The pendulum of American power

Having been exercised with the imperial hubris of the neoconservatives, American power thereby overextended was inevitably going to swing in the opposite direction. What was not inevitable was that an administration when forced to deal with current events would cling so persistently to the past.

Through the frequent use of a number of catch phrases — “we need to look forward,” his promise “to end the mindset that got us into war,” and so forth — Barack Obama presented his administration as one that would unshackle the U.S. from the misadventures of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s closest adviser helping him craft this message, has a mindset in 2016 that shows no signs of having evolved in any significant way since he was on the 2008 campaign trail. As one of the lead authors of the 2006 Iraq Study Group report, Rhodes became and remains fixated on his notion of Iraq.

In a New York Times magazine profile of Rhodes, David Samuels writes:

What has interested me most about watching him and his cohort in the White House over the past seven years, I tell him, is the evolution of their ability to get comfortable with tragedy. I am thinking specifically about Syria, I add, where more than 450,000 people have been slaughtered.

“Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” he says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there — nearly a decade in Iraq.”

Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. I was against the Iraq war from the beginning, I tell Rhodes, so I understand why he perpetually returns to it. I also understand why Obama pulled the plug on America’s engagement with the Middle East, I say, but it was also true as a result that more people are dying there on his watch than died during the Bush presidency, even if very few of them are Americans. What I don’t understand is why, if America is getting out of the Middle East, we are apparently spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah. He mutters something about John Kerry, and then goes off the record, to suggest, in effect, that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed. The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.

In this regard — “their ability to get comfortable with tragedy” — Rhodes and Obama mirror mainstream America which views the mess in the Middle East as being beyond America’s power to repair.

The fact that the U.S. bears a major portion of the blame in precipitating the region’s unraveling, is perversely presented as the reason the U.S. should now limit its involvement.

What, it’s reasonable to ask, does Iraq actually represent from this vantage point?

Wasted American lives? Wasted U.S. dollars? The destructive effect of American imperial power?

Is Iraq just a prism through which Americans look at America?

Is Iraq merely America’s shadow, or is there room for Iraqis anywhere in this picture?

What Samuel’s describes as this administration’s willingness to accept tragedy can also be seen as the required measure of indifference that makes it possible to look the other way.

The desire to make things better in Syria and Iraq is not contingent solely on an assessment of U.S. capabilities; it is more importantly a reflection of the degree to which Syrian and Iraqi lives matter to Americans.

The evidentiary record clearly shows that the scale of this tragedy all too accurately reflects the breadth of American indifference.

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How the ‘Green Zone’ helped destroy Iraq

Emma Sky writes: While the United States has been fixated on the Islamic State and the liberation of Mosul, the attention of ordinary Iraqis has been on the political unraveling of their own country. This culminated on Saturday when hundreds of protesters breached the U.S.-installed “Green Zone” at the heart of Baghdad for the first time and stormed the Iraqi parliament while Iraqi security forces stood back and watched. The demonstrators, supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, toppled blast walls, sat in the vacated seats of the parliamentarians who had fled and shouted out demands for the government to be replaced. A state of emergency was declared.

This incident should be a jarring alarm bell to Washington, which can no longer ignore the disintegration of the post-Saddam system it put in place 13 years ago. The sad reality is that Iraq has become ungovernable, more a state of militias than a state of institutions. As long as that state of affairs continues, even a weakened Islamic State, which has been losing territory and support, will find a home in Iraq, drawing on Sunni fears of corruption and incompetence by the Shia-dominated government.

