Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Mission Creep in Iraq -- by Email
By Robin Wright 
The U.S. is nearing the 100th airstrike on Islamic State targets in Iraq. But so far, this is the quietest of the American interventions in Iraq over the past quarter century. Far from the shock-and-awe hoopla, the world is now learning about new U.S. bombings—and a gradually widening mission–by terse email. No big roll-out briefings by top Pentagon brass, as under the past three presidents. Few flashy videos of explosions to impress with success.

It’s almost as if Washington is trying to contain information while it decides on the future scope of engagement and simultaneously tries to contains the expansion of the Islamic State.
Since Aug. 8, the daily routine is an emailed press release from U.S. Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., to the Pentagon press corps. It’s then passed on, with no additional information, from the White House and State Department, to their press corps. Each usually notes four things, briefly.
The five-sentence email Saturday was typically low-key. It cited the vague target (an unspecified vehicle) in a vague location (the vicinity of the Mosul Dam), a broad justification (supporting Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and U.S. personnel, plus humanitarian efforts) and the status of U.S. warplanes (safe).
At the end, the communique noted that the U.S. has conducted 94 airstrikes, with 61 of them in the area around the Mosul Dam. CENTCOM’s Sunday updatebrought the total to 96 airstrikes. That’s the news—and a reflection of the understatement of America’s involvement.
So, in fact, the U.S. intervention is no longer about the plight of the stranded Yazidis, which is what launched America’s re-engagement in Iraq. And it’s not really about protecting American personnel in Irbil, Kurdistan’s capital. U.S. bombers are going directly after the Islamic State in the territory it now claims in its illusionary Caliphate.
In his press comments on the Islamic State last Wednesday, President Barack Obamasketched a dark evil carried out by barbarian thugs . “They have rampaged across cities and villages — killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery,” he said. “They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different religion.”
Yet, as the U.S. nears 100 airstrikes, it’s still unclear how far Washington is prepared to go to deal with those threats or what its long-term strategy may be. Perhaps the Obama administration is waiting to see if the Iraqis can get their political act together in a way that could lure Sunnis back into the fold of a single state. But there’s certainly very little guidance in those CENTCOM emails about how much difference these U.S. airstrikes are making.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Los Angeles Times

What does 'win' actually mean this time around in Iraq?
By ROBIN WRIGHT      Los Angeles Times Aug. 21, 2014

Let's be honest. The United States has crossed the threshold on Iraq. We're in it to salvage the country — again — using American military might.
But the mission has also, very quickly, grown much bigger in less than two weeks. U.S. warplanes are no longer simply helping create escape routes for the Yazidis or protecting American personnel in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. is now directly taking on the world's most militant extremist group, bombing its positions at the Mosul dam and beyond.
And it's probably only the beginning.
President Obama implied as much Monday. The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is "a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed," he told reporters. The United States has a national security interest in making sure "that a group like that is contained, because ultimately they can pose a threat to us."
The U.S., however, is already doing more than containing the Islamic State. Washington has now dispatched warplanes to aggressively push back the Islamic State, and the pretense of doing anything less should end.
But so should the illusion about what it will take to achieve that goal. The Operation Without a Name should not be an operation without a well-defined mission — or without a "winning" exit strategy.
Given the human heartache and political headache from the last Iraq intervention, not to mention the mess left behind, Washington needs to be honest upfront in answering basic questions. I've spent decades on the ground and in the minutiae of the Middle East, including Iraq, and I can't yet discern the specifics of Washington's intentions.
The Operation Without a Name should not be an operation without a well-defined mission -- or without a 'winning' exit strategy.-  
What does "win" actually mean this time around? It's pretty fuzzy right now. We're in that feel-good phase of having helped prevent a genocide. But what's next specifically — and beyond?
An American role is not likely to stop at the Mosul dam, where fighting reportedly resumed a day after Obama said Iraqi forces, with backup from American air power, had reclaimed it.
How long could this mission last, if the Islamic State does not crumble as quickly as the Iraqi army did? I wouldn't bet on weeks. Or even months. This is a new phase in confronting extremism.
And, most of all, what are the potential unintended consequences?
Two leap out: The first and obvious danger is that the Islamic State will target Americans, at home and/or abroad. On Monday, ISIS boasted on its websites, "America will disappear from the map soon on the hands of the knights of al-Khalifa," a reference to its illusionary caliphate. An English-language video also warned, "We will drown all of you in blood" in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. In its first terrorist act against an American, the Islamic State on Tuesday beheaded photojournalist James Foley, who had been held for 21 months.
The president pledged Wednesday, "When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what's necessary to see that justice is done." He vowed to act against the Islamic State.
The second unintended consequence is that, after three years of avoiding intervention, the U.S. may have effectively crossed the threshold on Syria, because the Islamic State will be a threat to minorities and majorities across the region, as well as American interests, if the group holds any territory. The Islamic State controls almost a third of Syria. It has the oil-rich east and is now pushing toward Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south. The Islamic State has slaughtered or threatened tribes and minorities in Syria too. Even if U.S. military muscle pushes it back into Syria, Islamic State forces remain a broader regional threat.
Tragically, given the political polarization in Washington, especially in an election season, any policy debate over answers to these questions is likely to break down on party lines rather than be framed in terms of what is in everyone's long-term interests. So we get sound bites rather than solutions to a real national security threat.

