That Other Arab Country

by Jonah Shepp


When I tell people I used to live in Jordan, I often get responses like “Jordan? That’s upstate, right?” It doesn’t get nearly as much coverage in the Western press as its neighbors, and Jordanians probably aren’t too upset about that, considering why its neighbors are in the news. Jordan hasn’t experienced a major conflict within its borders since the early 1970s, but squeezed in among three active war zones, it has suffered indirectly from all of the region’s major conflicts, mainly as a dumping ground for refugees. Jordan bore the brunt of the Palestinian exodus that year, and again in 1967. More recently, it took in a huge wave of refugees from Iraq after 2003, and since 2011 has struggled to accommodate a growing population of displaced Syrians, now numbering over 600,000.

It’s a relatively tiny country, but plays an outsized role in the region, so I thought I’d use my guest-blogging stint to give Dishheads a quick look at a place most American don’t hear much about. I reached out to a few friends and former colleagues in Jordan to see how the country is faring today in coping with the Syrian refugee crisis, the threat of ISIS, the complex diplomatic challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and day-to-day challenges. Here’s what they had to say.

“Jordan, at the grassroots and official levels, does not fear a face to face confrontation with ISIL,” writes my former boss Mahmoud al-Abed, a managing editor at The Jordan Times, “but the fear is from sleeper cells that might attack soft or hard targets.” He informs me that the General Intelligence Directorate, a domestic intel agency analogous to the NSA and also known as the mukhabarat (literally “informers”), has been making many arrests in connection with these potential sleeper cells. Another JT editor, Rand Dalgamouni, tells me that there have been some demonstrations in support of the “caliphate” in the poorer cities of Maan and Zarqa. Dozens of Salafists have been picked up by the police for expressing support for ISIS or participating in pro-ISIS rallies. She observes that “there seems to be a difference of opinion over the group between the old Salafist leaders and the young ones”, pointing to statements from jihadist leaders “that the young, gullible Salafists have fallen for ISIS’s bullshit”.

My friend M, a politically engaged young woman who asked not to be named here, offers her take on how Jordanians outside political and media circles are talking about the Islamic State, and what the crisis means for non-radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs Jordan’s largest organized political party but isn’t much beloved by the state:

Average people, who don’t identify with extremism nor do they belong to any one party, worry about their safety (and rightfully so) when they see ISIS taking over parts of the Levant willy-nilly, or murdering people left, right and center. I feel there is a strong counter-movement under cover, but nothing is being said openly about fighting Islamists in Jordan. I think a more accurate way of describing their status quo is that they’re being watched closely (in Maan or otherwise), and anything they do that has the slightest potential of compromising Jordan’s safety and stability is shot down at the very early stages, i.e. they’re being kept under control. I think it’s safe to assume that Jordan’s relationship with Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], or non-radical Islamists, is quite strained right now, not because of a particular thing they did, but because they’re basically the gateway to something bigger than any of us, and that is ISIS.

Jordan, which has been a close American ally since the early years of the Cold War, is also likely among the regional partners the US is counting on to help effect a durable solution to the ISIS crisis. As Obama mentioned in his press conference in Wales today, Jordan is one of the NATO partner countries with which the alliance is looking to bolster its security cooperation. King Abdullah II participated in this week’s NATO summit, and it will be interesting to see what role Jordan plays in the anti-ISIS coalition. I suspect that role will be mostly sotto voce, though, as Amman is generally loath to take public positions that could hurt its relationships with neighboring governments, even those it doesn’t much care for. “I think it’s only a matter of strategy for Jordan to forge a better relationship with NATO,” my friend M. writes, “because if ‘shit hits the fan’ in the region, Jordan will need all the help it can get.”

For three years, Jordan’s government has charted a tricky course on the Syrian civil war, declining to intervene directly out of fear of antagonizing a major trade partner, but also allowing the CIA to train rebel fighters on its territory. The conflict, meanwhile, has wreaked economic havoc on Jordan, reducing its already modest GDP growth by as much as 2 percentage points last year, to say nothing of the human toll of the refugee crisis. Just last week, the country issued another massive aid appeal to help cope with the refugee burden and other spillover effects of the Syrian war.

“As far as I am concerned, I believe that Amman wants neither Assad nor the terrorists to hold the reins of power in Syria,” Mahmoud tells me. “There is no third option now except a dragged-on conflict that might take 10 years with de facto division of Syria. In the face of such a scenario, Jordan’s only option is to defend its security and interests day by day, and think of alternatives to Syria as a key trade partner.”

The Gaza conflict, Rand and Mahmoud tell me, has galvanized support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and most Jordanians seem to agree that the outcome was a win for Hamas and the Palestinian cause in general. Rand writes: “I would say the majority in Jordan celebrates Gaza’s truce as a victory (some blocked the streets at night in celebration), but I disagree–too much devastation, deaths and displacement. It may be a success of sorts for Hamas, since the goal of the war was to obliterate them. I think Jordan’s government wouldn’t have minded to see Hamas destroyed though.”