The greatest threat to Iraq thus comes not from the Islamic State but from broken politics, catastrophic corruption, and mismanagement. Indeed there is a symbiotic relationship between terrorists and corrupt politicians: They feed off each other and justify each other’s existence. The post-2003 system of parceling out ministries to political parties has created a kleptocratic political class that lives in comfort in the Green Zone, detached from the long-suffering population, which still lacks basic services. There is no translation into Arabic of the term kleptocracy. But judging by the protesters chanting “you are all thieves,” they know exactly what it means. [Continue reading…]

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With Iraq mired in turmoil, some call for partition

The New York Times reports: With tens of thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Baghdad to demand changes in government, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appeared before Parliament this week hoping to speed the process by introducing a slate of new ministers. He was greeted by lawmakers who tossed water bottles at him, banged on tables and chanted for his ouster.

“This session is illegal!” one of them shouted.

Leaving his squabbling opponents behind, Mr. Abadi moved to another meeting room, where supportive lawmakers declared a quorum and approved several new ministers — technocrats, not party apparatchiks — as a step to end sectarian politics and the corruption and patronage that support it.

But, like so much else in the Iraqi government, the effort fell short, with only a handful of new ministers installed and several major ministries, including oil, foreign and finance, remaining in limbo. A new session of Parliament on Thursday was canceled.

Almost two years after the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq, forcing the Obama administration to re-engage in a conflict it had celebrated as complete, Iraq’s political system is barely functioning, as the chaotic scenes in Parliament this week demonstrated. [Continue reading…]

Kevin Knodell writes: Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S.-led international coalition have launched a campaign to dislodge Islamic State militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

It’s an ambitious operation involving multiple factions — and one that could determine the country’s fate as it struggles to eject ISIS and hold itself together amid sectarian bickering.

For even as the anti-ISIS coalition wages this decisive battle, Kurdish troops are clashing with Shia militiamen in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Fighting erupted on the night of April 23 after Shia militiamen allegedly threw a grenade into the house of a Peshmerga commander in the town. Several Peshmerga and Shia fighters have died in the ensuing clashes.

Leaders from the two sides worked out a truce, but the peace is fragile. Such internal fighting is becoming a nearly monthly occurrence as the two groups in the town — ostensibly allies in the battle against Islamic State — fail to find common ground aside from their mutual enemy.

It’s a sobering reminder that even if the alliance manages to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq will continue to suffer sectarian violence. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s last chance to end the ‘forever war’

Jennifer Daskal writes: The United States is fighting an unauthorized war. Over the past 19 months, American forces have launched more than 8,800 strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and hit the group’s affiliate in Libya. The United States continues aerial assaults against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is going after militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and killed more than 150 suspected Shabab fighters in Somalia just last month.

This war isn’t limited to drone strikes or aerial bombings. It includes Special Operations forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — and possibly elsewhere. This past weekend, President Obama announced that he would send an additional 250 such troops to Syria.

The primary legal authority for these strikes and deployments comes from the 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed almost a decade and a half ago. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush asked for an open-ended authorization to fight all future acts of terrorism. Wisely, Congress rejected that request, though it did give the president authority to use force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and those that harbored them, the Taliban.

Today, the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and the other key participants in the Sept. 11 attacks are either locked up or dead. But the old authorization lives on. [Continue reading…]

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What cyberwar against ISIS should look like

Fred Kaplan writes: Pentagon officials have publicly said, in recent weeks, that they’re hitting ISIS not only with bullets and bombs but also with cyberoffensive operations. “We are dropping cyberbombs,” Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense, is quoted as proclaiming in Monday’s New York Times. Similar, if less colorful, statements have been made by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and,a week ago, President Obama.

What does it mean? And what effects are these new weapons having on the overall war? After dropping his “cyberbombs” bombshell, Work said, “We have never done that before.” But in fact, the United States has done it before, against Iraqi insurgents, including al-Qaida fighters, back in 2007. And, as I discovered while researching my book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, the effects were devastating.

