Iranians gather to show their support of the people of Syria and Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on June 24, 2014. Demonstrators said if ISIS attacks holy Shiite shrines in Iraq, they will go and fight against ISIS.     UPI/Maryam Rahmanian (Newscom TagID: upiphotostwo319406.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Foreign policy: make Iraq great again

                                                       image courtesy of

The answer to the Syrian refugee crisis is Iraq. As Secretary of State Colin Powell famously warned President George W. Bush, “If you break it, you own it.” (Read that whole article, by the way, because Colin Powell is one of the great American Generals and he speaks the truth.) We have many allies in the region and they are doing everything they can to help us. Turkey is housing nearly 2 million refugees (half of whom are children.) That’s 10% of Syria’s pre-war population. Jordan has embraced almost 650,000, which means that 10% of Jordan’s total population is now Syrian refugees.

Lebanon (not an ally) has accepted 1.1 million refugees. Lebanon and Israel are in the midst of a Cold War. As a result, the United States offers Lebanon no assistance, even though 25% of their population is now Syrian refugees. The children keep coming, and Lebanon keeps housing, feeding, and sheltering them, even though their resources are well beyond the breaking point. Even Iran has been sending aid, as much as they are able, to fellow members of the Red Crescent Society (think Red Cross for Muslims.) Continue reading


For Memorial Day – The Promise

He was a surprise, actually, or “unplanned,” as they call such things, but in the coming years, no one ever really remembered that part.

She read Doctor Spock, just to get ready, to wile away the passing months. She monitored her eating habits, wondering if she was ingesting the right blend of proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals…the monstrously huge prenatal vitamins that made her nauseated, but she held them down, for his sake; spinach, which was necessary because of spina bifida; no caffeine or, at the very least, less than usual. For months, her mouth tasted strangely metallic, which wasn’t in any of the books, and she was tired, so very tired, as if her body had taken on some mysterious, otherworldly work without her and there was little energy left for herself. He grew until it seemed he would explode her skin, until she worried how he would ever emerge, whether he could ever emerge. Meanwhile, he kicked and spun as if starring in his own unseen circus. Continue reading


Burning alive of Jordanian fighter pilot more evidence Islamic State refuses to grow up

By burning alive Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Islamic State reinforced an apparent commitment to behave like a terrorist organization, not a state.

Government building in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

Government building in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

It’s well known that revolutionary movements and/or terrorist organizations generally moderate the extreme violence that may have brought them to power. The Islamic State, however, which fancies itself even more than a state — a caliphate spanning existing states — seems intent on overturning the conventional wisdom.

In fact, is the Islamic State’s leadership channeling Satan? By burning Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh to death in the most torturous manner possible, its members are apparently making another payment in the deal they seem to have signed with the devil (known as Shaytan in Islam). Continue reading


Sounding the alarm about the Islamic State does not have to be a call to arms

Nor does glossing over the Islamic State’s ultraviolence help make the case for non-intervention.

The putative Islamic Caliphate

The putative Islamic Caliphate

On Dec. 18, the Guardian published a report by a team of reporters, including Focal Points contributor Ali Younes, titled The race to save Peter Kassig, the American aid worker who the Islamic State captured and ultimately beheaded. The article is full of juicy details such as this about Islamist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi:

On 18 October, Cohen and Abdel-Rahman flew from Kuwait to Jordan, and checked into the Four Seasons hotel in Amman. Two days later, they finally met Maqdisi, who arrived at the Four Seasons in his beat up ‘97 Hyundai. They set off for Maqdisi’s home, in a relatively poor neighbourhood 10 miles north of Amman. On the way, Maqdisi’s car broke down. Cursing and stuck in the middle of a traffic jam, Cohen said Maqdisi opened up the hood and started beating the engine with a wrench. Five minutes later they were off again. Continue reading

There’s plenty of blame to go around for ISIS’s progress in Iraq. (Photo: State Department / Flickr)

Maliki big loser in the blame game

However vindictive and mule-headed, Prime Minister Maliki doesn’t deserve all the blame for the success of ISIS in Iraq.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for ISIS’s progress in Iraq. (Photo: State Department / Flickr)

There’s plenty of blame to go around for ISIS’s progress in Iraq. (Photo: State Department / Flickr)

Everyone wants to blame Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the military success of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) in Iraq. For instance, appearing on Fox News,

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized the U.S. for arming “Islamic rebels who kill Christians” in Syria and who are now militant in Iraq and said “the person most culpable” for the crisis in Iraq is President Maliki. Paul hit back at Sean Hannity’s oversimplification of the Iraq crisis and attempts to blame President Obama and Democrats on Hannity’s radio show this week.  Continue reading

Bill Clinton v. Darth Cheney on Iraq: yes, but….

