Fox bites Bibi and Boehner

You won’t find a lot of Fox News clips on, but I am posting this one purely on the merits. Until the last couple of minutes of filler (did someone intervene to stop the badmouthing?), Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith plow into both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and House Speaker Boehner for the invitation to address Congress shortly before Israel’s March 17 parliamentary election:

In my corner of the Jewish liberal establishment, sentiment is running high against Netanyahu, but it is a bit surprising to find the same is true on Fox News.

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Anbar first

The Middle East Institute published this piece of mine last night, under the heading “The Case for Aiding Anbar”:

I ran into some Anbaris in Washington this week. All of them have lost friends or relatives in the fight against Islamist extremism in one form or another. They had interesting things to say.

Anbar is the virtually 100 percent Sunni Arab province of Iraq that resisted the American invasion in 2003-2004, gave birth to the Awakening movement that fought with the Americans against al-Qa‘ida in Iraq in 2006-2007, wanted American bases to remain in Iraq, hosted peaceful mass protests against Nuri al-Maliki’s government in 2013, and largely fell to the Islamic State (ISIS) and its Ba‘thist allies starting in 2014. The provincial leadership is now trying to convince the United States to provide weapons, training, and coordinated air attacks to those willing to fight to take back the province. Déjà vu all over again.

The Anbaris think that ISIS is weak in their province, which they say nevertheless hosts ISIS headquarters. But the ISIS leadership consists of foreigners, who have a tense relationship even with local supporters. ISIS initially appealed to some Anbaris not only because it promised an Islamic caliphate, but also because of the existing corruption and Shi‘i hegemony in Baghdad. But now ISIS is abusing the local population with a severe application of Shariah law, which only a fraction of Anbaris support, and mass executions. It is killing Sunnis and destroying homes and hospitals. It is insisting on “repentance” from tribal leaders who opposed it. Many of those who supposedly repent also leave.

Those Anbari leaders who have left are getting signals from people still in Anbar that they are prepared to fight ISIS if provided with adequate resources and support from outside the province. The liberation should start from those parts of Anbar like Hit that ISIS has not been able to control. Anbar police would form the core of the force opposing ISIS.

The Anbaris avow a good relationship with the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad. He says the right things and has managed to marginalize Maliki. More broadly, relations with the Shi‘a and Kurds have improved. But the new prime minister has not been able to deliver much in concrete terms so far. American arms for Baghdad will only start arriving in March. Abadi is under enormous Iranian pressure, with Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassim Suleimani everywhere. The National Guard law, which the Anbaris support because it would set up provincially-based units to fight ISIS, is stalled in parliament. Only strong international influence will get it passed. Even then, it will take four years before the National Guard units are ready to fight. It will take three years to retrain and re-equip the Iraqi Army.

The Anbaris want to move faster with direct support from the Americans. What they need are weapons, ammunition, training, and coordination with coalition air attacks. National reconciliation, which the Anbaris say they welcome, is important, but military support is urgent. The American-led coalition against ISIS should not focus exclusively on Nineveh and Mosul. It should give priority to Anbar.

Air attacks will not suffice. The coalition needs boots on the ground to assist Anbaris who want to liberate their province. And it needs to move quickly, before ISIS is able to consolidate control and recruit more young Iraqis to its ranks. ISIS pays well, arms its cadres well, and provides “slave brides.”

Anbar wants more than military means. It also wants American investment. The Koreans and Turks are economically active in Anbar, but there is no U.S. commercial presence. Nor is much left of the previous American efforts at reconstruction. The American embassy staff is confined to its fortress while Iranians travel freely. Anbar needs an internationally sponsored reconstruction fund.

The Anbari pitch is strong, well-coordinated, and thoughtful. They know what the Americans want, and what they want to hear. But Washington today seems loath to do anything that might undermine Abadi. And the Americans believe that the Kurdish peshmerga, who are available for a counteroffensive in Nineveh Province, are vital to military success against ISIS. Anbar may have to wait longer than it wants for vital international assistance.

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Uncharted territory

I did a quick interview today for Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish national press agency on the dramatic developments in Yemen. Maybe others will find it of interest:

Q:  How serious – and why – is this Houthis rebellion?

A:  It is very serious, because it has now collapsed the Yemeni state, whose president and prime minister have resigned. The Houthis cannot hope to govern all of Yemen, so if they take power it is more than likely that southern, and perhaps other, secessions will follow. If they don’t take power, chaos may reign.

