walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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A Failure on Many Fronts
The Worst News from Iraq

There is a big harvest of bad news from the country formerly known as Iraq this June 12. The country’s armed forces have collapsed in the north and ISIS fighters are streaming south from Mosul. A vicious band of terrorists and thugs whose leaders were too bloodthirsty and unscrupulous for al-Qaeda now controls a significant swath of territory from the middle of Syria through the center of Iraq. The Kurds meanwhile have seized the moment to take Kirkuk, and they are unlikely to leave it voluntarily. A dramatically weakened government in Baghdad will now be more dependent than ever on Iran, and Jordan is now exposed to attacks from radicals along its long and poorly guarded eastern frontier. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in terror for their lives, and gruesome executions and attacks are already being reported from the cities that have fallen to the terrorists. The foreign fighters with them, including, apparently, many Westerners, are acquiring expertise that will make them significantly more dangerous when they return to their home countries.

All over the world, radical jihadis now feel the wind in their sails; aimless young men will be more easily recruited into these networks, funders will be inspired to increase their support, and those already wrapped up in the movement will be “inspired” by this victory to make greater efforts in the cause. Meanwhile, huge stocks of weapons and hoards of cash have fallen into the hands of the victors; ISIS is now the richest as well as the most successful terror group in the world. It is unlikely that these victories will make its leaders more moderate in their aims or gentler in their methods.

Yet none of that, grim as it is, is the worst news in the papers today. The worst news about Iraq comes from Washington, where we learn in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that senior White House officials acknowledge that these events have surprised them. They apparently had no idea that the Iraqi army was a hollow shell, that ISIS was planning something, and that the sectarian war was about to take a dramatic lurch for the worse.

It is amazing what this White House does not know. It did not know that Putin was planning to take over Ukraine; indeed, it thought that its policy of a reset with Russia was paying off and that Russia was becoming a partner for peace. It did not know that Saudi Arabia was preparing to help the Egyptian army oust a democratically elected government the United States was determined to support.

One wonders what else the wizards now running American foreign policy don’t know. Do they understand what Iran’s Supreme Leader is thinking? Do they know what Beijing thinks of their intelligence and resolution, and what plans it may be forming in response?

One is not sure whether this morning’s harvest of news from Iraq is what President Obama would call a “single” or a “double” in what he describes as his dogged attempt to make the world a better and safer place by avoiding “stupid stuff.” For a generation of policy wonks who believe that foreign policy can essentially be boiled down to the rule “don’t invade Iraq,” it is crystal clear what America should do in response to these latest Iraq catastrophes: Blame George W. Bush and stand aside.

Bush certainly deserves some blame here, both for the mess in the Middle East and for the impact on a generation of American policy thinkers whose strategic instincts have been thrown off kilter by their emotional reactions to his poorly judged and poorly executed Middle East policies. But no time machines exist that can take us back to 2003, and the problems of today demand something more than reflexive rejection of the policies of a man now living quietly in Texas. One can only hope that the Obama White House will at long last step out of George Bush’s shadow and begin to see clearly, plan carefully, and act wisely in a region that remains vital to American and world security.

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  • lukelea

    “and Jordan is now exposed to attacks from radicals along its long and poorly guarded eastern frontier.. . .”

    I can see a silver lining there. A civil war in Jordan might result in the eastern half of that country in Palestinian hands (with a little Israeli assistance perhaps). That would clear the way to a much more realistic two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one in which the Palestinians would have enough land to create a viable state. If that is the only good thing that comes out of the Arab Spring it would be more than enough., and not just for Israel and the Palestinians but for the whole world.

    • bigfire

      Nope. The aim of the Palestinian movement have always been the eradication of the Jews. The Palestinian had their chance before, but decided to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy.

    • rmill2k

      Why isn’t anyone mentioning A that the Obama
      Administration has covertly been arming and training ISIS and other
      Islamists involved in the Syrian war for years?

      http://joshuapundit.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-chess-pieces-move-in-iraq-as-isis.html

    • f1b0nacc1

      Why would the Israelis work to help the Palestinians (who have repeated made no secret of their intention to utterly destroy Israel at the first available opportunity no matter what the Israelis do) grab the eastern half of a Jordanian state that is (at least nominally) neutral, if not friendly to them?

  • Anthony

    I saw an ironic feature on national news: ISIS fighters in possession of both U.S. weaponry and motorized fighter vehicles. As to “senior White House officials acknowledge that these events have surprised them.” Well…

    • bigfire

      What’s there to be surprised of? We armed the hell out of Al Qaeda in Syria. The regime there survived, so the Jihadists decided to go for a softer target, Iraq.