Clinton’s comments on Cheney and Iraq are 100% correct. But they ignore something important.

Bill Clinton has taped an interview that will air tomorrow. In it, he’s asked about Dick Cheney’s attacks on President Obama and the Iraq mess. Continue reading

If ISIS moderates its brutality, maybe it should be given a shot at running Iraq. (Photo of power plant in Bayji: Wikimedia Commons)

The two faces of ISIS: summary executions and planting flowers

The march of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is marked by both savagery and the provision of social services.

If ISIS moderates its brutality, maybe it should be given a shot at running Iraq. (Photo of power plant in Bayji: Wikimedia Commons)

If ISIS moderates its brutality, maybe it should be given a shot at running Iraq. (Photo of power plant in Bayji: Wikimedia Commons)

At the Washington Post Monkey Cage, Andrew Shaver and Gabriel Tenorio report that a “lack of basic services, including electricity, fuel and water … may have laid conditions suitable for ISIS’ spread.” In order to “assess how the provision of social services during the Iraq war affected insurgent violence,” they examined “the relationship between available electricity and insurgent attacks on coalition forces.” They found “strong if preliminary evidence that increased electricity supply worked to reduce insurgent violence during the conflict.” Continue reading


Why ISIS shouldn’t be ​branded terrorists

Terrorism leads to panicked over-reaction.​

ISIS 2Yesterday I posted about Kenneth Pollack’s valuable Iraq Military Situation Report that appeared June 14 on the website of the Brookings Institution where he’s a  senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy . He explains the gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or Syria, or the Levant) have been relatively easy because they were in primarily Sunni territories. But now, with ISIS stalled outside Baghdad, between Shia resistance increased on its own territory and help from Iran and the United States, he foresees a stalemate leading to a war of attrition. Continue reading


A quick resolution to the ISIS offensive not likely

It could bog down like the Iran-Iraq War.

ISIS 2Kenneth Pollack is infamous for his 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of producing valuable work today.  Currently a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Pollack wrote an Iraq Military Situation Report that appeared June 14. The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham — or Syria, or the Levant (take your pick) — he reminds us, “is only one piece (albeit the central piece) in a larger array of Sunni groups that are overwhelmingly Iraqi.” At first I thought he wrote “overwhelming Iraq,” but, apparently, not quite yet. Continue reading

ISIS atrocities, real or imagined, only guarantee reprisal will be merciless

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria may be clever and rich but stoking the revenge machine reveals how impoverished its collective imagination is.

The putative Islamic Caliphate

The putative Islamic Caliphate

Over the weekend the Sunni militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claim to have killed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit. Despite pictures they supplied, their claims could not be verified. “But with their claim,” write Rob Nordlund and Alyssa Rubin in the New York Times, “the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus last year.” Continue reading

The United States persists in underestimating the sophistication and savvy of the Islamic State.

ISIS: common enemy of Iran and the United States

It’s ironic that Iraq’s last two enemies now stand ready to defend it against a third enemy, ISIS.

ISISThe advance of ISIS into Baghdad is on hold at the moment in part due to resistance from the Iraqi military and Shia militias. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported:

An Iraqi general told reporters in Baghdad that the armed forces have “regained the initiative” in recent days and are confident that Baghdad is secure. As part of the effort to protect the capital, soldiers headed into the desert to dig a trench, according to footage broadcast on local television stations. Continue reading


Maliki: one of the wrongest horses the U.S. ever backed

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may not be as bad as Saddam Hussein, but he’s only slightly less worse.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Image Wikimedia Commons

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Image Wikimedia Commons

In yet another definitive piece for the New Yorker titled What We Left Behind, Dexter Filkins writes about Iraq today, especially Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who the United States helped install. Many Americans blame Iraqis for killing their fellow citizens simply because they’re of a different sect of Islam. But we need to remember: besides perpetrating a huge amount of the violence ourselves, by invading Iraq the United States effectively freed an evil genie ― excuse any cultural insensitivity the metaphor may conjure up ― out of its bottle. When it subsequently rampaged across the land wreaking death and destruction, the United States took little responsibility for catching it and stuffing it back in. Continue reading

Image Wikipedia Commons

Al Qaeda seizure of Falluja throws U.S. attitudes toward Iraq into sharp relief

U.S. Marines react to loss of Falluja to al Qaeda affiliate ISIS.

