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How Iraq’s Crisis Got Started, and How it Didn’t

Iraqi mourner

An Iraqi mourner waves an old flag of Iraq during the funerals of victims killed in clashes with security forces in Falluja, January 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

The tragedy unfolding in Iraq now—one that could turn that country’s death toll of nearly a thousand a month to five or ten times that number—is heartbreaking. We’ll get to that, and what might happen, in a minute. But let’s first take on the despicable hawks, neoconservatives and George W. types who make the argument—like the one made by David Brooks in The New York Times today, and which has been repeated over and over again since 2011 by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol and others—that President Obama cavalierly abandoned Iraq three years ago, pulling out too soon and leaving Iraq to its own devices.

Here are the facts. After being elected in 2008, Obama tilted to the advice of his more hawkish advisers on Iraq. The relative doves that provided advice to Obama’s campaign, including people like Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress, who’d supported a rapid drawdown of US forces, were eclipsed by those, such as Colin Kahl, who wanted a slow, cautious, step-by-step drawdown. Indeed, that’s what happened. And the Obama administration tried its best to work out a plan for a long-term US-Iraqi security agreement, such as the one it’s implementing in godforsaken Afghanistan now. But those negotiations failed. Ostensibly, they failed because of certain sticking points, such as the demand from the United States that Iraq provide legal immunity to US troops, which Iraqis felt was a violation of their national sovereignty. But the real reason that the talks stalled, and then collapsed, was because the Iraqis didn’t want the United States to stay. Not only did many Sunnis, who might have favored the United States as a stabilizing presence, say that America was an occupying power, but the government installed by George W. Bush and Co., heavily weighted toward extremist, sectarian Shiites with close ties to Iran, didn’t want the United States to stay either. And that’s partly because Iran, which has enormous influence in Baghdad—where its ambassadors are routinely drawn from the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—didn’t want any US role in Iraq, and Tehran made its wishes clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in no uncertain terms. So, short of toppling Maliki, the United States was out. (It should be pointed out that many critics on the left, including me, opposed Obama’s efforts to maintain a US force in Iraq beyond 2011.)

Meanwhile, it was W.’s neocons, and idiots such as Paul Bremer, who after 2003 obliterated Iraq’s social, political and military institutions, dissolved the armed forces, destroyed the Baath party and handed power to sectarian Shiites and the Kurds. The fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can have the support that it appears to have in Sunni areas of Iraq—despite its brutal history of summary executions, beheadings and onerous social diktats—is the result of putting in place a sectarian, Iran-linked Shiite bloc that viewed all Sunnis as apostates and would-be terrorists.

So what we see today is the harvest of those errors, and they can’t be fixed now by the United States. (Indeed, if Iraq is able to cobble together forces to retake Mosul and Falluja in the next months and years, at great human cost on both sides, it will be because Iran intervenes in support of Maliki et al. There’s no role for the United States.)

Now, what’s happening in areas seized by ISIS is horrible: mass executions, threats to kill anyone who worked for the government, leaflets proclaiming that new social restrictions on women and free expression are imminent, and more. (Of course, Maliki’s government isn’t a whole lot better. And people are fleeing Mosul, at least 500,000 so far, because they fear brutal reprisals and air strikes by the Iraqi government, which is what has been happening further south in Anbar since 2013.)

There is a real danger that ISIS and its allies can set up a rump statelet in northwest Iraq and northern and eastern Syria controlled by ISIS, and its allies, including groups more closely affiliated to Al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda broke with ISIS because the latter group was too willing to kill Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite.) In fact, however, ISIS can’t hold Mosul for long, and it doesn’t have a prayer of capturing Baghdad—nor can it get anywhere near Najaf and Karbala, the Shiite holy cities. But threats by ISIS commanders targeting those two cities are designed to inflame Shiite fears, and so they have, including in Iran, which sends countless pilgrims to Najaf and Karbala every year. Already, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite chieftain and revered leader, is calling for a full Shiite mobilization, and undoubtedly Iran will be willing to help set up Shiite paramilitary groups in Iraq, if it isn’t already doing so. (Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reports that the head of Iran’s IRGC’s Quds Force is in Iraq, and that Iranian forces are already involved, but that’s not confirmed.)

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The battle in Iraq is part of a regional conflict, with both sectarian and state-power dimensions, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. (Unfortunately, the United States seems to have sided with the Sunni and Saudi side in this battle, with catastrophic results in Syria.) The solution, therefore, lies in a regional détente and compact between Tehran and Riyadh. The United States, which otherwise ought to stay out of the fight, ought to encourage such a deal, though its influence is less than stellar at this point. In recent weeks, there have been signs that Tehran and Riyadh are trying to improve relations, which could stabilize Syria and Iraq and ease Saudi fears of a US-Iran nuclear accord.

For Iran, which styles itself as the leader of the world’s Shiites, ISIS is a grave threat. Saudi Arabia, all too willing to mobilize Sunni fighters against Shiites in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, may be beginning to realize that ISIS (and Al Qaeda) could threaten Saudi Arabia too, and that things have gone too far. (Pakistan, which supports jihadists in every direction, seems never to have figured this out.) It’s possible to imagine Saudi Arabia and Iran agreeing on what to do in Syria, and in Iraq, though a hell of a lot more people might have to die first.

So far, there’s no reason to suspect that ISIS has the United States in its sights. Indeed, ISIS ought to be grateful to Washington for American support for the jihad in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. So, by staying out of Iraq the United States will lessen the likelihood that ISIS will turn against Washington, and use terrorist attacks to make its point. That’s a big incentive not to use US airstrikes against ISIS positions, as Maliki has called for, and let’s hope that the CIA and the Pentagon keep their drones elsewhere, too. Striking ISIS will just give radicals there more reason to target the United States, and certainly won’t be effective in destroying a regional movement with plenty of money and support—and lots of US weapons that they’ve captured in Mosul and elsewhere.

