BREAKING: U.S. Middle East Policy Still a Disaster

A few interesting tidbits from several periodicals of note.

First, a reminder that U.S. intervention in Iraq helped create ISIS, via The New Yorker:

ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals, according to Hisham Alhashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government and an expert on ISIS. Many are members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath Party who converted to radical Islam in American prisons. 

Then, a thorough debunking of the plan to arm and back a “moderate” opposition in Syria from The New York Times:

The persistent belief in Western policy circles that there is a “moderate opposition” in Syria…warrants serious scrutiny. The very notion of a “vetted” opposition has an absurd ring to it. It assumes that moderation is an identifiable, fixed element that can be sorted out from other, tainted characteristics. It further presumes that the vetting process will not stain those being vetted. It takes as a given that Western-backed opposition will prevail and in turn provide the basis for a happier and better Syria.

There is little to support any of these beliefs. The most effective forces on the ground today — and for the foreseeable future — are decidedly nonmoderate.

… The alleged moderates have never put together a convincing national program or offered a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. The truth is that there are no “armed moderates” (or “moderate terrorists”) in the Arab world — and precious few beyond. The genuine “moderates” won’t take up arms, and those who do are not truly moderates.

And finally, evidence that almost every instance of U.S. intervention in the Middle East has unexpected and/or dangerous consequences, via Haaretz:

The Islamic State jihadist organization has recruited more than 6,000 new fighters since America began targeting the group with air strikes last month, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 1,300 of the new recruits are said to be foreigners, who have joined IS from outside the swathes of Syria and Iraq that it controls.

So we helped create ISIS in the first place and we’ve made it bigger and our strategy for destroying it might be doomed. Other than that, we’re doing just fine.


Senators who voted against arming Syrian rebels

NAYs — 22

Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)
John Barrasso (R-WY)
Mark Begich (D-AK)
Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Mike Crapo (R-ID)
Ted Cruz (R-TX)
Mike Enzi (R-WY)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
Dean Heller (R-NV)
Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Mike Lee (R-UT)
Joe Manchin (D-WV)
Ed Markey (D-MA)
Jerry Moran (R-KS)
Chris Murphy (D-CT)
Rand Paul (R-KY)
Jim Risch (R-ID)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)



[T]he president seems grimly determined to practice what Mr. Bush’s lawyers only preached. He is acting on the proposition that the president, in his capacity as commander in chief, has unilateral authority to declare war.

In taking this step, Mr. Obama is not only betraying the electoral majorities who twice voted him into office on his promise to end Bush-era abuses of executive authority. He is also betraying the Constitution he swore to uphold.


Bruce Ackerman’s devastating op-ed in The New York Times.

The paper’s editorial board was just as harsh.

All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses…

Osama bin Laden

A reminder that terrorists want to drag us into war. 

I noticed this interesting exchange on Twitter tonight between Conor Friedersdorf (a libertarian) and Arun Gupta (a progressive). It seems to highlight the differences between left-wing and libertarian foreign policy views. Neither side is particularly enthusiastic about Israel’s actions in Gaza but only one side seems willing to protest those actions. 

I noticed this interesting exchange on Twitter tonight between Conor Friedersdorf (a libertarian) and Arun Gupta (a progressive). It seems to highlight the differences between left-wing and libertarian foreign policy views. Neither side is particularly enthusiastic about Israel’s actions in Gaza but only one side seems willing to protest those actions. 

I was born in Iraq and I’d never in my life been asked if I was a Sunni or a Shiite. And I didn’t know who among my relatives or neighbors or co-workers or colleagues at school were Sunnis or Shiites, because it wasn’t an issue. It’s not that people were tolerant toward each other — they weren’t aware of sectarian backgrounds. It’s similar to some areas in the US where you don’t necessarily know what Christian sect your friends belong to. You might know, or you might not know. That was before the US intervention. The US destroyed that Iraqi national identity and replaced it with sectarian and ethnic identities after 2003. I don’t think this is something that many Iraqis argue about, because you can trace the beginning of this sectarian strife that is destroying the country, and it clearly began with the US invasion and occupation.

In recent interviews, two dozen current and former administration officials, foreign diplomats, friends and outside analysts described Mrs. Clinton as almost always the advocate of the most aggressive actions considered by Mr. Obama’s national security team — and not just in well-documented cases, like the debate over how many additional American troops to send to Afghanistan or the NATO airstrikes in Libya.

Mrs. Clinton’s advocates…are quick to cite other cases in which she took more hawkish positions than the White House: arguing for funneling weapons to Syrian rebels and for leaving more troops behind in postwar Iraq…


The New York Times

73% of Democrats want this person to be president. God help us all.

No one understands any longer who America stands with or against. No one really understands exactly what we’ll stand for — and what we are willing to sacrifice to stand up for it. [America must be] the strongest moral power for what is good and what is right in the world.

Chris Christie

The neoconservative criticisms of Obama’s supposedly “feckless” foreign policy are motivated by a worldview that demands that America kill a lot more people. That may seem overly simplistic but it’s true. In Syria, according to neocons, we should have bombed Assad’s forces and armed the rebels. In Libya, we should have launched our cascade of bombs earlier. In Iraq, we should have sat still for an indefinite amount of time rather than withdraw. In Nigeria, we should send out special forces in order to “#BringBackOurGirls.” In every instance, hawkish Republicans want to kill more people, spend more money, and risk more lives. Once the smoke clears and the bodies have been carted off to their graves, the world would supposedly be a freer, safer place.

