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Lebanon Before the Collapse

Sometimes I have a bad feeling about the future of Iraq, despite the fact that Iraq is in better shape now than it was. But sometimes I don’t. On even numbered days I can convince myself that Iraq will be sort of okay.

I have a bad feeling about Lebanon on even and odd numbered days. I don’t know anyone who has been there recently who thinks the future is bright, that more war isn’t coming, that enormous geopolitcal tectonic plates aren’t gearing up to rip the place into pieces again.

David Samuels was there recently for The New Republic, and “he perfectly captured the pre-collapse mood”:http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=59fe8f65-fc23-40b0-b3d8-6b334b46aee2.

Everywhere I go in Beirut, I find the same strange oscillation between the assumption of relative normalcy and the belief that in a week, or a month, or a year at the most, the country will collapse…

Violence here takes place in the shadows, with occasional public eruptions like Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, or the events of May 2008, when the central government moved on Hezbollah’s private communications network, backed by Sunni villagers armed with light weapons who had been imported from the north. The result of this amateurish gambit was that Nasrallah sent his cadres into the streets, disarmed the Sunnis, and seized Beirut from the central government, which then granted him a slice of formal state power at Doha.

In between such delicate moments, you can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room–the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open, and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one’s wife, a pair of earrings for one’s mistress, a sizeable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo.

Sorry About That

I spent the last eight days in an all-consuming workshop class about the book publishing industry — publishers, editors, agents, proposals, contracts, and a hundred other things — that I needed to get a better handle on before I can take my career to the next level. I thought I’d have time to do my regular job while immersed in this stuff, but that was impossible.

I’m back now, and much better informed and equipped than I was a week ago. And I’m just about finished with my next dispatch from Iraq. Don’t go away.

Afghanistan’s Only Pig Quarantined

I was going to write something serious about the H1N1 influenza virus spreading around the world, but now that it seems to be fizzling out (at least for now), I thought I’d post something “light and funny instead”:http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSTRE5444XQ20090505.

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s only known pig has been locked in a room, away from visitors to Kabul zoo where it normally grazes beside deer and goats, because people are worried it could infect them with the virus popularly known as swine flu.

The pig is a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan, where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, and has been in quarantine since Sunday after visitors expressed alarm it could spread the new flu strain.

“For now the pig is under quarantine, we built it a room because of swine influenza,” Aziz Gul Saqib, director of Kabul Zoo, told Reuters. “We’ve done this because people are worried about getting the flu.”

Worldwide, more than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus, according to the World Health Organization, which also says 26 people have so far died from the strain. All but one of the deaths were in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.

There are no pig farms in Afghanistan and no direct civilian flights between Kabul and Mexico.

“We understand that, but most people don’t have enough knowledge. When they see the pig in the cage they get worried and think that they could get ill,” Saqib said.

The pig was a gift to the zoo from China, which itself quarantined some 70 Mexicans, 26 Canadians and four Americans in the past week…

One of Those Weeks

My next dispatch from Iraq is 90 percent finished. Unfortunately, this has turned into one of those weeks where I can’t get any work done. I’m not having a bad week. I’m just extraordinarily busy on a brief out-of-town project that has nothing to do with this Web site. So I’m stalled at the moment. But I have a few things I want to post here that won’t take too much time to throw together, so hang in there…

The Taliban and Pashtun Nationalism

Pakistan is looking more dangerous and precarious by the week. The only Muslim country in the world with an arsenal of nuclear weapons is now threatened by a ferocious and rapidly expanding Taliban insurgency. The most retrograde Islamist army on earth has conquered territory just a few hours’ drive from the capital. Though this discouraging outcome wasn’t inevitable, it was at least likely. As Robert Kaplan pointed out in “an insightful essay”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1 in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “the Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.” And ethnic Pashtuns live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Indeed,” Kaplan adds, “much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Take a look at two maps. The first shows “the geographic breakdown of Pakistan’s patchwork of ethnicities”:http://ramesh-007.sulekha.com/mstore/Ramesh-007/albums/default/Pakistan_ethnic_1973.jpg. You’ll notice that ethnic Pashtuns live in the notoriously backward and violent northwestern frontier provinces. Their region extends deep into Afghanistan and covers the southeastern part of that country. These two regions — which are actually a single region with a somewhat arbitrary national border between them — are where most Taliban activity has been concentrated since the United States destroyed their regime in Afghanistan. A second map shows the breakdown of “areas in Pakistan currently under Taliban control”:http://www.longwarjournal.org/maps/Pakistan/NWFP24APR09.php. You’ll see, when you compare the maps carefully, that almost all areas that are either Taliban-controlled or Taliban-influenced, are Pashtun.

The Taliban are more than an expression of Pashtun nationalism, of course. They represent a reactionary movement that idealizes the simplicity and extreme conservatism of 7th century Islam. By burnishing this ideology, the Taliban is able, absurdly, to attract support beyond its Pashtun base.

The ethnic component, though, is a formidable one. It all but guaranteed a certain degree of success by the Taliban in all of “Pashtunistan,” in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Yet all the while, the ethnic map imposes constraints, if not limits, on how far the Taliban can expand.

They were able to seize power in most of Afghanistan before 2001, although the “Northern Alliance” — made up primarily of ethnic Tajiks — managed to hold out until Americans arrived and smashed the regime in Kabul. Since then, the Taliban have had a harder time operating outside “Pashtunistan.” “The north of Afghanistan,” “Kaplan writes”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1, “beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/64212.

