Category: Middle East (Page 1 of 3)

Editor on Trump’s threats against Iran

The greatest strategic mistake by the United States in the opening decades of the 21st century has been to get stuck in unwinnable wars in the Middle East, a region with declining strategic importance relative to Asia.

At the time when a predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq, Donald Trump supported the war. Later, during the 2016 presidential campaign he pretended – loudly and without shame – that he had opposed the war. What would he do if he had a similar decision in front of him as president? We may well get to know sometime soon.

Trump unleashed his vitriol against Iran on July 22, threatening war in an all-caps screed on Twitter.

“To Iranian President Rouhani,” he said. “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Trump practices “honor politics.” Please take note that the cause of the Trump’s outburst wasn’t anything Iran had actually done vis-à-vis America, but rather words used by his Iranian counterpart Trump took as a “threat.”

Rouhani had issued a boilerplate statement in response to Trump’s previous provocations, declaring: “Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Sniping back and forth is nothing unusual in U.S.-Iranian relations and certainly nothing for the American leader to get angry about. However, Trump seems to have chosen to believe Rouhani’s words were something the U.S. should “not stand for.”

Were Trump’s empty rhetoric the only thing on display, that would be worrisome enough for what it says about the mindset of the commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world. What is more concerning, however, is that Trump has been stoking the flames against Iran since he was elected, and his provocations have intensified of late.

On May 9, he made good on his pledge to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. Now, he is warning other countries not to import Iranian oil, or else he will impose sanctions against them. Sanctioning a country that continues to comply with the nuclear deal – respected by all signatories except the United States – is an inherently provocative act.

Iran is already facing economic problems and unrest. Now, European companies, including France’s largest oil producer, Total, are reluctantly pulling out of Iran in order to avoid problems. Is it any wonder that Trump’s escalatory actions began shortly after neoconservative hardliner John Bolton became National Security Adviser in April?

Read full article: Column: Trump threatening war with Iran

The Iran protests and American journalistic hackery

Before new years and continuing until the present, Iranians have taken to the streets to demand political and economic reforms. Over 400 protesters have been reportedly arrested and 20 killed. Having cracked down violently on protests in 2009, too, the Iranian government appears to face a crisis of legitimacy.

Much of the commentary from the political right, however, launders the protesters’ real grievances to make partisan political points. Take Fox News opinion columnist Stephen L. Miller (@RedSteeze on Twitter). Yesterday evening (US time), he had published a garden variety “Why aren’t liberal feminists supporting Muslim women in the Middle East?” article.

In this case, the specific language was: “Women are leading in Iran. Where is their voice of support from the left?”

So the question must be asked: Where are the women’s movement supporters in the United States and Europe, which gathered en masse to protest a newly inaugurated American president last year?

The question presumes that a protest in America against Iran’s government would have much influence in toppling Iran’s government. It presumes Americans shouldn’t care about the actions of their own government–or at least shouldn’t care any more about their own government’s actions than they do about those of foreign governments. After all, why should Americans protest bad governance and abuses of power in America if they don’t protest about foreign countries?

The question could be asked about anything. Why hasn’t Stephen L. Miller written anything about North Korea’s human rights abuses lately? Why hasn’t he written about democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary governments?

Hell, Miller was outraged about the IRS reportedly scrutinizing tax exemption applications from Tea Party groups. Even if a conspiracy against the Tea Party existed (and it didn’t–liberal groups applying for tax exempt status were scrutinized, too, according to an audit conducted years later), would it really be as bad as South African leader Jacob Zuma’s hundreds of crimes of corruption?

One can imagine the story framed in Miller’s terms:
So the question must be asked: Where are the conservatives and Tea Partiers in the United States, which gathered en masse to protest a newly inaugurated American president on Tax Day?

Another cliché gaining being pushed on Iran is the typical: “Why isn’t the media covering this story that I read about in the media?” Stephen Miller wrote on December 30:

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Did the US and Iraq really defeat ISIS? Not so fast.

