The Kurds' Heroic Struggle Against ISIS

ISIS is getting its ass kicked by the Kurds.

In Syria's Hasaka Province, where the Iraqi and Turkish borders converge, YPG fighters have ISIS on the run, and they've just retaken two more villages outside the long-besieged city of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forced ISIS to flee Sinjar near Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the site of horrible massacres against the Yezidi minority last year. As many as 5,000 civilians were killed, thousands of women were dragged off as sex slaves, and tens of thousands were forced to flee onto a mountaintop without food or water.

Sinjar was the penultimate straw for Washington and the start of the war between Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS. The last straw for Washington came just weeks later when an ISIS column made a beeline for Erbil, Iraq's Kurdish capital, in American Humvees stolen from the Iraqi army in Mosul.

The Kurds are the only people in the region whose willingness to fight matches that of ISIS, and unlike ISIS nearly all their fighters are recruited internally. They haven't issued any worldwide calls for enlistment. They don't troll social media looking for disgruntled young people abroad. With just a handful of exceptions, no one from outside the region volunteers to fight alongside them. They receive little support from the West and no support from the neighbors.

On the one hand it's astonishing that they're able to maintain a firewall hundreds of miles long against so vicious an enemy with so little help, but the Kurds have fielded better fighting forces than the Arab states for decades. Shortly after the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq's Shias and Kurds mounted simultaneous uprisings against the government, together wresting control of most of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. He managed to massacre his way into retaking the Shia parts of the country, but his army—the fourth-largest in the world at the time—was no match for the Kurds in north. Women and children left the cities on foot and took refuge in the mountains while the men stayed behind to purge the regime more than a decade before the rest of the country was finally rid of it.

Picking a fight with the Kurds is a little like going to war against Lebanon's Druze or the Israelis. It's like trying to invade and occupy Texas. Only ISIS leaders, at this point in history, are drunk enough on their own ideological belligerence to think they can best the people who whooped Saddam Hussein's military machine while everyone else who tried was gunned into ditches.

But ISIS is learning, and its commanders are asking the Peshmerga for a ceasefire. The Kurds, though, are even less likely to negotiate with who the Kirkuk chief of police calls “blind snakes” than Americans are. We have two continents and an ocean between ourselves and ISIS, but a hardy person could walk from Mosul to the Kurdish autonomous region in a less than a day, and that border is as potentially porous as the Mexican-American border.

Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are planning operations to reclaim Mosul from ISIS later this year, but Baghdad is loathe to give the Kurds much help in the meantime. Kurdistan is still at least technically part of Iraq, and its officials have to ask the central government for money and weapons. At times Baghdad grudgingly says yes and other times it says no. Everyone knows the Kurds want their own state, and the central government doesn't want them to grow so strong that they can finally tell the rest of Iraq to sod off and damn the consequences.

So they need help from outside, but they aren't getting much. Bayan Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the US, says most of the promised American weapons shipments still haven't arrived.

Washington is so afraid of cheesing off Baghdad and Turkey, which are both hostile to Kurdish independence, that it's still willing to largely blow off its only genuine and competent allies in that part of the Middle East. The Kurds are by far the most pro-American people over there, more so even than the Israelis, and the only reason they aren't yet powerful enough to be reckoned with internationally is because they haven't achieved full independence. They are still, after all these years, the world's largest stateless people and treated as second-class allies in favor of Turkey, which has been obnoxiously unhelpful in the Middle East for more than a decade, and Iraq, which is a de-facto Iranian client state.

The US may eventually get its alliance priorities straight. In the meantime, the Kurds are doing yeoman's work nearly alone and without even much recognition, let alone thanks.

Iran's Goal is Middle Eastern Hegemony

The chattering class has spent the last couple of days pontificating on and bickering about the so-called nuclear “deal” with Iran, but largely missing from the conversation is a recognition of the Iranian government's ultimate goal—to become the regional hegemon. Its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.

Last month Ali Youseni, former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, made that perfectly clear at a conference in Tehran. “Since its inception,” he said, “Iran has [always] had a global [dimension.] It was born an empire.”

A nuclear deal isn't beside the point, exactly, but at best it's more of a patch than a solution, and the truth is we don't yet have a deal anyway. What we have is a “framework” for a deal that may or may not be agreed upon in the future, and it's not clear that Washington and Tehran even agree on the framework. The US, for instance, says Iran has agreed to cease and desist using advanced nuclear centrifuges, yet Iran says “work on advanced centrifuges shall continue on the basis of a 10-year plan.”

The Iranian government is more patently dishonest than the American government, of course, and may be selling a face-saving bill of goods to its exhausted population, but Washington has never been and never will be above political spin, and it's entirely possible—and perhaps even likely—that each side genuinely perceives  the results of the talks so far differently.

