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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

How Should Obama Deal With a World Engulfed in War?

Obama

President Obama discusses the situation in Iraq June 19, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

It’s hard to remember a time—we’re talking even way back in the bad old days of the Cold War—when things were such a mess. It’s hard even to count the number of wars underway right at the moment, but let’s list at least some of them: there’s the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the civil strife in eastern Ukraine, the twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s assault on Taliban strongholds, virtual civil war in Libya, general conflicts across Africa (Nigeria, Mali, the Sudans, Somalia and of course in the eastern Congo/Uganda region), drone strikes and civil war in Yemen. To that list we might add tensions pitting China against Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and, of course, the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. And then there’s the immigration crisis at the border. (You might be able to think of some I’ve neglected to mention.)

At the beginning of July, the surprise offensive by the Al Qaeda–like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the headlines. Though it hasn’t gone away, it’s essentially been eclipsed by the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza and by the crisis in Ukraine, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s irredentist claim to defend Russians everywhere and culminating in the shootdown of Flight MH17. In normal times, any one of these crises, each one of which brings unbearable losses of human life and ill forebodings of things to come, would grab the attention of the entire world. But this is not normal times. Why is this all happening, and why now?

It’s tempting to say that it’s the result of retrenchment on the part of the United States and of President Obama’s disinclination to get involved in conflict overseas—tempting, but wrong. That hasn’t stopped Republicans, and hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, from blaming Obama for everything: if only he’d kept troops in Iraq, if only he’d bombed Syria, if only he’d rush military aid and US advisers to Ukraine, if only he’d bomb ISIS in Iraq, if only he’d throw America’s full support to the Syrian rebels, if only he’d been a stronger ally of Israel’s. And so on.

As readers of this blog are know well, for the past several years I’ve analyzed every one of these conflicts as they’ve built to explosive levels. And while Obama might have handled things differently in every case, it’s utterly wrong to blame the president’s alleged over-caution and aloofness for the wave of crises sweeping the world. Fact is, what we’re seeing around the world might be the new normal. The emergence of a multipolar world, the irreversible decline of America’s ability to throw around its political, economic and military might, the rise of regional powers which insist on carving out spheres of influence, and the collapse of the old, authoritarian order in the Middle East are all factors—as is the growing competition for resources, especially water, food and energy, as climate change causes major shifts in the balance of power. There’s no magic bullet for any of these—especially solutions that actually require bullets.

So Obama’s caution is laudable, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that Obama might do. He could push Israel to halt its murderous assault and then announce an American peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict—something he’d hinted he might do, but didn’t. He could wind down America’s support for the rebels in Syria, which would weaken ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. He could take advantage of the MH17 tragedy to unify the rest of the world around a no-nonsense approach to Russia’s out-of-control inflammation of Ukraine, and get diplomacy back on track. And so on. But Obama’s critics are wrong when they insist that a more “robust” (and I hate that word), stronger and more aggressive US military and political stand could somehow calm the waters. There’s no option that involves US forces in Ukraine, no option that sends US troops into Libya or back into Iraq, no new escalation of the war in Afghanistan, no Cold War–style “containment” of Russia and China and certainly no option to use US military force against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Equally, while it’s easy to look back and blame George W. Bush, the eruption of a world in crisis isn’t simply “Bush’s fault.” Yes, the Ukraine crisis would be less intense if President Bush (and President Clinton) hadn’t expanded NATO toward Russia’s borders. Yes, Iraq would be suffering far less but for Bush’s illegal 2003 war. Yes, radical Islamists would be less powerful if Bush hadn’t proclaimed a “Global War on Terrorism” that was perceived as an American assault on the entire Muslim world. But the rise of China, the reassertion of Russia’s claim to parts of the old USSR, the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Africa—well, none of those have easy solutions. And there are deeper, underlying causes at work.

Although President Obama may be right in his instinct to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure at home, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare, he’s going to have to spend a lot of time at the United Nations—and perhaps hire a passel of new, Richard Holbrooke–style special envoys, too—because none of these crises are going away, and every one of them needs an army of diplomats.

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That said, the crisis in Gaza ought once and for all to convince the United States that Israel is far too costly an ally, and one that is far too arrogant. The Israeli doctrine that one or two dead or kidnapped soldier on the border with Lebanon justifies killing a thousand Lebanese and bombing Beirut, or that a fusillade of mostly harmless rockets landing in Israel’s southern desert means that Israel has to (for the third time in a decade) kill hundreds in Gaza is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance. Given America’s vast aid to Israel—not to mention its being nearly the sole source of Israel’s political support—the United States can either rein in Israel or exact costly penalties. But perhaps it’s too much to believe that the Obama administration is finally getting the message, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot-mike comment sarcastically referring to Israel’s “pinpoint” attacks that are anything but pinpointed.