Meanwhile, as they are wont to do, the regional security crisis has enabled some worrying legal and constitutional changes that threaten to undermine Jordan’s long-drawn-out democratization and curtail civil liberties. Rana Sabbagh highlights two proposed constitutional amendments that would give the king formal power to appoint army and intelligence chiefs directly, rather than acting on the recommendations of his cabinet. Although these amendments won’t substantially change the way decisions are made, Rand explains to me that they are controversial because “if the King starts appointing these two positions without government interference, there is no one to answer to Parliament if the appointed leaders screw up.” A new anti-terrorism law is also raising some concerns about its potential for abuse, which seems to be more a feature than a bug of anti-terrorism laws in general.

This is hardly a complete picture of what’s going on in Jordan today, but I hope it sheds a little light on the view from inside one of the places that has a whole lot to lose from the chaos engulfing the region and much to gain from setting these conflicts on a track toward permanent resolutions. My guest-blogging week is coming to an end, but I’d still love to hear your comments on this, especially from readers in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East, so don’t hesitate to write in if you have something to add.

(Photo of Amman by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène)

A Foreign Policy Of Caution

by Jonah Shepp


Frank Rich takes on critics of Obama’s foreign policy regarding his approach to the Iraq/Syria conflict:

You will notice that the crowd of pundits and (mostly Republican) politicians insisting that Obama “do something” about these horrors never actually say what that “something” is. They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest): bombing ISIS positions wherever it is feasible; searching for allies to join action that might defeat them on the ground; trying to rally Europe to tighten the economic noose on Putin and Russia. There will surely be more actions to come when America’s ducks are in a row, and if the president were to delineate them, you can be certain he’d be condemned for tipping off our enemies in advance.

This is something I neglected to mention in yesterday’s post criticizing Shadi Hamid’s take on Obama’s “inflexibility” on Syria (Hamid has responded via Twitter, arguing mainly that the situations in Iraq and Libya were different enough from Syria that they don’t make the case against intervention). As Rich points out, Obama has already “flexed” considerably in the direction the pro-intervention crowd would prefer. I think Obama went into office hoping to soften the Bush Doctrine, fight transnational jihadism as a security challenge rather than a moral crusade, and make direct US military intervention in foreign conflicts the exception rather than the rule. He has scaled back those ambitions considerably, partly in light of events on the ground but also because the notion of America as the world cop still holds sway in Washington’s clique of foreign policy elites. I expect him to “flex” on intervention in Syria as well, but I read his reticence to commit to a specific course of action as a sign that he is doing due diligence in weighing his options, not brushing off the crisis altogether.

Unfortunately, one man’s deliberation is another man’s dithering, and the president’s caution is being spun as weakness, even though, as Dan Froomkin points out, there are scads of questions that we ought to be asking before launching a potentially lengthy military engagement but aren’t. War hawks would do well to remember how terrible we are at predicting the outcomes of such engagements: like the president himself, I’m skittish about going to war in Syria not because I disagree that ISIS is a blight on humanity, but rather because going to war has deadly, unpredictable consequences. A decision can be morally crystal clear at the moment and still cause great suffering down the line.

In one of his most insightful takes on Obama’s foreign policy, Max Fisher describes it as stemming from a broad, optimistic worldview that pays more heed to the long-term trend toward a safer and more stable world than to the bumps in the road that leads there. Fisher examines how this “professorial” approach is playing out in the Ukraine crisis:

This is a strategy that essentially abandons eastern Ukraine — and any other non-NATO eastern European country that Putin might choose to invade — to Russian aggression. Still, in the very long view, it is essentially correct: Russia’s foreign policy is dangerous today, but in the long-term it is self-defeating. On the scale of years or decades, Putin will leave Russia weaker, less powerful, and less of a threat; the US-led Western order will eventually prevail. “Eventually” does nothing to address Russian aggression now, but it will turn it back some day.

But Obama’s job is not to be an academic studying long-term trends in American foreign policy. His job is to make decisions — hard decisions — every single day for eight extremely difficult years. Parsing the arc of foreign-policy history has not given him the answers for the problems of this moment. He is steering a race car as if it were a cruise ship, and while history will likely thank him for keeping US foreign policy pointed in the right direction, it may not so easily forgive him for the damage taken along the way.

Which is why, I think, Obama is so reviled by his critics today. I doubt, though, whether history will really remember him so fondly, and whether we will ever learn from these crises. Because one can never prove or disprove a counterfactual, I fear that the argument over whether American intervention does or does not “work” will continue at least as long as the US remains the world’s sole superpower, and that the interventionists will win out most or all of the time.

