Middle East

Crises in Flushing and the Middle East

First off, I'd like to echo Simon's lament. I too am a Mets fan and was at Shea yesterday, watching the Mets get eliminated from the playoffs at the end of a historic collapse. 9 men on a field playing a boys game someone can feel larger than life. Unfortunately, yesterday, that left me feeling like I'd been punched in the gut, while other fans were celebrating just an hour and a half down the Jersey Turnpike. For Mets fans like us, the long wait until spring begins today. Congratulations to the Phillies, they earned the right to play under the bright lights of October.

More importantly - although it doesn't feel like it at the moment - is Sy Hersh's new article in this week's New Yorker "Shifting Target's The Administrations plan for Iran." It's an explosive and insightful piece that details dangerous changes in our Iran policy. Part of what elevates the piece is the contribution of a close friend of NDN's, Professor Vali Nasr of the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. (You can see Simon's in-depth interview with Professor Nasr here.)

Professor Nasr is quoted repeatedly in the piece, and one section that stood out is his detailing of the risks of our current strategy of arming Sunni tribes in Anbar Provence, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia:

Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of “ethnic cleansing.”

“The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous,” Nasr said. “The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.”

As usual, Professor Nasr is a step ahead of everyone, including it would appear the people setting American policy towards the Middle East. I hope to hear more people asking these critical questions: are the short term gains derived from arming Sunnis in Anbar worth the medium and long term risks? And, are we really qualified to 'distinguish between good and bad insurgents?'

The Times on Petraeus

The lede editorial of the New York Times yesterday was awfully good.

GAO report suggests little Iraq progress

In what is sure to be a major topic of debate, the Post reports on a leaked draft of an upcoming GAO report that suggests very little progress has been made in Iraq.  The story begins:

Iraq has failed to meet all but three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress, according to a draft of a Government Accountability Office report. The document questions whether some aspects of a more positive assessment by the White House last month adequately reflected the range of views the GAO found within the administration.

The strikingly negative GAO draft, which will be delivered to Congress in final form on Tuesday, comes as the White House prepares to deliver its own new benchmark report in the second week of September, along with congressional testimony from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. They are expected to describe significant security improvements and offer at least some promise for political reconciliation in Iraq.

Meanwhile the Times reports that the White House is upbeat about its chances to win the coming fall debate over our approach to the increasing turmoil in the Middle East.

NYTimes: "The Problem Isn't Mr. Maliki"

In its Friday editorial the New York Times argues that the problem in Iraq isn't Mr. Maliki. 

I agree.

Update: Maliki responds to his critics.  Attacks Senators Clinton and Levin by name. 

The Bush Effect

Proximity to this deeply unpopular President and his policies has become in itself a major factor in world affairs.  Let's call it the Bush Effect.  Throughout the world - and here at home - leaders allied with Bush has seen their political fortunes ebb, and leaders seen as opponents to this Administration's policies are gaining ground.  What this means is the very presence of Bush in the White House is becoming a daunting national security challenge for the United States. 

We've seen it here at home with the GOP, as their national repudiation in 2006 has left them with much less power and with their lowest levels of approval in a generation.  We've seen it with Tony Blair, and the Spanish government who backed the Iraqi war.  We've seen it in the rise of Putin and Chavez. 

But even more dangerous is how leaders, countries and parties seen as "pro-Western" are losing ground to more extreme elements throughout the Muslim world.  The installation of a Shiite government in Iraq has strenghtened the hand of Iran in the Gulf.  Our allies in Palestine lost an election to a group we had declared to be terrorists, and now have had to flee half the country.  Pro-Western forces in Lebanon have lost control of the nation's politics.  We know what is happening in Iraq, though it is increasingly unclear who are allies are there these days.  The Iranian government has its most radical leader since its revolution, one who replaced a leader much more oriented to the West.  Karzhai's government in Afghanistan is teetering.  And now our long time ally, General Musharrah in Pakistan, seems to be on the verge of collapse. 