      • Anthony

        Who’s surprised?

      • Curious Mayhem

        That’s not correct — the US is not arming al Qaeda in Syria. The Obama failure was to *not* arm the native Syrian opposition in 2011 and 2012, before the foreign jihadis were a major presence. The jihadis get their money and ideology from the Gulf and their weapons from wherever they can find them.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Do those motorized fighting vehicles have hillbilly armor?

      • Anthony

        What precisely is …armor?

        • Curious Mayhem

          That’s a joke, sorry.

          Back in 2005 or so, US troops were driving around Iraq in whatever the Army had as a jeep replacement, vehicles without armor. Because of IEDs and such, the soldiers started improvising armor plating, which was dubbed “hillbilly armor.”

  • ljgude

    Well, our president is a post colonialist and the Middle East is looking pretty post colonial right now. Things are going his way.

  • rheddles

    It is amazing what this White House does not know.

    I for one am not amazed. That’s why I voted against this community organizer without a resume twice. What is amazing is that voters more intelligent than me could not figure it out.

  • Anthony

    Before the second Iraq war, we were treated to endless references to the fact that Sadaam Hussein “gassed his own people.” While I cannot condone his actions, it was made to seem as if Hussein was using poison gas on the Iraqi equivalent of the league of women voters. It is now clear that while Sadaam was bad, his enemies weren’t much better.

    • Diws

      The Kurds are not much better that Saddam? That’s a fairly outrageous statement.

    • Anthony

      Anthony, what enemies are you referencing.

    • Anthony

      I was referring to the Shia mahdi army and other similar groups. Also, Hussein did not tolerate al quaeda. What he did to the Kurds was, of course, indefensible.

      • Diws

        He used it on Iranian army and irregulars, and civilians, and also on the Kurds, most notably at Halabja. It is possible that he used chemical weapons on American troops in the 1st Gulf War. They were certainly used against the Shia rebels after the Gulf War. I am not aware of any attacks on the Mahdi army, which was formed during the 2nd Gulf War.

        I understand your point better now, but would urge caution in asserting moral equivalence.

      • Anthony

        I agree with Diws; careful with moral equivalencies.

  • adk

    a sample of Google search results for “US/Obama caught off guard”:

    http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Afghanistan-Bowe-Bergdahl-Taliban-Obama/2014/06/09/id/575920/
    Afghan Leaders Caught Off-Guard, Feel Misled Over Bergdahl Deal
    Afghan officials say they were caught off-guard by the Obama administration’s plan to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

    CHUCK TODD: WHITE HOUSE EXPECTED ‘EUPHORIA’ OVER BERGDAHL
    Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” NBC’s chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd discussed the prisoner swap of five Taliban terrorist for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He said the White House was “caught off guard” by the negative reaction coming from Congress and the military.
    “On Sunday, I think they thought there would be some euphoria around this,” Todd said. “That there would be a rally around the flag. That didn’t happen.”

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/mar/18/white-house-promises-more-sanctions-russia/?page=all
    NATO allies criticize U.S. for being caught off guard by Russia’s military buildup
    Biden calls annexation of Crimea an ‘almost unbelievable set of events’

    http://townhall.com/tipsheet/danieldoherty/2014/02/05/benghazi-hearing-officials-rendered-speechless-when-asked-by-congressman-when-terrorists-will-be-caught-n1790218
    Benghazi Hearing: Top Officials Caught Off Guard When Asked When Terrorists Will Be Caught
    Daniel Doherty, Feb 05, 2014

    http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/06/15/500236/national-security-brief-caught-off-guard-by-egypt/
    Caught off guard by Egypt
    Two surprise rulings by Egypt’s high court yesterday — to invalidate parliamentary elections and reverse a law that would have barred former president’ Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister from running for president — caught the White House and State Department, which had hailed successive steps towards democratic rule in Egypt, by surprise. “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in response to the court rulings.

    http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/U-S-caught-off-guard-by-Saudi-king-s-criticism-2567302.php
    U.S. caught off guard by Saudi king’s criticism
    Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer, March 30, 2007

    But, but: they give as good as they get:

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4526668,00.html
    Israel caught off guard by US support of Palestinian unity
    Jerusalem source: US is allowing PA to believe that agreement with terror organization is acceptable; US: ‘This is not about punishing Israel’.

    http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/cnn-reporter-caught-off-guard-by-pres-obamas-va-statement_b225744
    CNN Reporter ‘Caught Off Guard’ by Pres. Obama’s VA Statement
    CNN correspondent Drew Griffin, whose investigation into dozens of veterans’ deaths at a Phoenix VA facility put a spotlight on potential wider spread misconduct, told Jake Tapper he was surprised by President Obama’s statement on the VA controversy earlier today.

