News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
At the UN, the United States is continuing its quixotic bid for another round of sanctions against Iran, even while U.S. officials know that no set of sanctions is likely to achieve its intended goal of persuading or forcing Iran to halt its nuclear program.
But several countries, including Brazil and Turkey, are trying to head off sanctions and to broker a deal that might allow productive talks to restart.
This weekend, President Lula of Brazil will visit Iran to meet with President Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders. Lula will be in Tehran Sunday, at the same time that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan will be visiting. In the past, the Turks have offered to salvage an October deal between Iran and the UN’s P5 +1 big powers according to which Iran agreed to send the bulk of its enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing. Turkey has offered its soil for the deal, seeking to overcome Iranian fears of handing its uranium to Russia, in an effort to get the October accord back on track. After initially agreeing to the October deal, Iran reneged, and the deal fell victim to the poisonous internal politics of post-election Iran.
According to Reuters, the United States is mildly skeptical of the Brazil-Turkish initiative. The service quotes a U.S. official saying, “I think we would view the Lula visit as perhaps the last big shot at engagement.” At the same time, however, Secretary of State Clinton called the Turkish foreign minister to throw cold water on the diplomatic effort by Turkey and Brazil, both of which oppose sanctions against Iran. Says Reuters:
“U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by telephone with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and argued that Iran shows no sign of ceasing uranium enrichment as required by several Security Council resolutions.”
The Associated Press is much blunter, saying that Washington is trying to head off the Turkish-Brazilian initiative:
“The Obama administration moved Thursday to head off a joint Turkish-Brazilian effort that could help Iran avoid new United Nations sanctions over its suspect nuclear program.
“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a blunt message to Turkey's foreign minister, telling him that Iran is not serious about accepting international demands to prove its nuclear program peaceful. She said Tehran must face fresh penalties unless it does a quick about-face and complies.
“Clinton will likely give the same message to Brazil's foreign minister ahead of a weekend visit to Tehran by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. U.S. officials think Iran will use the trip to try to sabotage their efforts to draft new U.N. Security Council sanctions. Turkey and Brazil are members of the council and are opposed to new sanctions.”
It’s as if the United States is so intent on installing sanctions on Iran – with President Obama speaking yesterday to President Medvedev of Russia and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council huddling yesterday in talks that Washington insists are urgent – that it won’t allow an actual diplomatic process to go forward!
Earlier this week, writing for IPS, Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii, one of the smartest observers of Iran, wrote that despite all the rhetoric surrounding Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to the UN, it’s not at all impossible that talks might get back on track, adding that the European Union might be getting involved:
“Despite the posturing, the content of Ahmadeinjad's talk in New York was focused less on religious sermonising and more on a critique of the conduct of nuclear weapons-states. This, combined with the dinner given by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for members of the U.N. Security Council, has led to renewed speculation in Iran about the possible revival of last fall's proposal to transfer much of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad in exchange for supplies of 20-percent enriched uranium for Tehran's Research Reactor.
“The government appears focused on reviving the proposal with the help of mediation by Brazil and Turkey, whose leaders are expected in Tehran at the same time in the coming days.
“Reports that the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, who held talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels Monday, is pushing for direct talks with Iran has fuelled speculation that a new attempt at jumpstarting nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1 group is in the offing.
“Davutoglu, who himself called for reviving the swap proposal during a visit last month to Washington, has in turn proposed to host talks between Ashton and Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. According to Davutoglu, Iran has welcomed the idea and is awaiting Ashton's reply.”
Curiously, the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons seems agitated about Lula’s visit to Tehran, and he wrote a piece in his uberblog, The Washington Note, warning Lula not to meddle:
“President Lula's trip to Iran and his enthusiasm about injecting himself as a broker between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UN Security Council Permanent Members of the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France in addition to Germany) is fraught with serious dangers for his legacy and for Brazil's aspirations to be accommodated in the world's most powerful institutions. …
“Lula's well-meaning efforts to defuse one of the world's tensest, building crises may result in convincing Iran that it has a political back door out of the increasingly tough wall that the US is trying to assemble around Iran with the support of China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and many of the other nations that participated in the recent Nuclear Security Summit and who are key players in the current Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty review underway now in New York.
“Giving Iran a back door would seriously aggravate American policymakers who have enough problems at the moment communicating resolve to Iran's leadership.”
In fact, the United States ought to be encouraging Brazil and Turkey to move forward, and it ought to drop the absurdly misguided push for new sanctions at the UN. As I recently wrote in The Nation:
“To regain the high ground, President Obama must once again emphasize his readiness to talk with Iran on any and all issues. To calm the waters at home, he should take pains to emphasize that the problem with Iran is not an immediate crisis—that Iran does not have a bomb; that it is at least several years from acquiring one, even if that's what it intends to do; and that even if it does plan to acquire a bomb, Iran has developed neither a warhead nor a missile that can deliver such a weapon. Obama should explore creative ways to revive the deal that was signed last October, perhaps via intermediaries like Turkey; indeed, during the early May UN conference on nuclear nonproliferation, Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran's acceptance of the deal, and both Turkey and Brazil are offering to mediate a renewal of the October accord. In addition, Obama should signal that ultimately he is prepared to accept Iran's right to enrich uranium, under appropriate IAEA safeguards. (So far, Obama has said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, but he has never acknowledged its right to enrichment as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) And he'll have to rally US allies, along with Russia and China, for a long and frustrating diplomatic adventure, with more false starts and roadblocks to come.”
