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Carnage in Egypt

Carnage in EgyptBodies of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi lie on the floor of the El-Iman mosque in Cairo's Nasr City, Egypt, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

UPDATE 10:40 am: President Obama spoke today of the “complexity of the situation” in Egypt. It is, indeed, complex. That’s why, as I wrote in the original post, the administration has been so irresolute in responding the Arab Spring’s events in Egypt since 2011. Today, Obama said he opposes the institution of martial law in Egypt and “strongly” condemned the violent crackdown. And, as expected, he announced the cancellation of a joint exercise with Egypt’s military, which is not exactly a big loss to the generals. The violence, Obama said, “needs to stop” and that the “state of emergency needs to be lifted.” The “cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop,” said Obama. More important, and exactly accurate, is his comment that the United States “cannot determine the future of Egypt.” He complained that both sides blame Washington for supporting the other side, which is the legacy of the fact that the United States actually has little or no influence over both sides.

There’ll be more to come from Washington, but not much that matters.

* * *

ORIGINAL POST: The Egyptian police state is dead! Long live the Egyptian police state!

Things have come nearly full circle in Egypt since 2011, when —in response to a popular uprising—Egypt’s military toppled President Hosni Mubarak and installed a ruling military council. Two years later, after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, the military stepped in once again in response to a popular revolt, an uprising that was likely orchestrated by the military from behind the scenes. That allowed Egypt’s armed forces to step intervene directly, with the clear intention of eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene.

The result so far: three massacres, including yesterday’s slaughter in Cairo, where more than 300 died, and in other cities, where another 200 perished. There is, obviously, more to come. The Brothers, whose cult loves martyrs and martyrdom, is promising to take to the streets.

Since the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring—an ironic term now—in 2011, the Obama administration has seemed paralyzed, and for good reason. Most of what’s happened in Egypt since then has unspooled outside of American control and influence, and the White House has tacked this way and that for two years, managing only to convince both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army that it supported the other side. Since the fall of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, in early July the administration’s dithering has seemed particularly acute, but it stems from the fact that American influence in the region has fallen dramatically since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No statement more underlines the poignancy of that reality than the comment yesterday from the White House spokesman, the aptly named Josh Earnest, of whom it can be said that it’s hard to tell if he’s joshing or being earnest:

“We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens.”

True, that. Since the coup, they’ve called repeatedly for everyone in Egypt to be nice to each other. It hasn’t worked. But what leverage does the United States have? Much has been made of the fact that that the Obama administration hasn’t called the July military takeover a coup, since that could trigger the suspension of aid to the Egyptian military under US law. That made the administration look ridiculous, as the transcripts of countless State Department and White House briefings show—but so what? Had the United States cut off aid to the army, nearly all of which has already been delivered for 2013, Egypt’s generals would simply get help from Saudi Arabia and seek arms and support elsewhere, as Pakistan did when the United States cut off aid in the 1980s in response to Pakistan’s bomb. Now, the United States has announced that it will halt joint military exercises with the Egyptian armed forces, hardly an effective action. No doubt, when it wakes up, the administration will condemn the violence, as plenty of other countries have done. And the military will ignore the United States, too. It’s clear that the army has decided to wage total war against the Muslim Brotherhood.

To be truly effective, the United States would have to risk a fundamental break with the military’s main backers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the United States alienated Riyadh thoroughly in 2003 by overthrowing the government of Iraq and installing a pro-Iranian Shiite-majority government, and it cemented that alienation  in 2011 by applauding the toppling of Mubarak, who was seen by Saudi Arabia as a pillar of the pro-Saudi bloc in the Arab world. Cutting of military aid to Egypt, and unleashing anger at Saudi Arabia and its allies—including halting the $60 billion US arms sale to them—would be the right thing to do, but even that won’t have any effect other than erasing the last vestiges of American influence in the region. The Saudis, whose intelligence chief just visited Moscow and whose king has been building ties with China, their main future oil market, will just turn to others, too.

On the other hand, the seeming American complicity in the July coup—even though there’s zero evidence that the United States either orchestrated it or even supported it, other than hoping for the best, including the eventual return of some version of democracy—also carries serious risks. The vaunted American “democracy project” in the region is in tatters, made worse by the tepid response to the July coup. As Bruce Reidel, a former CIA Arabist, told The New York Times:

“If it looks like the U.S. effectively colluded in a counterrevolution, then all the talk about democracy and Islam, about a new American relationship with the Islamic world, will be judged to have been the height of hypocrisy.”

Exactly. Most people in the region didn’t think much of the American “Freedom Agenda” in the region before this anyway (case study: Iraq, 2003–13). Now, not only is the United States losing credibility with the region’s elite (read: Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s army) but with the people, too.

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The Times, in reporting on the Obama administration’s response, slyly built opinion into its news analysis by noting that as Egypt burned Obama “was playing golf at a private club” and attending a cocktail party “at the home of a major political donor.” But doing nothing is better than plotting some sort of American “intervention” in the Middle East—either in Egypt, where things have spun out of control, or in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is winning his civil war, or elsewhere. Recently, where the United States has intervened (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) it hasn’t worked out so well.

For more on the situation in Egypt, read Sharif Abdel Kouddous' report from the ground.