    “I was a little caught off guard by what apparently is a disconnect by what’s happening out here in the country and what the president is talking about,” Griffin said following Obama’s statement.

  • Gene

    Don’t worry. As Michael Moore told us, those “minutemen” and “moral equivalents of the US founding fathers” will rise up and save Iraq from savagery.

  • Arkeygeezer

    “…..senior White House officials acknowledge that these events have surprised them”

    Vice President Joe Biden predicted this would happen in Iraq during the Bush Administration. I don’t see how the the White House can be surprised.

    From news accounts I have read, the Sunni residents of Mosel welcome the takeover, The Army there was instructed to leave their weapons and run away by senior Army commanders. Looks like another Ukraine situation where the people are supporting the action,

  • circleglider

    The only honorable and honest action the Obama Administration — and this very much includes Vice President Joe Biden — could take at this moment is mass resignation. Admit failure, including the failure to develop and execute any sort of response to the global disaster they’ve created.

    The Constitution may allow them to hold office for another two and one half years; nothing forces them to remain in power but their indefatigable moral narcissism.

    • adk

      Honorable and honest action is not what this Administration does. No, barring some impeachable offense, they will soldier on, ignoring, denying, spinning and blaming everything and everybody but themselves.

  • qet

    As one of the commenters below mentions, ISIS appears to be supported by some of the people in Iraq, making this just another civil war or, more accurately, a continuation of the same civil war that has been going on for a while. In fact, the entire Middle East (Israel excepted) should be thought of as one big civil war, as the authoritarian regimes throughout the region seem to be cracking one by one under the strain of popular discontent.

    I know it makes me sound like a nattering nabob of negativity, but I really don’t believe there is anything meaningful the US can do anywhere over there to reverse or even halt this process (actually, there is something, but our political culture will never permit our government to do it). For those of you who are materialists, you can attribute all of it to jobs and the economy all you want, but the fact is that those economies are never–never–going to produce enough jobs to occupy all of the people who need to be occupied for this warfare and violence to stop.

    • C_Before_E

      Totally agree with you. It is bad indeed that the Obama team has been surprised by fast-moving events. But what can they do about the situation? Staying out of it sounds good to me.

    • Arkeygeezer

      Its not only one big civil war. Its a religious war. You have Sunni moslems, Sheite moslems, and Kurds asserting their beliefs. The U.S., as a secular nation, cannot ever exert moral suasion to persuade these people to change. I for one is not in favor of sacrificing American lives or money to advance an untenable position.

  • surfcitysocal

    “One can only hope that the Obama White House will at long last step out
    of George Bush’s shadow and begin to see clearly, plan carefully, and act wisely in a region that remains vital to American and world security.” With the current administration being “surprised” by everything that has happened since its beginning, and found out about virtually everything through the news media, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • gabrielsyme

    To a large extent, this is blowback from supporting the Syrian Rebellion. Who could have forseen that supporting a chaotic rebellion against a Shia-led government in one state could lead to a rebellion against a Shia-led government in a neighboring state? The Syrian rebellion has been a magnet for Sunni salafists to gather, train, get funding and increase support. The expansion of Sunni rebellion to Iraq was entirely predictable, though apparently not to the Obama White House.

    • B-Sabre

      I would point out that this is blow-back from (Iraq) supporting a tyrannical Shia-led government in Syria while it commits atrocities against its own Sunni population. If Maliki had remained neutral (and not allowed Iran to move men and equipment to Syria through Iraqi territory) – and not provided a fertile bed of sympathetic, pissed-off Sunni Iraqis, we wouldn’t be here either.

      • gabrielsyme

        Maliki’s support of Assad has been pretty passive: it’s far more his domestic policies that have created Sunni resentment. So, yes, Maliki has his own policies to thank for having contributed to this situation, but being pro-Assad is way down the list. Moreover, being pro-Assad was and remains the sensible policy for Iraq. Despite the public relations problem in Sunni Iraq, a rebel victory in Syria would likely produce a government with a strong Salafist influence which would be a much more formidable foe.

  • M Hayne Hamilton

    The one thing that we know about leading from behind is that you always arrive too late

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Our Special Providence strategy of “Divide and Conquer” is succeeding beyond our wildest expectations. Just when it looks like the Shiites have the upper hand in Syria, the Sunnis counter attack in Iraq. This is wonderful, with the Jihadists so focused on killing each other, there will be few resources left to murder all the innocent people in the rest of the world.

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