Losing Iraq

It should come as no surprise that winning the peace in Iraq after winning the war a decade earlier proves harder in practice than in theory.

After years of occupation, an election and billions of dollars in U.S. funding, the all-inclusive society of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds has failed to materialize. A new military built from the ground up as Saddam’s forces were disbanded turned tail at the first signs of organized radical resistance. Add to the transition equation a porous Syrian border in civil war, well-funded radical groups pursuing a mythologized Caliphate and a stream of foreign fighters eager for a new front — Iraq’s unresolved domestic fissures could only expand.

All of the official optimism about a new pluralistic Iraq, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, flew in the face of what political-military planners, historians and diplomats knew as far back as the late 1990’s when Iraq War I was waged.

Democracy is a tough sell.

In a region where centuries of animosity and mistrust continue to fuel a cycle of violence and counter-violence, pluralism, let alone democracy, has never been an ideal. And no amount of U.S. troop presence would change historical momentum fueled by ideological, ethnic and tribal divisions. Not at least without a new identity forged by the Iraqis themselves.

Why would the Kurds, for decades suppressed, gassed and murdered, find comfort in Baghdad under any rule but their own? The borders of modern Iraq, after all, were lines drawn by the British forcing traditional enemies together into a tentative order.

The Sunnis too, had no home in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new Iraq. Once an oppressor-class under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they were quickly forgotten by the new Shi’ite-dominated government.

There has never been a South Africa-styled national reconciliation. No new equality in the ebb and flow of power and pain in the Middle East. Only old wounds and new scars.

Perhaps the existential threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest in a long line of radicalized groups, and its military rout of Iraq’s major cities, will fuse a fractured nation into a common front. That’s the most the U.S. could hope for (and support) until Iraq’s larger fate can be addressed.

New calls for al-Maliki’s ouster will hardly solve the problem. President Obama has insisted on a “political solution” while ISIS takes Mosul and marches towards the capital. Inclusion certainly helps, but now it must be in the fight for a unified Iraq.

First Iraqis will have to rally under one flag. Then they can decide for themselves whether to create a future of partition or pluralism.

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

(From CNN GPS – full list here.) Barack Obama has won reelection as America’s president. But while the economy – and avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff – will inevitably take up much of his time, there are numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next administration. GPS asked 10 leading foreign policy analysts to name 10 things that Obama should focus on next. The views expressed are, of course, the authors’ own.

Drop China ambiguity

By Brian Klein

Brian P. Klein is a global strategist and former U.S. diplomat. He blogs at Klein’s Commentary.

China’s economic rise and increasing military assertiveness have pushed U.S. strategic ambiguity to its limits. If a decisive position isn’t taken soon, allies and friendly countries will question whether the U.S. can back up its Asia pivot talk with action. Focusing on realistic trade liberalization, increased military contacts with China and firm engagement rather than the blame and shame tactics of the past must become a priority.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted Arab Spring, so full of promise and democratic zeal, shows signs of entering a long dark winter. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy whittles away at reforms in the marginally secular republic, while Syria’s civil war now threatens regional stability, with conflict overflowing into Turkey and Lebanon. Boots on the ground may not be an option, but a focused effort to influence, if not completely resolve these destabilizing trends will be essential to restoring peace.

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

Is Fox News A National Security Risk? A Benghazi Lessons Update

It was supposed to be a conspiracy of epic proportions. The U.S. government knew about the threats in Benghazi and did nothing, even when pleas for help came from the Consulate. No other major news organization would follow the story. The CIA called for back-up but was told to “stand down”. U.S. government officials said it was a mob action following the release of a third-rate anti-Islam internet movie, and then changed their story. Could it be any clearer? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it?

In “The Real Benghazi Lessons” on CNN’s website I wrote about the need to de-politicize this issue and the realities of incomplete information, especially during a crisis. Over 100 comments poured in full of conspiracy theories and anti-Obama screeds. These replies, it turns out, were parroting the very same set of narrow criticisms that Fox News has been broadcasting at increasingly louder volumes in the run-up to election day.

And now the mainstream media swings back with detailed reporting on what actually happened. The Wall Street Journal dove deep into the confusion of the night itself, multiple attacks, a DoD drone brought in to provide real-time pictures (yes, the military did try and help), and squabbling between the State Department and CIA over who was ultimately responsible for security of the main Consulate building.

According to the New York Times the CIA “played a pivotal role in combating militants . . . deploying a rescue party from a secret base in the city, sending reinforcements from Tripoli, and organizing an armed Libyan military convoy to escort the surviving Americans to hastily chartered planes that whisked them out of the country.”