In the case of Iraq and Syria, the emotional and moral arguments will probably win the day. Examining Obama and his critics through the lens of Walter Russell Mead’s taxonomy of American foreign policy traditions, Peter Beinart fears that “Jacksonian” jingoism is pushing us toward war for the wrong reasons, in the wake of the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff:

In narrow policy terms, the arguments for military intervention have not improved over the last two weeks. It’s still not clear if Iraq’s government is inclusive enough to take advantage of American attacks and wean Sunnis from ISIS. It’s even less clear if the U.S. can bomb ISIS in Syria without either empowering Assad or other Sunni jihadist rebel groups. But politically, that doesn’t matter. What’s causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage. The politicians denouncing Obama for lacking a “strategy” against ISIS may not have one either, but they have a gut-level revulsion that they can leverage for political gain. “Bomb the hell out of them!” exclaimed Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday. “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” added Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These aren’t policy prescriptions. They are cries for revenge.

And it doesn’t help that many Americans don’t know where we’re dropping bombs but largely approve of doing so:

Less than a quarter of the public are aware that the US has recently launched strikes in Somalia, Pakistan or Yemen. 30% also say, incorrectly, that the US has recently conducted bombed Syria and only 32% of Americans know that the US has not in fact launched air or drone strikes in Syria. Most Americans support conducting air or drone strikes in Iraq (60%), Afghanistan (54%) and Syria (51%). They also tend to support the ongoing drone campaigns in Somalia (45%), Pakistan (45%) and Yemen (38%). They would also tend to approve (38%) rather than disapprove (33%) of conducting drone strikes in Iran. 29% of Americans say that they would approve of the US bombing Gaza and Ukraine.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I’ve Seen Israel From Both Sides Now …

by Jonah Shepp

At one point or another in my short life so far, I think I have held every position on Israel that it is possible to hold, from militant support to equally militant opposition. But this summer, I briefly reverted to the right-wing Zionism of my teenage years, at least for the purposes of Facebook. Amid the Gaza war, my feed was suddenly inundated with denunciations of the racist, fascist, Zionazi terrorist state. There wasn’t much to love in the rants about the ZOG or conspiratorial nonsense about ISIS being an Israeli-American plot, but what really got my goat were comments like this one:

Settlers can go back to anti-semitic Europe where they came from! … Every last zionist shall be kicked out and notice the emphasis on the word zionist. Jews however are welcome to stay and woreship like they have among us for the past 1500 years. (sic)

This oft-expressed distinction between Zionists and Jews betrays a total misunderstanding of what Zionism is and what Israel means to most Jews. Palestinians who say that “the Zionists” must go but “the Jews” can stay need to come to grips with the fact that Zionism, at its core, is about creating a space where Jews do not need someone else’s permission to live. Diaspora Jews of my generation may be much less attached to Israel than our parents and grandparents, but when push comes to shove, we’d rather it exist than not, because we know that our permission to live freely and safely in any other country can be withdrawn at any moment. In our history as a people, we have seen it happen time and time again with devastating consequences. With a well-armed territorial state to our name, we no longer have to fear those consequences.

There is no question that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world, and not only in its traditional strongholds in Europe, but is world Jewry really in such great danger as to match our insecurities? More importantly, given the imbalance of power between Israel and its enemies, can we really fear that it will cease to exist? Noah Millman took up that question the other day:

I have, myself, plenty of fears for Israel, a country with which I am deeply concerned, but essentially no fear at all that Israel will “cease to exist.” I don’t even know what that phrase means – that Israel will cease to define itself affirmatively as a “Jewish state”? That Israel will merge into a larger entity, or subdivide into smaller entities? Those would be big changes, yes, but “cease to exist” is a funny phrase to use for something could happen to the UK, or Belgium, or Canada. When I listen to both of them, what I think they mean is: that the Israeli Jewish population will cease to reside there; that Jews will move, en masse, to some other place or places, or will be physically annihilated. Does anyone really believe that kind of outcome is likely?

“Israel is not, in any meaningful sense, a provisional experiment,” he concludes, and both its supporters and its detractors ought to stop speaking of it as such. This, as I see it, really gets to the heart of the matter. Israel is a fait accompli; it is not going anywhere, no matter what Hamas feels the need to tell its constituents. We really ought to stop catastrophizing.

But Palestinian nationalism isn’t a provisional experiment, either, much though right-wing Zionists wish it to be. Netanyahu claims that there can’t be peace with the Palestinians until they get used to the idea that Israel is there to stay and stop espousing delusions of getting rid of it. But by persistently denigrating and stepping on Palestinian aspirations for fundamental rights and self-determination, his policies encourage a Palestinian discourse of resentment, fear, and hostility toward Zionism, Israel, and ultimately Jews. You can’t claim to wish for the day when Palestinians become OK with Israel while actively working to undermine that possibility. And it’s just nuts to pretend that Palestinians have no legitimate reason to feel angry and even hateful toward Israel. Until Israel grapples with the fact that its creation was indeed a nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians, and finds some way to make amends for that, the conflict will surely never end.

It would also behoove the Israeli right to acknowledge that Zionism has won, and how. Anti-Semitism may be rooted in the resentment of Jewish power, but the power Israel wields today is such that it really doesn’t matter what other countries think of it: nobody is going to wipe a wealthy, well-armed, nuclear power off the map. Israel’s choice isn’t between defending itself or being dismantled; it’s between continuing to exist with the support of other countries and world Jewry, or as a pariah state.