Much of the pontificating and bickering among those in the chattering class is a bit premature, but one thing at least should be clear: the Iranian government is and will continue to be a pernicious force in the region regardless of any agreement. Even with a good deal from our point of view, replacing a rapid expansion of Iran's nuclear weapons program with sanctions relief and economic growth will at best be a wash.

Many in Washington seem unbothered by Iran's ultimate ambitions and are only concerned with Iranian nukes. In an interview on NPR in December, President Barack Obama said a deal could break Iran's isolation and enable the country to become, as he put it, “a successful regional power.”

Iran, though, is already a successful regional power. It has been an on-again off-again regional power since the Persian Empire ruled much of the ancient world, and it has been more culturally and politically sophisticated than most of the Middle East for thousands of years. The current era, which began in 1979 with the  installment of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary clerical regime, is a but a rough patch—a mere blip—in all that history.

But we're not past that blip yet. The elderly “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei will pass from the scene soon enough. The Guardian Council and Revolutionary Guard Corps may eventually reform themselves out of all recognition as the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties have done, or they may be overthrown like the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe in 1989, but we're not there yet. Iran could eventually become a force for good if and when a new government reins in or dismantles its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and beyond, but for now the regime is aggressively projecting power beyond its borders into the Arab world in ways that are entirely detrimental to both the West and the Arabs.

Zoom out and look at the rest of the region. One Middle Eastern state after another has disintegrated into schismatic abstractions controlled by rival armed groups. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen are all, as scholar and analyst Jonathan Spyer put it, “living in the time of the militias,” many of which moonlight as international terrorist organizations.

Iran backs armed factions in four out of five of those countries—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, undisciplined Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only reason it has no footprint in Libya is because Libya has no natural Shia constituency for Iran to throw its weight and power behind.

Tehran's most effective project so far is Hezbollah, which has dominated Lebanon for decades and is expanding into its range of operations deep into Syria. Its Iraqi proxies just burned and looted Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and its Houthi clients in Yemen are well on their way to conquering the city of Aden, one of the country's largest cities, after seizing control of the capital Sanaa a couple of months ago.

One could argue that Iran's influence isn't entirely negative since its proxies are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS wouldn't have gained much traction there in the first place if it weren't for the vicious depredations of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki, both Iranian clients. Besides, the world's largest state sponsor of international terrorism is the last country on earth we should want as a firewall between us and international terrorist organizations. 

Iran's ability to disrupt the Middle East is unmatched by any other state in the region, but it couldn't conquer and rule the whole area even if it did have nuclear weapons. It can, however, foment fragmentation, chaos, terrorism, and war, and will continue to do so whether or not its government signs and adheres to an agreement with the US. A deal that allows Iran to grow stronger through sanctions relief without addressing any of that, alas, will almost certainly make the Middle East a worse place than it already is.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Big Adventure

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and the Middle East decided on sooner: Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and Egypt is prepping a ground invasion.

Why was this bound to happen? Because Yemen's Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement is sweeping across the country in force. And if any two countries in the Sunni Arab world are going to get involved in that fight it will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, partly because they're Yemen's neighbors and partly because that's how they roll. Egypt fought a long war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the Saudis invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down a Shia rebellion against the Sunni ruling house of Khalifa.

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and the current revolutionary regime that swept away the Shah in 1979 wants to restore Iran's place as a regional superpower. It's tricky, however. The overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population is Sunni and Arab while Iran is Shia and dominated by Persians. These ethnic and religious differences mean little to us in the West, but they mean everything in the Middle East. 

Much of the Arab world is fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines, but Iran, despite its patchwork of Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, has long been a coherent nation-state. It rests atop the region's relatively temperate highlands and can easily project power down to the hot Arab lowlands below. Its preferred method these days is divide-and-conquer rather than direct confrontation, and it has been perfecting the art of sectarian proxy war since its Revolutionary Guard Corps founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.

Yemen's Houthis are its latest project, and the neighbors are not going to stand for it. They'd rather have Al Qaeda take over the country, not because they swoon over Al Qaeda—they don't—but because sect in that part of the world, as ever, trumps ideology.

It's not just that the Houthis are at war with the Egyptians' and the Saudis' fellow Sunnis. Every Arab government in the region aside from Syria's and Iraq's fears and loathes the rise of Iranian power.

Egypt’s megalomaniacal former president Gamal Abdel Nasser got more than 20,000 Egyptian soldiers killed in his ludicrous bid to overthrow Yemen’s monarchy in the mid 1960s. “In this terrain,” Patrick Seale wrote in The New Republic in 1963, “the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.” But that disastrous doesn’t register as a loss any more than the disastrous war against Israel in 1973—which Egypt claims to have won—registers as a loss.