Standard accounts have credited President George W. Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy for turning the Iraq conflict in the coalition’s favor in 2007. These accounts aren’t wrong, as far as they go, but they leave out another crucial factor — cyberoffensive warfare, as conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command and the National Security Agency. [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of Iraq ‘undoubtedly increased the threat’ of terrorist attacks in UK, said then-head of MI5

Richard Norton-Taylor writes: We can confidently make some assumptions about the Chilcot inquiry, whose report has just been delivered to the Cabinet Office for “national security checks”. It will strongly criticise Tony Blair for promising George Bush that the UK would join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but keeping parliament and the public in the dark; attack ministers, mandarins and top brass alike for allowing Blair to delay military preparations; and damn the catastrophic failure to prepare for the subsequent occupation of the country.

What has received far less attention is the devastating evidence Chilcot heard about the invasion making Britain more vulnerable to terrorism. Blair has always dismissed suggestions that his foreign policy decisions were in any way responsible for encouraging terrorist attacks and “radicalising” young British Muslims as a charge perpetuated by “the left”.

The evidence to Chilcot contradicts his assertion. Lady Manningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time, bluntly told the inquiry the invasion “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in Britain.

She said she communicated her view to Blair via Whitehall’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). “The number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and statements of people as to why they were involved,” all pointed to the increased terrorist threat to the UK. [Continue reading…]

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America’s habit of winning wars then losing the peace

Dominic Tierney writes: In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Washington toppled regimes and then failed to plan for a new government or construct effective local forces — with the net result being over 7,000 dead U.S. soldiers, tens of thousands of injured troops, trillions of dollars expended, untold thousands of civilian fatalities, and three Islamic countries in various states of disorder. We might be able to explain a one-off failure in terms of allies screwing up. But three times in a decade suggests a deeper pattern in the American way of war.

In the American mind, there are good wars: campaigns to overthrow a despot, with the model being World War II. And there are bad wars: nation-building missions to stabilize a foreign country, including peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. For example, the U.S. military has traditionally seen its core mission as fighting conventional wars against foreign dictators, and dismissed stabilization missions as “military operations other than war,” or Mootwa. Back in the 1990s, the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said, “Real men don’t do Mootwa.” At the public level, wars against foreign dictators are consistently far more popular than nation-building operations.

The American way of war encourages officials to fixate on removing the bad guys and neglect the post-war stabilization phase. When I researched my book How We Fight, I found that Americans embraced wars for regime change but hated dealing with the messy consequences going back as far as the Civil War and southern reconstruction. [Continue reading…]

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How the expanding U.S. role in Iraq is kept quiet by pretending it’s not expanding

The New York Times reports: There are roughly 5,000 American service members in Iraq according to current Pentagon estimates, but the number often varies, sometimes daily, by hundreds. That number is higher than the cap the White House set last year, which limited the number of troops to be deployed to Iraq to 3,870. But under policies created by the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, service members who are planning to spend less than four months in a war zone are not counted.

Sergeant Cardin [who was killed on March 19] and the Marines [with him at Fire Base Bell, south of Mosul] were scheduled to be deployed in Iraq temporarily, so they did not count against the cap.

At the height of the war in 2007, the United States had roughly 165,000 troops deployed in 500 bases and outposts across Iraq. Mr. Obama, who ran for president in 2008 vowing to end the United States’ involvement, fulfilled his pledge when he pulled all American troops out of the country in 2011. But as the Islamic State has strengthened its hold in the region in the past two years, Mr. Obama has sent thousands of American service members back in. [Continue reading…]

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Rory Fanning: Talking to the young in a world that will never truly be ‘postwar’

The third time around, the Pentagon evidently wants to do it right — truly right — this time.  What other explanation could there be for dispatching 12 generals to Iraq (one for every 416 American troops estimated to be on the ground in that country, according to Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast).  And keep in mind that those 12 don’t include the generals and admirals overseeing the air war, naval support, or other aspects of the campaign against the Islamic State from elsewhere in the Middle East or back in the U.S., nor do they include generals from allied forces like those of Australia and Great Britain also in Iraq.  Youssef offers a “conservative” count of 21 “flag officers,” including allies, now in that country to oversee the war there. Among other things, they are undoubtedly responsible for ensuring the success of the major goal proclaimed by both Washington and Baghdad for 2016: an offensive to retake the country’s second largest city, Mosul. Only weeks ago, it got off to a rousing start when the Iraqi army recaptured a few obscure villages on the road to that city.  Soon after, however, the offensive reportedly ground to a dispiriting halt when parts of the American-retrained and rearmed Iraqi Army (which had collapsed in June 2014 in the face of far smaller numbers of far more determined Islamic State militants) began to crumble again, amid mass desertions.