If Obama does anything, in regard to foreign policy, in the next two and half years, he’ll need an all-out effort to develop a consensus at home about how to deal with a world in crisis, and how to put in place a serious diplomatic strategy that can take all of this on. Looking at each crisis on its own, as a fire to be extinguished, won’t work. That will take a lot of serious thinking from a lot of serious people, but he’d better start now.

 

Read Next: Vladimir Putin should take responsibility for the MH17 shootdown.

Vladimir Putin Should Take Responsibility for the MH17 Shootdown

Vladimir Putin

(Reuters)

President Obama needs to adopt a cautious stance in response to the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine yesterday, and there’s no certainty about who did what, but make no mistake: the responsibility for this tragedy—which cost the lives of nearly 300 innocent people, including a team of internationally known AIDS-HIV experts—lies at the door of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that either the Russians or the anti-Kiev rebels fired the missile deliberately at the Malaysian plane, though it’s possible that the rebels thought they were firing at a Ukrainian military target. But Putin’s irresponsible stoking of a crisis next door in Ukraine over the past several months, fueled by Russia’s own revanchist policy and Putin’s claims to defend ethnic Russians in “New Russia” has come home to roost.

It’s good news that all sides, including the pro-Russia rebels who control the area where the plane exploded, have called for a truce to allow investigators to access the area—though it’s unclear yet whether the rebels will fully comply.

But Russia’s response to the shooting down of MH17 resembles Russia’s dissembling last September, when Putin and the Russian media shamelessly blamed the Syrian rebels, and not President Bashar al-Assad’s government, for the horrific use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war,

Putin says he’ll work with the rest of the world to find out who’s responsible for the MH17 disaster. And the Russian state-owned media, which resembles Iraq’s “Baghdad Bob” in its sheer, unashamed propaganda, is blaming everyone else for the missile that struck the plane except for the Russian-backed rebels who’ve seized parts of eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military and the Russian military, and probably the pro-Russian rebels, possess the type of missile apparently used in the MH17 attack, either SA-11s or SA-20s. But since the rebels aren’t known to possess any aircraft, it seems extremely unlikely that the Ukrainian military would fire at anything in the air, while in the past several weeks the rebels have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft. And there are increasingly reliable reports that cast blame on the pro-Russia rebels, and in their own words.

First, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

In late June, separatist leaders told the Russian news outlets RIA Novosti and Interfax that they had taken control of a Ukrainian air-defense base near the village of Oleksiivka equipped with Buk missiles. The Donetsk People’s Republic also posted a photo of the missiles, sometimes known as Gadfly systems, on its official Twitter feed at the time, declaring a victory in having seized the weaponry.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootdown, the leader of the pro-Russian rebels, Igor Strelkov (“Shooter”) claimed that the rebels had shot down another Ukrainian plane, but when it turned out that a civilian airliner had been hit, Strelkov quickly deleted the post. And The New York Times reports: “A social media post attributed to Igor Strelkov, the shadowy pro-Russian commander, showed him claiming to have captured Buk missiles.”

Some Russian media, especially the state-owned RT and Interfax, have come up with colorful and ridiculous theories about the crash, including one—reported by New York magazine—that it was an effort by the government in Kiev to shoot down Vladimir Putin’s own plane. As New York notes, Interfax reported (using unnamed sources) that Putin’s plane crossed the route used by Malaysian MH17 over Poland, while RT dutifully ran side-by-side photos of MH17 and Putin’s plane to reveal their supposed similarities (both had wings!), and it “reports”:

Malaysian Airlines MH17 plane was travelling almost the same route as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s jet shortly before the crash that killed 298, Interfax news agency reports citing sources. “I can say that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft—15:44 Moscow time,” a source told the news agency on condition of anonymity.

And Putin, hardly mentioning the human scale of the tragedy, lost no time blaming Ukraine for the shootdown. Said Putin, according to RT:

Obviously, the state over whose territory it happened bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy.… This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace on this land, if military action in the southeast of Ukraine had not been resumed.

