State of the Union

ISIS, the Neocons, and Obama’s Choices

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Though Congress and the president are out of town, the final weeks of August have seen the arrival of an unexpectedly critical moment. The brutal beheading of James Foley by ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) confirmed that there remains a Sunni jihadist terrorism problem in the Mideast: decimating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden didn’t end it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that America’s destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003 created the opportunity for ISIS to grow and thrive, as America’s Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, gave ISIS financial backing.

How to respond? The usually wise Andy Bacevich suggests that ISIS constitutes a negligible threat to America, a superpower an ocean away, that bombing it has become—like bombing elsewhere, America’s substitute for a genuine national security strategy. Bacevich suggests we ought to butt out, except perhaps to give aid to countries genuinely threatened by ISIS. There is much to this argument, as there is little inclination from the American people to send ground troops once again into Iraq. And even if we were willing to reconstitute and send an occupation force, what good would it do? In a similar vein, Paul Pillar argues that overestimating ISIS as a potential threat is perhaps more likely, and dangerous, than underestimating it.

But few are comfortable with doing little or nothing: ISIS is undoubtedly barbaric, with possible potential to spread. In important ways the situation resembles the months after 9/11, in which America were brutally confronted with the sudden emergence of Sunni extremism which had not previously been deemed a major problem.

Then as now, an influential group of neoconservatives, tightly allied with Israel, had a very specific idea of what they wanted the United States to do. The neocons then—and still do—aspired for an almost endless series of American wars and invasions across the entire Middle East. Because in 2001 we were already engaged in a sort of shadow war with Saddam Hussein—Iraq was under a semi-blockade and America was enforcing a no fly zone over the country—Iraq was the logical starting point. But for the neocons Iraq was only a beginning. “Real men want to go to Tehran” was the neoconservative semi-jokey catchword during that time, and they quite seriously expected that after Baghdad was digested as an appetizer, they could steer the United States into war with Iran—then as now a top Israeli priority. That an American war with Iran was an Israeli priority does not mean Israel opposed the Iraq war: polls at the time indicated that Israel was the only country in the world where large popular majorities were enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and Israeli politicians were regularly invited to appear as guests American news talk shows in order to beat the Iraq invasion drums. Steve Walt’s and John Mearsheimer’s indispensable book The Israel Lobby, contains pages filled with quotations from Israeli leaders making hawkish pronouncements to American audiences; the quotes are a necessary corrective to present to present Israeli efforts to proclaim that an American invasion of Iraq was never really an Israeli objective.

If ISIS is to be contained or defeated without using American ground troops, it is necessary to examine the regional forces ready to fight it. There are of course the Kurds, a small group which can perhaps defend its own region, if that. The biggest potential player is Iran. With its majority Shia population Iran takes a dim view of Sunni jihadism; the Iranian population was pretty much the only one in the Muslim world to display open sympathy with Americans after 9/11. By the standards of the Middle East, it is a scientific powerhouse, with a large freedom aspiring middle class, and considerable artistic community. According to published reports, Iranian tanks have reportedly engaged ISIS near the Iranian border—probably with American approval. We are likely, I would guess, to hear more about Iranian tank brigades in the coming months, even root for them.

The other serious force willing to fight ISIS is Syria, led by the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Assad is a dictator, as was his father. His regime is strongly supported by Syria’s Christians, by Iran, and by Hezbollah, the Sh’ite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has been caught up in civil war of shocking brutality for the past four years. The largest faction opposing him is ISIS—and American arms distributed to the Syrian “rebels” have often ended up in ISIS hands. By opposing Assad, the United States has in effect been feeding ISIS. Read More…

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How to Defeat the Islamic State

The decisions that determined the fate of the great nations and empires that failed to survive the 20th century are well known. For the Kaiser’s Germany, it was the “blank cheque” to Austria after Sarajevo. For Great Britain, the 1939 war guarantee to Poland. For the Third Reich, it was the June 1941 invasion of Russia. For the Empire of the Sun, the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. And for the Soviet Empire, it was the invasion of Afghanistan.