More Dispatches Coming

I spent the last ten days writing a long essay about Beirut and Baghdad for “City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/index.html and consequently didn’t have much time to work on my next dispatch from Iraq. The bad news is you will have to wait until the summer issue is published before you can read it. The good news is you can read it for free. The magazine will pay me, so I won’t even ask for donations when it’s published.

My schedule is freed up again, so I’ll have my next piece from Baghdad published here as soon as it’s ready. It will be the first of a four-part series about where Iraq is heading next. I still have no idea if Iraq will be “okay” or if it won’t be. The opinions and analysis I heard from both Americans and Iraqis were mixed, and each camp made a persuasive case. I’ll give you the good news first, but be aware that bad news is coming right on its heels. Stay tuned.

Eurasia’s Shatter Zones

Robert Kaplan has “a fascinating piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1 about geography and its impact on culture, politics, and history. Most of us instinctively understand geography’s connection to these three phenomena, at least on a basic level. Citizens who live in a temperate climate near the sea, in port cities open to the world, tend to be broadly liberal. Those who live in a harsh climate, deep within a continent, and cut off from outsiders, tend to be provincial and reactionary.

This simple observation won’t be news to many people, but Kaplan takes it many steps further and notes that some parts of the world — especially in Eurasia — are more prone than others to conflict in part thanks to the fate of geography. Kaplan calls these regions “shatter zones,” and I spend almost all my time abroad in one of these shatter zones or another.

Many Lebanese have described their predicament to me in exactly these terms. If only their country were an island, they say, with no land border with Syria or Israel. And while I can’t vouch for Kaplan accurately describing each of the shatter zones in his piece, I can say he describes those I know well with precision.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is an excerpt to give you a taste.

The Fertile Crescent, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau, constitutes another shatter zone. The countries of this region—Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—are vague geographic expressions that had little meaning before the 20th century. When the official lines on the map are removed, we find a crude finger-painting of Sunni and Shiite clusters that contradict national borders. Inside these borders, the governing authorities of Lebanon and Iraq barely exist. The one in Syria is tyrannical and fundamentally unstable; the one in Jordan is rational but under quiet siege. (Jordan’s main reason for being at all is to act as a buffer for other Arab regimes that fear having a land border with Israel.) Indeed, the Levant is characterized by tired authoritarian regimes and ineffective democracies.

Of all the geographically illogical states in the Fertile Crescent, none is more so than Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, by far the worst in the Arab world, was itself geographically determined: Every Iraqi dictator going back to the first military coup in 1958 had to be more repressive than the previous one just to hold together a country with no natural borders that seethes with ethnic and sectarian consciousness. The mountains that separate Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, and the division of the Mesopotamian plain between Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south, may prove more pivotal to Iraq’s stability than the yearning after the ideal of democracy. If democracy doesn’t in fairly short order establish sturdy institutional roots, Iraq’s geography will likely lead it back to tyranny or anarchy again.

But for all the recent focus on Iraq, geography and history tell us that Syria might be at the real heart of future turbulence in the Arab world. Aleppo in northern Syria is a bazaar city with greater historical links to Mosul, Baghdad, and Anatolia than to Damascus. Whenever Damascus’s fortunes declined with the rise of Baghdad to the east, Aleppo recovered its greatness. Wandering through the souks of Aleppo, it is striking how distant and irrelevant Damascus seems: The bazaars are dominated by Kurds, Turks, Circassians, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others, unlike the Damascus souk, which is more a world of Sunni Arabs. As in Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia, each sect and religion in Syria has a specific location. Between Aleppo and Damascus is the increasingly Islamist Sunni heartland. Between Damascus and the Jordanian border are the Druse, and in the mountain stronghold contiguous with Lebanon are the Alawites—both remnants of a wave of Shiism from Persia and Mesopotamia that swept over Syria a thousand years ago.

Elections in Syria in 1947, 1949, and 1954 exacerbated these divisions by polarizing the vote along sectarian lines. The late Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 after 21 changes of government in 24 years. For three decades, he was the Leonid Brezhnev of the Arab world, staving off the future by failing to build a civil society at home. His son Bashar will have to open the political system eventually, if only to keep pace with a dynamically changing society armed with satellite dishes and the Internet. But no one knows how stable a post-authoritarian Syria would be. Policymakers must fear the worst. Yet a post-Assad Syria may well do better than post-Saddam Iraq, precisely because its tyranny has been much less severe. Indeed, traveling from Saddam’s Iraq to Assad’s Syria was like coming up for air.

In addition to its inability to solve the problem of political legitimacy, the Arab world is unable to secure its own environment. The plateau peoples of Turkey will dominate the Arabs in the 21st century because the Turks have water and the Arabs don’t. Indeed, to develop its own desperately poor southeast and thereby suppress Kurdish separatism, Turkey will need to divert increasingly large amounts of the Euphrates River from Syria and Iraq. As the Middle East becomes a realm of parched urban areas, water will grow in value relative to oil. The countries with it will retain the ability—and thus the power—to blackmail those without it. Water will be like nuclear energy, thereby making desalinization and dual-use power facilities primary targets of missile strikes in future wars. Not just in the West Bank, but everywhere there is less room to maneuver.