Egypt's current ruler General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t care either way. He's basically a 21st century version of Nasser, minus the latter's regional popularity. Throngs of Arabs outside Egypt aren't clamoring to be annexed by Cairo as they did during the 1950s, but Sisi is nevertheless as puffed up and full of himself and eager to restore Egypt as the rooster of the Arab world regardless of what anyone else over there thinks about it. Pulling a Nasser and stomping the Shias of Yemen wasn't inevitable when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, but it became almost inevitable when the Gulf region cried out for help against Iranian malfeasance on the peninsula.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are Iran's bitterest enemies in the Arab world, and they share a border with Yemen. Saudi citizens on their own side of the border have long been linked to Yemen in the same way Vancouver, British Columbia, is more linked to Seattle and Portland than to Quebec. Riyadh is simply not going to tolerate Iranian adventurism so close to home in a region that overlaps with its own territory. If Iran succeeds in Yemen—and it might—there's nothing stopping Tehran from backing a Shia insurgency against the Saudi crown and the fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

So here we are with yet another Middle Eastern civil war that's sucking in regional powers. The United States can stay out of it. The United States is going to stay out of it. The United States is less involved in Yemen right now despite the internationalization of the conflict than when the country was kinda sorta “stable” before the Arab Spring blew through the place and knocked everything sideways.

You might think from Western media coverage of the region that the Israelis are the only ones concerned about Iran's expansionist foreign policy and its nuclear weapons program, but that's only because Arab governments make less public noise about it in public. Look at what Arab governments are doing, however. While the Israelis groan about it on television and in Congress, the Arabs are going to war.

Yemen Falls Apart

Suicide-bombers killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 350 in Yemen at two Shia mosques in the capital city of Sanaa on Friday. The very next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized control of the city of al-Houta, and the day after that, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement conquered parts of Taiz, the nation's third-largest city. Rival militias are battling for control of the international airport in the coastal city of Aden, and the US government just announced that American troops are evacuating Al Anad airbase.

ISIS is taking credit for the Sanaa attacks. “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest,” it said, “until they eradicate them and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” Al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Yemen, so the ISIS claim is a little bit dubious, but ISIS is on the rise there and its attitude toward Shia Muslims is more bloodthirsty—more explicitly genocidal as the quote above shows—than Al Qaeda's.

Regardless of who committed the latest round of atrocities, everything in Yemen is about to become much, much worse. The region-wide storm of sectarian hatred has been gathering strength by the year for more than a decade, and it blew the roof off Yemen earlier this year when the Houthis, who are Shias, seized control of the capital and sent Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into semi-exile in Aden.

The Houthis see their takeover of the city and government institutions as a natural progression of the revolution in 2011 that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it isn't, not really. While they enjoy some backing beyond their Shia support base, the sectarian dimension is inescapable. Shias make up almost half the population, and the Sunni majority is keenly aware that minorities in the Middle East are capable of seizing power and lording it over everyone else—especially if they're sponsored by a regional mini superpower like Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Iranian-backed Alawite minority for decades, and Saddam Hussein used brute force to bring the Sunni minority to power in Iraq.

Still, the Houthis have virtually no chance of ruling the entire country. Their “territory,” so to speak, is restricted to the northwestern region surrounding the capital. Previous governments had a rough go of it too. South Yemen was a communist state—the so-called People's Democratic Republic of Yemen—until the Soviet Union finally ruptured, and four years after unification with North Yemen, the armed forces of each former half declared war on each other.

Far more likely than a comprehensive Houthi takeover is a new and more dangerous phase of Yemen's endless self-cannibalization—more dangerous because this otherwise parochial and irrelevant conflict has been internationalized, with ISIS, the Saudis, and Iran squaring off against each other in yet another regional proxy war.

The Houthi movement is named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an insurrection leader killed by the former government in 2004. They are Shias, but unlike the “Twelver” Shia Muslims of Iran—who revere eleven imams and await the birth of the occluded twelfth—most of Yemen's Shias are “Fivers.” Iran doesn't mind. From its point of view, better the odd “Fiver” Shias than Sunnis, but all that really matters is that the Houthis are willing to say yes to Tehran, its weapon shipments, and its top-notch military advisors and trainers. 

The next-door Saudis, of course, are backing what's left of Hadi's former government down in Aden. They've been Yemen's primary patron since the 1930s and won't sit back and idly watch as Iran's Islamic Revolution is exported to their back yard any more than the United States would have allowed the Moscow to conquer Canada during the Cold War.

Yemen's conflict is tribal, sectarian, and political at the same time, and it's becoming increasingly internationalized even as the US is leaving. It's also a little bizarre. Last month, President Hadi declared Aden the new capital, though no one in the world, not even his allies, recognize it as such. A few days ago a Houthi-commanded military jet flew over the city from Sanaa and fired missiles at his residence.