As for the United States, historians may one day concur with the late Gen. Bill Odom. For the lone superpower to survive that century, the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was the most disastrous blunder in its history. George W. Bush held out the promise of a peaceful Mesopotamian democracy as a magnet for all Arab nations. What we produced is a broken land awash in blood, a country severed by tribe and faith: a Kurdish north, Shia south and a Sunni west controlled by the savages of an “Islamic State” even al-Qaeda hates and fears.

In Syria, where the United States has been aiding rebels to bring down Bashar Assad, that Islamic State now controls the northern and eastern half of the country. In Libya, where we delivered the air and missile strikes to smash Col. Gadhafi’s forces, Islamist fanatics have gained the upper hand in the civil war for control of that country. In all three countries, the United States, which claimed to be battling dictatorship to bring democracy, helped to create the power vacuum these Islamists have moved to fill.

We are the enablers of the Islamic State.

How grave is the threat? ISIS is a “direct threat to our homeland” says Rep. Peter King. “An existential threat” echoes Sen. Lindsey Graham, “I think of an American city in flames.” The Islamic State “is beyond anything we’ve seen,” says Sec. Chuck Hagel, an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” America is “in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in,” says Sen. Jim Inhofe, “They’re crazy out there. And they are rapidly developing a method to blow up a major U.S. city.”

Undeniably, these are bloodthirsty religious fanatics who revel in beheadings and crucifixions and have exhibited battlefield bravery and skill. But are 17,000 jihadi fighters in landlocked regions of Iraq and Syria really an imminent and mortal threat to an America with thousands of nuclear weapons and tens of thousands of missiles and bombs and the means to deliver them?

How grave is this crisis? Consider the correlation of forces. Who are the vocal and visible friends and fighting allies of ISIS? They are nonexistent. Read More…

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Congress Must Vote Before Iraq War III

gary718 / shutterstock

Last week, we were told there were 40,000 Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain facing starvation if they remained there, and slaughter by ISIS if they came down. But a team of Marines and Special Forces that helicoptered in has reported back that, with a corridor off the mountain opened up by U.S. air strikes, the humanitarian crisis is over. The few thousand who remain can be airdropped food and water. The rest can be brought out. The emergency over, President Obama should think long and hard about launching a new air war in Iraq or Syria. For Iraq War III holds the promise of becoming another Middle East debacle, and perhaps the worst yet.

America would be entering this war utterly divided. We are not even agreed on who the enemies are. Hillary Clinton thinks we should be tougher on Iran and that Obama blundered by not aiding the Syrian rebels when they first rose up to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Veteran diplomats Ryan Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering argue that Assad is not the real enemy. The Islamic State is, and we should consider a ceasefire between the Free Syrian Army and Assad.

“It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State,” they write, “Assad is evil but … he is certainly the lesser evil.” Crocker-Luers-Pickering also argue that the crisis calls for the United States to accept the nuclear deal with Iran that was on the table in July and work with Tehran against ISIS. Iranians and Americans are already rushing weapons to the Kurds, who have sustained a string of defeats at the hands of the Islamic State. ”A new strategic relationship between the United States and Iran may seem impossible and risky,” the diplomats write, “yet it is also necessary and in the interests of both. While an alliance is out of the question, mutually informed parallel action is necessary.”

If we could work with the monster Stalin to defeat Hitler, is colluding with the Ayatollah beyond the pale?

Other arguments shout out against a new American war. How could we win such a war without the U.S. ground troops Obama pledged never to send, and the American people do not want sent? Air power may keep ISIS from overrunning Irbil and Baghdad, but carrier-based air cannot reconquer the vast territory the Islamic State has occupied in Iraq. Nor can it defeat ISIS in Syria.

If Obama did launch an air war on ISIS in Syria, our de facto ally and the principal beneficiary of those strikes would be the same Syrian regime that Obama and John Kerry wanted to bomb a year ago, until the American people told them no and Congress refused to vote them the authority. For such reasons, the demand of Sens. Tim Kaine and Rand Paul—that before Obama takes us back to war in Iraq, or into a new war in Syria, Congress must debate and authorize this war—is a constitutional and political imperative.

