Archive for the ‘USA: foreign affairs’ Category

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

I’ve been riveted these days to the refugee crisis in Europe, as have millions of others, and specifically to the tragedy of the Syrians who are landing on the continent en masse. I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once watching the televised interviews of Syrian refugees who have lost everything: their homes, livelihoods, life savings, family and friends dispersed—when not killed—social networks gone… And their country. Lost forever. Syria is shattered. It’s finished and won’t be put back together. The Syrian people are living through a nightmare such that I cannot begin to imagine. (If one has two hours to spare, France 2’s Envoyé Special two days ago was entirely devoted to the refugee crisis and may be viewed here through next Thursday).

One consequence of the surge of Syrian refugees on Europe’s shores has been a proliferation of commentaries trashing President Obama’s non-interventionist Syria policy of the past four years. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of this on social media, with those denouncing Obama’s inaction calling it the biggest stain—that’s the favored word (tache, en français)—on his foreign policy record. The Obama-bashers include not only right-wingers—whom I pay no attention to, as they just want to bash Obama—but also academics, policy intellectuals, and MENA-specialized journalists whom I highly respect—some I know personally—such as him, him, him, and him; also see him and him. These Obama detractors have, needless to say, been arguing for intervention in the Syrian civil war since the outset—arming “moderate” rebel forces (i.e. the Free Syrian Army), establishing a no-fly zone, and/or taking out the Syrian barrel bombers via air power. I was totally opposed to an intervention to August 2013—as I wrote several times here on AWAV—though became more open-minded on the question after the Ba’athist regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta—Obama’s famous “red line.” But Obama, seeing that he did not have the support of Congress or US public opinion—overwhelmingly hostile to another American war in the Middle East—decided against sending in the USAF. If there’s been a valid critique of Obama on Syria, it was his about-face at this moment; he could have acted the “leader” and done what he was thought was right—and not left France in the lurch,which was not nice—though it would have certainly been a fool’s errand in the end: an open-ended conflict with no end game, overwhelming pressure for the use of ground troops—which absolutely no one has advocated (at least openly)—and the US coming up against Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah, not to mention its putative regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who have been arming non-moderate rebels from the very outset and are going to do what they’re going to do in Syria regardless of US may wish. The US would have been intervening in an exceptionally nasty and complex civil war, and that had already been invested by a number of regional actors who feel they have more at stake in the outcome than the US does itself. Syria is a catastrophe and would have been even if the US had done everything the interventionists had advocated. So despite legitimate criticisms of the president’s decisions, I have little patience for the Obama-bashing of my interventionist associates.

Saying all this better than I ever could is Aaron David Miller, who has an excellent, first-rate, 100% bull’s-eye essay in Foreign Policy, “It’s not Obama’s fault.” The lede: “The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.” ADM gets it exactly right on Obama and Syria. No money quotes. Just read the piece. The whole thing.

On Obama’s MENA policy more generally, see Marc Lynch’s excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role.” Lynch has his critiques of Obama’s MENA policy comme moi—e.g. I will fault him for pulling back from Libya after the successful intervention and backing the Saudis in Yemen—but defends it in the main. He begins

Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy often complain that Obama lacks a strategic vision. This is almost exactly wrong. Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right. The occupation of Iraq and the excesses of the war on terrorism had left the United States overextended, especially at a time of economic crisis. “Rightsizing” the United States’ footprint in the region meant not only reducing its material presence but also exercising restraint diplomatically, stepping back and challenging allies to take greater responsibility for their own security. Obama has adhered consistently to this strategy, prioritizing it ruthlessly along the way and firmly resisting efforts to force it off track. This was not a strategy much beloved in Washington or in a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power. But it was a clear and coherent strategy that led Obama to undertake major initiatives on the problems he viewed as rising to the level of core national security interests: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq.

On Syria, Lynch has this

The defining issue of Obama’s tenure will likely be Syria, whose bloodshed, radicalization, and regional destabilization will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. Few policies have been criticized more widely than Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in support of Syria’s insurgency. It is easy to understand the outrage in the face of the Syrian regime’s unrelenting carnage and daily evils. But the hard reality, which Obama understood, is that none of the popular proposals for intervention would have made things better. Syria was doomed to its horrific civil war almost from the moment President Bashar al-
Assad chose to resort to military repression to stay in power and his opponents chose to take up arms and transform a peaceful uprising into an insurgency. U.S. forces could have been more or less deeply involved in the civil war that followed, but no degree of U.S. military intervention would have solved the problem. Even a large-scale military action would likely have failed, as the fruitless occupation of Iraq so painfully demonstrated.

Supporters of a Syria intervention usually insisted that they did not want U.S. boots on the ground. But the Obama administration was keenly aware of the pressures for escalation that would have followed even a limited operation, because the ideas for a limited U.S. intervention made little sense. Assad was not going to run away at the first sign of NATO bombers, and the limits of airpower have been demonstrated by the air campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A no-fly zone might have quickly grounded Assad’s air force, but it would not have protected rebels from mortars or ground actions. Providing antiaircraft weapons to the rebels would have made a tactical difference but would also have posed 
a threat to civil aviation. The U.S. military would have had to defend any safe areas that it declared, which could not be done from the air alone.

Arming the opposition, the most popular proposal and one that the United States has fitfully pursued, 
was always the least likely to succeed. The Syrian opposition was from the beginning hopelessly fragmented and has become increasingly radicalized as the war has ground on. As early as 2012, huge amounts of money and guns were already flowing to opposition groups from the Gulf countries and Turkey, and covert U.S. operations were already under way. But there were few effective and ideologically acceptable groups that the United States could comfortably arm. Arming the opposition would not have given the United States control over these groups, and it would have inevitably entailed U.S. support for extreme jihadists. Insurgents do insurgent things, and as the Syrian uprising morphed into an insurgency, it became increasingly radicalized and brutal.

Assad’s foreign patrons roughly matched whatever support came to the insurgents. As a result, increased external help for the Syrian rebels led only to a more destructive balance of power, with minor fluctuations in each direction within a broader strategic stalemate. And an empowered opposition was always going to become less willing to compromise, as was an empowered Assad. Short of an outright victory by one side, no balance of power could have compelled negotiations.

In the face of all of this, the Obama administration was wise to resist the slippery slope of intervention and instead to try to corral its allies, shape the conditions for negotiations, and alleviate human suffering. Its worst blunder, the aborted bombing threat of August and September 2013, demonstrated just how easy it was to get drawn in: Obama’s redline on the use of chemical weapons had been mostly a rhetorical sop to give the appearance of toughness, but once articulated, it became costly to abandon. Obama was wise enough to walk away and pay the reputational costs of backing down—but it is telling how near a thing the bombing was.

As with ADM, Marc Lynch says it better than I. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

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Yesterday I had a post taking apart putative GOP foreign policy heavyweight Marco Rubio’s critique of President Obama’s action in this domain, and notably in the Middle East. So now I come across an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, by the journal’s editor Gideon Rose, on Obama’s foreign policy record, which, Rose argues, is very largely positive.