The response occurred within an hour of the reported first attack. Thirty people were successfully evacuated, including support from U.S. military assets. An unnamed official also stated that no one was told to “stand down.”

So why no detailed account until now?

Because so much of what was apparently going on in Benghazi was under the radar and classified. That’s how you fight terrorism and dictatorships, not in the headlines or the fanatical press chasing ratings. The risks to Libya’s fragile democracy, a hallmark of the Arab Spring uprisings, still remain high. Now, thanks to all of this talk of a cover-up U.S. foreign policy operations have been dealt a significant blow. Fox’s unrelenting politicizing of the issue has thrust these operations onto the public stage,  jeopardizing future U.S. government operations in Benghazi and elsewhere.

Are there real concerns over the security at forward operating diplomatic posts? Of course. And Congress is following up on their October showmanship of a hearing with a detailed investigation. They even set a post-election Nov. 8th deadline for a full accounting of what happened (State is also conducting another review according to an article in Foreign Policy.)

Exposing troubling and sometimes illegal U.S. government activity (say in the possible use of torture or the subversion of democracy in Watergate) certainly provides a critical and necessary check on authority. That’s the power of a free press.

This shouldn’t be confused with prime time personalities slinging unsubstantiated conspiracy claims and peddling innuendo as if it were real news. In the end Fox’s irresponsible coverage has generated a politically motivated blame game damaging U.S. national security in the process.

Related posts:

De-Politicizing Benghazi (also on CNN’s GPS as The real Benghazi lessons)

Muslims Didn’t Kill Diplomats in Benghazi

For more Klein’s Commentary sign up for email updates above or connect via Twitter @brianpklein.

De-Politicizing Benghazi – CNN Commentary

De-Politicizing Benghazi – CNN Commentary

(Also on CNN’s GPS website)

A recently publicized series of State Department email by CNN lays out in harrowing detail the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They are sure to provoke another round of finger-pointing and more politically-motivated pabulum.

At 4:05pm: “The Regional Security Officer reports the mission is under attack. Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots.; explosions have been heard as well.”

Ambassador Stevens and four other personnel, according to the same email, are in the safe haven and the 17th of February Militia is providing security support. Based on this early assessment it appears the situation is under control. Diplomats are safe. Armed entities are defending.

Further reassurance comes at 4:54pm: “Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has stopped and the compound has been cleared. A response team is on site attempting to locate COM personnel.”

Unfortunately all was not under control, the compound was overrun, and Ambassador Stevens died along with three other personnel.

The political spin machine has been busy politicizing this tragedy since its onset. The same Congresspeople that cut State security funding hauled up department officials to berate them on the lack of high security at the Consulate (the same happened after the disastrous 1998 bombing of the U.S Embassy in Nairobi.) In the second Presidential debate Romney berated Obama for taking so long to identify the attack not as an unruly mob but the work of a specific terrorist organization (even though Obama did characterize the attack as a terrorist act shortly after events unfolded).

In another email released by CNN Ansar Al-Sharia claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter. Aha, go the conspiracy theorists, proof the administration knew but didn’t say anything for weeks. But no, that doesn’t prove a thing.

On any given day in the complex world of threat analysis people and groups make all kinds of claims. It isn’t as if terrorists are holding a press conference for the world’s media to ask questions. Individual bits of information are simply that. Single puzzle pieces that tell very little about the full picture of what happened until amassed and reconstructed.  Details must be verified, cross-checked and analyzed before informed assertions are made.

This very small selection of email give the impression of control but information at the beginning of any crisis is often hard to come by and spotty at best. No single account could immediately identify a specific attacker. Even establishing the facts of a traffic accident requires a police report and potential review by a judge or jury. It’s a process. An armed assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission, thousands of miles away, in a far flung province recently freed of civil war creates an infinitely more complicated undertaking. It requires, it demands time to assess and judge.

There are ways to address the serious issues involved in the loss of our diplomatic personnel. Inquiries can and should be made. Did the rush to set up a presence in Benghazi trump normal security procedures? Why was a rosy picture being portrayed of a post-uprising Libya when in fact serious threats remained. How critical was it to set up a new consulate in the first place?

Using the attack in Benghazi as fodder for more November electioneering, however serves only the short-term interests of those who benefit by not giving the security of our diplomatic missions the thorough review (and funding) it requires. This does nothing to ensure the future security of our diplomatic personnel. They deserve better.

