IRAQ, THE KURDS, HAMAS, ISRAEL, THE YAZIDIS, IRAN AND … US

1 Kurdish fighters retake Kirkuk

1 ISIS in black

War on Kurdistan : (top) Kurdish fighters escort the Governor of Kirkuk (in flak jacket) into the newly captured city (bottom) men of ISIS march furiously

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Major events are taking place in the Middle East, at its heart — what as kids we were taught to call “the Fertile Crescent” — and they would affect the US hugely even if we were not as a nation involved : which we are.

From Gaza to Jerusalem, and from the Lebanon border to Damascus,and from northern Syria to the gates of Baghdad, and from Sinjar Mountain to Erbil in Kurdistan, armies formal and informal are killing each other. Some of these armies are raping women, beheading men, committing atrocities beyond description, almost beyond belief.

Our own interests are in harm’s way here. Our friends the Israelis and the Kurds are at risk ; the one hounded by world anti-Semitism and hurt by Hamas rockets, the other attacked fiercely along a 650 mile border by an army of Orcs forged in the evil crucible of Assad’s Syria.

We could not stand aside even if we want to; and fortunately our President has not wanted to. He, as our leader, has responded forcefully and, for the Kurds, decisively.

Less sure is the outcome of Israel’s fight with Hamas, a seemingly endless yin and yang of war and truce, truce and war.

These commitments call our nation to action that we can deliver. Less sure is the question, what does it all portend ? At times the peoples of the Fertile Crescent seem determined to exterminate one another and take pleasure in doing that. Under the rubrics of delusional ideologies they commit actual atrocities almost without realizing it, so frenzied are they by anger and vitriol.

Then there’s Iran. Its leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has a twitter account, but what he discusses in his tweets seems a distraction. He talks of bombs dropped at Hiroshima and accuses us, but while he talks that up, his negotiators are working out along term deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Khamenei tweets a lot about the plight of Gaza, in which his armies have no part and where Hamas, once his proxy, is a proxy no longer. meanwhile, he says nothing about ISIS, whose recent advances gravely threaten Iran’s borders and have brought war to iran’s friends, the Shi’ites and the Kurds. About ISIS, whose ferocity cannot leave Khamenei unconcerned, he tweets not a word.

1 Khamenei no fool

Ayatollah Khamenei : a shrewd leader. follow his moves, not his words

As i see it, with Khamenei, one attends the events he does NOT tweet about. You have to follow his moves, rather; and they have been sure : his best soldiers have organized the defense of Baghdad. He, like us, has pressured Prime Minister al-Maliki to quit; and he, like us, is befriending the Kurds.

He will never say it, but his moves right now parallel ours. And I sense that he is glad to make moves under the cover of big bad Uncle Sam.

But nothing about Iran’s moves rises to the level of an agreement; we have to sus Iran’s intentions out, and that means that uncertainty is written into a large part of our Middle east policy.

It matters, because Iran has backed some of the actors whose atrocities have boiled the Fertile Crescent’s peoples and because nations far closer to us than iran gravely distrust Iran and are making their own policy decisions incorporating that deep distrust.

Of course distrust is not limited, in the Middle East, to the motives of Iran. hardly anyone in the Middle East trusts anybody else. it it hard to steer the ship of any state, much less ours, across a sea of distrust. Most people don’t want anything to do with people one can’;t trust; Americans are no exception. but we cannot simply walk away from Middle East distrust. the fires of war in that region can envelop the entire world if someone doesn’t try to tamp them down.

This is what our policy seeks to do; yet even as we try to cool the fires of war, there are wars that we cannot ignore and cannot cool down. the war of ISIS against the Kurds is one such. It cannot be put off, cannot be smiled away; it is at our front door now.

It is at our door in part because the Iraq government cannot get out of its own way. Nori al-Maliki, who began well, has become a selfish stump in the ground, and pushing him out, as now seems assured, is a decent beginning, hopefully, in making Iraq an actual nation rather than the three sided anarchy it has become under Maliki’;s misleadership.

Some want to call all this anarchy — atrocity and distrust — a fruit of Islam. I reject that. Islam has often been a religion of great progress; of science; of invention. The problem lies not with Islam but with some of the people who profess to be Islamic. Crimes are nor committed by religions but by people. No religion has executed Yazidis or persecuted Chaldean Christians; people are doing that.

1 Yazidis burying their dead

improverished Yazidis stick on Mount Sinjar carry their dead

The ordinary people of the Middle East have lived side by side without hate since time immemorial. today’s fires of hate are not inevitable, not permanent. Eventually they will retreat; and that will be the work, mostly, of the Middle East peoples themselves. All that we can do is to support our proven friends — Kurds and Israelis, most Lebanese, Jordanians, Saudis,and Egyptians, Kuwaitis and UAE citizens, steadily and strongly so that they can relax a little, counting on us to keep them somewhat from harm. that’s the rub : whoever feels that he is more or less safe from harm puts away some of his fear, of his hate, of his need to kill and destroy.