In the meantime, in both Iraq and Syria, U.S. operations seem to be on an inexorable mission-creep upward, with ever more new troops and special ops types heading for those countries in a generally under-the-radar manner, assumedly with the objective of someday justifying the number of generals awaiting them there. Somewhere in a top-heavy Pentagon, there surely must be an office of déjà vu all over again, mustn’t there?  (And talking about déjà vu, last week the U.S. launched yet another air strike in Somalia, supposedly knocking off yet another leader of al-Shabab, the indigenous terror movement. If you could win a war by repeatedly knocking off the leaders of such movements, the U.S. would by now be the greatest victor in the history of warfare.)

Meanwhile in Afghanistan… but do I really have to tell you about the ground taken by the resurgent Taliban in the last year, the arrival of ISIS in that country, the halting (yet again) of withdrawal plans for U.S. forces almost 15 years into the second American war there, or other tales from the crypt of this country’s never-ending wars?  I think not.  Even if you haven’t read the latest news, you can guess, can’t you?

And this, of course, is exactly the repetitive world of war (and failure) into which the young, especially in America’s poorest high schools, are being recruited, even if they don’t know it, via JROTC.  It’s a Pentagon-funded program that promises to pave the way for your future college education, give meaning to your life, and send you to exotic lands, while ensuring that the country’s all-volunteer military never lacks for new troops to dispatch to old (verging on ancient) conflicts. As Ann Jones has written, “It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world. With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn’t call it that. Its term is ‘youth development program.’” So let’s offer thanks for small favors when someone — in this case, ex-Army Ranger and TomDispatch regular Rory Fanning (author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America) — feels the urge to do something about that massive, militarized propaganda effort in our schools.  In my book, Fanning is the equivalent of any 12 of our generals and we need more like him both in those schools and in our country. Tom Engelhardt   

The wars in our schools
An ex-Army Ranger finds a new mission
By Rory Fanning

Early each New Year’s Day I head for Lake Michigan with a handful of friends. We look for a quiet stretch of what, only six months earlier, was warm Chicago beach. Then we trudge through knee-deep snow in bathing suits and boots, fighting wind gusts and hangovers. Sooner or later, we arrive where the snowpack meets the shore and boot through a thick crust of lake ice, yelling and swearing as we dive into near-freezing water.

It took me a while to begin to understand why I do this every year, or for that matter why for the last decade since I left the military I’ve continued to inflict other types of pain on myself with such unnerving regularity. Most days, for instance, I lift weights at the gym to the point of crippling exhaustion. On summer nights, I sometimes swim out alone as far as I can through mats of hairy algae into the black water of Lake Michigan in search of what I can only describe as a feeling of falling.

[Read more…]

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An American interrogator’s memories of Abu Ghraib

In his newly released book, Consequence: A Memoir, Eric Fair writes: I take the time to ask the general about his life and learn what I can about Iraq. I do this with most prisoners, whether they have intelligence value or not. When I write the report, I’m supposed to call this the approach phase. I’m supposed to be building rapport. Some interrogators talk about how good they are at this, how they develop relationships with prisoners and come to some sort of understanding, opening lines of communication that will eventually produce good intelligence.

It’s all bullshit. This is Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis hate all of us.