Read Next: The Iraq-Syria civil war challenges both the US and Iran

The Iraq-Syria Civil War Challenges Both the US and Iran


A member of a rebel group in Syria throws a handmade weapon. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)   

By now it’s clear that the civil wars in Syria and Iraq are one. Both battles are complex, but as they have intensified over the past several years both have taken on an increasingly sectarian character, pitting rebel Sunni forces against entrenched Shiite and Alawite governments in Baghdad and Damascus. And because no compromise solution seems in sight in either case, radicals and extremists have gained the upper hand, with a network of Sunni Islamists either allied with Al Qaeda or representing Al Qaeda spinoffs, perhaps even more radical than Al Qaeda itself. Indeed, the group leading the battle in Iraq—which actually began in Iraq, first as Al Qaeda in Iraq and then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—is more militant than the Pakistan/Afghanistan-based organization, which criticized ISIS for refusing to cooperate more smoothly with other parts of the Sunni-led opposition fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

In the United States, President Obama is being blamed by the Republicans and various hawks and neoconservatives for the crises in both Iraq—see, for instance, the editorial in The Wall Street Journal today—and Syria, though in neither case do the charges hold water. In Iraq, they say, Obama pulled American forces out too quickly, having not worked hard enough to arrange a long-term security partnership with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, creating a security vacuum that allowed the insurgency to regain its footing. And in Syria, they say, the Obama administration didn’t support the anti-Assad forces strongly enough, thus weakening the moderate, nationalist forces there, so that radical Islamists such as ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and many, many others could emerge as the leading fighting force.

Neither one of these charges makes much sense. In Iraq, the White House did indeed try to extend the American presence, but Iraq’s nationalists and its independent-minded prime minister, facing a rebellious, anti-American parliament—and, of course, strongly influenced by Iran—wouldn’t allow the US role to continue under the conditions that the American armed forces demanded. And in Syria, the United States rightly stayed out of the fight, except for some weak political support for the moderate opposition, because there was no way to affect the outcome of the civil war in that country, in which Assad’s troops are making major gains, without empowering the very radical Islamist forces that the United States opposes. That’s especially true for the idea that Washington might have supplied the Syrian rebels with ground-based and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, since those arms would have likely gone straight into the hands of Al Qaeda, ISIS and others.

Still, the twin crises in Iraq and Syria are extremely dangerous. In Iraq, ISIS has taken control of most of Anbar province, including Falluja, which it has held for six months, and now it controls Mosul, Iraq’s second- or third-largest city, and its forces are driving south and east toward Salahuddin province, including its capital, Samarra, and toward the oil-rich region around Kirkuk. Already, they’ve surrounded Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and reportedly taken control of Iraq’s most important power-generating station at Baiji. In Baghdad, the capital, there’s nervousness, and obviously sectarian anxieties are rising there.

The lesson for the battle in Syria is that high-tech weaponry, up-armored Humvees and other battle equipment that the United States has sent to Iraq over the past several years has fallen en masse into the hands of ISIS, and the Iraqi security forces have dissolved in chaos and fled. Yesterday, in the State Department daily briefing, Jen Psaki tried to defend the Obama administration’s support for Maliki by listing the weapons that Iraq has gotten lately from the United States. She said:

I think you all are aware of the shipments that we have provided that include the delivery of 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, helicopter-fired rockets, machine guns, grenades, flares, sniper rifles, M-16s and M-4 rifles to the Iraqi security forces. We also delivered additional Bell IA-407 helicopters late last year. Ten ScanEagle surveillance platforms are on schedule for delivery this summer. We’ve moved the Apache lease case forward and we’re now awaiting the Iraqi signature and funding for the deal.

We also recently notified Congress of an additional sale of $1 billion in arms, including up to 200 Humvees, that is now in the 30-day review period. And certainly, we remain in a discussion with the Government of Iraq about their needs during this time.

And she noted that Iraq is now starting to receive US-supplied F-16s. ISIS, which probably won’t manage to seize any F-16s, is grateful for the rest.

It’s safe to say that Iran, which is already the strongest backer of Assad in Syria—along with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Shiite militia from Lebanon—won’t look too kindly on the Sunni offensive in Iraq. Therefore, it seems very likely that Iran will enter the fray in Iraq more intensively, with political and military support for Maliki, and that Iran will support Iraq’s majority Shiite population, and probably the Kurds too, in a Shiite-Kurdish assault to retake Mosul. That, in turn, is guaranteed to make the civil war in Iraq look more like the one in Syria, with massive government attacks on civilian strongholds controlled by ISIS, and ever greater resistance against the government and its Iranian allies by Sunni civilians already predisposed to oppose Maliki. So, greater polarization, vastly greater casualties (à la Syria), and more intense sectarianism. (Already, Maliki is reportedly using dog-whistle, Shiite religious-war rhetoric in calling Iraqis to arms.)

If there’s any solution at all, it’s in the hope that quite without American interference Iran and Saudi Arabia will find common purpose in fighting back against Al Qaeda, ISIS and their allies. Recently, the government of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has sought better relations with Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s foreign minister has been invited to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Rouhani has been visiting Turkey, where he signed important accords, and since Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the two most important Sunni-led powers in the region, it could be that Iran and Saudi Arabia can work out an arrangement to stabilize the crisis. It’s a long shot, but it could work. Above all, it would require Maliki to seek a political reconciliation with the non-ISIS-supporting Sunnis, including the remnants of the anti–Al Qaeda Awakening movement of Iraq (2006–08). And it would require Assad, who’s just been re-elected to another term as president, to support a political deal that could eventually create space for another set of elections in which moderate opposition, Sunni-led parties might run.

None of this has stopped some in the United States from calling for war. Ken Pollack, the Brookings Institution scholar who supported the war against Iraq in 2003, says:

Washington should provide the military support that Mr. Maliki desires—drone strikes, weapons, reconnaissance assets, targeting assistance, improved and expanded training for his forces, even manned airstrikes.

And Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria who so badly bungled his job back when the civil war was just starting in 2011–12, is speaking out to demand that the White House get more deeply involved in Syria’s war, too, by arming the rebels. (Last week, Ford wrote an op-ed for The New York Times whose title was “Arm Syria’s Opposition.”)

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Recently, Obama delivered a major speech in which he criticized the too-easy reach for a military solution, and here’s to hoping that he sticks to that path. But even if the United States doesn’t become directly engaged in the Syria-Iraq civil war, the sentiments expressed by Pollack and Ford are widespread in the State Department and elsewhere in the administration. And Obama himself did seem to fall back, in his speech, on using proxies to fight “terrorism” overseas. To be sure, Al Qaeda and ISIS are terrorists. But fighting them, especially long distance, seems guaranteed to strengthen, not weaken them. Ironically, America’s best ally in the Syria-Iraq civil war is an unlikely one: Iran.