President Obama made it clear yesterday that he’s looking at his war in Afghanistan through rose-tinted glasses, and there’s no indication at all that he understands the importance of trying to strike a deal with the Taliban-led insurgents to end the war.
The question is: Did the U.S. administration put enough pressure on Hamid Karzai that the Afghan president will stop trying to cut a deal with the Taliban? The administration has lately suggested that it intends use a “carrots and sticks” approach to Karzai work, meaning that they’ve stopped treating him like a puppet, downgrading him instead to the role of a recalcitrant donkey. Will it work? Will Karzai submit to a U.S. diktat to scale back his diplomatic efforts and get on board with the yahoo-like offensive in Kandahar? It remains to be seen. Karzai is unlikely to give the finger to the United States while on American territory, but we’ll see how he behaves when he gets back home, downgraded from puppet to donkey in the Obama administration’s treatment.
Obama’s remarks yesterday, at the news conference with Karzai, were blinkered at best:
“We’re partnering with Afghan and coalition forces, and we’ve begun to reverse the momentum of the insurgency. We have taken the fight to the Taliban in Helmand Province, pushed them out of their stronghold in Marja.”
Does he really believe that? In what sense is the “momentum of the insurgency” reversed, when the Pentagon’s own reports suggest that things are getting worse? And Marja? That operation was a pathetic fiasco. The Taliban is surging back into the very districts seized by U.S. forces last February and March. The Pentagon report showed that the insurgency is spreading from the south and east into northern districts, and that of 120 key Afghan districts, only six are under government control.
Worse, there’s no indication whatsoever that the United States has a plan in place for talking to the Taliban. Yes, the United States has long said that it will “reintegrate” Taliban fighters at the ground level who agree to take cash from U.S. and Afghan officials. But a broader plan? No. In his remarks yesterday, Obama – with Karzai at his side – said that the United States is prepared to open the doors “to Taliban who cut their ties to Al Qaeda, abandon violence, and accept the Afghan constitution, including respect for human rights,” i.e., to Taliban who surrender. That’s not negotiations. That’s not diplomacy.
Karzai, who’s going home to convene a national peace jirga, or council, for the very purpose of trying to establish an Afghan consensus about reconciling with the Taliban – a very difficult task – soft-pedaled his own ideas about talking to the Taliban. In so doing, Karzai was playing according to the rules of this visit to Washington, which called for submerging the huge differences between U.S. and Afghan interests in favor of a sweetness-and-light alliance. (Obama lied that those differences were “simply overstated.”)
To his credit, Obama did insist that the July, 2011, deadline for starting the withdrawal of U.S. forces is a real one, though he hedged on how many troops might actually be withdrawn, and at what pace. Here’s what he said:
“What I have said is, is that having put in more troops over the last several months in order to break the momentum of the Taliban, that beginning in 2011, July, we will start bringing those troops down and turning over more and more responsibility to Afghan security forces that we are building up.
“But we are not suddenly, as of July 2011, finished with Afghanistan. In fact, to the contrary, part of what I’ve tried to emphasize to President Karzai and the Afghan people, but also to the American people, is this is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence.
“I am confident that we’re going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame.”
But Obama insisted that even though there is no strictly military solution to the war, U.S. policy will continue to “have a strong military component to it,” and that “there’s going to be some hard fighting over the next several months.”
In his remarks, Karzai didn’t say anything about his idea for “reconciliation” with the Taliban – as opposed to U.S.-backed “reintegration.” Instead, he was singing from the U.S. song book:
“There are thousands of the Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of al Qaeda or other terrorist networks, or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us. There are thousands of them who are country boys who have been driven by intimidation or fear caused by at times misconduct by us, or circumstances beyond their control or our control.
“It is these thousands of Taliban who are not against Afghanistan, or against the Afghan people, or their country -- who are not against America either, or the rest of the world, and who want to come back to Afghanistan if given an opportunity and provided the political means. It’s this group of the Taliban that we are addressing in the peace jirga.”
If that’s true, if that’s Karzai’s approach, then the war will go on for years. The Taliban is not going to be dismantled fighter by fighter, with bags of cash and offers of government jobs from Kabul, but in a political deal of the sort that was discussed between Karzai and representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party in March. At that time, Hekmatyar’s group offered a truce and a political deal in exchange for a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Obama repeated the lame rationale for his 2009 escalation of the war. To get the Taliban to the table “depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily.” He added:
“At what point do the Taliban start making different calculations about what’s in their interests, and how the Afghan people feel about these issues, is in part going to be dependent on our success in terms of carrying out our mission there.”
My question: At what point does the United States “start making different calculations” about what’s in its interests?
If you’d like to get an unvarnished look at the Israel lobby in action, go no further than the May 10 edition of The New Yorker, and read Connie Bruck’s painful portrait of Haim Saban, the Israeli billionaire who is probably the single most important person in The Lobby in the entire United States. “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” says Saban.
My favorite juxtaposition in the article: at one point, Saban says that he gave a U.S. official “my two cents” about U.S. policy concerning Israel, whereas in fact Saban has given countless millions of dollars to American politicians, including $7 million all at once to the Democratic National Committee.
And Saban, who wanted his own thinktank, got one: he created the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, housed at the Brookings Institution. (Saban forked over $13 million to Brookings for the center, which Brookings gratefully named after him.)
In the New Yorker piece, Saban comes across as a political thug, a wheeler dealer and a tax cheat, a billionaire (net worth: $3.3 billion, according to Forbes) who throws his money around for explicitly political and pro-Israel causes, a tough-talking womanizer who once had thirty-nine girlfriends all at once, a sleazy businessmen who has left a trail of angry and bitter associates in his wake, and more. If you don’t believe me, read the whole article.
Some key points:
Saban says in the article that he’s desperately in search of buying media outlets that he can transform into overtly pro-Israel mouthpieces. He’s tried to buy the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, and now that Newsweek is for sale, he might get his wish. He’s tried repeatedly to purchase the Los Angeles Time. Reports Bruck:
“In targeting media properties, Saban frankly acknowledges his political agenda. He has tried repeatedly to buy the Los Angeles Times, because, he said, ‘I thought it was time that it turn from a pro-Palestinian paper into a balanced paper.’ He went on, ‘During the period of the second intifada, Jews were being killed every day over there, and this paper was publishing images of a Palestinian woman sitting with her dead child, and, on the Israeli side, a destroyed house. I got sick of it.’”
Bruch describes how unhappy Saban was when Barack Obama refused to echo Hillary Clinton’s call to “obliterate” Iran if Iran attacked Israel. When Saban sought Obama out, the Obama campaign stiff-armed him, to their everlasting credit, and Saban has held a grudge against Obama ever since. As Bruck reports:
“His [Saban's] voice grew louder. ‘I need to understand what that means. So I had a list of questions like that. And Chicago’—Obama campaign headquarters—‘could not organize that meeting. … I was ready and willing to be helpful, but ‘helpful’ is not to write a check for two thousand three hundred dollars. It’s to raise millions, which I am fully capable of doing. But Chicago wasn’t able to deliver the meeting, so I couldn’t get on board.’
“Saban offered to fly his group of Hillary supporters to meet with Obama anywhere in the country, but he was told that it couldn’t be arranged. ‘Haim understands message—Obama didn’t have time for him,’ a close adviser said. ‘After that, he met with McCain. It went that far. But, ultimately, he felt he could not abandon the Democratic Party, even though he did not like its candidate.’
“He has not spoken with Obama since he became President, Saban said, ‘because he has no need to speak to me—or, at least, he thinks he has no need to.’ He has refused on two occasions to co-chair fund-raising dinners for the President.
“Saban called Hillary’s defeat ‘my biggest loss—and not only mine. I’ll leave it at that.’”
Bruck’s piece is brilliant and devastating.
Reading the tea leaves concerning Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington, a comment today by Hillary Clinton stands out:
“Let me be clear. As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future.”
Does that comment signal that the Obama administration is thinking long and hard about the July, 2011, military drawdown of U.S. forces?
Most of the focus in connection with Karzai’s visit is on the supposed decision by the United States to play nice with Karzai, to abandon the confrontational stance that has marked the American attitude toward Karzai since taking office in 2009. And it’s true: on the surface, at least, the Obama administration has stopped treating Karzai like he’s some wayward, recalcitrant puppet. (It isn't clear, yet, if anything’s changed behind the scenes, and whether Washington is less obsessed with Karzai’s alleged tolerance for corruption, his deals with various warlords, the drug trade, and other issues that are peripheral to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Whatever that is.)
The real issues regarding Karzai’s visit are – or should be – two. First, will the United States finally, once and for all, support Karzai’s effort to strike a political deal with the Taliban and its allies, including the Hekmatyar and Haqqani factions? And second, will the United States finally, once and for all, devise a strategy to make Obama’s promised 2011 drawdown go smoothly?
To do the first, the United States has to develop a strategy of its own, complementary to Karzai’s, for talking with Taliban. The New York Times, in its preview of the Karzai visit today, suggests, without supporting evidence, that the United States will provide general support to Karzai on his chief diplomatic priority, namely, reconciliation with the Taliban. But the paper adds, circumspectly: “The administration had not yet formulated a detailed plan on so-called reconciliation.” Detailed plan? The United States has no plan whatsoever.
But the Times does say that the Obama administration is engaged in a “new charm offensive” with the visiting Karzai delegation, bringing out the “good china, and adding: “The new warmth is oozing all the way to the Oval Office.” Maybe so. But so far it isn't obvious at all that the president is willing to change course in Afghanistan. Only recently, Obama met Karzai in Kabul and delivered a finger-wagging, imperialist rebuke to the Afghan president, face to face. Karzai responded, with great statesmanship, in the next few days, by saying that he refuses to be a puppet, refuses to head a “servant government,” and that he will not back off from trying to strike a deal with the Taliban. That, despite the fact that a boorish U.S. military officer met with his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and threatened to kill him – yes, kill him! – if Ahmed Wali was caught talking with insurgents!
When he returns to Afghanistan, Karzai has scheduled a peace jirga, or council, to bring together all aspects of Afghan society – tribal leaders, warlords, clerics, and so on – to try to win their support for his plan to talk to the Taliban. It isn’t an easy task. Members of the old Northern Alliance, the India-backed rebel group that opposed the Taliban until its fall in 2001, don’t like Karzai’s idea of giving the Taliban a share of power. (And India, which is open to the idea of talking to the Taliban, is worried that Pakistan will control the negotiations through its overpowering influence over the Taliban leadership.) Other Afghan warlords don’t want to lose power to Taliban-linked chieftains in the south and east. And Karzai himself is not exactly beloved by the Taliban, though key elements of the insurgency seem more than ready to smoke the peace pipe with him – including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party and at least some important factions of the fragmented Taliban leadership itself.