Robin Wright, author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Dictators Diss US for Racial Unrest
By Robin Wright 
How embarrassing is this? Dictators, autocrats and theocrats around the world are lambasting the U.S. for its handling of racial unrest in Missouri.  Palestinians have taken to Twitter to advise protesters in Ferguson on how to handle tear gas. And Amnesty International has sent its people to check on the protests.
The U.S. investment of billions of American dollars to promote democratic values around the world has been undermined by the racial unrest in Ferguson. “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clear up its own human rights record,” Amnesty International tweeted this week.
Several countries that have faced severe criticism in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report are now boldly engaging in a kind of diplomatic touché-to-you in their condemnation of the U.S. Some may be expected from autocratic regimes. But the crisis in Ferguson undermines the moral high-ground that the U.S. has long claimed.
In Russia, which Washington blasted this year for violating the rights of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, the foreign ministry called on “our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country before imposing their dubious experience on other nations.”
In China, which Washington has criticized for widespread “repression and coercion” of ethnic minorities and dissidents, a commentary from the state-run news agency Xinhua reprimanded Washington for its repression. “Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others,” the agency wrote.
In Cuba, which Washington has condemned for limiting freedom of expression, a news website wrote, “Is the Ku Klux Klan coming back with force” in America?
In Iran, which Washington says has engaged in “arbitrary and unlawful killings,” the deputy foreign minister for American Affairs, Majid Takht Ravanchi criticized the U.S. for “racist behavior and oppression.” Mr. Ravanchi is also one of the top negotiators in the nuclear talks with the U.S. The official Islamic Republic News Agency charged that “violence has become institutionalized in the United States in recent years.”
One of the most embarrassing reprimands may be from Egypt, a country that has witnessed two military coups in the past three years and issued more than 1,200 death sentences to dissidents in just two months this spring. It is also a major recipient of American military and economic aid. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry called U.S. authorities to show more restraint and to deal with the protests according to international law—and said it will continue the monitor the situation, almost identical to the language Washington has used in describing Egypt’s unrest over the past three years.

The cost of the tragedy in Ferguson may not just be in America’s image of itself, but the world’s image of the U.S., too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The New Yorker


The announcement was delivered by e-mail. “At approximately 6:45 a.m. EDT, the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists,” the Defense Department press spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby wrote. The message was forwarded by the White House and the State Department to their respective press corps.

Barack Obama is now the fourth U.S. President to bomb Iraq. The first two air strikes were made by F-18s flying off the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, which is currently sailing in the Persian Gulf. It was the carrier’s namesake who put Iraq on the American foreign-policy agenda in 1990, during Operation Desert Storm.
Obama’s reëngagement reflects a doctrine of limiting U.S. military intervention abroad and ending the “long seasons of war,” as he put it in a West Point address on May 28th. But he is willing to use force to prevent genocide or humanitarian catastrophes. In the West Point speech, he said,

We have a real stake — abiding self-interest — in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.

This morning’s air strikes certainly address a humanitarian catastrophe. Some forty thousand Yazidis, a religious minority starving and stranded on a barren mountaintop, are surrounded by ISIS fanatics. Many of the Yazidis are women and children. The Islamic State, as the organization now calls itself, has swept across Iraq from bases in Syria, ruthlessly terrorizing religious minorities. It should be stopped, but airdrops of food and water will not solve the core problems.

Many of the potential pitfalls we now face in Iraq are the same ones that beset the Bush Presidencies and the Clinton Administration. Washington’s calculation is that air strikes will intimidate, contain, or push back an adversary, but the ISIS forces are not the hapless Iraqi Army. They are unlikely to melt away under pressure.

