News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Let’s review the bidding on whether or not the United States is seriously making an effort to prevent war in Gaza and perhaps beyond, with at least seventy-six Palestinians already dead. You’ll recall that in 2009, just before President Obama took office, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pretty much let Israel run amok in Gaza. Is the Obama administration doing any better?
First, here are the official statements. In a July 8 White House briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest said:
Well, let me start by saying that we strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza. No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks. At the same time, we appreciate the call that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has made publicly to act responsibly. We’re concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides. This means both the residents of southern Israel who are forced to live under rocket fire in their homes and the civilians in Gaza who are subjected to the conflict because of Hamas’s violence. As you know, Secretary Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu a couple times over the weekend and reiterated the United States’ concern about escalating tensions and our willingness to engage robustly in helping to stop the rocket fire and restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible. So these kinds of consultations are ongoing. It is not in the interest of either side for this violence to continue and even to escalate. So we are hopeful that even as Israel exercises their right to self-defense that they’ll leave open a channel for diplomacy to prevail and for a ceasefire or at least a de-escalation in the violence to commence.
You’ll note, obviously, that the White House condemned rockets fired by “terrorist organizations” but said that it appreciates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “call” to act responsibly, without a word about massive Palestinian casualties. In Tel Aviv, the American embassy is closed, and over at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki weirdly complained that there is difficult “time change challenge,” given that Secretary of State John Kerry is in China. And then there was this exchange with reporters, in which Psaki said that there is “strong difference between attacks, rocket attacks launched by a terrorist organization that is based in Gaza and the right of Israel to defend itself,” even if Israel recklessly bombs targets like a seaside café in which people were gathered to watch the World Cup. Here’s the exchange:
QUESTION: Okay. He also made very clear time and time again Israel’s right to self-defense. And I asked you about the Palestinians’ right to self-defense. Let me ask you this: The population in Gaza, is it largely Hamas operatives or largely innocent civilians? And if there are larger Hamas operatives, then an argument can be made that they could be targets. But if they are largely civilians, then they should have, certainly, the right to self-defense—
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would simply say there’s a—
QUESTION:—or to protection.
MS. PSAKI:—strong difference between attacks—
QUESTION: Right, I understand.
MS. PSAKI:—rocket attacks launched by a terrorist organization that is based in Gaza and the right of Israel to defend itself. At the same time, as you know, we work closely with the Palestinians. We work closely with the Israelis. And it’s important at this point in time to see if all sides can take steps to de-escalate.
QUESTION: How could you follow or do you have any means of following what is going on on the ground in Gaza in terms of the humanitarian suffering, people that lack water, lack the—of medical care, lack of food, things of that nature. Do you have anyone—
MS. PSAKI: How do we—
QUESTION: Do you have anyone on the ground in Gaza that can monitor the situation?
MS. PSAKI: Said, I think we are concerned about any humanitarian suffering around the world. As you know, that isn’t about sides. That’s about what’s right morally.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration is “sharply limit[ed]” in its ability to help de-escalate the crisis, given the recent collapse of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, and so the United States has no plans to send Kerry to the region to prevent war. Despite loud calls from the Palestinians for the United States to get involved and broker a cease-fire, the Journal reports:
But with the crisis escalating just two months after formal US-led peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians collapsed, the White House isn’t preparing to dispatch Mr. Kerry to the region to broker a cease-fire, these officials said.
In an editorial, the always hawkish Washington Post dismisses the crisis as a “mini-war” and adds that no diplomatic blitz is required:
Obama administration officials argue that this deterioration proves that it was right to pursue a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. In our view, the failed US effort, with its tight timetable and disregard for the obvious unwillingness of leaders on both sides, merely raised expectations that could not be met, making a backlash inevitable. What’s needed is not another diplomatic blitz but a more patient, incremental and sustainable effort to restore trust between Israelis and Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and create the foundations for an eventual settlement. That is if the fire in Gaza can be put out.
At the Electronic Intifada, Medea Benjamin urges President Obama to visit Gaza. But the chances of that happening are about as high as the chance that Obama will preach from the mosque in Mosul, Iraq, where the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria just appeared.
By any measure, the preliminary results of Afghanistan’s runoff vote in the 2014 presidential election, released yesterday, were a shock and a surprise. In the first round, held April 4 among a plethora of candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani emerged to face a runoff on June 14, and in that vote Abdullah led Ghani by nearly 900,000 votes, winning 2.97 million votes to Ghani’s 2.08 million. But the results announced yesterday turned everything on its head, with Ghani credited with 4.86 million to Abdullah’s 3.46 million. Surprisingly, too, turnout in the second round, 7.95 million, surpassed the turnout in the first round, 6.60 million, by well over a million additional votes. Needless to say, Abdullah isn’t pleased, charging fraud and threatening to declare himself the winner anyway and lead a parallel state.
Virtually everyone involved from the outside, including the United States and the United Nations, is urging calm and patience, noting that the results declared on July 7 are only preliminary, and that final results will be released on July 22. Maybe. But massive protests have erupted. And, in the meantime, anything and everything can happen: hundreds of thousands of votes, or even millions, could be thrown out in the course of an investigation, and it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be the ultimate winner—but right now Abdullah is facing a steep uphill climb. The nice, neat and tidy results that Washington was hoping for, leading smoothly to a new government and the implementation of the strategic accord between the United States and Afghanistan that was worked out earlier this year, is up in the air. Parallel with the ugly civil war in Iraq, it’s increasingly likely that Afghanistan, too, could face fragmentation and civil war later this year or in 2015, with the Taliban-led insurgency only one factor.
Even a cursory look at the second-round election results, sorted by province, reveal the deep divide in Afghanistan politics, in which Ghani, a Pashtun, with strength in Afghanistan’s south and east, and Abdullah, a Tajik, with strength in the north and west, won drastically skewed results. In Paktia province, in the southeast, Ghani won 92 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 8 percent, while in Panjshir province, a chief base of the anti-Taliban (and anti-Pashtun) Northern Alliance, Abdullah won 94 percent to Ghani’s 6 percent. Not exactly a sign of national unity! (You can find all of the results, province by province, at the website of Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission.)