The US has few friends and even less leverage, especially now that it's all falling apart, so Washington is washing its hands and bringing everyone home. All we can really hope for there is less instability, not so much because Yemen's local squabbling affects us—until now it hardly registered outside the country—but because dangerous adversaries that threaten the West are hoping to expand their base of operations and their ability to export malfeasance everywhere else. Let's not forget that Osama bin Laden's family is of Yemeni origin, as was Anwar Al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda's chief propagandists before the Pentagon vaporized him with a Hellfire missile in 2011. The deadliest bomb-maker in the world plies his trade with Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda and has planned at least three attacks against commercial airliners. And now that Iran is involved in the Saudi family's sphere of influence and the Sunni majority is backsliding, ISIS and Al Qaeda are gaining even more traction.

Consider the city of Radaa. Al Qaeda briefly seized power there in 2012, but local tribesmen and government troops drove them out. Now that the Houthis are in the saddle in Sanaa, however, the tribes in Radaa are siding with Al Qaeda again. Al Qaeda's takeover of al-Houta three days ago shows that Radaa is anything but an isolated case.

All this parallels events in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Anbar Province forged an alliance with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s, but after the US withdrew and President Nouri al-Maliki ruled the country as a heavy-handed Iranian proxy, many tribes in Anbar switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Yemen may well turn into the Iraq or Syria—take your pick—of the Arabian Peninsula. All the US can really do at this point is watch in horror as the Middle East continues to chew its own leg off and malefactors with global ambitions thrive in the chaos.

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.

Egypt Wants to Junk Cairo

Egyptian officials want to dump Cairo as their capital and build a new one out in the desert. Can’t say that I blame them. These people have to live in Cairo—with 18 million people, it's far too large to commute in from outside—and the city is awful.

I can't hardly think of Cairo without remembering a passage from Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.

Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”

Yes. Alas, that is Cairo. And it's actually worse now than it was. Parts of downtown look almost European at night if you squint at them just so, but the decades-long progression of rot and decay are unmistakable in the daylight. Much of the city that has been built in the meantime is clotted with communist-style garbage architecture. One looming hulk near Tahrir Square resembles nothing so much as a Kafka-esque Ministry of Bureaucracy.

Roughly half of Egyptians earn less than two dollars per day, so you can imagine what the slums look and smell like, but even the “fancy” neighborhoods like Zamalek are drab and depressing.

So it's easy to understand why the nation's rulers want to pick up and leave and start over. Cairo will sink even further if that ever happens, but what do they care? They use a crooked military dictatorship to lord over the country like it's their own private plantation.

They want to build a 270 square mile city—large enough to house five million people—in just five to seven years. It would be paid for by wealthy investors from the Gulf region. If they actually build this thing in such a poor country where hardly anyone has any money, it will likely turn into a lonely government compound surrounded by a North African version of China's spooky ghost cities.

Cairo is a disaster, but it's at least theoretically fixable. Most cities in Eastern Europe were in similarly horrendous condition during the communist era, but political and economic reform transformed most of them over time into the gems they used to be before the catastrophic mid-20th century had its way with them.

That kind of change won't likely sweep Egypt any time soon, though, so the elite for the time being will be either be trapped in the urban hell that is Cairo or stranded in a botched utopian scheme in the middle of nowhere. Everyone else will continue to suffer right where they are.

A Real Downside to Any Deal With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.

President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.

The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.

That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.

It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.

The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.

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Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

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Iraq Wants More American Bombs Dropped on Iraq

My how things change. The Iraqi government is cheesed off at the United States right now because Washington isn’t dropping bombs on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

“The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country.” That’s from Ali al-Alaa, an aid to the new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, to the New York Times yesterday.

Tikrit is occupied by ISIS. Baghdad wants it back. Washington would like to see Baghdad get it back, but the Pentagon has good reasons to keep its finger off the fire button right now. The Iraqi armed forces consist partly of Shia militias led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters who are firing artillery and even operating surveillance drones.

The Iranian-Iraqi coalition has made almost no progress at all in Tikrit. ISIS laced the area with mines and is dispatching suicide bombers with reckless abandon--another bit of irony. Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah pioneered suicide bombings in the Middle East during the 1980s, and now that very deplorable tactic is being used against its own architects closer to home.

Still, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey says Iranian support of Iraq’s push into Tikrit might be “a positive thing” if it doesn’t exacerbate sectarian tensions. Okay. But in what alternate universe will Iranian armed forces and undisciplined Shia militias not exacerbate sectarian tensions? Tikrit is a Sunni city—and a particularly hard one at that. ISIS massacred more than 1,000 of Baghdad’s soldiers there last year when it captured the city. The residents, whether or not they support ISIS, have every reason on earth to fear retribution. ISIS wouldn’t have been able to conquer Sunni territory in Iraq in the first place if people in that part of the country didn’t already think Tehran and its proxies wanted to subjugate them forever.  

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gets it right. “Sectarianism is what brought us to the point where we are,” he said in testimony on Capitol Hill, “and so I do look at it with concern. We are watching it very closely.”