A final shatter zone is the Persian core, stretching from the Caspian Sea to Iran’s north to the Persian Gulf to its south. Virtually all of the greater Middle East’s oil and natural gas lies in this region. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines are increasingly radiating from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China, and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, as Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy note in Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East. The Persian Gulf possesses 55 percent of the world’s crude-oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz in the southeast—a coastline of 1,317 nautical miles, thanks to its many bays, inlets, coves, and islands that offer plenty of excellent places for hiding tanker-ramming speedboats.

It is not an accident that Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower. There was a certain geographic logic to it. Iran is the greater Middle East’s universal joint, tightly fused to all of the outer cores. Its border roughly traces and conforms to the natural contours of the landscape—plateaus to the west, mountains and seas to the north and south, and desert expanse in the east toward Afghanistan. For this reason, Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike the geographically illogical countries of that adjacent region, there is nothing artificial about Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran is now being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century.

Of all the shatter zones in the greater Middle East, the Iranian core is unique: The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent Iranian nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.

“Read the whole thing”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1.

Moment of Truth in Iraq

Last week I plugged Michael Yon’s excellent book Moment of Truth in Iraq.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

If you haven’t read it yet, buy it today. And if you’re one of the small number of people who might be interested in acquiring 30,000 copies all at once, “Yon is auctioning off the whole lot of them”:http://www.michaelyon-online.com/tracking-torture-pulp.htm.

The UN’s Epic Fail in Geneva

The biggest loser at the United Nations Durban Review Conference on “racism” this week in Geneva was the United Nations itself. The United States unfairly got a lot of bad press and bad marks for walking out of the first UN “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, even though that conference was little more than an anti-Semitic and anti-American hate festival. The media did a much better job this time around, though, as did the genuine anti-racist activists who showed up to protest. Those vilified by “Durban I” turned out to be the heroes of “Durban II.”

Most of the press coverage this week was appropriately critical. And few have done as outstanding a job covering the affair as Zvika Krieger in “the New Republic”:http://www.tnr.com/. Every one of his dispatches from Geneva deserves a wide audience.

First he reminds us just how viciously bigoted the 2001 Durban conference was. “Jewish activists were harassed, abused, physically intimidated, taunted, and followed throughout the week,” “he wrote”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/17/durban-ii-dispatch-should-i-be-scared.aspx. “Anyone who tried to object to the Israel hate-fest was booed off the stage with shouts of ‘Jew, Jew, Jew.’ The conference hall was overflowing with copies of ‘The Protocols of The Elders of Zion’ and pamphlets featuring pictures of Jews with long hooked noses and evil smiles, their serpent fangs soaked in blood and their military uniforms decorated with swastikas.”

Those singled out for the two-minute hate were vastly outnumbered by the hysterical bigots who set the tone in South Africa. This time, though, in Geneva, the bullies were on the defensive. “Unlike the scenes at Durban I,” he reported, “of Jewish students being swallowed by hordes of Israel haters, outnumbered 50-to-1, here in Geneva, I’ve witnessed dozens of debates between handfuls of pro-Israel activists evenly matched with their foes.”

Americans weren’t happy about the anti-American obscenities at “Durban I,” but at least “American” isn’t a race. Jews had even more reasons to be appalled at what happened. When the organizers of an “anti-racist” conference spend most of their energy denouncing and menacing Jews and Israelis, something has gone terribly wrong. Anti-Durban activists had years to prepare for this week’s sequel in Geneva, though, and it showed.

“It is hard to exaggerate how palpable the Jewish presence is here,” “Krieger wrote”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=7a4006d3-2943-49c3-b3bc-9d9c5e94d72d. “The Jewish community of Geneva staged a massive Holocaust memorial (featuring Elie Wiesel) last night on the steps of the UN headquarters right outside the conference, and Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center are organizing panels on anti-Semitism inside the conference building under auspices of the UN. Roaming the halls of the UN building, I’ve heard way more Hebrew than Arabic. When the Jewish community’s security force prevented the Jewish students from leaving the ‘Jewish Welcome Center’ because of a minor pro-Palestinian rally outside, the students balked at the ridiculousness of any security threat against them here — a stark contrast to the physical violence encountered by Jewish students in 2001.”

The first Durban conference was an anti-Semitic zoo. “Take a look at the photo”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/17/durban-ii-dispatch-should-i-be-scared.aspx of a poster, reading that it would have been a “good thing” if Adolf Hitler had won World War II because there would be “no Israel.” Switzerland may be geopolitically neutral in many ways, but Geneva was in no mood this week to tolerate that kind of garbage at a conference it hosted. “Krieger says”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=7a4006d3-2943-49c3-b3bc-9d9c5e94d72d a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitic propaganda appeared to be in place, and the small number of anti-Semitic demonstrators he did see were kicked out by security guards.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/63462

Ahmadinejad Stinks Up Geneva

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a blistering tirade against Israel on Monday at the supposedly “anti-racist” Durban II conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and dozens of national delegates from Europe “walked out in disgust”:http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2009/04/20/durban-ii-diary-part-3-the-clowning-of-ahmadinejad/. The sheer number of people who refused to sit there and listen to him “must be seen to be believed”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/04/durban-ii-walko.php. His bad reception didn’t end there. Hundreds of protesters followed him as he delivered a press conference and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as they held up signs reminding all who could see them that “Iran funds Hamas and Hezbollah”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/20/durban-ii-dispatch-following-ahmedinejad.aspx.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Ahmadinejad’s remarks were “appalling”:http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/21/UN-Anti-racism-summit-back-on-track/UPI-58301240333308/. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a man hardly known as a defender of Israel, said “I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite.” Delegates from the Czech Republic didn’t only storm out. They refused to come back and listen to any other tyrant who came to Europe to lecture his betters.