U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

With two weeks left before election day candidates Obama and Romney tackle foreign policy issues tonight. If last week’s battle royale over the economy is any indication this promises to be a no-holds-barred verbal slug fest. Tremendous changes have occurred over the last four years in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Osama Bin Laden is dead, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Dictators have fallen from decades in power. China continues to rise.

Still, the global economy has yet to fully recover with Europe teetering on the edge of recession and Japan mired in stagnant economic waters. Middle East political movements struggle to sustain new democracies and China’s economic and military advances raise questions about Asia’s future balance of power.

Here’s a primer on some of the big issues likely to be addressed and a few questions that need to be asked. The debate begins at 9:00pm EST.

Middle East

Since Obama took office four years ago a surprise Arab Spring swept across the region. Libya, Egypt, and Yemen saw leadership changes brought about by popular uprisings. Syria is still mired in its own civil war with little hope of quick resolution. While nascent democracies sprung up after the overthrow of decades of dictatorships serious questions remain about their stability and policies going forward.

For now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt holds a tentative control with the military watching from behind the scenes for any signs of the nominally secular government turning into an Islamist stronghold. Libya meanwhile struggles with establishing a strong central government as events in Benghazi, where the U.S. Consulate was destroyed and diplomats killed by a terrorist attack, demonstrate.

In Iran a nuclear standoff continues with enrichment activities racing ahead and Israel threatening attack (though as sanctions take a deeper bit out of the Iranian economy Israeli President Netanyahu has eased off the war rhetoric).

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of major U.S. operations in the region, closing a decade-long period of intervention initiated by the former Bush administration. The Afghanistan government still struggles with providing basic services to its people and countering threats of Taliban violence.

What will Obama or Romney do to further promote democracy in the Middle East without inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment? How can Iran’s nuclear ambitions be eliminated? Is Afghanistan going to slip into chaos once U.S. troops leave?

Asia

China’s inexorable rise gathered speed since January 2009. It completed construction on its first aircraft carrier, became the world’s second largest economy, and has survived the worst of the global economic meltdown with one of the world’s best growth rates. U.S. economic ties with China remains strong which has helped keep domestic inflation low.

Potential flare-ups, however in the South China Sea (with neighbors Vietnam and the Philippines) and East China Sea (with Japan) linger behind the facade of China’s “peaceful rise”. A once in a decade political transition is also underway with China’s new leaders expected to be officially acknowledged on November 8th and installed in March, 2013. Trade frictions are on the rise with increased WTO cases on goods ranging from tires to solar panels. The economy has slowed considerably from the unsustainable double-digit sprint of years past. Some economist predict much tougher times ahead as China’s new leadership faces a country in transition unlike any other time in recent history.

North Korea too has changed since Obama first took office. A young and relatively untested new leader, Kim Jong-Eun rose to power seizing every major military, political and governmental role in quick succession since his father’s passing. In one of the world’s most isolated regimes the family political dynasty remains intact. Hopes for significant economic liberalization have so far failed to materialize and tensions persistent on the world’s last Cold War front.

What does China’s rise mean for U.S. security and economic growth? Is China’s strategic intent to replace the U.S. as main regional influence and what will the U.S. do about it? What will you do as President to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and end the decades-long hostilities between North and South Korea?

Europe

Germany, the powerhouse of the continent, has lowered growth forecasts to a barely treading above water 1% for 2012. Most were hoping that the manufacturing giant could sustain strong growth against the headwinds of Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese recession along with a lackluster UK and newly integrated eastern European economies.  As the world’s engines of growth stall one-by-one, the threats of a larger global recession increase, as the IMF has warned with increasing regularity.

How will the European slowdown affect the U.S. economy and can the U.S. avert even more economic troubles if Europe stalls?

Terrorism

Attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a recently thwarted attempt in Jordan in addition to continued fronts in Yemen and now Mali show that the treats of terrorism have not abated. As long as arms continue to flow into the hands of radical groups and weak or failed states remain the threat of violence will continue. Concerted and sustained action can, however minimize the depths of the threat and seriously disrupt organizations bent on destruction.

What can and should the U.S. do to further combat terrorist organizations? Is the Al-Qaeda threat still a focal point of U.S. foreign policy?

For updates from Klein’s Commentary connect via email, Facebook or Twitter (links above).

The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

In Swat, Pakistan three children were attacked including Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old awarded for promoting girl’s education. She was taken off her school bus by an armed Taliban militant and shot in the head (as of this writing she is reportedly in stable condition.)

After years of acquiescence towards radicalized militant groups, the shooting of a child appears to be finally galvanizing public opinion in Pakistan, a country with a rich history of tolerance.

