State of the Union

A Crucial Question for Reformicons

All things being equal, I should be fan of Yuval Levin. I haven’t read his Burke- Paine book, but I’ve read a fair amount of Edmund Burke in my day, and agree with Levin’s take on the importance in intellectual and political history of the Burke-Paine divide. I admire without reservation The Public Interest, the monkish domestic politics quarterly founded by Irving Kristol which made the first large footprints of neoconservativism. Levin has founded a journal, National Affairs, plainly intended to be the heir and successor to The Public Interest, devoted to domestic policy ideas. The magazine is a platform for so-called reform conservatism, a group sometimes labeled “reformicons,” which seeks to rethink conservative domestic policy options in a period of rising inequality and a shrinking and financially insecure middle class.

These are clearly the kinds of problems with which conservatives should be engaged. I concur with Levin and other “reformicons” that domestic conservatism, to be politically relevant, needs to move beyond simplistic tax-cutting and “government is the enemy” notions.

So why does Sam Tanenhaus’s prominently-placed piece about Levin and his cohorts in the Sunday New York Times magazine leave a queasy feeling? Levin  (unsurprisingly depicted as “soft spoken” and “self-deprecating”) is described as “probably the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” by one prominent journalist (Jonathan Chait) and “a one-man Republican brain trust” by another (David Frum). The piece notes reformicon regrets about the defeat of their chief point person in Congress, former majority leader Eric Cantor, and offers a snippet about a New York Historical Society discussion of Levin’s book done with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.

The answer is pretty obvious. Tanenhaus presents to a wide general interest audience the “preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” and yet  erases from consideration the Iraq war or any other foreign policy question. So while it is true that Levin has interesting ideas about what’s wrong with Obama’s health care plan, we are left in the dark about whether he has thoughts about war and peace or America’s role in the world. Perhaps we can infer the answer from Levin’s association with some of the most prominent propagandists for that two-trillion dollar war of aggression, which, more than any war in America’s history, was a war conceived and successfully lobbied by intellectuals based in magazines and think tanks. Does Levin favor, as does Bill Kristol, starting a new American war against Iran? Does he favor, as also does Kristol, an American war against both the Sunni extremists in Iraq and their Iranian enemies at the same time? Would Levin deem such projects “Burkean”? I would be inclined to guess no, but then it is not especially reassuring to find Kristol and David Frum featured so prominently among Levin’s major boosters.

And then there is Eric Cantor. It is apt that the Richmond Republican should be described as one of the leaders of the “Young Guns”–a group of Republican congressmen most receptive to reformicon ideas. But he also holds the distinction of being the first House majority leader in American history to openly collaborate with the leader of a foreign power against the policies of an American president.

My first full-time job in journalism was with The National Interest, a publication founded and published by Irving Kristol as well, and edited by the Welsh-born Australian Owen Harries. The two magazines shared office space. Harries, as it happened, was also an admirer of Edmund Burke. Not infrequently, when the Cold War ended and the neoconservatives began to write chesty pieces about “the unipolar moment” and “benevolent global (American) hegemony” did Harries remind them of Burke’s cautious instincts in international affairs, his dread that Britain be too much feared for its own good.

Of course Yuval Levin, who has lived intellectually with Burke for years (the Burke-Paine book originated as his doctoral dissertation) is, if there can be such a thing, a genuine Burkean. But Levin’s rise in stature in domestic politics cannot help but elevate the reputations of his friends and backers–who seem to be, almost to a man, big backers of the Iraq war and neoconservative foreign policy in general. Virtually every individual mentioned as a Levin associate in Tanenhaus’s piece, save perhaps for Ramesh Ponnuru’s wife April and Michael Strain, was an active promoter of American aggression against Iraq, tub-thumping for the war or writing or editing articles impugning the patriotism of those who opposed it. Thus it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.

One can understand why neoconservatives and those influenced by them (which would include most of the editors and writers at National Review) are eager to have this history swept under the rug and forgotten. It is less easy to understand why Sam Tanenhaus would honor their wish by writing about the “preeminent conservative intellectual” of our era as if issues of war and peace were of no importance whatever.

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Mitt Romney Was Wrong All Along

Further evidence that the Republican Party still ought not to be trusted with guiding U.S. foreign policy comes courtesy of former Romney campaign foreign policy director Alex Wong. Wong, in a Politico essay that nicely captures the new Romney-friendly zeitgeist, tells us that Mitt was actually right all along; that his positions with regard to Syria, Russia, and Iran were far more astute and “clear eyed” than was generally appreciated at the time.

Wong notes:

Perhaps the clearest example of Obama’s failure to recognize a strategic competitor is the case of Russia. Mere months before the president first came into office, Russia had invaded its neighbor Georgia, sending an unmistakable message about the manner in which the Kremlin did business. By then, Vladimir Putin’s Russia had already accumulated a deplorable record on human rights and democratic governance—and it was getting worse. Russia has long used its vast energy resources as a cudgel to coerce other countries. And throughout Obama”s presidency, the Kremlin has routinely stood in the way of international pressure on both the Assad regime and the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Where to begin? As I and many others have repeatedly noted, it was neoconservative puppet-turned Tufts University Senior Statesman Mikheil Saakashvili who provoked the 2008 war with Russia by shelling Russian ethnic enclaves in South Ossetia. So Wong begins with a faulty premise, and then pivots to a criticism of Putin’s domestic record with regard to “human rights” and “governance.” This conflation is common. Republicans like Wong, against all evidence, really do seem to take the tenants of Democratic Peace Theory—the idea that a regime’s internal affairs can predict their approach toward external ones—seriously.

Wong then goes on to note that Putin has “stood in the way” of efforts by the international community to pressure both Syria and Iran. Well that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: as regards Syria, it was Putin who actually pressured his client Assad to work with the U.S. and Russia to gather and destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, thereby saving Obama from having to follow through on his fantastically reckless “red line” ultimatum. Had he not done so, it is entirely possible the U.S. would now be embroiled in yet another war in the Near East, a war that hawks like Wong and his former boss were all too eager in which to embroil us.

As concerns Iran, please consider the following from the nonpartisan International Institute for Strategic Studies nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick:

Amid ongoing tensions over Ukraine, it is worth noting that Russia continues to cooperate closely with the West over Iran. Far from using the Iran issue to retaliate against US and European sanctions, as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ill-advisedly warned it might in mid-March, Russia has helped bolster the US position on the most sensitive aspect of the Iran negotiations: demands for cutbacks in the centrifuge programme. (emphasis added)

As Gov. Rick Perry might say: Oops. Read More…

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Gangs Bust the False Dichotomies of the Child Migration Crisis

The ongoing Central American child migrant crisis gained the national spotlight last week when the president asked Congress for emergency funds to stem the influx. Many of the children, like other immigrants, are looking for work and education, or are trying to reunite with family. But as Ross Douthat has pointed out, the numbers are spiking in large part because the children are following smuggler-spread rumors of amnesty, possibly inspired by the mixed signals of the DREAM Act. Since smugglers make more profit trafficking children than more logistically challenging adults, the administration’s recent efforts to counter the misinformation have not gone far.

The language surrounding the crisis on the U.S. side of the border can be almost as confused, however. As the crisis made headlines, one false dichotomy dominated the rest: “Please don’t call this an immigration reform issue. This is a humanitarian crisis,” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas recently said. Refugee advocate Jennifer Podkul was quick to echo the juxtaposition. “This is not a migration issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue.”

The rush to call this anything but an immigration story is usually intended to highlight the root causes of poverty and violence in Central America. Rhetorically, it creates urgency and helps encourage a distinction between short-term solutions for children suffering at the border and long-term solutions to reform the system.

In reality, though, those are not competing frameworks. The child migration situation is both a humanitarian crisis and a migration issue, and it cannot be resolved without taking both aspects into consideration. A prime example of the importance of both priorities can be found in the motivating factor in this child migration influx that most defies easy categorization: the proliferation of gang violence in Central America.

Central American child migrants widely cite gang violence as a motivation for leaving their countries, and the gangs they flee are fundamentally tied up in the migration issue. The most prominent Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (“MS-13”) and 18th Street Gang (“Calle 18”), began among Latino youth in Los Angeles in the 1960s and the 1980s respectively, but both expanded from the United States to Central America after mass deportations following the 1996 Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This migration policy decision fomented cross-border crime networks that now have an estimated 70,000-100,000 members in several countries.

The gang violence plaguing these children does not just illustrate the long-term consequences of immigration policy, but also the reason for considering this in international refugee terms. As many as 48 percent of Central American child migrants are fleeing violence in their communities, including the violence gangs perpetrate in their recruitment of adolescents. Central American minors specifically seeking international protection as refugees from persecution in the form of gang violence have won asylum in the U.S. in the past. The gangs’ sheer scope, as transnational criminal organizations and sometimes paramilitaries, has led some advocates to describe the child migrants as akin to defecting child soldiers. Read More…

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Congress Can Stop Obama’s Ramp Up to War

Barack Obama has asked Congress for $500 million to train and arm rebels of the Free Syrian Army who seek to overthrow the government. Before Congress takes up his proposal, both houses should demand that Obama explain exactly where he gets the constitutional authority to plunge us into what the president himself calls “somebody else’s civil war.”