Everyone who walked out on camera was right to do so. Most, if not all, were from Europe. It’s strange, then, that a European country is hosting this hate-fest in the first place. They had no reason to expect anything different. This second “Durban” conference held in Geneva is just a rerun of the first one held in Durban, South Africa, which also was little more than a bigoted group-scream against Israel and the United States. It was obvious years ago when the conference was planned what would be on the agenda. A representative from Libya, one of the most brutally oppressive countries on earth, “was chairman of the preparatory committee”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MDM0Y2ExMDkzMmNkM2Y1OGExYTkxOGI1YmFlMTEzNWY. Its vice chairman included representatives from Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. None of these countries can teach Western democracies about racism or human rights. The Obama administration was right to boycott this fiasco before it even began.

Surely European countries that sent delegates knew well in advance what they were getting themselves into. Perhaps they even planned to walk out in advance. Even so, allowing a belligerent bigot to deliver a speech at an anti-racist conference is offensive to decent human beings everywhere. Among other things, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust even happened — a crime in Germany. Would Europe send delegates to an “anti-racism” conference if the head of the Aryan Nations was giving a speech? And what if Slobodan Milosevic was still alive and ruler of Serbia? Would they agree to show up and listen to even the first two minutes of what he’d have to say?

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/63141.

“Durban II” Walkout

Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invective against the “Zionist Entity” didn’t go over too well in Geneva. A huge number of European diplomats walked out in disgust. The scene must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Embedded video from CNN Video

President Barack Obama was right to boycott this hate-fest.

The Dissidents’ War

I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks because an American Marine officer in Fallujah told me to. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”

Fiasco is a devastating critique of the botched war in Iraq before General David Petraeus took over command. It isn’t what I’d call a fun read, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate what Petraeus accomplished without studying in depth the mess he inherited.

I met Thomas Ricks last week at a basement bar in Oregon near Powell’s Books while he toured the country promoting his new book about the surge, The Gamble. I drank a glass of red wine, a locally-made Pinot Noir. He drank a pitcher of root beer.

MJT: Tell us about your new book

Ricks: It’s about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. It’s very different from Fiasco. Fiasco was an indictment. It was an angry book. The Gamble is a narrative. It was a much more enjoyable book to write. It’s an account of the war being turned over to the dissidents. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker reveals in the book that he was opposed to the original invasion of Iraq. [General David] Petraeus took command just after finishing his counterinsurgency manual, which was a scathing critique of the conduct of the occupation. There was entirely new attitude among Americans, a new humility. A willingness to listen. I saw this reflected in the people they brought in to advise them. Emma Sky, a tiny little British woman who’s an expert on the Middle East and an anti-American anti-military pacifist. She became [General Ray] Odierno’s political advisor. Petraeus once said to Odierno, “she’s not your political advisor, she’s your insurgent.”

Fiasco Cover.jpg

Sadi Othman, who was Petraeus’s advisor to the Iraqi government. He’s a Palestinian-American, born in Brazil, raised in Jordan, six foot seven, the first man to ever dunk a basketball in Jordanian university competition. He was raised and educated by Mennonites and pacifists.

This was a very different group of people with a very different attitude. My thought was that, essentially, the transition to Obama began in Iraq two years before it began here. Because in January they basically said, “okay, if you guys are so smart, you do it.” And they turned the war over to the internal critics of the war.

The surge was not supported by the U.S. military. The only person in the chain of command who really pushed for it was Odierno. His boss [General George] Casey was against it. Their boss [General John] Abizaid was against it. And their boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was against it. It really was an insurgency within the U.S. military that set out to fight a very different war with a very different attitude and with a different set of priorities.

The Gamble Cover.JPG

The biggest shift in priorities came when they dropped the swift transition to Iraqi authority which had been an official mission statement — it was number one on the mission statement list. In the back of the book I have an appendix which shows the orders Odierno got when he arrived in Iraq. He was told in 2006 to move his troops out of the cities, seal the borders, secure the lines of communication, and basically let these people have the civil war they seem to want to have. When he rewrote his orders — the orders he gave to himself and Petraeus — they were to move troops off the big bases and into the cities, and drop transition to Iraqi authority as the top priority. Instead our top priority became the protection of the Iraqi people — a huge change in the prosecution of the war.

MJT: Do you think they basically got it right?

Ricks: Look. You have to back up. I think everything in Iraq is the fruit of a poisoned tree — invading a country pre-emptively on false premises. So the question isn’t whether they’re getting it right, it’s whether they’re getting it less wrong. I think it was the best of a lot of bad options. It worked tactically. It improved security. But it failed to achieve its goal. The surge is now over, and the purpose of the surge, as stated by the president and the secretary of defense, was to improve security to create breathing space where a political breakthrough could occur. Odierno says in the book that we did create a breathing space, but some Iraqi leaders — I think he meant [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki — used it to move backwards.

MJT: How did Maliki move backwards?

Ricks: He became more sectarian and anti-reconciliation.

MJT: At what point did he become more sectarian?

Ricks: This is Odierno’s argument, not mine.

MJT: Okay.