The questions Congress needs to answer are obvious and numerous. Read More…

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Hillary the Hawk: Who Will Challenge Her?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In her much-parsed interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Hillary Clinton reveals that she believes nothing in the American political landscape has changed since October 2002. That’s when she cast her vote to go to war against Iraq. That vote gave oxygen to Barack Obama’s campaign against her in 2008, leading to an eight year delay to Clinton’s presidential ambitions. It was a vote to destroy one of the secular regimes in the Mideast, a brutal dictatorship certainly, but one which kept the religious jihadists, including Al Qaeda, at bay. If you believe, as Peter Hitchens put it, that every politician and commentator who supported the Iraq war should have that fact noted, in large red letters besides everything they write and displayed on the podium every time they speak—a penance which can removed when those who were killed and maimed as a result are no longer killed or maimed, Hillary should now be known as the most important Iraq war enabler still active in presidential politics. George W. Bush has retired to portrait painting. Cheney is not running, nor Tony Blair. Of the political pillars of that era, major figures whose collaboration with the neocons helped shut down a meaningful national debate about whether to go to war, Hillary is the most substantial still standing.

When speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton claimed to be all “hepped up” about the rise of jihadism—particularly the advance of ISIS. But oddly enough, no policy position she staked out in that interview had anything to do with combatting ISIS. Who are the major mideastern opponents of the Sunni jihadist group in the region? Apart from the Kurds, there are two: the government of Syria, which has actually been winning a war against fundamentalist Islamic rebels, and Iran. Like Iraq under Saddam, Syria is a secular dictatorship, strongly backed by the country’s Christians. Hillary laments only that the United States hasn’t done more to overthrow it.

Then there is Iran—the Shi’ite regime which is the most powerful opponent of Sunni jihadis in the region. But Hillary’s stance towards Iran is pure hostility. Seemingly disowning her own record as secretary of state, which paved the way for Iran nuclear negotiations even before the election of the reformist president Rouhani, she stakes out a position adjacent to the hawkish Israeli one. She says “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they (Iran) did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right.” Hillary barely avoids a direct snub of Wendy Sherman and other American negotiators who began speaking to Iran when she was secretary of state, but the thrust of the interview contains the notion that Iran is an evil place which can’t be trusted with enriching uranium. Adherence to this position is a recipe to for war, because Iran quite clearly is not going to stop enriching uranium.

So to sum up: Hillary regrets the lack of American action against Syria, while seeking to lay the rhetorical foundation for a subsequent war against Iran, all the while claiming to be “hepped up” about the rise of Sunni jihadism. Read More…

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What Kind of Conservatives Are the Warhawks?

Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga

U.S. air strikes since Friday have opened a corridor through which tens of thousands of Yazidis, trapped and starving on a mountain in Iraq, have escaped to safety in Kurdistan.

The Kurds, whose peshmerga fighters were sent reeling by the Islamic State last week, bolstered now by the arrival of U.S. air power, recaptured two towns. But the peshmerga have apparently lost the strategically important town of Jalawla, 20 miles from Iran, the furthest east that ISIS forces have penetrated.

Last week’s gains by the Islamic State caused Republican hawks to flock to the Sunday talk shows. ”ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America,” said Rep. Peter King, John McCain called for bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But using air power to prevent ISIS from seizing the Kurdish capital of Irbil and Baghdad is not enough, said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “We need to go on offense,” he told FOX News, “There is no force within the Mideast that can neutralize or contain or destroy ISIS without at least American air power.”

The Islamic State is “an existential threat” to our homeland, Graham added, asking, “do we really want to let America be attacked?” Came then this warning from Sen. Graham: ”If he [Obama] does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call these guys, they’re coming here. This is not just about Baghdad, not just about Syria. It is about our homeland.”

“I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and Iraq,” said Graham, “Mr. President … what is your strategy to stop these people from attacking the homeland?” This semi-hysterical talk of an “existential threat” to the “homeland,” and the dread specter of “an American city in flames” is vintage war party, designed to panic us into launching a new war.