ISIS now holds about a third of Iraq. Last week, it solidified its control by taking seventeen additional towns and targets, including the strategic Mosul Dam. On Thursday, an online statement by ISIS pledged, “Our Islamic State forces are still fighting in all directions, and we will not step down until the project of the caliphate is established, with the will of God.” They are now the toughest group of fighters in the Middle East. They embrace martyrdom by the dozens in suicide bombings. Even the Iranians are afraid of them. A few five-hundred-pound bombs on their artillery positions are unlikely to have significant impact.

The past three Administrations have had to do far more than drop a few bombs. During Operation Desert Storm, which began in January, 1991, the first Bush Administration authorized thirty-eight days of continuous air attacks. To end the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the coalition dropped some two hundred and sixty-five thousand bombs. During Operation Desert Fox—the Clinton Administration’s four-day campaign, in December, 1998, to punish Saddam Hussein for refusing to permit U.N. weapons inspections—more than six hundred bombs and four hundred missiles struck Iraqi military targets. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched in March, 2003, the second Bush Administration supplemented its ground invasion by dropping almost thirty thousand bombs on military targets.

In his West Point speech, Obama said,
Some of America’s most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.

If five-hundred-pound bombs should prove insufficient to end the ISIS threat—to prevent genocide, to halt the advance on the Kurdish city of Erbil, or to protect American personnel in Iraq—then what would? In his hastily arranged address to the nation on Thursday night, Obama outlined the principles for his decision to intervene, but he was silent regarding long-term strategy, to say nothing of how the United States might end military operations. Devising exit strategies has bedevilled all four Administrations.

There is a broader danger. The direct American presence may galvanize more jihadis to the Islamic State. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq until after the United States deployed troops in 2003, an act that fuelled Al Qaeda’s local appeal, on territorial, political, and religious grounds. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is now estimated to have between ten thousand and twenty thousand fighters, including a couple of thousand with Western passports and a hundred or so from the United States.

As the United States confronts ISIS, the dangers that Americans will be targeted at home grow. Last month, the F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, said that the domestic threat emanating from ISIS “keeps me up at night,” that ISISwas a potential “launching ground” for attacks of the kind that occurred on September 11, 2001. The Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, Jr., told ABC News that ISIS, particularly its American jihadis, “gives us really extreme, extreme concern. . . . In some ways, it’s more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as Attorney General.”

Finally, at home, Obama’s decision is deepening political debate over a core foreign-policy issue in the twenty-first century: when and how to use the American military. In a joint statement after Obama’s television address Thursday night, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham dismissed the President’s “half measures” and called for far more aggressive intervention:

The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS. This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting ISIS. It should include U.S. air strikes against ISIS leaders, forces, and positions both in Iraq and Syria. It should include support to Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist ISIS. And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad.

The disputes in Congress, especially in an election year, are only likely to intensify. Those who have long advocated for arming Syrian rebels or for air strikes against Syrian military targets are proclaiming that the current calamity could have been avoided if the Obama Administration had acted earlier. (The situation in Syria is a far worse humanitarian disaster than Iraq, and ISIScontrols large chunks of Syria, too.)
At a time when the United States desperately requires unity of purpose, we are more likely to get self-serving sound bites. Meanwhile, the old questions persist: what to do about Iraq, and how to do it right this time.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The New Yorker