Karzai’s here with nearly his entire government, bringing twenty officials and Cabinet ministers, arriving on a U.S. Air Force jet. He’ll be wined and dined by nearly every top U.S. official, from Obama and Vice President Biden, to Clinton, to Defense Secretary Gates and National Security Adviser Jones, to members of Congress.
There are plenty of skeptics in Washington about Karzai and his plans, from Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador who was the No. 2 man in the UN mission in Afghanistan last year, who’s suggested that Karzai is psychotic and on drugs. And Marvin Weinbaum, far more level-headed than Galbraith, ridicules the idea of talking to the Taliban: “Simply put, the necessary conditions for serious negotiations do not exist.”
The U.S. view is” Shoot first, ask questions later.” Meaning, first we kill all the Taliban we can, try to push them out of Kandahar, and then maybe the Taliban will be willing to lay down its arms. Not only is that a fantasy – the coming offensive into Kandahar, a city of 500,000 in a province of two million people, is likely to fail miserably, just as the February assault on Marja, a tiny, agricultural village of 60,000 failed – but in addition, there’s no reason to expect that the Taliban will be any more willing to sit and talk after they’ve been bloodied.
When President Karzai of Afghanistan arrives in Washington next Wednesday, will President Obama applaud Karzai’s efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban, or will he tell the Afghanistan president to sit down, shut up, and remember that he’s supposed to behave like a U.S.-installed puppet?
Lately, Karzai has been decidedly un-puppetlike. After meeting Obama at the end of March in Kabul, Karzai unleashed a series of angry, frustrated outbursts that included his only-partly-in-jest threat to join the Taliban. He also accused Washington of trying to undermine his efforts to negotiate with the Taliban. And he’s scheduled a jirga, or council, for later this month to unite Afghan society – tribes, clerics, warlords – in support of a political approach to the Taliban leadership.
The United States is not amused. American policy is, as I wrote in an article for Rolling Stone, to shoot first and ask questions later, i.e., to deal the Taliban a series of punishing blows in the hope that Mullah Mohammed Omar, or at least some leaders of the Taliban, will come to the bargaining table. On this, I’m with Karzai: it’s time to talk to the Taliban now, not later.
Usefully enough, in today’s New York Times there’s an important story that draws on leaks from the ongoing “interrogation” of Mullah Baradur, the Taliban’s No. 2 official, who was seized by Pakistan’s ISI and the CIA last January. (What the Times account leaves out is that Baradur was deeply involved in talks with Karzai and with United Nations officials about a peace deal, and he may have even planned to attend Karzai’s jirga. By arresting him, Pakistan undermined that negotiation, and the ISI made it clear that if there is any deal to be had in Afghanistan, it – the ISI – wants to be in charge.)
According to the Times, Baradur is providing the United States with a “nuanced understanding of the strategy that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is developing for negotiations with the government of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.”
Pakistan, adds the Times, has “tried to turn his arrest to their advantage and are poised to use him as a chip in bargaining between the Afghan government and the Taliban and, conceivably, even as a negotiator.”
“The Taliban would be ready to negotiate but under our own conditions,” a member of the Afghan Taliban’s supreme command said in an interview. “To assume that they would hold the Taliban leadership hostage because of Mullah Baradar’s arrest is not something that would cross our mind.”
On Monday, the Washington Post carried a story that said that Karzai’s chief objective during his Washington visit is to get American support for talks with the Taliban:
Karzai's advisers say one of his main goals for the May 12 meeting is winning President Obama's support for negotiating with insurgent leaders, and for a Kabul peace conference that has been delayed until after the visit. … After months of delay, Karzai's government has clarified its position, sketching out a two-track plan: pursuing political accommodation with insurgent leaders, while at the same time enticing foot soldiers with jobs and foreign-funded development projects.
What’s important here is that the United States, so far at least, has expressed no interest in the first of Karzai’s tracks, that is, “accommodation with insurgent leaders.” In fact, top Obama administration officials have sharply criticized that idea. Instead they favor only the second track, making one-by-one deal with Taliban foot soldiers.
In diplomatic circles and in the U.S. military, the first track is called “reconciliation.” The second track is called “reintegration.” They are not the same thing. Certainly, they can be run in parallel. But there’s precious little indication that the White House has any interest in reconciliation – quite the opposite. And that’s despite the fact that, as the Times notes, the Taliban – and Mullah Baradur – seem open to the idea of a deal.
Of course, for the United States the problem is that the Taliban conditions its deal on the idea of a U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some leaders of the Afghan insurgency have said explicitly that President Obama’s July 2011 timetable for drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan can serve as a starting point for negotiations. That was the point made in March, when a delegation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party traveled to Kabul for peace talks with Karzai and the UN.
By all indications, the United States is pressuring Karzai to slow down the first track, reconciliation, and speed up the second track, reintegration. Because Karzai is so heavily dependent on U.S. military and economic support, it’s hard for him to resist. But, because Karzai is an Afghan politician, who has to appeal to a population that is sick and tired of war, he’ll be reluctant to abandon the idea of peace talks.