Image Wikipedia Commons

Image Wikipedia Commons

After the fall of Falluja to al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, disappointment was expressed by many U.S. Marines who fought to wrest it from Iraqi insurgents. In a New York Times article on January 9, Richard Oppel quoted Kael Weston, who he described as “a former State Department political adviser who worked with the Marines for nearly three years in Falluja and the surrounding Anbar Province.”

Though he would not send troops back, Mr. Weston, the former State Department official, said it was “almost immoral for us to say, ‘It’s all up to them now, we’re out of there.’ ” Continue reading

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

The outstanding bill for Iraq

A couple of weeks ago Larison reminded us that the costs of Iraq are still with us. Citing a new report on a new study about Iraqi war deaths, Max Fisher of the Washington Post and Larison both come to the same conclusion—the war was worse for the Iraqis than we’ve been told. Rather than getting better as the war went on, things didn’t get that much better at all, at least in terms of mortality. And what other measure is there, really? Continue reading


Syria and chemical weapons attacks: “Just trust us,” says everybody.


Today, as covered by nearly everyone, Secretary of State John Kerry said:

“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

Mr. Kerry alleges that the Assad regime destroyed evidence:

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Mr. Kerry said. “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.”

Evidence, of course, is forthcoming. Until then, just trust us.

 In the coming days, officials said, the nation’s intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad’s forces. The information could include so-called signals intelligence — intercepted radio or telephone calls between Syrian military commanders.

Meanwhile, Walid Shoebat, who claims to be a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, presents some kind of evidence that it was the rebels that used the chemical weapons, not Assad. Was Shoebat a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Confirmation is needed, but how rigorous would the confirmation need to be for it to be accepted as fact? Would it matter if he were? As for the evidence he presents, how good is it? Is it merely circumstantial? Taken out of context? Entirely fabricated? Who should judge?

Meanwhile, Russia, likely to veto any UN Security Council measures against Assad, claims that there is no evidence that Assad did use chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, Assad denies using chemical weapons.

The drums are beating for war, and all too many, some perhaps with dubious motives, are eager to get the jump on Assad. How about we wait until the UN inspectors actually have a chance to report on the evidence, if any is found?

Meanwhile, speaking of obscenities committed with chemical weapons:

“They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”


“The declassified CIA documents show that Casey and other top officials were repeatedly informed about Iraq’s chemical attacks and its plans for launching more. “If the Iraqis produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and towns near the border,” the CIA said in a top secret document.But it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi victory in the war, whatever the cost.”

Surprising no one, Mr. Kerry didn’t mention this bit of our history.


Image credit: US Army Materiel Command Licenced under Creative Commons

CATEGORY: ForeignPolicy

Emphasis added: the foreign policy week in pieces

As if Iran Isn’t Noticing

[Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation] worries that the overall effect of the White House’s about-face on nuclear weapons policy could prove counterproductive. “We don’t want more nuclear weapons in the world,” he says. “We’re asking North Korea to stop its program. We’re asking Iran to stop its program. And in the same breath we’re gutting our nuclear nonproliferation by 15 or 20 percent. That would send a confusing message to the rest of the world.” 

How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb, Erika Eichelberger and Dana Liebelson, Mother Jones

Arms Race Gives Way to Network Race

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an “organizational race” to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells. … Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine “big data” to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident – the small cell and big data – and both had their innings.

Small Cells vs. Big Data, John Arquilla, Foreign Policy

NORK: We’re Not Chumps

[North Korea] is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Breaking Out the Bush Playbook on Korea, Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus

Nuclear Energy: Just a Few Degrees of Separation From Nuclear Weapons

… the Western approach toward Iran is that it does not make the necessary conceptual distinction between an indirect or latent nuclear capability and a drive to create nuclear weapons. Like other countries that possess a nuclear fuel cycle, such as Japan, Iran today has a latent nuclear capability that is a byproduct of its NPT-based nuclear progress, rather than a deliberate (i.e., illegal and clandestine) proliferation march. The mere suspicion that Iran’s capability will be misused in the future and bring Iran to the weaponization threshold cannot be the basis to deprive a country of its nuclear rights. … the West should focus on … on persuading Iran, through incentives and lack of security threats, to keep its indirect nuclear capability dormant indefinitely.

A proposed endgame for the Iranian nuclear crisis, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Word Terrorism Increasingly Applied to Muslims Only

… preconceived notions [hold] that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred — cannot be described as terrorism.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality, Ali Younes, Focal Points

Did It Arrive on Pallets Like in Iraq?