Syria has not attacked us. Syria does not threaten us. Why are we joining a jihad to overthrow the Syrian government?

President Bashar Assad is fighting against the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the even more extreme and vicious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In training and arming the FSA, we are enlisting in a cause where our foremost fighting allies are Islamists, like those who brought down the twin towers, and a Sunni terrorist army that seeks to bring down the government we left behind in Baghdad.

What are we doing?

Assad is no angel. But before this uprising, which has taken 150,000 lives and created millions of refugees, Congressmen and secretaries of state regularly visited him in Damascus. ”There’s a different leader in Syria now,” cooed Hillary in 2011, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

If we bring down Assad, what assurance to do have that the Free Syrian Army will prevail against the Islamists who have proved far more effective in the field? Will we not be compelled to plunge into the subsequent civil war to keep ISIS and al-Qaeda from taking power?

If Assad falls there is also a high probability Syria’s Christians will face beheadings and butchery at the hands of the fanatics. And should martyrdoms and massacres begin with the fall of Assad because of our intervention, the blood of Christians will be on the hands of Barack Hussein Obama and the Congress of the United States.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin says he wants no part of Obama’s new wars. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine rightly asserts that President Obama has no authority to take us into war in Syria or Iraq. But where are the Republicans?

Absent an attack on U.S. citizens or vital interests, or an imminent threat of attack, Obama has no authority to initiate war. The Constitution places the power to authorize wars of choice exclusively with Congress. James Madison and his colleagues were seeking to ensure against a rogue presidency of the kind that Obama has lately begun to conduct.

It is astonishing that Republicans who threaten to impeach Obama for usurping authority at home remain silent as he prepares to usurp their war powers—to march us into Syria and back into Iraq. Last August, Americans rose as one to tell Congress to deny Obama any authority to attack Syria. Are Republicans now prepared to sit mute as Obama takes us into two new Middle East wars, on his own authority?

A Congressional debate on war is essential not only from a legal and constitutional standpoint but also a strategic one. For there is a question as to whether we are even on the right side in Syria. Assad, no matter his sins, is the defender of the Christian and Shia minorities in Syria. He has been the most successful Arab ruler in waging war against the terrorist brigades of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Why, then, are we training Syrians to attack his army and arming people to topple his government? Have we not before us, in Libya, an example of what happens when we bring down an autocrat like Gadhafi, and even worse devils are unleashed? Read More…

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The Chinese Embassy’s Embarrassing New Address

Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo has a habit of making headlines from prison. The political reformer began his fourth prison term, this time an eleven-year sentence for “subversion,” in 2009, only to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and now a surprising congressional move has pulled him into the most local of politics. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to next year’s budget that would rename the address of the Chinese embassy in northwest D.C. to “1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza” in his honor.

David Keyes of the nonprofit Advancing Human Rights explained the position of the move’s bipartisan advocates when the proposal was initially made. As he tells it, the idea is to remind other countries that their domestic policy decisions have an international cost: ”Every time the representatives of tyranny walk outside of their offices, they should be confronted with the faces and names of those whose freedom they deny. Dissidents languishing in prison must know that they are not forgotten.”

Washington street names have been political arenas before. Similar motivations led Congress to rename the address of the Soviet embassy “1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza” after a Soviet dissident and human rights activist in 1984.

Criticism from China on this latest move was to be expected: a spokeswoman from their Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the proposal a “complete farce,” while online commenters proposed renaming the address of the U.S. embassy in Beijing after Edward Snowden. But Americans are faulting the move as well. Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution, for instance, complained that the renaming’s “symbolic shaming” would not accomplish much. “Of course, what the regime did to Liu Xiaobo violated every reasonable moral standard, and this action will make some in the West feel good. But it will not speed his release by even one day.”

Yet no one questions that the move is anything other than symbolic. The proposal’s sponsor, outgoing Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, defended the move in moral language: “Renaming the street would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe.” The question is not whether the U.S. can force China to release Liu Xiaobo by renaming a street. Secretary of State John Kerry has already made the U.S. position on Liu’s case perfectly clear in the past. Rather, Wolf’s message-sending may be aimed in another direction entirely.

Human rights advocacy has taken a back seat as an American foreign policy priority in dealing with China. Taken in that context, the street sign proposal may be sending a message to Americans, rather than the Chinese. Naming the street of the Chinese embassy after a jailed dissident may be a small effort to suggest to Americans that human rights should be a bigger national priority. It is that agenda that should be debated, not the overdramatized foreign policy implications of a street sign.


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New Internationalism: Reax

Catherine Addington
Catherine Addington

Last week we convened some of the most significant thinkers in the country from across the political spectrum at George Washington University to address a way forward for American foreign policy, and to build on the emerging mainstream consensus that favors prudence, diplomacy, and the rule of law. If you attended or viewed the conference, we’d love your feedback.

Robert Golan-Vilella was there:

If there was an overriding theme to Tuesday’s event, it was about exploring the costs of the existing consensus strategy. Barry Posen, speaking about his new book Restraint, highlighted the problems posed by the incentives that this strategy gives to U.S. allies, who both free-ride on America’s defense spending and act more provocatively than they might otherwise, thinking that Washington will always have their back. A panel consisting of Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler and Conor Friedersdorf made the case that America’s pursuit of absolute safety from foreign threats had resulted in a security state that unacceptably impinged on its citizens’ civil liberties at home. And, of course, running throughout the conference was a recognition of the enormous costs in both blood and treasure of the past dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What is needed instead, said Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, is a “kind of counter-consensus.” It would be made up of a loose alliance of antiwar liberals and conservatives, realists and civil libertarians. It would seek to roll back many of the policies mentioned above, and replace them with an alternative model in which America spends less on its armed forces and uses military force only when its vital national interests—narrowly defined—are truly at stake.

Golan-Vilella wonders if even a foreign policy counter-consensus is desirable in the first place. Michael Dougherty, who participated in the conference, highlights the politics of Iraq, noting that Republicans simply need to admit they were wrong:

As panelists pointed out at the recent “New Internationalism” conference held by The American Conservative and (liberal-leaning) The American Prospect, popular opinion in England and the United States held Congress and the president from committing military resources to another regime change in Syria last year. The American people want a foreign policy that protects jobs, that promotes peace and prosperity. Four out of five Americans who Pew polled say that America should spend more resources concentrating on problems at home rather than abroad.

So let’s practice a little democracy at home and give the people what they want: a Republican Party that is chastened by Iraq.

If you missed the livestream last week, we’ve posted the entire conference to YouTube here, and by panel below. See C-SPAN’s coverage here.

Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war, with William S. Lind, Daniel Drezner, Matthew Duss, and Daniel Larison.

The Case for Restraint: Barry Posen, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.

National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror, with Conor Friedersdorf, Marcy Wheeler, Adam Serwer, and Samuel Goldman.

Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties, with Michael Cohen, Christopher Preble, John Judis, and Robert Merry.

Stay tuned–the conversation will continue in the coming weeks on Bloggingheads.

Catherine Addington

Catherine Addington

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Make Obama Go to Congress for More War in Iraq

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

With the Islamic warriors of ISIS having captured all the border posts between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, we may be witnessing the end of Sykes-Picot. That was the secret 1916 treaty by which the British and French carved up the Ottoman Empire, with the Brits taking Transjordan and Iraq, and the French Syria and Lebanon. Sykes-Picot stuck in the craw of Osama bin Laden. Now his most fanatical followers have given him a posthumous triumph.

President Obama said over the weekend that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which seeks to create a caliphate out of the Sunni lands of Syria and Iraq it occupies, poses a threat to the United States. Obama has thus committed 300 special forces to assist Iraq’s defeated and demoralized army, and there is talk of U.S. air and missile strikes and drone attacks on ISIS, in Syria as well as in Iraq.

That would constitute a new war. Yet the president, who taught constitutional law, says he does not need Congressional authorization. He is dead wrong. Not only has he no authority to take America into civil wars in Iraq and Syria, he would be insane to do so without the support of his countrymen, as expressed in a vote by Congress.

Obama is about to make a decision fateful for himself and for his country. Does he not realize that he is on the edge of an abyss, about to stumble into a tribal and religious war across the Middle East? The Iraq we left behind three years ago no longer exists. It has been divided up into a Kurdistan, the Sunni region of the north and west, and a Shia-dominated Baghdad and south.

To put the Iraq of Sykes-Picot back together would require thousands of troops to recapture and hold Iraq’s border towns and to reimpose Baghdad’s rule over Anbar and the Sunni Triangle. As the Iraqi army has been routed from this region, recapturing these Sunni lands could require U.S. troops in numbers to rival the surge that enabled Gen. David Petraeus to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yet the situation in the Sunni region is more hostile today.

The Sunni do not want U.S. troops fighting to force them back under Baghdad’s rule. Some have welcomed ISIS as allies in the fight to be free of a hated Shia-dominated army and regime. Some Sunni Arab states are expressing bewilderment that the United States seems about to start a war on the Sunni regions. Are we really going to send planes to bomb and kill our former allies, with their wives and children as collateral damage?

Among the Shia volunteers on whose side we would be fighting are the Mahdi Army we fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many have blood debts to collect from U.S. soldiers. Ayatollah Khamenei says that while he might welcome the use of U.S. air power against ISIS, he does not want U.S. troops to return to Baghdad or the Shia south. Is the U.S. Air Force going to become the Condor Legion of the Ayatollah Khamenei?

Assume that we intervened massively, led the Iraq army back into the Sunni north and west, and helped it to recapture Mosul and the border posts. How many U.S. troops would we have to leave behind in Iraq to prevent a future Shia regime from losing its Sunni provinces a third time? The Iraqi army that we trained at a cost of $25 billion and left behind in 2011 folded like a house of cards. How many times must we do this? And if we defeat ISIS, would not these jihadists simply retreat into the Syrian territories they now occupy, as their privileged sanctuary, to come back and fight another day? Read More…

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Bombs Can’t Save Iraq

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller

The panic that engulfed this capital after the fall of Mosul, when it appeared that the Islamist fanatics of ISIS would overrun Baghdad, has passed. And the second thoughts have begun. “U.S. Sees Risk in Iraqi Airstrikes,” ran the June 19 headline in the Washington Post, “Military Warns of Dangerous Complications.” This is welcome news. For if it is an unwritten rule of republics not to commit to war unless the nation is united, America has never been less prepared for a Mideast war.

Our commander in chief is a reluctant warrior who wants his legacy to be ending our two longest wars. And just as Obama does not want to go back into Iraq, neither does the U.S. military. The American people want no new war, and Congress does not want to be forced to vote on such a war. Our foreign policy elites are split half a dozen ways—on whether to bomb or not to bomb, on who our real enemies are in Syria and Iraq, on whose support we should and should not accept, on what our strategic goals are, and what are the prospects for success.

Consider the bombing option.

Undoubtedly, U.S. air power could blunt an attack on Baghdad. But air power cannot retake Mosul or the Sunni Triangle that Baghdad has lost, or Kirkuk or Kurdistan. That will take boots on the ground and casualties. And nobody thinks these should be American boots or American casualties. And why should we fight to hold Iraq together? Is that a vital interest to which we should commit American lives in perpetuity? When did it become so?

No. Bombing cannot put Iraq together again, but it may tear Iraq further apart. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has succeeded in northern Iraq because it has allied with the same militias, Baathists, and tribal leaders who worked with Gen. David Petraeus in the Anbar Awakening. And if we use air power in Sunni provinces that have seceded from Baghdad, we will be killing people who were our partners and are not our enemies. Photos of dead Sunnis, from U.S. air, drone, and missile strikes, could inflame the Sunni world.

Upon one thing Americans do agree: ISIS and al-Qaeda are our enemies. But is bombing ISIS and killing Sunnis the way to destroy ISIS? Or does bombing martyrize and heroize ISIS for the Sunni young? And if destroying ISIS is a strategic imperative, why have we not demanded that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia cease funneling arms and aid to ISIS in Syria? Why have we not told the Turks to stop permitting jihadists to cross their border into Syria? Why are we aiding and arming the Free Syrian Army to bring down Bashar Assad, when Assad’s army is the only fighting force standing between ISIS and the conquest of Syria? Read More…

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“Moral Clarity” on Iraq

A critical moment of the TAC-sponsored New Internationalism conference occurred when Daniel Drezner said that a key debate in the months ahead will be over whether Washington fears more an ISIS state in parts of Iraq and Syria (or even an ISIS seizure of Baghdad) or the rise of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. If I had been quicker to the microphone, I would have asked how could this even be a debate? One hears echoes of the phrase “moral clarity,” a neoconservative catchword of the Cold War era, which always made less sense when they sought to apply it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But though a polemical term, it’s not meaningless, and what would it mean here?