The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan notes:

“The attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life has shocked and angered the nation, and reports from parliament suggest a wider anti-Taliban consensus might be in the works – something Pakistan’s fractious politicians have rarely achieved before.”

Richard Leiby reports in The Washington Post:

“The world image of Pakistan is, to put it mildly, not very good,” said Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar who knows Yousafzai and her father, an educator and peace activist in Swat. “Society is seen as increasingly sympathetic to these terrorists. What this incident can prove to be is a catalyst, because the outrage can turn the tide against the religious fundamentalism.”

Moderate Pakistani Muslims are not alone. The terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya killed four including  Ambassador Stevens, a highly regarded official active in supporting the new Libyan government. Within days thousands demonstrated in support of secular Libya and against the attackers. In contrast to the riots elsewhere about an amateur video criticizing Islam the crowds of Benghazi descended on militia headquarters driving them out of the area.

Extremists in the Middle East have had a litany of excuses for their terrorist ideology. For decades U.S. support of regional dictators including Egypt’s Mubarak and for a time Iraq’s Hussein (when fighting against Iran) gave radical groups easy ideological ammunition. Now that the Arab Spring’s indigenous revolutions toppled these regimes fundamentalists have lost yet another rallying cry.

Malala Yousafzai, who is still struggling for her life in a Pakistani military hospital, may never be able to return to her home because of the continued threat of violence. Taliban militants apparently stated that if Malala lives they will attack again until they kill her.

The day she is free to live anywhere, study anything and say whatever is on her mind without fear marks the day fundamentalists have lost in Pakistan. That day may be coming sooner than some expect.

In the end, only moderate majority populations, galvanized by these acts of terror into a groundswell of popular outrage and action can make these attacks the fundamentalist’s final failed stand.

 

Photos: (Top) Inter Services Public Relations Department. (Bottom) Malala awarded Pakistan’s first Youth Peace Award. Pakistani Press Information Department.

Iran’s Economy at the Edge

Iran’s Economy at the Edge

(UPDATE: 10/3/12 – BBC reporting protests in Tehran.)

Months of tightening U.S. sanctions appear to be taking their toll on Iran’s economy. The rial plunged against the dollar (losing 25% in street value in the past week and down some 80% since 2011). Imports, paid for in dollars, have become increasingly expensive. Inflation approached 24% in August alone. Oil exports, a major revenue earner for the regime have plummeted as well. Shrinking dollar reserves make financing whatever remaining trade even more difficult.

These extensive sanctions include all imports, exports and financial transactions with U.S. entities. With Europe’s participation Iran can now barely function in the international banking system.

The main goal, however remain stopping Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, not destroying the livelihoods of the general population.

Here’s the gambit: Ratchet up non-lethal economic force on Iran while avoiding a military conflict (including keeping Israeli jets on the ground and averting a regional war). This in turn should cause a political crisis that either forces Ahmadinejad to capitulate or a new leader to replace him ready to negotiate. Regime change a la an “Iranian Autumn” of popular discontent might follow, but seems unlikely at the moment and has not been a core objective. Then again stranger things have happened in the Middle East since 2011.

Iran’s nominally “elected” ruler, Ahmadinejad would carry the full blame of his country’s increasing isolation, not the behind-the-scenes clerics who really run the country. His decidedly more sedate tone in a recent UN speech (no tirades against the U.S. and calls for the end of Israel) suggest his popularity has taken a hit. With barely nine months left in his final term of office he might be more ready to negotiate. The deal on the table before this latest round of provocation still gave Iran access to nuclear material for fuel and medical-grade uses.

Unintended consequences in international affairs are a constant risk. Influencing extremely complicated systems, including tens of millions of people reacting to sudden economic hardship and political machinations of theocratic leaders chief among them.

The flip-side of this strategy could include a backlash against the West for causing economic harm, a more radicalized government, and nuclear enrichment accelerating as a result. No one said this was going to be easy. Still since Iran’s economy already faces home-grown problems from years of serious mismanagement current troubles probably won’t radicalize secular Iranians while hard-liners gain one more reason to run riot.

Either way results should be in soon. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, complete with an almost comical bomb illustration during his UN speech, continued to warn of a point of no return and Israel’s readiness to strike. The U.S. meanwhile re-affirmed its commitment to never allow Iran to possess a nuclear bomb, which could take less than a year once a decision to pursue weaponizing had been made. Iran’s economy gets closer to breaking point by the day and sanctions won’t be lifted without a deal while its nuclear race continues. The specter of destruction (economic, political or military) is coming to head in the not-so-distant future. Let’s hope the sanctions gambit pays off.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muslims Didn’t Kill U.S. Diplomats in Benghazi

Muslims Didn’t Kill U.S. Diplomats in Benghazi

First came anger. Anger at the images of the burning consulate. Anger at the senseless loss of life, at those who rioted, and the few who killed. On the anniversary of Sept. 11th that brought tragedy to so many, now more Americans were caught in the crossfire of a fight that never ended.

Then came questions. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her address to the nation asked “how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

Unfortunately anti-American sentiment never died with Gaddafi. An active terrorist training camp operated freely nearby. A bomb and note were left outside the Consulate back in July and a British diplomatic convoy had been attacked. The extremist flame has yet to be extinguished.

Finally the blame. It would be all too natural to say that Muslims were the cause of this senseless tragedy. After all, the killings are often “in the name of” Islam. Attackers yell “Allah hoo-akbar” (God is great), though Sunnis and Shia, both Muslim, yell the same when they kill each other. Muslims didn’t kill U.S. diplomats in Benghazi on 9/11, 2012, terrorists did. Those who call to the divine in the support of violence live furthest from the true foundations of their own religion, whether a Wisconsin murderer of Sikhs, a Norweigan fascist or extremists in Benghazi.

New images are now appearing of Libyans with signs expressing their sorrow at what happened. We can only hope they continue to come out in greater numbers to support the new Libya — their Libya — liberated by their own sacrifices to create a country free of the violence and fear of Gaddafi’s reign of terror and the radical groups now festering within their borders.

Americans too have now sacrificed their lives for the new Libya. Mourning has begun for the families who lost so much. The fallen diplomats went to Libya to do a job that few would undertake in conditions that most would never tolerate. Let’s hope that the majority of Libyans, who aren’t terrorists, continue the fight against those bent on depriving them of the liberty they fought so hard to win in the first place.

In memorium:

 

Photos: Mustafa El-Shridi and http://imgur.com/a/tlCyI

Why Syria Matters

After months of skirting around the diplomatic edges of a year and a half old Syrian crisis the U.S. finally drew a red line.  If chemical weapons enter the conflict the U.S. will act with force. That prompted two of Assad’s last remaining benefactors to step up their rhetoric against greater U.S involvement in a civil war that has killed approximately 18,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more (see PBS for a succinct timeline.)

The AP is reporting that Russia, main military backer and advisor of the Assad regime, received Syrian assurances that stockpiles would not be used and they remained firmly under government control. China, echoing Syria, said the Americans were using the risk to justify intervention.

Why the sudden interest in kinetic involvement (aka bombs and bullets) rather than the continued non-lethal support the U.S. is already providing, including humanitarian assistance and commmunications? Syria, after years of speculation finally stated publicly that it has chem/bio weapons. An attack by “external forces” could trigger their use, according to Syrian government officials via the New York Times.

If the regime is teetering on the edge, as many suspect it may be considering the overwhelming use of conventional force, including fighter jets, helicopter gun ships and tanks, then chem/bio may be its last resort. Defining “external” could be as easy as saying foreign fighters, which are already battling alongside the Syrian Free Army.

Assad has shown a callous disregard for the non-Alewite majority civilian population so far, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s murderous rampages of the past. There is little reason to believe that the Iraqi Kurdish fate of a chemical gas attack might not befall Syrians as well.

At the moment Assad appears to favor a fight to the death having rebuffed the UN and two approaches by the Arab League to step down with safe passage. The BBC reported that during a recent visit to Moscow, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil added an Assad exit to the standard talking points of “options”, but not if Assad had to resign first – a clear non-starter.

Radicalized opposition groups possessing chem/bio weapons pose a definite threat of enhanced terrorism well beyond the region. Both Russia and purportedly China face potential Islamic fundamentalist uprisings within their borders which is perhaps one reason they favor these weapons under Syrian control. Even more importantly long standing economic interests including oil and Cold War era positioning for spheres of non-U.S. dominated influence define Russian and Chinese alliances with Assad.

Syria also has one of the best equipped conventional militaries in the region. With a virtual arms bazaar for the budding terrorist group, landmines and shoulder mounted rockets that can take down aircraft would pose an immediate threat if seized by radical groups. The Monterey Institute’s Deputy Director Leonard S. Spector lays out five categories of weapons and associated concerns in his July Congressional testimony.

Intentionally or otherwise this last hold-out of the Arab Spring has turned into a battleground for influence while a captive Syrian populace pays the ultimate price. Still a U.S. ground invasion remains a remote possibility. There is no stomach for more U.S. casualties after Iraq and Afghanistan and even less so in the run-up to elections this fall.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake for the U.S. if only that were better defined.