General Dempsey Again Warns on Syria War

Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan near Idlib, Syria. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

General Martin Dempsey is at it again. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is traveling in the Middle East, seemingly making it clear that he doesn’t want any part of the war in Syria. As I reported a while back, in a letter to members of Congress Dempsey had earlier warned that all of the options open to the United States in the Syrian civil war are bad ones. At that time, Dempsey drew fire from hawks and from advocates who want more and stronger direct US involvement in the Syrian war.

Now, it appears that both Dempsey and the Obama administration are concerned about the Syrian war spreading into Jordan. In the past, the United States has used Jordan as a launching pad for CIA-trained rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the rebellion in Syria is boomeranging, or “blowing back,” as these things usually do.

Following reports that Syrian rebels, especially the radical Islamists, are trying to spread the conflict into Jordan—particularly ironic, since Jordan is funneling weapons to the anti-Assad fighters—The New York Times reports that Dempsey is concerned over the threat to Jordan:

Syria has accused Jordan of acting as a transit point for weapons supplied to Syrian rebels, an accusation Jordan has denied. In recent days, the Jordanian authorities have detained suspected smugglers, including Syrians, accused of attempting to bring antitank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles and other arms from Syria into Jordan—possibly part of an attempt by jihadists in Syria to foment unrest in Jordan as well.

Dempsey, whose earlier letter was released by Senator Carl Levin’s office, was outspoken during his trip to Israel and Jordan. Said Dempsey:

“I am very concerned about the radical element of the opposition, and I am concerned about the potential that extremist ideologies will hijack what started out to be a popular movement to overthrow an oppressive regime.…

“The issues that are fueling the conflict in Syria will not be resolved in the short term, even if the Assad regime were to fail tomorrow,” he said. “This is a regional conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad.”[…] “It is the unleashing of historic ethnic, religious and tribal animosities that will take a great deal of work and a great deal of time to resolve.”

Dempsey didn’t repudiate the Obama administration’s support for the rebels, of course, and he did say that the United States must find ways to work with the “good” rebels while avoiding the “bad” ones. That task, however, is virtually impossible.

The best option, the US-Russian peace conference, isn’t clicking yet, and yesterday the Russians suggested that it wouldn’t happen before October. Assad, for his part, has indicated he’ll send representatives to the conference, but the badly split rebels—who’ve been set back on the battlefield of late—still haven’t committed to attend. That’s a major embarrassment for Secretary of State Kerry, who’s organizing the conference. And, the Russians would like Iran to attend, while the United States has ruled that out so far.

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The Washington Post, which has been way, way behind The New York Times in reporting on the role of Al Qaeda and other radical Islamists in the battle against Assad, ran a piece today suggesting that it’s worse than it looks:

A rebranded version of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it added, worryingly:

A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, estimated that at least 17,000 foreigners had joined rebel forces in Syria, most of them from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, a figure in excess of the number that U.S. officials have given. Iraqis, too, are playing an important role, especially in the east, Syrians say, though their numbers are more difficult to measure because they traverse the long border virtually unchecked.

Dempsey understates the problem when, according to Reuters, he says that it’s a “challenge” for the CIA to figure out which rebel is which. He said:

“The real challenge for the intel community, frankly, is to understand when they’re collaborating just for a particular issue at a particular time and when they may actually be allied with each other,” he said. “And to this point, I think, we’re not exactly certain where that fine line of distinction might reside.”

Bob Dreyfuss on why Iran may be the key to a peace deal on Syria.

Obama Seems Lost in the 'War on Terror'

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle taxis down the runway at an air base in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/US Air Force, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

It ought to be pretty clear that President Obama doesn’t have the slightest clue about what to do about terrorism and radical Islam.

How else to explain why the United States, after saying that Al Qaeda is pretty much dead and buried, closed nearly twenty embassies around the world last week after US intelligence agencies intercepted a single message from the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Pakistan to the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen? And then, making things worse, the United States unleashed an unprecedented barrage of terrorist-creating drone strikes against targets in Yemen? And, finally, with allied branches of Al Qaeda in both Syria and Iraq, the United States is offering to help Iraq’s government battle the group—which is setting off waves of suicide bombs that kill hundreds—while, at the same time, supporting the same Al Qaeda group in Syria?

The New York Times, in reporting on the Yemen drone strikes—which, it notes, in the past have “set off a major public backlash against the United States”—points out that the strikes have been targeting mid-level radicals, not its leaders and not necessarily anyone plotting any attacks against US targets:

Senior American intelligence officials said last week that none of the about three dozen militants killed so far in the drone strikes were “household names,” meaning top-tier leaders of the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the American official said the strikes had targeted “rising stars” in the Yemen network, people who were more likely to be moving around and vulnerable to attack. “They may not be big names now,” the official said, “but these were the guys that would have been future leaders.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and elsewhere, radical Islamists and Al Qaeda types have been freed in bold prison raids and other releases, the same Times piece reports:

Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate orchestrated attacks in late July that freed hundreds of inmates from two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, American officials said. A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi. In another attack, fighters stormed a prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan’s tribal belt, freeing nearly 250 inmates.

Needless to say, the Obama administration’s overreaction to the threat of terrorist attacks, in Yemen and elsewhere, has much to do with the continuing aftermath of the September 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya—which was not Al Qaeda–related—that became a Republican party political football that is still being kicked around. (It’s also true, of course, that the Republicans refuse to fund better security for US embassies and other facilities around the world.)