A warlord from the north, Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province—where Abdullah won 63 percent of the vote—has already declared that he’ll help lead a government opposed to whatever government Ghani might set up. “From this moment on we announce our own legitimate government led by Abdullah Abdullah,” he said, though it isn’t clear whether he had Abdullah’s support. The United States warned Abdullah’s supporters, and everyone else, to stay away from any such action. Said Secretary of State John Kerry:
I have noted reports of protests in Afghanistan and of suggestions of a “parallel government” with the gravest concern. The United States expects Afghan electoral institutions to conduct a full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities. At the same time, there is no justifiable recourse to violence or threats of violence, or for resort to extra-constitutional measures or threats of the same. The apolitical role of the security forces must be respected by all parties. We call on all Afghan leaders to maintain calm in order to preserve the gains of the last decade and maintain the trust of the Afghan people. Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.
Despite its waning influence, the United States has a lot of muscle because it, and the rest of the international community, provide virtually every dollar of Afghanistan’s budget, including cash to keep its military afloat. But that may not be enough to keep Afghanistan together if the various factions, and the warlords, can’t agree on who’ll get the biggest slice of the pie when the final (adjusted) election results are announced.
Last time around, when President Hamid Karzai was re-elected, there were widespread reports of massive fraud, intimidation and ballot stuffing, and Abdullah is making the same charges in 2014. And, as Ioannis Koskinas wrote last week for Foreign Policy, it isn’t exactly a surprise that fraud was in the offing:
As late as December 2013, the international community knew that there were over 19 million voter registration cards in circulation even though there were only 11 million registered voters, but did not feel compelled to act. It is important to highlight, however, the fact that there has been fraud in this election is no surprise to most credible analysts. But the level of fraud is so significant and surprisingly efficient, that it has surprised even the most cynical pundits, pointing to perhaps a widespread use of the Afghan election instruments (i.e. the Independent Election Commission, or IEC, and the ECC) to facilitate this fraud.
Is it possible that turnout increased by 1.3 million votes in the second round, even though dozens of candidates who’d run in the first round—and who might have attracted constituent votes—had been eliminated? And that nearly all of those additional votes would go to Ghani, and almost none to Abdullah? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem likely. Over at Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili suggests that Ghani “learned to play the tribal game.” She writes:
There is little doubt that Ghani was able to mobilize Pashtuns in the East. Ghani claims he was able to do so by calling upon tribal leaders and mullahs to mobilize voters in their communities. For weeks before the second round of the presidential election, Ghani proudly touted the support of tribes. His twitter feed produced an endless stream of tribal “leaders” promising to deliver the votes of entire lineages.
But it isn’t at all clear that such bloc voting could have generated such a stunning turnaround in just weeks. To get a flavor of the cacophony of the just-concluded runoff, consider the following from Nishank Motwani, an Australian researcher on Afghanistan:
A…development which tarnished the legitimacy of the IEC transpired when its Secretariat Chief, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was stopped by the police chief of Kabul for attempting to transport unused ballot material out of the IEC headquarters after polling had ended. His attempt was broadcast live on Afghan television and the incident sharpened widely held fears of electoral fraud. In the aftermath of this development, neither the IEC nor Amarkhail could offer a reasonable explanation to clarify his actions thereby generating suspicion that the unused ballots were intended for fraudulent use.
The IEC’s initial refusal to suspend or investigate its head of secretariat resulted in Abdullah’s team to cease its cooperation with the IEC and called for U.N.-led mediation. Furthermore, Abdullah’s team appears to have devoted its resources to unveiling Amarkhail’s (and by extension the IEC’s) role in electoral fraud. The latter came to light on 22 June during a press conference from the Abdullah camp where they played intercepted mobile phone conversations that allegedly implicated the Secretariat Chief discussing ways and means to trip the electoral process in favor of the rival presidential candidate. While the audio recordings have not been verified for their authenticity, their release has intensified the political crisis and has cast a fear that tensions might escalate and lead to violence. Since this incident unfolded, Amarkhail stepped down from his position and “strongly rejected” the accusations made against him. Making matters worse, new reports indicate that Amarkhail quietly left Kabul on a flight bound for Dubai. It is unsurprising that such precarious events have failed to inspire confidence or rebuild trust for the IEC in the public’s viewpoint.
In any case, poor, battered Afghanistan will have to negotiate once again a bitter, contested and perhaps violent battle over election results and then hope that it’s corrupt and venal politicians and warlords can come to an accommodation about what the next government will look like. And the man who’s been in the middle of it all for the United States, James Dobbins, the special envoy for Afghanistan, will soon be leaving his post, to be replaced by Daniel Feldman.
Read Next: Haaretz, commenting on murder in Israel, says extremists are ‘“vermin”.
With Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed shuttle diplomacy long dead and forgotten—and with President Obama seemingly unwilling to say much at all about the Israel-Palestine crisis—it’s getting ugly again, amid talk of a new intifada. (Of course, a new intifada is the last thing the Palestinians need, if it turns violent.) And what is ugliest about the current violence is the shocking crime committed by “nationalist” (read extremist) Israelis against an unarmed and defenseless boy. It isn’t surprising that Israel’s settler-right and other religious and political extremists might use unchecked violence against the Palestinians living under occupation, since that happens every day. But as in many such situations, a single, highly personal traumatic event can create shock waves that ordinary “statistical” violence doesn’t generate. Thus, listen to the authors of an editorial in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily that sometimes serves as Israel’s conscience. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:
There are no words to describe the horror allegedly done by six Jews to Mohammed Abu Khdeir of Shoafat. Although a gag order bars publication of details of the terrible murder and the identities of its alleged perpetrators, the account of Abu Khdeir’s family—according to which the boy was burned alive—would horrify any mortal. Anyone who is not satisfied with this description, can view the horror movie in which members of Israel’s Border Police are seen brutally beating Tariq Abu Khdeir, the murder victim’s 15-year-old cousin.