Ricks: And he didn’t say. But, for example, Maliki didn’t really sign up for reconciliation. He persisted with a zero-sum view of Iraqi politics where winner takes all. You guys lose, we win.

MJT: That’s true as far as Maliki’s relationship with the Sunnis, but he’s also gone after the Shia militias with much more force and determination than I expected in Basra and Sadr City.

Ricks: That’s true. He did. But I was talking to an officer who wondered why we didn’t back Moqtada al Sadr. He thinks we should have backed Sadr from the get-go.

MJT: Why?

Ricks: Because within the Shia community he is the one least influenced by Iran and the most nationalistic. His is the only group that, when it demonstrates, carries Iraqi flags. None of the other Shia parties carry Iraqi flags at their demonstrations.

MJT: Let’s back up a couple of years. Who made the decision for the U.S. to not work with Moqtada al Sadr? Wasn’t it Sadr himself who basically said eff-you to the United States? He made the call. Not us. And once that happened, how were we supposed to work with the guy? If he’s ideologically opposed to us, then that’s it. It takes two.

Ricks: We had a discussion inside the U.S. government in 2003 and 2004 over whether to engage him or attack him. Eventually, an order was issued to arrest him. And he took that as a declaration of war. But look. You know Iraq. In Iraq, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally.

MJT: Yes.

Ricks: If we applied that standard, that he’s a declared enemy, we never would have put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. That was one of Petraeus’ great breakthroughs. And, by the way, in one of my favorite moments during my interviews with Petraeus I asked him how he sold the president on that notion, and he said he didn’t. I said, “wait a minute, you have a secured teleconference with him every Monday and you didn’t bring it up?” He said no, it was within his existing authorities. It was a really ballsy move. It was audacious. You want audacity in your leaders. If it had failed, the egg would have been on his face. We went to these allies of Al Qaeda and said “what’s it going to take?” It turned out that it took 30 million dollars a month.

MJT: They weren’t real allies of Al Qaeda, though. You know how it is over there. They were being paid by Al Qaeda, so we just paid them a little bit more.

Ricks: Yes. I think it was a good idea.

MJT: I do, too. But saying we put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll makes it sound more cynical than it was. It’s not like we put [Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al] Zarqawi on the payroll. We put the moderate, more flexible ones on the payroll.

Ricks: Oh, bullshit. We had guys on the payroll who cut off heads, who had killed American soldiers.

MJT: We killed Zarqawi. We flipped and paid the flexible insurgents, the ones who were not particularly ideological.

Ricks: The ones who were venial.

MJT: Before they flipped I wondered why on earth we were even fighting them in the first place.

Ricks: That’s what [Petraeus advisor David] Kilcullen said. 90 percent of the people are fighting you because you’re in their neighborhood.

MJT: Yeah.

Ricks: And if you get out of their neighborhood or cut some deals with them…

MJT: Yes. And we were never going to flip Zarqawi and his guys.

Ricks: Right.

MJT: We could never pay them enough money. They’re real enemies of the United States. But with the others we could say, ‘listen, this is stupid, we should stop this.’

Ricks: Yeah. And Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations. They said “before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq.” The American policy said “we can’t do that.” So the Sadrists said “well, then we can’t have talks.” Then the Americans said, “well, just out of curiosity, what was the date you had in mind?” The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: It’s funny. I was talking to Kilcullen about this the other day. You know who Kilcullen is, right?

MJT: Of course. Brilliant guy. [He’s an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus.]

Ricks: He is so smart. Kilcullen was meeting in a safe house with some Sadrists in Baghdad. They had been working with Sadr, but also talking to Americans on and off for years. Kilcullen realized he was talking to a former military officer, a civil engineer, and an accountant. These are the three elements of reconstruction: military security, civilian reconstruction, and finance. And a light bulb went on in Kilcullen’s head. He said “if you guys were going to secure Sadr City, how would you do it?” They began huddling and talking urgently. Kilcullen said “sorry, fellas, I didn’t mean to insult you.” They said “no, no, you didn’t insult us, it’s just that in the four years of talking to Americans, nobody ever asked us that.” This was the change in Iraq.

One of the points in the book is that the surge fighting was tough, the toughest six months of the war, even tougher than the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a sustained six month battle.

MJT: The first half of 2007. In Bacouba, Mosul…

Ricks: …and Baghdad. I capture it in the siege of Tarmiyah. There were 38 guys in Tarmiyah, the northernmost surge outpost in the Baghdad area. They got car-bombed, mortared, RPGed, and machine-gunned. They held the post, but at the end of the day they had two dead and 29 wounded. The car bomb was heard seven miles away.

But my favorite part of the book isn’t about fighting. It’s called “The Insurgent Who Loved Titanic.” It’s about Captain Sam Cook. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him. In the little town he’s in, he hears about an insurgent boasting that he set off 200 bombs against Americans. Cook is a really smart guy. He’s been around a while. He was on his second or third tour in Iraq. He sent an invitation to the guy for a cup of tea. That said two things. It said “I know where you are.” And it said “I know who you are.”

The guy comes and says “if you know who I am and where I am, why didn’t you arrest me?” Cook said “because I’ve invited you for tea and won’t abuse the rules of hospitality.”

What Cook wants to do — and I think you understand — is bring in the network. He wants to understand the guy and his network, not just kill or capture one guy. And they began talking. Cooks says, “look, if I see you in the street tomorrow, I might shoot you. But let’s talk. You’re here. Let’s have tea.”

MJT: That’s very Arab. They like to have tea when they aren’t shooting each other.

Ricks: Yeah. And it goes on for a couple of weeks. And one day, the guy says “you need to understand something. I hate everything about America. America is the Devil. Nothing good comes from America.”

But Cook knows the most popular theme for cell phones in Iraq is the theme from Titanic. And he says to the insurgent, “well, you saw the movie Titanic, didn’t you?”

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: And the insurgent says “seven times. I cry at the end every time.”

Titanic Poster.jpg

MJT: [Laughs] The Arab world is so much fun.

Ricks: There’s an emotional connection there. The guy never comes over to the American side. He never becomes persuaded to support American goals. But after months of these talks he says, “Look, I can’t surrender to you. It’s a matter of self-respect. But if you will arrange my surrender to the Iraqis and then put me on the payroll, I’ll tell you a few things. And me and the boys will help you out.” Cook says, “Done deal.” And they do it.

The insurgent sits down and says, “Okay. The first thing you need to know is that the reason you never captured me is because every time you came to my house, the Iraqi Army soldiers at the checkpoint called me on my cell phone. You might want to take away their cell phones. Second, we have a deal with the police chief. Our war is with you, not with him. The Iraqi Police are sitting it out. The third thing you might want to know is that my sniper rifle was a gift to me from the Iraqi major you work with.”

Cook said it was like the lights were being turned on. Suddenly he could see it.

This was happening all over Iraq in 2007 and 2008. The Americans were sitting down, talking, listening, and cutting deals. In some ways, it was the Arabization of the American war.

MJT: That’s a good way to put it.

Ricks: And it was combined with a real reduction in American goals. Petraeus’s people never really articulated this, but in their internal discussions they lowered the American goals. They threw out the notion that we’re going to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy. They said they’ll settle for a more or less stable Iraq that is somewhat democratic and somewhat respectful of human rights. This was never put into any policy statement that I saw approved by the White House. They basically threw out the gold-plated Lexus that was the original plan and settled for a Volkswagen Bug.

MJT: They didn’t have much choice. That’s just reality.

Ricks: Except the Americans, for years, had ignored that reality. And even that minimal goal is tough.

MJT: I got back from Iraq not too long ago, and one of the things I tried to figure out — as much as a person can figure out something like this — is whether or not Iraq will be more or less okay after the U.S. either leaves or draws down significantly. About half the Americans and half the Iraqis I talked to said they’re optimistic, and the other half said they’re pessimistic.

Ricks: In both the Iraqi and American conversations?

MJT: Yes. Half the Iraqis were optimistic, and half the Americans were optimistic. Half the Iraqis were pessimistic, and half the Americans were pessimistic. Whoever I was listening to at the time persuaded me, and I left not knowing what to make of it all.

Ricks: Crocker’s prediction is that the future of Iraq is Lebanon.

MJT: Iraqis will be lucky to get to where Lebanon is. I’ve worked in both countries, and Lebanon is like the Star Trek universe compared with Iraq.

Ricks: [Laughs]

MJT: Where do you fall in this spectrum of opinion? Do you think Iraq will be at least sort of “okay,” or do you think it’s a doomed country?

Ricks: Iraq will not be okay. Americans are not going to be happy with the ultimate product. The best case scenario, I think, is an Iraq that is not democratic, not really stable, still has some violence, and is probably a closer ally of Iran than the United States. This is why the invasion of Iraq was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy.

MJT: Bigger than Vietnam?

Ricks: Oh, absolutely.

MJT: In Vietnam we lost 50,000 people and killed two million of theirs.

Ricks: Vietnam was at the periphery of U.S. interests. The Cambodians suffered a holocaust…

MJT: …Twenty five percent of them were killed…

Ricks: …and America’s allies in Vietnam spent 15 years in “re-education” camps. But six years later we were saying it’s morning in America. It ain’t going to be morning in Baghdad any time soon.

MJT: Sure, but it was morning in America, not morning in Saigon.

Ricks: Yeah, but when you walk out of Baghdad…This is why I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but leaving Iraq is even more immoral. There are no good solutions. The least bad solution is staying in smaller numbers for many years to come. If you walk out of Iraq tomorrow, that’s the Jerry Rubin solution. Remember Jerry Rubin? He was asked what he’s going to do after the revolution, and he said he was going to groove on the rubble.

Iraq would rubble-ize.

MJT: I think so, too.

Ricks: There would be a civil war. And it could spread and become a regional war in the middle of the world’s oil patch. This is why Iraq is a bigger strategic problem than Vietnam. You could walk away from Vietnam. You can’t walk away from Iraq.

That’s not just my opinion. I had dinner with Henry Kissinger, and I asked him which is the bigger problem strategically, Vietnam or Iraq? And he said Iraq.

The argument from the Bush Administration is, well, at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But I’m not sure we did. There are a lot of little Saddams in Iraq. And some day, one of them is going to grow up and be a big Saddam, and he’ll probably be a smarter, younger, tougher, meaner version.

MJT: Meaner would take some effort.

Ricks: We took out a guy who was dumb as a box of rocks. He was the only world leader who thought he could take on the U.S. military with conventional means.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: He was in some ways our ideal enemy. The guy who emerges will have studied how to take on the Americans for 25 years. And any strongman who emerges will almost certainly be anti-American because if you can unify Iraq, it will probably be on the basis of anti-Americanism.