As I talk to the general about the village where he grew up, his service in the Iran-Iraq War, and how much he loves his sons, I ignore the memories from the previous night, when I interrogated a young man in one of the uncomfortable interrogation booths. I made him stand with his arms in the air until he dropped them in exhaustion. He lied to me, said he didn’t know anything about the men he was captured with or the bomb that had been buried in the road. So I hurt him. Now I’m in a decent room serving decent tea and acting like a decent man. The comfortable interrogation booth is all I need to convince myself that the general and I are enjoying this conversation. I’ve fallen for my own stupid trick. When I pour the tea and turn up the heater, I complete the illusion.

As we drink our tea, the translator starts a conversation with the general about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Iraq and how her Muslim neighbors always took good care of her. I was an Arabic linguist in the Army, and while my language skills have faded,

I understand enough to allow the translator to steer the conversation for a bit. The general says he was never very religious, but as he gets older he attends Friday prayers more often. The translator seems to like him. I do, too. I pretend the general feels the same way about me.

I talk about growing up in Pennsylvania and attending a Presbyterian church as a boy and how hearing the call to prayer from the mosques of Baghdad reminds me that I should be praying to my god more often. “No, no,” the general says in English. “Not a different god. Same god. Same god.” He points at both the translator and me.

“We are same god.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast interviewed Fair: Your upbringing as a devout Presbyterian plays a large role in the pages of Consequence, and you very openly explore the role that faith has had on your life, before, during and after Iraq. Why was that important to you?

It’s a foundational part of who I am and how I view my place in my world. And it has been my entire life, just how I was raised and how I’m raising my son now. It’s been a lifelong upbringing. I remember a youth pastor teaching me as child that faith was not this mystical experience, or not just it. Faith takes a lot of work and it takes a lot reading and care. Having that foundation helped me prepare for when things went totally wrong, which will happen one way or another to just about everybody.

Since Iraq, I will say that I’m far more cautious to suggest that my faith gives me any sort of right or privilege to tell anyone else what they’re doing is right or wrong. Approaching my faith with this type of humility is something I learned to do more of over time.

“I want him to be comfortable in the quiet.” This is my favorite line in a book full of beautiful writing. It’s about your son and his own developing faith, but what does Being Comfortable in the Quiet mean to you now, as a person, father and author?

Growing up in the Bethlehem community, the Presbyterian Church had this beautiful choir, a very well known choir, at least in our area. Bethlehem Steel had purchased this beautiful pipe organ for the church many years before … anyhow, every Sunday, they’d put on this incredible, incredible performance. Afterwards, though, there’d be nothing but silence. You were not to applaud or express outward admiration. And if you did, you were looked upon as someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing. The idea was that you modeled everything in your life after this approach—you don’t do things for show, or with expectations of affirmation. You simply just had to be comfortable in the quiet, and had to be willing to listen, and listen in a way that meant actually hearing what others were saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.

The theological side of that quiet is when a person can experience God, or the Holy Spirit, or something spiritual, or what have you. Those moments of quiet are when we all chart our course of life, whatever it may be. And that’s what I want for my son.

“War stories aren’t for me.” We’ve talked before about hearing that from friends and readers alike. What’s your response to that sort of mindset, especially in regards to Consequence?

Well, certainly a reader can make their own decision, but I’m of the thought that war stories are, unfortunately, for everyone. That’s particularly the case in a country such as ours, a democracy, a republic. On some level there’s an obligation to be engaged with some war stories … that doesn’t mean that people have to read mine, but I think that if someone wants to self-identify as well informed, and well-read, and as a good citizen of the country, you need to interact and encounter this stuff. Literature is just one way to do that. [Continue reading…]

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New threats rose as U.S. apathy became policy

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Garry Kasparov writes: The 21st century has been marked by two complementary trends in global security: the rise of new and unexpected threats and the return of old ones. Terrorist organizations have adapted modern technology to deadly purpose and paired it with global ambition. Nineteen well-trained individuals killed more Americans on 9/11 than the entire Japanese fleet killed in Pearl Harbor. Our ubiquitous smartphones and social networks turned out to be agnostic tools, serving both good and evil. They are boons for economic empowerment and cultural exchange, but also allow terror movements to recruit internationally, creating a homegrown terror threat that no border wall or refugee ban will prevent.

The old menaces of the 20th century have reappeared in updated forms. Communism as a political ideology is as bankrupt as ever, but the aggressive despotism that enforced it for decades before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union has returned to the world stage, due largely to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States, a global hegemon alternately over-eager or reluctant, has reacted in dramatically inconsistent ways to the new threats while mostly ignoring the resurgence of the old ones.

The checks and balances that frustrate every president domestically do little to prevent the commander-in-chief from wielding the power of life and death all over the world. The overwhelming military might of the United States is inherently agnostic as well. It can be used to attack or to defend, to protect innocent lives or to take them, to remove dictatorships or to support them.

The use of this fearsome power is guided by the American constitution and the founding American values of democracy and freedom. But it is up to the occupant of the White House to follow the Constitution and to live up to those values. The executive has found countless ways to evade checks on his authority, from signing “agreements” instead of treaties, to escalating foreign “police actions” instead of declaring war. American values have been applied selectively as well, as decades of relative unity in containing the Communist threat has given way to a neo-isolationist trend in both major American political parties. Instead of debating how the U.S. should act on the world stage, today’s presidential candidates are arguing about whether or not the U.S. should act at all. The specter of the 2003 Iraq War looms over every potential American action.

Such reflection is commendable, but in the seven years of the Obama administration we have seen that inaction can also have the gravest consequences. Inaction can fracture alliances. Inaction can empower dictators and provoke terrorists and enflame regional conflicts. Inaction can slaughter innocent people and create millions of refugees. We have the horrific proof in Syria, where Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” has been painted over in blood. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA just declassified the document that supposedly justified the Iraq invasion

Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.

Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]

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Nostalgia for the Saddam era is thwarting a truly united Iraq

Rasha Al Aqeedi writes: Yearning for Saddam’s Iraq, in many cases, has little to do with Saddam or his style of ruling.

As Nada, a Twitter personality with a significant following among frustrated Sunnis, put it: “Many love Iraq and are heart-broken to witness its deterioration, which they feel happened after the invasion and the emergence of failing leaders.”

Dina Al Azawi, a writer now living in the United States but who has a large Facebook following in Iraq, lost her brother and cousin in the violence that engulfed the country in 2004.

“Under Saddam, our foreign policy was balanced, and the world respected us,” she wrote. “Iraq was not a proxy for a foreign agenda. Yes, we were independent and sovereign. It was a tyranny, but it was a state. Iraq does not even resemble a state today. It is not about who rules, it is about how we were ruled.”

She is one of many Iraqi Sunnis who compare life before and after the 2003 fall of Saddam, often concluding that tyrannical rule is better than the chaos of today’s Iraq.

More than two million Sunnis in Iraq are displaced. The government has accomplished little in the way of reconciliation and thousands of Sunnis remain in prisons without trial. Meanwhile, no charges have been laid over the horrific massacre of Hawija in 2013 when government security forces fired at peaceful unarmed protesters, killing 54 and injuring hundreds. More recently, news of Shia militias’ continuing torture of Sunnis has been confirmed. Nostalgia for better days is predictable.

Ihsan Nouri, a political writer, said he understood what was driving this: “They had the best posts in the governments and military. They lived in the posh areas of Baghdad and they were respected wherever they went; just their last name is enough to get them out of any fix. Most of those people were Sunnis.” [Continue reading…]

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How Iraq warped Obama’s worldview

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Shadi Hamid writes: On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing war in Iraq—perhaps, in retrospect, the most important speech he ever gave. He was right, of course, and the foreign-policy establishment was largely wrong. The problem is that politicians who were right about Iraq tend to overestimate what that says about their foreign-policy judgment. For Obama, the effects of being right are magnified. He became president, in part, because of Iraq and the considerable damage the conflict had done to the country. Obama offered the promise of a decisive correction and, for true believers, a kind of spiritual atonement.