As for the brutality that is ISIS, we must never forget that it was forged by the torture and killing brought upon Sunni Syrians by Bashir Assad and his butchers. The Sunnis oF ISIS were not born killers, rapists, beheaders of harmless Yazidis, persecutors of Christians. They were made all that by the evil work of Bashir Assad. I suspect that if you, like many men of ISIS, had seen your brothers hung from ceiling hooks and tortured for days, your sisters gang raped, your father hanged and beheaded — as has happened to tens of thousands of Syrian Sunnis — you’d likely seek violent revenge madly too.

The Syrian civil war has been a monstrous disaster for the Middle East and a huge problem for our own nation, globally committed. The fighting between Israel and Hamas pales by comparison. Israel and Hamas do not wage war to the death. They fight, then truce. Hamas is irksome, and it pursues a dead end anti-Israel policy, but it is not consumed by ferocity. The fighters in Assad’s Syria are consumed, indeed have no choice but to be consumed, lest they themselves be slaughtered.

1 Israeli troops enter Gaza

War on Israel : soldiers of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) enter Gaza

Meanwhile, though there is practically nothing we can do — or should try — to end the Syrian civil war, its ripple effects through the Middle East can bring about a better day if we seize the opportunities : solid friendship with the Kurds, support for Israel, a quiet understanding with iran, co-operation with the new Egypt — and rescue of maybe 100,000 Yazidis, whose fate has caught the attention of the world and focused a world of anger on ISIS. These are not small advances. A coherent foreign policy is achievable here — if we understand our limitations as well as advantage our opportunities.

—- Mike Freedberg / here and Sphere

ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY : PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL FOREIGN POLICY

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^ Syria peace talks to begin in Geneva — old-school diplomacy : John Kerry working with Russia’s foreign policy negotiators

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As the late George Kennan pointed out, in his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, it is difficult for a democracy to conduct a successful foreign policy. The political demands upon the President inject domestic concerns into an exercise that isn’t domestic. Blocs of voters, of this or that ethinic origin, call upon the President (and his party), with an upcoming election in mind, to favor the nation or ethnicity whence these voter blocs came or to which they feel kinship. In war as in peace these electoral pressures lean upon the President’s decsion, angling them in a direction, perhaps, that, objectively considered, should not be the case. A prime example — hardly the only — is Israel. I have long argued that Israel’s foreign policy, no matter how compelling its case, must not be allowed dictate ours; but the significance of Israel sympathy, in both our political parties albeit differently in each, makes my argument difficult to apply. It was the same, with Russia, before, during, and after World war II. People were affronted, then pleased, then scared, by what the Soviet union seemed to represent; and these feelings led American policy makers to mistakes that could have been avoided.

Prime among the mistakes avoidable was our support of authoritarian dictators because these were opposed to communism. Of course they were; but they also opposed democracy, an ideal which we profess to the whole world, whose peoples often believe us. Perhaps we should not profess democracy to the whole world. Maybe that is the ultimate mistaken pressure by our domestic politics upon our foreign policy. Certainly the argument has been made by many among us, that we should support dictators who will keep lids on populations whose political ways cannot be predicted and of which many are anarchic at best, violent, cruel, terrible. The argument has merit; yet I disagree with it. Eventually dictators fall, and when they do, we have to live in the consequences.

There is no guarantee at all that peoples who overthrow a dictator will thank America for supporting their cause. A dictator makes almost every group his enemy. That his enemies can’t agree on almost anything other than his fall is his prime survival asset. Yet if America means anything in the world any more, it’s that we are a friend to ordinary people seeking normal lives; and among the enemies of a dictator these are almost always the majority. We refuse this lesson at our peril. Who, today, would not say no, if we could do it again, to the CIA’s role in overhrowing Iran’s Mossadegh government in 1953, an overthrow that has tainted Iran’s relationship with our country ever since ? This is a lesson that we have in fact learned; today our diplomacy supports and encourages peoples seeking freedom. The result is not always happy. Oppressive dictatorships are hardly a great school for teaching democracy — a culture of tolerance, of discussion, of differences equally respected. Yet are we wrong to encourage people to seek it ? Not at all. Too easily we forget how long it took the West to move from feudalism to oligarchy to revolution to democracy. Why should peoples elsewhere find the path any easier ?

The lesson I have outlined above has been learned by some of us; not much by others. Unhappily, most Republicans favor a foreign policy of supporting “friendly” dictators and of military first. This policy, they argue, worked with the Soviet Union, and it kept the peace in the Middle East for 50 years. And so it seemed to; but the Soviet Union collapsed largely of its own, bankrupted by its fear of our military might, morally ruined by its incompetence and rigidity, deafened by the din of outmoded theory. The most effective step against Soviet dominance taken by our Republican policy makers wasn’t military at all. it was six words spoken in Berlin by President Reagan : “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall !”

The voice spurred eastern Europe’s peoples. They believed Reagan. They also believed in themselves. Some three years later the wall did indeed come down.It was a superb moment in American diplomacy; yet in retrospect it was an easy moment. The Soviet union was already crumbling.

