Category Archives: Middle East

The case for not bombing Iran.

Elbridge Colby and Austin Long writing in The National Interest.

The basic question is: How do attack advocates propose to stop the Iranian nuclear program if Tehran refuses to roll over after one round of attacks? There are two logical responses to this question. One is regime change, presumably through invasion. But there are significant downsides to invasion, not least that such a war would likely prove protracted and costly. Attack advocates such as Kroenig effectively concede that the American people are unlikely to support this course.

The other is that the United States should be prepared to conduct repeated strikes over a long period of time to ensure the Iranian nuclear program is kept down. Unsurprisingly, Kroenig and others shy away from this answer, as it is a recipe for perpetual war. The cost in lives, resources and America’s international reputation would be formidable, especially if done without diplomatic cover and international support that probably wouldn’t be forthcoming. Yet, even under the most favorable conditions in which Iranian retaliation stayed limited and international support was forthcoming, a long-term, limited-strike campaign might not work at a level of effort and damage in line with U.S. aims. Regular U.S. strikes on North Vietnam over a period of seven years under highly favorable international conditions failed woefully either to convince Hanoi to change its fundamental strategy or substantially degrade the communist war effort. The North Vietnamese resolutely repaired bridges, depots and roads. More recently, limited allied air strikes against Iraq in the 1990s didn’t force Saddam Hussein’s compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions. Moreover, as happened in Vietnam, such strikes likely would become more difficult over time. The Russians, for example, have refrained, thanks to Western diplomacy, from selling Iran advanced long-range surface-to-air missiles that could make strikes more difficult. They probably wouldn’t be so forbearing if strikes were conducted without their prior and explicit approval, which Moscow isn’t likely to give.

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An Anthology of the Iraq War

From Byliner:

President Obama announced on October 21st that nearly all American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year (though a substantial force of diplomats and mercenaries are staying behind). It’s an opportune moment to look back on the conflict and the exceptional feature length journalism produced by those covering it.

The pieces collected below include profiles of individual soldiers, big think attempts to wrap our brains around the whole conflict, and everything in between. The authors include Mark Bowden, Evan Wright, Samantha Power, Seymour Hersh, C.J. Chivers, George Packer, William Langewiesche, and many other talents besides — James Fallows, for example, who is just one of the writers who tried to articulate how future generations will think of the president who started the conflict. “Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis” he wrote. “This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.”

Fallows added that “all this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the State Department’s Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S. government predictions about postwar Iraq’s problems have proved as accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq’s strategic threat have proved flawed. But the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was known.” Don’t miss the rest of that piece, “Blind into Baghdad,” or the other stellar articles collected below.

All of the articles mentioned are at the link.

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Photo: the last troops leave.


Photo of the Day: The last U.S. military forces drive across the Iraqi border Dec. 18, 2011, following the Iraqi and U.S. security agreement requiring all U.S. service members to depart the country by Dec. 31, 2011. Since 2003, more than 1 million airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines have served in Iraq.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo

When I compare this photo to the image of helicopters over the US embassy during the fall of Saigon in 1975, I’m comforted by the exit we’ve made, all things considered. But when I read of Maliki threatening the power-sharing agreement necessary for democracy, or remember Amb. Ryan Crocker’s 2009 prediction – the war will be remembered for events that haven’t happened yet – my mood changes. Such fragility should be expected, but it is also maddening.

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Is American Withdrawal an Iranian Victory?

On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, it may be difficult to see the extent to which Iran’s policy in Iraq is in shambles. Since the displacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tehran has pursued two contradictory policies. On the one hand, the clerical state seeks cordial relations with the Iraqi government and has provided aid and commerce as a means of solidifying bilateral relations. Yet Iran has also been arming and nurturing Shiite militias that plot against authorities in Baghdad. Such a paradoxical approach seemed sustainable during the civil war, as Iraq’s hard-pressed Shiites looked to Iran for assistance and thus countenanced its interventions in their country. The end of Iraq’s war, however, has left Iran without a coherent policy. Tehran’s inability or unwillingness to resolve the fundamental contradictions in its approach have done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it. Whereas Washington was ill-prepared to deal with the start of Iraq’s civil war, Iran seems unable to deal with its aftermath.

Whether the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is wise is an issue worthy of debate. But the imperative at hand is to ensure Iraq’s continued stability and prevent Iranian mischief in light of America’s departure. The key to this lies as much in diplomacy as in military deployments.

Today, the essential estrangement of Iraqi Shiites from the larger Arab world, and the neighboring Sunni regimes’ unease with their empowerment, makes them vulnerable to Iranian machination. A more forceful U.S. diplomacy, pressing allies to integrate Iraq into the Arab state system, would offer Baghdad additional economic partners and regional interlocutors as well as a means of reestablishing itself as a pivotal state of the Arab world. As the Middle East struggles with transitions that often pit identities against interests, Iraq can offer some useful lessons. Indeed, such a development would not only aid Iraq’s rehabilitation and assist the region political evolution but would further isolate Iran in its immediate environment.


Others, including most notably Charles Krauthammer, see this very differently. They see the American withdrawal as either proof of American defeat or a prelude to it. As I wrote before, if the Iraqis need or want more American troops, more can be arranged. It may be politically difficult in the US, but so will watching Iraq unravel and Iran blatantly and visibly exert its influence during the process. I’m not so sure that the withdrawal of American troops will lead to Iraq’s downfall. The Iraqi government, security forces, and people will have more work to do, but that is inevitable. Let’s hope it’s not too soon for them to take those responsibilities. Douglas Ollivant makes the persuasive case that the withdrawal is both necessary and worthwhile. It is well worth the read.