But before allowing these “Cassandras” to stampede us back into the civil-sectarian Middle East wars that resulted from our previous interventions, let us inspect more closely what they are saying. If ISIS’ gains are truly an “existential threat” to the republic and our cities are about to “go up in flames,” why did these Republican hawks not demand that President Obama call back Congress from its five-week vacation to vote to authorize a new war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

After all, King, McCain, and Graham belong to a party that is suing the president for usurping Congressional powers. Yet, they are also demanding that Obama start bombing nations he has no authority to bomb, as ISIS has not attacked us. King, McCain and Graham want Obama to play imperial president and launch a preemptive war that their own Congress has not authorized. What kind of constitutionalists, what kind of conservatives are these? Read More…

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Iraqi-American Christians Pray, and Protest, for Peace

As the Islamic State forces northern Iraq’s religious minorities—Christians, Shia Muslims, and Yazidis—to flee, convert, or die, the United States has begun dropping humanitarian aid as well as bombs in an effort to stave off genocide, despite many Americans’ trepidation at getting involved in Iraq again. But many Iraqi-Americans, especially members of the Chaldean Catholic community, have long been protesting and praying for some kind of action.

Chaldean Catholics have a long history in the United States, but their numbers have been growing in past decades as they have fled from aggressors in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic State alike. The American Spectator’s Lucy Schouten recalled their exodus:

Most [U.S. refugees] joined the Chaldean Christian community in Michigan, which began in the 1870s. They had helped build the automobile industry, saving factory wages to bring family members to the land of opportunity. The Detroit community of Chaldeans now numbers 200,000 and has associations for every profession from pharmaceutics to CPAs.

The Iraqi Christians were an enterprising group and established smaller communities in San Diego, Chicago, Arizona, and Las Vegas, while maintaining ties to faith, family, and their home country community.

That community continued to grow and flourish even after the war ended, although, as Schouten put it, “most Americans would not now call Detroit a land of opportunity.”

Now, the community has come together to support family and friends across the ocean. The federal building in downtown Detroit has seen several rallies over the past two weeks. An August 1 procession saw a thousand Iraqi-Americans pray for peace while carrying a large cross around Mother of God Chaldean Church in Southfield. The Detroit Chaldean community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for humanitarian aid in Iraq through parish collections and a new online diocesan initiative, HelpIraq.org.

Detroit Chaldeans have partnered with their smaller, but just as active, brethren in California to raise awareness. San Diego’s “Little Baghdad” neighborhood in El Cajón is home to the second largest Iraqi-American community, including vibrant activists from protest rappers to visiting Iraq-based nuns. Many members of the community have family and friends suffering back in Iraq, and local doctor John Kasawa has noted an uptick in anxiety and depression in the neighborhood as the violence takes a toll “on the collective conscious.”

Little Baghdad’s most visible leader is local entrepreneur and Ending Genocide in Iraq spokesman Mark Arabo, who had been working with Congress and the administration on anti-genocide action and humanitarian aid for months before news of the airstrikes came last week. He now plans to go to the United Nations, where he hopes to convince leaders to give asylum to the nearly half-million newly displaced Iraqi Christians. Meanwhile, some are already preparing for new arrivals in San Diego.

Arabo has described the decision the U.S. faces in Iraq as “an honorable predicament.” In considering the extent of military intervention, the U.S. is “specially positioned to be viewed as a failure for foreign inaction, and ‘imperialist’ for our willingness to act,” he said. “I tend to view our foreign role as a nation of great power, blessed with a moral obligation to enact change on a global scale. This, I must stress, is a blessing.”

Not all members of the Chaldean community agree. “We do not want to see American [sic] involved in a third war in Iraq, Gulf War 3.0. We don’t want that,” Bishop Bawai Soro of the San Diego Chaldean diocese told local news. “At the same time, we want ISIS to be stopped.”

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U.S. Foreign Policy on Trial, With Daniel McCarthy & Dinesh D’Souza

CSPAN
CSPAN

TAC editor Daniel McCarthy recently debated filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza at the annual FreedomFest gathering in Las Vegas. CSPAN was there to broadcast the trial-format debate, with witnesses including Grover Norquist, Steve Forbes, Brig. Gen. Michael Meese, and Doug Casey. Fox Business Channel’s Kennedy served as presiding judge.

Watch the debate here.

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War in Ukraine Feeds a War of Words in the U.S.