The offense against Tikrit is a prologue to a planned Iraqi assault later this year against ISIS-held Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. The Iraqis would be well-advised to enlist the Kurdish Peshmerga as its primary backup instead of Iranians. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds don’t get along famously, but at least they aren’t divided by sect. (The overwhelming majority of the Kurds also are Sunnis.) And the Kurds are good fighters. They liberated the northern part of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s army after the first Persian Gulf War, and they’re holding their own against ISIS right now with American air cover.

So far they’re the only ground fighters in the region who can hold their own against ISIS. And the city of Mosul is practically walking distance from the border of their autonomous region. They’re even more motivated than Baghdad to keep the wolf away from their door.

In the meantime, the sectarian maelstrom that engulfed Iraq in civil war after the removal of Saddam Hussein is building again and will be with us indefinitely.

ISIS' Next Target

ISIS has announced that Lebanon will be the next state to fall under the sway of its “caliphate.” According to Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, the only reason ISIS hasn't attacked yet in force is because they haven't decided on the mission's commander.

The Lebanese army is one of the least effective in the Middle East—and that's saying something in a region where the far more capable Syrian and Iraqi armies are utterly failing to safeguard what should be their own sovereign territory.

So France is going to send a three billion dollar package of weapons to Lebanon and the Saudis are going to pay for it. It won't solve the problem any more than a full-body cast will cure cancer, but it beats standing around and not even trying.

It may seem surprising at first that Riyadh is willing to fund a Lebanese Maginot Line. Saudi Arabia is the most culturally conservative Arab country and Lebanon is the most liberal, partly because of its one-third Christian minority, but also because Lebanon's Sunni Muslims are, for the most part, Mediterranean merchants rather than isolated desert-dwellers. They've been exposed to cosmopolitan ideas and culture for centuries while most Saudis outside the Hejaz region on the Red Sea have been hermetically sealed off from the wider world and its ways for millennia.

Despite the vast cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the Saudis want Beirut to remain exactly as it is—a freewheeling Arabic-speaking “Amsterdam” or “Hong Kong” on the Med. The Saudis vacation there in droves when they need a break from their fanatically conservative homeland. The country is like a pressure release valve. If they were to lose it, they'd have to holiday in France where they feel profoundly unwelcome.

But aside from all that, the Saudis feel just as uneasy about ISIS as everyone else. Never mind the ideological overlap between the upstart jihadists and the Wahhabi-backed monarchy. ISIS threatens every single government in the region. It would make permanent alliances with none and conquer all if it could.

The Lebanese, of course, are in far more immediate danger. They can feel ISIS' hot breath on their necks. The army has been scrapping with them along the Syrian border for some time now. A majority of Lebanon's population is either Christian, Shia, or Druze, and all three populations rightly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their very existence. Even the Sunnis, though, fear and loathe ISIS. Other than the nominal sectarian sameness—ISIS also is Sunni—Lebanon's culturally liberal Sunnis have little more in common with ISIS than the French or Italians do.

A serious invasion of Lebanon by ISIS could unleash a bloodbath that makes the civil war in Syria look like a bar fight with pool sticks and beer mugs. It would be tantamount to a Nazi invasion. Every family in Lebanon is armed to the gills thanks to the state being too weak and divided to provide basic security, but people anywhere in the world facing psychopathic mass-murderers will fight with kitchen knives and even their fingernails and teeth if they have to.

The only good thing that might emerge from an attempted ISIS invasion is that the eternally fractious Lebanese might finally realize they have enough in common with each other to band together for survival and kindle something that resembles a national identity for the first time in their history.

Foreign armies don't do well in Lebanon over the long term. The Israelis managed to invade and occupy a large part of the country during the civil war in 1982 and even exiled Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, but they ended up fighting a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah until 2000. The Syrians invaded and dominated the rest of the country, but the biggest demonstrations in the history of the Middle East forced the Assad regime into a humiliating retreat in 2005. Those are just the most recent examples. At the mouth of the Dog River is a mural of sorts. Seventeen conquering armies carved inscriptions into the stone cliffs congratulating themselves for seizing new territory. All, Ozymandias-like, have been vanquished.

So ISIS will eventually lose if thrusts into Lebanon, but the cost could be unspeakable. Few of Lebanon's prior invaders murdered innocent people with such gleeful ferocity. If ISIS makes any headway at all in that country, the rest of us will see just how barbaric they really are when they violently encounter large numbers of people unlike themselves. And the odds that the West will get sucked even deeper into the great war of the Eastern Mediterranean will only loom larger. 

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.

Egypt Unites Against ISIS

The Libyan branch of ISIS massacred 21 Egyptian Christians over the weekend. A knife-wielding executioner frog-marched the bound and blind-folded captives to a beach in front of a camera, said “safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for,” and cut off their heads. The Egyptian government responded at once and attacked ISIS positions in the city of Derna near the border with at least two waves of air strikes.