MJT: I don’t know if unification on anti-Americanism will really be possible. The Sunnis are anti-American, no question about it. The Shias are mixed, around 50-50, and the Kurds are, well, forget it. You can’t possibly unify the Kurds around anti-Americanism.

Ricks: That’s true.

MJT: They’re more pro-American than Poland.

Ricks: Well, we sell out the Kurds every twenty years.

MJT: Yes, we do. Actually it’s more like every fifteen. According to them, eight times since World War I.

I’m curious what you think of Michael Yon’s work, and I’ll tell you why I’m asking this question. When friends ask me what they should read about Iraq, I say “read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon.” They’re very different books, about different time periods in the Iraq war, from different perspectives, but combined I think they fit well together. I don’t think your book and Yon’s book are contradictory, although some people might think so.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

Ricks: I’m a big fan of Michael Yon’s work. Sometimes I worry if there’s some blogging feud that’s going on.

MJT: Not that I’m aware of. But some readers might think they’d like one and not the other. I actually liked both.

Ricks: I like Yon’s work quite a lot. I’ve followed him closely in Afghanistan lately, and I’m very impressed by him. He’s done some really interesting work in dangerous areas. I think he’s a bit over-optimistic about Iraq, though. He thinks the war is over. And my response is that the war changes. It morphs. It began as a blitzkrieg invasion, it became a botched occupation that led to a slowly rising but durable insurgency. It then led to a small civil war. It then became an effective American counter-offensive. It’s now in an odd lull period where people try to sort out what a post-Bush and maybe post-American Obama-run war will look like. It morphs, but it doesn’t end. I think American troops will be fighting and dying in Iraq for another ten or fifteen years.

MJT: Really? You think that long?

Ricks: Yeah.

MJT: You’re definitely gloomier about it than I am.

Ricks: It will be in smaller numbers. Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in 2015. I don’t think any American troops were killed by violence in Germany after the war. A lot of them died in car accidents.

MJT: I think you’re right. I think there were none.

Ricks: The war will be over when American troops stop dying. Then our war will be over. When Iraqis stop dying, their war will be over.

MJT: Yon looks at it from a military point of view. He’s a former soldier, so that’s his filter. I’m a bit gloomier about Iraq than he is, but I’m not a military guy. The other factors, the politics and culture of Iraq, aren’t encouraging.

Ricks: You do have to look at it politically. It’s never going to be a strictly military question. The military is only a means to get to a political end. The Middle East is profoundly Clausewitzian. It’s either armed politics or political warfare. You have these guys on a continuum. You have militias with political wings, and you have political parties with armed wings.

MJT: A lot of the Middle East is like this. Not Kuwait, but certainly Lebanon.

Ricks: I think it’s a great story, the last couple of years. I’m just fascinated by it.

MJT: It is interesting, isn’t it?

Ricks: Another difference between Fiasco and The Gamble is that in Fiasco I knew what the events were that I had to write about. I just had to provide context, meaning, and depth. I knew I’d have to write about the invasion, blowing up the UN headquarters, the first battle of Fallujah, the second battle of Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib. In The Gamble, it wasn’t clear to me what the major events were, partly because there was so much less media coverage. The media was less equipped to cover a counterinsurgency. The battle in Basra in the spring of 2008 was a real eye-opener for me. It was a hugely important turn of events. And there was almost no coverage of it. And the coverage it did get was wrong.

MJT: Yep.

Ricks: The press said it was a huge setback for Maliki.

MJT: And it wasn’t. Although it did look that way at the beginning.

Ricks: Yeah. Americans were freaked. There was a conversation on a Friday night. An Iraqi leans over and says to Petraeus, “the prime minister wants to talk to you about doing Basra.” And Petraeus said, “you mean Mosul?” Mosul was first in their plan. And the Iraqi said, “no, Basra.” Petraeus says, “oh?”

So Petraeus goes over to see Maliki the next day, and Maliki says, “yeah, we’re doing Basra.” The plan laid out for me was that we were going to finish Baghdad, then do Mosul, and then do Basra. And Maliki just threw it all up in the air. He rolled the dice. And that’s one of the themes of the book. Americans taught Maliki how to gamble.

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The UN’s Disintegration in Lebanon

Poland is withdrawing its troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the U.S. is pressuring other European contributors to the mission to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan, and “Israeli defense officials are worried”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1239488111533&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull the multinational force north of the border might collapse entirely. Israelis, however, aren’t the ones who should worry. South Lebanon’s Christians stand to lose the most if that happens.

“If UNIFIL leaves, we’re going with them,” a young Lebanese man told me in the village of Rmeich in February this year. “Everyone is frightened about what might happen.” Rmeich is a Maronite Christian enclave near the Israeli border. Along with the adjacent Maronite village of Ein Ebel, it is surrounded by Shia cities, towns, and villages where support for Hezbollah runs deep. “There are many Hezbollah people near here,” the man continued. “They wear civilian clothes. They used to come into our town with guns and harass us before the [July 2006] war, but not anymore thanks to UNIFIL.”