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader. … Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords. … “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan, Matthew Rosenberg, the New York Times

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: FreeSpeech

Ten years ago this week the Dixie Chicks controversy erupted: I’m still not ready to back down

CATEGORY: FreeSpeech

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. ― Theodore Roosevelt

On March 10, 2003, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London, Natalie Maines stepped to the microphone and said this:

Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.

As our old friend Greg Mitchell notes, “It was a little more than a week before their fellow Texan launched a war based on lies.”

When word of Maines’s comment made it back to the US, what ensued was…well, what ensued was an infuriating look at the festering soul of Bush-era America and an illustration of the good, bad and ugly of how free speech works. Predictably, the hillbilly right closed ranks around the president and his WMDs-are-real cronies. Country & Western stations purged their playlists of Dixie Chicks music, records were burned, fatwas were issued, and the Chicks’ career Mark 1 was effectively destroyed. The message – for the Dixie Chicks and anybody else out there with a brain and a conscience – was more than clear: if you value your career, shut up and sing.

In some respects, the controversy was really useful. For instance, the president responded by saying:

The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.… they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.… Freedom is a two-way street ….

The remarkable thing about this is that Bush, a man renowned for being wrong on just about everything, was actually right for once. Free speech does not imply a freedom from backlash, and if you’re an entertainer people who disagree with you are perfectly within their rights to boycott. What’s good for Hank Williams, Jr. and Mel Gibson is good for The Dixie Chicks.

Granted, you also have the right to be hateful and ignorant, and it’s certainly true that the Dixie Chicks backlash had more to do with the gleeful exercise of these rights than it did any informed understanding of how free speech was intended to work by the Framers. But that’s another argument for another day.

Now, how you feel about President Obama?

In April, 2009, S&R honored The Dixie Chicks as the 25th addition to our masthead hall of fame. I wrote, at the time (and while I was extremely angry):

History will validate, with a minimum of controversy, the sentiments Natalie Maines expressed at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre on March 10, 2003. Hopefully the record will point to our present moment and note that already the momentum had shifted and that within a generation people would have an impossible time imagining how such an affront to freedom was ever possible. Hopefully.

For the time being, “mad as hell” doesn’t begin to describe the indignation that those of us working to move this culture forward by promoting genuinely intelligent and pro-human values ought to feel, even now. I won’t tell you how to think and act, of course – you have a conscience and a brain, and you can be trusted to take in the information and perspectives around you and form an opinion that you can live by.

But for my part, I have a message for the “shut up and sing” crowd: I’m not ready to back down and I never will be. Your values are at odds with the principles upon which this nation was founded and true liberty cannot survive if your brand of flag-waving ignorance is allowed to thrive. You will not be allowed to use the freedoms that our founders fought for as weapons to stifle freedom for others.

You have declared a culture war, so here’s where the lines are drawn: I’m on the side of enlightenment, free and informed expression and the power of pro-humanist pursuits to produce a better society where we all enjoy the fruits of our shared accomplishments.

What side are you on?

Natalie and her bandmates lost tons of money over the past decade, but they’ll get by. In the end, it seems like they got a pretty good deal. In exchange for all those millions, they earned the right to a special place in the American soul. Justice matters. Facts matter. Humanity and compassion and freedom matter. Integrity matters more than money.

Looking back, I think the lesson to take away is a simple one. Our freedoms are important, but they’re empty and sterile and prone to corruption in the absence of an enlightened, intelligent embrace of the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy.

In the words of another of our musical heroes, George Clinton, “Think. It ain’t illegal yet.”

Journalistic framing in the spotlight: The Atlantic covers UNESCO coverage by The Daily Show

President Obama: AbsurdityFrom Wednesday, March 21, 2012:

‘The Daily Show’s’ Advantage Over the MSM: An Eye for the Absurd

Political satirists sometimes enjoy wider latitude than journalists. It’s a distinct and vital genre for a reason. The press would nevertheless do well to step back, if only occasionally, and to look at the world as its [sic] seen from the Daily Show writers room, or the Onion headline writing desk. Satirists have a knack for hitting on angles that reporters miss due to excessively narrow framing. And deliberate temperamental irreverence is helpful if your job is to dispassionately observe.* In the aftermath of The Daily Show’s UNESCO piece, its angle and value added has been praised in numerous journalistic outlets. Going forward, the press should try to recognize absurdity ahead of the satirists, and bring to ensuing coverage the rigor that is the journalistic comparative advantage. Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading