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Too Little Too Late in Syria

The US military is gearing up to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring, but there’s virtually no chance this is going to work by itself.

The US spent years training the Iraqi Army, and for what? Baghdad’s forces turned out to be no more effective in the face of the ISIS onslaught than the French were when Hitler invaded.

Had ISIS been nipped in the bud at the beginning this might not have happened, but they’ve had years to build themselves up and grow stronger while an isolationist White House did nothing and let everything fester.

President Obama’s advisors warned him that the Syrian civil war could explode well beyond its borders and even wash up in Europe and the United States if it dragged out long enough, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis is still entrenched in its part of the country, and ISIS—one of the most formidable terrorist armies in history—controls the other half of the country, along with an enormous swath of Iraq. There is virtually no chance that a ragtag band of lightly trained “moderate” rebels can compete with the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time if the much-better trained and equipped Iraqis can’t handle ISIS alone. 

But this might work if the air campaign against ISIS is expanded dramatically.

So far the air strikes are barely containing ISIS, let alone degrading it, but that’s partly because it’s so half-assed. Occasional pinprick strikes won’t finish off ISIS any more than occasional terrorist attacks in the US would cause Washington DC to implode.

Fighting a terrorist organization or an insurgency with air strikes is a fool’s game, but ISIS is much more than that. It’s not hiding in alleys and shadows and safe houses. It controls a chunk of territory the size of Syria. Its “state” isn’t formally recognized by any real nation, nor does it appear on any atlases, but it has most of the attributes of a state in the making and can be weakened and degraded and destroyed from the skies just like Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya was weakened and degraded and eventually destroyed from the skies.

The US-led coalition might be able to do this. It wouldn’t mean the end of ISIS any more than destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan spelled the end of the Taliban, but it would end ISIS as a “state” and force it to revert to its previous status as a shadowy terrorist organization.

Then it just might be possible for a US-backed force to move into the vacuum. Fighting would continue indefinitely, and the US might have to remain involved to an extent, but at least the Islamic State could be downgraded into a wannabe state that has a much more difficult time recruiting new members. Though I wouldn’t expect a tidy resolution any time in the next decade—it’s far too late for that now—it would be better than watching ISIS expand.

But if we’re just going to train a few thousand people and hope for the best while sending them into a meat grinder without any serious backup, we’re better off staying home and they’re better off being refugees.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Free Nadia Savchenko!

Vladimir Putin’s star political prisoner—Nadia Savchenko—is a 34-year-old Ukrainian helicopter pilot who served with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine this summer and was taken prisoner by Putin’s proxies. She was subsequently charged with abetting the deaths of two Russian journalists who died in an artillery exchange between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Currently imprisoned in Moscow, Savchenko has been on a hunger strike since December 13, 2014. Needless to say, her life is in danger.

On January 9th, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called for Savchenko’s “immediate release”: “We’re deeply concerned by reports that Russia has moved Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko to solitary confinement.”

At a December 18th news conference, Putin made the following comments about Savchenko

Egypt's Sisi: Impersonating a Democrat

In the wake of the Paris murders of cartoonists, police, and Jews by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise and suggestions he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On January 2nd, a few days before the attacks, Sisi called on Muslim scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” saying it was “inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.”

It’s entirely possible, of course, for Sisi to have a point and still not be an appropriate figure for deference on matters linked to tolerance, pluralism, and civil liberties. Indeed, there is a broader context for his remarks that his admirers should not ignore.

Conductor Gergiev, Geopolitical Casualty

Once upon a time there was a man, a master in his field, famous, respected by his peers. He had a friend who was also a household name, thanks to the nature of his work. He, too, enjoyed respect and was a welcome guest around the world. But then our protagonist’s friend started misbehaving, or to put it more accurately: behaving in a way that displeased many of his friends and fans. He became persona non grata.

Our protagonist was still the same man. He kept going about his work the way he always had. All of a sudden, however, he was getting the cold shoulder. People started criticizing his political views, forgetting that in the past, they’d ignored those views. His employers started getting nervous, and when he turned up for work, protesters would await him.