Read Next: Tom Englehardt on America at War

Iraq’s Nightmare Gets Worse

Vehicle in Baghdad

Zahra Naaim, 4, center, and Balqes Youssif, 6, left, stand next to a destroyed vehicle in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

The crisis now engulfing Iraq provides the ultimate condemnation of the decision by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts—backed, of course, by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry—to invade Iraq in 2003. That action, which destroyed virtually all of Iraq’s institutions and created a power vacuum that led directly to an ethnic and sectarian civil war, is now playing out all of its terrible consequences.

Yesterday, in a surprise military action, fighters from the Al Qaeda–linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized what appears to be virtual control of Nineveh province and Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. The insurgents, working in close coordination with Islamist forces in Syria fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, seized the governor’s office in Mosul, the airport, the television station and other key locations, and invaded prisons, freeing large numbers of prisoners. According to numerous reports, the Iraqi army and police suffered a huge defeat, melting away and fleeing en masse, leaving their weapons behind. The governor, a leading Sunni politician whose brother is speaker of the Iraqi parliament, managed to escape.

It’s a catastrophic development for Iraq, and it puts murderous terrorists in control of an enormous part of Iraq’s north and west. Already, ISIS and its allies have occupied and controlled the city of Falluja, a key urban center in Anbar province, and have launched deadly attacks across Iraq, even in the east and south. Earlier this week, ISIS militants stormed into the city of Samarra, the city in which the sectarian war in Iraq started in earnest in 2006 when Sunni extremist insurgents bombed an ancient Shiite mosque, and were repelled in heavy fighting. And in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, which almost fell to insurgents earlier this year, this week ISIS militants attacked a leading university and held students hostage.

Though not quite reaching Syria’s level of carnage, the toll in Iraq is staggering, with more than 8,000 killed in 2013 and monthly totals that suggest an even higher number of deaths this year; in May, 799 Iraqis died as the result of suicide bombings, car bombs, targeted assassinations, tit-for-tat killings and other civil war–like violence, according to the United Nations—and that data doesn’t even include Anbar province.

Much of the blame for the chaos lies with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who emerged from the April 30 elections in a strong position to claim another term as Iraq’s strongman leader. Since taking office with American support during the occupation, Maliki has ruled as an iron-fisted sectarian Shiite, rallying Shiite support to his side by shutting out Sunnis from power and persecuting leading Sunni politicians who dared challenge him. (For a detailed, and chilling, account of Maliki’s rise to power and his imperious rule, take a look at Dexter Filkins’s New Yorker piece from last April.) Maliki, of course, rose to power with support from the United States and Iran, though each country had different objectives.

Based on scattered reports in The New York Times recently, here are some headlines from the ongoing war in Iraq: on June 10, at least forty people died in attacks in Kurdistan in Iraq’s north; on June 6, twenty-seven died and dozens were wounded in attacks around Mosul; on June 2, at least fifteen died in bombings across Iraq; on May 22, thirty-five Shiite pilgrims were killed. Such reports are only the tip of the iceberg, and even the reports from the United Nations—according to which 2,879 Iraqi civilians have died in 2014—no doubt seriously underestimate the number of deaths.

Human Rights Watch, in a piece titled, “In Iraq, Murder is the Norm,” says:

Almost every day in Iraq, terrorist attacks kill civilians. Suicide and car bombs explode in markets, at rallies, and at marches of Shia pilgrims. These attacks are so extreme they have probably reached the level of crimes against humanity. But the government’s response is no better. Shia militias with apparent ties to the government execute suspected terrorists and those they accuse of supporting them. Militias and government forces have terrorized Sunni villages around Baghdad. Abusive government forces do not try to hide their crimes. On the contrary, they publicize them proudly. Elite military units post videos online of the prisoners they execute.

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And HRW gives this horrifying example of the crimes being committed:

This week General Abdelamir al-Zeidi, commander of military operations in Diyala province and the city of Kirkuk, posted a photo of a “terrorist” on his official Facebook page and invited readers to vote: (1) Are you in favor of investigating him and letting the judicial system oversee the process going forward or, (2) Should we immediately execute this criminal, who was caught red-handed? This commander should be fired immediately, and prosecuted too. But in today’s Iraq, where impunity reigns, he’ll more likely be praised, and possibly promoted.

A new report from Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies lays out some basic facts:

The World Bank ranks Iraq as having extremely low quality of governance: It ranks 178th in the world in accountability, 201st in political stability and violence. 182nd in government effectiveness, 205th in the quality of rule of law, 189th in the quality of government regulation, and 193rd in the control of corruption.… Iraq ranks 131st on the UN Human Development Index. In comparison, the UAE ranks 41st, and Saudi Arabia ranks 57th.… In spite of its high oil revenues, its per capita income ($1,000) only ranks 141st in the world, by far the lowest of any Gulf state.


Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the Bergdahl saga

The Bergdahl Saga Could Explode in the GOP’s Face

Bowe Bergdahl

Bowe Bergdahl (Photo courtesy of the United States Army)

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, still in recovery, has become a political football to be kicked around by just about everyone, including Hillary Clinton—who is using Bergdahl’s release to distinguish herself, just ever so slightly, from President Obama. In her book, whose release this week will dominate the airways and news media, and in an interview tonight with Diane Sawyer, Clinton finesses the fact that she originally opposed making a deal with the Taliban for Bergdahl, a decision she portrays as one of the “hard choices” she had to make. Though now she’s defending Obama over the Bergdahl decision, she stressed to ABC’s Sawyer that there were “competing interests and values” involved in the decision. It’s a waffle typical of Clinton, who tries simultaneously to pander to hawks while placating the liberal base of the Democratic party.

Here’s the bottom line: if Bergdahl did desert, or leave his post without permission, then bully for him. If only more American troops had deserted that war, or refused to serve, or simply stopped enlisting in the “volunteer army.” Perhaps Bergdahl was simply shell-shocked, or suffering from PTSD. Perhaps he had just had enough. Perhaps he did indeed intend to seek out the Taliban in his own version of peace talks. Perhaps he, himself, can’t really explain why did it, although—as reported here last week—the evidence reported two years ago in Rolling Stone suggests that he had thoroughly been alienated by the war and by the conduct of American forces. If any of that is true, than the Republicans ought not wish to out Bergdahl on trial. Because he, and his lawyers, could turn such a trial into a broader inquiry into the insanity of a war that has lasted thirteen years, and which appears will continue through 2016 at least.

The say-anything conservatives and Republicans—many of whom slammed Obama for years for not doing more to get Bergdahl released, only to say now, like Charles Krauthammer, that Bergdahl is a deserter and a traitor—aren’t daunted by the fact that Bergdahl has described his years in captivity in stark terms. After twice trying to escape, he was put in a cage, and tortured. But that hasn’t stopped Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican, from saying that he doesn’t necessarily believe Bergdahl’s account:

I think there are going to be a lot of things that Bergdahl tells the Army and the medical folks that he’s talking to now that is going to be very difficult to validate.… That’s not to say they’re not absolutely true, but we weren’t there.… We have nobody who was on the inside. So we don’t know exactly what happened in his life over the last several years, except we do know he was captured and he’s been in the Taliban’s hands.

Yesterday, appearing on ABC’s This Week, the leader of the House intelligence committee raised what appears, at first, to be a legitimate point about the negotiations to free Bergdahl. His release, said Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who heads the House intelligence committee, was initially designed as part of a broader set of talks to make a deal with the Taliban. (Let’s leave aside Rogers’s comment that the White House “made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake,” adding, “We’ve empowered the Taliban”—who, of course, have a lot of muscle and don’t need any empowering by the United States.) Rogers, along with Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, reports the New York Times, “argued that in 2011 the discussion of releasing Sergeant Bergdahl was couched as a ‘confidence-building measure’ to allow a broader reconciliation with the Taliban.” Though efforts were made to strike such a deal, the talks eventually went nowhere. Said Feinstein, according to the Times:

If you release them upfront, there would be no reconciliation; if you release them after progress or at the end and had the agreement to do so, that you might get a reconciliation agreement. And that, subsequently, apparently, fell apart.

But that’s all mixing apples with figs. As both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have pointed out repeatedly, and as even Hillary Clinton acknowledges, getting Bergdahl released was a good thing, in itself, whether or not it led to or helped engineer a reconciliation with the Taliban. On the other hand, it’s fair to question whether or not the Obama administration has done everything it could to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. For years, and especially since Obama took office in 2009, it’s clear that the only way out of Afghanistan that could result in a relatively stable political arrangement was to rebalance the Afghan government, bring the Taliban in, set up some sort of federal system giving the southern, Pashtun areas a measure of autonomy, and—above all—getting Pakistan, India, Iran and others in the region to buy in to the new set-up. Despite efforts along those lines, beginning with Richard Holbrooke’s work years ago, the administration never really invested appropriate energy in that direction.

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For the Republicans who are accusing the Obama administration now of mismanaging the Bergdahl release, however, the real issue isn’t whether or not Washington was working hard enough to make a deal with the Taliban; indeed, had such a deal been reached, most Republican would probably have condemned it as appeasement or worse.

Meanwhile, in a sign of how despicable some anti-Obama people can be, the FBI is now investigating threats made against Bergdahl’s parents—threats that may have been made made by people angered by charges, whether spurious or not, that American troops were killed while conducting searches for Bergdahl.

The controversy will continue all week, during briefings by US intelligence and other officials on Capitol Hill and when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies on Wednesday before what is sure to be a raucous and hostile House Armed Services Committee.


Read Next: Richard Kreitner on Bowe Bergdahl and the honorable history of war diserters

Did the Obama-Putin Encounter Help Ease the Ukraine Crisis?

Obama and Putin

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

There are mixed signals aplenty between the United States and Russia, but it appears that various Western European leaders are doing their part to bring President Obama and President Vladimir Putin together and to avoid, at least, the worst possible outcome in the Ukraine crisis. Perhaps the best hope for finally ending the crisis will come when Putin realizes that his overreaching on Ukraine has had the unfortunate byproduct of strengthening and reinvigorating NATO, giving the United States new ammunition to demand that the Europeans increase their military spending. President Obama’s new talk of putting additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe—already rejected by Slovakia and the Czech Republic—and creating a $1 billion fund for military reinforcement in the region, is not a good sign for Europe and for future US-Russian relations.

Still, despite ongoing, Russian-inspired violence in eastern Ukraine, there are many hopeful signs. By and large, both the United States and Europe have resigned themselves to Russia’s land grab in Crimea, which is pretty much a done deal—and therefore, mostly, off the table as a point of contention. Putin, despite grumbles, has pretty much acknowledged that Petro Poroshenko will be Ukraine’s new leader, and by and large he’s accepted the results of the election that put Poroshenko into power, agreeing to send a top envoy to Poroshenko’s inauguration. In addition, the Russians have withdrawn some, but not all, of the forces they’d arrayed along Ukraine’s borders, easing tensions. And, not only did Poroshenko and Putin meet on the sidelines of the Normandy anniversary events, but Obama and Putin managed a short interchange, too, despite Obama’s rather churlish refusal to meet Putin formally. (Putin did, of course, have formal meetings with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.)

Russia’s RT, a Putin propaganda outlet, reported on the Putin-Poroshenko meeting:

Both leaders “have spoken for a prompt end to bloodshed in southeast Ukraine as well as for an end to military actions from both sides—from the side of the Ukrainian armed forces and the supporters of federalization of Ukraine,” said Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

And Peskov also gave this account of the brief meeting between Obama and Putin:

Despite that there was no separate meeting [scheduled], the leaders of the two states had an opportunity to share their views on the situation in Ukraine as well as on crisis in the east of the country. Putin and Obama have spoken for the necessity to reduce violence and military actions.

The Washington Post, which has its own propaganda value but which is closer to actual journalism than RT, reported that “the United States, Russia and Ukraine took small steps to ease tensions.” Earlier, before Obama and Putin talked briefly, the Post reported on the G-7 meeting by saying in its lead that “President Obama and other leaders meeting here offered an olive branch to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” and adding, “It was clear that the international big chill imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine is starting to thaw.” But is it? Despite recent, apparently conciliatory actions by Putin, very, very serious problems remain.

The chance that a shooting war might erupt over Ukraine are virtually nil, and despite the resistance of some pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, it’s likely that Poroshenko and Putin will agree to resolve the conflict without civil war or permanent division of the country. The leaders of Western Europe—and Europe’s Big Business—clearly don’t want the Ukraine crisis to interfere with business as usual. Despite pressure from the United States, France is going ahead with a $1.6 billion contract to sell advanced helicopter carriers to Russia. And both German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose business community is deeply engaged with Russia, and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron—whose London serves as home away from home for many Russian billionaires—have been making efforts to ease the crisis. President François Hollande managed to engineer two separate dinners last night, one with Obama and another one with Putin. As The New York Times reported:

Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Hollande joined Mr. Obama, along with the leaders of five other major powers, in condemning Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea. But France, like other European nations, has economic reasons to maintain cordial relations with Russia. Despite explicit opposition from the United States, France remains on track to deliver two advanced warships to Russia in the coming years.

But Obama didn’t do much to help ease the crisis by setting what appeared to be a vague, four-week deadline for Putin to resolve the crisis. Though Obama didn’t specify exactly what steps Putin has to take, and although resolving the standoff may take many weeks or months, Obama warned that Russia may face new, tougher sanctions soon.Said Obama:

Russia continues to have a responsibility to convince them to end their violence, lay down their weapons and enter into a dialogue with the Ukrainian government.… On the other hand, if Russia’s provocations continue, it’s clear from our discussions here that the G-7 nations are ready to impose additional costs on Russia.… We will have a chance to see what Mr. Putin does over the next two, three, four weeks, and if he remains on the current course, then we’ve already indicated what kinds of actions that we’re prepared to take.

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Despite Obama’s missteps, however, things could be a lot worse. Obama didn’t really set a deadline for anything, since he didn’t say what has to happen in “the next two, three, four weeks,” and in any case it will be difficult to impossible to get Western Europe to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia. (Russia, after all, isn’t North Korea or Iran.) And so far at least Obama has resisted pleas from American hawks and from the government of Ukraine to supply Kiev with military aid. During his meeting with Poroshenko, Obama did the least possible, given the political circumstances surrounding their much-anticipated meeting, agreeing to provide Ukraine a piddling $5 million worth of “night-vision goggles” and other “nonlethal equipment.” It would appear, from all indications, that Obama is trying not to inflame the situation, whose resolution depends now on whether Putin and Poroshenko, the latter backed by the United States and Europe, can arrive at some amicable way to forget about Crimea and to set up a limited version of autonomy in Ukraine’s east.


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GOP Hawks Seek a Bergdahl-Benghazi Tag Team Against Obama and Clinton

Bergdahl in Afghanistan

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video)

One question about the controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo is: If it’s clear that various GOP hawks, including the irrepressible and irresponsible John McCain, will go all out to use the story to paint President Obama as an appeaser, a negotiator-with-terrorists, and worse, then will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton join them? Because back when she was secretary of state, Clinton opposed the exchange for Bergdahl, and on the same grounds that Republicans are blasting the deal now.

Fact is, talking to the Taliban—indeed, negotiating with them, freeing some prisoners and perhaps offering them some power in a rebalanced government of Afghanistan—is the smartest strategy for making sure that Afghanistan can be stabilized by 2016. And if the Bergdahl deal leads to that outcome, then it will have been a very, very smart thing. In the meantime, if Bergdahl—assuming that he isn’t permanently traumatized by his years of captivity—speaks out about the craziness and illegitimacy of the war since 2001, then he might become a hero to and spokesman for the antiwar forces in the United States.

Already, the nonsensical furor over Bergdahl’s release, after five years of being held as a prisoner by the Taliban in Pakistan, has done the impossible: it’s eclipsed another nonsensical non-scandal, the one over Benghazi. And if the Benghazi flap is designed to undermine Clinton’s presidential posture, the Bergdahl flap may boost her image—even though Clinton has now come out defending the deal that she opposed, privately, to support it publicly.

The best place to start in understanding the Bergdahl story—and, after all, both he and the efforts to free him have been in the news for half a decade—is with Michael Hastings’ brilliant piece in Rolling Stone back in July 2012. (Disclosure: I knew Hastings, who died tragically in a car accident, and we both wrote for Rolling Stone about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s insurrection against the White House. It was Hastings’s piece, of course, that brought McChrystal down.) As Hastings makes clear—in a piece called “America’s Last Prisoner of War”—Bergdahl was a questioning, home-schooled Idahoan who joined the army and went to Afghanistan because he thought he’d be doing good, but when he arrived he was quickly disillusioned by the brutality he witnessed, by the sheer incompetence and witlessness that he experienced by American officers and others.

Once Bergdahl gets home, gets treatment and counseling, and recovers from his harrowing captivity, we may learn more about him and about his story. Clearly, he hears the beat of a different drummer—and what he expected or hoped to accomplish by walking off base in 2009 into the hands of the Taliban—who apparently captured him while he was defecating—isn’t known, exactly. Whether he was simply a quirky loner who snapped, or whether he was carrying out some sort of protest aimed at bringing home the insanity of the Afghan war, or something else, isn’t clear. But, in emails to his family, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, Bergdahl fairly explicity denounces the war and America’s military. In one, worth quoting at length (edited slightly for grammar), he wrote:

The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.… In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank…. The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.… The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.…

I am sorry for everything here.… These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.… We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks…. We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.

Indeed, from the start Berghdal told family and fellow soldiers that he might just walk off into the mountains one day. And so he did.

That Bergdahl was apparently a disillusioned, angry soldier who had come to believe that the war was crazy didn’t dissuade President Obama and the White House from seeking to arrange his release before the American force draws down to a small presence next year and disappears entirely in 2016—nor has it endeared Bergdahl to some in the military command, the Pentagon and Congress. The controversy over whether to trade prisoners to win his release has raged from the start. Indeed, in one hilarious passage in Hastings’ piece, he recounts how McCain, fuming at the idea of letting the five Taliban officials go, said: “They’re the five biggest murderers in world history!” To which then-Senator John Kerry replied, incredulously: “John, the five biggest murderers in the world?”

Now, partly spurred by claims from some in the armed forces that several US troops died seeking to find and perhaps free Bergdahl, McCain is feigning outrage—even though it appears that in the end McCain ended up, privately, supporting the idea of trading for the release. Now, though McCain said of the deal, “It’s done,” he called it “ill-founded,” a “mistake,” and “unacceptable,” adding that those released are killers and the “hardest of the hard-core,” a charge that has been at least disputed.

In the most extreme case, as Hastings reported, some hawks urged the Taliban to dispense with Bergdahl:

Ralph Peters, an action-thriller writer who serves as a “strategic analyst” for Fox News, took to the air to condemn Bowe as an “apparent deserter.” The Taliban, he declared, could save the United States on “legal bills” by executing him.

Obama, to his credit, isn’t waffling. Of the deal, he said:

[We have a] pretty sacred rule and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind and that dates back to the earliest days.… Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.

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Still, The New York Times portrays the White House as “on the defensive” about the Bergdahl story, thanks to the fury unleashed by Republicans and conservative radio and TV blabbers.

The Washington Post, in its behind-the-scenes account of the internal debate over the swap, notes that in the White House the idea of a deal was explicitly linked to the notion of encouraging reconciliation with the Taliban—and that Hillary Clinton was against it:

During the same debate, officials were considering the emerging prisoner-exchange proposal. White House advisers believed that a successful exchange would not only free Bergdahl but would also encourage moderate Taliban members to take an Afghan-led reconciliation process seriously.

But Panetta and other officials—including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.—opposed the terms of the proposed prisoner exchange, according to the official.

Clinton replied in writing to the written concerns of lawmakers in between the various meetings, according to House aides. The contents of her responses were deemed classified and were not available for review by reporters, the aides said Tuesday. Clinton, now considering a run for president in 2016, on Tuesday publicly endorsed the deal to free Bergdahl that the official said she once privately opposed.

Let’s hope that as Clinton does her nonstop book tour after the release next week of Hard Choices, she’ll be grilled on exactly that flip-flop.


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In Meeting Putin, Obama Has an Opportunity to Push for a Ukraine Accord

Obama and Putin

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Now that Ukraine’s presidential election is over, and as preparations are made in Kiev for swearing in the newest billionaire wheeler-dealer to run that country on June 7, President Obama and America’s allies in Western Europe need to eschew triumphalism and get serious about making a deal to stabilize Ukraine. A symbolic chance to kick-start that effort will happen in France later this week, when Obama will have what is likely to be an awkward encounter with autocratic and self-aggrandizing President Vladimir Putin of Russia during ceremonies marking the anniversary of D-Day, 1944.

Unfortunately, and despite Obama’s stirring speech last week in which he repeatedly declared his reluctance to use military options in dealing with political problems abroad, before the Obama-Putin encounter this week—and it’s just, so far, an “encounter,” because no formal meeting is planned—it looks like Obama will use his visit to Poland as an opportunity to talk about NATO, about strengthening America’s security commitment in eastern Europe and about insisting that Europe take a hard line on Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal, reporting in advance of Obama’s trip, says that Obama is “concerned international pressure on Russia may ease in the wake of a successful election in Ukraine,” and so he “will use a visit to Europe this week to urge U.S. allies to maintain a hard line against Moscow.” The Journal quotes a White House official thus:

What we don’t want is for everybody to exhale, “the election went well, now we’re all done.”

Well, no, we’re not all done. There’s still dangerous fighting going on in parts of eastern Ukraine that border Russia, including a report on Monday of a 500-person assault on a border post by pro-Russian (i.e., mostly Russian) forces. But Russia has signaled that it’s ready to talk turkey with Petro Poroshenko and the new government in Kiev, and Russian troops have moved away from the border, easing tensions. So, you’d think that Obama would use the opportunity presented by a trip to Poland—a country, by the way, with deeply ingrained anti-Russian instincts and close ties to western Ukraine, parts of which used to be “Poland”—to launch a major initiative to ease the crisis. During the trip, Obama will meet Poroshenko. Maybe Obama will announce steps to reignite diplomatic efforts over Ukraine, but it’s not looking good.

Instead, it seems that it will all about projecting American strength into the region. Reports The Wall Street Journal:

In a speech in Warsaw on Wednesday, he is set to reaffirm U.S. commitment to defending the region’s security during the 25th anniversary celebrations of Poland’s first free, post-Communist elections, White House officials said. Upon arriving in Poland, the president is set to visit an airport hangar in Warsaw with American and Polish pilots. The visit is intended to underscore the increased joint air training missions in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

If it’s only hand-holding the nervous Poles—and, after all, Russia isn’t about to threaten Poland!—then fine. But the emerging Obama Doctrine, if there is one to be discerned, seems focused on building alliances—including military ones—with “partners” overseas. In Europe, that means NATO. In Asia, it means the countries surrounding China. And in the Middle East, it means not just Israel and Saudi Arabia but anti-terrorist units in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan that will be bolstered by the $5 billion anti-terrorism fund Obama has proposed.

Writing an op-ed for The New York Times, Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that the United States ought now to focus on resolving the Ukrainian crisis, not making it worse by “pushing ahead with Ukraine’s rapid institutional integration into the West.” Instead, he says:

The Ukrainian government and its Western partners need to focus on three priorities that would do far more to stabilize and unite Ukraine than the recent presidential poll: an end to the “anti-terrorist operation” and a good-faith attempt at a negotiated settlement with separatists in the east; formation of a more inclusive government; and constitutional reform that decentralizes power.

To be fair to President Obama, he’s hardly been sounding the triumphal trumpet over Ukraine, so far at least, and he’s intelligently resisted calls from hawks—and from the Ukrainian government, including its president-elect!—for arms and military support from the United States. (And from Ted Cruz, that august statesman, who just visited Kiev and said, “One thing I took away from the Ukrainian leaders is that the military lacks basic equipment, such as armor, communication tools and night-vision goggles.”) But what Europe needs most of all, when it comes to American leadership on Ukraine, is not reassurances of America’s commitment to the Atlantic Alliance but some well-crafted strategy for making the Ukraine problem go away.

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The right argument is one of “strategic patience.” In the long run, just as in the Cold War, the sheer power of the Euro-American economic juggernaut, in comparison to Russia’s extraction-and-export based economy, will eventually pull Ukraine into the West’s orbit. There’s no need to force the issue, or to exacerbate Ukrainian divisions over it. And Russia’s rump Asian economic alliance, with that Kazakhstan powerhouse, hardly constitutes an alternative center of gravity for Ukrainians with a sense of their own self-interest. Plus, the iron, steel and coal industries of the Donets Basin region are, by all accounts, decrepit and inefficient.

It isn’t known whether Putin, who’s made it clear that he’s willing to use force and subterfuge to destabilize Ukraine, has figured out that in the long run Ukraine will go its own way. (In an increasingly leveled, multi-polar world, that doesn’t necessarily mean in America’s direction. Europe itself is finding its own identity, as Poland has figured out.) But whatever direction it is, it’s not worth fighting over.


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Ukraine’s Far Right Loses Big, but Europe’s Russian-Backed Fascists Make Major Gains

Svoboda Supporters

Svoboda and Ukrainian nationalist party supporters march with torches in Kiev in early 2014. (Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev)

The scary fascists who, according to Russia, have taken over Ukraine since the “coup d’état” and ousted the former president didn’t do too well. Who did do well were the actual scary fascists in Western Europe who were supported by, well, Russia.

According to one report:

The supposed reservoirs of reactionary thinking in Western Ukraine generated an embarrassing 1 percent of the vote for Oleh Tyagnibok of ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party and less than 1 percent for Dmitry Yarosh of the new Right Sector party that sprung up during the protests. A story run by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency notes that Tyagnibok and Yarosh together received fewer votes than Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish candidate who captured a little over 2 percent of the ballots.

There’s no doubt that Svoboda and Right Sector are bad actors. But the overweening propaganda from Moscow claiming that Kiev is being ruled by “fascists” is now proved to be ridiculous. (Not that Moscow’s propaganda since the Ukraine crisis erupted has been anything but ridiculous, starting with its claims that it wasn’t invading Crimea and its claims that it isn’t secretly behind the eruption of ersatz “people’s republics” in Eastern Ukraine’s Donets Basin region.)

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Meanwhile, the elections for the European Parliament—admittedly, a weak institution—reflect a troubling shift toward right-wing, fascist-leaning and ultra-nationalist politics in several European countries, including France and Great Britain. While some left-leaning parties did well, too, the biggest gains were made by parties such as the UK Independence Party, France’s National Front and a pair of far-right Greek parties. As I wrote in this space on May 21, Russia has formed an anti-EU alliance of convenience with many of these self-same fascist parties in Europe.

Timothy Snyder, writing in The New York Review of Books, pointed out last March that the Russians, so quick to denounce fascism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine, are themselves among the worst offenders:

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.

Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred. The most notorious showed dark-skinned people eating watermelon and throwing the rinds to the ground, then called for Russians to clean up their cities. Glazyev’s book Genocide: Russia and the New World Order claims that the sinister forces of the “new world order” conspired against Russia in the 1990s to bring about economic policies that amounted to “genocide.” This book was published in English by Lyndon LaRouche’s magazine Executive Intelligence Review with a preface by LaRouche. Today Executive Intelligence Review echoes Kremlin propaganda, spreading the word in English that Ukrainian protesters have carried out a Nazi coup and started a civil war.

The populist media campaign for the Eurasian Union is now in the hands of Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the most important talk show in Russia, and since December also the director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to form national public opinion. Best known for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has taken Putin’s campaign against gay rights and transformed it into a weapon against European integration. Thus when the then German foreign minister, who is gay, visited Kiev in December and met with Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and opposition politician, Kiselyov dismissed Klitschko as a gay icon. According to the Russian foreign minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the “decadence” of the European Union.

Indeed, under Vladimir Putin Russia is gradually becoming a heartland-of-Asia power whose leaders encourage anti-Semitism, ultra-Orthodox religious nationalism, virulent anti-gay propaganda and more.

Meanwhile, in the so-called people’s republics of Ukraine’s east, there’s trouble. There are factional clashes between what appear to be local militiamen and more organized forces tied directly to Russia’s special forces. As The New York Times reported:

Increasingly, a cadre of commanders with Russian citizenship like Mr. [Alexander] Borodai and a shadowy military commander named Igor Strelkov seem to be seizing control of the often rudderless rebellion as clashes with the Ukrainian Army intensify….

New questions had surfaced on Tuesday, when local officials revealed that a large share of rebels killed in intense fighting with the Ukrainian military on Monday were Russian citizens.

On Thursday, commanders of the separatist forces said they planned to repatriate the bodies of 33 Russians from brigades that were organized in border cities on Russian territory and then traveled to Donetsk. Thirty-three coffins would be trucked to the border on Thursday, a member of the rebel force said.

Yet even as the coffins were being prepared for transport, dozens of camouflaged rebels from the Vostok Battalion, which many of the Russians had joined, were breaking down doors in the rebel headquarters, where the leadership of the fledgling republic sat.

It’s clear that when Russian leaders, such as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, say that Ukraine is involved in a “civil war,” he means a civil war that is being deliberately stoked by Russia. Still, it’s good news that leaders of Russia and Ukraine may meet soon to talk about resolving the crisis, and talks are underway about resolving disputes over Russia’s supply of gas to Ukraine. And it appears that a significant number of Russian forces that had been massed on the Ukrainian border are being withdrawn, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Now that Russia has tentatively welcomed the election of Petro Poroshenko, the new Ukrainian leader has a tricky path ahead. Weakening and disarming the mobs that have taken over several cities in eastern Ukraine without inflaming the situation by heavy-handed tactics and overuse of force will not be easy. Meanwhile, President Obama, who’s maintained a hands-off attitude and rejected calls from US hawks and Ukrainian officials to supply arms to Kiev, needs to stand fast.


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Obama Says War Is Not the Answer

Obama on drones

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Already the right-wing and hawkish critics are shrieking, and the centrist and right-leaning pundits on CNN are saying that the president didn’t try to answer his neoconservative opponents, but President Obama’s speech to West Point graduates was a powerful defense of the notion that war is not the answer.

In his five years in office, Obama hasn’t always lived by those words, needless to say—having twice escalated the war in Afghanistan before winding it down, having stepped up a worldwide war by drones against terrorists and wrongdoers, and having engaged in an undeclared war in Libya. (In the comments section, feel free to add other examples.) But in the main, Obama firmly and repeatedly declared that American military power should not be the solution to each and every problem. Indeed, the president even slammed interventionists on the “left,” which may or may not have been a knock against the liberal interventionists who inhabit the misguided world of the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine.