What disheartens me is that it seems to be on the latter path, as the center shifts farther to the right and the “Arab problem” takes up a shrinking segment of its public consciousness. When Tzipi Livni heads the dovish camp in the security cabinet and Netanyahu holds the center against a militantly anti-Arab right flank, it’s hard to see how this ends well. To some extent, this was inevitable: the influx of immigrants from post-Soviet countries after the fall of Communism brought a new demographic to Israel that despises the left on principle and has actually experienced persecution, so paranoid politics resonate especially strongly. The growing ultra-Orthodox population also contributes to the shift.

But Israel also made choices. Its leaders might have forced a two-state settlement at Camp David if they had taken the refugee problem seriously and proposed a bold solution to it. The Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table since 2002 and still stands, but who knows for how long? The Israeli right remains convinced that the Palestinians must learn to accept Israel before the occupation can end. That is about as convincing as someone claiming in 1960s America that the end of segregation would have to wait until black people stopped resenting white people. Peace is nearly always made between leaders before it is made between peoples. Israel is no exception to this rule; claiming otherwise just avoids the issue. And Israel must take the lead on this, precisely because the balance of power is so lopsided.

A permanent solution isn’t even necessary in the short term. Whether the parties finally opt for one state, two states, twelve states or no state, as Noam Sheizaf argues, what matters now is ending the occupation and the deep inequities it entails:

[O]nce Israeli society decides to end the occupation irrespective of the political circumstances, the power relations and various interests will determine the nature of the arrangements on the ground. That is the moment in time where we, Israelis, will need to conduct an honest conversation about the kind of arrangement we would rather negotiate (Palestinians would do the same probably). Such a debate cannot exist now because the one thing we can all agree on is prolonging the status quo.

Good News (?) From Ukraine

by Jonah Shepp

A ceasefire was announced today:

The two sides agreed to stop fighting at 6 p.m. local time today, Heidi Tagliavini, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will monitor the agreement, told reporters after negotiations in Minsk, Belarus. The talks included representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, where most of the fighting has occurred, and the OSCE. “Proceeding from President Putin’s call to leaders of illegal military formations to cease fire, and from the signing of the trilateral agreement in Minsk to implement the peace plan, I am ordering the General Staff to cease fire,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement. He canceled a summer truce on July 1 after his government cited more than 100 violations by the separatists. … The rebels, though, remained defiant, with the leader of Luhansk, Igor Plotnitskiy, telling reporters that the cease-fire doesn’t alter the goal of “splitting” from Ukraine.

In his press conference today at the NATO summit, Obama attributed the ceasefire to the success of US and EU sanctions on Russia, but the allies still approved a new rapid response force to beef up defense in Eastern Europe, among other measures. Considering the way the conflict has played out so far, I’m hopeful that the truce will hold, but not optimistic. And even if it does, Leonid Bershidsky calls it a win for Putin:

If the peace holds, people like Semenchenko will soon be returning from the front, and they may well decide that Poroshenko gave up too easily and that Ukraine should have fought on and martyred itself. Poroshenko’s plan to get a loyal parliament elected in October now faces many threats, ranging from a new escalation of fighting to a radical nationalist revolt. As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has secured a ringside seat and may settle down with a bowl of popcorn.

Any outcome suits him as long as Ukraine struggles to get out of its impasse alone. He will be happy to see the Lugansk and Donetsk regions turn into a frozen-conflict zone, precluding Ukraine’s further integration into NATO and the European Union, and equally pleased to have them gain broad autonomy from Kiev and a veto on major political decisions. A military solution suits him, too, since the West has refused to engage him except in the form of ineffectual sanctions.

Adam Swain notes that even a lasting ceasefire won’t address “the political problems that underpin the conflict, both within Ukraine and in Europe at large”:

As far as those deeper issues go, there are three possible outcomes. First, the ceasefire could hold, but without a diplomatic breakthrough; the conflict would effectively be frozen, and Ukraine would lose much if not all of its industrial heartland in the Donbas. Second, the ceasefire could be broken, leaving an unwinnable war to simmer in east Ukraine for years yet. Thirdly, an international peace conference could be held to map out a neutral and federal but united Ukraine, creating a buffer state between NATO/the EU and Russia. … Instead, the mostly likely upshot as things stand is a frozen conflict in a formally divided country, with a pro-Russian Donbas protectorate partitioned from a pro-Western Ukrainian rump. Of all the possible outcomes of the ceasefire deal, this is probably the worst for the ordinary people of both the Donbas in particular and Ukraine at large.

Brett LoGiurato suggests that Poroshenko was forced to call the ceasefire:

Geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider last week that Russia’s decision to escalate its involvement had forced Poroshenko into a corner. Bremmer said Poroshenko would most likely seek a quick cease-fire solution to prevent his country’s economy from completely collapsing. “The Ukrainian government has been in an impossible position, they gambled, and they’ve lost,” Bremmer said. “Poroshenko now needs a cease-fire so that he can try to restart negotiations, the terms of which will effectively mean freezing the conflict and ceding significant pieces of Ukrainian territory to the separatists. That’s politically perilous for him and risks counterdemonstrations against his government in Kiev. All the while his economy will be falling apart, with very limited support from the West.”

But now, Max Fisher flags another alarming development in Estonia:

It’s not clear whether or not the attack has anything to do with the Russian government — Russian organized crime is active throughout the region. But the incident comes at an extremely tense moment between Russia and Estonia, one in which the United States has publicly committed to Estonia’s military defense, meaning that a Russian invasion of Estonia would trigger war between Russia and the US, a prospect so dangerous that the world managed to avoid it throughout even the Cold War. “Unidentified persons coming from Russia took the freedom of an officer of Estonian Scurity police officer on the territory of Estonia,” Estonia’s state prosecutor’s office announced. “The officer was taken to Russia using physical force and at gunpoint.” … The Estonian state security officer is identified as working on counterintelligence and organized crime — a confusing combination, and one that does not shed much light on whether his kidnappers appear to have been Russian government or Russian organized crime.

If the Kremlin did have a hand in that abduction, it would be a very serious escalation of the tensions in Eastern Europe and make clear that Putin is acting less rationally than John Mearsheimer believes. But let’s not jump to conclusions before we have the facts.

The Anti-ISIS Coalition And Obama’s Strategy

by Jonah Shepp

At the NATO summit in Newport, Wales today, US officials announced that they had formed an international coalition to wage war on ISIS:

President Barack Obama sought to use a NATO summit in Wales to enlist allied support in a campaign to destroy the Islamist militants but as the summit drew to a close it remained unclear how many nations might join Washington in air strikes. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told foreign and defense ministers from 10 nations at a hastily arranged meeting that there were many ways they could help, including training and equipping the Iraqis. … Hagel told ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark that they, with the United States, formed the core group for tackling the Sunni militant group.

In his press conference, Obama stressed that the coalition-building effort isn’t over and that John Kerry would continue to seek partnerships with other countries in combating the ISIS threat. He also stressed the importance of engaging Arab states, particularly those with Sunni majorities, in countering ISIS not only militarily, but also—or even primarily—politically. He rightly pointed out that any international effort will only succeed in the long term with the support of local actors in Iraq and Syria, and compared the coming effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS to the fight against al-Qaeda.

That fight looked very different under Bush and under Obama, so what that means is unclear. If I had to guess, I would say that he is signaling a plan to fight ISIS as he has fought other jihadist militant groups: i.e., primarily through targeted killings of its leadership from on high (cf. today’s announcement that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, was killed in a US airstrike on Monday) and by degrading their capabilities until they are weak enough for local partners to finish them off. We could surely do this all by ourselves, but having an international coalition behind the effort enhances its legitimacy and reinforces the principle of multilateral responsibility for global security to which Obama clearly adheres.

Hayes Brown compares this coalition (which, again, won’t necessarily be limited to these ten countries) to the Multinational Force Bush formed to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Conservatives have already begun to pan the announcement of the core coalition, drawing unfavorable comparisons to 2003. … While there are clearly some overlaps between the two groups, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Denmark and Poland, the “core” group lined up against ISIS has a few advantages over those assembled in 2003. In 2003, Germany and France were both strongly opposed to action in Iraq, depriving the U.S. of key support in Europe. Adding in those countries gives the group the support of two of the most militarily powerful states in Europe. Canada’s support adds to the cohesion among the most capable members of NATO and Ottawa’s support will also translate over into the G-7. Most strikingly, the group announced on Friday includes Turkey, which not only neighbors Iraq but serves as a Muslim-majority country that can be put forward as a defense against claims that the campaign against ISIS isn’t yet another Western invasion of a Muslim country.

But Juan Cole doubts our NATO allies are very enthusiastic about this mission:

My reading of the reporting from Wales is that most NATO states have little intention of intervening directly in Iraq and most of them have no intention to get involved in Syria. The US and Britain (and, far from Europe, Australia) are the most likely to commit to the Iraq front. The NATO country closest to ISIL territory, Turkey, seems reluctant to get involved in directly fighting ISIL (and critics of the religious Right party, AKP, which is in power, suggest that behind the scenes President Tayyip Erdogan is supporting the hard core Muslim rebels in Syria. Despite all the vehement talk, the US likely will have few allies in the air in Iraq as President Obama seems to be stampeded (by the Washington hawks and fear of losing the midterms for looking weak) into a wide-ranging new Iraq war that seems likely to spill over into Syria. The biggest problem the US faces, however, is the lack of effective allies on the ground in Iraq.

Remembering Sotloff, Foley, And The Rest, Ctd

by Jonah Shepp

Will Saletan reacts to Steven Sotloff’s murder the same way I did yesterday, urging us to remember the people whose suffering Sotloff and James Foley gave their lives to bring to light. He rounds up some of the latest reports on ISIS’s many atrocities:

Start with Monday’s testimony before the U.N. Human Rights Council. The documented incidents include 1,700 captives executed in Tikrit, Iraq, and 650 in Mosul, Iraq. Some 1,000 Turkmen massacred, including 100 children. More than 2,000 women and children kidnapped. “Systematic hunting of members of ethnic and religious groups.” Women raped and sold. Young boys executed. Girls enslaved for sexual abuse. Children recruited as suicide bombers. More than 1 million refugees, half of them kids.