Negotiating a deal is fraught with difficulty, for lots of reasons. The Taliban are nasty individuals, and they’d dearly love to roll their forces into Kabul and reinstall their religious-fascist regime, if they can. In addition, the Taliban is not exactly a neatly disciplined force: there are factions within factions, and in fact most experts say that there are many “Talibans,” so it’s hard to imagine that talking to the Taliban involves one-stop shopping. Plus, many Afghans – including the old, anti-Taliban Northern Alliance – hate the Taliban with a passion and may resist a deal. Still, wars end with deals, and it looks like Karzai understands that. Does Obama?
The announcement on Tuesday that Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq has joined with the pro-Iranian coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, to seek to form Iraq’s next government is the direct result of an intervention in Iraqi politics by Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi. “The Iranian ambassador met with the Shiite parties a week ago, and he told them that Iran considers it a matter of its national security that the Shiites put aside their differences to form a government,” Aiham Alsammarae, a former Iraqi minister of electricity, told The Nation. “He told them, ‘Whatever you have to do, do it.’”
The Iran-backed agreement creates an enormous political problem for President Obama and his administration. Not only do the events in Iraq underscore the importance of getting talks with Iran back on track, but they raise the chances that civil war could once again break out in Iraq.
In the March 7 election, Maliki’s party finished second, with 89 seats, and the INA finished third, with 70 seats. The party that came in first, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc, won 91 seats, but it’s looking more and more like Allawi won’t get a chance to put together a coalition.
Maliki has manipulated the system since March 7, first winning a ruling that overturned the notion that the winner gets first crack at forming a government, then joining with the INA and the Ahmed Chalabi-led Justice and Accountability Commission to disqualify some of the winning candidates from Allawi’s bloc, and sending representatives to travel to Tehran, Iran’s capital, to negotiate an accord that would unite Maliki’s bloc with the Shiite religious parties. Until now, however, the various Shiite sectarian parties, including Maliki’s Islamic Dawa party were unable to unite, because Maliki insisted on continuing as prime minister. Now, apparently, after Iran’s direct intervention, and after a long meeting at the home of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of another faction of Islamic Dawa, the parties have agreed on a deal. Reportedly, though it is not confirmed, Jaafari will once again become prime minister.
The announcement of the deal, which came even as the recount that Maliki insisted on was still taking place, is certain to anger Allawi’s bloc, including many secular politicians and Sunnis who’ve felt shut out of Iraqi politics since 2003. The Chalabi-led JAC, which purged more than five hundred candidates in advance of the election, targeted mostly candidates tied to Allawi and other secular, non-sectarian candidates from parties outside the emerging Maliki-INA alliance. It is widely known in Iraq that the JAC is closely tied to Iran.
According to Alsammarae, the creation of the Maliki-INA bloc is virtually certain to push some of Allawi’s supporters to take up arms again against the government in Baghdad. “This means we are going to war,” said Alsammarae. “If it means civil war, so be it.” Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee, told The Nation that Allawi, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and other members of the secular, non-sectarian parties who’ve been shut out by the Maliki-INA deal are likely to boycott Iraqi politics in protest. “I think they will boycott the political process, which will be a disaster,” says Jarrar, who adds that most of the supporters of Allawi don’t have paramilitary groups that they can call on. In contrast, the supporters of the INA can call on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army on the potent Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The Kurds, too, have tens of thousands of men under arms in their pesh merga militia.
Meanwhile, the Awakening – also known as the Sons of Iraq – the U.S.-backed militia that was mostly Sunni, and formed to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq, has fallen apart. This was chronicled in the New York Times earlier this week, which concluded:
“The ramifications could be stark. Most worrisome would be an increase in violence, should disenchanted Awakening fighters become insurgents again.”
Over the past several weeks, Sadr’s Mahdi Army has remobilized, following a series of Al Qaeda-style attacks against Shiite mosques and prayer centers linked to Sadr. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday:
"A once-feared Shiite militia that was crippled two years ago by defections and a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown has quietly started to regroup, adding street muscle to the Shiite party that emerged strongest from Iraq’s parliamentary elections."
Sadr, who has been living in Iran for the past three years, is the strongest force within the INA, and it’s possible he will emerge as kingmaker in the new government.
Since January, when the Iran-backed JAC launched its massive purge of candidates, the United States has by and large stood aside. Half-hearted efforts by Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Christopher Hill in Baghdad to persuade Maliki to overrule the JAC actions were slapped down by Maliki, Then, in the wake of the election, while the United States lobbied quietly, behind the scenes for a government of national unity that would include both Maliki and Allawi, the Iranians intervened much more forcefully.
“The United States did have leverage, and it could have tried to broker a deal, perhaps by supporting a meeting or conference that would have worked to help Iraqis create a government of national unity,” says Jarrar. But, he says, the United States was extremely careful not to be seen as interfering in Iraqi politics. “The United States has not played the game that way, and unfortunately Iran did.”
In an op-ed earlier this week in the Washington Post, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who was perhaps the chief proponent of the 2007 surge ordered by President Bush, and Kim Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War called on the United States to intervene in favor of the anti-Maliki bloc, and they sharply criticized the JAC’s blatant interference in the electoral results by seeking to disqualify candidates. “Washington should strongly support Iraqi leaders such as Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Allawi,” they wrote. “Staying silent is not the same as remaining neutral. This does not mean that Washington should choose a party or prime minister, but the United States must protect the electoral process from politicians (and external actors) seeking to manipulate its outcome.”