The piece begins with the inevitable sports metaphor

How should one judge a president’s handling of foreign policy? Some focus on what happens in a few lonely moments of crisis, casting the nation’s leader as Horatius at the bridge or Casey at the bat. But a better analogy would be a member of a relay team or a middle relief pitcher: somebody who takes over from a predecessor, does a hard job for a while, and then passes things on to the next guy.

In baseball, there are special statistics used to judge such players, the hold and the blown save, which essentially tally whether the pitcher’s team keeps or loses the lead while he’s in the game. Looked at in such a light, Barack Obama has done pretty well. Having inherited two wars and a global economic crisis from the George W. Bush administration—the foreign policy equivalent of runners on base with no outs—Obama has extricated the country from some old problems, avoided getting trapped in some new ones, and made some solid pickups on the side.

There have been errors, wild pitches, and lost opportunities. But like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office, ones that the next administration can build on to improve things further. Given how many administrations fail even that limited test, such an accomplishment is worthy of praise rather than the contempt the administration’s foreign policy often receives.

The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery. The president is variously painted as a softheaded idealist, a cold-blooded realist, or a naive incompetent. But he is actually best understood as an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament—somebody who felt that after a period of reckless overexpansion and belligerent unilateralism, the country’s long-term foreign policy goals could best be furthered by short-term retrenchment. In this, he was almost certainly correct, and with the necessary backpedaling having been accomplished, Washington can turn its attention to figuring out how to get the liberal order moving forward once again.

An “ideological liberal with a conservative temperament.” Tout à fait. I like that.


…looking at recent history, the president concluded that the region’s various domestic problems are neither easily solvable nor his to solve. After all, as the former administration official Philip Gordon has noted, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” And in Yemen, one might add, the United States relied on drone strikes and active diplomacy, and the result is a costly disaster. If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.

As for the administration’s signature diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, it exemplifies Obama’s broader approach to foreign policy. Having pledged as a candidate to be willing to talk to any country without preconditions to see if relations could be improved, once elected, Obama spent years doggedly pursuing a less conflictual relationship with Tehran. Judging that the Islamic Republic was not about to collapse, he gave a cold shoulder to the opposition Green Movement that sprang up after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. When the Iranian government rebuffed his initial efforts at reconciliation, he worked with other countries to craft a tightened net of economic and financial sanctions. And when Iran decided it did want to negotiate after all, he invested substantial effort and political capital in trying to make the talks succeed. The result was a solid arms control agreement trading sanctions relief for a decadelong pause in Iran’s quest for a bomb. No war, no appeasement, a team effort with other great powers to try to come up with a practical solution to a significant but limited problem, and the creation of conditions in which progress might be made on broader issues over time­—all vintage Obama.


Listening to discussions of American national security these days, one would think the country were in truly dire straits. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” according to Senator Marco Rubio. “The world is literally about to blow up,” says Senator Lindsey Graham. Even people who are not running for the Republican presidential nomination apparently agree. In 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” In 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the threat from ISIS “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

To use a technical term, this is hogwash. The United States today may be richer, stronger, and safer than it has ever been; if not, it is certainly close to it. It has a defense budget equivalent to those of the next seven countries combined and together with its allies accounts for three-quarters of all global defense spending. It has unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a globe-spanning intelligence network. It has the world’s reserve currency, the world’s largest economy, and the highest growth rate of any major developed country. It has good demographics, manageable debt, and dynamic, innovating companies that are the envy of the world. And it is at the center of an ever-expanding liberal order that has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters
of a century.

Seriously, between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio—or any of the other GOP candidates—il n’y a pas photo, as we say in these parts.

Read all of Gideon Rose’s article here.

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Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, if one hadn’t heard, is considered to be a foreign policy heavyweight in the GOP, or at least more knowledgeable and thoughtful on the general subject than the other candidates of his party, perhaps Lindsey Graham excepted. Rubio is naturally opposed to the Iran deal and explained why in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, which was published twelve days ago on The Atlantic website. My friend Claire Berlinski, who is situated on Rubio’s side of the political spectrum, is impressed with what Rubio says to Goldberg, writing on the Ricochet blog—where she’s an editor—that Rubio “makes sense.”

Well, I beg to differ with my friend Claire, as I don’t think Rubio makes sense at all. I think he makes nonsense, and along with the rest of his GOP associates on the Iran question (not to mention on every other question)—though, I will grant, he does come across as more thoughtful, at least superficially, in proffering his nonsense. As I am not a dues-paying member of the Ricochet blog—so may therefore not post comments there—and in lieu of sending Claire a private email, I will post my critique of Rubio’s nonsense here on AWAV.

Rubio thus tells Goldberg (N.B. all block quotes are of Rubio, unless otherwise indicated)

Well, I was just reading out of the text of the agreement, and I assure you that the Iranians interpret it the way that I alluded to, which is that if they come under cyberattack or any other effort to sabotage their program, then not just the U.S., but all the world powers, will have the obligation to assist them technically in defeating those measures. Now obviously Kerry and the administration would say that their reading of this is that we’re trying to protect them from some sort of terrorist group, for example.

Rubio is no doubt referring to the JCPOA’s Annex III.D.10 on nuclear security, in the context of civil nuclear cooperation. There is no mention in this clause of any “obligation” in regard to technical assistance. The operative passage here is “co-operation in the form of training courses and workshops.” This seems uncontroversial and not something to set off alarm bells. Also, one wonders how Rubio can know in advance how the Iranians are going to interpret the clause.

There are companies and banks around the world that might be considering making significant investments in Iran, and what they need to know is that if they make a significant investment in Iran and a future administration reimposes sanctions, or Iran violates the deal, or Iran conducts some outrageous act of terrorism around the world and [is] sanctioned for it,

An “outrageous act of terrorism around the world”?  The last time Iran was accused of such a thing was in Buenos Aires in 1994 but, while the Iranian regime was surely behind that one, such has not definitively been proven and twenty-one years after the fact. No specific sanctions were imposed on Iran as a consequence. So why, pray, would a hypothetical recidivist attack in some far-flung corner of the world—for which Tehran would deny any responsibility and could not be proven—now get Iran in hot water?

your investment could be lost. If you go into Iran and build a pharmaceutical plant, and you invest all this money to build it, and then suddenly Iran does something, and now you’re subject to sanctions if you continue to do business with them, you’re going to lose that investment. And so I do think that it’s important for investors and others around the world who are looking to do more business with Iran to be very conscious about this, because they’re basically gambling that this regime is not violating the deal or doing something new that could impose sanctions.

Once the JCPOA is implemented and the UN and other sanctions are progressively lifted, companies, banks, and other investors will make investment decisions in Iran based on that, as well as on business-related criteria. And in the event of a complaint about Iran to the UNSC from one of the E3/EU+3 and that results in snapback sanctions, investments already made in Iran will not be affected, as—and the JCPOA is explicit on this—there will be no retroactivity in regard to contracts signed before a hypothetical reinstatement of UN sanctions.

As for a future US administration unilaterally reimposing sanctions, this cannot and will not affect non-US investments in Iran, as any attempt by the US to impose sanctions on third countries will provoke a firestorm in US relations with its E3/EU+3 partners, not to mention just about everyone else. Unless the US formally commits to issuing blanket waivers, it will be subjected to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism—the EU and/or other WTO members will be certain to file a complaint—and the US will lose, period, as third country sanctions are, except in exceptional circumstances, illegal in international law.