The Ukrainian government—which has made unreliable claims in the past, and which initially at least said that MH17 was shot down deliberately by Russia or the rebels as an act of “terrorism”—have released evidence that they say casts blame on the ersatz “People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine, namely, intercepted transmission from the rebels. According to The New York Times, “Ukrainian intelligence has pointed to a fighter named Igor Bezler, the militia leader in the eastern town of Gorlovka, saying in an intercepted phone call that his men had ‘shot down a plane’ on Thursday.”

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Unless Putin takes immediate steps to wind down the revolt, using his armed forces to close the Ukrainian-Russian border and halting the apparent transborder traffic in weaponry and fighters, it’s likely that the Flight MH17 crisis will further isolate Russia diplomatically and economically. So far, Germany and the rest of Western Europe have resisted calls from the United States to impose significant economic sanctions on Russia, but the pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do so now will intensify. Not that the sanctions are effective, of course, and indeed Russia is likely to retaliate with sanctions and other actions of its own, which could cause a long-lasting rift between Russia and Europe that would take many, many years to overcome.

In its editorial today, The New York Times blasts Putin, calling him the one person who can halt Ukraine’s tragic war:

There is one man who can stop it—President Vladimir Putin of Russia, by telling the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to end their insurgency and by stopping the flow of money and heavy weaponry to those groups. But for all his mollifying words and gestures, Mr. Putin has only continued to stoke the flames by failing to shut down those pipelines, failing to support a cease-fire and avoiding serious, internationally mediated negotiations.

That’s about right. Unfortunately, Putin disagrees—and there isn’t much that the United States can do about it. Unless the MH17 disaster convinces Putin that he’s losing more, in international prestige and whatever soft power Russia has left, than he’s gaining by trying to reverse Ukraine’s inevitable tilt westward.

Read Next: Alec Luhn on the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17

US Hawks Would Love to Wreck the Iran Talks—but They Won’t

Iranian Flag

(Blondin Rikard, Creative Commons)

Barring a last-minute miracle, the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers on Iran’s nuclear program will go into extra time. Since January 20, when the parties began to implement the interim accord struck last fall, the clock has been ticking on a six-month deadline to reach a final agreement. But the accord itself contained an option for another six-month extension, and by all accounts it now appears that that’ll happen. As a result, though, one can expect many of the hawks and neoconservatives who’ve opposed the talks from the beginning to launch a new effort to disparage, disrupt or even wreck the negotiations.

Their effort won’t succeed, though they’re trying. Last January, following the interim accord, a coalition of hawks including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and a passel of meddling members of Congress tried to enact yet another round of sanctions against Iran—even though the interim accord explicitly forbid the imposition of additional sanctions during the negotiations, and even though the White House made it clear that the legislation that AIPAC wanted would destroy the talks. In a display of toughness, back then the White House issued a strongly worded, direct challenge to the supporters of the sanctions bill, telling them that if they wanted war with Iran, they should say so. The tough talk from the White House scared off a number of pro-AIPAC members of Congress, especially in the Senate, and the legislation died. It was a huge and unprecedented defeat for AIPAC.

Despite important signs of progress, no agreement has been reached yet, so there’ll likely be more talks—perhaps not as long as six months, if an accord can be reached sooner—and President Obama says he’s ready to extend the talks. “We have a credible way forward,” said Obama. In editorials, The New York Times, Bloomberg and, a bit more surprisingly, the hawkish Washington Post support the extension in editorials today. The Times, in its editorial, points out that hawks on both sides would love to derail the talks:

Negotiators have made progress on other issues, such as strengthening inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites and winning Iran’s consent to alter a heavy water reactor at Arak to reduce its plutonium output. None of that has impressed the hard-liners in Tehran and Washington who are determined to sabotage any deal. Some in Congress are demanding conditions that would tie President Obama’s hands and make it impossible to lift sanctions on Iran, essential to any agreement.

Among the conditions demanded by members of Congress is for the United States to get concessions from Iran on issues that have nothing at all to do with the one at hand, such as Iran’s alleged support for terrorism and its program to build missiles. As the White House and the State Department know, adding unrelated topics such as those to the mix now would kill the talks once and for all, convincing Iranians that the United States isn’t serious about an accord.

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Members of Congress such as Menendez and Senator John McCain especially oppose US efforts to reduce or eliminate economic sanctions on Iran unless Tehran blows up its entire nuclear program, destroys its infrastructure, halts all enrichment of even low-grade, fuel-quality uranium and takes other steps—unthinkable, now that the United States has conceded formally that Iran can have a limited enrichment program as part of a deal. The issue of economic sanctions is critical for Iran, needless to say. But if the United States overplays its hand—seeking too many concessions from Iran, pushing moderate President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif further than they’re able to go—then, in fact, the worldwide sanctions regime against Iran could crumble. At present, the United States has been able to corral and pressure most of the world into going along with the set of harsh sanctions, part of which are set by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and part of which are unilaterally imposed by the United States and other nations. But if the United States pushes Iran too hard, as hawkish members of Congress demand, and the talks fail, it’s likely that the global sanctions effort will fall apart, with countries such as Russia, China, India, Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan simply ignoring them. So Obama and Kerry have to play their hand very carefully in order to the hold the P5+1 together.

 

Read Next: The Palestinians must put an end to suicidal Hamas.

The Palestinians Must Put an End to Suicidal Hamas

Hamas supporters

Palestinian supporters of the Islamic Hamas movement shout and wave flags during a demonstration in the West Bank of Nablus. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)

One message from the current crisis over Gaza is clear: the Palestinians have to get rid of Hamas. No one else can do it: the Israelis, vastly superior in military terms, only strengthen Hamas politically by wantonly raining death and destruction on Gaza. But the fanatics of Hamas, who seem to believe that they can resist Israel militarily—along with the even more radical Islamist groups that run around in Gaza—do incalculable damage to the Palestinian cause.

In this case, I agree with Bret Stephens, who wrote today in The Wall Street Journal, concerning Israel and Hamas, “If you must have a nemesis, better it be a stupid one.” Stephens, a neoconservative hawk who is a blind supporter of Israel, certainly doesn’t qualify as sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But he’s right here: Israel has no stupider enemy than Hamas. And the people of Gaza, entrapped in a hellish, prison-like entity—where conditions of despair give rise to the nihilist, Islamist radicalism of Hamas—have once again to endure the pain of Israel’s bombardment. And for what? Already in Gaza Israel has struck nearly 1,500 separate targets and killed more than 200 people, including civilians and children.

As I’ve written repeatedly over the years, in the 1970s and 1980s Israel’s intelligence service—especially after the rise of the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977—helped Hamas organize and gain power. The Israelis aided Islamists on the West Bank and in Gaza, including the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a branch), in the belief (correct, as it turned out) that Hamas would be a bitter enemy of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Indeed, back then the early supporters of Hamas clashed with moderate and left-wing Palestinian groups throughout the occupied territories. Decades later, Hamas has emerged as the perfect foil for Israeli rightists and advocates of Greater Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the latest round, Hamas’s idiotic decision to fight Israel by firing useless missiles against unseen Israeli targets not only gave Netanyahu a pretext for his brutal war but managed to erase the controversy over the premeditated killing of a Palestinian youth by a gang of ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israelis. Just a week or so ago, that killing transfixed Israel and generated horror among Israelis with a conscience. Now, while the story goes on, it’s figuratively buried under the rubble of Gaza.

Making matters worse, and perhaps leading to a full-scale assault on Gaza, Hamas arrogantly rejected a workable cease-fire plan that was proposed yesterday by Egypt and apparently accepted by Israel’s government—though not without criticism of Netanyahu’s agreement to the cease-fire from even more militant Israeli factions. The Egyptian proposal also had the support of Secretary of State John Kerry, although the United States could do a lot more, including issuing strong condemnations of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian homes in Gaza. (Apparently, the White House believes that Israel’s use of force is not disproportionate.) But it boggles the mind to think what Hamas believes it is accomplishing by continuing a suicidal campaign against Israel’s overwhelming might.

In Gaza, supporters of Hamas are chanting, “Ya Qassam, ya habib. Strike, strike Tel Aviv!” Do they live on another planet?

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Kerry, whose life has been difficult lately—dealing with the Iran nuclear talks, the crisis in Afghanistan, the Iraq-Syria civil war and Russia’s continuing destabilization of Ukraine—is at least right when he said: “I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas in so brazenly firing rockets in the face of a goodwill effort to offer a ceasefire.”

Not that a cease-fire would solve any problems, other than ending the current round of violence. It would still leave Gaza in its abysmal state, and it certainly wouldn’t restart the collapsed Israel-Palestinian peace talks on a two-state solution. But Hamas seems determined to be Israel’s useful bogeyman.

 

Read Next: Iran-Suadi deal is crucial to resolve Iraq-Syria civil war.

Iran-Saudi Deal Is Crucial to Resolve Iraq-Syria Civil War

ISIS Guard

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist experienced in the complexities of the Middle East, usually makes sense. But his latest piece, for something called The Unz Review (“A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media”) is way, way off base. Its title is: “How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of Iraq,” and it’s a conspiratorial mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright misinformation—much of it derived, weirdly enough, from a speech by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of Britain’s intelligence service, MI-6. In it, Cockburn suggests that Saudi Arabia, in its fanatical zeal to oppose Shiites worldwide, “has played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.” (ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now pretentiously calling itself a “caliphate” and changing its name to “the Islamic state,” presumably signaling that it intends to rule the entire Muslim world.)

In this case, despite The Unz Review’s belief that it brings forward information “excluded from the American mainstream media,” perhaps the reason that Cockburn’s thesis has been excluded is because it is flat wrong.

The ISIS crisis in Iraq, parallel to the ISIS crisis in Syria, is indeed an ugly and serious challenge to the Middle East status quo. But there’s far too much alarmism in response, including Eric Holder’s statement yesterday that the threat from ISIS is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is a bad actor, but the chance that ISIS will seize or even seriously threaten either Baghdad or Damascus is zero, and eventually the Sunni tribes, Baathists and the former Awakening movement in Iraq will crush ISIS, while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces squash it in Syria. And despite Cockburn’s view, most analysts believe that Saudi Arabia is alarmed by, and doesn’t support, ISIS.

The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.

If Saudi Arabia were committed to an all-out conflict with the Shiites, as Cockburn and Dearlove suggest, then Saudi Arabia would have supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the Brotherhood was a bitter enemy of the Shia and a supporter of the revolt in Syria. Instead, the Saudis opted to work with Egypt’s military to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Saudis have close ties to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, and beginning in 2006 Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Awakening, it certainly doesn’t support ISIS in either Iraq or in Syria, where the Saudis back less-radical forces battling Assad’s government. If fighting ISIS takes priority now, Saudi Arabia will have to ease off its support for the anti-Assad forces, freeing up the Syrian army to go into Syria’s north and east, where ISIS is strong. (The United States, rather than bolstering Syria’s “moderate” rebels, ought to do the same.)

Cockburn bases a big part of his analysis on Dearlove’s comment that the spy boss once heard Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia once say: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” But that statement was made many years ago, before 9/11, and Cockburn manages to add, “Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge.” Well.

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In Washington, and despite Holder’s comments, a more reasoned approach to the ISIS crisis may be dawning. President Obama’s initial response, which included hints that the United States might conduct air strikes in Iraq, seems to have cooled. And while I’ve written about the potential for a “slippery slope” in Iraq, with the United States first sending advisers to Baghdad, then troops to protect the airport, and then more troops to protect the airport road, the White House seems to be listening the US military and the intelligence community. According to a classified report leaked to The New York Times, the military argues that Iraq’s armed forces and security apparatus are so badly run, so infiltrated with Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and informers from ISIS, that there isn’t much of an opening for greater US involvement. And Iraq’s political deadlock doesn’t look like it’s going to broken anytime soon, meaning that the United States can’t take Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s egregiously Shiite-sectarian side in a war against Iraq’s Sunnis.

So far, many of Iraq’s Sunnis—badly alienated by Maliki’s one-sect rule—have supported the ISIS offensive while viewing their Taliban-like extremism with, well, extreme distaste. In some parts of Iraq, the entire Sunni community—tribes, Baathists, Sunni Islamists of various kinds—sit on soviet-like councils alongside ISIS, but that doesn’t mean that the non-ISIS groups want anything to do with ISIS’ obscurantist beliefs and harsh imposition of its version of sharia law. If a deal is struck to get rid of Maliki, or if Maliki decides to open up his government, the Sunni hammer will fall on ISIS. That, however, might depend on an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

 

Read Next: Obama fiddles while Gaza burns.

Obama Fiddles While Gaza Burns

Gaza

Smoke and flames are seen following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 9, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

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.

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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.

 

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on protest, fraud and violence in Afganistan

Protests, Fraud and Violence Follow Announcement of the Preliminary Afghan Vote Count

Supporters Abdullah Abdullah

Supporters of Afghanistan's presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah chant slogans during a protest against election fraud in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

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.

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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”.

Haaretz, Commenting on Murder in Israel, Says Extremists Are ‘Vermin’

Israeli flags

Israeli flags fly over the Ulpana neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El near Ramallah.  (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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.

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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.

 

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on why US should back Syria’s Assad against ISIS.

US Should Back Syria’s Assad Against ISIS

Bashar Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

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.

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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?

Is Obama on a Slippery Slope Toward Mission Creep in Iraq?

President Obama

President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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.

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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.

 

Read Next: Syria’s chemical weapons removed in major success for US-Russia-Iran cooperation

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