Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

Yes, we return to our main foreign policy theme again this morning, starting off with a front-page Washington Post piece by Glenn Kessler appropriately titled: "Takeover by Hamas Illustrates Failure of Bush's Mideast Vision."

It begins:

Five years ago this month, President Bush stood in the Rose Garden and laid out a vision for the Middle East that included Israel and a state called Palestine living together in peace. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," the president declared.

The takeover this week of the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group dedicated to the elimination of Israel demonstrates how much that vision has failed to materialize, in part because of actions taken by the administration. The United States championed Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip as a first step toward peace and then pressed both Israelis and Palestinians to schedule legislative elections, which Hamas unexpectedly won. Now Hamas is the unchallenged power in Gaza.

After his reelection in 2004, Bush said he would use his "political capital" to help create a Palestinian state by the end of his second term. In his final 18 months as president, he faces the prospect of a shattered Palestinian Authority, a radical Islamic state on Israel's border and increasingly dwindling options to turn the tide against Hamas and create a functioning Palestinian state.

"The two-state vision is dead. It really is," said Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who was once an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, whose bouts of vacillation have irritated U.S. officials, yesterday dissolved the Palestinian government in response to Hamas's takeover of Gaza. U.S. officials signaled that they will move quickly to persuade an international peace monitoring group -- known as the Quartet -- to lift aid restrictions on the Palestinian government, allowing direct aid to flow to the West Bank-based emergency government that Abbas will lead.

"There is no more Hamas-led government. It is gone," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the administration must still consult with other members of the Quartet. He said that humanitarian aid will continue to Gaza, but that the dissolution of the Palestinian government is a singular moment that will allow the United States and its allies to create a "new model of engagement."

This senior Administration official is correct - we are at a moment, as a nation, that we have to come to terms with the extraordinary failure of our entire Middle East strategy.  Our investment in the region has been immense in terms of lives, money and prestige.  And today our traditional allies are in retreat, and non-Western forces are on the rise.  This "new model of engagement" suggested above is a concept we need for the entire region, not just in Palestine. 

To see previous iterations of this discussion, you can scroll down or click on the Middle East, National Security or Iraq tags above.

Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

So yes this morning we return to one of the main themes we've been discussing over the past year - the need for America to come up with a comprehensive approach to the problems of the post-Iraq Middle East.

Imagine for a moment if we had no troops in Iraq.  Pakistan is weakening.  Lebanon and Palestine are descending into civil wars.  The Taliban have returned to Afghanistan.  Bin Laden is still on the loose.  Iraq of course is on the verge of becoming a failed state, Al Qaeda there is gaining strength (and regional legitimacy), and its chaos is starting to be exported to the rest of the region.  Iran is governed by an extemist, moving towards nuclearization, and is very aggressively establishing itself as perhaps the most important nation in the Middle East today.  Regional Sunni-Shiite tensions are driving a new and more complicated regional dynamic.  Our most important ally in the region, Israel, has a Prime Minister at 3%, and is in an extended political meltdown. 

Taken together it is becoming clear that the West's traditional regional allies are in retreat and new and less pro-Western forces are on the rise.  While there are many reasons to be concerned about the growing instability in the Middle East, the overarching one is oil.  Keeping the region's oil flowing at reasonable prices is of course one of the most important goals of our foreign policy, either Democrat or Republican.  And we have to start talking openly about how growing chaos in the region could spread, and eventually begin to threaten the petroleum lifeblood of the world's economy. 

So, if we had no troops in the region, would we be having a different conversation here in the US and around the world? Would be talking about regional conferences of reconciliation? Special envoys? UN Troops? An American-led peace conference? Would the American Secretary of State be engaged in ongoing shuttle diplomacy, essentially moving to the region for an extended period of time? Would our President be engaged daily in bringing world leaders together to find a better path? Or would we just sit back and let the region fall into greater chaos?  Or do what the Administration has done, which is take the one act most likely to accelerate the regional chaos?  Or have the Treasury Secretary give speeches whining about the lack of cooperation of our allies?  

We need a new conversation about what is happening in the Middle East today.  The stakes are high, and our current government is wedded to a strategy that is without doubt harming the long-term security interests of the United States.  But our answer must become more than a robust discussion about the role of our troops in the region.  We need a new strategy for the Middle East - diplomatic, economic, military - that takes into account the realities of the region today. 

More on arming the Sunnis

Yesterday's Washington Post had a remarkable piece about a new strategy to arms the Sunni militias in Iraq.  I will admit being a little skeptical about this plan, but in the current issue of Democracy Carter Malkasian makes a compelling case for why this new strategy may be one worth giving serious consideration to.  He ends his article this way (and I hope you read the whole thing):

Neither the insurgency nor AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] can be defeated if Al Anbar is not secured. Unfortunately, the Iraqi Army appears unlikely to do so. The widely accepted recommendation to invest more advisers, training, or equipment will not change the ethnicity of the Iraqi Army, lessen sectarian tensions, or reverse popular disaffection with the government. Even more preposterous is the idea that expediting U.S. withdrawal will somehow enable the army to provide security. Perhaps the Iraqi government could massively reinforce the Iraqi Army and crush the Sunnis but, considering the strength of the insurgency, this could only be accomplished through wanton brutality, which would have prohibitive domestic and international political ramifications for the United States, as well as destabilizing repercussions throughout the region.