As we mark the centenary of the Great War this month, the crisis in eastern Ukraine continues to spiral out of control with no end to the bloodshed in sight. The fourth, and most recent, report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, covering the period between June 5 and July 15 2014, makes for depressing reading. Among many other findings, the report notes that most of the casualties between the 10th and 15th of July “have been the result of intense shelling of villages, towns and cities, the so-called ‘collateral damage’ to the fighting that is taking place in and around population centers…there has not been sufficient precaution taken to preventing death and injury to civilians.”

The report documents a series of “egregious human rights abuses” committed by the rebels in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as a growing humanitarian crisis within Ukraine. According to the report, as of July 15, there were nearly 87,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), the majority of whom are women and children. The report documents a burgeoning backlash against the wave of IDP’s flooding western villages and towns “in particular, on social media, further dividing opinions between east and west.”

The report continues, lamenting the fact that “people trapped in areas controlled by the armed groups continue to be killed as the heavy shelling continues from both sides.” Yet, “neither side expressed any public willingness to come together to discuss a negotiated peace” though Ukrainian President Poroshenko has agreed to restore the ceasefire he abandoned on July 1 on conditions that would essentially disarm the rebels and hobble the flow of men and weaponry from Russia.

More worrying still are reports that Russia is in the process of abandoning the landmark 1987 INF Treaty. According to Professor Tom Nichols, “Moscow may be coming back to theater-range nuclear weapons as some sort of imagined equalizer against NATO … This is the Kremlin’s bizarre strategy of ‘nuclear de-escalation’, in which the use of just a few nuclear weapons convinces a putative ‘aggressor’ to back off.” This scenario is not so very far-fetched. Consider the following. What if, using the Responsibility-to-Protect doctrine as international legal cover, Putin decides, following the example NATO set in Libya in 2011, to institute a no-fly zone over Donetsk and Luhansk? Would NATO overtly send troops into Ukraine as a response, and if so what then? It is worth noting that in addition to what Professor Nichols tell us, that Moscow dropped its “no first-use” nuclear weapons policy in 1993. According to one estimate, Russia has roughly 1,800 operational tactical nuclear weapons.

All the while, the latest round of salvos in what Russia scholar Gilbert Doctorow has quite rightly described as an “uncivil war of words” over the crisis in Ukraine have continued to be fired. In June, a conference put together by Moscow State University Professor Ed Lozansky to discuss the current state of U.S.-Russian relations was ridiculed by a neoconservative activist as little more than a “pity party for the Kremlin’s die-hard American apologists” insinuating that the participants were little more than a motley band of anti-Semites and 9/11 “truthers.” Read More…

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Amid the Cease-Fires, a Broken Peace Process

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Following yet another ill-fated push at a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the latest Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip has been marked by the making and breaking of cease-fires, the latest reportedly starting this morning. The human toll has been devastating—overwhelmingly so for the Palestinians. Over 1,700 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have died (so far) in the 28-day operation, overtaking the death toll of “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which lasted 22 days. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for yet another inquiry into what it sees as “possible war crimes,” just like it did for “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which produced the Goldstone Report. Israel’s global image is suffering as the Palestinian dead mount.

Whatever the long-term consequences of this latest episode in the most protracted military occupation in modern history, many Israelis may very well come to see Netanyahu’s rejection of the latest peace plan, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as a missed opportunity.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading correspondents, spoke to numerous senior U.S. officials who were involved in the latest Kerry-led push. Barnea’s conversations with these officials provide a rather clear picture of what Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was willing to concede to his Israeli counterparts:

He [Abbas] agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to the border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley – NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over. He accepted the fact that in the Israeli perception, the Palestinians would never be trustworthy.

He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. ‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’ he promised.

In other words, Abbas and the P.A. gave away the house. They conceded key settlement blocs, the Jewish parts of East Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return. A two-state solution based on U.N. Resolution 242, 338, and 194 would not have included such concessions to Israel.

Still, Netanyahu said no, demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that Israel maintain “complete control over the territories.” Then, Israel’s Housing and Construction Ministry, headed by Uri Ariel (“an extremist who opposes any agreement with the Palestinians,” according to Barnea), announced the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem by 700 housing units. The entire Kerry process fell apart, and Abbas began to focus on forming a unity government with Hamas.