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THEIR irreverent sense of humour is a source of pride to Iranians, a way to puncture the gloom of successive repressive regimes. It is no surprise that a satirical television programme called “Parazit” that delights in skewering Iran’s politicians is going down a storm.

“Parazit”, meaning “static” in Persian, itself a dig at the government’s tendency to block seditious broadcasts, came on the air shortly before the disputed presidential election of 2009. It is produced by Voice of America (VOA), the state-funded international broadcaster. Despite—or perhaps because of—its tie to the Great Satan, the programme has proved enormously popular in Iran.

Here, here! Well done for chronicling the hypocrisy of the mullahs.

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What is Happening in Iraq Now?

Tim Arango, the Baghdad Bureau Chief of the NYT, on Charlie Rose. The entire interview is only 14 minutes.

In the last two minutes he addresses what Saddam would have done to the Arab Spring. (The short answer: “Saddam would have slaughtered them.”)

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Krauthammer on Libya, Truth and Justice

In explaining why Qaddafi got off easy, Charles Krauthammer begins:

You’ve got your Mexican standoff, your Russian roulette, your Chinese water torture. And now, your Libyan crossfire. That’s when a pistol is applied to the head and a bullet crosses from one temple to the other.

That’s apparently what happened to Moammar Gaddafi after he was captured by Libyan rebels — died in a “crossfire,” explains Libya’s new government. This has greatly agitated ACLU types, morally unemployed ever since a Democratic administration declared Guantanamo humane. The indignation has spread to human rights groups and Western governments, deeply concerned about the manner of Gaddafi’s demise.

The jab at the ACLU is worth reading twice. More importantly though, he then offers a defense of not always fighting for justice. Qaddafi could have chosen to flee to Saudi Arabia or Nicaragua and accept asylum. But would it have been just or wise to accept that fate for Qaddafi?

In post-Pinochet Chile and post-apartheid South Africa, it was decided that full justice — punishing the guilty — would be sacrificed in order to preserve the fragile social peace of the new democracy.

The former oppressors having agreed to a peaceful relinquishing of power, full justice might have ignited renewed civil strife. Therefore, these infant democracies settled for mere truth: a meticulous accounting of the crimes of the previous regime. In return for truthful testimony, perpetrators were given amnesty.

Under the normal rule of law, truth is only a means for achieving justice, not an end in itself. The real end is determining guilt and assigning punishment. But in war and revolution one cannot have everything. Justice might threaten peace. Therefore peace trumps full justice.

Gaddafi could have had such a peace-over-justice compromise. He chose instead to fight to the death. He got what he chose.

I spoke to a co-worker a few days ago who describes himself as a “big lefty.” He had his thoughts on what should have happened to Qaddafi, but said he thought groups like Amnesty International were “crazy” for complaining about Muammar’s ultimate fate. He and Krauthammer (and many others) agree: it’s not a big deal.



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Saif Qaddafi to the Hague?

Joshua Keating at FP cites the following from the ICC:

An NTC source said on Thursday that Saif al-Islam wanted an aircraft, possibly arranged by a neighbouring country, to take him out of Libya’s southern desert and into ICC custody.

Under such a deal, Saif al-Islam would be taken to The Hague where the ICC shares a detention unit with the UN Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal and the special court for Sierra Leone, where the former Liberian president Charles Taylor is on trial.

Keating then notes that the ICC is so backed up Saif will spend years in jail before a final verdict. I agree with his conclusion:

I’d still much rather see Saif al-Islam brought to trial than gunned down in a ditch, but it’s safe to say that Libya’s new rulers might not be satisfied with the idea of him spending the next decade playing board games with Ratko Mladic.

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Family Resemblance?


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Qaddafi is Buried in Secret Location

A Misurata military council official said Moammar Gaddafi, his son Mutassim and a top aide were buried at dawn Tuesday in a secret location, with a few relatives and officials in attendance, The Associated Press reports.
The bodies of Gaddafi, his son Mutassim and former Defense Minister Abu Bakr Younis had been held in cold storage in the port city of Misurata since the dictator and members of his entourage were captured near his hometown of Sirte on Thursday. Gaddafi and Mutassim were captured alive, with some injuries, but died in unclear circumstances later that day.


The New York Times also ran two pieces on Libya this morning. The first discusses the Libyan government’s failure to investigate the death of Qaddafi.

The interim leaders, who declared the country liberated on Sunday, may simply have their hands full with the responsibilities that come with running a state. But throughout the Libyan conflict, they have also shown themselves to be unwilling or incapable of looking into accusations of atrocities by their fighters, despite repeated pledges not to tolerate abuse.

The lack of control came into sharp focus last week, when former rebel fighters arrested Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. In videos of the capture on Thursday morning, victorious fighters were shown manhandling Colonel Qaddafi, who appeared to be bleeding and distressed but conscious. This was moments after he was pulled from a large drainage pipe where he had hidden after a NATO air assault destroyed part of his convoy. Subsequent video shows his bruised corpse, with at least one bullet wound to the head.

I am more bothered by the information lost during Qaddafi’s death and the fact that he won’t be on trial than by how he died. Dictators often have inglorious ends.

The second article describes discussions held by both the Libyan and American governments about what to do if Qaddafi is captured (now obviously a moot point):

There were sharp divisions within Libya’s Transitional National Council about what to do with Colonel Qaddafi, according to American officials. Some argued that he should be tried in the country; others said it would impose too big a burden on an interim administration dealing with so many other problems.

The ambivalence was mirrored on the American side, with some in the administration concerned that Libya did not have the resources to conduct a proper trial, while others worried that pressuring the Libyans to send him to an international tribunal in The Hague would be viewed as encroaching on their sovereignty.

“The delicate question was how to balance Libyan sovereignty with a frank assessment of their capability to hold a fair trial with international standards,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We were trying to walk a fine line.”

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