellow editor (of a weekly) who is not an area expert and so has been calling me episodically but regularly over the past decade to get my take on various matters. So, thus rehearsed, I was ready to let fly at 7:30 AM when, to my shock, I found that I had been beaten into print by, of all people, David Ignatius.
Why do I put it that way? Because in recent years I have rarely agreed with Ignatius’s take on just about anything. But in today’s “The big mistake Kerry made” I find little to criticize. He’s got the essence:
Kerry’s error has been to put so much emphasis on achieving a quick halt to the bloodshed that he has solidified the role of Hamas, the intractable, unpopular Islamist group that leads Gaza, along with the two hard-line Islamist nations that are its key supporters, Qatar and Turkey.  In the process, he has undercut not simply the Israelis but also the Egyptians and the Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority, all of which want to see an end to Hamas rule in Gaza… Any deal that reinforces Hamas’s stranglehold—rather than building a path toward change of government, elections and eventual disarmament—is misconceived.
Given Ignatius’s exquisite cultivation of sources inside Democratic administrations, he is no doubt relying on documentary evidence and assistance in knowing some details of recent goings-on not readily available to me. Who—in the White House would be my guess—provided Ignatius his catalysts I’d rather not speculate about; suffice it to say that competitive intra-administration leaking, that venerable Washington political sport, is alive and well—which is why I often tell out-of-town audiences that Washington is one of the few cities in the world where sound travels faster than light.
Now, there are a lot of people who wrongly believe that the Obama Administration, not to exclude the President himself, is resolutely anti-Israel and pro-Muslim Brotherhood. The Middle East and South Asia are not the only places where one can find brain-addled conspiracy theorists, after all. But Ignatius doesn’t think Kerry’s mistake is born of malice aforethought toward Israel, so that leaves us with what can only be called incompetence (though Ignatius does not use the term… must protect that access). I agree that it’s not malice, but it is incompetence of a kind and on a scale that tars John Kerry as the dumbest Secretary of State in my lifetime.
Let me elaborate just a bit, and try to provide some perspective here. As Ignatius notes, Kerry went first to Cairo in his quest for a quick ceasefire, but found that the Egyptians could not budge Hamas. Why this surprised him I can’t imagine: Doesn’t he know that this is not Mubarak’s Egypt anymore, where a long-standing double-gaming gambit once provided some indirect U.S. entry into Hamasistan? This is post-Morsi, al-Sisi Egypt, and the Egyptian double game is over. That’s good in that it makes Egypt and Israel effective allies at weakening Hamas, but the drawback is that Cairo can no longer serve as an effective transmission belt for the insertion of U.S. sticks and carrots.  So chalk up that flight as a waste of aviation fuel.
Then it got worse. By ministering to Qatar, where the head of the Hamas political wing lives at the invitation of the Al-Thani, Kerry strengthened that troublemaking little pissant of a country. If you thought U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia—which in this dustup is a tacit ally of Egypt and Israel—could not get worse than they already are, you goofed: They just did. (But if you want to hear anti-Qatari venom that can singe the hair on your chin, better to go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.)
Then worse still: Kerry ministered to arguably the world’s foremost anti-Semite, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Richard Cohen’s piece today, “Erdogan’s anti-Semitic fetish”, also leaves me bereft of criticism in the face of another Washington Post columnist who also regularly irritates me.) There are rumors that another Gazan flotilla will be launched, this time with the Turkish Navy as guardian. I hope this isn’t true, because no good can come of it.
And then worst of all: Kerry presents Israel with a draft of a ceasefire agreement that puts Hamas on the same level as Israel, and demeans Fatah and the PA, with which Israel is bound up in a legal if highly imperfect relationship; that would give Hamas the politically life-sustaining prize it seeks in the form of an “open borders” concession it can characterize as helping the people of Gaza; and that would prevent Israel from finishing the work of destroying the deadly tunnel network under the border.
A ceasefire under those terms would enable Hamas to resupply its war machine, bringing in unlimited numbers of missiles and mortars—and concrete, too, to rebuild and expand the tunnel network. It would enable Hamas to begin the next phase of conflict, in which it targets Israeli civilians while using Gazan civilians as human shields, at a time of its choosing. It would mean that all the IDF killed in this conflict would have died in vain.
Now, I have never been a particular fan of the current Israeli Prime Minister or his party, but no Israeli government could have stomached an outrageous document like that. That such a document, encompassing such a wildly wrongheaded view, could ever have been produced, let alone submitted to the cabinet in Jerusalem, effectively puts an end to U.S. influence on Israel for the duration of this Administration. What little trust endured after the blunders of the first term and the misconceived “peace process” initiative of the second term is now gone. And when the U.S. government loses the ability to influence Israel, those Arab parties that want something to do with Israel—but not too much in public—lose interest in Washington. Thus ditto U.S. influence in Cairo and Riyadh, and probably in Amman and Ramallah, too.
Think what this means in historical perspective. In past post-disengagement crises over Gaza, the U.S. Secretary of State was the big guy on the block. U.S. influence relied on our having the money and the biggest guns, true—and we still have those. But it relied more on having suasive reputational power with nearly every actor on the regional diplomatic stage. It relied as much or more, in other words, on the highly efficient and effective shadow of U.S. power, to quote Acheson, than on the power itself. We may have used Egypt’s table a few times in the past, but it was our game that was being played on that table. Now John Kerry, with Barack Obama’s fulsome help, has reduced the U.S. position to that of a message carrier for Hamas via Doha and Ankara. We have fallen from being the undisputed master of ceremonies to creeping around the region as a second-echelon go-between—and a failed one at that. (At a time like this a former State Department employee can barely resist quoting Elmer Fudd: “Oh, d’hawwah.”)
The disaster that is this Gazan War is not entirely, or even mainly, the fault of the Obama Administration, however. The nadir of U.S. influence reflects significant changes in regional realities as well as its own vast diplomatic malpractice. It reflects, for example, the fact that recent Israeli governments, by accelerating land grabs in the West Bank and raising new and, one suspects, deliberately obstacular demands on Palestinian Authority negotiators, have pushed ever more Palestinians into immoderate desperation. Insofar as U.S. policy is guilty of causing the present distress, it is the George W. Bush Administration’s doing, not the Obama Administration’s. Why?
Because it was the Bush Administration, flush with the willful delusions of the “forward strategy for freedom”, that sanctioned Hamas’s participation in the 2006 elections, even though those elections were predicated on the framework of the September 1993 Oslo Accords, which Hamas has always rejected outright and completely. Hamas only won those elections with plurality, not majority, vote counts because of Fatah’s political incompetence, true; but it never should have been permitted to participate in the first place. Then followed a slow-moving multilateral plot to dispossess Hamas of its victory, but Hamas preempted the plot with a bloody coup—and that’s what got this murderous, vicious bunch of fanatics ensconced in Gaza in the first place.
Please understand the main point: Hamas’s present position was contingent, not necessary and certainly not inevitable. Since U.S. policy had a significant share in causing this problem (along with others, yes, of course), which has paralyzed every attempt to make political progress among the protagonists as well as sired horrific violence, we arguably have some responsibility for solving it—for getting rid of this scourge. So why is John Kerry doing precisely the opposite?
It is a sad day when I applaud the failure of an initiative by an American Secretary of State, just as it’s a weird day when I applaud David Ignatius.  It’s just one of those days, I guess.

Why is This Gaza War Different From All Other Gaza Wars?

Published on July 24, 2014
THE MIDDLE EASTWhy Is This Gaza War Different From All Other Gaza Wars?
Though there are some important differences this time around, the solution to this recurring nightmare remains the same—and remains unlikely.

Whether one is some shade of pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, or even if one is without a favorite side to support or loathe, it is tempting to see what has been going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza over the past two weeks as just another Mideastern example of George Shultz’s definition of foreign policy—not one thing after another, but “the same damned thing over and over again.” Clearly, we have all been here before—in a big way in 2008-09’s Operation Cast Lead, when Israel launched a land incursion into Gaza, and in smaller aerial doses both before and after that, most recently in November 2012. You can tell because of all the commentary entitled “Eyeless in Gaza”; who’d have thought that Samson, of all people, would be quoted so often in the 21st century?
The repeated clashes have made some Israelis regret Israel’s ever having removed itself unilaterally from Gaza in August-September 2005, under the direction of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But those who remember the way things were before the disengagement—particularly those who had to do miluim (reserve duty) in Gaza or were parents, relatives and friends of such people—are of a more divided mind. There was not a really good choice then, and there still isn’t now.
Certainly there are many similarities this time around with times past, and that’s one of them: no good choices. Like any responsible government, the Israeli one cannot stand by while hateful enemies attack the civilian population with rockets, mortars, and platoon-scale infantry attacks launched out of cross-border tunnels. But since airpower alone—at least on the scale Israel is willing to employ it—cannot silence the source of fire, boots on the ground are necessary. The problem is that soldiers are then vulnerable to being wounded, killed or kidnapped, and the inevitably collateral damage of major attacks in a very densely populated area invariably bring forth an orgy of international condemnation that, over time, erodes Israel’s image and standing in the world. (One should not exaggerate the seriousness of that latter problem, however; Jackson Diehl’s recent Washington Post column on the matter gets it exactly right.) Israel’s going kinetic also invariably diverts attention away from other more strategically portentous issues—say the disaster that is Syria, a disaster arguably about to get even worse as ISIS and the Assad regime square off for a face-pounder over Aleppo.
In this case as before, Israel only entered Gaza on the ground when it was clear that airpower could not stop the rocket attacks, which this time have reached far enough north to force millions of Israelis—something like two-thirds of the population—into shelters. (Tourists usually don’t know what it means when they come upon a sign in Hebrew on what looks like a kind of manhole cover that transliterates as “bor bitakhon”, but every Israeli native knows what it means.) That is new by degree this time around, and Hamas’s ability to land a rocket near Ben-Gurion Airport, causing the temporary suspension of many flights into and out of the country, is unprecedented and ominous.
Israeli planners know something else they don’t like to discuss publicly: If Hamas has rockets of such range launched from the south, and Hizballah has similar missiles that can be launched from the north, it puts the entire country within range of deadly fire should those two non-state actors ever act in unison.
Some Israelis think the government waited too long this time to go in on the ground; almost none think it acted too soon. It’s bad for morale and for the economy for the population to be placed under siege, and Israelis expect the IDF to be able to lift such conditions expeditiously. It’s one thing to be assaulted by a hostile state, as when Ba’athi Iraq attacked Israel with Scuds in 1991, another by what had generally been thought to be a ragtag group of mostly incompetent fanatics. Some think that now that Israel has gone in, its objectives—to destroy Hamas’s armament and its tunnels—are too limited, and that it should reoccupy Gaza altogether and destroy Hamas root and branch. But that would entail killing, jailing or expelling many thousands of people. As of this writing, a broader ground offensive looks likely, if Israeli Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon’s remarks last night are more than negotiating tactics.
Also not new is Israel’s reluctance to go all-in in Gaza for fear, as well, of getting stuck there without an exit strategy. Suppose Israel does reoccupy Gaza and extirpates Hamas; then what? Israeli leaders are justifiably reticent to cause a complete collapse of governance in Gaza upon yet another exit. They know that Israel will get pinned with both the blame and the responsibility, at least in part, for humanitarian remediation. No good choices.
The same goes for Hamas. As has been made clear in the news coverage on the conflict, Hamas acted out of desperation. With the Egyptian government hostile and the Rafah crossing closed, Iranian patronage vanished over the fallout of the Syrian civil war, and Hamas political leaders increasing unpopular among the population as their patronage cash coffers ran dry, the only option left was to do what Hamas does best to garner support: kill Jews.
This is why when the Palestinian “unity” pact was initialed back in early June, and most observers condemned it as helping Hamas and shaming Fatah, I and a few others speculated that the deal instead demonstrated Hamas’s weakness and portended a likelihood that Mahmud Abbas would gain from the arrangement. That is precisely what happened, at least until Hamas’s plight convinced its military wing to break out of Abbas’s tightening headlock.
This was not a good choice for Ismail Haniyeh and his associates. Hamas political leaders always lose decision autonomy to the military wing when lead flies, but they faced what looks to have been a coup from their own colleagues had they resisted. They know Gazans in their vast majority resent Hamas for the suffering they cause, not least the diversion of scarce resources to built tunnels and make war instead of govern. And this time—unlike the past—they had to know as well that under current circumstances replenishing their stocks of weapons during the next ceasefire would be very hard. Nevertheless, they tried to start a war by kidnapping and murdering three Jewish teens; when that did not do the trick, they escalated their bid by launching hundreds of missiles toward Israeli civilians, thus breaking a nearly unblemished two-year ceasefire during which Hamas suppressed attacks from other Gazan factions. This was merely the least bad option, according to their calculations. They had no good choices.
Also the same this time around has been the bleating of moral illiteracy from most of Europe. No European country would countenance a neighboring territory being used as a launch pad to murder its citizens, and every single one of them would make haste to silence the source of fire, whatever it reasonably took. And yet every time Israel does the same, the post-bellicist crowd bows down to the altar of proportionality, accusing Israel of dissing that sacred principle. But would the Eurosheeple really like it any better if Israel responded to Hamas attacks with exact proportionality, by, say, deliberately targeting Palestinian kindergartens and school busses?
Which brings to mind yet another similarity to Operation Cast Lead. In that conflict Hamas deliberately placed weapons amid schools and hospitals, hoping to protect them from attack by an Israel concerned about both counterproductive collateral damage and international condemnation. The Israelis made a difficult but ultimately necessary decision then not to allow Hamas to establish that kind of precedent, gaining from it prospectively the ability to attack Israel from such sites more or less without fear of retaliation. It is doing so again this time. Last time Israel had to suffer the insufferable Goldstone Report. This time it will no doubt suffer similar distortions and lies, but this is a small price to pay for nullifying Hamas’s attempt to establish what amounts to immunity from Israeli attack.
Also like last time, casualty counts are very unreliable on the Palestinian side. In 2008-09 Palestinian dead came to about 900 in a three-week campaign, and the commonly accepted truth then was that around 75 percent were civilians.  But Hamas “militants”, as the MSM invariably calls them, don’t usually wear uniforms, so many missile-launchers and other combatants get counted as civilians when they get killed. The same thing is happening now. The press reports about 625 dead so far, and gives the usual 75 percent civilian statistic. That’s a highly unreliable number; Hamas has an obvious interest in exaggerating the number of Israelis killed and minimizing their own combat loses. That’s one reason they lie out loud about Israeli deaths. As to the truth, no one knows and we are not likely ever to find out.
And yet another similarity: Israel’s missile defense system, the Iron Dome, is working well, even better than in 2008-09. Its success rate is reported to be about 90 percent. Lest anyone think this means missile defense generally can easily be made to work anywhere for other purposes, note that technology and geography combine to make all Hamas launches what are called “depressed trajectory” shots in ballistic missile defense lingo. That greatly diminishes the challenge of target acquisition for the defender. Missile defense elsewhere, under other circumstances, can work—just not as easily in most cases.
So it’s the same now as before, as several wits have summed it up: Israel tries its consistent best to use missiles to protect its people, and Hamas tries its consistent best to use people to protect its missiles.
If all that is the same this time around, what’s different? We’ve already noted a few differences:  extended rocket ranges and being able to shut down much air traffic into and out of Israel, Egypt’s enmity toward Hamas, and the diminished prospect of Hamas replenishing its arsenal. But there are several others.
First, while Israeli military intelligence lapses are hardly rare, in its conflict with Hamas they have been until now. Israeli intelligence vastly underestimated the number and sophistication of Hamas tunnels, which rival the sophistication of the drug-lord underground highways below the U.S.-Mexican frontier. The result of that, and more sophisticated tactics and preparation in the Shejaiyah neighborhood, has led so far to more than 30 Israeli soldiers killed (as of this writing). The number in three weeks of Operation Cast Lead totaled 10, four of which were from “friendly fire.”
Second, in the past Egypt frequently played the role of mediator or go-between in arranging ceasefires. Egypt’s good offices under Hosni Mubarak were not very good, but something was better than more or less nothing, which is what we have now. And under intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt played a double game in the Sinai that allowed the Sinai bedouin to profit from the tunnel traffic beneath the Egyptian-Gazan border as a way to buy them off—so Egypt was part of the problem then.
Now, for all practical purposes, Abbas is the mediator, to the extent there is one; perhaps Turkey may come to play a larger role somehow, despite Prime Minister Erdogan’s pathological animus toward Israel. But the al-Sisi government is unmistakably hostile to Hamas, Hamas does not trust the Egyptians, and the Egyptians are not going to do Hamas any favors by throwing Rafah wide open to get a ceasefire. Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire bid last week, before the latest escalation, after Israel had accepted it, and did so dismissively and even rudely. Secretary Kerry went to Cairo because, apparently, he thought it didn’t look so hot for him to be “just sitting around”, as he put it. But what he thought he’d accomplish by going to Cairo is anyone’s guess. He has since gone to Jerusalem, where there is indeed something to talk about.
But that’s different too: In the past, the locals listened carefully to the United States, because it had various means of influence and the demonstrated will to use them (some of them some of the time, anyway). We still have the means, but the will has waned—or so most locals have concluded based on the present Administration’s prior conduct. There isn’t much to complain about when it comes to the President’s words, or the words of other senior U.S. principals. They’ve said mostly the right things, especially compared to the Europeans. But no one is straining to listen. Before Kerry can broker a ceasefire he has to persuade the parties that the United States is serious, and to do that the President must be engaged and seen as willing to act.  We’ll see what happens.
And there seems to be another Israeli soldier captured—Oron Shaul. No Israeli soldiers were taken in Operation Cast Lead, although one had been taken earlier, in 2006, as a result of a tunnel operation. So this is both a similarity and not a similarity. Either way, it raises again the debate about Israel’s willingness to repeatedly free hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinian terrorists and murderers to get back one or two Israelis, alive and sometimes not alive (and we do not know if Oron Shaul is alive or not).
Having lived for a while in Israel, I understand full well the rationale behind this policy. You don’t leave a comrade abandoned, and knowing that the entire country has your back is supposed to make you, as a soldier, brave and effective. Fine. But I have never been quite able to reconcile that argument with the moral hazard the policy creates: If you make kidnapped or captured Israel soldiers so precious to the enemy, there will be more of them. Only Israeli nationals have a full right to a “vote” over this dilemma, so I will say no more about it.
So how do the parties get themselves out of this “Groundhogs Day” nightmare over Gaza? I explained how many months ago in a post called “Shock the Casbah.” This isn’t going to happen, however, because it requires a boldness of vision and leadership in Israel, among the Palestinians, and in the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that is simply not available.
You can go back and read the whole argument if you like, but in a nutshell: Israel and the Palestinian Authority negotiate a secret peace deal, complete with security arrangements, borders, quit-claim clauses, and the whole business—and yes, if the incentives are attractive enough compared to the plummeting trajectory of the status quo, they can do this; Israel invades and occupies Gaza, extirpating Hamas; Israel and the PA simultaneously reveal their deal, to be unfurled in phases over five years, to the world; the PA is given control of Gaza, with the assistance of Arab League-endorsed Egyptian and Jordanian armed forces, as the IDF withdraws. Additionally, the United States and the European Union endorse and support the deal, and bring Israel into the Western alliance system as an associate member, even as Palestine is brought within the cocoon of an empowered (via Egyptian and Jordanian on-site power) Arab League led by Saudi Arabia. The sovereignty of both sides of a two-state solution needs to be enmeshed at least temporarily in larger associations as both endorsement and protection of the new order from those on both sides who will reject and try to overturn it.
The purpose of the “shock the casbah” idea is to get at the core problem, which is that the Palestinians have never had their Altalena moment. They lack one gun and one voice, and until they have both no peace process can get far enough to matter. (The objection that the Palestinians are all rejectionists who don’t want a just peace is, in its typical categorical form, unfalsifiable so long as there is not peace, which renders the attitude self-paralyzing and self-defeating. The same objection, let’s remember, used to be pinned on Egyptians and Jordanians.) The Palestinians can’t seem to pull off this reckoning by themselves, so the Israelis need to help them; they are the only ones who can, and it is in Israel’s long-term interest to do so. The world will be too shocked by the peace deal to complain about the next, hopefully last big Israeli incursion into Gaza.
As I say, the incursion to end all incursions isn’t going to happen. But unless it or something like it does happen, the present Gaza war will eventually be just one in a desultory series that will go on and on and on for years untold to come. At the very least, all humanitarian assistance to Gaza once this phase of fighting is over has to be fed through the PA. Every effort must be made to prevent the terms of a ceasefire from rewarding Hamas in the eyes of the Gazan population, but rather to hasten its exit from power. But every effort, even including an election, may not be sufficient to push Hamas aside; they are radicalized, disciplined, and they will still have enough guns to intimidate other contenders. The fat lady will probably not sing, in other words. So short of a genuinely bold initiative, round and round we’re bound to go, and where it’ll lead everyone knows: blood, death, frustration, anger, and heartache. Nothing new there.

What the Malaysia Air Tragedy Means

Published on July 17, 2014
RUSSIA AND UKRAINEWhat the Malaysia Air Tragedy Means
What has happened today is certainly a tragedy in human terms, but we need not, and should not, allow emotions to misguide us into making it into a political tragedy as well.

Ifound out about the downing of Malaysian Airlines 17 from a Russian colleague, Vladislav Inozemtsev, offering condolences to his American associates in a multi-addressed email for the loss of American lives. I had been out in the yard pulling ivy for a couple hours. You go out on a beautiful day to get a little exercise and do a horticultural good deed, and look what happens? What is the world coming to?
Well, it is certainly a different world today than it was the last time Russian arms were used to deliberately shoot down a crowded aircraft. That was on September 1, 1983, when Soviet jets shot down KAL 007 over eastern Siberia when the plane strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard died. (I’ll never forget this because that same day Scoop Jackson, for whom I had proudly, if briefly, worked and with whom I was still in touch, died suddenly of a heart attack; whether he died because of the shock of that evil deed or not we’ll never know for sure.)
Then, uniformed Soviet soldiers shot down what they knew was a civilian airliner. Today un-uniformed thugs shot down what they apparently thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane—so the initial reports suggest. But you’ve got to be very poorly trained to mistake a Boeing commercial jet with an Antonov military aircraft. Or you have to have essentially no chain of command or just not care, or both. The point: The human agents who shot down KAL 007 in 1983 were in a chain of professional military command working directly for the political leaders of a strong state, and the human agents who shot down MaH 17 today were in no obvious chain of military command and were working indirectly for the decision-makers of a weak state: today’s Russia.
Another difference is that if in 1983 a well-known economics professor at a prominent Russian university had dared criticize his own government before an international audience, he could not have done it in the Russian media and he would have been in deep trouble had he done it in any media.  But Slava and others can write pretty much what they want in any press so long as they don’t tread on private bank accounts and related highly theoretical felonies, and thrive well enough to do it again the next week and the next month. (So far, anyway.) So not only is Russia a much weaker state than was the Soviet Union thirty years ago, it is also a much less repressive state lording over an increasingly less passive or cowed citizenry.
Hence, those who think that what has happened is “Cold War”-like in provenance, requiring a muscular Cold War-like response from the United States, are wrong. That’s a lazy would-be lesson blocking the view of a more useful and important one. The most telling thing we ought to learn from today’s tragedy is that weak and weakening states with what are in their own estimation red-line defined defensive interests are prone to risk-taking, lack of executive function, poor control over proxies, and to having a notion that normal, common-sense morality is a luxury they cannot afford to indulge.
There are generic reasons why many states are weaker today than they were three, four, and more decades ago. These reasons affect democratic and liberal states as well as authoritarian and illiberal ones; they also make states that had achieved Weberian levels of impersonal and institutionalized authority more prone to decay, division and dysfunctionality, and they tend to make those that never achieved it in the first place—probably the majority of the UN’s 192 members—prone to multiple outbreaks of political violence and outright collapse. (I discuss some of these reasons in an essay to be published in the next issue of the magazine, the September/October issue). In other words, what has happened does appear to align with a larger trend in international society and politics, but it’s got nothing to do with any return to the Cold War.
Chances are that the people who are plying “Cold War” rhetoric now tend to be those who think the Obama Administration has been jelly-bellied about the seizure of Crimea and the attempt to, if not suborn eastern Ukraine or all of Ukraine, then at least to invest in enough mayhem potential to prevent any Ukrainian government from joining the European Union or, worse, NATO.  It’s too easy to accuse the Administration of being risk-averse here; after all, it’s been risk-averse everywhere. U.S. foreign policy for years now has been akin to a duck-and-cover drill. Some people justify that basic approach on this or that ground, sometimes honestly and sometimes for more or less naked partisan reasons, and others decry it for the same tumble of motives, but the Ukraine portfolio is nothing special. Whether the arrow stings the eye or ear of the beholder depends on the critic’s theory of the case concerning Russian policy in Ukraine.
Some believe the Russian government has maximalist goals: not just to subvert Ukraine and bring it back into a subordinate imperial relationship with Russia, even formally, but by so doing call expanded NATO’s bluff and destroy the Western alliance system in the process—that or err in the direction of catalyzing a nuclear war. I rolled out such scenarios myself some months ago, which is a normal part of assessing pulse-quickening behavior like the Russian seizure of Crimea and where it can lead. But I and most others concluded that whatever Mr. Putin wanted in his heartless void of heartless voids, he wasn’t irresponsible enough to try for the brass ring. Too dangerous; too likely to cause Europeans to actually locate their backbones.
My view is that the European Union, by forcing the former Ukrainian government into a thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice over an association with the EU, did a very stupid thing, and having done so still failed to understand the nature of its own stupidity. The former Ukrainian president was forced to make a choice he could not make without shattering his country’s very fragile modus vivendi. He tried really, really hard not to make it therefore, but even that in the end didn’t work.
We all know what happened next, and my view is that the Russian government has sought in the main a veto over the possibility that Ukraine would align with any Western organization whose basic characteristics include a high regard for democracy, respect for the political rights of minorities (toleration, we call it), and a concern for broad-based prosperity dependent on the generation of real economic growth. The reason is that all these characteristics threaten the Russian political status quo and what makes its leaders broadly popular among the narrowly hewn regime constituencies that really matter. Clearly, no good can come of having a large Slavic-speaking exemplar of all these dangerous characteristics right on your western border.
How to acquire this veto? If you know your own weaknesses, and certainly Mr. Putin must, the cheapest way to get it is not by overtly invading more of Ukraine, but just by “helping” the Ukrainians make a hash of independent governance—not that they’ve needed a whole lot of help since 1991. You stir up trouble and you try to stabilize your assets so as to get some control over them, but you stay far enough away from those assets so as to not to be seen holding a smoking gun should something get out of hand or just flat go wrong—as it obviously has today. You take risks more or less proportionate to your weakness as reckoned by the generally conservative nature of your political objective. Well, the Russians stirred up trouble in eastern Ukraine and proceeded to exhibit the poor executive function of a weakened polity and an extremely narrow decision-making elite, and they not surprisingly demonstrated an evanescent and unevenly skittering  control over their proxies. The result is that smoke is now blowing in their eyes even if the guilty gun is not literally in their hands.
And so they have in Moscow right now at the very least a public relations challenge. What I mean is that they are bound to reject any responsibility for what has happened. They will say, in effect, if they have not said it already: “We don’t control these guys or tell them what to do; they don’t listen to us when they talk to us at all.” We expect that. But that has to be simultaneously a confession of highly reckless behavior. Our line in retort: “If you don’t control these thugs, why’d you give them missiles capable of taking down planes flying at 33,000 feet? That’s like giving a nine-year old boy $300 worth of fireworks and a box of matches and absolving yourself preemptively of any accidents that might occur. If you do control them, then you’re responsible for what has happened even if you’re not directly guilty of pulling the trigger.” (The same way, just by the way, that the Israeli government was indirectly responsible for the September 1982 Sabra-Shatila killings but not guilty of them, so said the Agranat Commission, rightly so—since that’s what usually happens when you let murderers and madmen work as your proxies.)
So the Russian government has got itself in a spot where no matter what it says it will either be lying or confessing to criminal negligence. Actually, of course, it will do both; under the circumstances, Moscow doesn’t have much choice. It will go in for multitasking in the special Russian way we’ve come to appreciate over so many years.
Now, what does the U.S. government do about this? Again, it depends on your theory of the case as to what is going on.  My view is that what the Russians did in Crimea, in particular, was disturbing but probably not all that serious at the same time. It’s disturbing not because of “the thing” but of “the kind of thing”, as Churchill said of the Italian rape of Ethiopia in 1935 (and thanks to my TAI colleague Eliot Cohen for remembering and applying this perfect historical note). In other words, like Ethiopia then, Crimea now is itself strategically insignificant. We’ll see if Crimea is a harbinger of that “kind of thing”, namely, racialist/ethnic-based aggression, anywhere else in the world soon.
I don’t rule it out, and I am a tireless worrier by nature. But I tend to doubt it nonetheless. I think Russian policy is sui generis right now because of the oddities of the Russian political economy and its historical circumstance. Russia is a wounded former great power in the throes of demographic decline, economic strangeness and military weakness relative to the United States to a degree almost unimaginable in Cold War times. It’s hard for others to imitate that combination of pustulant motives.
Besides, look around broadly at what Putin’s Crimean caper hath wrought. As things stand, Putin gave NATO a new backbone, taught the Ukrainians how to fight, marginalized Russia from key international financial markets, revealed the doings of the dirty-EU-money-go-round banksters for all to see, and got himself a new and mostly Russian-speaking population that increasingly wishes he hadn’t. Crimea is now a cudgel we can use to whip the Russians wherever we feel a need, as in now. It’s even forced the Germans to back off their Rapallo temptations, which seem come in every German political assembly kit since 1871. It’s maybe stopped any Ukrainian effort to join the EU and NATO, but Ukraine is not now eligible for the former and won’t be for many years, and it certainly does not belong in the latter anyway.
All in all, then, it’s really not 1939 again, anymore than it’s 1914 again. And this whole thing is not principally about democracy and human rights; it’s about the return of normal European politics after the Cold War thaw in every nook and cranny of Eurasia outside the EU (and sometimes within it). Positing just a bit of historical awareness, this is about as surprising (to me) as rain in springtime.
What has happened today is certainly a tragedy in human terms, but we need not, and should not, allow emotions to misguide us into making it into a political tragedy as well. If we’re not going to go to war over Crimea or Ukraine, we should certainly not stumble in that direction because some nitwit thug in eastern Ukraine mistakenly shot down a civilian aircraft with a weapon he never should have been given in the first place.
If I were advising the President (please try not to laugh too hard) I’d suggest he be as nimble an opportunist as possible. Want stronger EU support for sanctions against the Putin regime so that we allies can remain in Transatlantic coalition and be more effective at the same time? This is a great time to bang that drum. Want the French to cancel the odious Mistral order? Bang, bang, bang. Want to persuade Congress to like the idea of beefing up the defense budget a tad—which under the circumstances can only help the Democrats in November? Here’s your chance, sir. You get the idea. Let’s hope the President does, too.

Mullah Dreams: Not Counting Sheep

Published on July 11, 2014
IRAN IN A HOT SPOTMullah Dreams: Not Counting Sheep
The ISIS offensive has so far played to Iran’s advantage, but poses a strategic nightmare for it in the long run as Iraq continues to dissolve.

AJuly 3 Daily Beast column by Josh Rogin has been getting a lot of play over the past few days. Even my friend Michael Doran mentioned it—in order to get at a particularly egregious Tony Blinken remark—in his Brookings piece on Wednesday. Rogin’s main burden is to describe an argument allegedly going on inside the Obama Administration over the most useful attitude to take toward the Assad regime in Damascus in light of the ISIS breakout in Iraq.
The basic difference is simple, as these things go, and as Rogin apparently accurately sketches it out. One side reasons that if ISIS is the more urgent and bigger potential danger right now, whether because it is destroying the Iraqi state or poses a terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, then, according to the standard wisdom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Assad regime becomes our objective ally. This is despite the fact that this would put us on the same side as Iran, Russia and, just by the way, Hizballah. But that’s fine because, as some believe, we need to bring Iran “in from the cold” and, with its current crop of leaders, we have the best chance to do so since the Iranian Revolution. In this view, the Iranian Revolution is ready now for its Thermidor phase, to invoke Crane Brinton’s classic language from 1938, and we have every interest in speeding that nebulous social impulse to political fruition.
The other side reasons that ISIS exists in whatever strength it now musters because of the Assad regime, which has behaved in such a way as to greatly exacerbate sectarian toxins in the region. As long as Assad and his Alawi thugs are there ruling in Damascus, Sunni jihadism will thrive; so he is not an objective ally, but rather he and his allies are the source of the problem in the first place. The solution, however hard to achieve, is to build up the Free Syrian Army and other non-jihadi Sunni opposition forces in Syria to change the battlefield situation so that some kind of political settlement can be arranged providing for Assad’s departure.
According to Rogin, Blinken, the Deputy National Security Advisor, epitomizes and leads the way for the pro-Assad side, which would accord with views Blinken has taken going back at least to 1999, when he served on the NSC staff and tried to persuade Bill Clinton that the Syria Option was the way to crack the nut of Arab-Israeli peace. (Then Senator John Kerry, it may be recalled, nursed a similar view at the time.) Here is what he said—the selfsame remark Doran quoted yesterday: “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”
It’s not obvious who rallies the second point of view within the Administration, but Rogin quotes Robert Ford, the recently departed U.S. Ambassador to Syria:
The people who think Bashar al Assad’s regime is the answer to containing and eventually eliminating the Islamic-based threat do not understand the historic relationship between the regime and ISIS. [They] don’t understand the current relationship between Assad and ISIS and how they are working on the ground together directly and indirectly inside Syria. . . . The people who think Assad’s regime survival is essential have not explained how his survival would solve the problem of extremism in Syria.
 Like Ambassador Ford, Ambassador Margaret Scobey before him and Ambassador Ted Kattouf before her, and really anyone who has paid day-job level attention to Syria in recent years, agree with this assessment. The Assad regime and its allies—especially Iran, if one is looking at the region in geopolitical terms—are the problem, not the solution. The fact that Rogin could not find anyone in a “higher” line position within the Administration to speak on behalf of this position for the record does suggest that the de facto pro-Assad point of view now rules the Administration roost. But since the policy is still that “he has to go”, it is sort of embarrassing to actually come right out and say this. And if that’s so, then Doran’s argument—that the Administration’s recent announcement of $500 million in aid to the FSA is a cynical “two-step”, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t form of bait-and-switch diplomacy designed just for show—is plausible.
Well, what to make of all this? I myself have mused in earlier days about bringing Iran in from the cold, too. That would be a huge game-changer, and for the better. When Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani says that the United States and Iran can cooperate over Iraq—as he said yesterday to Asahi Shimbun—it gets some people all fuzzy and dream-eyed. The Thermidor thesis might be right, too, and maybe Rafsanjani is its unlikely herald.
But it’s nothing to bet the rent on. Certainly, whenever I hear arguments urging the United States to be delicate and generous in the nuclear negotiations for the far-reaching impact it may have politically in Tehran, I cringe up real tight. That’s a sucker’s argument if there ever was one, and one generally proffered by only slightly veiled propagandists for Iran. It certainly is no way to negotiate the sticky details of a life-and-death scale, tentative agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
Anyway, as we all know, hope is not a policy. Wanting Iran to be a normal, moderate, non-WMD-possessing actor that can deal pragmatically with the United States and others—maybe even Israel one day—is not the same as being able to have it. Ambassador Ford is right: Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies are the problem in Syria, and that is a problem which now looms over the entire region, radicalizing all politics, militarizing all tactics, poisoning hope for a normal future for the peoples of the Levant and beyond.
Clearly, however, while the Syria problem has bled into Iraq, Iraq’s woes are not entirely or even mainly imported. Even if ISIS’s origins are in the Syrian cauldron, aren’t the real dangers manifest now in Iraq? Isn’t ISIS truly the most dangerous challenge before us, and, if so, aren’t Blinken and his likeminded Administration colleagues right? And shouldn’t we also assume, forced to it by the plain logic of the situation, that Blinken privately agrees with John McCain and others who say we should be attacking ISIS by air in Iraq now, if not also attacking it in Syria?
No, he isn’t right, and his de facto pro-Assad view is to serious realpolitik what “Risk” is to real strategic planning. He’s rarely been right, and the fact that he worked for many years as Joe Biden’s principal foreign policy adviser echoes the fact. When Bob Gates hauled out the commonly spoken Washington line in his recent memoir that Biden has been wrong about everything over the years, he tacitly implicated Blinken as well. (Actually, Biden hasn’t been wrong about everything, only nearly everything…no one is perfect. And his “wrong rate” has dropped sharply in recent years, which is a good thing, seeing as how he is now but a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.)
He isn’t right because, as I have been at pains before to note, ISIS is not a particularly dangerous force, at least not yet. It is barely institutionalized in any form, including its recently proclaimed Islamic State. Even with “acquired” U.S. military equipment and some money from Mosul banks, its order-of-battle is extremely modest. High-end estimates of its troop strength hover around 10,000, but most of those are probably loosely affiliated tribesmen on a romp or common criminals grasping an opportunity. It has shown no capability for governing anything, it cannot think except in a fevered ideological cant, and it is arrayed in tribal alliances that are more fragile than oasis spider webs in a desert dust storm.
The best evidence, perhaps, for ISIS’s weakness is the fact that the Assad regime has actually been cooperating with it against the FSA inside Syria for some time. It has avoided attacking ISIS, and it has even paid money for oil in ISIS-controlled territory. If ISIS is no serious threat to Damascus, the only reason it could be construed as a serious threat to Baghdad is if the chaos there masquerades as an open door. It is Iraqi government weakness, not ISIS strength, we have been witnessing this past month.It is Iraqi government weakness, not ISIS strength, we have been witnessing this past month. If ISIS eventually becomes more institutionalized and dangerous, the U.S. military has plenty of time and plenty of ways to deal with it. If we ever see “the whites of their eyes”, those guys will be in deep, deep trouble.
My view, also noted before, is that the United States cannot save Iraq as a unitary state. It is too late for that, and its dissolution was probably going to happen at some point anyway. True, at earlier decision points wiser choices might have made a difference, in a path-dependency sort of way. For example, I argued, in vain, that we should postpone what turned out to be the “purple finger” Iraqi election of January 2005 rather than hold it on the basis of a national-list, single-district electoral system, because that would embed from the start dangerous sectarian divisions in the society. Better to wait, do a census with the help of the UN and EU-guarding UN census takers, and hold an election based on a proportional representation system that would have diluted sectarian divisions by forcing local communities to come together. Others made a similar argument, but the White House wanted the photo-op extravaganza of a quick “democratic election” for its own political purposes. That’s what it got, even as Iraq got an electoral system that could not have been more ill-suited to its circumstances.
Then, of course, had the Phase IV planning for the war been done properly, or been done at all, there would perhaps not have been a widespread and protracted insurgency that resulted, among other things, in the forced homogenization of ethnic neighborhoods and communities all over the country. That demographic fact has made the contemplation of de facto partition so much easier to swallow psychologically.
Yes, “mistakes were made” (note passive voice allowing no active noun to be named…), and then Nouri al-Maliki and Barack Obama made still more mistakes and it doesn’t matter anymore, really, and here we are where we are and Iraq is what it is—or rather, what it isn’t. And what it isn’t is a unitary state in its ungainly 1920 incarnation, something that only endured through its post-Hashemite history thanks to iron-fisted military dictatorships, and that would not likely have long endured as a democracy no matter the chosen electoral system. (I should note in passing that the loose federal model for Iraq championed years ago by Les Gelb and yes, Joe Biden, and recently re-churned by Mr. Gelb in a NYT op-ed, never really had a chance either, since such a system ultimately would have had to rely on two communities trusting whomever among the third held the gun in the capital; either that or be fastidiously detailed into a confessional constitutional model along the lines of the Lebanese system, probably impossible in Iraq—not that that’s worked so wonderfully in Lebanon either…)
So I repeat that the best longer-term U.S. option in the region is to support and speed, and try to guide and perhaps limit, the ambitions of Kurdish independence. And here the most important and actually quite remarkable development of recent weeks is the very frank Turkish comment that Kurdish independence is something now within the realm of contemplation. The Administration should have been on this portfolio already months ago and certainly, since this message has erupted from Ankara, should now be talking intensely if quietly about the forthcoming Kurdish referendum on independence. The purpose? How the two parties can cooperate to bring about this seismic shift in the region’s geopolitical terrain with the least amount of risk and the maximum amount of mutual benefit. I am very skeptical that the Administration is capable of thinking even that far ahead—the referendum will probably be held in September—because this is a White House-driven and dominated operation and the White House is in total reactive mode.
Beyond the Kurdish aspect to U.S. policy, we must stop thinking about Iraq as some sort of end in itself, or as some sort of clinging moral obligation. There are many thousands of Americans in Iraq working as NGO “saints” and not-so-saintly private contractors; there are many personal American-Iraqi governmental relationships, military and civilian, built up over more than a dozen years in some cases, in pain right now, too. Tough; sorry. Iraq must be considered from a U.S. national security point of view right now primarily as a one huge potential counterterrorism theater—period and full stop. (Same as Afghanistan, tentatively. Again tough; sorry.) There is no room here for bitter-sweet nostalgia or weeping guilt to play any major role in policymaking. Whatever happens to Iraq as such is not an existential problem for the United States. As for reputation, well, so much crockery has already been broken that it’s hard to imagine much of an inventory left to break—besides which, the Obama Administration has pinned the crockery bill on its predecessor, and while that’s only partly fair, it’s nevertheless a useful optic.
We do have important secondary obligations flowing out of Iraq to local allies—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and a few others—and making good on those obligations is very important for its own sake and for the future of the U.S. reputation in the region and beyond. And we have a tertiary interest in keeping Iraqi oil on the international market. But these are normal foreign policy dilemmas, not existential crises. We do not owe Nouri al-Maliki anything; his sins are his own to pay for. We certainly do not owe the Iranian regime any assistance is trying to prop up Maliki’s Shi’a rump statelet. Rafsanjani’s seemingly generous statement to Asahi Shimbun is, to my way of thinking, just short of risible. It’s as if he’s saying to some Western naïf in a souk, “Hey friend, want to buy a carpet, cheap?” If Iranians want to die for Nouri al-Maliki’s political adventure, with which they have long been complicit anyway, let them do it without us. If the Balkans were not worth a single Pomeranian grenadier, according to Bismarck, Iraq is not worth a single American pilot, according to Garfinkle.
If we must stop thinking about Iraq with too much feeling that puts us way behind the curve on an onrushing reality, and if, as I argue, Iran with its Syrian ally is the source of recent Levantine misanthropies, then it behooves us to conclude on an analytical angle pointed toward Iran.
Now, I noted that if Iran’s Thermidor is nigh, that would be worth encouraging for all sorts of reasons. The question is, however, how do we best encourage it—by propitiating the current Iranian political elite, or by busting their heads against the wall? Should we help Khamenei and his emissaries muddle through in hopes of a positive future political evolution, or should we force failure on them—Rouhani and Zarif, too, because they’re not really so much our friends—the quicker that the bringers of Thermidor can find their way to power?
One can never know for sure when contemplating a less-than-transparent decision system—and the Iranian one certainly fits that description. But forcing failure seems to me the more promising approach.
How do we do that? Well, an easily developed list is at hand: Do not go soft in the P5+1 negotiations, do not erode the sanctions regime further, and be prepared to build it back up if Iranian behavior warrants; keep repeating the determination that Iran will not have nuclear weapons and that all options remain on the table to prevent it; prepare multi-level economic warfare plans short of kinetic strikes, not to exclude naval blockades; intercept Iranian arms shipments to insurgents in the region and, perhaps, once unloaded, sink the ships; reveal Assad’s chemical weapons declaration to have been bogus; quickly and significantly aid the FSA to do real harm to Iran’s Alawi allies in Damascus; and, above all, use the current ISIS crisis to harm Iran for the longer term.
What do I mean by that? The ISIS phenomenon has played to Iran’s advantage in some short-term ways. It has rallied all non-Sunni constituencies to see Iran as an ally of one kind or another. After all, objectively speaking, even the Al-Saud has coincident interests in Iran’s fighting and harming ISIS in Iraq. But in the longer run, what is happening is liable to turn into a strategic nightmare for Tehran. Let us count the ways.
First, conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni parts of what used to be Iraq could go on for a long time. In the near term, Iran could be forced to intervene on the ground to stop an ISIS surge toward Baghdad. It seems to be possessed by a local version of the Brezhnev Doctrine: once Shi’a, stays Shi’a. Even well short of that, if Iran gets enmeshed in defending a client Shi’a rump state over time, it will likely be pushed by Iraqis to regain the Sunni lands now under ISIS and tribal occupation. If it rises unwisely to that task, whatever the temptations of weakness espied to the north, Iranians will bleed for months and years and almost certainly will do so without success. Persian-Arab antipathy will wax the longer such an uncomfortable liaison lasts. The Sunnis cannot take and hold Baghdad, let alone Basra, but the Shi’a cannot retake Falluja or Ramadi or certainly Mosul. We have then before us, on balance, a stalemated situation. If Iran gets sucked into it, it will suffer grievouslyWe have then before us, on balance, a stalemated situation. If Iran gets sucked into it, it will suffer grievously, particularly as the Sunni world rallies to prick and pinch it at the margins from every front it can penetrate. Good.
mapSecond, Kurdish independence will undermine Iranian security, potentially big time. Kurdish independence will irritate Baghdad, of course, but there is nothing practical Baghdad can do about it. Maliki’s fulminations against the Kurds in recent days are just that—fulminations that foul the air but do little else. Same with Syria—Syria’s Kurds are on their own now, in the midst of trying to sort out their loyalties and disloyalties to other Kurdish organizations and clans in Turkey and Iraq, but this will get sorted out in due course likely without much practical interference from Damascus. Turkey is on the verge of historical decisions regarding its own Kurdish community, and if the AK era provides no other lasting positive service to the country, its rapprochement with the Kurds will have made it all worth it, if that effort can be brought to a reasonably and relatively happy ending. Only Iran is put at real long-term risk by the rise of an independent Kurdistan.
Again, let us count the ways. There are about 7 million Kurds in Iran out of a population of around 76.5 million. Most live in the northwestern parts of the country between what used to be the Iraqi state and the Azeri-populated parts of Iran. In other words, the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government, soon to be an independent state, is directly adjacent to Iranian Kurdistan, and that border is for practical purposes impossible to seal. (The Special Forces guys reading this are licking their lips about now…)
Iranian security forces also have to go through Azeri-speaking territory to even get there, and while that is not problematic now, the example of rising and successful Kurdish nationalism could set off kindred feelings and movements in the other non-Persian parts of Iran—among Azeris, among Baluch, and among Arab-speakers in Khuzistan province. Iran is not and never has been a modern nation-state; it is a quasi-imperial multi-ethnic state run by Persians. (Why hasn’t the MSM told you that, you wonder? Ask them.) The unsettling of Iranian Kurdistan could touch off very expensive and difficult state-maintenance problems for the mullahs, who are even less popular in most non-Persian communities than they are in Persian ones. Right now, Iran is one of the few states in the region that can boast effective control over its national territory. Change that and you change a lot.
In short, between the potential swamp-like entanglements awaiting in rump Shi’a Iraq to the west, and the rise of the Kurds to the northwest, the dissolution of the Iraqi state bodes far vaster and longer term problems for Iran than for the United States. So, as the Beatles once said, “Let it be.”
Add to that the likely chaos awaiting to the east, as fanatical Sunni Taliban duke it out with Tajik, Uzbek, and Pashtun warlords in a post-U.S.-withdrawal Afghanistan, and things don’t look so peachy for Iran. It’s enough to make Baluchi restiveness along the border with Pakistan, and Iran’s long borders with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, look positively serene by comparison—and serene they ain’t, just by the way.
Don’t misunderstand me: The collapse of the Iraqi state is not something we should like or have longed for. A lot of innocent people are being harmed by it, as is of course also very true of the collapse of the Syrian state. But, as they say, if all you have is lemons, you make lemonade. If what we have is a real mess, it behooves us to tilt the table so as to sluice it on our adversaries. Some who are trained professionally in this sort of business could count the ways to do just that.
Just a parting PS, if I may. For all I know, Josh Rogin sketches the intra-Administration dispute referenced at the outset accurately enough, but beyond his role as a reporter he is not to be trusted as knowledgeable about Syria, Iraq or the region. Here is just one reason why: “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Assad are both Shi’ites; ISIS is Sunni”, Rogin wrote.
Well, no. When you’ve seen one “Shiite” you have not seen them all—apologies to Spiro Agnew. Rogin apparently doesn’t know the difference between a Ja’afari “Twelver”, an Ismaili, an Alawi, a Druze and a Hello Kitty doll. Just because all of these are not Sunnis does not make them all the same. Good grief; will American journalists ever get a clue about this part of the world?

To Strike or Not to Strike, That is the Question

Published on June 26, 2014
BOMBS OVER BAGHDAD?To Strike or Not to Strike, That Is the Question
With Iraq coming apart at the seams, there are not a lot of reasons for America to use airpower in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some limited cases where airstrikes could serve a strategic interest.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq (and maybe Syria) would be “irresponsible” at this point. He argued that a political solution within Iraq is a prerequisite for any application of American power on Iraq’s behalf; as things stand now, he said, “There’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success.”
As I suggested in this space last week, I agree. I don’t see the point of killing hundreds or even thousands of Sunnis, many of them liable to be tribesmen fragilely allied with ISIS rather than dyed-in-the-wool ISIS fanatics themselves, unless there is some defined and attainable political objective to be served by it. If the situation in Iraq is as dire in institutional terms as the Secretary claims—“no government… no military”—then it’s hard to see what a U.S. political objective could stick to. And I agree again: It is that dire, and it was made even worse yesterday by Prime Minister Maliki’s defiant rejection of all advice, U.S. and Iraqi, to broaden the base of his government.
Note please that I do not demur from using force because of ISIS threats of retaliation and revenge against the United States, which have been voluble. I do not dismiss those threats. But no American should be daunted by such chesty talk: Our flag does not dip, for anyone. On the other hand, Mr. al-Baghdadi and associates have to this point neither attacked directly nor harmed any Americans, whether in the region or beyond. It is not a forgone conclusion that a new Islamist emirate set up in the Sunni territories of Iraq and Syria would focus in on what al-Qaeda used to call “the far enemy” when there are so many closer ones in their faces—any more than it is a foregone conclusion that a Taliban 2.0 regime in Afghanistan would be as dangerous to the United States as its pre-9/11 predecessor proved to be. One has to plan for the worst, and one may be more than forgiven for taking preemptive action insofar as it is instrumental to U.S. security. But to overdo it or to do it prematurely can exacerbate rather than ameliorate a problem. It’s a tricky call, always.
Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion either that such an emirate will ever be set up at all. Fanatics are not so good at governance, as al-Qaeda in Iraq proved some years ago, and they are not much better at holding together ideologically heterogeneous coalitions. Already reports are surfacing of opposition within the Sunni heartland to ISIS. One of the most intriguing is Michael Knights’ WINEP report that a rival insurgent group, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi, perhaps led by Saddam Hussein’s old friend Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the King of Clubs from the infamous deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqis, engaged in a deadly firefight with ISIS west of Kirkuk this past weekend. That is a hopeful development.
(Let me add, parenthetically as you can see, that this group’s name identifies it with a Sufi movement within Sunni Islam, the Naqshbandi order. This is no place, believe me, to detail Sufism, the nature of a taruq, or the history of the spread of this very old order from India into the Levant in the 17th century and what has become of it since. Suffice it to say that, as all genuine area experts know, this is potentially a very big deal. Ah, and you thought this was only a Sunni-Shi’a thing we’re dealing with here? Nope, sorry: That’s much too simple a read, I’m afraid.)
And besides that, military operations among nomadic groups—and that aptly describes the anthropological character of the Sunni bedouin tribes we’re talking about, even if many have been settled for generations—tend to share a basic characteristic: Families and clans coalesce around a “big” chieftain when there is a common enemy to fight or a common opportunity to pocket, but they do not often cohere institutionally after the campaign has run its course. So with Visigoths and Mongols, so with Bedouin. So the current ISIS coalition juggernaut may stay together as long as the lead is flying, but there’s not much reason to think it will stay together very long once the dust settles. Hence, the fact that ISIS is now in something like possession of lands with oil fields is attention-arresting, but that doesn’t mean it knows how to work the wells, sell the product, or can agree among itself how to bank and spend the money. Maybe it could learn, maybe not.
Ah, but if all this (and more) is true, if ISIS never consolidates its power and becomes particularly dangerous to anyone but itself, then why on Monday did Secretary Kerry says that ISIS behavior might force the United States to act militarily? Well, we could just ascribe this sort of behavior to personality: Remember that Senator Kerry was for the Iraq War in the first place before he was against it, so why would anyone be especially surprised if he was for airstrikes on Monday before he was against them on Tuesday?
Or maybe he was and still is for them but the President thinks otherwise? If that is the case, if there is a head-on-head disagreement here, it would apparently not be for the first time.
But, alas, it’s really not so simple as a “yes” or “no” decision structure would imply. The reasons for keeping U.S. powder dry are clear, for now, or so it seems to me. But the situation is, as they say in Langley, inside the Pentagon and at Main State, “evolving.” Let’s briefly survey the uncertainties.
Had ISIS forces met any sort of significant resistance on the way south, its leaders would almost certainly have ordered (insofar as they are capable of ordering anything and being obeyed) a halt on the march toward Baghdad and instead looked to consolidate occupied areas to the north and west. But ISIS met little to no resistance as the Iraqi Army disintegrated, and the natural instinct of a nomadic horde on the make is to keep going until someone makes it no fun anymore. That’s yet to really happen.
And this is now a growing problem because on the outskirts of Baghdad are some large military bases with lots and lots of stuff in them: weapons, ammunition, APCs, artillery pieces, airplanes, pick-up trucks with machine-guns, the works. Most of this stuff, of course, is ours. One of these bases, Balad, is about 50 miles north of the city; another, Taji, is about 12 miles north. ISIS is already pretty close to Balad—too damned close.
Now, one can imagine using U.S. airpower not to kill insurgents, but to destroy these bases with their equipment so that they do not fall into ISIS’s hands. That would make for a really lousy optic, true. We would be attacking our own stuff, which can only be taken as a sign of major antecedent failure. And we would be doing it at the very same time that the Assad regime is bombing the same enemy and the Iranian regime is actively aiding the Maliki government. Still, it’s a thought.
It’s a thought, too, because that we could actually do with the military assets we have on hand. Hitting large fixed targets is not a great challenge for the U.S. military. Those who have been advocating airstrikes against ISIS’s non-formations for what are, in my view, either poor or piss-poor reasons, have yet to make a serious case for any sensible operational methodology. Let me explain.
As things stand now, ISIS forces have no tanks. They have no APCs. They have no artillery. They have no fixed logistical depots. They have little flatbed pickup trucks and an ancillary fleet of stolen cars—black Mercedes and white Renaults mostly, would be my guess—that are, truth to tell, not all that easy to hit from a jet fighter or with a drone. (Helicopters work, but helicopters can be knocked out of the sky with a slingshot-propelled rock, too.)
Moreover, ISIS vehicles are not easy to distinguish from non-ISIS-commandeered vehicles, and our warfighter-friendly intel capabilities, good as they are, would be strained mightily to solve that problem on the run. We can pick off ISIS pick-up trucks one by one, true, and we can change the psychological momentum of the southward surge by so doing, maybe. (On the other hand, anti-Sunni riots in Baghdad constitute a factor summoning ISIS further toward the capital.) But we’d be paying a whole lot of money per target destroyed. I haven’t done the math, but it could turn out to be slightly embarrassing if it came to light that it cost us roughly $350,000, say, for every Toyota that bit the dust, when you can buy one of those things off a used car lot in Waukegan for about $800.
The point is, limited airstrikes might be justified—and very soon—if we’re playing ordnance keep-away with ISIS, but it’s hard to see how airstrikes alone can do much good from a macro-military or political point of view, given the situation in Baghdad. So I find myself in the somewhat odd position of agreeing with an operational judgment of the Obama Administration; but—who knows?—these guys may change their minds in a trice, maybe for good reasons or maybe for the kind they seem so much to favor. So don’t touch that dial; this could just be getting interesting.

Iraq, What a Way to Go

Published on June 16, 2014
The Iraqi state in its historic territorial configuration is gone—solid gone, and it ain’t coming back. Time to start thinking hard about next steps.

Back on May 13 in this space I complained that nothing really new ever happens in the Middle East, just variations on themes as old as Methusalah. Invoking George Shultz, Ecclesiastes and ultimately George Orwell, I had to force myself into word-spill mode. Well, no more complaints: Something big, albeit not entirely new and hardly unpredictable, has now happened—and it’s a real stunner, a game-changer, a pulse-quickener, a stomach-turner… pick your favorite term, or select all of the above if that’s your wont. And what is that something? Something that has been straining to happen now for several years: Iraq is no more.
I don’t mean the country is gone.  All those rocks and the sand and the dirt and the two rivers and the oil and such are still there, as they’ve been since the time of Nebuchadnezzar. And I don’t mean the nation is gone, because anyway there never was much of any such thing as an Iraqi nation, supposing for a moment that we want to use the term “nation” precisely. I mean the Iraqi state in its historic territorial configuration is gone—solid gone, and it ain’t coming back.
When I say “hardly unpredictable”, by the way, I mean it. Back on January 21 in this space, I wrote as follows:
Al-Qaeda, in the form of ISIS, is back, and it’s still in control of Ramadi and Falluja. Efforts directed from Baghdad to get tribal leaders to persuade ISIS to leave the cities have not succeeded, and they may even have resulted in a new Sunni pact directed against Maliki in Baghdad. As of this writing, too, al-Qaeda has forced Baghdad into lockdown mode: The demons are getting closer. And everyone in Iraq still privately believes that one Sunni desert tribesman is worth a hundred cowardly Shi’a villagers in a fight. That’s the lore, that’s the perception, and hence to some extent that’s the reality.
Could a Sunni vanguard force, whether Islamist or not, just ride roughshod over a much larger on-paper but disintegrating Shi’a army all the way to Baghdad? Damn right it could. Anyone who doubts that, after all these years, still doesn’t know the first thing about Iraq.
Yes, folks, you heard it first here… if you read my stuff, that is.
Now, I don’t actually think that ISIS wants to march on sand seize Baghdad. I think they want to scare the Shi’a regime ensconced there into one massive laundry problem, and I think they want to get large numbers of clueless Shi’a men onto their turf, where they have metis, and slaughter them as an unmistakable signal to keep Baghdad’s writ far, far away from the Sunni tribal homelands. I think they do not really want to march on Baghdad because the coalition or pact, as noted in the quote above, of which they are still a part would likely fracture on that account. And I think they would rather look toward Syria to consolidate that territory, too, creating their new emirate—of which more in a moment. The gist is a more or less lasting division of the Arab parts of the country into a Shi’a south and a Sunni northwest; once this military pulse has subsided, the Shi’a will not be able to retake the Sunni heartland, and the Sunnis will not be able to take and hold the Shi’a areas.
So we heard talk of a “stall” in today’s news. There is no stall. There is at most a downshifting of gears in order to consolidate control over Tikrit, Tal Afar, and other new prizes, and in order to take the measure of the soon-to-be Shi’a walking corpses headed foolishly in their direction. So far it’s been really easy and, if you are a crazed, bloodthirsty fanatic, quite exhilarating. Just think: You get to drive down the road with submachine-guns firing out the windows, running cars trying to flee Mosul off the road. Then you stop, go over to the spun-out vehicle, and put ten bullets in the faces of all the passengers. What fun. And then you get to do it again, and again. But now there are just too many people to shoot, and some of them are shooting back. Not half as much fun.
What we are seeing, then, is not an attempt by ISIS and allies to take control of Iraq. What we are seeing, in part at least, is a classical example of premodern state, or empire, building. Many years ago, in 1956 to be precise, a cultural anthropologist named Anthony Wallace wrote an essay on what he called revitalization movements. He was mainly interested in the Ghost Dances of American Indians (of which also more in a moment), but what he described as cultures trying to boost themselves into a more effectively organized and satisfied orbit fits perfectly a host of Muslim movements in history, too. The first of these and the best fit for the classic description of a revitalization movement was Mohammed’s uniting of the tribes of Arabia under a new banner of faith in the 7th century. The Almohad maniacs, mainly Berbers, who invaded and completely trashed Almoravid Spain in the 12th century was another, and nothing reminds me as much of ISIS today as the Almohads then. The Wahhabi movement that sired the contemporary Saudi polity in the 18th century was another. So was the Taliban, version 1.0 at least. So was the mainly Tuareg movement that grabbed Timbuktu last year. And now we have ISIS.
But that’s only likely a part of what’s going on, as I just said. The other part we are witnessing is an equally classical form of chiliastic religious violence. Chiliastic premillenarian fanaticism can be inward and quietist, or it can be outward directed and both mass-homicidal and suicidal. It is always mystical and anchored in religious symbols against enemies believed to be attacking the very corporate identity of the pressed group. Like al-Qaeda on 9/11. Like the Ghost Dances. Like Tancred’s Crusaders when they sacked Jerusalem in 1099 and bathed the streets in blood. Like the Jewish zealots fighting the Romans before and at Masada. Like the Peasants’ Revolt of 16thcentury Germany. Somewhat like the Taiping Rebellion. The Mau-Maus in Kenya, too. One could continue with examples, but I’d be deliriously happy if just a dozen or so members of the entire U.S. political class understood or even just knew something aboutany of these historical cases.
So the real question about ISIS is this: As it develops, to what extend will it act like a movement of this world, and to what extent will it act like an example of collective radical religious madness bound to end in spectacular self-immolation? Well, there’s an argument for both possibilities and, just as the Almohads were doubtlessly fanatical nutjobs but still managed to consolidate a polity, they’re not mutually exclusive.
A movement has to be at least part of this world to pull off as sophisticated an operation as the ISIS Mosul caper. Cranes and earthmovers operated as if commanded by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers professionals. We saw flying columns comprised of Toyota land cruisers, rather like in the successful Chadian war against Libya in the 1980s. It sure beats the camels and horses of the 7th century. Beats Shi’a too, evidently. But the craziness and delusion quotient is on display, as well. Why else would an ISIS spokesman assume and even yearn for U.S. intervention? They have to know that they will be bounteously dead if U.S. warplanes attack their concentrations in the stark lack of cover that is northern Iraq. But martyrdom may be what many of these holy warriors seek.
So again, what is happening is not entirely new anymore than it was unpredictable. You would therefore have to assume that the U.S. intelligence community as a collections-and-analysis community, which after all knows lots more about Iraq today than it did a dozen years ago (and with NSA listening in), had signals-and-indices level warnings of all this. So go ahead, you just pucker right up and assume it; see where that gets you. (I’d talk more about this aspect of the story but it’s just too depressing.)
Anyway, then, just how dangerous is ISIS—dangerous to us and to our regional associates? And what should the Obama Administration do about it?
Well, if ISIS is a self-immolating chiliastic expression, it’s dangerous mainly to its own members and to anyone else who gets too close as it dances about, madly spinning its own death trail. But to the extent that it’s an empire-building force, it’s pretty dangerous. We don’t really know which way it will spin now that it is in totally aroused mode, and we can’t guess by reference to Ayman al-Zawahiri, because ISIS does not take orders even from itself half of the time, let alone from al-Qaeda central.
Even before Sunni fanatics seized Ramadi and Fallujah this past December, 2013 was already a very good year for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates in general (as John McLaughlin was at pains to point out in a recent TAI essay). The Obama Administration’s lame theatrics in trying to get Americans to believe that because it “got” Osama bin-Laden the threat of apocalyptical terrorism had been all but eliminated don’t wash, especially now that 2014 looks to be an even bigger and better year for the bad guys. These guys, just by the way, now have lots of weapons and ammunition, most of it made in the US of A, which Iraqi soldiers dropped as they fled; and they now have lots of money thanks to knocking over some pretty good-sized banks in Mosul. Some ISIS cadres have been holding down day-jobs and some of them and their tribal allies have extensive military training from the old Saddam Hussein-era national army. They may be fanatics, but they are skilled fanatics, many of them. The worst kind.
So it sort of depends on what ISIS leaders do, especially the estimable Abu-Abdallah bin-Rashid al-Baghdadi and his associates. If he and they act nuts, they’ll likely trash their penumbra of allies and go down in flames. If they keep it together as a movement and as an army on the move, and if they’re able to consolidate the territory they currently hold with the assent of the Baquera, Al-Rwala and other tribal and clan authorities in those areas, they could become vastly more dangerous to the region than the Taliban, similarly arrayed, ever were in Afghanistan. If they keep it together, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and even Egypt could become regional targets.
I don’t think anyone yet knows how this will go. These judgments float in a haze of genuine contingency; decisions now being made and not yet made will probably make the difference. So what do we do?
Under the circumstances, even at this early point in what will surely take weeks and months to play out, it’s tempting to want to use fixed-wing U.S. aircraft to kill a lot of jihadis arrayed, as they are now, in more or less economic concentrations. It’s tempting to want to use the opportunity to redeem the Obama Administration’s reputation for pusillanimity, because it’s harmful, to be sure. But absent any discrete political purpose beyond that (like ousting Maliki and reforming a government with Iyad Allawi at its head….probably beyond our abilities now, and maybe too late anyway) that is a pretty lonely reason to put American soldiers and airmen even close to harm’s way.
Some Republicans are making this case just to make it seem by intimation that the Obama Administration is mainly responsible for the current mess. But partisan shenanigans can’t hide the fact that the George W. Bush Administration is more responsible for it than the current Administration. This is despite the latter’s passivity in Syria, where ISIS grew to strength, and despite it’s poor judgment in leaving Iraq without trying hard enough to land a SOFA agreement that would have preserved some U.S. influence and, with it, a deterrent effect against the kind of local revisionism going on now.
As many have already noted, if the U.S. government uses force against ISIS on behalf of the Maliki government in Iraq, it will in effect be allying itself with Iran—not such a hot idea under current circumstances, when most of our Sunni associates already think we’re screwing them. It will make the nuclear negotiations with Iran harder, not easier. And we don’t want to tempt forms of self-help like the Saudi government inviting Pakistani nukes, complete with crews, onto Saudi soil. It has also not gone without mention that it looks weird to be opposing a Sunni coalition force in Iraq while we’re (sort of) supporting what is for all practical purposes the very same force in Syria. “Weird” is maybe not strong enough a word to describe such full-frontal policy incoherence.
We should therefore not attack ISIS formations, either stationary or in motion—at least not yet. We should, on the other hand, rapidly and boldly move to support Jordan, which is dealing with a backbreaking refugee crisis. We should reaffirm our commitments to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait; we should let the nasty Bahraini and mischievous Qatari regimes guess our attitudes toward them.
Above all, we should further tighten relations with the Kurds in what used to be northern Iraq but is now an independent state in everything but name. We probably should try to get on the same sheet of music with them, offering support but counseling prudence—in other words, collecting some leverage so we can influence the behavior of Barzani et al. in future. Personally, I’m fine with the Kurds in Kirkuk, their traditional capital city, so long as they occupy and eventually stabilize the city with genuine justice for all of the city’s communities.
By the same token, we should begin private and earnest, if inevitably complex and difficult, talks with the Turks to discuss what conditions, if any, could lead to a mutual and simultaneous recognition of Kurdish independence from Washington and Ankara. (It’s amazing and dismaying that the Obama Administration has rushed first to talk with the Iranian leadership while keeping the Turks publicly at arms length.) That’s the best longer-term move for the United States to make, but because it requires genuine strategic foresight, as opposed to knee-jerk, risk-averse reaction, we can pretty much rule it out as a possibility for the duration of this Administration.
Not long after General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and its Middle Eastern provinces fell into various modes of Allied military occupation. The 1916 Sykes-Picot arrangements did not suffice to deconflict matters once they came to a head, and so it took several years for the allied powers to sort out arrangements. In what was understood to be the British zone—although Mosul nearly ended up as part of the French Mandate for Syria because of oil company concessions—problems arose with regard to what to do with the vast arid tract of land between the verdant banks of the Euphrates westward to the Jordan River. The British garrisoned Mesopotamia to the east and Palestine to the west, but what about all that came between?
As those familiar with the British archives from this period know, the British Government referred to this conundrum as “the Arabian Chapter” problem. Anyone who does not recognize this phrase is unfamiliar with the real historical record and thus certainly relies for their knowledge of Iraqi, (Trans)Jordanian and Palestinian history exclusively on secondary sources, which are invariably pitted with multiple factual errors about what actually transpired on the way to rendering this area into post-Ottoman mandates and polities. Enter Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell, the two British characters (and they really were characters) who drew the lines of Iraq as a territorial state, and by so doing also drew the eastern border of Transjordan and the western border of Iran (where Cox served as British Minister from 1918 to 1920) along the Shatt al-Arav.
Alas, Cox used a rather thick pencil to draw the borders, the leaden width of which precisely defined the territorial dispute between Iran and Iraq that played a role ultimately in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which cost more than a million dead.  You think this is funny? It is rather funny in a way, yes, as gallows humor goes in colonial history.  But the fun’s over now, along with Iraq. What Cox drew back in 1920, as a landing pad (so to speak) for a certain Hashemite prince from the Hejaz, is for all practical purposes no more. Wow, what a way to go.