Given the likelihood of continued ethnic conflict, the United States needs to look to limited means of protecting its interests in Iraq. First and foremost, that means constraining AQI’s influence. Pursuing a grassroots Iraqization in which greater effort is placed on developing local police forces–throughout the Sunni provinces–could allow the areas that enjoy relatively restricted insurgent activity to be expanded, thereby constraining AQI’s influence. In contrast to the Iraqi Army, local Sunni forces can control territory, collect intelligence, and cripple AQI–precisely what the United States needs as it looks to draw down its forces. To start, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior must expand police recruitment and, as training capacity permits, lift caps on personnel numbers. Additionally, the United States needs to put as much effort into training, advising, and equipping the police as the army. In particular, the quality of the advisory teams working with the police should be improved. Like the army, the best active-duty Marines and soldiers ought to be embedded with the police.

But these are the simple actions. The U.S. and Iraqi governments need to go further and empower local Sunni leaders, as they did with the Albu Mahal and Sittar in Al Anbar province. Local Sunni leaders should be given the power and authority to motivate their communities to join and support the police. Imams, sheiks, and other local leaders need to be lavished with political and economic rewards, to be distributed to their communities, for supporting the police: political positions, command of military formations, civil affairs projects, economic compensation packages, salaries, and permission to run black-market activities. There will, of course, be corruption as local leaders take money and profits for themselves. In Iraq, that is the cost of doing business.

Such a policy may sound like a minor technical change, but it would actually be a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy. It would undermine America’s key strategic goals of forming a democracy and a unified state. The United States would be tacitly permitting Sunnis to field militias and defend themselves. This would be one more step toward the fragmentation of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish areas. Indeed, a real possibility exists that Sunni police would clash with Shia militias in defense of their neighborhoods. Additionally, the government would be devolving power from democratically elected officials to traditional nonelected authority figures, such as imams and sheiks, which could further undermine the democratization effort.

These downsides are undeniable, but they should not be exaggerated. National unity would probably be no more weakened than it is now, and fighting between the government and Sunni police outside Baghdad is unlikely. In fact, Sunni police forces have a better relationship with the Iraqi government than any other element of Sunni society, and there are no cases of Sunni police from Al Anbar attacking Shia areas. The Iraqi Army and local Sunni police regularly conduct combined operations against AQI. Sittar has even openly proposed cooperation with Shia tribes. Similarly, the Iraqi government is not set against working with Sunnis; the fact that Maliki has backed local Sunni forces suggests that he does not view them as a threat. The risk of clashes with Shia militias could be mitigated by not forming Sunni police within Baghdad.

Ultimately, the United States faces a choice. It can continue to push a national and unified state, and risk letting hardcore insurgents and terrorists go unchallenged. Or the ties that bind the state can be loosened to counter AQI with local police forces, but at the cost of formalizing sectarian divisions and weakening democratization. The latter is hardly optimal, but optimal is no longer a luxury the United States can afford. Right now, we must focus on avoiding the worst possible outcome, and that means doing what we can to prevent AQI from having uncontested control over the Sunni provinces. Grassroots Iraqization would accomplish that goal, and hopefully, the local forces that are empowered through this strategy one day could contribute to producing a peaceful and stable Iraq.

Coming to terms with the Middle East of today

Two stories today reinforce our assertion that a new post-Iraq War dynamic is emerging in the Middle East, one that will require a much broader and long-term strategy than is currently being offered by our political leadership. 

The first comes from the Post, "As crises build, Lebanon fearful of a failed state."  The second is in the Times, and details Pakistan's worsening political crisis.  On a positive note, there seems to be consensus that the Taliban's "spring offensive" has panned, giving that struggling nation a little more breathing room this year.   

Intelligence reports predicted Iraq chaos

In my recent interview with Vali Nasr, we talk at lenght about the notion that what is happening in Iraq today - the breakdown of civil society, the rise of Al Qaeda, the sectarian fighting, the regional ascension of the Shia, including Iran - in hindsight was perhaps the most likely outcome of our toppling of Saddam.  

A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee reveals that many inside the Administration believed this to be so:

Most of the information in the report was drawn from two lengthy assessments issued by the National Intelligence Council in January 2003, titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq," both of which the Senate report reprints with only minor redactions. The assessments were requested by Richard N. Haass, then director of policy planning at the State Department, and were written by Paul R. Pillar, the national intelligence officer for the Near East, as a synthesis of views across the 16-agency intelligence community.

The report includes lists indicating that the analyses, which were reported by The Washington Post last week, were distributed at senior levels of the White House and the State and Defense departments and to the congressional armed services and appropriations committees. At the time, the White House and the Pentagon were saying that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, democracy would be quickly established and Iraq would become a model for the Middle East. Initial post-invasion plans called for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin in summer 2003.