Egyptian Christians in Libya are hardly “crusaders.” Like Mexican migrant workers in the US, they’re leaving desperate conditions back home and looking for jobs. Not that ISIS will ever see it that way. From their point of view, all Christians on earth, including secular Christians, are “crusaders” fit only for slaughter.

“Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty,” an Egyptian military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on television.

Avenging Egyptian blood, as he put it, is hardly enough to stop ISIS, but there’s something else, something deeper, encouraging about Cairo’s response: a Muslim army is bombing Muslims to avenge murdered Christians. How many of us would have expected that after the Arab Spring soured and briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power?

Egypt has been an emergency room case since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his so-called “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952, but it has something most Arab countries do not—a coherent national identity that transcends sect and tribe. The place is riven by sometimes violent sectarian hatreds, and its Christian minority hasn’t been entirely comfortable there for a long time, yet the nation is nevertheless bound together by historic communal memory that stretches back to the time of the Pharaohs.

It isn’t prone to civil war the way Iraq and Syria are and it never has been. The Nile River and its Mediterranean delta are far enough removed from potentially dangerous neighbors that a sense of safety and community can flourish, at least during good times. Iraq, on the other hand, is wedged between large imperial-minded powers—in particular the Persians and Turks—and it’s as wide open and defenseless as Russia.

“While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic,” British explorer Freya Stark wrote during World War II, “Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of men.”

“Mesopotamia cut across one of history’s bloodiest migration routes,” Robert Kaplan added in his outstanding book, The Revenge of Geography, “pitting man against man and breeding pessimism as a consequence…Whether it was the Achaemenid Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who ruled Babylon, or the Mongol hordes that later swept down to overrun the land, or the long-running Ottoman rule that ended with the First World War, Iraq’s has been a tragic history of occupation. The Tigris and Euphrates, which run through Iraq, have long constituted a frontier zone where various groups, often the residue of these foreign occupations, clashed and overlapped.”

Iraq’s chronically fractious condition makes it a perfect incubator for ISIS. Libya, likewise, has no coherent national identity or even a coherent national government. But Egypt, despite its seemingly endless dysfunction, is a bona fide nation-state. The likelihood that it will become a theocratic power like Iran any time soon or a schismatic dismemberment case like Syria and Iraq is low. Partly that’s because the military is the most powerful and least dysfunctional institution in the country, but also—and just as important—because the majority of Egypt’s Christians and Muslims feel at least some ties of kinship with each other even if those feelings are sometimes submerged and forgotten.

There’s nothing like barbaric mass murder to remind regular people that they have things in common with each other that should never be taken for granted. The ISIS view of the world is without a doubt genocidal. Shia Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Alawites, Jews, and insufficiently orthodox Sunni Muslims will all find themselves in mass graves if they’re ever captured or occupied. Not even aid workers are safe. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims have already fled ISIS rampages in Syria and Iraq. Whether or not the average Egyptian is aware of this fact, the military certainly is. Of that I assure you.

Egypt is hardly the only country threatened by the expansion of ISIS in Libya. After beheading 21 Christians, the man in the massacre video pointed his knife toward Europe and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission.”

ISIS will not conquer Rome. It’s impossible. Not even Russia, with all its formidable might, could conquer Rome any time soon. But ISIS just might be bloody-minded and delusional enough to give it a shot. They can certainly wreak havoc and mayhem. Their supporters already have in Paris and Copenhagen and might have pulled off something in Belgium as well had the police not conducted successful night raids in January.

Libya, however, is up for grabs. ISIS took over the entire city of Derna, where more than 100,000 people live, back in November. They've established training camps throughout the country. They control radio and television stations in Sirte. Their sinister enforcers go on “morality patrols” in the capital. And they took credit for a rash of terrorist attacks across Libya even before releasing their snuff film over the weekend. 

They don’t have a proper conventional-style army in Libya as they do in Syria and Iraq, but recently ISIS was no more than an elusive shadowy presence even in those countries. So yes, Libya—or at least parts of it—could very well be conquered by ISIS. Parts of it have already been conquered by ISIS.

Egypt’s army is both enormous and state-of-the-art by the Middle East’s standards. If any Arab country were to become a mini regional superpower again, it would be Egypt. It wouldn’t be a benign power necessarily, but it wouldn’t be entirely hostile to American interests either. Not if it’s run by the military.

For all the faults of its coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—he is without a doubt a far bigger brute than Hosni Mubarak—at least he won’t be backing ISIS any time soon, not even implicitly through inaction. If Egyptian Muslims and Christians can set their differences at least on occasion when facing monsters like ISIS, Washington and Cairo should be able to repair the post-coup rift at least slightly. It wouldn’t be the first time a monstrous enemy inspired an awkward alliance, nor will it be the last.

No Proxy War Against Russia

Senator Ted Cruz thinks the United States should arm Ukraine so it can beat Russian-backed separatists in the east. As much as we’d love to help plucky Ukraine resist the giant bear to the north—and we have a solid precedent under our belts—it’s a terrible idea.

Backing the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s worked smashingly well. Moscow learned the hard way that it could no longer project enough hard power to shield its vassal states from local uprisings and everything fell apart almost instantly.

Afghanistan was hardly the only country in the Soviet sphere disgruntled with communist rule. Eastern Europeans never acquiesced to it in the first place. They had it imposed on them by the victorious Stalin atop the ashes of the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which began as a seemingly harmless student revolt, brought down the local Russian puppet state. Moscow panicked, deployed thousands of soldiers and tanks, and reimposed the brutal old order. It did the same during the Prague Spring in 1968.

But after the debacle in Afghanistan, Russia lacked the resources and will to repeat it. Nothing could hold back the rising tide of mass discontent in Europe, and barely six months later the Berlin Wall fell.

But Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan, and it is not Hungary. It’s where Russian civilization was born, as the medieval state Kievan Rus in the 10th century. For Russians, losing Kiev to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was a bit like Jews losing Jerusalem. Their toleration of a sovereign Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet system was always conditional on Kiev taking orders from Moscow. As soon as that ended with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, so did its independence.

Russia will no sooner surrender to American-backed forces in Ukraine than we would surrender to a Russian-backed insurgency in Vermont. The situation is hardly analogous—unlike Vermont, Ukraine is a country—but from Vladimir Putin’s point of view it’s precisely analogous.

This is all about NATO expansion which scares the daylights out of the Russians. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just ask yourself how the British would feel if the USSR won the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Paris and Brussels. London would feel like it’s “next.” London would have cause to feel like it’s “next.” That’s exactly how it looked from Moscow’s point of view when former vassals like Lithuania and Estonia joined up with Germany and France—and the United States.

It’s a paranoid analysis, but Russia has always been paranoid.

“I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years,” said US Army Commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges. “Not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”

The solution from Russia’s point of view—as always—is to either control or destabilize as many “buffer” states as it can. Any of its smaller neighbors that get a little too uppity will find themselves undermined from within or outright invaded, and in the modern era they’re likely to find scraps of territory “annexed” by Moscow to indefinitely prevent them from joining NATO. No one in NATO wants to admit a nation as a new member state that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. It’s dangerous. That’s ultimately what Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was about, and it’s the main reason Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

Putin has already achieved his primary objective and doesn’t need to do much else at this point except not lose the rest of the war. If the United States gets even indirectly involved, he’ll just ramp it up. He needs to win in Ukraine far more than we do, and unlike us he’s more than willing to deploy his own forces directly.

There is no chance Ukraine could ever win a total war against Russia. All it can do is make continued Russian intervention too costly. While it may appear that arming Ukraine will make Russian intervention too costly, it will only inflame Moscow’s anxiety and make losing Ukraine too costly for Russia.

Maybe—maybe—if Kiev wins the war in the east on its own and cedes lost territory to Russia, a Ukrainian rump state could join NATO and prevent something like this from happening again in the future, but that’s only remotely possible if Putin doesn’t feel like he must best the West in his own “near abroad” or lose everything.

ISIS Meets Steel

The idea that what happens in Syria stays in Syria is as dead as Saddam Hussein, but ISIS is meeting steel as it expands. 

The Lebanese army is facing as many as 3,000 fighters in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the Syrian border and Nicholas Blanford reports a war of attrition is taking place there. In late January the army “roasted” ISIS with artillery, according to a military advisor he spoke to, then picked up “the smoking remains.”

Meanwhile, the Jordanian air force flew devastating sorties over the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria yesterday to retaliate for the gruesome murder of its fighter pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

Farther afield, ISIS attacked and killed at least 30 Egyptian security men in the Sinai and killed 10 at a hotel in the Libya’s capital Tripoli.

It should have been obvious from the very beginning that a terrorist army like ISIS threatens the entire region and points well beyond, but somehow it wasn’t. The prevailing view in the West held that ISIS and the Assad regime might somehow cancel each other out (as if war has ever worked that way in the past), but even right next door a large percentage Jordanians opposed their country’s involvement in this fight. Yet after ISIS put al-Kaseasbeh in a cage, burned him alive, and uploaded the video onto the Internet, everything changed. The mood in the capital Amman is eerily similar to that in New York City and Washington DC shortly after September 11, 2001. “These criminals aim to stamp out life and rights everywhere,” King Abdullah said. “Their hate and murder has reached Asia, Europe, Africa, America and Australia.”

Lebanon is also findings its spine. The army is entirely useless when the country’s various communities slug it out with each other. Everyone fears—correctly, I should add—that the army might fragment into opposing militias if the leadership takes one side or another in a sectarian conflict. It happened during the civil war and could easily happen again. But Lebanon isn’t Syria, and ISIS is opposed almost monolithically in Lebanon, even among their “natural” Sunni constituency.   