It should be obvious: Iran is complex country, with both secular and religious leaders, a semi-democracy whose rulers are influenced by public opinion, where there are meaningful competitive elections. It is certainly not free, there are far too many political prisoners and arbitrary arrests, but its level of democracy compares favorably to, say, China. It is quite modern, has a middle class, a scientific infrastructure, is a producer of world-class films and cuisine.

ISIS is by contrast barbaric, the ideological offspring of those who brought down the twin towers. The group wants to introduce sharia to the regions it rules, and commits mass murder and brags about it. Iran has been long been accused of sponsoring terrorism, but Shi’ite terrorism has always been a different animal than Sunni terrorism, less suicidal, less messianic, more like the terrorism of say, the IRA—brutal means against specific targets for concrete political aims.

People who know the Mideast better than I argue that American air strikes and drone strikes won’t bring the end of ISIS—and there is rightly no desire to re-send an American army to seize and try to hold hold the major Sunni population centers of Iraq. Joint Iranian-American military action would potentially play into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda—alienating the many Sunni Muslims who are right now politically on the fence. When Hillary Mann Leverett, the former NSC aide and State Department official, and as outspoken an advocate of American outreach and detente with Iran as exists in Washington, pours cold water on the idea of American-Iranian military cooperation, I tend to listen. Retired ambassador and Mideast expert Chas Freeman makes a similar point: America has no good military options. Rushing arms to Maliki’s government would ensure that they eventually get used against us, captured and/or sold by corrupt Iraqi forces. Read More…

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ISIS Poses No Existential Threat to America

Lori Martin / Shutterstock.com

As the Islamic warriors of ISIS rolled down the road from Mosul, John McCain was an echo of French Premier Paul Reynaud, when word reached Paris that Rommel had broken through in the Ardennes: “We are now facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America,” said McCain. But nothing that happens in Mesopotamia is going to threaten the existence of the United States. As for the terrorist threat from ISIS, for us it is neither greater nor less than it was a week ago.

The existential threat here is to Iraq. Its survival as one nation is now in question, with the possibility it could be torn apart in a civil and sectarian war. But this is preeminently Iraq’s problem, not ours. And if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his 900,000-man army, and Shia militia cannot defend Baghdad from a few thousand Islamist warriors, America is under no obligation to do it for them. Maliki told us to go home three years ago. We did. And before we plunge back into that misbegotten war, let us consider what the real threats are—to America.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria consists of fanatics who seek to carve a caliphate out of territory they now control from Aleppo in Syria to 60 miles north of Baghdad. Yet they have halted before Baghdad. And among the reasons is that Iraq’s Shia majority is not going to allow Sunni zealots to capture their cities, smash their shrines, and murder their fellow Shia. They will fight, as the Iraqi army did not.

Secondly, ISIS has as allies in the north and west of Iraq Sunnis who detest Maliki and wish to be rid of him. But these Sunni are not demanding a Taliban regime to abolish smoking and drinking. Nor are they fighting to cut off the heads of their Shia countrymen. If ISIS goes beyond the liberation of the Sunni triangle to trying to take over all of Iraq, they will lose many Sunni allies and find themselves facing Iraq’s Shia majority, backed up by Iranian forces, virtually alone.

But while the Iraqi army and Shia militia may well hold Baghdad, it is hard to see how Maliki can soon reconquer the Sunni provinces. For the Sunnis want no part of him or his regime. Nor does Maliki seem capable of taking back Kirkuk, which the Kurds seized in the chaos as a step toward independence. What should America do? Take a hard look at our entire Middle East policy.

Consider. We are now providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army to oust Bashar Assad. “Assad must go!” blared Barack Obama in one of his many ignored ultimata. But should Assad fall, the result will be the persecution of the Syrian Christians, a massacre of the Alawites, and a possible takeover of the country by the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Is any of that in America’s interests?

Vladimir Putin lately raised a valid question: Why, in Syria, are the Americans on the same side as the people who took down the twin towers? Indeed, why are we? And who is fighting al-Qaida and ISIS in Syria, battling those McCain calls an “existential threat” to American security? Bashar Assad. Hezbollah. Iran. Russia.

Tehran has reportedly volunteered to work with us in providing military aid to prop up the Maliki regime and keep ISIS out of Baghdad. If we regard the survival of the Maliki regime to be in our national interests, why would we not green-light the Iranians to do this? When Hitler turned on his partner Stalin, the United States rushed military aid to save the monster whom FDR and Truman took to calling “Good Old Joe” and “Uncle Joe” at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. Is the Ayatollah somehow worse than Stalin? Read More…

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