The glaring hole in Obama’s speech was his continued defense of America’s drone wars: “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do.” But throughout his speech, Obama said, again and again, that he will use force—that is, troops and planes and ships—only as a very last resort. It is, indeed, refreshing to hear that from the commander in chief, especially in the face of continuing pressure from hawks, neoconservatives and pro-military flag wavers for the president to get tough in Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea and Afghanistan.

Trying to distinguish himself from “self-described realists” who say that crises in Syria, Ukraine and Africa “are not ours to solve,” Obama added that he also differs with “interventionists on the left and right” who say that the United States’ “willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos.” He added:

But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”

After saying that he is “haunted” by the deaths and injuries suffered by the men and women that he’s sent into combats, Obama said:

I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

Perhaps the best line of the speech—are you listening, John McCain?—was this one: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Obama asserted that he’s ready to use force when allies are on board, in the context of United Nations support, and under the umbrella of international law—and, although the drone strikes don’t abide those rules, Obama appears to be making an exception for drone attacks as opposed to Iraq-style, or Afghanistan-style, combat. As he put it, “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

Instead, Obama announced a $5 billion plan to support counterterrorism programs in other countries, helping to train, advise and equip nations in Africa and Asia in fighting terrorists in their own neighborhoods. This, of course, could lead to a vast expansion of America’s military presence abroad, if handled wrong. But, handled correctly, it could keep the United States out of wars in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. At least Obama recognized that many of the decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates around the world have “agendas focused in the countries where they operate,” which “lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the [US] homeland.” Here’s how Obama described his idea:

Earlier this year, I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.

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Interestingly, and to the outrage of a semi-apoplectic Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Obama didn’t announce any new plan to arm and train the Syrian opposition, even though such a plan had been rumored for the speech. It may yet happen, especially if operated covertly by the CIA, already much engaged in training Syrian rebels in Jordan. But Obama called the war in Syria “increasingly sectarian,” warned about “the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos,” and pledged to help “confront terrorists working across Syrian borders”—terrorists, that is, who are part of the anti–Bashar al-Assad forces. Unfortunately, and without giving any specifics, he said: “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.” But he then countered that with an emphasis on a political deal to end the war, which of course means working with Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers:

And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World—to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

So read the whole speech. Sometimes when Obama speaks, it’s like he’s giving a pep talk to himself: “Yeah, this is what I believe, what I stand for! Why can’t I live up to it?” Maybe he’ll listen to himself more closely.


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Obama’s Goldilocks Foreign Policy: Is It Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold?


(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

It’s foreign policy week for President Obama. The jet-lagged president, who made a quick, previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend, plans a major speech on Wednesday at West Point to outline his administration’s foreign policy approach. It will, the administration hopes, clear up the confusion that Obama created in late April when, in somewhat off-the-cuff remarks during a news conference with President Aquino, Obama expressed frustration about his critics, especially those who say that he’s not strong or tough enough. (According to the White House, part of Obama’s message on Wednesday can be summed up in four words: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”)

Before we preview Obama’s speech tomorrow—and check back here tomorrow and later in the week, after the speech, for a detailed Nation critique—let’s review some of Obama’s comments back on April 28, in Manila.

In regard to his critics on Syria, he said:

So if you look at Syria, for example, our interest is in helping the Syrian people, but nobody suggests that us being involved in a land war in Syria would necessarily accomplish this goal. And I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops. Well, what do you mean? Well, you should be assisting the opposition—well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria. Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.

And on Ukraine, Obama said:

Well, what else should we be doing? Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in, the critics will say. That’s not what we mean.Well, okay, what are you saying? Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?

And then he summed it up using the now-infamous baseball metaphor:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again. Why? I don’t know.But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it.… We don't do [things] because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong. That's not how we make foreign policy.… And that may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.

Back then, Obama’s comments created pushback from the hawks, who made fun of the president for talking about hitting singles and doubles—even though the president could have pointed out that under President George W. Bush the United States mostly hit into double plays, committed a record number of errors, struck out a lot and finally topped the Chicago Black Sox of 1919 for sheer infamy. In fact, what Obama said, especially in regard to Syria, Iraq and Ukraine was pretty much on the mark. But the White House believes that it’s time for Obama to outline his foreign policy in more concrete and thoughtful detail. We’ll see.

As I’ve written in the past, on a foreign policy scale from one to ten, with left-wing doves at one and neoconservative hawks at ten, Obama falls, Goldilocks-like, nearly exactly in the middle. White House aides, in previewing the speech for reporters, used a weirdly middle-of-the-road description of what Obama’s foreign policy is designed to be, saying that it is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.” In other words, not too hot, not too cold—just right! Yet Obama has alienated many in his base, and among the voters who elected him, by pursuing a global “war on terrorism” and vastly increasing the use of armed drones, while seeming to stumble from interventionist (Libya) to internationalist (Syria) to isolationist (Bahrain) to unilateral (Israel) all at once in the Middle East. And while on Ukraine Obama has wisely refrained from getting involved in a showdown with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose interventionism the United States has little wherewithal to halt, the United States is slowly building up alliances in East Asia in what looks like an effort at containing China that is certain to be even less effective.

According to Politico, Obama will expand on the Goldilocks theme:

At West Point, Obama “will explain how we move out of a period of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to a new stage in our engagement with the world, what we expect to accomplish over the next two and a half years of the administration, and how our approach in hot spots like Ukraine, Iran and Syria fit into that construct,” the official said. “You will hear the president discuss how the United States will use all the tools in our arsenal without overreaching.”

And, raising more questions than it answers is the following comment from a White House official, reported in The New York Times:

Sketching familiar arguments but on a broader canvas, Mr. Obama will emphasize his determination to chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention. The United States, he said, should be at the fulcrum of efforts to curb aggression by Russia and China, though not at the price of “fighting in eight or nine proxy wars.”

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Did he really suggest that the “fulcrum” of US foreign policy will curbing “aggression” by Russia and China? And if “eight or nine proxy wars” is too many, how many is OK? And how many are we in already? (I’d argue that, at the very least, we’re fighting a proxy war against Iran in Syria and a proxy war against Pakistan in Afghanistan, but there are simmering proxy wars in Ukraine, Japan vs. China, parts of Africa and elsewhere—not to mention America’s nearly unilateral support for Israel in its proxy war against the Palestinians. So, perhaps four or five proxy wars are acceptable, but eight or nine aren’t.


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