This act of national reconciliation, by which Hamas essentially adopted Abbas’ program for dealing with Israel, was what ultimately provoked the latest punishment of Gaza. Hamas provided no repudiation of Mahmoud Abbas’ concessions after moving into reconciliation. Despite its awful charter, Hamas has, according to a 2009 report by the United States Institute of Peace, sent Israel “repeated signals” that it is willing to accept peaceful co-existence in a two-state resolution of the conflict based on international law.

None of this was good enough for the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu’s administration then used the deaths of three Israeli teenagers this past June as a pretext to raid the West Bank, killing five Palestinians and arresting hundreds. This resulted in a barrage of rockets from Hamas about a month after the West Bank raid began, precipitating the current Israeli operation.

Noted U.S. scholar Norman Finkelstein has pointed out in his authoritative account of Operation Cast Lead that, according to Israeli political strategist Avner Yaniv, Israel is reacting violently to what he calls the Palestinians’ “peace offensive.” Yaniv used the phrase in his book Dilemmas of Security (1987) to characterize the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982. According to Yaniv, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at that time, led by Yasser Arafat, was contemplating a two-state solution with the Israelis. The problem was that nobody in Israel wanted to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. So, in September 1981, Israel made plans to invade Lebanon, where the PLO was based at the time. The war that ensued put a stop to any possibilities for serious negotiations.

As history continues to repeat itself in the 21st century, Israel’s track record of bad timing calls into question its willingness to negotiate in good faith. Read More…

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Washington Still Can’t Pick Foreign Clients

White House photo, Pete Souza

As Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, slinks away into retirement and Iraq’s hapless prime minster, Nouri al-Maliki, desperately tries to keep his job despite the onset of civil war, Washington’s faulty judgment about foreign clients is again on display. It is hardly a new development. U.S. political leaders are about as successful at selecting such clients as they are at picking entrepreneurial companies to back financially. Time and again we encounter the foreign policy equivalent of the Solyndra fiasco.

Indeed, the debacle involving Maliki is not even the first time that Washington has woefully misconstrued the political situation in Iraq. During the prelude to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, Bush administration officials assumed that Ahmed Chalabi was the undisputed leader of the Shiite majority and the George Washington of his country. U.S. policymakers seemed to believe that Chalabi would become Iraq’s new leader virtually by acclamation. How badly American would-be nation builders misread the situation became evident in 2005 in Iraq’s first parliamentary election when Chalabi’s party won barely 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat in parliament.

U.S. leaders have not displayed much better judgment regarding political developments in other regions. Washington was ecstatic about Ukraine’s supposedly pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004 and the emergence of Viktor Yushchenko as the country’s new president. In this case, at least the chosen U.S. client started out with considerable domestic backing. Once again, though, U.S. officials managed to pick a leader whose political support evaporated with stunning speed. In the 2007 midterm parliamentary election, his party won merely 14 percent of the vote. When Yushchenko himself ran for re-election in 2010, following a record of corruption rivaling that of the pro-Russian rivals he had denounced and displaced, he garnered a paltry 5.5 percent.

Washington repeatedly miscalculates the extent of domestic support that its preferred clients actually enjoy. Worse, U.S. enthusiasm often seems to peak when its proxies are on the brink of disaster. During a 1981 visit to Manila, Vice President George H.W. Bush lavishly praised Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. “We stand with you sir … We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes.” Barely four years later, massive anti-regime demonstrations forced Marcos to relinquish power and flee the country.

But Bush’s judgment of Marcos’s prospects was astute compared to Jimmy Carter’s shocking failure to understand the precarious position of Washington’s close ally, the Shah of Iran. On New Year’s Eve 1977, Carter made an effusive toast to the Iranian tyrant during a state visit to Tehran. “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled regions of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.” A little more than a year later, Iran’s Islamic revolution ousted the Shah and forced him into exile.

One would hope that such a dismal track record of mistaken judgments over a period of decades would promote greater humility on the part of U.S. foreign policy officials. It is difficult enough to assess the political strengths of players in one’s own country; it is vastly more difficult to do so in foreign countries where our knowledge of the politics and the underlying culture is far more limited. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of such humility. Washington remains deeply involved, trying to dictate, or at least heavily influence, outcomes in countries as diverse as Iraq, Egypt, and Ukraine. The current efforts are not likely to fare any better than previous ventures.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 550 articles and policy studies on international affairs.

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