They can however be relied upon to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), since they are Shia-affiliated and will have no use for extremist Sunni group. It is also important to say that the state in Yemen may have collapsed, but the society has many other mechanisms for maintaining stability. I expect some of the inclination of Yemenis towards dialogue and away from the worst brutal violence to be in evidence, though it may not prevail.

Q:  What international implications can this crisis have, especially in terms of balance of power in the region, considering that the rebels are Shiite Muslims fighting with a Sunni government?

A:  The success of the Houthi insurgency is certainly a blow to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, who had sponsored the peace process in Yemen and view the Houthis as sponsored by their adversary, Iran. But the Houthi success does not immediately alter the balance of power in the region, to which Yemen has never contributed much. The Saudis will be very concerned, but Yemen is a small part of the overall Gulf picture.

Q:  How can this upheaval impact a broader war with Islamist terrorism, given the fact that Yemen is one of the strongest Al-Qaida center?

A:  The Houthis will oppose AQAP, with which they have already been fighting. What is not clear is whether the US will be able to continue its engagement in the fight against AQAP if the Houthis take power in Sanaa, or if chaos prevails. We’ll have to wait and see.

Q:  How can the situation develop there?

A:  It can develop in many ways, but I imagine we will see things getting worse before they get better. We could see a move by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to return to power. He is thought to be backing the Houthis. Rebellion and chaos could spread, with some in the southern Hiraak movement wanting to secede and AQAP taking advantage of the situation to recruit young Sunnis and attack critical infrastructure. As UN envoy Jamal Benomar puts it, “we are in uncharted territory.”

PS: If you want more and deeper on Yemen’s crisis, read Danya Greenfield’s Yemen’s Coup in All But Name and Charles Schmitz’s The Huthi Ascent to Power.

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Good cop, bad cop

I could sign up to 90% of what the foreign ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union say today in the Washington Post. They want the US Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran, for fear that would split the P5+1 (that includes the US, Russia and China as well as the Europeans) and wreck the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. The Israeli intelligence establishment apparently agrees, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not.

Knowledgeable people who follow the talks closely also oppose additional sanctions now, but for different reasons. Some think a nuclear deal that goes beyond the current Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is unlikely. The question would then become who–the Iranians or the Americans are the prime candidates–scuppers the deal, either before it expires at the end of June or during another six-month extension. From an American perspective, it is preferable that the Iranians take on the responsibility, thus increasing the likelihood that the P5+1 would remain united and then respond with tightened sanctions.

I’ve argued that in a sense none of this matters. The overt Iranian nuclear program is not the problem. There is simply no history of anyone developing nuclear weapons using materials produced in a program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So why should we care about the JPA at all? It provides access and accountability for activities that are not the problem.

Access is the point. If we are going to have early warning that Iran’s covert nuclear activities are moving towards developing a nuclear weapon, we are going to need access. The JPA provides it. While there are no doubt means of knowing what is going on clandestinely in Iran that do not depend on the IAEA, its inspectors are an important source of knowledge about the Iranian program and its purposes. Had we listened to Hans Blix, the IAEA director general before the invasion of Iraq, we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.

This argues for continuation of the JPA, even though the target of its monitoring is likely to involve material that will never be diverted to a nuclear weapons program. The technology is a different matter. Iran is not so well-endowed with physicists and engineers that it would want, or be able, to develop enrichment or reprocessing technology from scratch, independent of its IAEA-monitored efforts. If there is a separate, clandestine activity the IAEA is likely to garner hints of it. That is precisely what we should want.

So scuppering the JPA is not a good idea for the US. But many who know Iran well believe it is necessary in order to get a nuclear deal to make it clear what will happen if there is no more permanent nuclear deal.  This is where Congress comes in. The Administration is already playing good cop, threatening to veto new sanctions. Congress can play bad cop, even without passing new legislation.

Congress could prepare a bipartisan bill (with broad support in both Houses) that imposes tough new sanctions but is put on a slow track to approval. That would constitute a clear and compelling message. Of course this would have to be carefully coordinated with other P5+1 members, and we should expect the Iranians to retaliate with a bill in the Majles that sends an equally clear and compelling message about what Tehran will do if the JPA breaks down without a new agreement in place.

The Iranians will of course understand what we are up to. But there is no need to hide it. There is only a need to anticipate, prepare to impose new sanctions if the need arises, and play the diplomatic game well. That Tehran will appreciate.