If the US ignores the certain WTO/DSM ruling and seeks to bar offending foreign companies and financial institutions from the US market anyway, the US will be an international outlaw. A rouge state. And it will still lose in the end.

Well, the likeliest way it’s going to happen is there will be some facility somewhere in Iran that we have suspicions about, and the IAEA will go to Iran and say, “We want to see this facility.” And Iran will say, “This is outrageous. We’re not showing you anything.” And they’ll go through a 24-day process back and forth, and ultimately it won’t be a massive thing, it’ll be an incremental thing, and Iran will say to the world, “Are you going to blow up this entire arrangement and allow us to go off and do whatever we want over this small technical issue?” And there will be a series of small, incremental violations like that, that ultimately over time will wear down the enforcement mechanism. And unless you absolutely catch them in a Cuban missile crisis-style situation, with pictures, red-handed, the world’s not going to force it, because there’ll be too many vested interests economically in Europe and around the world arguing against it. (…)

Well, I just think in their mind, they figure, “We can game this thing for a while. We still haven’t developed a long-range rocket anyway. You know, we didn’t necessarily intend to have a bomb in the next 48 months anyway. So, let’s go ahead and incrementally wear on this thing while we aim for modern-day centrifuge capabilities, while we rebuild our economy, while we rebuild our conventional capability.”

Rubio is engaging in what we in France call a discussion de café de commerce. In other words, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out half-baked hypotheses and idly speculating. On Iran’s eventual behavior when the JCPOA comes into effect, Rubio is quite sure the Iranians will cheat. For opponents of the Iran deal, it is a mantra that the Iranians are cheaters. This almost goes without saying; as if cheating is an Iranian cultural trait, congenital to the national character. Now it is, of course, possible that Iran will surreptitiously seek to contravene its treaty obligations, which is why the JCPOA contains inspection measures that the vast majority of arms control experts consider to be exceptionally robust. But seriously, why do Rubio and other deal opponents think Iran will cheat? Does the Islamic Republic of Iran have a history of not respecting bi- or multilateral agreements it has signed? If so, it would be helpful to have examples (I can’t think of any offhand). And why should Iran be trusted less than, say, the Soviet Union was, or any other adversary with whom the US signed arms control agreements over the decades (or agreements of any kind)? In point of fact, the default attitude here should be that the Iranians—like the E3/EU+3—will respect the JCPOA. Honestly, why shouldn’t they?

But if Marco Rubio or one of his GOP compères enters the White House in January 2017 and proceeds to denounce US commitments to the JCPOA, which country will the international community conclude cannot be trusted to respect agreements it has signed?

On the US isolating itself if it rejects or repudiates the Iran deal, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd, in a NYT op-ed dated August 17th, “Iranians dare to hope,” concludes with this

But the deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.

Back to Rubio:

 I would argue that it is not, because you’re about to see billions of dollars of assets held abroad returned. That money can’t be pulled back. Once [the Iranians] get it they’ll be able to do what they want with it. I mean, it isn’t going to be used to build hospitals and roads.

How the hell does Marco Rubio know this?! How does he know that the billions of Iranian dollars will not be used for infrastructure and other things that will benefit the Iranian people (and increase the popularity of the regime in the process)?!

In fact, he doesn’t know at all. He’s just idly speculating. Le café de commerce.

I imagine they’ll spend some on domestic considerations, but if history is a guide, they’ll use the money to increase their reach in the region, and that means supporting [Syrian President] Assad, Hezbollah, the 14th of February movement in Bahrain, the Houthis in Yemen, you name it. There are Shia militias in Iraq they will support, and this is not to mention their long-range missile capabilities and their other asymmetrical conventional capabilities that they’ll work on.

First of all, history is no guide here. And I will wager that Marco Rubio, were he to take an exam of mine on this history (without having taken my course, at least), would not get an ‘A’. Second, precisely how will Iran “use the money” to support its clients in the region? Regarding the Assad regime in Syria and Hizbullah, they’re already being backed by Iran to the hilt. According to Israeli intelligence, Hizbullah already has over 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, all presumably supplied by Iran. So would more money for that many more rockets and missiles increase ever more the danger to Israel? On the “14th of February movement [sic]” in Bahrain: Why shouldn’t this receive more money? It could no doubt use some. And there is no reason under the sun why anyone with an interest in democracy promotion in the region should be opposed. The Houthis in Yemen? So what about them? In point of fact, the US has no dog in the Yemeni civil war and, par ailleurs, has no reason whatever to be opposing the Houthis. If anything, the US should be tilting toward the Houthis, who are fighting Al-Qaida in Yemen and, as Zaidis, will be reliable enemies of the Islamic State should the latter set up shop in the Arabian peninsula (an eventuality that must not be excluded). Shia militias in Iraq? I’m sorry to inform you, Senator Rubio, but that horse has already bolted. Shia Iraq is entirely occupied by Shia militias and which are, let us be clear on this, an essential bulwark against the expansion of the Islamic State. Long range Iranian missiles? Ouf! GMAB.

The view in the region is that Iran is a country bent on regional domination. They believe the ayatollah’s call to be a leader of all the Muslim world, not just Shia Muslims, and they have a view that Iran has a rightful place in the world as a dominant power.

The only people outside US right-wing circles who believe this preposterous, ridiculous notion are the ruling cliques in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who have an existential hang-up about Persians and Shi’ism. That’s their problem, not America’s.

And so Sunni Arabs see all this as a direct threat, and they view Iran as being empowered now. They are now the power in the region that has been given global-power status.

Oy vey, Iran being “given global-power status”… This one takes the cake. Now we’re in La La Land. The notion of Iran endowed with global-power status—and of this being delivered to it on a platter by the JCPOA—is utterly unserious; it is so unworthy of serious response that it will not receive it here (if one does want a response to Rubio’s ludicrous assertion, see Daniel Larison’s takedown in TAC).

As for Sunni Arabs—but which ones outside ruling Saudi/Gulfi circles precisely?—who see Iran as a threat (existential), let them deal with that. The Saudis (and Gulfis et al) will look after their interests, and the United States of America will look after hers…

and if we would just mind our own business, this theory goes [i.e. that a lot of our problems in the region were caused by us being too engaged, because we were telling people what to do]—and in particular force the Israelis to work out a deal with the Palestinians—that somehow the region would become more stable. And so you married that belief to fatigue, and that leads to this foreign policy we now see. What happened since is you’ve seen the fatigue go away as ISIS began beheading people, and you’ve seen the implications of this retreat from the region, which is that it leaves behind a vacuum, a vacuum that has led to chaos. It’s led to chaos in Iraq, it’s increasingly leading to chaos in Afghanistan. ISIS is now fighting with the Taliban to become the premier Islamist group on the ground. You’ve seen the chaos in Libya. You’ve seen the chaos spreading to other parts of North Africa as well. And so you’re seeing the results of that play itself out in chaos, but ultimately they’re forcing this president back into the region.