David French has a piece bemoaning that the Western media hasn’t reported America defeated ISIS in Iraq. Iraqi’s military, with American support, pushed ISIS out of Mosul and most of the area they occupied in Iraq, and now Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory. Iraq’s PM has a clear-self interest to declare victory, but it’s true that ISIS lost ground.

“So why does no one seem to care?” French wrote.

It’s just not that clear of a victory. Iraq remains an unstable, low-quality semi-democracy–the US didn’t accomplish its objectives there–and there’s no reason to believe that Iraq won’t ever be threatened by militants or terrorists again in the near future.

I won’t spend too much time on this, but here are a few relevant sources for why people should not get too excited about what is possibly an incomplete and short-lasting victory:
Iraq’s PM has a clear-self interest to declare victory, but it’s true that ISIS lost ground. – AFP

As Sumantra and I have written for The National Interest,

It is important to remember that the liberation of Mosul is not something to be proud of just yet. Economically, it is a damaged city—in worse condition than Stalingrad or Dresden. Materially, it is a commodity that nobody wishes to touch. Strategically, it is important—but that too is a curse, as it’s almost inevitable that a backlash will transpire, and Sunni civilians will suffer.

Unfortunately, Mosul is only one among many cities on the fault line of what increasingly appears to be an Iranian race to form a land bridge to the Mediterranean against periodic Sunni opposition. People will continue to suffer. Iraq’s central government is not, and will not be, capable of continuing to safeguard the area from falling further into the hands of jihadists. And the flawed counterinsurgency tactics of the West mean that the jihadist threat will merely go dormant until the next opportune moment.

Read our full article: Winning the hearts and minds won’t eliminate ISIS

The Warped Marxist-Feminist Ideology of the Kurdish YPG

An Exclusive Eyewitness Account of an American who Trained with the Kurdish Syrian Rebels

Getting retired from the United States Marine Corps at age 23 with zero deployments under my belt was a huge blow to what I figured to be my destiny on this planet. That “retirement” came in 2010 after three years on convalescent leave, recovering from a traumatic brain injury sustained stateside. I got my chance to vindicate myself in 2015 by volunteering to fight in Syria with the Kurdish Yeni Parastina Gel (YPG), or the “People’s Protection Units” in Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish language).

The YPG is the military apparatus of the Partiya Yekitiya Democrat (PYD), the Democratic Union Party, and one of the main forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. While they are a direct ideological descendant of the Soviet Union, their take on Marxism has a much more nationalistic bent than that of their internationalist forebears. At their training camp that I attended, they constantly spoke of their right to a free and autonomous homeland–which I could support. On the other hand, they ludicrously claimed that all surrounding cultures from Arab to Turk to Persian descended from Kurdish culture. One should find this odd, considering that the Kurds have never had such autonomy as that which they struggle for.

All of this puffed up nationalism masquerading as internationalism was easy to see through. The Westerners were treated with respect by the “commanders” (they eschewed proper rank and billet, how bourgeoise!), but the rank and file YPGniks were more interested in what we could do for them and what they could steal from us (luckily, my luggage was still in storage at the Sulaymaniyah International Airport in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq). By “steal from us,” I mean they would walk up to a Westerner/American and grab their cap, glasses, scarf and whatever else they wanted and ask “Hevalti?” which is Kurmanji for “Comraderie?” and if you “agreed” or stalled (a non-verbal agreement) then they would take your gear and clothing. “Do not get your shit hevalti-ed,” the saying went.

Not only was their idea of Marxism fatuous, their version of feminism was even worse.

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Syria Strike: The better of two possible outcomes?

In the aftermath of the U.S. strike on a Syrian airstrip, the world is left to consider what this means for U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration.

While many, including myself, have been disconcerted by the prospect of American intervention in Syria, the outcome so far of Trump’s foreign policy can also be seen as reassuring compared to the extreme foreign policy vision of withdrawing from NATO, letting nuclear weapons proliferate in Asia, and committing war crimes and stealing oil he promised on the campaign trail.

Jeet Heer of the New Republic summarizes what apparently happened: The Generals won their war with Trump. Many said they hoped James Mattis would be a voice of rationality for the administration, as opposed to Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon. Now both of them are gone from the National Security Council, and H.R. McMasters has joined as well.