Then read the report Amnesty International issued Tuesday. Its title is “Ethnic Cleansing on Historic Scale: The Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities in Northern Iraq.” The report details, with eyewitness testimony, several more ISIS atrocities in Iraq. At least 100 men and boys herded together and shot to death in Kocho. “Scores of men and boys” summarily executed in Qiniyeh. More than 50 men “rounded up and shot dead” near Jdali. Human Rights Watch also released a report on Tuesday. It offers new evidence about the massacre in Tikrit. “Information from a survivor and analysis of videos and satellite imagery has confirmed the existence of three more mass execution sites,” says the report. That brings the death toll to “between 560 and 770 men.” The captives were shot dead while lying in trenches with their hands bound.

Saletan argues that these evil acts compel America to step in and stop the Islamic State from killing thousands more. It’s hard to dispute that: surely someone has to stop them, and since we’ve already committed to doing so, yes, we must follow through on that commitment to prevent atrocities and protect the innocent. Still, we know that such interventions are slippery slopes, and I only hope that in trying to alleviate this unimaginable humanitarian crisis, we don’t end up prolonging or exacerbating it. It’s hard to see from the vantage of the present how things could get any worse, but then it always is.

The Bush-Obama Continuation

by Jonah Shepp

Dan Froomkin returns to the blogosphere with a provocative post in which he asserts that by institutionalizing many of the bad ideas of the Bush administration, Obama has done even more damage than his predecessor to civil liberties in America:

There will be no snapping back to a pre-Bush-era respect for basic human Obama Bushdignity and civil rights. Thanks to Obama, it’s going to be a hard, long fight. … To his credit, Obama is not driven, like Bush and Dick Cheney were, to involve us in massive land wars. And he inherited a mess full of no-win scenarios. But he chose to extend a dead-end war in Afghanistan for two years — and 1,300 American lives — based on political optics rather than military strategy. And he is blind to reality in the Middle East; cleaving to the belief that airstrikes and fealty to Israel are viable long-term strategies, and ignoring the fact that his counter-terrorism policies actually create more terrorists than they destroy. In retrospect, what the country needed was a radical break from the Bush/Cheney national security policies: A reestablishment of American moral integrity; a rejection of decision-making based on fear (of terrorism, or of political blowback); a reassertion of the international laws of war; and a national reckoning. Instead, the hopes for any change are slim.

My question is this: would another president have done differently? After all, this is what many on the left predicted would happen way back in the early Bush years: once an executive claimed the kinds of powers Bush did, it was laughable to think his successor would relinquish those powers, especially when he had the eternal, existential, international, and all-encompassing War on Terror to justify keeping them. I’m as disappointed in Obama as Froomkin is, but I’m not sure how much of this was really up to the man himself. For years, media and policy elites have beaten the drum of permanent war and attempted to inculcate the public with the belief that this war required a strong executive branch, a massive surveillance state, a concomitant downsizing of civil liberties, and periodic military interventions abroad. In such a paranoid zeitgeist, how harshly can Obama be judged for reflecting it? Just imagine what would happen if he decided to rein in the CIA and NSA, shut down the drone program, and forswear his power to order warrantless assassinations. Impeachment proceedings would begin that same day.

Our Fearless Freelancers

by Jonah Shepp

Among the many pieces written in memory of Steven Sotloff since the news of his death broke on Monday, a few of them struck a particular chord with me, touching on the dangerous, precarious, but potentially greatly rewarding life of a freelance war correspondent: a job in which many young journalists cut their teeth and often make their careers. Michael Totten, who corresponded with Sotloff but never met him in person, remarks that he was “a hell of a lot braver than I am”:

I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today. When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way. Maybe that’s just a trick of the mind.

Joe Klein didn’t know Sotloff at all, but praises his ilk of freelancers:

I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride. But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news.

Recalling her time as a stringer in Moscow, Julia Ioffe wrestles with the question of why young journalists take these risks:

[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we journalists are not just doing it to inform the reader. We’re also taking these risks for ourselves, making the calculation that, stringing and freelancing in places where papers and magazines are either too scared or too cheap to send permanent correspondents, going to iffy places and often for a pittance, someone will notice our labors and reward us with more work, and maybe even a job. It is a bright and risky way to launch a career. It’s also a way to discover that, even if it’s hard to break in, if this is what journalism is, you don’t want to do anything else for the rest of your life. … But the gambit never paid off for Sotloff. His beheading will be, for most anyone who hears his name, the sum total of his career. That is so immensely crushing and disappointing. It’s also, for us journalists, a reminder of the gambit’s downside, the shortness and slipperiness of the future, and the utter fragility of our plans.

I came into journalism through a side door, never having intended to enter the profession until a job as an sub-editor at The Jordan Times simply fell into my lap, mainly by dint of my ability to write in English. I did a little reporting, but nothing very substantial. What I liked about the job was getting to know the country through what my colleagues reported, as well as what our stories left out, which came to me in editorial meetings and cigarette breaks with the reporters. Friends advised me to do what my colleague Taylor Luck later managed to do and offer myself as a stringer to American newspapers. I e-mailed a high school friend who works at the WaPo to find out how to do that, but never followed through with the editor she referred me to.

The reason, to be perfectly honest, is that I never really had the disposition of a reporter. I love the news, but digging it up requires a certain fearlessness that I never really had. And I certainly could never hack it as the sort of reporter who travels to a war zone: I just don’t have the guts. I could never, like Nir Rosen once did, disguise myself as a member of the Taliban to get an angle on the Afghanistan war that those who followed the US Army could not.

So while Taylor immersed himself in his reporting, learning to speak Arabic 100 percent fluently and making such deep connections in Islamist circles that we joked around the office that he had become one of them, I sat at my desk and got to know Jordan mainly through the stories I edited and by becoming close friends with some of my Jordanian colleagues. By no means is that a bad way to get to know a country, but I always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to go deeper, and worried that I was missing that extra insight that comes from “being there” in the middle of the riot or the battle or the aftermath of the natural disaster.

It takes a great deal of courage, or at least much more than I have, to travel to a foreign war zone and report directly from the rubble and carnage, to embed among rogue militias, to see the destruction firsthand and actually look the widows and orphans in the eye and give them a voice with one’s writing. It’s especially brave to do so without a net. Dedicated war reporters like Foley and Sotloff, to say nothing of their Syrian colleagues who risk imprisonment, torture, and death to get the story, are heroes to humanity in that respect. Bravery like theirs is hard to come by.

A Degrading Strategy?

by Jonah Shepp

President Obama’s statement yesterday that the US intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS raised a few questions about just what he meant by that. Spencer Ackerman observes that the statement adds to the conflicting rhetoric coming from the administration:

Obama’s goals have caused confusion in recent weeks. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said in the short term Isis can be contained, while Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, said the group must be “crushed”. Each of those endpoints require different military approaches for achieving them. Degrading and destroying an adversary are also two different goals. Degradation is a line short of destruction, a difference Obama appeared to split by suggesting his desired end state is a neutralized, unthreatening Isis.

As Keating points out, if the goal is indeed to “destroy” ISIS, that strongly implies that our air war in Iraq will expand to Syria:

It seemed obvious that continued videotaped killings of U.S. citizens would provoke a more steadfast response than what we’ve seen so far. The goal of the U.S. operation has now expanded from averting a “potential act of genocide”—or recapturing control of a critical dam, or even propping up the Iraqi government—to eliminating ISIS as a force entirely. The thing is, Obama’s own military commanders say that destroying ISIS is impossible without strikes against its strongholds in Syria, a step this administration has been extremely reluctant to take. U.S. strikes on Syria probably aren’t imminent—for one thing,more intelligence gathering is probably needed before the military would take such a step—but eventual military action against ISIS on the other side of the border is starting to feel inevitable.

But Hassan Hassan calls that an opportunity, arguing that the US can leverage it to effect a solution to the Syrian civil war, provided we don’t sell out the opposition and work with the Assad regime:

Local communities and armed groups, even if many of them might be currently displaced, have a direct stake in fighting the Islamic State. However, there are already voices within the anti-jihadist opposition condemning the potential airstrikes against the Islamic State because the perception is that they will be coordinated with Assad. An activist who led a campaign against the jihadist group for months, for example, said he would join the Islamic State if intervention comes at the expense of the rebels. … If Washington plays its cards right, it can use the fight against the Islamic State to spur broader political change in Syria. There is already regional will to defeat the jihadists — American action has the power to unite disparate groups around a solution that could end the bloodshed. As Obama develops his strategy to combat the Islamic State, he would do well to keep that in mind.

That would be the ideal outcome, of course: it’s certainly preferable to the massive PR disaster of an alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and that might even be what Obama’s thinking as he looks to build a regional coalition to fight this war. I’m not as sanguine as Hassan that it will work, though, and I suspect the president himself is leery of “owning” the effort to resolve the Syrian crisis, lest it fail. Rand Paul, on the other hand, thinks an alliance with Damascus (and Tehran) is a no-brainer:

In addition to Iran and Syria, Paul said he believes “the Turks should be enjoined” in the fight. … Paul charged that the chain reaction of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is what, in part, led to the rise of ISIS: “I think part of the reason they’ve gotten so large is that we have armed Islamic allies of theirs, Islamic rebels, in Syria, to degrade Assad’s regime, and Assad, then, couldn’t take care of ISIS. Really, I think what we’ve done, the unintended consequences of being involved in the Syrian civil war, have been to encourage the growth of ISIS by supporting their allies… I think it’s our intervention that really held Assad at bay, and Assad would have wiped these people out long ago.”