Another Summer, Another Siege: 
Israel's War on the PLO
For forty years, my mother kept every article and letter I wrote from war zones, revolutions, and uprisings on five continents. She collated them, with her notes from our telephone conversations, in bulbous legal binders. I now have a hundred and twenty-six of them stored, floor to ceiling, in two closets that have been converted into bookshelves. This week, as the events in Gaza dominated the news, I pulled out the volumes from the summer of 1982.
I returned to Beirut, off a turbulent flight from the Gulf, just as Israeli warplanes began bombing Palestinian sites near the airport on June 5, 1982. Amid the deafening blasts and sirens that followed, the few of us on the plane scrambled across the tarmac to seek cover in the terminal.
Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization had moved its headquarters from Jordan to Beirut twelve years earlier, and Lebanon had been Israel’s biggest threat ever since. Palestinian rockets landed on Israeli settlements in the northern Galilee. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the United States, had held for almost a year, with only one violation. But a sense of looming confrontation had been building since Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights the previous December. All it needed was a spark.
Two days before I arrived, a Jordanian gunman shot Shlomo Argov, the Israeli Ambassador in London, as he left a diplomatic banquet at the Dorchester Hotel. Israel blamed the P.L.O. (Britain subsequently tied the attack to the Abu Nidal Organization, a radical group named after a renegade who had turned against Arafat. Its goal was apparently to discredit the P.L.O., which had been gaining acceptance in Europe, amid a peace initiative proposed by the Saudis. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later said that a hit list, uncovered in the investigation of Abu Nidal’s London cell, included the P.L.O. representative in London.)
Israeli warplanes immediately pummelled Palestinian targets across Lebanon, especially in the warren of refugee camps near the airport. On the day I landed, President Reagan, pledging to increase U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, urgently appealed to Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, for restraint along the border.
The next day, twenty-five thousand Israeli troops invaded Lebanon by land, sea, and air. Three long columns of tanks barrelled across a thirty-three-mile frontier, blitzing past seven thousand U.N. peacekeepers in a border buffer zone and through the olive and orange groves of southern Lebanon, on a mission to destroy Palestinian positions concealed in caves, wadis, and refugee camps. Begin assured Reagan that Operation Peace for Galilee sought only to push the Palestinians back twenty-five miles, beyond rocket range of the Galilee. “The bloodthirsty aggressor against us is on our doorstep,” he wrote. “Do we not have the inherent right to self-defense?”
Over the next week, Israeli troops, under the command of General Ariel Sharon, penetrated twice as far, capturing about a third of Lebanon and encircling the capital. The siege of West Beirut had begun.
About a half million people lived in the Muslim-dominated half of the capital, a densely packed area of about ten square miles that was home to both the P.L.O. and the American University of Beirut. The Israelis dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets—white one day, pink, blue, or yellow on other days—that warned the Lebanese against sheltering guerrillas and advised civilians to leave. I remember thinking that it looked, in the middle of the torrid summer heat, as if snow were falling on Beirut. I found one of the pink leaflets in my mother’s volumes.
Lebanon had already endured seven years of sporadic civil war, largely street battles with vintage weaponry. The Israeli invasion, with its battleships, advanced U.S.-made bombers, and high-tech tanks, was far more serious. The smell of war’s detritus—the bitter cordite and stench of decaying bodies, mixed with uncollected garbage—was inescapable. I’d covered many conflicts by then, but the bombs and sonic booms from warplanes rupturing the night scared me.
“The windows (now crisscrossed with masking tape to lessen the implosion of glass from bombs) began to rattle from the rockets landing nearby from Israeli gunboats,” I wrote to my parents. “I can’t decide which is worse: the thunder and shaking from shelling or the whizzing rumble of warplanes as they dive on us to offload their bombs.”
It was a summer of chaos and fear, often without water, electricity, or phones, and with dwindling food stocks. I used to go to fetch water from a UNICEF pump and then carry it up seven flights to my apartment. The siege went on week after week, ceasefire after broken ceasefire.

At one point, I reported, “Many private wells are now dry, including the one at Red Cross headquarters,” where officials warned that the cutoff of electricity and fuel for emergency generators threatened all of West Beirut’s hospitals with imminent closure. The local UNICEF director was particularly frustrated by his inability to get permission from the Israelis to bring in baby food, milk, and basic drugs to deal with rampant gastroenteritis among children.