The problem, however, could be that men of uniform are generally more likely to rely on military solutions for almost any problem, especially in an administration where the State Department is understaffed and facing a proposed 30% budget cut.

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Who said Trump was never a non-interventionist?

In the wake of the U.S. launching over 50 missiles at targets in Syria in response to Syrian use of chemical weapons, which reportedly killed at least 74, some are surprised that Trump isn’t really a non-interventionist, nor is he a realist.

Some who aren’t surprised? The editors of Bombs + Dollars. There will be more to be written later, but for now, enjoy some of our related coverage on Trump and Syria.

Sumantra Maitra gets us started with his piece explaining why Trump was never a realist:

After the debate about Obama being a Realist, (he’s ofcourse not) it was inevitable the Neorealist tag would be on Donald Trump after his interminable dross for New York Times. It is an incoherent mess, with talking points which will make, Hayek to Say to Ricardo to Morgenthau to Waltz, all cringe in shame, but it had some interesting moments.

As I mentioned in the Obama article above, it is perhaps a bit back in fashion these days, with growing isolationist tendencies across both sides of the Atlantic, to use talking points of indifferent stoic state interest. While superficially it might sound realist, it is not, and it lacks theoretical rigor and coherence. Realists have opposed Trump previously, alongside others. And although I don’t speak on behalf of the entire Realist school of FP here, it is safe to presume, they will oppose any delusional lunatic again, and everytime.

Maitra: So, is Donald Trump a Neo-Realist?

And:
Maitra: The Realist civil war and Donald Trump
Maitra: Is Obama a Realist in Syria? TL-DR: No.
Blatt: No, Trump’s not a Realist. He’s not anything, because he has no ideas.
Blatt: Trump’s fake anti-war position slips

In a column I wrote after his inauguration, I explained that Trump is just a saber-rattling strongman who wants to use military intervention to prove his “toughness”:

The discourse over whether Donald Trump is “anti-interventionist” or a militant warmonger is misguided. Trump is neither, and yet he’s also both. Indeed, he has put forward arguments — contradictory as this may sound — for both ways of thinking.

It’s a misnomer, however, that Trump doesn’t want to send American troops abroad to fight terrorist and insurgent groups. After all, he’s repeatedly said he wants to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS in Syria. In March, he even paid lip-service to the need to send in up to 30,000 ground troops.

He has expressed the view that Obama has been a “weak” president for being relatively passive when confronting terrorism and crisis.

Blatt: Trump: Neither isolationist nor interventionist

Maitra, from 2016, on why sympathy for dead civilians is no justification for war:

Unsurprisingly, the worst kind of virtue signaling can start over a visual, and this poor boy was no exception. Historically visuals were used to rally people for a cause. Just one example, during the Indian mutiny of 1857, the power of British press was evident, as paintings of Lady Britannia delivering retributive justice to the evil Indian rebels was used to bring the entire country together in what was one of the toughest time of the Raj. Similar instances are littered throughout history.

Realist academics and policy makers cannot rely on hashtags or candle light vigils, because simply real life is different and there are more considerations than simplistic narratives. If anyone comes and shows dead children photos, and demands action or inaction, that is “Argumentum Ad Passiones” or in common parlance, an appeal to emotions. That is not however a ground for policy. What could be a policy in this situation?

Maitra: Baby pics and appeal to emotions

Correction: A previous version of this article said “over 100” people died in the sarin attack, a number that was cited in some early reports. Most reports in major media now report 74 verified deaths. B+D has updated this post to reflect that “at least 74” people died, which also includes the possibility of 100 or more.

Liberal interventionists and Trump blinded by Syrian chemical weapons attack

Donald Trump is effectively continuing Barack Obama’s policy on Syria, but you wouldn’t know that from the New York Times‘s breathless coverage of a chemical weapons attack apparently committed by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Trump’s administration affirmed one week ago, via UN ambassador Nikki Haley, that they weren’t interested in focusing on overthrowing Assad. Then a few days later, the Syrian government reportedly used chemical weapons.