It is the rebirth of Al Qaeda–style attacks in Iraq, though, that is most ironic. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for information about the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who apparently now lives in Syria and runs an organization that he calls the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” As Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said over the weekend:

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D’ua, is now based in Syria and has changed the name of AQI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). He has taken personal credit for a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq since 2011, and most recently claimed credit for the operations against the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, the suicide bombing assault on the Ministry of Justice, among other attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives.

And she added:

In this regard, the United States is prepared to work closely with the Iraqi Government to confront the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups. We look forward to discussing bilateral cooperation in this and other areas, pursuant to the Strategic Framework Agreement between our two countries, during the upcoming visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari next week in Washington. 

But the Iraqi foreign minister’s visit will be a confusing one, since Iraq has largely sided with Iran and with Iran’s Syrian ally, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States is backing the Syrian rebel allies of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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On August 8, The New York Times published an important analysis of the rising power of radical Islam among the Syrian rebels, under the headline “As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven.” The piece provided clear evidence that the most radical groups among the Syrian rebels are working side by side with the so-called Free Syrian Army, the American-backed force:

Yet the lines dividing the Free Syrian Army from jihadist groups are fluid, and the conflicts have not stopped F.S.A. leaders from working with their fighters, whose fierceness on the battlefield is undisputed. That has helped create a divergence between statements by exile opposition leaders rejecting extremists and their ideology and actions by ground commanders eager for any help they can get. …

This week, the jihadist group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of Emigrants and Supporters, led by a fighter from the Caucasus known as Abu Omar al-Shesheni—the Chechen—worked with Free Syrian Army battalions to take the Menagh air base in Aleppo Province after 10 months of trying.

As I reported last week, those Chechens, allies of Al Qaeda, pose a direct threat to Russia, which partly explains why Russia is supporting Assad so strongly. And one of the Syrian rebels interviewed by the Times reporter explicitly threatened Iran and, of course, Russia:

He also seemed to suggest that Russia would be a legitimate target for its role in supporting Mr. Assad and for its brutal suppression of Muslim militants in the Caucasus.

“Russia is killing Muslims in southern Muslim republics and sends arms and money to kill Muslims in Syria as well,” he said. “I swear by God that Russia will pay a big price for its dirty role in the Syrian war.”

Read Bob Dreyfuss on the Obama administration’s straining relations with Russia.

The US, Russia and Avoiding a New Cold War

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Here’s a good way to start a new cold war: accuse the other side of reverting to the Cold War and then cancel a summit meeting. (And there’s not even a U-2 incident.)

President Obama took the occasion of an appearance on a comedy show to accuse Vladimir Putin of being a cold warrior, notedThe Wall Street Journal: “There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Mr. Obama said of Russia in an interview on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno on Tuesday night. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin, that’s the past.”

But it turns out that what’s past is prologue.

The obvious irritant is Russia’s decision to grant asylum of sorts to Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked information about the National Security Agency’s spying machine. But it’s clear that underlying that excuse is that Obama and his diplomats, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have been unable to make real progress on any of the key issues that might be talked about in what had been scheduled as a September summit in Moscow, namely arms control, missile defense, Syria and Iran, North Korea and more. Needless to say, problems between the two countries on those issues are reasons to have a summit, not to cancel one. (Need we point out that there were plenty of summits during the actual Cold War?)

The White House issued the following statement:

Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September. We value the achievements made with Russia in the President’s first term, including the New START Treaty, and cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. However, given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda. Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship. Our cooperation on these issues remains a priority for the United States, so on Friday, August 9, Secretaries Hagel and Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts in a 2+2 format in Washington to discuss how we can best make progress moving forward on the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship.

Vladimir Putin may indeed be a vile thug with an authoritarian mindset. So? We don’t talk to him? Recent Russian actions, such as persecuting prominent dissidents and introducing odious ant-gay legislation, don’t pass the smell test, but since when did the United States cancel summits over human violations in Russia (or in Saudi Arabia, for that matter)? Russia’s support for President Assad in Syria may rankle American diplomats, but Russia has real interests there.

President Obama, again on Leno, didn’t flinch when Leno invoked the trump card of all criticism, Nazism, when referring to Putin’s anti-gay machinations:

“This seems like Germany, let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays,” Leno said.

“I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in a way that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama responded, while stressing that “Russia is not unique,” and noting he’s had to balance his pressure over laws like these within larger relationships with several African nations as well.

But is that a reason to cancel an important summit?

The New York Times, in a churlish editorial (written before the cancellation was announced), suggests that maybe not going to Moscow is a good idea:

The partnership that Mr. Obama sought to build with Russia is seriously broken. Ever since Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012, he has been profoundly at odds with the administration over the Syrian civil war, missile defense issues and further reductions in nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is a repressive and arrogant leader who treats his people with contempt, as the recent crackdown on gays and lesbians demonstrates. … There is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend unless Mr. Putin provides solid assurances that he is prepared to address contentious issues in a substantive and constructive way. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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The point, of course, is diplomacy. But diplomacy is not something that happens exclusively at summits. The task for President Obama is engage with Russia, across the board and on all the issues at stake, constantly—so that summits mean something. Obama has to end this cold war before it starts.

Stephen Cohen on how President Obama undermined his “Russia reset.”