ISIS is expanding its deadly operations at an alarming rate, but it’s also finding out the hard way that not every country in the Middle East and North Africa is as soft a target as Syria and Iraq. Libya might be. It has been precarious, to say the least, ever since Moammar Qaddafi was lynched outside Misrata in 2011. But taking on Egypt, Jordan, and the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq is almost as perilous for ISIS as taking on the Israelis.

Lebanon is more vulnerable—its soldiers are not especially competent—but ISIS would require a diabolical miracle to make any headway in the parts of Lebanon where Christians, Shias, and Druze live. Every family in the country has at least one rifle in the closet, and they’d correctly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their existence.

Washington’s backing of anti-ISIS proxies in Syria may be a fool’s game this late in the war, but the Kurds, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese—and maybe even the Libyans—should receive all the help from the Pentagon they can get.

Moscow is Still Churlish About the Loss of East Germany

The Russian government is considering a proposal to condemn the “annexation” of East Germany by West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Even Vladimir Putin knows the only reason East Germany ever existed as a separate political entity is because the Russians occupied it an imposed a totalitarian puppet regime on its subjects.

The Russians are just mad that the rest of the world won’t recognize their annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, and Germany has been their favorite Euro punching bag since Hitler invaded the Motherland. 

Walter Russell Mead explained Putin’s psychology vis-à-vis Germany last week in The American Interest.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.


Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.

Germany, of course, doesn’t threaten Russia even remotely. No nation threatens Russia right now even remotely. But Russians are conditioned to fearing neighbors beyond the buffer states they control, and they don’t control much of anything in Eastern Europe anymore except Belarus and Transnistria. Its enormous flat geography has left it vulnerable to invasions from every direction but the Arctic for centuries.

Russia is no more likely to do anything about West Germany’s “annexation” of East Germany decades ago than Germany or the U.S. will reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. This silly rhetorical stunt is just a healthy reminder that—nevermind the geography—Russia is not part of Europe.

New Audio Book Available

My first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is now available as an audiobook from Audible and Amazon.com.

It is narrated by the fantastic Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated the audio versions of Where the West Ends and Resurrection.

The Truth About American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, is a blisteringly accurate portrayal of the American war in Iraq. Unlike most films in the genre, it sidesteps the politics and focuses on an individual: the late, small-town Texan, Chris Kyle, who joined the Navy SEALs after 9/11 and did four tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. He is formally recognized as the deadliest sniper in American history, and the film, based on his bestselling memoir, dramatizes the war he felt duty-bound to fight and his emotionally wrenching return home, with post-traumatic stress.

The movie has become a flashpoint for liberal critics. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore dismissed the film out-of-hand because snipers, he says, are “cowards.” “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds,” comic actor Seth Rogen tweeted, referring to a fake Hitler propaganda film about a Nazi sniper, though he backtracked and said he actually liked the film, that it only reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Writing for the Guardian, Lindy West is fair to Eastwood and the film but cruel to its subject. Kyle, she says, was “a hate-filled killer” and “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The Navy confirms that Kyle shot and killed 160 combatants, most of whom indeed had brown skin. While he was alive, he said that he enjoyed his job. In one scene in the movie, Kyle, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, refers to “savages,” and it’s not clear if he means Iraqis in general or just the enemies he’s fighting.

But let’s take a step back and leave the politics of aside. All psychologically normal people feel at least some hatred for the enemy in a war zone. This is true whether they’re on the “right” side or the “wrong” side. It’s not humanly possible to like or feel neutral toward people who are trying to kill you. Race hasn’t the faintest thing to do with it. Does anyone seriously believe Kyle would have felt differently if white Russians or Serbs, rather than “brown” Arabs, were shooting at him? How many residents of New York’s Upper West Side had a sympathetic or nuanced view of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001? Some did—inappropriately, in my view—but how many would have been able to keep it up if bombs exploded in New York City every day, year after year?

Kyle had other reasons to hate his enemies, aside from their desire to kill him. In American Sniper, we see him in Fallujah and Ramadi fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bloody precursor to ISIS. His immediate nemesis is “the Butcher,” a fictional character whose favorite weapon is a power drill. The Butcher confronts an Iraqi family who spoke to Americans and says “if you talk to them, you die with them.” He tortures their child to death with his drill.

Kyle kills a kid, too, but in a radically different context. The boy is running toward Americans with a live grenade in his hand. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter tells him. “They’ll send you to Leavenworth.” He’s right. Kyle would have been fried, at least figuratively, if he shot an innocent, unarmed civilian—regardless of age—with premeditation. In a later scene, he has another child in his sights: the child picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and aims it at an American Humvee. “Drop it,” Kyle says under his breath from far away. He doesn’t want to pull that trigger. He’ll shoot if he must to protect the lives of his fellow Americans, but the kid drops the RPG and Kyle slumps in relief. How different he is from the Butcher, who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing children to death—not even children of the American invaders, but Iraqi children.

Read the rest in City Journal.


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