Shifting Relations in North Asia

Discussions this week in Singapore between North Korean officials, led by chief nuclear negotiator Ri Yong Ho, and former special envoy Stephen Bosworth and other American figures ended in calls for the resumption of formal nuclear talks, which have been on hold since 2008. The two-day “Track Two” consultations did not result in any breakthroughs, but the lack of progress in the informal consultations comes amid a flurry of unusual diplomatic activity involving the peninsula.

There was hope in recent days that the Track Two participants might come up with a new blueprint to restart the six-party talks to “denuclearize” North Korea. Instead, Ri used the occasion to lambast Washington and Seoul for their annual joint military exercises, which he termed the “root cause” of problems on the peninsula.

The Iranian Regime and Charlie Hebdo

As Washington continues its vain quest for a good faith nuclear deal with Tehran, the Iranian regime continues behaving like the gunmen who massacred French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo earlier this month in Paris.

Here’s Mojtaba Safari in The Daily Beast:

Many in the West talk of the “moderation” of Iran’s regime. Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif flies around the world claiming that Iran is committed to peace, justice and human rights. That would come as news to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Iranian jail for nothing more than advocating freedom and democracy.  

Soheil Arabi is one of those activists whose Facebook posts landed him on death row. What was Arabi's great "crime"? He is charged with "spreading corruption on Earth," (mofsed-e-filarz), punishable by death in Iran. 

Soheil was first arrested and sentenced to death in November 2013 on the charge of "insulting the Prophet" (sabb-e-nabi). Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran explains:

Anyone who swears at or commits qazf  [false accusation of sexual offenses] against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.

Safari is an Iranian blogger. The only reason he’s alive and free is because he’s living in Canada.

The fact that the Iranian regime behaves this way at home does not by itself make a deal with Iran impossible. The United States has a transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia despite its government being no less grotesque. But the geopolitical interests of Washington and Riyadh overlap while the geopolitical interests of Washington and Tehran are entirely at odds with each other.

At some point this is all going to change. Iran will eventually get a new and more civilized government that more accurately represents the political views of its citizens who are far less anti-American and anti-Israel than the regime. Then our two countries will be able to have decent relations.

Iranians are not the natural enemies of the West, nor are they the natural enemies of Jews and of Israel. There is little history of hostility between Persians and Jews. There is, however, a long history of unbroken hostility between Persians and Arabs. A democratic Iranian government will be friendlier to the West, but its relations with the countries on the other side of the Persian Gulf will be just as fractious as they right now.

When that day finally comes, our transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia will likely be slowly phased out in favor of a genuine alliance with Iran. In the meantime, both nations will continue using the instruments of the state to commit crimes against humanity that only terrorists are willing and able to carry out in the West.

Is Obama Serious About Fighting ISIS?

The president’s State of the Union address only briefly touched on the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly know as ISIS or ISIL. Obama showed solidarity with terrorism victims whether they are in a “school in Pakistan or France.” Curiously he didn’t mention the recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where at least 2,000 people were slaughtered. This is an atrocity and at least acknowledging it would show that he “stands united” with victims of terrorism. The best way to stand united with terrorism victims is to take the lead and fight terrorists. Obama was big on campaign-friendly phrases such as “hunting down terrorists” but short on actual concrete proposals to combat violent extremists.

Not The Time For New Iran Sanctions

Both President Obama and Congress are determined to prevent Iran, a historic adversary of the United States, from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Where their strategies differ, however, was on full display in last night’s State of the Union address.

Congress, rightly suspicious of Iran, seeks to pass new legislation that would trigger additional sanctions if a long-term deal is not reached by the June 30th deadline or if the Iranian regime breaches any agreement reached. The Obama administration believes such legislation could disrupt the negotiations, fracture the international coalition united against Iran, and give Iran a convenient excuse to abandon diplomacy.

While the passage of additional sanctions legislation is well intentioned, premature action would derail diplomacy, unfreeze Iran’s nuclear program, and undo the progress from the last year. To be sure, Congress has an important role to play, but just as Congress gives military commanders flexibility in fighting wars, they must not micromanage our diplomats as they fight for an effective agreement.