The Israel Police was quick to label the murderers “Jewish extremists,” meaning they aren’t part of the herd, they are outliers, “wild weeds.” This is the police’s way of trying to justify a sin, to “make the vermin kosher.” But the vermin is huge, and many-legged. It has embraced the soldiers and other young Israelis who overran the social media networks with calls for revenge and with hatred for Arabs. The vermin was welcomed by Knesset members, rabbis and public figures who demanded revenge. Nor did it skip over the prime minister, who declared “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.”
Abu Khdeir’s murderers are not “Jewish extremists.” They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of “the Jewish state”: Those for whom every Arab is a bitter enemy, simply because they are Arab; those who were silent at the Beitar Jerusalem games when the team’s fans shouted “death to Arabs” at Arab players; those who call for cleansing the state of its Arab minority, or at least to drive them out of the homes and cities of the Jews.
No less responsible for the murder are those who did not halt, with an iron hand, violence by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians, and who failed to investigate complaints “due to lack of public interest.” The term “Jewish extremists” actually seems more appropriate for the small Jewish minority that is still horrified by these acts of violence and murder. But they too recognize, unfortunately, that they belong to a vengeful, vindictive Jewish tribe whose license to perpetrate horrors is based on the horrors that were done to it.
Prosecuting the murderers is no longer sufficient. There must be a cultural revolution in Israel. Its political leaders and military officers must recognize this injustice and right it. They must begin raising the next generation, at least, on humanist values, and foster a tolerant public discourse. Without these, the Jewish tribe will not be worthy of its own state.
If you’ve read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, an important investigation into the culture and beliefs of Israel’s far right (and you can read my review of Goliath in Middle East Policy), then you know that for decades the intolerant, Arab-hating radicals who thrive both in the occupied West Bank and in Israel proper have been gaining momentum for decades, and so Haaretz is right on point in calling for a “cultural revolution” and for arguing that the radical “vermin is huge, and many legged.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crocodile tears over the death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir are belied by his decision to order airstrikes against Hamas and other, more extreme Palestinian Islamists in Gaza, strikes that accomplish nothing but to inflame passions even further while allowing the prime minister to exercise his “vengeance.”
The kidnapping and execution of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian thugs does not, of course, justify the murder of Khdeir. That, too, was a horrific crime, and it can’t be excused by saying that it was a legitimate form of resistance to Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank. But there is clearly an imbalance here: Israel is all-powerful and militarily supreme in the occupied West Bank, and its Jewish radicals have the support and encouragement of the Israeli state, while a battered and flailing Palestinian Authority government manages to exercise little or no actual “authority” in the areas in which it has nominal control, and its radicals, extremists and murderers are spawned in the hellish conditions under which they live.
Meanwhile, Khdeir’s cousin was savagely beaten, arrested and jailed in a clear instance of police brutality. That event reached the corridors of the State Department in Washington, which issued the following comment (in its entirety) on July 5:
We can confirm that Tariq Khdeir, an American citizen, is being held by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem. He was visited by an official from the US Consulate General in Jerusalem today. We are profoundly troubled by reports that he was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force. We are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for any excessive use of force. We reiterate our grave concern about the increasing violent incidents, and call on all sides to take steps to restore calm and prevent harm to innocents.
That was followed, on July 6, by this statement, also in its entirety, from State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki:
There was a hearing today at 11:15 AM this morning (July 6) where it was agreed by the judge that Tariq would be released under house arrest while the criminal investigation is conducted. An official from the US Consulate General was at that hearing. Mr. Khudeir’s family was asked to post bail and Tariq is restricted to his uncle’s home in the Beit Hanina area of East Jerusalem. He is also permitted to make arrangements to visit medical facilities if needed. If the investigation is concluded promptly, Mr. Khudeir should be able to return to Florida as planned with his family later this month. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. We are profoundly troubled by reports that he was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force. As we stated yesterday we are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for the apparent excessive use of force.
It’s hard to remember the last time that the State Department condemned Israeli violence without issuing an “on-the-other-hand” type of “balance.”
And if there’s any hope in any of this, it’s that Yishai Fraenkel, whose nephew, Naftali Fraenkel, was one of the three murdered Israeli teens, spoke by telephone with Hussein Abu Khdeir, the father of the murdered Palestinian, and presumably both exchanged condolences.
One key to solving the ISIS crisis is hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus, and his name is Bashar al-Assad. Demonized by the United States and by neoconservatives long before he waged a ruthless, take-no-prisoners blitzkrieg against the American- and Saudi-supported rebellion that began in 2011, Assad has proved to everyone (with the possible exception of Secretary of State John Kerry) that he’s staying put, at least for the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, Assad has won the civil war in Syria, and short of an Iraq-style invasion—which isn’t in the cards— there’s no way for the United States to oust Assad. Which is a good thing, because his ouster would immeasurably strengthen the extremists who’ve led the fight against him, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now “the Islamic State,” the Caliphate-mongering radicals who are an Al Qaeda offshoot. On the other hand, by ending its support for the Syrian rebels, who don’t have a prayer anyway, the United States would strengthen Assad and allow him to crush ISIS.
It’s gradually dawning on America’s foreign policy establishment that Assad isn’t going anywhere. Back in December, a foresighted Ryan Crocker—no weenie, having served as US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars—suggested that the United States ought to accept that Assad has won. In a December 21 New York Times op-ed, Crocker wrote:
It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.… Better armed, organized, supported and motivated, Assad isn’t going. Most likely, he will get the country back, inch by bloody inch. Perhaps Al Qaeda will hold a few enclaves in the north. But he will hold Damascus. And do we really want the alternative—a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda? So we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad—and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.