Russia's Stake in Syria's War

A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

President Obama’s decision to send military aid to the rebels in Syria can be construed as a direct threat and challenge to Russia. In the United States and in Europe, plenty of those who can’t understand why Russia is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus say that Russia has no real interest in Syria. But that’s not true.

In today’s New York Times, there’s a snippet that suggests why Russia is so concerned about events in Syria. The amalgam of Islamists that is assembling to fight Assad appears to include a healthy contingent of radical-right Islamists from Chechnya, and they’re reportedly among the toughest fighters in the anti-Assad coalition. Their contingent, according to the Times, led the assault that took control of a Syrian air force base in the country’s northern sector:

The base was first besieged by a Free Syrian Army brigade called North Storm, and joined by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and a group calling itself Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. Muhajireen means emigrants, and the group, which carried out several suicide attacks at the base, is led by Russian speakers from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus.

Mr. Farzat said Chechen Islamist fighters near the airport had refused to let the defecting government soldiers flee, so he helped them escape by another route. “I give the Islamic fighters credit for the liberation,” he said. The seizure of the base could have an impact on the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by freeing up rebel fighters and antiaircraft weapons to put pressure on Aleppo’s airport, which rebels have been unable to take despite months of trying. It could also dampen the morale of government troops in other remote outposts.

The Boston Marathon bombers, of course, were Chechen Islamists.

This isn’t a new story. It’s been widely reported for quite a while that Chechens are involved in the Syrian civil war. In June, RFE/RL reported extensively on the Chechen angle. Some of the fighters, it reported, are “battle-hardened veterans of the North Caucasus insurgency.” RFE/RL added:

It has been suggested, but not proven, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia financed the recruitment of those experienced former insurgents because “the Chechens are regarded as the best of the jihadist fighters.”

The Guardian reported on the Chechen angle last year, in a lengthy piece describing the makeup of the Syrian rebels. In it, The Guardian described a fighter named Abu Omar al-Chechen who led a “ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as ‘muhajiroun brothers.’” It added:

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit.

Apparently, few of the Chechens fighting in Syria have come directly from Chechnya. Instead, many seem to have assembled from among veterans of the Russia-Chechnya wars of the 1990s who fed to Europe and the Middle East. Says RFE/RL, citing the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov:

Kadyrov categorically denied last summer that any “Russian citizens from the Chechen Republic” were fighting in Syria. But over the past two months he has admitted on several occasions that Chechens from both Chechnya and the émigré community in Europe and Turkey had traveled to Syria to fight.

On May 6, Kadyrov implied that the latter category far outnumber the former: he said “a few” Chechens from Chechnya were fighting in Syria, and that “hundreds” from Europe and Turkey had been killed. Two weeks later, however, Kadyrov said “just a few” Chechens from Europe had been killed in the fighting.

In backing the rebels in Syria, Obama says that he wants to support only “moderates” among the fighters. But nearly all analysts agree that it would be very difficult to control the aid, including weapons, once it gets inside Syria. So, in effect, Obama will be aiding battle-hardened fighters who want to take their struggle to Russia.

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Let’s end with a quote from Al Monitor’s report in April on the Chechens in Syria:

The group, which identifies itself as Jaish Muhajirin Wa Anshar or Army of Emigrants and Helpers, is not limited to Chechen fighters, although most of the fighters on the website identify themselves as Chechen and speak a mixture of Russian and Arabic.

In the latest post on April 24, the group claimed to have taken over Minnigh military airport, which has been the site of clashes between the Syrian government forces and foreign fighters for months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rights group’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed that foreign-sponsored militants entered the airport for the first time in months.

The group documents the use of Russian weapons fired on civilians in the ongoing standoff between the Syrian military and Syrian rebels. “Our goal is to establish Shariah law, God willing,” one fighter says in a recruiting video. “We have 30 years of history in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq; our goals are the same.”

Would does Samantha Power’s confirmation change US policy in Syria?

Obama and Iran's New President

Iran’s new President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, August 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

President Obama could have been more effusive in welcoming the start of Hassan Rouhani’s term as president of Iran. But it could have been worse, too. Regardless, we should find out over the next few months if Iran and the United States can work out a deal that includes, at the minimum, Iran’s nuclear program—but which could extend to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Diplomacy, however, will take many months, if not years.

Here’s the full text of the White House statement on Rouhani’s taking over from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

On the occasion of Dr. Hojjatoleslam Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration today as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s seventh president, we again congratulate the Iranian people for making their voices heard during Iran’s election. We note that President Rouhani recognized his election represented a call by the Iranian people for change, and we hope the new Iranian government will heed the will of the voters by making choices that will lead to a better life for the Iranian people. The inauguration of President Rouhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.

You’ll note that the statement is not in President Obama’s name, just issued as a generic White House comment. (Obama didn’t bother to congratulate the apparently deal-seeking, moderate Rouhani on the occasion of his election on June 14, either.)

The Guardian, and others, chose to characterize the White House statement as an “olive branch,” though it’s really more like an olive twig. But The Guardian hastens to add that the hawks, including those in Congress, are ignoring the whole transition in demanding more sanctions and a tough military posture. Said The Guardian:

But the apparent olive branch comes amid hawkish calls in Washington for tougher sanctions on Tehran and the possibility of military action if no resolution is found. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, 76 senators demanded tougher economic punishment for Iran until the Islamic republic scales back its nuclear ambitions. It also urged Obama to keep all options on the table, while keeping the door open to diplomacy.