UNFIL was created in 1978 to help the Lebanese government restore its sovereignty over the area after it was taken over by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and used as a base for guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Israel. The force was bolstered by thousands of mostly European soldiers after the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and given a similar mandate. Hezbollah controlled the border area after Israeli soldiers withdrew from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. War was all but inevitable under those circumstances. So in addition to bringing the Lebanese Army and government back to the border where they might prevent another war outbreak, UNIFIL was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from replenishing its partially depleted stock of rockets and missiles through smuggling roads over the land border with Syria. In this, UNIFIL failed. Almost all analysts say Hezbollah has a larger arsenal now than it did before the 2006 war even started.

UNIFIL gets little credit for helping South Lebanon’s Christians, and that’s too bad. But the force gets far more credit than it deserves for keeping Hezbollah in check. UNIFIL’s presence is something of a problem because it appears the “international community” is doing something constructive to prevent the next war when it actually isn’t. Neither are the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Army, or anyone else.

Some Lebanese officers are still loyal to Damascus. They were never purged from the armed forces after occupying Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to withdraw in the wake of the massive demonstration in downtown Beirut on March 14, 2005. “Sometimes we see things we don’t understand,” another resident of Rmeich told me recently. “Huge covered-up trucks get through the army checkpoints, and they’re not even stopped. When I go through in my open car, I have to pull over.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/62182

Hezbollah’s Mushroom Cloud

Christopher Hitchens recently went to a rally in the suburbs south of Beirut and found Hezbollah ratcheting up its belligerence. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” “he wrote in the May issue of Vanity Fair”:http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905?printable=true&currentPage=all, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!” Last week “James Kirchick reported seeing the same thing at the same rally in City Journal”:http://city-journal.org/2009/eon0408jk.html. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Hezbollah has threatened nuclear war.

Hezbollah isn’t broadcasting this to the world. If Hitchens and Kirchick hadn’t written about it, few would know the mushroom-cloud banner even exists. It’s not so much a threat as it is a revelation of Hezbollah’s dark psyche. But perhaps Hezbollah’s not shouting “nuclear war” for all to hear means its threats are more dangerous than public taunts from the Iranian government. Empty threats and hyperbole are rife in the Middle East. Death threats are rarely carried out anywhere. Most assassins don’t announce their intentions. They kill their victims without warning. Whatever Hezbollah’s mushroom-cloud banner means, we know this much: intimations of nuclear war with Israel are now coming from Lebanon as well as Iran. The worst case scenario — a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv — might be slightly more likely than some of us thought.

Every foreign policy-maker and analyst must be wondering whether Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities this year or next. Most don’t know the answer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself might not know the answer. It’s risky. Hezbollah didn’t open a second front against Israel during the Gaza war a few months ago, but it’s unlikely they’ll sit still in South Lebanon if their patron and armorer in Tehran is attacked. Iran’s Al Quds Force may retaliate against the United States in Iraq. A military strike against Iran could easily trigger a regional conflagration.

There’s a theory floating around the Middle East that I’ve heard from Israelis and Arabs alike, and some find it slightly reassuring: Iran doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons against Israel. Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can transform itself into a true regional superpower. Arab regimes fear this, which is why Saudi Arabia and Egypt have threatened to develop or purchase their own nuclear arsenals to counter the “Persian bomb.” No Arab state got into an arms race with Israel to counter the “Zionist bomb,” but they’re obviously worried about what might happen to them if Tehran weaponizes uranium. The Iranians don’t want to be neutralized by an arms race, so they’re threatening the Israelis and hoping the Arabs will relax or acquiesce. I don’t know if the theory is true, but Hezbollah’s recent mushroom-cloud banner doesn’t quite fit. Hezbollah didn’t put that on stage to calm nerves in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They used it to thrill a crowd of furious Shia Arabs in Lebanon.

An Iranian bomb would be a problem for Israelis, Arabs, and the rest of us even if Tehran has no intention of using it. The last thing an energy-dependent planet needs is extremist regimes with vast oil reserves threatening to obliterate each other as India and Pakistan sometimes do. And the second-to-last thing Israel needs is a nuclear umbrella protecting Hamas and Hezbollah. President Barack Obama said a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer” last year. He’s right.

The worst case scenario — the incineration of Tel Aviv and a nuclear retaliation against Tehran — isn’t likely. I don’t expect it will ever actually happen. I’m sure enough — at least 90 percent sure — that I feel safe making the prediction in public. I’m a writer, though, not a policy maker. And I don’t live in Israel. I’m safe and can afford to be wrong. I won’t be killed, nor will I be blamed for getting anyone else killed. The Israeli government won’t make the same risk calculations I make. If I’m wrong, they’re dead, and so is their country.

I can’t tell whether or not Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike. But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it’s 90 percent likely Iran’s threats of annihilation are just bluster. And let me ask this: How would you feel if your doctor diagnosed you with an illness and said there’s a ten percent chance it will kill you? Would you find 90 percent odds of survival acceptable? Would you sleep peacefully and do nothing and hope for the best? I travel to dangerous places. It’s part of my job. But those odds, for me, are prohibitive. Those odds are almost as bad as the odds in Russian Roulette, and you couldn’t pay me enough to play that game even once.

American Humor

When Saddam Hussein was still alive and in prison, the Marines on duty forced him to watch the movie South Park – Bigger, Longer & Uncut, where he was portrayed as Satan’s gay lover, over and over and over again.

Saddam and Satan.jpg

He then “sent South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone a signed photograph”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/5122031/South-Park-creators-given-signed-photo-of-Saddam-Hussein.html. That, I presume, he did voluntarily.

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