It is unclear what being right on Iraq would mean for your likelihood of being right on Syria, since the contexts in question are, in a way, opposites: Civil war in Iraq began after the United States intervened. Civil war in Syria happened in the absence of intervention. History will have to judge, but it may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions. The tragedy of Iraq, if you weren’t careful, was likely to distort your perception of everything that followed, for wholly understandable reasons.

Iraq’s dark shadow seems to be everywhere in Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating yet unsettling exchanges with Obama. “Multilateralism regulates hubris,” Obama says. And he is right: It does. What is left unsaid is why, exactly, regulating hubris should, seven years after the conclusion of the Bush era, remain a primary preoccupation. It is hard to imagine any world leader citing the hubris of overextension as the problem that the United States, today, must take extra care to correct for or guard against. Obama has already corrected for it, many times over. [Continue reading…]

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No government is more responsible for ISIS’s growth than Assad’s

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Kyle Orton writes: Last week, a judgment in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., awarded nearly $350 million to the families of two Americans killed in Jordan in 2005 by the predecessor organization to the Islamic State (ISIS). The important point of the case was who the court found liable: the regime of Bashar al-Assad, currently presenting itself to the world as the last line of defense to a terrorist takeover of Syria. This case highlights a neglected history, which began in 2002, where the Assad regime underwrote ISIS and fostered its growth, first to destabilize post-Saddam Iraq and later Lebanon, and since 2011 to discredit and destroy the uprising against Assad in Syria.

The group now known as ISIS was founded in early 2000 with Al-Qaeda seed money at a camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. ISIS’ founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did not formally swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden until 2004, but the two pooled resources, notably on the Millennium Plot, which was meant to target Zarqawi’s Jordanian homeland and Los Angeles International Airport.

After the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, Bin Laden went to Pakistan and Zarqawi went to Iran. Zarqawi then moved into Iraqi Kurdistan in April 2002, joining Ansar al-Islam, a group he and Al-Qaeda had co-sponsored, which was waging war against the elected Kurdish government that was protected by the Anglo-American no-fly zone. Ansar was penetrated at senior levels by agents of the Saddam Hussein regime, according to Kurdish intelligence, which also caught Saddam providing “logistical support, money, weapons, transportation [and] safe houses” to Ansar. Any enemy of the Kurds was a friend of Saddam’s — even before the reorientation of Saddam’s foreign policy in the mid-1980s toward instrumentalizing Islamist groups for the Baathist government’s own ends (which was later extended to internal policy).

By May 2002, Zarqawi was in Baghdad with a group of more than a dozen Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, including: Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, a long-time Qaeda-affiliated Egyptian who was arrested in 2014 while training jihadists in Libya, Thirwat Shehata, and Abu Humam al-Suri, who went on to become the military chief of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria). Zarqawi, who had “relatively free” movement within Iraq, departed Iraq in the early summer of 2002 to go on a recruitment-drive in the Levant.

First, Zarqawi went to Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian camp in southern Lebanon known for its Islamist militancy, and then to Syria. Zarqawi recruited numerous Syrians, notably ISIS’ current spokesman, Taha Falaha, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. From Syria, Zarqawi organized — with the complicity of Assad — the assassination of a U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley, in Jordan. More importantly, Zarqawi set up, in collaboration with the Syrian secret police, the networks that would bring the foreign jihadists into Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

During the invasion of Iraq, Mahmoud al-Aghasi (pseudonym: Abu al-Qaqa), a Salafi agitator in Aleppo, had gone door-to-door rounding up young men to go and wage jihad in Iraq, who were then allowed to pass into Iraq unhindered by Syrian border guards. Al-Aghasi was an asset of Assad’s intelligence. Throughout the entire U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Syria was the main conduit for ISIS’ foreign volunteers who formed the overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers. [Continue reading…]

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