Said the letter, organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee:

“Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran.”

As I reported recently, not only the Senate but the ultra-hawkish House, too, are pushing for new sanctions on Iran, amounting to a virtual oil embargo. And even though, as cited in that piece, 131 more moderate members of the House urged Obama to avoid “taking provocative actions” in regard to Iran because doing so could strengthen hardliners opposed to Rouhani, as Ali Gharib points out, eighty of those very same members of Congress voted for AIPAC-backed sanctions against Iran, i.e., they supported precisely the “provocative” action they seemed to oppose! (That bill passed the House with a staggeringly veto-proof vote of 400-20. Says Gharib:

The effort to dismiss Iran’s elections as unimportant—despite millions of Iranians’ willingness to come out and vote for Rouhani—and forge ahead with sanctions stem largely from efforts backed by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The latest sanctions bill, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act , which passed the House 400 to 20 last night, would impose the as yet toughest measures to date, just days before Rouhani’s inauguration. With AIPAC backing, the bill got 376 co-sponsors before Rouhani’s election. Some 80 of those were among the 131 members who signed a letter pushing diplomacy and urging restraint—but that letter took no positions on new sanctions. In another letter yesterday, 16 members of Congress urged that the bill be delayed on the grounds that it would be “counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran’s new president is inaugurated.” The 16 called for the bill to be revamped to strengthen presidential waivers to sanctions and make clear it doesn’t authorize the use of force.

Rouhani has focused heavily on rebuilding Iran’s economy, crippled by shortages and high inflation—and of course, a big part of that is the result of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its partners. Rouhani rightly calls them “oppressive,” but ending them depends on an agreement with the United States. He’s sending lots of positive signals that he wants a deal, including the naming of an apparently non-confrontational cabinet made up mostly of technocrats affiliated with former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who endorsed Rouhani for president and who sat next to Rouhani during his swearing-in. Potentially the most significant appointee was Javad Zarif as foreign minister, who last served in that post from 2003 to 2007 (under President Khatami, the leader of the reformists), and who is associated with the failed effort to convince the George W. Bush administration to engage in a Grand Bargain with Iran.

As The New York Times reported:

Mr. Rouhani’s choice for foreign minister, Javad Zarif, raised the most eyebrows. Mr. Zarif, 53, has lived half his life in the United States, is a fluent English speaker and served from 2002 to 2007 as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. He was also part of Mr. Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team, which in 2003 struck a deal with European nations to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment.

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Still, it’s discouraging that the White House and its allies seem to hope that Rouhani’s election will lead Iran to cave in to the West’s demands without reciprocal concessions—something that’s so unlikely as to be impossible. Over at Going to Tehran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett note:

But the focus on [Rouhani’s moderate traits] suggests that Western elites still look for Tehran to accommodate the West’s nuclear demands—above all, by compromising Iran’s right, as a sovereign state and signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium indigenously under safeguards. This motivates them to interpret Rouhani’s election as evidence of Iranians’ growing weariness with sanctions and, by extension, with their government’s policies that prompt escalating international pressure on Iran’s economy.

The bottom line is that Iran is a complex country, with various factions and centers of power that don’t always agree with each other. Because Rafsanjani, a compromise-minded businessman whose priority seems to be to end sanctions, backs him, he has a constituency for a deal. Because Khatami backs him, he can bring along the Green Movement, which might otherwise try to block a deal negotiated by hardliners, as it did with Ahmadinejad’s proposed 2009 accord. And, because he has the support of the powerful (but not all-powerful) supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani can expect support from that power center, too. Obama’s main challenge is to offer Iran a deal that is win-win.

Why a deal with Iran is critical for addressing the civil war in Syria.

The 'Peace Process' and Martin Indyk

Martin Indyk, far right, with David Ivry, Paul D. Wolfowitz, Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, March 19, 2001. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Falk, writing for Al Jazeera—the Qatar-based, Qatar-funded mouthpiece for the ruling family of that kleptocracy—says that the naming of Martin Indyk as chief negotiator in the just-launched round of Israel-Palestine talks turns it into “yet another charade falsely advertised as ‘the peace process.’” Not true.

Falk goes on to propose a series of overtly pro-Palestinian folks who might have been better than Indyk, incuding Rashid Khalidi, but he himself says that the very idea is laughable:

Admittedly, having published a book a few months ago with the title Brokers of Deceit: How the US Undermined Peace in the Middle East, the appointment of Khalidi, despite his stellar credentials, would have produced a firestorm in Washington. Agreed, Khalidi is beyond serious contemplation, but what about John Esposito, Chas Freeman, Ray Close? None of these alternatives, even Khalidi, is as close to the Palestinians as Indyk is to the Israelis, and yet such a selection would at least be a gesture toward closing the credibility gap. Yet it remains outside the boundaries of the Beltway’s political imagination, and is thus unthinkable.

Which prompts the question: Why not Indyk? In this blog, twice already, I’ve expressed skepticism about Indyk’s value as a go-between, given his overt connections to Israel. But I’m willing to suspend disbelief, in part because, first, Indyk is hardly a Likudnik, and second, it’s Israel that the Palestinians are making a deal with. If there is to be a deal—and the talks are certainly not a “charade”—then it’ll be up to the United States to use its soft power, its Israeli connections, its military relationship with Israel and pretty much everything including the kitchen sink to push Prime Minister Netanyahu to an accord.