Rand Paul, whatever one might think of him, has offered Republicans an alternative worldview that recognizes the limit of military power and is skeptical of the government’s ability to manage large, expensive projects efficiently. His foreign policy is a deeply conservative one that happens to overlap with the beliefs of many progressives. As long as 47% of Americans desire a reduced role in world affairs and as long as people such as Paul on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left offer members of both parties a more rational and peaceful foreign policy, hawkish politicians will at least meet some resistance before they ascend to power.

Any Democrat who is averse to misinformation from their standard bearer, or who wants a president committed to protecting whistleblowers…ought to find an alternative to the hawkish national security statist eyeing the White House.
- Conor Friedersdorf, re: Hillary Clinton
If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence…
My opposition to intervention in Syria [and] my hope for a diplomatic solution in Iran is due to the fact that I think we need to understand that the blunt instrument of military power, whether it’s with invasions or attacks from the sky, just doesn’t work very well in the information age in which people can turn what we think we’re trying to do for good into an avenue to recruit jihadists against us…
In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.

Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says

I’m dreading the seemingly inevitable report that shows that arms supplied to Syrian rebels by the CIA were used to murder civilians. Will anyone in the Obama administration decry that “moral obscenity" if/when it occurs?

Do you think Obama’s been judged by any rational standards? Has Guantanamo closed? Is a war over? Is anyone paying any attention to Iraq? Is he seriously talking about going into Syria? We are not doing so well in the 80 wars we are in right now, what the hell does he want to go into another one for?
A small town in Sweden called Södertälje has accepted more refugees from Iraq than the U.S. and Canada put together.

In Surprisingly Bold Move, Sweden Offers a Home to All Syrian Refugees

Sweden, a country with a laudable open-armed immigration policy, has decided to offer permanent residency to literally all Syrian refugees. There are currently 8,000 Syrians living in Sweden with temporary residency permits and they are likely to be joined by many more asylum seekers. The UN estimates that over 2 million Syrians have fled their war-torn homeland in search of safety and prosperity. Sweden’s decision to welcome all refugees, which was made with the realization that Syria’s civil war is unlikely to cease any time soon, is burdened with possible long-term consequences:

Malek Laesker, the vice chairman of the Syrian Arabian Cultural Association of Sweden, welcomed the decision.

However, he warned it could inflame the debate on immigration, encourage people-trafficking, and cause problems further down the line.

"The fact that Sweden is the first country to open its arms is both positive and negative," he said.

"We already have a crisis around that issue in Sweden. I hope that our politicians solve it in a nice way." 

Indeed, any instance of mass migration, especially when vast cultural and political differences are involved, could yield serious consequences, not to mention logistical nightmares. But Sweden has knowingly taken such risks in the interest of humanitarianism.

Compare Sweden’s Syrian refugee policy with the limited bombing campaign proposed by President Obama. Which plan poses less of a threat to innocent Syrians? Which runs less risk of instigating more warfare and conflict? Which one manages to “do something” about the crisis in Syria without provoking the ire of Russia and Iran? The answers to these questions are obvious and they illuminate the absurdity of referring to any bombing campaign as a “humanitarian” act.

While it’s probably not advisable or feasible for every country to imitate Sweden’s refugee policy, surely there is more that can be done to aid the Syrian families fleeing death and persecution. If we fail these people, as we have so clearly failed the people of Iraq (many of whom were escaping a war zone that we created), then the words etched onto the Statue of Liberty, which declare that we welcome the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” is nothing but hollow rhetoric, as empty and meaningless as our professed commitment to humanitarianism. 


Arming Syria’s Rebels: A Fool’s Errand

The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.


Although the Obama administration signaled months ago that it would increase aid to Syrian rebels, the efforts have lagged because of the logistical challenges involved in delivering equipment in a war zone and officials’ fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of jihadists.

The Washington Post

How confused is U.S. strategy in Syria? We’d like to witness a rebel victory and aid in that effort by supplying weapons to the rebels, yet we’d also like to prevent a portion of those rebels from emerging victorious with an armful of weapons. According to Secretary of State Kerry in a recent interview, there is a vetting process to determine which rebels are worthy of being armed, but the efficacy of this vetting process has been questioned (for instance, the infamous rebel soldier who ate the heart of his vanquished enemy was part of a so-called “moderate” faction).

In the context of a brutal Middle Eastern civil war, “moderate” may be a difficult term to define. Once upon a time, Assad himself was labeled a moderate by various media outlets. His wife Asma was described as “glamorous, young, and very chic" with "a killer IQ" in a glowing 2011 Vogue magazine profile. John Kerry and his wife even dined with Assad and Asma in 2009. Our understanding of what constitutes moderateness in the Middle East is in constant flux and thus rarely correct for any substantial length of time. So even if, in a best case scenario, the U.S. only supplies moderate rebels with weapons and the rebels then topple Assad and seize power, who can be even remotely sure that Syria will be a better place to live or that the persecution of minority groups won’t continue or that the newly installed regime will align itself with U.S. interests? Perhaps the greatest problem in President Obama’s Syria strategy is that even if it works (which is doubtful), it still does little to improve the living standards of the average Syrian.

Occasionally, some nations are ripe for foreign-influenced democratic reform. Post-war Japan was one such nation. But Syria is not on the brink of democracy, its people largely despise us (a mere 14% of Syrians approve of the job performance of U.S. leadership), and when we intervene in Syria’s internal affairs, we risk entangling ourselves with forces that are either enacting or pursuing policies of violence and oppression.