This is gobbledygook. Hot air. MENA is in chaos. We know that. Who doesn’t? But what specifically does this have to do with the actions, or non-actions, of the US? Except if one wants to argue—and not without reason—that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq set off a chain reaction of events in the region that led to the current situation, though one doubts this is what Rubio is getting at.

[Obama was] the guy who was going to get us out of these conflicts, but now he has been pulled back in, and he’s trying to do it in the most limited way possible.

A historical mise au point is in order here. President Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign to withdraw US forces from Iraq. But, in fact, this became a done deal in the final weeks of Bush’s presidency, when the US and Iraq signed a SOFA stipulating that all US forces in Iraq would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Obama, during the 2011 negotiations for a renewed SOFA, strove to keep a residual US military presence but the Iraqi parliament would not agree to this, as the US was insisting that US military personnel not be liable for prosecution in Iraqi courts, and to which the democratically elected Iraqi parliament responded with a categorical ‘no’. And so that was that. The US had no choice but to quit Iraq at the end of 2011. If Marco Rubio or anyone who shares his world-view on foreign policy wishes to disagree on this, I invite him or her to explicitly state what the US president should have done in this circumstance.

And then there’s Afghanistan, which is curiously absent from present-day GOP discourse. Republicans like to extol Bush’s Iraq surge of 2007—which sent US troop numbers there from 130K to 160K—but neglect to mention Obama’s Afghan surge of 2009-10, when US troop levels more than tripled, from 32K to 100K. Not that this made a huge difference in the end but still, it did not precisely signify a wish on Obama’s part “to get us out of these conflicts.”

But this is ending up making it worse, not better, because what’s happening now in Iraq is people are looking at these limited air strikes and saying, “This is not American power. We know what American power really looks like, and this isn’t it.” This is a cosmetic show of force that ultimately shows you’re not truly committed to defeating these people, and this has undermined our credibility with Jordan, with the Saudis, with the Egyptians, with others.

Immediate question: how on earth does Marco Rubio know what “people” in Iraq are saying in regard to US air strikes? More to the point: What precisely does he think the US should be doing to defeat “these people”—presumably the Islamic State—in Iraq and Syria? And how does he propose to display “American power [as it] really looks like”? Send American troops back to Iraq? If so, how many, knowing that taking on IS will be a somewhat greater challenge than the 2003 cakewalk to Baghdad?

In a Ricochet post a couple of months ago, Claire, in taking the Obama administration to task for what she called its “non-strategy” vis-à-vis the Islamic State, expressed puzzlement at the relative silence of “our-too-calm” Republican candidates. Claire was miffed as to why the latter weren’t “screaming” over the latest outrage committed by IS. In fact, the answer is simple: If the GOP candidates are going to scream bloody murder about IS, they will necessarily have to say what they would do about it if they were to succeed President Obama. And the fact is, they have no idea. They haven’t a clue. (On the GOP’s Middle East/foreign policy cluelessness, see David Sanger’s NYT article from the other day). More air power will not do the job and sending 10,000 US troops to Iraq—as Lindsey Graham has proposed—won’t either. If the US wishes to eradicate the Islamic State—which, horrible as it is, poses no threat to the American homeland—it will take an armada larger than the one in 2003 and that will stay in Iraq and Syria for many years (and under what mandate?). The Republicans may be crazy warmongers—in their rhetoric, at least—but none of their candidates are so crazy—or at least imprudent—as to propose such a thing.

There is actually one Republican candidate who has made sensible statements of late on the Middle East, and that’s the current front-runner. As Bloomberg Politics writer Melinda Henneberger reported from the campaign trail in New Hampshire last weekend

[Donald Trump] called himself the “most militaristic person in the room,” then added, “but you have to know when to use it.” And he also says not only that we should never have gone into Iraq, but that we were better off with Saddam Hussein in charge there. “You had Iran and Iraq and they were the same; they were twins…Well, we took one out and look at the mess we have; we destabilized the Middle East. I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein, but he ran the place, and he had no weapons of mass destruction. And now, instead of Saddam Hussein, we have far more brutal.” No, this is not an unheard-of view, but it is one that has generally been heard only from Democrats. Yet when the Republican front-runner says these things now—that we have nothing whatsoever to show for all the blood spilled there—many heads nod.

Not bad. What Donald Trump had to say in NH was certainly more level-headed than Marco Rubio’s brandishing the spectre, sans rire, of Iranian nuclear mushroom clouds over California in a speech there last month. Haven’t Republicans learned their lesson by now about conjuring up mushroom clouds to scare people?

Rubio is at least lucid about one thing, which is the likely outcome of the congressional vote on the Iran deal. Congress will certainly reject it but will not have the votes to override President Obama’s veto. There is no way 13 Democrats in the Senate plus 44 in the House will go against their president. Jamais de la vie. So the Iran deal will be a done one once and for all. And the Republicans will have to find another foreign policy issue to demagogue and talk nonsense on.

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Kuwait_August 2 1990

I am reminded via social media that today is the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a day that changed the destiny of the Middle East. Several persons with whom I am friends or connected on social media have recounted where they were when they heard the news that day of Saddam Hussein’s fateful move. Voilà mine: I was in Paris chez my parents—in transit, having arrived from Algiers the previous month—, in the chambre de bonne of their apartment in the 5ème. I woke up at 7 AM to the BBC World Service news (on my short wave radio), with the headline story of the Iraqi army entering Kuwait City. My immediate reaction (approximate quote): “Oh fuck, the son of a bitch [i.e. Saddam Hussein] did it!” I had been following the news over the previous days of Saddam’s sabre-rattling toward Kuwait in regard to its alleged slant drilling along the Iraqi border, and of speculation that Iraq could possibly send troops across that border—though no one expected they would go all the way to Kuwait City. My thoughts upon assimilating the news were that Saddam would never withdraw from Kuwait and only a US intervention could throw him out of there. And I stormed around my parents’ living room that morning demanding that the US send the armada to expel Saddam from Kuwait (my mother was a witness, so may attest to this). This was the first time since the Second World War that a state had invaded a neighboring state unprovoked, with which it had diplomatic relations, and was at peace. And then outright annexed it. Saddam’s action was unprecedented in the postwar era; it was an act of extreme gravity and simply could not be allowed to stand. Inaction on the part of the “international community” was inconceivable. So I was pleased when President Bush announced that the US would indeed not let Saddam’s action stand, that 200K American troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia illico, and with the UNSC adopting a unanimous resolution and President Mitterrand unreservedly on board. In short, I supported the Bush 41 administration’s policy 100% during the entire crisis, and then war, and never wavered. Et je ne regrette rien.

N.B. There were no good arguments against the action of the US-led international coalition. I had more contradictory exchanges—many heated— than I can remember over the subsequent months with opponents of the US-led intervention, in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Algiers (especially!), Chicago, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. Not a single contrary argument held water (“No blood for oil!”: what an inane, stupid ass slogan). And none were vindicated after the fact.

As for subsequent US policy toward Iraq—through the ’90s and, above all, in the following decade—that’s another matter altogether.