It’s obvious, of course, that it’s an uphill battle. But why dismiss it at the start? Why not work, from the outside, to create an atmosphere in which all parties give up their maximum demands?

Even Falk admits:

Perhaps, there was no viable alternative. Israel would not come even to negotiate negotiations without being reassured in advance by an Indyk-like appointment.

Interestingly, in The Weekly Standard, the hard-core neoconservative magazine that is often to the right of the Israeli government, Noah Pollak has published a harsh and suspicion-minded critique of Indyk, comparing him unfavorably to (who else?) Dennis Ross. Pollak’s critique is that Indyk is an opportunist, who backed Hillary Clinton in 2008 but who is now kowtowing to President Obama. Pollak also blasts Indyk for having supported Obama’s call for a settlement freeze in 2009:

The single most astonishing example of Indyk’s opportunism is the settlement freeze that Obama demanded of Israel as a precondition for talks, today widely acknowledged—including by Obama and Indyk—as having been counterproductive.

True, the call for a settlement freeze may have backfired, but it certainly wasn’t “pro-Israeli.” Pollak also says that Indyk committed the inforgivable sin of supporting a deal between Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders:

In a December 2010 op-ed, days after the administration formally abandoned its settlements-centric approach, Indyk offered the self-incriminating observation: “Twenty months of US efforts to freeze Israeli settlement activity to create a conducive environment for negotiations have produced only deadlock.” His new suggestion: “ ‘It’s the borders, stupid’ should be the mantra” for the administration. The “borders” he was talking about are in fact the 1949 armistice lines, also called the 1967 lines, to which many advocates for the Palestinians think Israel should withdraw. “Mr Obama should pronounce [the 1967 lines] as the American position,” Indyk recommended.

Obama did just that. Six months later he delivered a speech that attempted to dislodge the peace process from the settlements deadlock by endorsing the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations. Such a declaration, Indyk had predicted in his op-ed, would help “jump-start” and possibly even “turbo-charge” talks. As we know, Obama’s endorsement of yet another Palestinian position had the opposite effect: it angered the Israelis and ensured that Netanyahu’s visit to Washington—he was arriving the very next day—would play out as one of the most acrimonious moments in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

Undoubtedly, Indyk will play a central part. In a background briefing yesterday, a top US official said,

We do expect Ambassador Indyk will be on the ground there over the next couple of weeks. I think he’s going to be coming back and forth a fair amount. But he’ll be the main point on the ground for the United States. He’ll be leading that effort.

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As Secretary of State Kerry said yesterday, “I know the path is difficult. There is no shortage of passionate skeptics.” But in the State Department transcript of his remarks yesterday, you can find this:

The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation. And they are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims. Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months. The parties also agreed that the two sides will keep the content of the negotiations confidential. The only announcement you will hear about meetings is the one that I just made. And I will be the only one, by agreement, authorized to comment publicly on the talks, in consultation, obviously, with the parties. That means that no one should consider any reports, articles, or other—or even rumors—reliable, unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won’t.

And Kerry made this interesting comment, which bears remembering over the next weeks as we watch  for results:

I emphasize we have worked very closely with our Palestinian friends to help develop Palestinian security capacity. And we cannot forget that the security of Israel will also benefit Palestinians next door. The Israeli Government has recognized this, which is why it will be taking in the next days and weeks a number of steps in order to improve conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Is this the moment for talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict? Yes—as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief.

Al Qaeda and the Iraq-Syria Civil War

A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, Syria, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

What happens when you invade one stable nation, destroy its government and virtually its entire political and social infrastructure, and then a decade later stoke the fire of revolution in a stable nation next door without regard for the consequences? Well, take a look: that’s what the United States has done in Iraq and Syria.

The carnage in Iraq is escalating, even as the Islamist-led rebellion in Syria seems unending.

Let’s start this commentary by reviewing an editorial in today’s New York Times on Iraq, which warns that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—having aggregated the most virulent part of the Syria revolt—is once again gaining momentum. Its stunning jailbreaks that freed up to 800 prisoners from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and another in Taji have thrown fuel on the fire of renewed civil war in that country. As the Times notes, at least 700 Iraqis have been killed in July, adding to the thousands who’ve died there since April, when violence exploded again.

But the Times, incredibly, puts the blame on the Obama administration for not having worked harder to keep American troops in Iraq after the end of that criminal war, saying:

Iraq might have been better able to repel Al Qaeda if Mr. Maliki and the Americans had worked harder on a deal to keep a token number of troops in the country to continue helping with training and intelligence-gathering.

And the Times barely mentions Syria, whose civil war has managed to unite Al Qaeda and other extreme Islamist movements in both countries in Sunni-led jihad against the Alawite-led government in Damascus, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and Iran, which supports both. Says the Times:

Regional volatility, including the Syrian war and Iran, are compounding Iraq’s instability.

That underestimates one problem and absurdly overstates another. The “volatility” in Syria—probably the first time that a civil war that has left tens of thousands dead has been described as “volatility”—is a major cause of the Sunni-led revolt in Iraq, and the longer it continues the more likely it is that Islamists in both countries will work together to recruit fighters, purchase arms and exchange bomb-making capabilities. On the other hand, what does the Times mean by volatility in Iran, which is a stable, secure nation without any violence within its borders?

