Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

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I attended the “Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges” conference that took place September 16-17, 2014, in Riyadh.  The conference was sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and co-organized by the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.  I am not going to summarize all the presentations that were made (many are already available on the web), but highlight what I saw as the principal points being conveyed by the Saudi and other Gulf speakers.  These were:

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not the only threat that the region faces.  There are several others, including the threat from Iran, the actions of the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a extremism in Iraq and elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen.  The importance of these last two was underlined in presentations by Dr. Saeb Erekat (Palestinian Chief Negotiator), and Jamal Al Salal (Yemeni Foreign Minister).

While the West focuses on Sunni extremists (such as ISIS), Shi’a extremism is also a major threat.  Shi’a extremists whom Saudi and Gulf speakers regard as especially threatening include the Shi’a militias in Iraq, elements within Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, the Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Standing behind them all, Saudi and other Gulf speakers emphasized, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Effectively battling ISIS requires an understanding of the root causes of its current strength.  This, in the view of the Saudi and other Gulf speakers, resulted from 1) the American-led invasion of Iraq; 2) the American withdrawal from Iraq; and 3) the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its declared intention of launching an attack on the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own people.  Since this last development in particular, Damascus has focused on targeting the more moderate Syrian opposition and not ISIS.  As American actions (or non-actions) are primarily responsible for allowing ISIS to grow strong, it is America that is primarily responsible for combating it.

Military means alone will not defeat ISIS and other jihadist movements.  Too many Sunnis have become convinced that ISIS is either their champion or is less worse than its Shi’a opponents.  They need to be persuaded that jihadism is not the right way to solve their problems.  America and the West cannot do this effectively.  This battle for Sunni hearts and minds must be undertaken by Sunnis themselves, including Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Iran cannot be considered a true partner in the battle against ISIS.  This is because although Tehran genuinely fears ISIS, it wants to combat it through strengthening the Assad regime in Syria and Shi’a forces in Iraq—whose aim is to suppress the Sunnis in general in these two countries.  Fear was expressed that the Obama Administration, through prioritizing negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, is overlooking the ongoing Iranian and Shi’a threat to Sunnis, and Sunni governments, in the region.  On the sidelines of the conference, there were Saudis and others from the Gulf who even expressed fear of the rise of an Iranian lobby in Washington.

The rise of ISIS and other regional challenges underlines the importance of pressing ahead with the “Gulf Union” project.  At this conference, the proposal was supported not just by Saudi speakers, but also by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Saad bin Tefla Al Ajmi.  It was emphasized that the Gulf Union would not involve the loss of sovereignty of the six projected members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), but would have a federal structure instead.  The Gulf Union, though, would establish common foreign and defense policies for the six members.

In addition to the above points which were made by Saudi and other Gulf speakers, there were several specific statements made during the conference that were noteworthy:

In the second session (on Gulf Security and the Impact of Regional Political Transformations), Prof. Mostafa Elwi of Egypt indicated that he saw Syria’s Assad regime as a partner in the coalition fighting ISIS.  This seems to be the position of the Egyptian government also, but is not that of the Saudi, UAE, or Kuwaiti governments.

In the sixth session (on Gulf Security and the Role of Rising Powers), Ambassador Rajiv Sikri made what I thought was an especially interesting proposal.  ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) sponsors a regional forum that includes ASEAN members, neighboring states, and external actors with an interest in the region.  Indeed, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes governments that are hostile to one another:  North Korea on the one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other.  Just as the ASEAN Regional Forum gives these governments an opportunity to talk to each other, a Gulf regional forum that included all states in the region as well as external actors active in it would provide an opportunity for discussions among Arab governments, Iran, and Israel.

Also in the sixth session, the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Chengwen, gave a speech—in Arabic—on Chinese policy toward the region.  In the Q&A session afterward, a Saudi female journalist was highly critical of China.  While China claims to be a rising power, she noted, it does not play much of a role in the region.  While China is also threatened by the rise of ISIS, China has just been a “free rider” while others act to combat it.  She also raised the question of the status of Muslims in China—an obvious reference to Beijing’s policy of suppressing Muslims in Xinjiang.

In the seventh session (on Future Perspectives), Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources gave a highly detailed speech challenging the increasingly popular view that the “shale revolution” in North America will reduce the economic and security importance of the Gulf to the West.  He questioned whether the shale revolution will really allow the U.S. to satisfy its own energy needs.  Even if it does, he argued, many other countries (including those allied to the U.S.) will remain dependent on Gulf oil, and that the ability of the Gulf to continue supplying oil to the world market will have a major impact on petroleum prices everywhere.  Gulf security, then, should remain a priority for American foreign policy even if the U.S. imports no oil itself from the region.

This conference was especially interesting due both to the high quality of the presentations and to the spirited Q&A sessions afterwards.  Especially noteworthy was the vigorous participation of women from the Gulf region in these Q&A sessions.  This, in my view, was a highly positive development in a region where there are all too many negative ones.

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The Bush Administration’s decisions to intervene first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq have proven to be highly costly ventures.  Many lives have been lost and disrupted, much property has been damaged, and vast resources have been expended.  Despite this effort, neither country has been stabilized, much less democratized.  Further, America’s image was badly tarnished, and relations with other countries—even close allies—were negatively impacted.

Thus, the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw American forces first from Iraq (completed at the end of 2011) and then from Afghanistan (to be completed by the end of 2014) have been popular both at home and abroad.

But despite the popularity of the Obama Administration’s decisions to withdraw—and despite the unlikelihood that a Romney Administration would be willing or able to reverse them—these withdrawals are not going to bring about a happy resolution to the conflict situations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot help but remind those of us old enough to remember what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.  American forces completed their withdrawal at the beginning of 1973—and communist forces took over South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos just over two years later in the spring of 1975.

And as much as we abhorred the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Soviet forces over the course of 1988-89 that was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1996 does not bode well for what might happen following the departure of Western forces at the end of 2014.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Taliban or a similar group could again overrun Afghanistan.

As for Iraq:  it was surely not the intention of the Bush Administration to put into office there a government that would become friends with American’s adversary, Iran.  Yet that is exactly what has happened.

So what do we do now?  Indeed, can we do anything at all to prevent disaster short of massive re-intervention—which, of course, would also be disastrous?

I would like to suggest that there are policy options between massive intervention on the one hand and doing nothing on the other, and that these “in-between” options might be better suited both for advancing long-term American interests as well as promoting security in the region.  Understanding what these options are, though, requires an understanding of two things:  1) what is it that we are afraid of? and 2) what factors are likely to continue or arise in the region as the U.S. withdraws from the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts that the U.S. can work with either to prevent that which we fear from occurring, or mitigate it if we can’t?

Describing what we fear is easy.  In Afghanistan, it’s the return to power of a vengeful Taliban regime (or a reasonable facsimile) bent on supporting Al Qaeda and other jihadist movements.  In Iraq, it’s the prospect of seeing that everything we did there has only succeeded in installing a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad which will work with Tehran to undermine America’s oil rich but militarily weak Sunni allies in the Gulf—as many see the ongoing Shi’a unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as evidence of.

There are, though, three tendencies that the U.S. can take advantage of to prevent or mitigate these negative scenarios.

The first is that regional rivalries will continue whether the U.S. stays or goes.  Even after the departure of U.S. forces, then, neighboring countries will act to oppose the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq.  The U.S. can support these efforts.

The second is the tendency for those whom we oppose to overplay their hand once they think they have beaten us, behave in an authoritarian manner whenever they have the opportunity to do so, and thus alienate the people of their own country as well as neighboring ones—whom we and our allies can help.

The third is the tendency for radical forces opposed to the U.S. to also oppose one another—especially when, once again, they think that American power is on the decline.  When the opportunity arises, the U.S. can exploit these rivalries—but only if it recognizes opportunities to do so when they arise.

Taking advantage of these three tendencies is the theory, if you will, advanced in my book, “Leaving without Losing.”  But can the U.S. do this in the specific cases of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Let’s start first with Afghanistan.  As noted earlier, what we fear here is that the U.S. withdrawal will be followed by the return to power of the Taliban or a similar group.  But there are others who fear this too:  India, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics.  Indeed, all these actors may be more highly motivated than the U.S. to prevent the return of a Pakistani-backed Islamist regime to Afghanistan.  The U.S. can do much to help them in this.  At the very least, we should not hinder them.

In addition, the Taliban established a strong record of misrule during its first period in power from 1996 to 2001.  Unlike before the first time they overran most of the country, then, Afghans are under no illusion now about what their rule will be like if they take over again.  The Haqqani Network—a more vicious as well as more pro-Pakistani group—are even more feared.  The prospect of groups such as these coming to power should provide a powerful incentive to Afghans to oppose them.  Even after withdrawing its own forces, then, the U.S. can—and should—continue to assist those Afghans willing to resist them to do so.

Now some might ask, “If Afghan government forces are doing so poorly against the Taliban while U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, how can they be expected to resist them once the U.S. leaves?”  The model those who ask this undoubtedly have in mind is Indochina four decades ago when the U.S. withdrawal in early 1973 was followed by the downfall of the governments it was protecting in the spring of 1975, or even when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992.

But this sequence of events is not inevitable.  The withdrawal of foreign forces fighting an insurgency is not always followed by the downfall of the government they were protecting.  In some cases, the government being protected has actually survived the withdrawal of the foreign forces and brought an end to the conflict with its internal opponents.  This happened in North Yemen following the withdrawal of Egyptian forces in 1967 and in Angola following the withdrawal of Cuban forces at the end of the Cold War.  Other examples could be cited.  The key thing to keep in mind is that—despite how unflattering to them this might be—the presence of foreign protectors often negatively affects the legitimacy of the governments they were sent to protect.  The withdrawal of the foreign forces, then, can actually increase the legitimacy of beleaguered governments—especially when they can point out how it is their opponents who are the ones linked to foreign governments (as the Taliban is with Pakistan).

Finally, we already know that relations between the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters are fraught with difficulty.  As the U.S. withdrawal proceeds, the more likely it is that these differences will increase.  This may provide opportunities for the U.S. to exploit.  One could be arranging for an internal Afghan settlement that includes the Taliban and thus liberates it from dependence on Pakistan.  Or, if the Afghan Taliban (which has gotten help from Pakistan) gives aid and support to the Pakistani Taliban (which opposes the Pakistani government), the Pakistani government may finally realize that supporting radical Islamists is not in its interests and seek American assistance against them.  Whether either of these situations will arise is unclear.  But we can’t take advantage of them if we refuse to acknowledge that they are possible.

Let’s turn next to Iraq.  Even with the U.S. having withdrawn, there are others in the region seeking to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Iraq and beyond.  These states include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other oil rich monarchies.  Israel shares this interest with them.  The U.S. can help them in these efforts.

In addition, the democratically elected Arab Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Maleki that the U.S. intervention made possible has not just made friends with Iran, but has been ruling in an increasingly autocratic manner.  The U.S. intervention, though, also benefited the Kurdish minority in the north and allowed it to establish a regional government, relatively independent from Baghdad, which has established a remarkable degree of stability and prosperity in this area.  Continued American support for this de facto Kurdish state serves American interests through enabling a people strongly motivated to keep both Tehran’s and Baghdad’s ambitions in check to do so successfully.

Another accomplishment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was how relations between the U.S. armed forces on the one hand and the Sunni Arab minority on the other went from extremely hostile to very good (thanks, in part, to Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bad behavior).  What the U.S. did not succeed at, however, is reconciling the Shi’a Arab majority with the Sunni Arab minority (or the Kurdish minority).  And since the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government’s behavior toward the Sunni minority has become increasingly oppressive.  What this means, of course, is that (like the Kurds), the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is also strongly motivated to keep Baghdad’s and Tehran’s ambitions in check.

We must not, though, just write off the Iraqi Shi’a.  They are divided among themselves.  What this means is that if Maleki or other leaders lean toward Iran, at least some of their Shi’a rivals are likely to seek American support.  More importantly, it must not be forgotten that Iraq and Iran have historically been rivals.  Just because Iraq has gone from being ruled by a Sunni minority regime to being ruled by a Shi’a majority one may not change this.  The division between Arab and Persian appears to be much stronger than the common tie of Shi’ism—as the Iranian government’s failure to spark a revolt by the Iraqi Shi’as against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War showed.  Further, the Iraqi Shi’a ayatollahs do not accept the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader.  If and when differences between Baghdad and Tehran emerge, this will provide an opportunity for Washington.

What all this means, though, is that dealing with Iraq will be tricky.  The more that the U.S. and its allies support the Kurdish and Arab Sunni minorities, the less likely that the Arab Shi’a government in Baghdad will move away from Tehran.  But the more that the U.S. and its allies support the government in Baghdad, the more likely it is to feel that it can treat the minorities harshly—thus creating opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Thus, whatever else America does in Iraq, its long-term interests would be best served through patiently promoting what would also be in the best interests of all Iraqis:  the establishment of a true federal democracy that keeps Iraq united, but respects the autonomy of its principal communities.  Unless and until they are all on board with this, however, it is not going to come into being—but their differences will allow the U.S. room for maneuver against any which ally with Iran.

The foreign policy approach I am proposing here for the U.S. to pursue toward Iraq and Afghanistan after withdrawing from them is—I freely admit—not big and bold.  Nor do I apologize for this.  It was the Bush Administration’s big and bold foreign policy approach toward Afghanistan and Iraq, after all, which got us into the mess we’re now in.  But this is not the first time we’ve been in such a mess.  It was a similar big and bold foreign policy approach that got us into a similar situation in Indochina which we also ended up extricating ourselves from through withdrawal.  And then when America went to the other extreme of being completely unwilling to intervene afterward because we wanted “no more Vietnams,” the Marxists took advantage of this to seize power in several more (what were then known as) Third World countries during the 1970s.

Back then, though, the U.S. adopted a three-part foreign policy approach, similar to the one I’m advocating here, of exploiting the opportunities provided by regional rivalries, the opposition generated by our adversaries’ authoritarian rule, and the seemingly inevitable hostility that arises within the ranks of radicals.  And it was this prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach that contributed to a dramatic change from an overextended America being taken advantage of by its adversaries in the late 1960s and the 1970s to a seemingly weakened America being able to take advantage of its Marxist adversaries’ overextension in the 1980s.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel confident that the adoption of the prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach outlined here will also prove more successful than the extremes of massive intervention on the one hand doing nothing on the other.

This is a slightly revised version of a speech I gave at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in San Francisco on August 16, 2012.

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