Trump’s initial response was to attack Obama, for not having acted after Assad used chemical weapons in 2013–the same strategy (not overthrowing Assad), incidentally, that Trump often supported on the campaign trail. For while Obama did pay lip service to putting pressure on Assad and did sent scant weapons to anti-Assad rebels, for the most part the U.S. stayed out of Syria. For that, the U.S. was criticized by the likes of the Economist and other elite liberal publications.

Nikki Haley just formalized existing policy and stopped pretending it was anything different. There are many terrorist groups among the Assad opposition, so why should America support a policy that would likely lead to an unstable state in the mold of Libya?

The NY Times ran a news analysis by Peter Baker that begins by asserting “the world recoiled at the televised images of lifeless children in the latest atrocity in Syria’s savage civil war.” For the Times, “the world” consists of American White House correspondents cloistered in the press club in Washington, DC, and Syria is the center of the world.

Anyway: “Where other presidents might have used the moment to call for the departure of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, President Trump’s spokesman dismissed the notion as impractical because it would not happen.”

And why shouldn’t he? It is official U.S. policy not to aggressively push for the overthrow of Assad. As there are terrorists on the ground, and no policy in place to replace Assad, it would be highly dangerous to overthrow him.

Yet, Trump, rhetorically, at least, seems persuaded by media outrage.

In less than 24 hours from his first statement, the president with no spine claimed to have changed his mind about Assad:

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Trump applies the lessons of Iraq backwards

The false choice between “intervention” and “restraint”

A survey by the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest is being touted as showing Americans want “restraint” in their foreign policy. According to the write up, 52 percent believe that U.S. foreign policy has made America less safe over the past 15 years, and twice as many want the U.S. to pull troops out of Europe compared to those who want to increase troop levels. (60 percent chose to keep troop levels the same or had no opinion.) Daniel DePetris a fellow at Defense Priorities, an organization that advocates for a “more prudent, restrained foreign policy that assesses the world as it exists,” writes this means “Americans want restraint.”

His view is supported by a growing trend towards anti-interventionist sentiment amongst Americans over the years, illustrated in Donald Trump’s campaign promises to renegotiate trade deals and demand changes to America’s defense treaty obligations with his allies, and playing down the threat of Russia—even to the point of denying that Russia hacked into the DNC’s and Hillary Clinton’s servers (while saying on the trail that Russia should hack Hillary’s server).

There’s one narrative about Barack Obama’s presidency that he intervened in too many countries—causing Libya to become destabilized, fueling war in Syria, and inflaming relations with Russia.

On the other hand, there’s another opposite narrative about Obama that Obama wasn’t interventionist enough. By staying out of Syria, ignoring ISIS until it was too late, and failing to see the threat of Russia (remember he would have more “flexibility” in dealing with Russia after his reelection, he told Dmitry Medvedev), he projected “weakness” and emboldened America’s enemies.

Donald Trump buys into both narratives. Even as Trump has put Article 5 defense of NATO allies into question, he has also called for “bombing the shit” out of ISIS in Syria and invading to steal Iraq and Syria’s oil. Barack Obama smartly didn’t send large numbers of ground troops to Syria or Iraq to get stuck in another quagmire. Trump has said about sending troops, “We really have no choice. … I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000.”

The lesson in Iraq should be that wars in unstable Middle Eastern countries are rarely quick and easy. Trump has apparently not learned that lesson. Instead, he appears to buy into into the argument that Obama was “weak” for either not overthrowing Assad or not taking on ISIS with a ground war.

A related lesson should be to not overreact to terrorist attacks. For all the attention to ISIS, there have been no attacks directed by ISIS in the United States and only five attacks inspired by ISIS between October 2015 and July 2016, resulting in 53 of the more than 16,000 murder that occur in the country every year. The amount of Americans who would be killed directly in battle and indirectly as a result of massive American war in Syria could easily exceed the number killed by terrorism each year by many factors.