Unfortunately, it’s probably too late for the United States to do anything about Iran’s growing might in Iraq. For nearly five years, in The Dreyfuss Report and in articles for The Nation and the American Prospect, I’ve been warning that the toppling of Saddam Hussein had opened the door for Iran to move into Iraq. Neoconservatives, including many American Enterprise Institute analysts, strongly supported the Shiite sectarian parties that seized power in Baghdad with American help after 2003. They foolishly embraced Ahmed Chalabi, who has long had close ties to Iran, and they insisted that the United States arm and train an Iraqi army that was heavily indebted to the pro-Iran Badr Brigade and commanded by sectarian Shiites with ties to Iran. So it’s no surprise now, seven years after the fall of Saddam, that Iran and its allies among the Shiite religious parties in Iraq have the upper hand.
Despite calls from neoconservatives and Republican hardliners for Obama to delay or cancel the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq, it’s too late for that, too. The best hope for Obama is reopen talks about Iraq with Iran. Without doubt, Iran would like to use Iraq as a bargaining chip in the negotiations over its nuclear enrichment program, and it would make sense for the United States to broaden the talks with Iran to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and illegal drug smuggling. Feel-good stunts, such as walking out of the UN speech by President Ahmadinejad may look good on television, but they do nothing to deal with the reality, namely, that the United States is going to have to go back to the bargaining table with Iran and try to make a deal.
Faisal Shahzad, it should be noted, is not a member of the Tea Party. Nor, it appears, is he a “white man in his 40s,” as early reports described a possible suspect. What he is, it seems, is a manifestation of the reality that the threat of terrorism has fallen far below the magnitude of anything that justifies a “war on terror.”
If all we have to worry about is a guy who tries to explode his underwear and another guy who creates an incompetent, non-exploding bomb in New York, then we’ve won.
It should also be noted that since 9/11 there has been only a single, modestly significant case of Muslim-perpetrated violence in the United States, namely, the case of the soldier in Texas who shot fellow soldiers. And even that, according to reports, was perpetrated by a man who very likely was mentally deranged. Now, it’s true that almost anyone who’d undertake any of these actions is probably mentally unstable, to some degree, not unlike the man who piloted his airplane into the IRS building in Texas.
Yet it’s also undeniably true that by waging anti-jihad in countries from Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda actually existed, to Iraq, where Al Qaeda certainly did not exist, has inflamed passions in the Muslim world and among Muslims, such as Shahzad, living in the United States. Only a tiny portion of those Muslims countenance terrorist violence as a countermeasure, and only a tiny portion of that small group try to carry it out. Only none succeed. But it’s clear that as long as the United States engages in anti-jihad, waging war against broad-based insurgencies such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, there will be sporadic attacks such as these.
Something else is clear. There will also be ridiculous efforts to conflate the real threat of terrorism, as represented by Al Qaeda and by people such as Shahzad, with angry and militant Muslims, their organizations, and various states. During the George W. Bush era, the U.S. government did exactly that, with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, Pakistani-backed, anti-India terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammed, the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Wahhabis, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the government of Sudan, Libya’s Qaddafi, Yemeni rebels, and, of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bush & Co. rolled all of them up into one, huge “Islamofascist” ball of wax. In fact, few if any of those states and organizations work together, or even like each other.
And it isn’t just the far right and the neoconservatives who mix up apples and mangos when it comes to terrorism. In today’s Washington Post, Tom Toles has a despicable cartoon showing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s in New York, grinning insanely while driving a car filled with exactly the sort of flammable materials that Shahzad concocted.
So far, the Obama administration seems to be approaching this with a cool head and not a lot of alarmism. But I'm still waiting for Obama to tell Americans, as I wrote yesterday, that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself.
It may be that the Pakistan-based Taliban, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has quietly established a Connecticut franchise while we weren't looking. That's possible. But it seems far more likely to me that the perpetrator of the bungled Times Square bomb plot was either a lone nut job or a member of some squirrely branch of the Tea Party, anti-government far right. Which actually exists in Connecticut, where, it seems, the car's license plates were stolen.
It may be that the car bomb, which fizzled, could have wreaked havoc in Times Square. That's possible, too. But it's seem very, very unlikely that a few cannisters of propane, a bunch of M-80 firecrackers, and some fertilizer that, police say, couldn't have exploded, would have "killed thousands of people," as CNN breathlessly reported yesterday.
Sensible analysts of the event point out, convincingly, that no branch of the Taliban, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan, has demonstrated either the intention or the capability of striking in such as fashion.
And the fact that the suspect, videotaped, is a white male in his 40s, hasn't deterred our vast team of terrorism talking heads from describing the operation as part of the jihad. Of course, it could be that some offshoot of the jihadist movement recruited a white bread American to do its bidding, and it could be that the man shown in the videotape is not the culprit at all. But, as in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, when self-appointed experts blamed Muslims only to find out that it was a Gulf War veteran named Tim who did it, there has once again been an unseemly rush to judgment.
The Wall Street Journal is already editorializing in favor of stepped up racial profiling to catch evil doers, even though -- in this case -- such profiling would have more profitably sought out the editors of the Journal, who are mostly white men in their 40s:
"After a succession of recent terrorist incidents inside the U.S., often involving so-called home-grown jihadists, it is evident that we should be willing to err on the side of being aggressive in surveilling and catching such people before their bombs begin to smolder."
The Washington Post loyally trots out one of the terrorism-industrial complex's leading consultants, Evan F. Kohlmann, who says:
"Over the past week or so, every faction, from al-Shabaab in Somalia on down the list, has issued statements mourning the deaths of these guys in Iraq, saying, 'We're going to avenge them, vengeance is coming.'"