Eradication of Extreme Poverty is a US Security Interest

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama discussed foreign policy issues that pose a clear and present danger to the United States, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Russia’s aggression, and the Ebola pandemic. But he also addressed a much less obvious issue, but one that is perhaps even more challenging and requires just as much strong American leadership: the need to eradicate extreme poverty. He has mentioned it in the past, but this year the president pointed out that the global community needs to “build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”

Obama Speech Affirms His Weakness on Iran

While warning of the dangers of military action in last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama simultaneously insisted that he “keep[s] all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.” The statement suggested a recognition that diplomacy must be backed by strength—that success largely hinges on Tehran’s perception of Washington’s willingness to exert its influence. Yet in every other way, the speech affirmed the president’s hesitancy to embrace the full extent of that principle.

The president’s policy toward Iran revealed itself less through what was said than what was omitted. Hours before the president spoke, unknown assailants fired on a US Embassy vehicle in Yemen amid a coup attempt staged by Iranian-backed Shiite militants. A day earlier, an Israeli strike killed a leading commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards near Israel’s border with Syria. Obama might have referred to these incidents as examples of Iranian attempts to sew chaos throughout the Middle East. Instead, he remained silent—following a pattern of avoiding open opposition to Iran’s projection of regional power from Saana, the Yemeni capital, to Beirut.

Obama's Defiance Sounded More Like a Dodge

The last two years of a president’s term are as unproductive a time as any in American politics, making the ambitious agenda that President Obama laid out in his next-to-last State of the Union address all the more remarkable.

For example, by proposing taxpayer-funded community college at a time when Congress is in no mood to spend, the president was defiant. And by avoiding entirely his proposed $320 billion in new taxes—including on responsible parents with 529 college savings plans—to pay for this and other programs, the president was, at best, unserious.

But no matter the tone behind the words, we know from history that very little of what the president proposed last night will become law, and what he did propose will hardly address the enormous, existential challenges that America faces. In this context, the president’s speech sounded less like defiance and more like a dodge from the type of triangulation necessary to succeed in Washington.

Bipartisan Focus on SIVs Needed

When Mohammad Usafi, an Afghan interpreter, was first recruited by the US forces in Afghanistan, his father told him, “This is a great opportunity. You’re going to be helping your country and supporting the US troops that [are] here for your country.”

Usafi signed up to assist American forces the next day, placing himself and his family at grave risk of retribution. When the Taliban subsequently killed Usafi’s father, it became clear that Usafi’s work represented too real a threat, and he looked to America for protection.

Obama’s Tough Diplomacy Bolsters American Leadership

President Obama’s State of the Union wisely acknowledged serious challenges that we face in foreign policy. However, a clear pattern was also apparent—one that shows that by working with strategic partners, we can tackle some of the toughest global problems while strengthening the international order.

A climate deal with China, historic in scope and ambition, proves that American leadership at home inspires the world. Many feared that aggressive EPA steps to curb climate change would be a fruitless, one-off gesture; now, the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is a willing partner.

The puffed-up strongman Vladimir Putin has been isolated. Despite insistence at home that American leadership is feckless or weak, the administration’s sanctions—to which European allies, even those dependent on Russian energy, have rallied—are severely damaging the Russian economy as punishment for rampant military adventurism.

#SOTU 2015: Balancing Pragmatism and Aspiration

Like many Americans, I have often been thrilled and frustrated by the lurching foreign policy efforts of the Obama administration—often times on the same issue. It appears there is a tension in US foreign policy. On the one hand, we as a nation continue to struggle, desiring to be seen as an aspirational and exceptional nation. This adherence to the idea of America as the indispensable nation means the First Lady participates in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and we send soldiers to Uganda to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. On the other hand, we are a nation of interests; this leads us to sometimes deal with unsavory characters ranging from China to Saudi Arabia. So how do we square this circle—the challenge of defining our engagement in the world? I can think of no finer place for President Obama to articulate a vision than his State of the Union address.

US Reliability Depends on Europe's Contribution to NATO

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” That’s Secretary of Defense Bob Gates on his way out of office, back in 2011. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, has called on America’s NATO allies to increase their defense spending to the agreed 2 percent of GDP. Here’s the grim picture: apart from the United States, at 4.4 percent, only Britain (2.4 percent), Greece (2.3 percent), and faithful Estonia (2 percent) meet this target. Needless to say, the European NATO members also remain far from “serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

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