The classified reports, however, predicted that establishing a stable democratic government would be a long challenge because Iraq's political culture did "not foster liberalism or democracy" and there was "no concept of loyal opposition and no history of alternation of power."

They also said that competing Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions would "encourage terrorist groups to take advantage of a volatile security environment to launch attacks within Iraq." Because of the divided Iraqi society, there was "a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so."

While predicting that terrorist threats heightened by the invasion would probably decline within five years, the assessments said that lines between al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world "could become blurred." U.S. occupation of Iraq "probably would boost proponents of political Islam" throughout the Muslim world and "funds for terrorist groups probably would increase as a result of Muslim outrage over U.S. actions."

Towards a new American strategy in the Middle East - a special NDN interview with Vali Nasr

I just sent this email out. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment in the comment section.


In recent days we've seen a very public and contentious debate over Iraq here in the US, continued fighting in Afghanistan and a new round of fierce fighting in Lebanon, public demonstrations against the Pakistani government, reports that the Administration has authorized covert action against Iran and a new UN Report suggesting Iran is making greater progress on its nuclear program than previously believed.

All of this new activity reinforces a main argument of the recent Iraq Study Group's report - that America needs not just a military strategy for Iraq, but a comprehensive diplomatic and political approach to this troubled region.

Of all the voices weighing in on what such a strategy would look like, few have been smarter or more persuasive to us here at NDN than noted Middle East scholar Vali Nasr. For many months I've been advocating to all I meet that they read his book The Shia Revival - How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. This book has taught me more, and helped me understand more about the Middle East today than any other thing I've read in the last several years. If you haven't read it, a new paperback edition of the book is out now and available at your local bookstore or online.

To help bring the important thinking in this book to our members and friends across the country, I sat down and interviewed Professor Nasr two weeks ago here in Washington, DC. I hope all of you will take a moment to watch the interview, now on-line. Of all the arguments he makes, I believe the most important is his recommendations on how to engage and contain Iran.

In all my years at NDN I've never promoted a book or thinker the way I have Vali. All of us here at NDN would love your thoughts on the format, and execution of our "Nasr campaign." Please let me know directly by leaving a comment below.

Thanks for all this, and I hope you enjoy getting to know Vali and his thinking as I have.


Simon Rosenberg

Additional Links:

Watch Vali Nasr on The Colbert Report

Buy The Shia Revival

Read "When the Shiites Rise" from Foreign Affairs

Read related writing from NDN

Join the discussion on our blog

ISG Report getting a 2nd look

The Post has an encouraging story this morning that the White House and other Republicans are giving the thoughtful recommendations of the Iraq Study Group Report a 2nd look. 

While this story is encouraging, it is really hard to fathom how repeatedly stupid the Administration has been on Iraq for almost 5 years now.  Almost nothing they've done has been right, thought through, or in our national interest.  Their outright rejection of the simple and reasonable recommendations of this report - something we wrote about a great deal here - was another in an historic set of low moments for the American government.

If you haven't read the Report, you can follow the links in the story to find a link to it.  It is very much worth reading.

A New Approach to Iran

The WAPO details a turn towards engagement with Iran by the Bush Administration:

The White House confirmed yesterday that the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad is likely to meet in the next several weeks with Iranian officials about stabilizing Iraq, as the administration embraces a tactic outsiders have long recommended as essential to reducing sectarian violence in Iraq.

A White House spokesman said that Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will meet with Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to prod Tehran to play a "productive role in Iraq." The confirmation came after the official Iranian news agency disclosed that the two sides had agreed to meet in Baghdad. U.S. officials said the meeting could occur as early as next week.

"The president authorized this channel because we must take every step possible to stabilize Iraq and reduce the risk to our troops, even as our military continue to act against hostile Iranian-backed activity in Iraq," said Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council.

Next Vote Vets ad: Major General Eaton

The new VoteVets ad is up. The second in a three-ad series, it features Major General Paul Eaton urging Congress to listen to Commanders on the ground in Iraq. For the first, click here.

On Iraq

On Iraq, Congress continues to act responsibly, challenging the Administration to offer more than more of the same.  While the bill passed last night may not become law, our country is now in the midst of a large and important debate about an issue of vital national interest, ensuring that whatever the final outcome the process for getting there will be more of the kind imagined by our founders than the "don't worry be happy" approach of the Bush years. 

In a powerful editorial this morning, the Times sums up the events of recent weeks:

The difference between mainstream hawks and mainstream doves on Iraq seems to have boiled down to two months, with House Democrats now demanding visible progress by July while moderate Republicans are willing to give White House policies until September, but no longer, to show results.

Then there is President Bush, who has yet to acknowledge the reality that Congressional Republicans and even administration officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates now seem to tacitly accept. Three months into Mr. Bush’s troop escalation, there is no real security in Baghdad and no measurable progress toward reconciliation, while American public support for this folly has all but run out.

The really important question now facing Washington is the one Mr. Bush still refuses to address: how, while there is still some time left, to design an exit strategy that contains the chaos in Iraq and minimizes the damage to United States interests when American troops inevitably leave...

Syndicate content