But Larison rejects the premise that we should, or even can, fight this battle at all:

When people talk about “destroying ISIS,” they are setting a goal that doesn’t seem to be realistic at an acceptable cost, and their policy would require committing the U.S. to a war in Iraq and Syria that would almost certainly ensnare the U.S. in that country’s ongoing civil war for years to come. Opposing such a poorly thought-through and ill-defined policy doesn’t amount to pacifism, as [Richard] Epstein tendentiously claims, and one doesn’t need to be anything close to a pacifist to see the dangers of overreacting to potential threats with military action on a regular basis. ISIS and other groups like it thrive on such militarized overreaction, which is one reason why it is doubtful that such a group can ever be thoroughly “destroyed” without creating more like it in the process.

Waldman, meanwhile, monitors the outrage machine as it combs through Obama’s rhetoric for signs of weakness and perfidy:

[M]embers of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.” If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.

Zack Beauchamp has a voxplanation for that:

Obama’s rhetoric on ISIS is confused because his administration’s policy on ISIS is confused by internal contradictions. On the one hand, Obama really does have long term ambitions to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, he recognizes that this is impossible in the near term, and that the best the US can do is lay the groundwork for ISIS’ eventual collapse. This essential tension in American objectives explains why Obama’s rhetoric and actual policy on the group are so at odds.

Anyway, Goldblog argues, Obama is much more of a hawk than he gets credit for being:

It is important to remember that Obama is perhaps the greatest killer of terrorists in American history. … Obama has launched strikes against Islamist terror targets in several countries. He has devastated the leadership of core al Qaeda, and just this week — as Washington opinion-makers collectively decided that he was hopelessly weak on terror — the president launched a (quite possibly successful) strike in Somalia against the leader of al-Shabab, a terror group nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State. And here’s the important bit — at the same time the White House is the target of relentless complaints that it has not done enough to combat Islamic State, Obama is actually combating Islamic State, launching what appear to be, at this early stage, fairly effective strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The rhetoric is not inspiring, but the actions should count for something.

Interventionist Insanity

by Jonah Shepp

Shadi Hamid characterizes Obama’s foreign policy as reflecting a lack of faith in American power:

Obama, far from the prudent technocrat some assume him to be, is a believer in the limits not just of American power (which would be understandable) but American agency, colored by a lack of faith in America’s ability to play a constructive role where religious and ethnic divides are paramount. The president has been surprisingly dismissive of the growing number of former U.S. officials and Middle East and Syria experts who have criticized him for not intervening in Syria more than two and half years ago when less than ten thousand Syrians had died. That Obama appears unwilling to question his original assumptions, despite rapidly changing events on the ground, suggests an insularity and ideological rigidity that surpasses even the Bush administration.

The fact that Syria has gone to shit without American help doesn’t disprove the argument that US intervention wouldn’t solve Syria’s problems. Hamid’s logic here is telling: Obama thought it was a bad idea to intervene in Syria in 2012, and today he thinks it’s still a bad idea (and no evidence has emerged to demonstrate otherwise), therefore Obama is insular and ideologically rigid. After a series of disastrous exercises (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) brought about by an overabundance of faith in American power, where do interventionists like Hamid get off criticizing Obama’s lack of faith in this power as though it were some kind of nebbishy tic? Is that lack of faith not a rational response to repeated demonstrations that there are problems in the world that American power can’t solve? Having “faith” in a course of action that has been repeatedly been demonstrated not to work demonstrates not strength, resolve, or leadership, but rather a failure to see what is in front of one’s face. And lacking faith in it seems pretty smart to me.

Hamid, of course, is on the long list of Libyan war cheerleaders whom Freddie deBoer calls out, wondering when their mea culpas will emerge. I’m not on the public record regarding that intervention, but for what it’s worth, I had serious misgivings about it and wasn’t terribly surprised when it went awry, though I admit I was not sorry to see Qaddafi go and did argue with friends on the far left who believed (still do) that he was a great humanitarian rather than an eccentric narcissist who killed a lot of people and bought off a lot of other people with oil money.

But now, the American Power Caucus has turned its attention to Ukraine, where Walter Russell Mead claims (literally) that the only thing separating us from a “Mad Max world” is a good, old-fashioned US intervention:

America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters. A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle.

But as Daniel Larison points out, arming Ukraine wouldn’t actually accomplish very much other than raising the death toll:

It’s telling that no one in favor of arming Ukraine believes that it would do anything more than drag out the conflict. That’s the best-case scenario. It is just as likely that Russia would respond to the arming of Ukraine by Western governments with a much larger attack that inflicts even greater damage on the country. Russia has consistently been willing to go much farther than the U.S. and its allies in terms of what it will risk over Ukraine, and we should assume that will also apply to its response to attempts by Western powers to arm Ukraine. At each stage of the Ukraine crisis, Western governments have pursued their policies there without considering how Russia would respond to them. This has repeatedly put Western governments in the absurd position of provoking reactions from Moscow that they should have expected but failed to anticipate.