Intelligently, Janet Napolitano says:
"I caution against premature decisions one way or another. ... The last thing we want to do is draw premature conclusions. ... I'm not going to speculate on speculation."
As always, it's important to point out that even if the Times Square bombing turns out to be the work of jihadist zealots, it shows that the as an enemy these crazies rank about on a par with the guy who crashed his plane into the IRS building. President Obama took the opportunity to proclaim his vigilance and his determination to track down the perpetrator and to keep America safe. But it's way past time for Obama to shift gears, and to start telling Americans that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself.
On Wednesday afternoon, members of the House and Senate gathered for a conference committee meeting to discuss the bills passed by each house to impose sanctions on Iran. As I sat down at my desk to write this, I pulled out my Roget's Thesaurus to see how many synonyms for "crippling," 'crushing," "overwhelming," "suffocating," and so on there are. There are a lot. And many of them, including those just mentioned, were used by members of Congress competing to see strongly each one could condemn Iran.
It wasn't pretty. Apoplexy was the order of the day.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida got the ball rolling, by demanding "crippling, mandatory sanctions" on Iran. Which caused everyone who followed to try to outbid her.
The United States can't be satisfied with "semi-sanctions," said Senator Joe Lieberman, but must instead "marshal the economic, political, and if necessary [its] military power" against the "fanatical regime." Representative Gary Ackerman declared that crippling sanctions weren't strong enough, insisting that the world must impose "suffocating" sanctions on Iran - and even then, he said, "success in this effort is unlikely" and that Iran would "have a nuclear weapon in less than two years." Representative Dan Burton of Indiana upped the ante, nearly foaming at the mouth while saying that the military people he talks to say the Iran could have The Bomb within one year, adding ominously: "We have to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons." Representative Brad Sherman of California denounced those who want to impose mere targeted sanctions on Iranian wrongdoers, declaring: "Smart sanctions are dumb." We need, he said, "absolutely crippling sanctions." And Representative Ed Royce thundered that the United States and its allies must impose "crushing" sanctions, then added: "Even crushing sanctions might not do the job."
Noting that most of the speakers were either rabid, right-wing Republicans or militantly pro-AIPAC Democrats, I went over to Representative Barney Frank as the left the room. Is there any way to stop this runaway train? I asked. "No," he said. And he's glad. Frank argues that the bill, which as written will compel the president to impose sanctions on friend and foe alike who sell gasoline and petroleum products to Iran, will strengthen the president's hand. (The White House and the State Department, incidentally, oppose the bill, and they're demanding that the conferees weaken it to give President Obama some flexibility in implementing its draconian provisions. So, it would seem, the president doesn't want the help that Congressman Frank is happily offering.) I pointed out to Frank that the president doesn't want the bill's help, but Frank said, simply, "It helps him."
Most of the conferees lambasted the White House - and previous administrations, too - for refusing to implement Iran-bashing legislation that they'd helpfully enacted in the past. That's because diplomats and others with cooler heads, including key players in the administration of George W. Bush, too, realize that sanctioning allies and imposing harsh penalties on European, Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies doesn't win friends and influence people. (The Clinton administration realized the same thing, and President Clinton refused to impose draconian measures in the 1990s that Congress wanted.) But in 2010, Congress is so mad at Iran, and so unhappy with resistance from the White House and the State Department, that this time they're going to write a bill that forces President Obama's hand. "We cannot produce a bill that is so full of holes, carve-outs, exemptions, and waivers that no one takes it seriously," said Ros-Lehtinen today.
There's a chance, a small one, that Senator John Kerry, along with Senator Chris Dodd (the Senate sponsor of the bill) will accede to administration wishes and water down the bill so that it doesn't tie the president's hands. To the consternation of the mad dog-like members of the conference committee, Senator Dodd said, "We will accommodate the administration's concerns," though he didn't specify exactly how. And Kerry, sounding glum and resigned - and completely avoiding words such as crushing, crippling, and suffocating! - said simply that the threat of congressional action has "helped to focus the world's attention" on the Iran problem, but he added: "This conference report is gonna pass." He pointed out the international diplomacy by the Obama administration, and the talks at the UN Security Council about sanctions, are proceeding, and that it all may take time.
And Representative Howard Berman, the bill's sponsor in the House, suggested that there is a "certain logic" to the administration's request that the legislation carve out waivers or exemptions for "cooperating countries" - which, as some members pointed out, could mean anyone and everyone.
But when it comes to weakening the bill, the rest of the members weren't having any of it.
Representative Mike Pence of Indiana said: "This administration has spent more time on the threat of global warming than on the threat of a nuclear Iran." Ignoring the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapon, that U.S. intelligence agencies say that it will be three to five years before they can develop a nuclear capability even if they want to, and that even with a bomb Iran isn't likely to commit suicide by using it, Pence raised the specter of another Holocaust, warning about a "second, historic tragedy for our most cherished ally" in the Middle East.
The House passed its version of the sanctions bill last December. Then, in January, the Senate followed suit. In the next several weeks, it seems, the House and Senate will reconcile the slight differences between the two bills and send them to the White House with a huge, veto-proof majority behind them. The bill requires the administration to examine any and all contracts between Iran and oil and gasoline suppliers. Any greater than a tiny threshold - just $200,000 to $500,000 - trigger a U.S. crackdown, and the president is then required to place the offending company on a "blacklist." He must then take strong action against the company, up to and including seizing its assets in the United States.
Last year, Obama launched his vaunted diplomatic opening to Iran, which seemed to make progress. Not only did the opening to Iran encourage the dissident and reformist opposition last spring, but it led top officials of Iran to sit down with American diplomats over the summer and fall and to sign an accord on October 1 in Geneva that seemed to be a breakthrough: Iran agreed to send nearly all of its enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for a medical reactor. But that accord fell apart, victim in part to internal firefights within Iran's fractured political system. What comes next, for Obama, isn't clear. He's pushing hard on what he, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton call "the pressure track" now, and he wants the UN to impose a fourth round of sanctions, with the support of Russia and China. Beyond that, it seems that the United States is planning to impose tougher unilateral sanctions on Iran, too, beginning this summer, that would include severe financial sanctions and cut-offs of investment and technology to Iran by U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
And then what? The administration has pretty much ruled out military action, despite what Lieberman and Dick Cheney want. They insist that they want to keep the diplomatic track open. But where do sanctions lead? As the hawks point out, correctly, even crushing, crippling, and suffocating sanctions aren't likely to persuade Iran to cave in. It seems like a formula for failure and stalemate.
Nearly seven weeks after the March 7 election in Iraq, there's no movement at all toward creating a new government. As the August deadline for drawing down U.S forces to 50,000 troops gets closer -- and even those troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011 -- the influence of the United States is declining sharply, and the overt and covert influence of Iran is getting stronger.
In Washington, hawks are beginning to demand that President Obama delay the drawdown. But Obama really has no choice but to seek a deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who supported anti-Iranian politicians in the March 7 vote, would be happy to support such a deal, too, but it all depends on the United States backing off from its confrontation with Iran and trying to work out a Washington-Teheran accord.
The latest evidence of Iran's maneuvering in Iraq: the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance and its ally, the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission (JAC), have struck again, this time disqualifying several winning candidates in the March 7 election and threatening to disqualify many others. (In January, you'll recall, the Commission barred more than 500 candidates from the ballot on spurious charges that they were members or supporters of the Baath Party, the former Arab nationalist party that was a powerful force in pre-2003 Iraq, going back to the 1950s.)
In all, the JAC ousted 52 candidates, including victorious candidates. As Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times reports:
"The 52 had been last-minute substitutes for other candidates, who also had been barred from running in the March 7 elections due to their alleged connections to the former ruling Baath Party.
"Just days before the vote, the country's Accountability and Justice Commission, which screens candidates for ties to the Baath Party, announced the names of the 52 substitute candidates who it said should be banned. But Iraq's electoral commission ruled that their cases would be decided after the balloting.
"A three-judge panel on Monday threw out their candidacies, a move that could further polarize the political process."
In Iraq, when you "polarize the political process," people load their guns. Already, last week, the recently quiescent Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, threatened to mobilize its forces after a series of bombings struck the Sadrists' Friday prayer gatherings in Baghdad.
One of the candidates barred was Saleh al-Mutlaq, the leader of an independent-minded Iraqi nationalist bloc, who formed a coalition with Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister. When Mutlaq failed to get the ban lifted last February, he asked his brother, Ibrahim al-Mutlaq, to run in his place. Now, the Commission, led by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi and strongly supported by Iran, has barred Ibrahim al-Mutlaq as well.
The bans and threatened bans mostly target Iraqiya, the bloc led by Allawi, which won 91 seats in the election, most of any party. Prime Minister Maliki, whose mostly Shiite religious party (comprised of the old, underground Shiite Islamist party, Dawa), won 89 seats. So now Maliki seems to be throwing in his lot with the Iran-backed Iraqi National Alliance and the JAC. The Maliki bloc hasn't challenged the JAC ruling at all, and his partisans seem gleeful that the JAC and the election court, which Maliki controls, can rewrite the election results now. As one of his supporters told the New York Times:
"Whether Allawi is going to have 90 seats or 85, or we have 89 or 95, is not important. Whoever is going to be able to form coalitions will form the government."
But, of course, who has the most seats is important, because it gives that party the first claim to form a coalition.
It's ironic, indeed, that Ali al-Lami, an Iraqi who was arrested by the United States two years ago for his involvement in a bombing that killed U.S. soldiers, and who has been directly accused by General Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, of being an Iranian agent, can now pull the strings of Iraqi politics, behind the scenes, and with the support of Maliki.
The U.S ambassador in Iraq, Christopher Hill, is flailing. In his first comments since March 7 about the election, Hill told journalists in Baghdad yesterday:
"We have an election that took place on March 7. We are now approaching the two-month period [of waiting for final results] and we are concerned that the process is lagging. We have not gone on to government formation as of yet and we share the concern of those who believe that its time that the politicians got down to business and started forming a government."
But like Richard Nixon's "pitiful, helpless giant," the United States can't do much as Iran runs its traps in Iraq.
"We are going to call on the United Nations to bear its responsibility, because Iraq is still under the mandate of Chapter 7 of the Security Council. We need the United Nations to intervene to salvage the political process, because it has been politicized and the counting and recounting has been politicized."
Neither the United States nor the UN, however, have enough political clout in Iraq to reverse the Iranian-backed power play. And stopping the emerging coalition between Maliki and the Shiite INA, which is expected to get the Kurds to join in, too, would require getting Allawi to bring the Kurdish bloc into his camp, and then to secure the support of some major faction of the Shiite alliance. Both of those options are unlikely.