Senior Israeli military officers repeatedly insisted that their mandate was to destroy the enemy while avoiding civilian casualties. I did see Palestinian fighters among the dead and wounded, but the P.L.O. had hidden its fighters, as well as tons of war matériel—rockets, mortars, howitzer shells, ammunition, and more—in an extensive network of tunnels.
The subterranean corridors, which I toured after the war, were reinforced with concrete and included a conference center, showers, and a kitchen. One tunnel had three floors. Some storage areas were large enough to conceal small trucks. I saw thirty rooms and still didn’t see them all. Palestinian commanders had reportedly visited Vietnam in the nineteen-seventies and modelled their network on the tunnels used by the Vietcong fighting the Americans.
The civilian toll far exceeded the damage to either the P.L.O. forces or the organization’s infrastructure. The Israeli use of U.S.-made cluster bombs, which explode mid-air, unleashing many smaller grenade-size explosives, was particularly lethal among children. Phosphorous bombs were equally deadly—and controversial. “The bombardment has become more and more indiscriminate, killing hundreds of civilians,” I reported.
“Famous landmarks have been erased. Buildings have been reduced to mass graves. … Among the facilities hit by Israel over the past nine weeks are five UN buildings, 134 embassies or diplomatic residences, six hospitals or clinics, one mental institute, the Central Bank, five hotels, the Red Cross, Lebanese and foreign media outlets and innumerable private homes and office blocks. While some of these may conceivably have been used as cover for the PLO, what is much more striking is how many undeniable PLO facilities have remained intact.”
Washington condemned the P.L.O. repeatedly, but, as the siege dragged on, relations between the United States and Israel grew increasingly testy over the plight of civilians. In early July, Reagan pressed Israel to lift the blockade of West Beirut and to restore water and electricity. In late July, he put a hold on cluster bombs sent to Israel.
On July 31st, Robert Dillon, the American Ambassador to Lebanon, angrily cabled Washington, “Simply put, tonight’s saturation shelling was as intense as anything we have seen. There was no ‘pinpoint accuracy’ against targets in ‘open spaces.’ It was not a response to Palestinian fire. This was a blitz against West Beirut. Our 21:00 ceasefire announced in advance over local radio stations was transformed instead into a massive Israeli escalation.”
On August 1st, on the eve of a meeting with Israel’s foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, Reagan told reporters, “The bloodshed must stop,” adding that he would make sure that the Israelis “understand exactly how we feel about this.” Pressed on whether he was losing patience, Reagan replied, “I lost patience a long time ago.”
At the meeting the next day, the President told Shamir, “When P.L.O. sniper fire is followed by fourteen hours of Israeli bombardment, that is stretching the definition of defensive action too far.” Both men were noticeably grim-faced in the official photographs.
Reagan had begun to feel repercussions at home and abroad. The American media savaged his Administration as weak and without direction. Time’s Walter Isaacson wrote,

Israeli attacks on West Beirut reinforced the impression that the U.S. is a helpless giant that can neither influence Israeli actions nor come to grips with events in the Middle East. Signs of U.S. ineffectualness in the current crisis have been conspicuous since the day in June when Reagan sent a well-publicized message from the Western economic summit meeting at Versailles urging Begin not to invade Lebanon. Begin sent his troops in the next day. … The stability of the Middle East and the credibility of American diplomacy hinge on whether words or rockets settle the status of the PLO in West Beirut.

The siege lasted ten weeks. More than seventeen thousand Lebanese and Palestinians died; most were civilians. Lebanese officials claimed that a quarter of them were under fifteen years old.  Israel lost more than three hundred and sixty troops. In the end, Israel got some of what it wanted. The P.L.O. was badly battered; Arafat and three-fourths of his fighters were forced into exile. I watched while they fired final rounds from their Kalashnikovs as they marched to ships waiting to divvy them up in eight distant lands. Signs along the road exhorted, “Palestine or Bust” and “This is not Goodbye.”
The Israeli campaign did little, however, to solve the problem of rival nationalisms vying for land to call their own. And its consequences triggered an entirely new set of challenges. The Arab world had given only lip service to the P.L.O. during the siege. Iran was the only country to step in, dispatching eighteen hundred Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. They did not engage Israel—they instead quietly fostered, funded, and armed the embryo of what became Hezbollah.
After the P.L.O. departed, Hezbollah launched its first suicide bomb—then a novel tactic—against Israeli military targets. On April 18, 1983, a car bomber attacked the American Embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. Six months later, suicide bombers blew up a barracks housing U.S. Marines who had deployed to oversee the Palestinian withdrawal. Two hundred and forty-one American servicemen died.
In 1985, Israel’s defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, looked back on the war and reflected,
I believe that, among the many surprises, and most of them not for the good, that came out of the war in Lebanon, the most dangerous is that the war let the Shiites out of the bottle. No one predicted it; I couldn’t find it in any intelligence report. … If, as a result of the war in Lebanon, we replace P.L.O. terrorism in southern Lebanon with Shiite terrorism, we have done the worst [thing] in our struggle against terrorism. In twenty years of P.L.O. terrorism, no one P.L.O. terrorist made himself a live bomb. … In my opinion, the Shiites have the potential for a kind of terrorism that we have not yet experienced.

Israel ended up lingering in Lebanon, at various troops strengths, for nearly two decades. It even made peace with Arafat before finally withdrawing, in 2000, under pressure from Hezbollah. It was the first time that Israel withdrew unilaterally from territory it occupied—without a peace treaty or any tangible political gain.