On the other hand, Trump takes the critique of Iraq and applies a broad “anti-interventionist” messages to parts of the world that are comparatively safe—namely Europe and Northeast Asia. Because Russia isn’t invading Poland, we should pull back from NATO. But America’s commitment to NATO hasn’t cost the U.S. anywhere near as much as its previous attempts to bomb the shit out of the Middle East and destroy terrorism have. NATO expansion, I have argued, unnecessarily lead to Russia feeling antagonized, and NATO countries could contribute more, but that implies reforms, not scraping the project. Trump’s plan amounts to pulling down your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.

The American public is fickle and poll questions are not made for capturing nuance. Politicians will use any kind of argument they can think of to hit the other party; hence Republican House Majority Leader Paul Ryan praising Obama’s Russia sanctions while slamming him for doing too little, too late—while ignoring that his party’s leader wants even less to be done. The solution, then, isn’t a false choice between “intervention” and “restraint” but a smarter foreign policy. Trump, as it stands, espouses the wrong answers for both sides of the equation.

The madness of calling for a No Fly Zone in Syria

The Labour MPs in Britain and assorted bleeding heart Twitter liberals called again for a No Fly Zone in Syria. One might have wondered that this insanity is over, but no…like a Phoenix it comes up every time there’s a bombing raid in Aleppo.

Unfortunately, Labour’s plan had zero specifics on how the NFZ would be achieved. Nothing on how to do it. Nothing about security dilemma or escalatory spiral. Nothing on why should we do it anyway, other than to “save Syrians”. Or what British interest would it achieve. Nothing about if a Western plane gets shot down, should we counter escalate, or climb down.

Here’s a simple war gaming simulation for all the Twitter bleeding hearts. Let’s go on to impose a NFZ in Syria. We try and knock out C4ISR. The Syrians delegate their anti-air ops to the Rus. The Russians come with fighter escorts, or worse, the Russians shoot down a Western jet. The Russians then say it was rebels or ISIS that shot it down. Should the West escalate? Climb down? If they climb down, what about perception and resolve? What if there is asymmetric escalation? Proxies attacking Western interests in other places? What about mission creep? If you haven’t done these aforementioned threat assessments and are calling for NFZ or intervention, you’re insane. Leave it to the pros. If you still want to take risk of escalation with Russia over Syria where there’s no long term geo-strategic interest, you’re an idiot. 

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How Bush and Obama let ideology mislead their foreign policies

In my latest column for The Federalist I argue that Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama both followed their ideologies and idealism too closely on Iraq. The result is the current mess we have in Iraq and Syria.

To quote some of the important passages:

Yet a war can just as easily lead to mass American deaths. In fact, in the years since 9/11, 30 times more Americans died fighting in Iraq than died from terrorist attacks. Those mistakes have been well-reported over the years, and the Chilicot Report adds some details but not too much groundbreaking information. In short, the United States and United Kingdom didn’t do enough preparation and were overconfident about their ability to spread democracy to a country with no experience of such. It was a classic example of idealism overpowering cold analysis of facts.

Bush thought spreading democracy would mean more freedom, and that freedom and democracy would create open societies and discourage radicalism. We Americans value our political freedoms. Seeing people around the world suffer under tyranny is disheartening indeed, and it would be wonderful if all people could live in freedom.

But events in recent years in places like Egypt, with its election of the Muslim Brotherhood; Libya, which collapsed into chaos; Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez won multiple semi-democratic elections; Thailand, which suffers from coups and populism; and others show that democracy doesn’t always work everywhere.

Bush didn’t spend enough time considering whether there was a reason Iraq didn’t have democracy and hadn’t had democracy before. Wishing for something is one thing, but one’s wishes and ideals shouldn’t invade the life-and-death decisions of the commander in chief.

Obama was so wed to the idea of “peace,” he didn’t think of how to win peace. … Since then Obama has begun campaigns of air strikes in Iraq and Syria and sent more troops. There are now 5,000 service members on the ground in Iraq, and generals want more. Meanwhile, Obama has slowed the ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The result is neither peace nor an end to American involvement.

Read the whole thing here: It’s Time To End Ideology-Based Foreign Policy

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