Two germane stories in the papers this am.  The Times makes news with a great piece about our government's efforts to help salvage Musharraf.  In the Post Robin Wright has a story that looks skeptically at the Administration's strategy towards Iran, which concludes with these thoughts about their latest move to brand the Revolutionary Guards terrorists:  

Michael McFaul of Stanford University also urged more carrots. "If you want democratic regime change and to destabilize the regime, the best thing you could do is to make an offer about massive negotiations about everything -- human rights and state sponsorship in terrorism, as well as lifting [U.S.] sanctions and opening an embassy," he said. "Politically, this step doesn't help the administration undermine the regime -- it helps to consolidate the regime."

The Muslim world is in a very combustable place right now, and I have fear that the only thing this Administration can do - because of its ineptitude and the Bush Effect - is make matters much much worse. 

The Times on how Afghanistan has gone bad

The Times has a wonderfully reported piece on how the "good war" in Afghanistan has gone bad.  This story reminds us that it isnt just Iraq that has gone bad, but virtually everything Bush and his foreign policy team have attempted to do has failed.

Iraq battles Saudi Arabia - and wins (in soccer that is)

Coming just two days after the White House announced proposed arms sales to Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments to help counter the growing influence of Iran and the region's Shiites (including the ruling parties in Iraq), the Iraqi soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia today 1-0 to win the Asian Cup. 

The irony of all this is hard to overstate. 

For additional thoughts on the Iraqi soccer team, take a look at my post from the other day.  Anyone know how I can buy an Iraqi soccer jersey?

For some weekend thoughts on the emerging politics of the Middle East see my various posts below.

More on the arms sales

In my posts this weekend I wondered whether the announced arms sales to the Sunni governments of the Middle East meant the Administration was strategically tossing the Shiite-led Maliki government in Iraq and the Iraqi Shiites under the bus, having now decided to back to the region's Sunnis in a more protracted battle against Iran and its regional allies.  A new post by Steve Benen at Talking Points Memo finds further evidence of this new "Sunni-tilt:"

Part of Gen. David Petraeus' job in Iraq is pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Apparently, heads of state don't care for marching orders from generals from other countries, so it's caused a little bit of a strain on their professional relationship.

OK, more than a little.

A key aide says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relations with U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus are so poor the Iraqi leader may ask Washington the withdraw the well-regarded U.S. military leader from duty here.

The Iraqi foreign minister calls the relationship "difficult." ... U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who meets together with al-Maliki and Petraeus at least weekly, concedes "sometimes there are sporty exchanges."

Al-Maliki has spoken sharply -- not of Petraeus or Crocker personally -- but about their tactic of welcoming Sunni militants into the fight against al-Qaida forces in Anbar and Diyalah provinces.

First, if the U.S. policy of arming Sunni militias is exacerbating the strained relations, Maliki probably won't like the fact that the administration has decided to do more of this, not less.

Second, if the relationship has deteriorated as poorly as the article suggests, would the White House seriously pull Petraeus from Iraq? After basing most of the existing policy on Bush's confidence in the general?

Thinking more about the meaning of the new Middle Eastern arms sales

The Times has an editorial today which examines some of the issues raised in my post yesterday, The Endless War becomes a Regional War. 

An excerpt:

The Bush administration and Saudi Arabia’s ruling family have a lot in common, including oil, shared rivals like Iran and a penchant for denial that has allowed both to overlook the Saudis’ enabling role in the Sept. 11 attacks. But their recent wrangling over Iraq cannot be denied or papered over with proposals for a big new arms sale. And if these differences are not tackled, there is an increased likelihood that the war’s chaos will spread far beyond Iraq’s borders.

While Washington hasn’t protested publicly, Riyadh is pouring money into Sunni opposition groups and letting Saudis cross the border to join Sunni insurgents fighting the American-backed, Shiite-led government. Washington estimates that nearly half of the 60 to 80 foreign fighters entering Iraq each month come from Saudi Arabia....

Congressional leaders need to quickly assess the long-term implications of the Surge, Part II , the just-announced arms sales to Israel and the Sunni-led Arab governments in the Middle East.  Has the Administration settled on a longer term strategic plan for the region, a Cold War like containment policy towards the area's rising power, Iran, as is suggested in an excellent piece by Robin Wright in the Post today? And does this involve throwing the current Shiite-led Iraqi government under the bus? And if that is the case what exactly are our troops doing in Iraq then? Propping up a government and a nation we've already strategically abandoned?