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The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing an Iran nuclear deal framework in Lausanne on 2 April

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I should have had this post up at least ten days ago but Greece and other things (e.g. work) got in the way. I’m not sure I have anything original to say about the Iran deal—a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as, to paraphrase my friend Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, just about everything has already been said on the deal and will continue to be said over and over again. I was naturally happy when the deal was announced and think it’s a good one. Not that I possess the expertise to evaluate the technical details, as arms control agreements—and nuclear weapons in general—have never been my thing. So like most people out there, I’ve been depending on the assessments of specialists (arms control or Iran) who have followed the dossier closely and whose sensibilities on the issue I trust, e.g. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey professor Avner Cohen—author of the leading academic works on Israel and nuclear weapons—who had an op-ed in Haaretz arguing that the JCPOA is a good deal (and particularly for Israel; which is likewise the view of members of the Israeli security establishment), and Georgetown University political science MENA specialist and friend Daniel Brumberg, who, in a Washington Examiner op-ed, asserted that failure in Vienna was not an option (for any of the parties to the negotiations). As for nuclear weapons/non-proliferation experts, e.g. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, they “love the Iran deal,” say “it’s a damn good deal,” and quite simply have a “very positive” assessment of the deal. One may also take a look at the forum in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which “top international security experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds [were asked] to offer their [instant] assessments of the [deal]” on the day it was announced (note in particular the contributions by Oliver Meier, Chuck Freilich, Sharon Squassoni, Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Kingston Reif, Siegfried S. Hecker, and Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian). On the technical side of the issue, all this is good enough for me.

As for the opponents of the deal—US Republicans, the Israelis, US Democrats who unconditionally support Israel (who will side with Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of a foreign state, against their own president and from their own party), and Gulf Arab regimes—they were clearly going to be against anything that could have possibly been negotiated at Vienna, as they don’t want a deal with Iran, period (the flagrant proof: prominent Republican senators rushed to denounce the deal before they had even seen it). They want war with Iran but, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias correctly observed, cannot publicly admit that. Yglesias, in engaging a Commentary magazine pundit in debate, delved into their arguments—notably those of Elliot Abrams and Ron Dermer, which were recommended by the pundit—against the JCPOA, after which Yglesias concluded that “they’re utter nonsense.” One argument I read was a WSJ editorial which, in lambasting “Obama’s false Iran choice,” argued that a third option—between the JCPOA and war—could have been put on the table by the US, something the WSJ editorial writer called “coercive diplomacy.” As if the US, in taking an intransigent hard-line with the Iranians and making demands that the latter would never accept, could have dragooned along the rest of its E3+3 partners, and notably the Russians and Chinese, in a posture that would have resulted in certain failure in Vienna (it was and is striking how the American right and other neocons have seemed to view Vienna as a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran, forgetting—or simply dismissing the fact—that there were other major powers at the table and with whom the Americans had to coordinate a consensus position). The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz wrote an op-ed in much the same vein as the WSJ’s, “No, we don’t want war, and yes, there was a better deal.” This passage said it all

A country led by a regime that secretly pursued nuclear weapons, that fosters unrest across the region, that calls for the elimination of Israel, that finances, arms and trains terrorist armies in Lebanon and Gaza, that orchestrates terrorism worldwide, that works to bring Europe and North America into the range of its missiles, that criminalizes homosexuality, that discriminates against women, that jails, tortures and executes political opponents, that executes more juvenile offenders than any other country on earth… that Iran must not be allowed to become a more dominant regional power.

N.B. When it comes to mistreating political dissidents, women, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents, in financing terrorism (i.e. groups Israel is in conflict with) and engaging in other such disreputable behavior, Iran is hardly the worst offender in the region, let alone the world (and if I were a woman, gay, dissident of any sort, or even a Jew, I would rather find myself in Iran than in Saudi Arabia—and definitely if I were a Jew!). And in any case, none of these things have anything to do with an arms control agreement. And the Vienna negotiations were about arms control, tout court.

And then there’s Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to Washington, who wrote in Politico on “What a good Iran deal would look like.” In his view, such would have involved “intensified” US sanctions—and with foreign companies violating these barred from doing business in the US—and a “credible military threat.” In other words, by being “tough”—an American right-wing fetish word—and rattling the sabres, the US would have caused the Iranians to cry uncle, all while intimidating the US’s E3+3 partners, via the threat of economic retaliation (one smiles at the image of Washington snapping its fingers at Beijing here; China, pour mémoire, being Iran’s largest trading partner and by far, e.g. here and here), into falling in line behind the tough US position.

Sure. As any level-headed person could inform Ambassador Oren, his “good Iran deal” is a fantasy, as none of the things he advocates could or would possibly happen. And now with UNSCR 2231, cannot legally happen (sorry, Ambassador Oren, but your “good Iran deal” has been superseded by events). In point of fact, what Horovitz, Oren, and other Israeli and pro-Israel opponents of the JCPOA cannot abide is Iran’s stature as a regional power. To repeat: the Israelis and their unconditional US allies simply do not want a nuclear deal, as this will necessarily reinforce Iran’s regional position. Robert Farley—Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—thus put it in a post on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog

No conceivable deal could achieve what [Michael] Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal. He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or [Michael] Doran, or [Matthew] Kroenig, or [Eli] Lake, or [William] Kristol, or [Tom] Cotton, et al ad nauseum) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.

And those “other” foreign policy behaviors are things that have nothing to do with anything that could have been put on the table at Vienna.

Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, got it exactly right as to “Why the Iran deal makes Obama’s critics so angry.” Money quote

[The Iran deal] codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.

It should be said that not all commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have denounced the JCPOA. E.g. foreign policy and MENA specialist Adam Garfinkle, who has worked for successive Republican administrations, has a not uninteresting essay—albeit complicated, verbose, and overly long: a Garfinkle trademark—in The American Interest (of which he is editor) on the day the deal was announced. Which is not to say that I’m on the same page with him across the board, e.g. his argument that the deal, which consecrates Iran’s status as an almost nuclear threshold state, will no doubt cause other regional actors—Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE—to develop or purchase nuclear weapons, thereby “making a nuclear war in the region, perhaps involving the United States and perhaps not, more likely, after approximately 15 years.” Mr. Garfinkle should know better than to be making predictions about what will or will not happen a decade down the road, let alone longer (and Abu Dhabi going nuclear? Or any of the other places Garfinkle mentions? Oy vey, GMAB!).

In fact, the best rubbishing of the arguments of opponents of the Iran deal has come from one of their (more or less) ideological kindred spirits, the paleocon Patrick Buchanan, who, writing in The American Conservative, incisively informed his erstwhile political soul mates that “Rejecting the Iran deal would be GOP suicide.” Buchanan is very good here. His TAC has indeed had a number of fine commentaries on the deal, e.g. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell on “How the Iran deal serves America” and the almost daily posts by TAC senior editor Daniel Larison, who has been taking particular aim at the reactions to the deal by GOP presidential candidates, e.g. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, plus Mitt Romney; Larison’s subtext: on the subject of Iran—and foreign policy more generally—the Republicans are both crazy and don’t WTF they’re talking about.

One matter needs to be put to rest, which is the hostility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to the deal, indeed to any deal with Iran. As the NYT reported ten days ago based on WikiLeaks revelations, Saudi Arabia has “an obsession with Iran” and which is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide. That is to say, the Saudi hang-up over Iran is existential. It is religious in nature. Which means that it is permanent and timeless. Let us be clear about a couple of things here. First, the United States of America has nothing whatever to do with—and must absolutely not allow itself to get caught up in—the existential angst of the fucking Saudis in regard to Shi’ism. This is not America’s problem. Second, Saudi Arabia is not a friend of the United States, nor is it an ally. Saudi Arabia is a state with which the US has an important relationship but which is based exclusively on realpolitik, i.e. on raisons d’État. America has important interests in Saudi Arabia—economic, strategic—but there is no political or cultural affinity whatever between the two countries. And there never will be, as the problem with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the nature of its political system. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major source of what ails the Muslim world today—and a big source of a lot of the problems in that Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is, as I have labeled it, the Evil Kingdom. And let’s not forget the role of Saudis in 9/11—and which no doubt went well beyond the 15 of the 19 men who commandeered the four airplanes that day. So: the US, in the pursuit of its national interests, must not humor or indulge the existential fears of its interlocutors in Riyadh (or Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, or Kuwait).

On the Iran deal, I have been particularly interested in the reaction of the E3+3 member that took a particularly hard line against the Iranians during the long negotiating process, which was, of course, France. French policy has been consistently distrustful of the regime in Tehran, and during the Sarkozy and Hollande years both. Now there is a tenacious notion out there among Anglo-Americans who opine on the question that French foreign policy is driven primarily by base commercial considerations, of winning contracts for big French corporations (in the case of Iran, see, e.g., here). Insofar as any principles may be involved, they’re mainly about France trying to cling to the fading glory of its past as a colonial empire. This is, of course, Anglo-Saxon poppycock, and particularly in the case of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, over which the French took, as one knows, a harder line than the US and which has been explicated, entre autres, in recent Foreign Policy articles by Colin Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, and Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad—and with the latter emphasizing the deep knowledge of Iran in the French foreign policy, intelligence, and defense establishments (and which is certainly greater than that of the US).

For the anecdote, some 2½ weeks ago I participated in a forum in Paris with major American politicians at the state level—and they were there from almost all 50 states plus Puerto Rico—along with corporate types, that was organized by a New York-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The speaker who preceded me (my topic was immigration in France) was Jean-David Levitte, who spoke to the (exclusively American) audience about geopolitics. As Levitte has been a top person in the French foreign policy establishment over the years—and particularly during Sarkozy’s presidency—I took the opportunity to ask him a question about French policy toward Iran and why France has taken an even harder line than the US. His lengthy answer focused on nuclear non-proliferation as a cornerstone of French policy in the Middle East—as primordial for the French national interest—and, in regard to the negotiations in Vienna, of the need to, as he put it, “get it right,” i.e. to arrive at an agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear capacity short of the threshold that would provoke its neighbors into trying to acquire that same capacity (he was speaking five days before the JCPOA was announced). At the forum the following day, two of France’s top academic MENA specialists—both quite brilliant and for whom I have the utmost regard—spoke on the region to the audience of Americans. Somewhat to my surprise, both gentlemen expressed deep reservations over an eventual Iran deal. One of them, who is a former diplomat and with personal experience in dealing with the Iranians in an official capacity, emphasized the nefarious role Iran has played in the region (notably in Syria) and evoked Iran’s long history as a sponsor of international terrorism (and with France and Frenchmen having been a target, particularly in the 1980s). The other specialist assured the audience that a deal with Iran that enshrined its status as a nuclear threshold state and ended the sanctions regime and diplomatic quarantine—thereby augmenting Iran’s status as a regional power—would frighten masses of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the Islamic State. No less.

Now I don’t share the views of my esteemed colleagues on this question but found them interesting, as they so closely hued to the official French position. So the fact that the French were fully on board with the JCPOA was, in my book, prima facie proof that the deal was a good one. On this, here is the reaction of François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran and nuclear weapons specialist, speaking to Libération on the day the deal was announced

C’est un bel accord qui doit convenir à toutes les parties et répond en particulier à tout ce que souhaitaient les Américains, dont 80% à 90% des demandes se voient satisfaites (…). Je ne crois pas que l’on aurait pu obtenir mieux. C’est le triomphe de la volonté et de la persévérance, en particulier de John Kerry (…) qui a déployé une énergie extraordinaire, de Hassan Rohani qui a su attendre son heure pendant dix ans [il était déjà le chef des négociateurs iraniens, en 2003-2004] et de Barack Obama qui avait tendu la main à Téhéran après son élection, en 2008.

See as well Nicoullaud’s “Premières leçons de l’accord nucléaire avec l’Iran,” on the Boulevard Extérieur blog. In the days following the accord, I checked out the Twitter accounts of two leading French geopolitical analysts, both Atlanticist in orientation (i.e. not out on the left or the souverainiste and/or Russia-friendly right) and exceptionally smart, to see their reaction. One, François Heisbourg, called the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “a remarkable achievement,” though emphasized that the deal was not likely to modify Iran’s policy in the region (see this graphic that Heisbourg retweeted, which suggests that France succeeded in Vienna in pulling the US toward its tougher position). The other, Bruno Tertrais—whose position on Iran was close to that of US neocons—tweeted an op-ed by Ariel (Eli) Levite, who was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, “The good, the bad and the ugly nuclear agreement,” published in Haaretz and on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, and with this comment: “In the maelström of reactions emerges a really thoughtful piece”…

The official French commentary on the Iran deal came from foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an interview in Le Monde, which was translated into English by the Worldcrunch website and linked to by my friend Claire Berlinski, in her Ricochet blog post on “France and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

In Claire’s post there is one little line that caused me to leap out of my chair and to which I must respond. Claire says that “France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1.” Weaker than the United Kingdom? In what respect? Military spending? On this score, France and the UK rank 5th and 6th in the world, with France higher in one ranking (SIPRI) and the UK higher in another (IISS). But the two are essentially at parity here and with comparable ability to project military force to faraway places, and which has been the case for decades. As for economic strength, France and the UK, in nominal GDP, are also ranked 5th and 6th worldwide, with France having consistently been ahead of the UK over the years but with the UK now slightly so in some rankings (mainly on account of fluctuations in the € and £ exchange rates). But again, the two countries are essentially at parity (though in country rankings of GDP at PPP, France is ahead of the UK in all). And when it comes to military strength, France is, of course, well ahead of Germany, and with the French economy being considerably stronger than Russia’s.

One thing about the Iran deal, and which seems obvious, is that, in addition to controlling Iran’s nuclear capacity, it involves a gamble on Obama’s part that the deal will influence the political dynamic in Iran and push the country in a more moderate direction, both internally and in its foreign policy choices. This will, of course, not happen right away—certainly not as long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is Supreme Leader, and Iranian regional behavior may even worsen in the immediate period—but the gamble clearly needs to be made, as, in view of the chaos in the region—of collapse and fragmentation of the core Arab states and emergence of the Islamic State—America and Europe need—or need to hope for—a stable, prosperous Iran, which has ceased financing terrorist groups (e.g. Islamic Jihad), arming non-state actors to the hilt (e.g. Hizbullah), and supporting criminal regimes (e.g. the Syrian Ba’athist), and with which America and Europe can cooperate. E.g. it is hard to see how any kind of solution can be found in Syria—if such is possible (and which I doubt)—without Iran on board. And Iran is clearly a bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State, which, ça va de soi, presents a grave threat to the region and anywhere significant numbers of Muslims are to be found.

Assertion: America and Iran have a vocation to be friends. As one knows well by now, the problem in Iran is the regime and political system, but which are seriously contested within the country and by forces in Iranian society that look favorably to America and Europe. And Iran has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society and with currents far more liberal than anything to be found in the Arab world. As for what the US can do to influence Iran internally, Adam Garfinkle, in his essay linked to above, has this to say

[I]f sanctions relief is to come, it is probably in U.S. interest to rush as much of the roughly $150 billion involved into the Iranian economy as fast as possible. It is likewise in our interest to open the economy to all manner of foreigners as quickly as possible: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the max. If we want to weaken the regime—and its emetic IRGC/Qods Brigade Praetorian guard—we should do our best to serve up maximum feasible Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, the same stuff that KO’ed the Shah. The more social change we help unleash, and generate from a new baseline, the more the inability of the current Iranian regime to adjust will doom it to oblivion.

The regime fears its own people and is doubtless prepared now to crack down hard, lest melting glaciers of pent-up frustration get out of hand. How this will play out is hard to say; it may hurt Rouhani more than help him. In any event, we need to do what we can to undermine or overwhelm the crackdown, and being a little (or a lot) more voluble on Iranian human rights violations—which are massive and ongoing—is not a bad way to go about that given the limited means at our disposal to influence internal Iranian social trends.

In a similar vein, Paul Berman, whom I normally do not link to favorably, had a hopeful commentary in Tablet on “Why President Obama’s deal is not just an act of faith, but a call to arms—of the liberal sort.” Also in Tablet is a must-read article by Samuel Thorpe, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator of Persian, on Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, “The most dangerous man in Iran.” It begins

This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.

Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.

“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”

When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”

Watch the YouTube embedded in the article of Zibakalam pronouncing the above words and note the audience reaction. One would never see such a spectacle anywhere in the Arab world (or in Turkey, or any other Muslim majority country).

See also Zibakalam’s “Letter from Tehran” in Politico from last March (linked to in the Tablet piece), “Why Iran’s hardliners fear a deal: A nuclear pact means our regime will have to surrender its No. 1 justification for its actions: anti-Americanism.”

On the question of regime opponents—of which Zibakalam is one—and what they think, see the In These Times piece by Iran specialist Danny Postel of the University of Denver, “Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal.” They support it to a man and woman. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? One would think that US opponents of the deal would be minimally interested in the views of the pro-democracy, anti-Ayatollah camp in Iran. On this, TAC’s Daniel Larison has a post, “The nuclear deal and Iranian dissidents,” in which he took apart a particularly stupid comment by the reactionary pundit Victor Davis Hanson—and with Larison concluding that the likes of VDH couldn’t care less about the Iranian opposition (reading the bit by VDH that Larison quotes, one is struck—yet again—by the alternate reality in which VDH inhabits, along with most others of his ideological ilk).

The leitmotif on the Iran deal at the moment—in the US at least—is that it has to get through Congress, which is sure to reject it, though most likely will not garner the two-thirds majority needed to override President Obama’s certain veto. If the Congress does override, however, it is being said that the deal will thus be dead, i.e. the Congress will have killed it. But will this be the case? I’ve read the relevant sections of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, which, unless I missed something or misunderstood what I was reading—which can happen—do not stipulate that legislative action against the JCPOA in one of the signatory states would result in the nullification of the accord. In other words, UNSCR 2231 will come into effect after ninety days—on October 20th—regardless of what the US Congress does. UN (and EU) sanctions will be lifted and if Iran scrupulously adheres to the terms of the JCPOA, the latter will be implemented, albeit without the United States. The rest of the world will trade with and invest in Iran as the JCPOA allows, and without the US being able to do a thing about it. If I am mistaken on this, please correct me.

UPDATE: Tablet magazine has a useful “Guide for the perplexed: The Iran nuclear agreement” by Thomas R. Pickering, former under secretary of state in the Clinton administration and ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, and several other countries. Pickering, in short, “defends the most complex and important treaty this century.” See his link in the article to James Walsh of MIT’s “excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015.”

2nd UPDATE: Here are two smart reflections on the Iran deal I’ve come across in the past two days: Paul Pillar, “The sources of opposition to the Iran agreement,” in The National Interest; and James Fallows, “The real test of the Iran deal,” in The Atlantic.

3rd UPDATE: Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy on “What will happen if Congress blows up the Iran nuclear deal.” And Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, rhetorically asks about “The big hole in the Iran debate,” observing that “[i]n most televised discussions of Iran, the word ‘Iraq’ never comes up, and that’s insane.”

4th UPDATE: Slate’s William Saletan, writing on the Senate testimony of John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Monitz on the Iran deal, asserts that the GOP is “Not fit to lead.” The lede: “The Iran hearings have shown how the Republican Party can no longer be trusted with the presidency.” Read Saletan’s piece. To call the Republicans appalling is almost an understatement.

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palmyra isis

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My social media news feeds have been covered the past two days with comments and links from people in extreme distress—and that includes me—over the Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra and the likely consequences for the archaeological treasures there. The fall of Palmyra to IS—or, rather, its abandonment by Bashar al-Assad’s army—has been grist for the mill for those in France—numerous on the right—who have been advocating a rapprochement with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. A high-profile tribune in Le Figaro yesterday, by Hadrien Desuin, an analyst previously unknown to me—he has a military background and is clearly on the souverainiste right—thus asked rhetorically “why such inaction from the [US-led anti-IS] coalition?” in the face of the IS offensive on Palmyra. Answering his own question, he asserted that the coalition preferred to watch Palmyra fall rather than support the Ba’athist army’s effort to fend off IS and save humanity’s historical patrimony. How abject of the coalition—and, ergo, France (i.e. François Hollande) and the US.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, the well-known Middle East specialist and islamologue—and who has been engagé on the Syrian issue—will have none of this. In an interview in Politis (May 20th), he asserted that Bashar al-Assad allowed the jihadists to approach Palmyra, so as to show the world that his regime was on the front line against IS—when, in fact, it has never been before and still wasn’t—, and then quit the city without putting up much of a fight, thereby getting the belles âmes in the West worked up into an even greater tizzy over the IS fanatics, deflecting attention away from Bashar’s crimes, and thereby hoping to neutralize Western opposition to the Ba’athist regime. In other words, the fall of Palmyra was cynically engendered by Bashar al-Assad himself, as it’s only Palmyra after all—and whose loss does not, in fact, increase the threat to Damascus or Homs—and what does Bashar care about archaeological treasures anyway, as his regime, as Filiu reminds us, has also been pillaging and degrading those treasures for years? On all this, Filiu is rather more convincing than is Monsieur Desuin.

As for the IS capture of Ramadi, this has provided the usual suspects (neocons, etc.) another occasion with which to bash President Obama for the apparent failure of his Iraq policy (e.g. the Kagan couple and IDC Herzliya Rubin Center director Jonathan Spyer). Journalist Ann Marlowe, who’s done some good reporting from the Middle East—and has a smart piece in Tablet, dated May 18th, on Libya and why the post-Qadhafi order was not a preordained failure—went so far as to call Obama “the worst president ever” on account of Ramadi’s fall. Ouf, GMAB! Pour mémoire, defending Ramadi was the responsibility of the Iraqi government, not the United States, and the city’s fall reflected a failure in Iraq’s strategy against IS, not that of the Obama administration.

In a column in Slate (May 19th), Fred Kaplan, offering his own not very palatable options to Obama’s policy dilemma, rubbished the armchair warriors in Washington and its punditocracy. Money quote

Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

In other words, neocons, other right-wingers, and their ilk who are beating up on Obama for losing Ramadi don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They just want to beat up on Obama, that’s all.

I just read journalist Graeme Wood’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS really wants.” It’s a great piece, long—34 pages printed out—but absolutely worth the read. Two big points: (a) IS is a serious, millenarian Islamic force such as we’ve never seen before and whose ideology and world-view is in no way un-Islamic, and (b) there is, for the US and the West, no military response except for containment and aiding local Muslim actors who oppose IS.

À suivre, certainement.

UPDATE: Nicolas Pelham has a most interesting, must-read report, datelined Baghdad May 6th, in the June 4th issue of the NYRB, “ISIS & the Shia revival in Iraq.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Patrick Symmes, who “cover[s] insurgencies, global environmental problems, travel, and the geopolitical fault lines that underlie them all,” has a compelling op-ed in the NYT (May 23rd) on Palmyra’s “ancient ruins [that] terror can’t destroy.”

3rd UPDATE: Paleocon Patrick Buchanan has a commentary (May 22nd) in TAC on “What the fall of Ramadi means.” Personally speaking, I can find no flaw in what he says. If someone can, please let me know.

4th UPDATE: Journalist Erika Solomon, writing for the FT from Beirut (May 22nd), says that the taking of Palmyra puts “Isis in [a] position to advance on Damascus.” Perhaps. On verra.

5th UPDATE: In an analysis (May 22nd) that would tend to confirm the one above, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov says “First Ramadi, then Palmyra: Isis shows it can storm bastions of Syria and Iraq.” The lede: “Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat.”

6th UPDATE: Hassan Hassan, the sharp analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Institute and co-author of a new book on the Islamic State, has a column in The Guardian (May 24th) on the “Religious teaching that drives Isis to threaten the ancient ruins of Palmyra.” The lede: “Most historical sites under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria remain intact. Palmyra might be different precisely because of western warnings.”

7th UPDATE: CSIS geostrategic specialist Anthony Cordesman, who knows more about Middle Eastern military matters than anyone inside the Beltway (and most outside of it), has an analysis (May 21st), on the CSIS website, on “The defeat in Ramadi,” which he says, in regard to US policy, signals “a time for transparency, integrity, and change.”

8th UPDATE: Dov S. Zakheim, who was a Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, has a commentary in The National Interest (May 23rd), in which he argues that “The only ISIS strategy left for America [is] containment.”

9th UPDATE: Amos Harel of Haaretz says (May 26th) that “Hezbollah leader’s speech makes [it] clear: Israel may soon be faced with post-Assad Syria.” The lede: “The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.” So it looks like the fall of Palmyra has increased the threat to Damascus, Homs, etc. after all.

10th UPDATE: Beirut-based reporter Kareem Shaheen, writing in The Guardian (May 27th), informs us that “Isis [has] release[ed] footage of Palmyra ruins intact and ‘will not destroy them’.” The lede: “Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area.” If true, that’s a relief. As for the humanitarian crisis, any calls from the belles âmes for a Western military intervention to deal with that?


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My friend Claire Berlinski has a post on the Ricochet blog, “Mass grave in the Mediterranean,” in which she favorably refers to Adam Garfinkle’s writings, on The American Interest website, on the Obama administration’s Libya intervention. Garfinkle was a strong opponent of the intervention and is feeling vindicated on account of his apparent clairvoyance as to how things would turn out there. I have a few issues with his POV, though, which I wrote to Claire in an email. But instead of sending the mail, I’m posting it here on AWAV instead, where others (e.g. Bob B.) can eventually weigh in:

On the Libya intervention, Adam Garfinkle has the satisfaction of saying he was right from the beginning—it’s always gratifying to be able to do that—but Libya was, in fact, a roll of the dice. Or a coin flip (a better metaphor). It was a 50-50 proposition (in terms of arguments for intervention vs. against). I wrote this four years ago almost to the day (here) and would write it again today.

There are a few things Garfinkle doesn’t consider, or maybe downplays (as I’m maxed out on my quota of free American Interest articles, I can’t go back and verify what precisely he said at the time or since). First, the Obama administration was divided on the wisdom of intervening in Libya but its hand was forced by Sarkozy and Cameron (in the same way as Clinton’s was by Chirac and Blair in Kosovo). But as it was clear that it would merely be a bombing campaign—no ground troops—the decision was relatively easy (and particularly as there was no objection from Russia or the Arab states, Algeria excepted; Qadhafi’s utter isolation in the Arab world, including in Arab public opinion, was striking; so the US had nothing to worry about in that department).

Second, there already was an insurgency/civil war underway and that would have worsened had the US not intervened. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the situation we’re witnessing in Libya today would have happened anyway (and with many more Libyans having been killed in the process). In other words, the US intervention may have merely hastened a possibly inevitable outcome.

Third, there is no reason to believe that Libya would be an island of stability today had Qadhafi prevailed in the civil war—with the inevitable massacres and exactions—for the simple reason that Qadhafi had always been a source of instability. A comparison with Iraq is useful here. Qadhafi’s regime was, in fact, far worse than Saddam Hussein’s; the internal repression and brutality of the two regimes were on a par—they were equally bad in both—but Qadhafi meddled in the affairs of other countries—in the Maghreb and West Africa—and generally wreaked havoc in a way that Saddam did not (with two big exceptions, of course, in 1980 and 1990, when he grossly miscalculated). And Qadhafi was a sponsor of international terrorism—targeting Americans and Europeans—in a way Saddam’s regime never was. No act of terrorism in Europe from the mid 1970s onward can be traced back to Baghdad (unlike to Tripoli, Tehran, or Damascus). So there is no a priori reason to assume that we would not be witnessing the current migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean if Qadhafi were still in power.

N.B. The disaster in Libya is due to the collapse of the Libyan state. But the collapse of the Libyan state was not brought about by the US intervention or events set in motion by this. It was brought about by Qadhafi. Qadhafi wrecked what existed of a state in Libya. Qadhafi patrimonialized the Libyan state—concentrating total power in the hands of his immediate family—to an extent unseen in an Arab country outside the Gulf. Ba’athist Iraq had a state. Qadhafi’s Libya did not. There was a small window in 2012 during which it could have been reconstituted. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

One last thing. Garfinkle, in his post from this February, alludes to the mess in Mali and Nigeria as an unintended, but implicitly inevitable, consequence of the US invention. But did Garfinkle warn about this back in 2011? Did anyone? If so, I’d like the reference.

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