It ought to be noted, parenthetically, that when we talk about “Al Qaeda” in Iraq or Syria, it’s hardly the same organization that was responsible for 9/11. In both countries, Al Qaeda is primarily a threat to Iraqis and Syrians, not to the United States. They’re far too busy killing supporters of President Assad in Damascus and Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to worry about attacking the United States. Indeed, perversely, if anything Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria is an ally of Washington.

The Iraqi slaughter is breathtaking. On Monday, a wave of car bombs exploded nearly simultaneously across the country:

The bombings—18 in all—are part of a wave of bloodshed that has swept across the country since April, killing more than 3,000 people and worsening the already strained ties between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government. The scale and pace of the violence, unseen since the darkest days of the country’s insurgency, have fanned fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodletting that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In mid-June, writing here about “Iraq’s agony,” I compiled a partial list of major incidents in Iraq since April, each one resulting in scores of dead. That piece added:

On the tenth anniversary of the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular, nationalist government, Paul Wolfowitz—a neoconservative and key architect of the American invasion of Iraq—wrote a lengthy apologia for the war. In it, he concluded: “It is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far.” Besides Wolfowitz, various other members of the George W. Bush administration have similarly weighed in, insisting that the unprovoked, illegal war against Iraq was the right thing to do.

Many Iraqis would disagree.

Since that April anniversary, thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in sectarian and political violence. In May, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in a relentless wave of bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations and other violence, according to the United Nations, and nearly 2,000 have been killed since April. No doubt, those totals understate the true scope of the killing.

Since then of course, the list of horrific killings in Iraq has expanded.

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In a sign of how utterly confused American policy in the Middle East is, the United States is using intelligence units and Special Forces to help Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki track down the escaped prisoners. At the same time, however, the United States is fanning the flames of the revolt in Syria, which is led by the allies of the very people the United States is trying to combat in Iraq. To make matters worse, the United States is in conflict with Iran, which supports the governments in Iraq and Syria. And still, the United States refuses to go along with Russia’s reasonable request that the United States agree to invite Iran to take part in the proposed conference on peace in Syria to be held, if ever, in Geneva.

That latter issue is not a new one, as Iran’s Press TV points out:

On May 28, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the necessity of Iran’s attendance at the upcoming talks in Geneva. “The issue of Iran is key for us. Iran, without question, is one of the most important nations,” he said.

President Obama must be wondering what happened to the vaunted “pivot” to Asia. With Israel-Palestine talks at center stages, Egypt in full crisis, Syria in civil war, Iraq exploding, and new P5+1 talks with Iran on the horizon, the White House must be spending nearly all of its foreign policy time on the Middle East. Obama must do it all at once: wind down the war in Syria by seeking an immediate ceasefire, restart talks with Iran to include regional issues (including Syria), keep the pressure on Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a deal on Palestine, and prevent Egypt’s crisis from deteriorating.

What history tells us about US plans to arm the Syrian opposition.

Suspending Disbelief on Israel-Palestine Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on June 28, 2013. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)

Syria is enmeshed in civil war (though there’s renewed hope for the Geneva peace conference), Egypt is engaged in violent political strife, and Iraq is blowing up. So, is this the time for talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict? I’d say yes, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the moment.

The talks start tonight and continue through Tuesday, then move to the Middle East. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestinian official, says that the talks “will begin, in principle, on the issues of borders and security.” That’s a lot better than starting with the dead-end issue of Israel settlements, for instance, which—although critical in an end-agreement—is less important than the issue of what border will separate Israel and Palestine and how both sides can be assured of security. And Abed Rabbo properly raises the fact that so far, at least, the United States has excluded the Palestinians from the security-related dimensions of an accord:

“This is a big shortcoming in the Israeli and the American behavior because they are not discussing their bilateral security, they are discussing a central and a fundamental issue of ours and it concerns our future as a whole.”

It’s not nothing that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to release about 100 Palestinian prisoners held for up to two decades or more. That was a Palestinian precondition for re-entering the talks, and it might have given Netanyahu an easy way out of them, if he wanted one. His agreeing to this condition has created a mini-crisis in Israel, with ultra-hawks and some members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party strongly opposing the release. Here’s what Netanyahu said on television:

“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”

It’s easy to dismiss Netanyahu’s comments, since he’s never shown the slightest interest in reaching an accord remotely close to what Palestinians could accept. It’s entirely possible that Netanyahu is simply pacifying Secretary of State Kerry, who’s invested enormous amounts of time in shuttling back and forth between the United States and the Middle East to restart talks between the two sides. Undoubtedly, Kerry put great pressure on both President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and on Netanyahu to get on board, and it could have been difficult for Netanyahu simply to say, “No.” But the fact remains that he said yes, and he’s exposed himself to considerable political criticism from the right in Israel by agreeing to release the prisoners.

To protect himself further, Netanyahu is proposing legislation that would require any accord to be submitted to the Israeli people in a referendum before it takes effect. Said Netanyahu:

“It is important that every citizen have a direct vote on fateful decisions such as these that will determine the future of the state.”

It’s entirely true that a referendum might doom an agreement, but on the other hand: Why would Netanyahu take the political risk of reaching an agreement which, if defeated in a popular vote, would probably doom his political career and force him to step down? I don’t see the logic of that unless he thinks that an agreement might be reached and that he could then persuade voters to back it.

As expected, Kerry has named Martin Indyk to represent the United States in the talks—which, incidentally, are designed to last at least six months, with Kerry getting a commitment from both sides to stay engaged for that long. As I wrote recently, it’s not encouraging that Indyk, who three decades ago served as an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and who’s always been as strongly tilted toward Israel’s point of view and served as the US ambassador to Israel, will run the talks. On the other hand, there is a legitimate view that making use of Indyk will help Netanyahu argue at home that Israel has American support.

Fact is, the only way that the talks can succeed is if President Obama and the rest of the administration interferes, overtly and covertly, in Israeli politics—just as Netanyahu, in 2012, interfered in US politics by backing Mitt Romney. As David Mack of the Middle East Institute once explained to me, if and when the United States brought to bear all of its political operatives, former diplomats and military officials with connections inside Israel, it can have considerable effect on that tiny country’s politics. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, making threats to cut off American aid to Israel (which could never get through Congress). But it does mean using people such as Indyk and, yes, even Dennis Ross (and dozens of others) to reinforce pro-negotiations factions inside the Israel political system and deliver stern talkings-to to those who oppose a settlement.

I’m not sure that I believe that the Obama administration is capable or orchestrating something that clever or complex.

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In reporting on the talks, The Guardian notes that Netanyahu seems to be motivated, in part, by the fact that Israel cannot exist if it absorbs the Palestinians and the occupied territories into Greater Israel—or, as some foolish analysts believe, into a so-called “one-state solution.” Reports the paper:

Although Netanyahu is deeply reluctant to cede territory colonised by Israel over the past 46 years, he recently said that one of his goals in the talks was “preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea”. That, as has repeatedly pointed out, would lead either to the end of Israel as a “Jewish state” or to an apartheid-like regime in which Palestinians were denied equal rights. Netanyahu may have concluded that giving up some of the territory captured by Israel in 1967 is a preferable option.

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical, if only because, well, they’ve tried this before. Stay tuned.

Samantha Power’s confirmation illuminates why US policy towards Israel may doom peace talks before they begin.

The Costly Failure of Missile Defense

Nuclear missile silo. (Courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Never mind that no one is firing ICBMs at us. It’s been three decades since Ronald Reagan cooked up his cockamamie plan to shoot down missiles in the sky, and while technology has improved incalculably since then, after countless billions of dollars—according to The  New York Times, it’s $250 billion—the damn things still don’t work.

Last week, following yet another failure, and as if it just occurred to him, the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency—yes, it has a whole “agency”—said that he’d look into it:

Following recent testing failures, the director of the Missile Defense Agency told Congress today that he is committed to a full evaluation of the way forward for the nation’s ballistic missile defense system.

Of course, he added, the evaluation will cost money, too.

In a devastating commentary by a Reuters analyst, we learn that the test itself was “rigged” and scripted, that there were no countermeasures (as in real-life war), and that the test itself cost $214 million:

Immediately following the Fourth of July fireworks, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) tried out some fireworks of its own. By trying to hit a missile with a missile they attempted a demonstration of the defensive “shield,” designed to protect the U.S. from North Korean and Iranian nuclear missiles. It turned out to be a dud. As with the two previous attempts, the Ground Based Missile Defense system once again failed. This failure happened despite the fact that the demonstration was essentially rigged: the intercept team knew ahead of time when to expect the incoming missile and all its relevant flight parameters. Such luxury is obviously not available in real-life combat. But even if the $214 million “test” had worked it would not prove much.

Still, Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, wants more testing—more, more, more—and damn the expense. Of course, he blames President Obama for cuts in the program—certainly not the cause of the failure, but a convenient scapegoat. Says McKeon:

While it may take some time to reach a final diagnosis of the cause of the July 5th test failure, it is already clear that President Obama’s decision to drastically cut funding for the GMD program since he came into office and to “curtail additional GMD development” has drained funding available to conduct needed tests of this system.

McKeon’s comments came in a say-it-ain’t-so letter to Secretary of Defense Hagel.

But in a scathing editorial, The New York Times basically says fuggedaboutit:

Predictably, many Congressional Republicans blame the problems on President Obama and budget cuts supported by the Democrats. But experts say design flaws crept into the program during the George W. Bush administration and the problems were compounded by a rush to deploy the system before tests were run. Along with the Pentagon, many Republicans are now pushing for more missile defense tests as well as the development of 14 more ground-based interceptors (for a total of 44 at sites in California and Alaska) for an additional cost of $1 billion. Some lawmakers also want a new missile defense site on the East Coast that could run as high as $3.6 billion.

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The North Korean and Iranian missile programs are a threat that the United States must guard against. But it doesn’t make sense to keep throwing money at a flawed system without correcting the problems first.

But the Pentagon’s answer to “fuggedaboutit” is “you tawkin’ to me?” They’re going global, says Defense News:

While the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is being forced to answer questions about the viability of its homeland missile defense program after a third failed intercept test in five years, the Pentagon is quickly moving forward with deployments of key radar and missile defense systems to Japan, Guam, Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Defense contractors can make billions—billions, I tell you!—selling these worthless system to scared bunnies in the Arab kleptocracies of the Persian Gulf, who are worried about Iran.

More from Katrina vanden Heuvel on the great missile defense scam.

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