For all the saber rattling at Iran for meddling inside Iraq - Joe Lieberman has called it a de facto declaration of war against the United States - there is substantial publically-available evidence that the Sunni governments of the Middle East are much more actively funding their end of the emerging proxy war in Iraq than the Iranians are.  Where is the public outrage over the Saudi's funding of insurgents regularly killing the US? Or of the Egyptian government's support of a bootlegged Sunni TV station in Iraq that regularly celebrates the deaths of American servicemen?

For those wanting to learn more about all this, I would strongly suggest checking into the thinking of noted Tufts University scholar, Vali Nasr.  You can watch an interview I did with him recently, and learn more about how to buy his compelling book here.

The endless war becomes a regional war

It is time for Congress to appoint one of their periodic Blue Ribbon Commissions to review all aspects of the Iraq War.  So much has gone wrong that we need to have a big discussion not how just to bring it to a close, but how to prevent it from ever happening again. 

The review should look at everything: from the pre-war build up, to the execution of the military campaign, to the planning for the aftermath, to the horrible aftermath itself.  The nation needs to turn this terrible experience, so expensive in terms of lives, money and our standing in the world into a learning experience for future generations.  If Congress were to do this, and do it well, it would be a tremendous public service to the nation.  And the review could come out in late 2008 or early 2009 so as not to interfere with the Presidential Election, but to assist the next Administration in its own conduct of foreign policy in the post-Bush era. 

Two major stories today highlight the extent of the failure of our policy in the region.  The first, in the Times, details a new report on our reconstruction efforts in Iraq.  Remarkably, the $5.8 billion reviewed in the report is the cost of perhaps 2 weeks of our military efforts there (clearly inadequate btw), and yet it has been a total disaster:

Iraq’s national government is refusing to take possession of thousands of American-financed reconstruction projects, forcing the United States either to hand them over to local Iraqis, who often lack the proper training and resources to keep the projects running, or commit new money to an effort that has already consumed billions of taxpayer dollars.

The conclusions, detailed in a report released Friday by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal oversight agency, include the finding that of 2,797 completed projects costing $5.8 billion, Iraq’s national government had, by the spring of this year, accepted only 435 projects valued at $501 million. Few transfers to Iraqi national government control have taken place since the current Iraqi government, which is frequently criticized for inaction on matters relating to the American intervention, took office in 2006.

The next is a story, widely reported this morning, on how the Administration has made a massive sale of arms to Israel and the Middle East's Sunni governments.  While there is much to discuss about with this move, it has been sold as a way to counter the region's new great threat - the rise of Iran.  What amazes me about our the War Supporters newfound fear of Iran's ascension is how, of course, the rising regional influence of Iran's is the direct result of the Iraq War itself.  Remember that it was our policy to installed in Iraq a Shiite government closely allied with Iran, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite political balance in the region.  When we hear Bush, and Senator Lieberman, go on about Iran we have to ask them was there any other possible outcome of your Iraq policy, which included the instillation of a Shiite-led Iranian-allied government in Iraq, then the regional ascension of Iran?  All of this feels like so much stumbling around in the geopolitical dark. 

And how will our Shiite allies running the Iraqi government respond to the arming of the Sunni governments in the region who are already funding Sunni insurgents in Iraq working to undermine the Iraqi government? Are the Saudi's funding Al Qaeda for example? Will these new arms we are providing to the region's Sunnis end up back in Iraq in Al Qaeda's hands, or other Sunni insurgents intent on killing Americans? Is this move an acknowledgement of our failure in Iraq, that our post-war political strategy in the region has failed, and the establishment of a predicate for withdrawal and abandonment of Iraq's Shiites and their government? Have we, with this act, essential chosen the region's Sunnis over the Shiites and thrown the Iraqi government under the bus?  

The endless Iraq war has now officially become a regional war.  It is long past time for a big conversation not just about ending the war in Iraq, but also for what our vision is for the region in its aftermath.  Bush has layed down a new and powerful marker.  What is the proper response?

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