Less force, more diplomacy

The Middle East Policy Council’s 79th Capitol Hill Conference yesterday provided an overview of issues of concern to US policymakers with regards to the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as the broader issues facing the region. The topic was particularly pertinent in light of recent signals from the Obama administration of a shifting approach to Syria’s president Assad, as well as the president’s call for congressional authorization of the current anti-ISIS campaign.

A common theme was the need for the US to scale down ambitions in the Middle East while diverting more of its resources to non-coercive methods of conflict management. Michael Hayden, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called for more intelligence cooperation with U.S. allies from the region, who possess greater understanding of the cultural and political dynamics on the ground. He also argued that a scenario in which the Assad regime remains in power is the best possible outcome as the situation is today.

Daniel Bolger, retired Army Lieutenant General, argued for a de-escalation of US military objectives in the Middle East. He also called for an authorization from Congress if the Administration intended to continue the current campaign against ISIS. On the flip side, Dafna H. Rand, Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security, argued for escalation of non-coercive methods of conflict management, with a greater focus on multilateral diplomacy. She also argued that more support for the Syrian opposition should be directed towards strengthening good governance.

This argument was also reflected in the presentation by Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He advocated the same kind of financial and political backing to the diplomatic and development corps as is provided to the US military, so that these forces can effectively assist in the formidable challenge of regenerating a stable and legitimate system of states in the Middle East.

A summary of the event is available on MEPC’s websites.

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Nothing new

President Obama said a lot more about foreign policy in last night’s State of the Union message than many of us expected. But did he say anything new?

His first entry point to international affairs was notable:  he got there via exports and trade, pivoting quickly to TTP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and TTIP, the Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe. Though he didn’t name them, that’s what he was referring to when he appealed for Congress to provide him with what is known as trade promotion authority to negotiate deals with Asia and Europe that are “not only free, but fair.” Nothing new here, just an interesting elevation of economic diplomacy to pride of place. Ditto the plea to close tax loopholes that encourage American companies to keep their profits abroad.

But after a detour to the internet and scientific research, the President was soon back on the more familiar territory of national security. He plugged smart leadership that builds coalitions and combines diplomacy and military power. He wants others to do more of the fighting. But there was little or no indication of how collapsed states like Syria, Yemen and Libya might be governed in the future.

Leaving it to their own devices hasn’t worked out well, but this is a president who (like all his predecessors) doesn’t want to do nationbuilding abroad and who (unlike many of his predecessors) has been disciplined enough to resist it. He talks non-military means but uses force frequently and says he wants an authorization from Congress to use it against the Islamic State, which he is doing anyway.

Russia is isolated and its economy in tatters, the President claimed, but it also holds on to Crimea and a large part of Donbas in southeastern Ukraine. He offered no new moves to counter Putin but rather “steady, persistent resolve.” On Cuba, the Administration has already begun to restore diplomatic ties. The President reiterated that he wants Congress to end the embargo, which isn’t in the cards unless Raul Castro gets converted to multi-party democracy in his dotage.

Iran is the big issue. The President naturally vaunted the interim Joint Plan of Action and hopes for a comprehensive one by the end of June. He promised to veto any new sanctions, because they would destroy the international coalition negotiating with Tehran and ruin chances for a peaceful settlement. All options are on the table, the President said, but America will go to war only as a last resort. Nothing new in that either, though I believe he would while many of my colleagues think not.

Trolling on, the President did cybersecurity, Ebola, Asia-Pacific, climate change and values (as in democracy and human rights), stopping briefly at Gitmo and electronic surveillance along the way. Nothing new here either, just more of that steady, persistent resolve.

Notable absences (but correct me if I missed something):  any mention of the Israel/Palestine “peace process,” Egypt, Saudi Arabia (or the Gulf), India (where the President will visit starting Sunday), Latin America (other than Cuba), North Korea.

What does it all add up to? It is a foreign policy of bits and pieces, with themes of retrenchment, reduced reliance on US military power (but little sign of increased diplomatic potency), prevention of new threats and support for American values woven in. The President continues to resist pronouncing a doctrine of his own but wants to be seen as a moderate well within the broad parameters of American internationalism. He is wishing to get bipartisan action from Congress on a few things:  trade promotion authority, the authorization to use force, dismantling the Cuba embargo, closing Guantanamo. But none of this is new ground.

He is also prepared to forge ahead on his own. As I’ve noted before, this lame duck knows how to fly.

In case you didn’t watch it last night and have more patience than I do, here is the whole thing:

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