Assad, who’s wrongly been accused of covertly supporting ISIS, last week joined the war against ISIS in Iraq officially, sending his air force into Iraq—with the support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government—to bomb ISIS positions near the Syria-Iraq border. Taking note of that, Leslie Gelb—another US foreign policy graybeard—opined that the United States ought to ally itself with Assad’s potent forces:
The second step of this strategy is to set President Bashar al-Assad of Syria against the jihadis in Iraq, an offensive he started on his own with airstrikes last week. This would acknowledge the reality of Iraq and Syria as one strategic, anti-jihadi battlefield. But instead of capitalizing on Mr. Assad’s anti-jihadi instincts, the Obama team now proposes to do what it has resisted doing for almost three years—to send hundreds of millions of dollars in arms aid for the Sunni rebels battling the Assad government. This move has American priorities backward. It will turn Mr. Assad away from the jihadis in Iraq, and back to fighting American-backed rebels in Syria.
From the start, President Obama’s wrongheaded support for the anti-Assad revolt is what led directly to ISIS’ resurgence. By calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011 and 2012, by green-lighting Saudi and Turkish aid to the rebels, by ordering the CIA to train anti-Assad forces in Jordan, by drawing red lines that he couldn’t enforce, and by supplying those ragtag rebels, Obama unleashed hellish forces in Syria that neither he nor his Saudi and Turkish partners could control. Unspeakable atrocities have been committed on both sides, and it’s obvious that Assad is no friend of humanity. But he’s there, and he’s better than ISIS.
According to Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast, there’s an actual debate going on inside the White House and the State Department over whether to call it quits in Syria. Writes Rogin:
There’s a battle raging inside the Obama administration about whether the United States ought to push away from its goal of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and into a de facto alliance with the Damascus regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.… The 3 1/2-year grinding civil war is Syria has been put on a back burner for now. Some officials inside the administration are proposing that the drive to remove Assad from power, which Obama announced as U.S. policy in 2012, be set aside, too. The focus, these officials argue, should instead be on the region’s security and stability. Governments fighting for survival against extremists should be shored up, not undermined.
Some analysts suggest that there’s an emerging “Shiite crescent” or a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus “axis,” but that way too simplistic. True, in battling ISIS, all three governments ought to be seen as potential partners of the United States. But Assad, while an ally of Iran’s, isn’t an Iranian stooge, and he’s not really even a Shiite. And, whatever the eventual outcome of the civil war in Iraq, it won’t eliminate the Sunnis there, who will continue to press their claims for a share of power in Baghdad, with the support of the Arab heartland. And Iran has no imperial interest in the Arab world. It’s interest in Iraq is to prevent the emergence of a threat to Iran, and it’s interest in Syria and in Lebanon’s Hezbollah is mostly as leverage against Israel and its continued threats to bomb Iran over its nuclear program. So the solution in the Syria-Iraq civil war is political and diplomatic, not military. And it starts with an entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are alarmed by ISIS’ recent gains, and both of which can vastly influence their proxies in Syria and Iraq.
Read Next: Will Obama strike a nuclear deal with Iran?
Let’s parse, if you will, Rear Adm. John Kirby’s press briefing at the Pentagon, which focused heavily on Iraq and the American actions so far is trying to stem the tide of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) nee the Islamic State-cum-Caliphate. His comments, especially in response to questions from a fairly skeptical media corps—thankfully, more skeptical than the 2002–03 media on Iraq—reveal a potentially slippery slope toward escalation in Iraq, in which President Obama has already ordered an incremental series of military deployments there.
As Admiral Kirby laid it out, to begin with:
So the first order was the on the 16th of June for 270—actually, it was up to 275, is what the War Powers Resolution letter said, but roughly 270 is what we ordered up inside the military channels. A hundred and seventy of them got on the ground that same day—actually, as you know, they kind of flowed in a little bit before the war powers letter went to Congress. So back then, we had a total of 270 authorized, 170 in country.…
The second order, the second War Powers Resolution letter went on the 26th of June. That authorized up to 300 advise and assess troops, advisers. And on the 27th of June, 180 had been in country. That’s—so you have 90 supporting the joint operations center in Baghdad and another 90 that comprised our assessment and advise teams. That brought the total to 570 authorized, but 350 actually on the ground.…
The third order came on the 30th of June yesterday. That was for an additional 200 in the security assistance mission, separate and distinct from the assessment mission, an additional 200, and all 200 of them are now in and around Baghdad.
So in total the president sent troops to Iraq three times, on June 16, June 27 and June 30. As Kirby put it: “And then so all that comes down to the bottom there, a total of 770 authorized, 650 on the ground. And that’s where we are right now.”
The first question involved the weaponry that the troops are bringing with them, including helicopters, drones and so on. Kirby said that the aircraft include “a mix of helicopters and UAVs [drones],” adding, “The helicopters are attack helicopters, Apaches.” And, he said, they’ll be flown by American crews, not Iraqis.
Kirby was asked about whether the stepped-up deployment is a sign that things are getting worse in Iraq, and if that means that more deployments might follow, and he didn’t quite answer, saying only that “our assessment teams are, are just getting, well, not just now starting, they’ve been working. We need to give them time to get out and about and to come back with their findings, so I’m not going to get ahead of that work or what they’ll report back.” Which led to this exchange:
QUESTION: So you can’t say now if the situation is getting worse or not?
ADM. KIRBY: I’m not—I’m not—I certainly wouldn’t—I would be in no position to declare, you know, the meter today one way or the other. It continues to be very dangerous. The threat continues to be very real.
When a reporter asked if there is “ceiling that the Pentagon won’t go beyond that when it comes to number of troops,” Kirby said only that the president as commander in chief “makes these decisions.”
Still, the media pushed him, asking, “Should we expect additional deployments in the near term?” Kirby didn’t answer that one. So the press tried again:
QUESTION Nonetheless, the president has added three times in the last two weeks additional troops, and you have just acknowledged that, in your words, there is no grand total limit on this at this point. So my question is, with all respect, how is this not escalation? How is this not mission creep?… What is the exit strategy?
ADM. KIRBY: …There’s—there’s no mission creep, because the missions have been clearly defined from almost the outset.
Since first getting back in, the United States has now moved to protect the airport in Baghdad and the access road linking the capital to the airport, which during the 2003–11 war was a major point of contention between the United States and the insurgency. A reporter asked a bout the airport deployment, and about why the Iraqis can’t protect their own airport, but Kirby made it clear that the United States doesn’t trust Iraq in regard to the safety of US troops who will be flying into the airport. And then this:
QUESTION: I don’t mean to take too much time here, but one more time. Two weeks ago, there was no discussion of needing to have U.S. troops at the Baghdad airport. For whatever reason now.…
ADM. KIRBY: No, that’s not true.… Two weeks ago, when—on the 16th of June when we ordered those 100 airport security personnel into the region—now, we kept them outside of Iraq, but we ordered them into the region because we had even back on the 16th of June reason to be concerned about the security of our facilities and our people at the airport.
Since the ISIS offensive began, Iraq has gotten help from both Iran and Russia. Iran, a close ally of Iraq, will defend Baghdad as it’s defended Damascus in Syria’s civil war (also against ISIS), and recently Russia has sent fighter jets, technicians and pilots to Iraq, amid broad hints from Iraqi officials that they’ll turn to Moscow if Washington doesn’t step up:
QUESTION: Can you confirm a report that the Russian pilots are going to fly these fighter jets that Iraq has purchased? And if they are, does this building have concerns about Russian forces operating aircraft over top of U.S. forces operating on the ground?
ADM. KIRBY: No, I can’t confirm—you know, the Russian Ministry of Defense should talk about what they’re doing with their pilots. I can’t do that. It’s my understanding that these aircraft were purchased for the use—for use by Iraqi pilots, but you’d have to talk to Moscow about what they’re doing with their planes and their pilots.… There are no active discussions with the Russian military now about what they are or are not doing in Iraq. These are—Iraq is a sovereign nation.
And this follow-up:
QUESTION: How concerned are you—the Iraqi ambassador this morning was talking about if Iraq doesn’t get what it needs from the U.S., again requesting air strikes, says they may turn to Iran for those types of capabilities. To what extent, as you put more and more forces on the ground, does it concern you that Iraq is saying “not enough and you’re not doing the job, so we’ll turn to the Iranians.”
ADM. KIRBY: Again, it’s a sovereign state, sovereign government. They have the right to speak to whoever they wish to in terms of security discussions. I would just go back to what I said before, that we continue to urge all nations involved and interested in this to whatever actions they take, whatever decisions they make, that it doesn’t further inflame the sectarian tension on the ground there. And we’ve had that message consistently from the beginning, particularly that’s been our message to Tehran and it doesn’t change. But we can neither control nor can we dictate the discussions that one head of state has with another.
Asked if the involvement of Iran might make the United States role “untenable,” Kirby said that, in fact, the United States might be able to work alongside Iran, as least in parallel if not in direct cooperation.
Then, answering a follow-up on drones, Kirby said that the drones now in Iraq are not either Predators or Reapers, the deadly drones used in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but apparently smaller ones. He said that the United States will be sending Iraq additional F-16s soon, and more Hellfire missiles for Iraqi aircraft. “There’s hundreds of other Hellfires that I know are being expedited to go to Iraq,” he said.
The press followed up on Iran:
QUESTION Do you see any possible cooperation with Iran to counter ISIS in Iraq? As you may know, Chairman [of the Joint Chief General Martin] Dempsey last Friday didn’t rule out the possibility to—to cooperate with—with Iran. So what’s your reaction on that?
ADM. KIRBY: I would say what I’ve said before, alright. There are no plans right now to collaborate or communicate about military activities between the United States military and either the Quds Force or the Iranian military, no plans to—coordinate military activities at all.
As I’ve written before, the United States is backing Maliki in Baghdad and battling Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran supports both Maliki and Assad. And ISIS is fighting both. So the American policy is clearly schizophrenic. If the United States were to end its support for the anti-Assad forces, they would free Assad’s troops to crush ISIS in Syria’s northern and eastern areas, and that would ease the pressure on Baghdad. As Leslie Gelb wrote in a New York Times op-ed on July 1:
But instead of capitalizing on Mr. Assad’s anti-jihadi instincts, the Obama team now proposes to do what it has resisted doing for almost three years—to send hundreds of millions of dollars in arms aid for the Sunni rebels battling the Assad government. This move has American priorities backward. It will turn Mr. Assad away from the jihadis in Iraq, and back to fighting American-backed rebels in Syria.
The greatest threat to American interests in the region is ISIS, not Mr. Assad. To fight this enemy, Mr. Obama needs to call on others similarly threatened: Iran, Russia, Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, Jordan, Turkey—and above all, the political leader with the best-armed forces in the region, Mr. Assad. Part of the deal would need to be that the Syrian regime and the rebels largely leave each other alone.
It’s ugly in Syria and Iraq (and, as we shall see, the Obama administration seems to want to make the war in Syria worse), but there’s been some good news out of Syria this week: the joint US-Russian plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has worked—to the chagrin, no doubt, of the hawks and neoconservatives who said it wouldn’t. We’ll wait for their apology, right after they apologize for the war in Iraq.
Here’s an excerpt of the press release from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with the task:
A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour. … The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
In an editorial titled “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” The New York Times says:
Less than a year ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his forces were sporadically using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the civil war. Today, the stockpile that he grudgingly admitted to under international pressure is gone. … President Obama’s critics excoriated the deal, but they have been proved wrong. The chemical weapons are now out of the hands of a brutal dictator—and all without firing a shot.
A feature article in The Washington Post makes it clear that the incredibly difficult logistics of locating, packing up, transporting (through a war zone) and loading onto ships of all XXX was done with the cooperation of not only the United States and Russia, plus the Syrian government, but Iran, too:
The Iranians, [Sigrid Kaag, who heads the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW] said, provided technical advice. “They obviously lived through a terrible chemical weapons experience themselves,” when the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein made liberal use of chemicals during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “They see themselves as quite committed to eliminating the use of chemical weapons anywhere. “They’ve also been helpful to us in contacts with Syrian authorities . . . in amplifying our messages, validating our approach,” Kaag said.
Some of the idiots who said it “couldn’t be done” include Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, former Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, neocon scribbler Peter Feaver, right-wing Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the reliable neoconservative skeptics at the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Iraq war architect Douglas Feith, the usual suspects at the “thinktank” called the Foreign Policy Initiative (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman) and, well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, weirdly, Secretary of State John Kerry seems intent to sending more aid to the supposed moderates of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The right strategy, given that the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gobbling up territory in both countries, would be halt aid to the anti-Assad forces, since that would free up Assad’s military to go after ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. But, as the Associated Press reports, the Syrian “moderates” are hopelessly disorganized and outgunned. The Los Angeles Times reports “deep divisions, clashing rivalries and considerable disarray within the Syrian National Coalition.” Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? It’s time to surrender in the Syrian war.
At the end of the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film, Fargo, the intrepid law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) famously addresses the less-than-competent bad guy after she’s arrested him:
And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
One might say the same thing about the less-than-competent bad guy who is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin: And for what? What, exactly, has Putin accomplished by stoking fires in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, mobilizing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, backing thuggish separatists who’ve created ersatz “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, bringing economic sanctions down on Russia, and destroying whatever good will Russia had built up by hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics? Well. I just don’t understand it.
There’s reason to be optimistic, of course, that the fighting in Ukraine will wind down, that an accord will be reached, and that the surprise talks between Kiev and at least some of the rebels will succeed.
But the entire crisis might have been avoided if Russia hadn’t gotten its britches in an uproar just because Ukraine—run, by the way, back in 2013 by a corrupt but mostly pro-Russian wheeler-dealer—wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For most Ukrainians, linking up with the EU was a no-brainer—after all, what Ukrainian in his right mind, if that mind weren’t clouded by pro-Russian political or religious ideology, would prefer to tie Ukraine’s economy to the crumbling Russian one and its powerful economic alliance with, well, Kazakhstan? Now, after all the hubbub, the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko—far less pro-Russian than his predecessor, though still a wheeler-dealer and probably corrupt—says that he’ll sign an association agreement with the EU on June 27.
Of course, none of that means that the Ukraine crisis is over, just yet. For reasons that remain unclear, in terms of what he can accomplish, Putin is still apparently keeping the flame of rebellion in eastern Ukraine flickering, even secretly supplying the rebels there with a limited number of tanks and heavy weapons. The Kremlin is still making a fuss about the idea of Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, and Russia can create trouble in breakaway mini-republics in all three countries. Still, it seems obvious that every move that Putin has made has backfired, blown up in his face, and made things worse for him—except, perhaps, at home, where Putin has rallied ultranationalists, ex-CPSU types and the religious right to his side. But by creating a crisis over Ukraine, Putin has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches into relations between Russia and both Europe and the United States, allowed Washington to pressure the Europeans to increase military spending, strengthened advocates of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, given hawks new leverage in the United States against President Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, and more. Way to go, Vlad!
As The Washington Post, in reporting the new efforts between the EU and the three eastern European nations, noted:
Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating. The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.
Putin, who’s blinked and blinked again during the crisis, is sending mixed signals, and it’s unclear if and how he’ll react to the EU signings. On one hand, he’s been speaking regularly with Poroshenko—yesterday, together with the leaders of Germany and France—and he’s endorsed the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks between Kiev and the rebels. And in a symbolic act—though not a practical one—Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to withdraw its authorization for Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, however, the Russians have apparently moved military units back to the Ukrainian border, after having withdrawn most of them earlier, and according to US officials Russia is allowing some heavy weapons, including tanks, to move across the border into the rebels’ hands. Worse, the rebels seem to have gotten their hands on some sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, which they’ve used to deadly effect.
So what is Putin trying to accomplish, given everything that the Ukraine crisis has cost him? Despite some fears that Russia wanted to swallow Ukraine whole, à la Crimea—never a likely outcome—it seems obvious that Putin is in part trapped by and in part fueling the almost romantic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine. Is it to create a mini-state inside Ukraine that will weaken Kiev and give Russia leverage over the country? Is it something else? Time will tell.
Read Next: Did the Obama-Putin encounter help ease the Ukraine crisis?
How weird, weird, weird is the Iraq-Syria civil war? Well, consider this: not only is the United States increasingly involved in military support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-sectarian government, but it finds itself in direct military alliance not only with Iran but with Syria, too.
Unlike the United States, which supports the Baghdad government against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq but supports ISIS’ allies in the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran strongly backs both Maliki and Assad. Now Syria, which is battling not only ISIS but other Islamist fanatics in Syria who have US and Saudi support, is intervening militarily in Iraq in support of Maliki! According to the Associated Press:
A US official says there are indications Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq yesterday to slow the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.… The US official said the strikes appear to be the work of the Assad government but offered no other details.
Meanwhile, The New York Times today carries an extensive account of Iran’s military support for the government of Iraq, including massive arms shipments, surveillance drones and military advisers:
Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
Rather hilariously, the Times quotes that noted geopolitical strategist, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) saying, “The Iranians are playing in a big way in Iraq.” Well, duh, senator: Iran has been active in Iraqi politics, military affairs, economics and intelligence since long before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the United States topped Iran’s chief enemy and handed Iraq over to the control of Shiite groups closely affiliated with Iran since the 1980s.
Running the show in Iraq for Iran is General Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its foreign intelligence arm. Soleimani is the coordinator of Iranian support for both Syria and Iraq against ISIS as well as against other Sunni-led forces supported by Saudi Arabia. And, according to the Times, Soleimani is less willing than some of Iran’s political leaders to cooperate with the United States. Indeed, those who believe that the United States can work with Iran in Iraq while opposing Iran in Syria ought to have their heads examined. The Iraq-Syria crisis is now a single war, and one can’t end without the other. That means that Washington has to sit down with Tehran to discuss Iraq and Syria simultaneously. And since the United States isn’t part of the neighborhood, Iran’s interests in the region—in having a nonthreatening, Iran-leaning government in Iraq and an ally in Syria that can work with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon—are paramount. Long distance, there’s not a lot that the United States can do about any of this, other than to seek a diplomatic accord among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that takes into account all three countries’ strategic needs.
Inside Iraq, a new political coalition could conceivably emerge to replace Maliki with a broader, more unifying government that could appeal to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But it’s hard to see that happening until the various parties test the limits of what they can win on the ground. The ISIS forces are every day getting more support from Sunni tribal military councils and the Baath party, especially in the battle for control of Iraq’s main oil refinery/power plant complex, while Maliki is falling back on Iranian support and on uncontrollable Shiite militias, including forces led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, the greedy Kurds—taking advantage of Baghdad’s weakness—have seized control of Kirkuk and no doubt plan further expansionism on the way to their imagined, but impossible, “independent Kurdistan.” (It’s sad to see The Nation publishing outright Kurdish propaganda, too.)
As long as Iraqi factions believe that they can win by fighting, the war will go on. In the end, perhaps some accord can be reached by which Iraq holds together, but that will depend on serious outreach by Baghdad to Sunnis (including the Baath party) and Kurds.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss, on the folly of helping Iraq’s shattered army.
As the joint civil war in Iraq and Syria expands—and now Israel has joined the fight—Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Baghdad to do, well, what exactly?
Let’s give Dick Cheney credit for saying the obvious: that by sending 300 American special forces to Iraq, nearly three years after the United States pulled the last of its forces out, Washington is trying to do long-distance with a handful of troops what it had initially thought to do with 20,000-plus residual forces. (That was the level proposed by the US military in 2011, far beyond what President Obama would accept and, in any case, 20,000-plus more than the number that Maliki might accept, which was zero.)
So now the United States proposes “intense and sustained” help for Iraq, says Kerry—maybe including airstrikes. But can the Iraqi armed forces, which suffered a breathtaking collapse after the start of the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), be saved? Maybe not. In today’s newspapers, all three major US dailies—The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, take long, sad looks at the state of Iraq’s hollowed-out, politicized and demoralized security forces. It’s not a pretty picture.
The Times calls Iraq’s army a “defeated force.” It quotes US officials who say that five of Iraq’s fourteen army divisions—including the two overrun in days in Mosul—are “combat ineffective,” and it cites a thinktank official who says that sixty of the 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot be accounted for, and all their equipment is lost.” (Much of the materiel, of course, is now in the hands of ISIS.) Adds the Times, “morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.” Much of the corruption, of course, starts with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who replaced semi-competent commanders, many US-trained, with loyal but wildly corrupt and incompetent Shiite officers.
The Post, in a deeply pessimistic story, says that the Iraqi army faces “psychological collapse.” Quoting former US Ambassador James Jeffrey—who cites “sycophantic generals,” low morale and a sectarian Shiite volunteer force as key problems—the Post adds:
The crisis in the armed forces is a result of corruption, poor leadership and intelligence, and severe inattention to training, said a former US adviser to the Iraqi armed forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Those problems have turned what was a functioning military when US troops withdrew in 2011 into an “empty shell that is resorting to a call to arms of men and boys off the street,” he said. He added that the scale of the reverses this month has been “catastrophic.”
Says the Post, the Iraqi army is “bleak,” “in shambles” and “will take years to restructure.”
Meanwhile, a pair of articles in The Wall Street Journal build on this theme. The first, titled, “Iraq Army’s Ability to Fight Raises Worry,” reports:
Across the military US military personnel found the Iraqis were failing to properly maintain equipment. Training standards have declined sharply from 2011, when US military forces advised Iraqi units.
And it says that the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul fled so quickly in part because they believed that the city would have risen up against them, in support of ISIS and its allies—including Sunni tribal militias and the forces led by the Baath party. Like many other sources, the Journal also suggests that the commanding officers of the Iraqi forces in Mosul and other parts of the north and west either sold the territory to ISIS and its allies or were otherwise complicit in the takeover. (Maliki, while recruiting thousands of Shiite-sectarian volunteers now, is planning show trials of commanders.)
A second Journal piece, recounting a secret 2013 US effort to aid Iraq’s military, says that the United States tried to build a “fusion intelligence” center in Iraq last year, but it failed in part because of Iraqi resistance to the idea. And the article reports shock at the highest levels of the US government when the scope of Iraq’s military crisis emerged months ago:
Administration and congressional officials say the US also miscalculated the readiness of Iraqi forces: The White House’s limited investment in the intelligence center was driven at least in part by the assumption that Iraqi forces would be more competent, the official said. Then, at the end of April, the Pentagon dispatched a team of special-operations personnel to assess the capabilities of Iraq’s security forces, a defense official said. The assessment they brought back was bleak: Sunni Army officers had been forced out, overall leadership had declined, the Iraqi military wasn’t maintaining its equipment and had stopped conducting rigorous training. The response in Washington, summed up by a senior US official, was: “Whoa, what the hell happened here?”
That phrase—“whoa, what the hell happened here?”—could be the mantra for the entire US involvement in Iraq. The utter collapse of the Iraqi armed forces is so bad that it raises serious questions about Obama’s supposed option of launching drone attacks and other airstrikes against ISIS forces in the north. It’s obvious that Iraq’s problem is political, not military, and so Kerry’s haphazard effort to reconstitute a new Iraqi government may be the only (long-term) way out of the crisis. Building a new Iraqi government that is inclusive of Sunnis, rather than launching a political war against them, and which negotiates a new accord with the Kurds in the northeast, is the only way to stabilize Iraq. But Kerry—who’s been meeting with a wide range of Iraqi politicians—can’t do it himself, and he’ll need to get buy-in from Iran and other neighbors of Iraq. Meanwhile, Maliki’s effort to recruit Shiite militiamen for his shattered army will only create more sympathy for ISIS and its Sunni allies across Anbar and other parts of Iraq. (The same goes for American airstrikes, which will be seen as using US firepower on behalf of the Shiites, not Iraq.)
It’ll get a lot worse before it gets better.
Read Next: Obama sets the US on a slippery slope to war in Iraq.
President Obama’s statement and answers to questions at a mini–news conference at the White House yesterday—and you can read the whole transcript at the White House’s site—signals a major shift by the United States on Iraq, which Obama has been trying to forget since 2011. And it’s s sign—as I’ve argued repeatedly here and as The Washington Post reported in a separate piece today, noting that the administration “has begun to consider the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge”—that the civil war in Syria and the civil war in Iraq have become one. But it’s a crisis that needs a political-diplomatic response, and not a military one. Unfortunately, Obama is doing both, and that’s not good.
On one hand, the president is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe, the Middle East and Baghdad in a diplomatic push, and the United States is signaling to all of Iraq’s political factions that it favors getting rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and creating a government of national unity there. Because doing so means getting buy-ins from Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, accomplishing that will require some intricate diplomatic maneuvering, and finding a replacement for Maliki—who won’t go easily—will be very, very difficult. (Believe it or not, there’s even talk that Maliki might be replaced by that wily wheeler-dealer Ahmad Chalabi, though he’s likely no one’s first or second choice.)
But, on the other hand, Obama has set into motion actions likely to expand the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT, “rhymes with jihad”) from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa deep into Iraq, too, with drones and airstrikes. In his announcement that he’s sending an additional 300 US forces to Iraq, the president made it clear that the US military is getting ready to target the bad guys of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the air. He said that the United States has “significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq [and] positioned additional US military assets in the region.” And he added ominously, “Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with [ISIS]. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action.”
Worse, it seems clear that the United States is also considering a significant expansion of military support to Syria’s “moderate” rebels in the civil war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and in this context the president cited his just-announced $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.” Never mind that, in fact, the United States is thus on both sides of the same war, fighting Sunni rebels in Iraq and supporting them in Syria. (Both Iran and Saudi Arabia exhibit no such schizophrenic behavior, with Iran backing the governments in Baghdad and Damascus and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels, though not ISIS, in both Syria and Iraq.) The real problem with bombing ISIS is that there’s no way to avoid civilian casualties, which will increase Sunni tribal and Baathist support—already strong—for the ISIS-led offensive. And unless a new government of national unity, inclusive of Sunnis, comes into power tout de suite in Baghdad, the United States will be going to war on Maliki’s behalf, and jointly with Iran, against Iraq’s Sunni minority—or at least that’s how it will be seen by those on both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide.
On the diplomatic front, Obama made it pretty clear that he’s calling for regime change in Iraq—“a new government should convene as soon as possible”—and that Kerry’s mission is designed to foster that:
The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners. And just as all Iraq’s neighbors must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists.
Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds—all Iraqis—must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities. Now that the results of Iraq’s recent election has been certified, a new parliament should convene as soon as possible. The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
And Obama signaled to Iran that Tehran can help stabilize Iraq:
Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive and that if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected. If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation and the prospect for government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term.
Indeed, since the beginning of the ISIS offensive Iran has said repeatedly that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds need to work together against ISIS. On the other hand, Iran will exercise its veto power over the next prime minister of Iraq, which means that someone like Ayad Allawi—the secular Shiite who has lots of Sunni support—won’t be named. And just as the United States is getting involved militarily in Iraq, Iran is already deeply engaged with Iraq’s armed forces and Shiite militia, and General Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force has been visiting Baghdad to explore how Iran might get even more involved.
The action by Obama is something ordered up by neoconservatives, however, but by pro-military, liberal interventionists inside the administration. Outside the administration, they’re allied with people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security, both Democratic-leaning. (It’s especially ironic to see the Center of American Progress and its chief national security analyst, Brian Katulis, supporting airstrikes in Iraq, having led the charge in 2008 for the United States to withdraw unilaterally from Iraq.)
At yesterday’s news conference, Jim Acosta, evidently a dim bulb, stupidly asked Obama if he had any “regrets” about his “decision” to leave Iraq in 2011, picking up on a nonsensical trope from neocons and Dick Cheney who accuse Obama of abandoning Iraq when the last US forces pulled out back then. Did Acosta not know that the decision to pull the troops out in 2011 was made by President George W. Bush in 2008, and that in fact Obama—disappointing his antiwar base—tried to extend that deadline, but that Iraq said no? Anyway, Obama set him straight. Here’s the full exchange:
Q Just very quickly, do you wish you had left a residual force in Iraq? Any regrets about that decision in 2011?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government. We offered a modest residual force to help continue to train and advise Iraqi security forces. We had a core requirement which we require in any situation where we have US troops overseas, and that is, is that they’re provided immunity since they’re being invited by the sovereign government there, so that if, for example, they end up acting in self-defense if they are attacked and find themselves in a tough situation, that they’re not somehow hauled before a foreign court. That’s a core requirement that we have for US troop presence anywhere.
The Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki declined to provide us that immunity. And so I think it is important though to recognize that, despite that decision, that we have continued to provide them with very intensive advice and support and have continued throughout this process over the last five years to not only offer them our assistance militarily, but we’ve also continued to urge the kinds of political compromises that we think are ultimately necessary in order for them to have a functioning, multi-sectarian democracy inside the country.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to fix the Iraq crisis