Far more difficult the moments of crisis, most unprecedented, to which the Obama Administration has had to respond : the “Arab Spring” ; the Syrian Civil war; Iran’s nuclear development ; relations with Russia ruled by the mercurial Vladimir Putin and with a secretive and cruel North Korea ; the antics of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela ; the fight against Al Qaeda. In every case where moves could be made — not much can be done about Kim Jong Un — the Obama Administration has moved very well indeed. We have managed relations with the uprising populaces of Libya, Egypt, and Syria about as well as these anarchic situations allowed. And if in Libya we miscalculated Benghazi — and still find it hard to keep up with its 26 shell games — we aced the big picture : most every tribe in Libya thanks us for our part in overthrowing Gaddafi. In Egypt, we avoided — while praising the Cairo “street” generally — committing fatally much to any faction, and thus we retain a fair reputation with all, even with the current military rulers. Secretary Kerry brokered a rapprochement between Netanyahu’s Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey without alienating Erdogan’s growing number of enemies.

Secretary Kerry — without realizing it at first, but once he did realize it, capitalizing superbly — found a means to a pact with Russia that ended the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stores and use. Most important of all, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and that interim agreement is now working. Granted, that the agreements and pacts that Kerry has achieved were brought about by both sides — it really does take two to tango; yet one can’t get diplomacy without doing diplomacy. Which means that the two sides have to respect one an other and openly accord each other that respect. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton before him, has done that.

Kerry’s diplomacy has not been the same as Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton made the world’s women her special constituency. The world is full of cultures in which women take second, even third place; Clinton never missed an opportunity to condemn the downgrading of women or to call upon women to assert their rights. Kerry is not female and cannot speak as Clinton spoke. His diplomacy has been much more old school. It reminds me of the diplomatic practice of British foreign ministers of the 19th Century — a diplomacy of personal relationship, of flexibility and tolerance, a diplomacy also of money deals. We have never pursued such a diplomacy because America had never benn, until recently, a satisfied nation as was Great Britain after the defeat of Napoleon. Until recently, we have either been an expanding nation, even an imperial one, or we have — like Britain during the era of Napoleon — confronted by a huge world-encompassing enemy (or two : Mao Tse-dong’s China as well as Soviet union). Today all that is past. Amderica has finished expanding, and e no longer confront huge rivals. We exist now in a multifold world of many powers, just as did the Great Britain of Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Lord Grey, and it is to President Obama’s great credit (and to John Kerry’s), that our diplomacy fully recognizes our current situation and seems quite skillful at sailing upon it. I know of no current Republican who similarly gets what is really happening outside our borders.

As i write, Kerry is taking America into perhaps his most delicate negotiations yet : the Syria peace discussions set to begin in Geneva as son as all the details can be worked. we already see how hard this negotiation will be in the affair of inviting Iran. First invited, then dis-invited, evidently because President Obama objects. But if Iran were to be invited, how to leave out the Kurds, who have a major presence in eastern Syria (and the bordering part of Iraq) and are pressing a world-wide campaign on twitter and facebook demanding that that they be included. This may take months to manage, and no success is at all assured.

As a foreign policy president Obama has also been lucky. As George Kennan pointed out in the book i mentioned at the start of this column, it matters greatly who in a country is doing the diplomacy. Much of our diplomacy during the Lenin and Stalin years failed because the preconceptions borne by our foreign  policy people ill accorded with the facts. (So too did diplomacy then often fail because of false preconceptions on the Russian side.) Our policy people also badly misread the situation in Nazi Germany; and of course Nazi Germany misread us. There seems to be less misreading going on these days in the foreign ministries of major nations — ourselves as well. In large part that’s the result of the internet and social media. No nation gropes to understand other nations 1000s of miles away as they did in the 1960s, 1930s, 1910s. This is the setting in which President Obama finds his good luck. But it isn’t all luck. it’s also how open foreign policy people are to the facts unfiltered by preconception. The Obama foreign policy people read the facts better than almost anyone.

His political opponents disparage him so much that they do not see what he (and secretary Kerry) are achieving, or why, or are solely fixated on the fight against Al Qaeda, a fight on which all our policy makers agree (a fight that Obama has pursued with a warlike ruthlessness) and also because they do see Obama’s great policy mistake ; the NSA and its huge, wartime-ish overreach. Obama really does see the fight against Al Qaeda as all-out war; and it is ironic that, on this score, his Republican opponents, until reecntly so military-minded, want to scale back. On this issue, I happen to agree with Obama’s Republican opponents. The threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists is not so mortal that we need compromise our civil liberties to fight them. It is time to curb NSA much more radically than Obama now proposes; maybe even to dismantle the department of homeland security, which seems to have inconvenienced many of us and violated the rights of some, to no great accomplishment. In these things, shrewd vigilance by all our people counts for much more than blanket micro-surveillance by headstrong bureaucrats. It would be a shame if Obama’s brilliant record, so far, of diplomatic accomplishment and near destruction of Al Qaeda were nicked and mocked by his insistence on a surveillance society.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere