Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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Despite the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the Syrian conflict, the United States has shown little appetite for a Libya-style intervention, this time without United Nations Security Council approval. The Obama administration has been candid, however, about what might change its mind. In August, President Barack Obama first asserted that Syria's use, or movement, of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) would be a "red line" that would result in "enormous consequences." The British and French quickly followed suit. Just this week, the significance of these red lines was reiterated in view of intelligence reports that the Assad regime is weaponizing Sarin nerve gas.
The Obama administration has been silent about its rationales for these red lines. But reasons matter. As with any use of force in international relations, the legitimacy of an intervention in Syria would hinge on the strength of its moral and legal justifications. Are the Obama administration's red lines primarily designed to protect civilians? Or, are they intended to warn President Bashar al-Assad not to let CBW fall into the hands of terrorists? As it stands, the motivations for the red lines are unclear. Ironically, however, the Obama administration risks resurrecting the much-maligned Bush Doctrine of preemptive self-defense.
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When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)
We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.
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In light of the resignation of the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine's road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to reassess heretofore time-honored policies, practices, political campaign pronouncements, and come up with a realistic and viable way forward.
It is clear that Obama's efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire have been nothing short of a failure. When tallying on to previous failed administration attempts, the cumulative effect has been a clear loss of strategic leverage. This loss is detrimental to the U.S. interest of securing two states living side by side in peace in the region, as well as influencing the likes of Syria and Iran at a critical time. This trend must be reversed and replaced by revitalized action on a critical U.S. national security issue.
As the United States and its European allies launch attacks against the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddhafi, it seems almost poignant that this third military intervention in a Muslim country in the last decade began nearly eight years to the day that the United States invaded Iraq. It is a fitting reminder that even as 50,000 soldiers remain in Iraq, and American soldiers continue to be killed and maimed there, the lessons of that disastrous decision to go to war remain largely unlearned by many in the foreign policy community.
At the outset it's important to acknowledge the key differences in the manner in which these interventions have been undertaken and the differing levels of international and regional legitimacy that they possess. But it is the similarities that are more disquieting. The U.S. has yet again become involved in a military effort of indeterminate length, justified through a questionable definition of national interest and with little forethought to the long-term consequences of utilizing military force. It seems the costs and consequences of Iraq have simply not been fully appreciated by policymakers and pundits. A full accounting is therefore in order.
Political demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have sparked a century old discussion: Is Turkey a model for the Middle East? Two contemporary examples of the "Turkey-as-a-model" debate show how this issue can play out: Turkey was presented as a moderate Islamic, democratic model for the Middle East as part of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," and more recently as part of Barack Obama's democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. It is ironic that in 2010 the debate revolved around concepts such as a "shift of axis," "torn country," and "drifting away," but now Turkey has transformed from a "lost" ally to a "model" country.
Interestingly enough, Islamist actors such as Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt declared their intention to emulate the Turkish experience in order to differentiate themselves from the examples of Iran and Taliban. How is it that Turkey is presented as a model country by political actors as varied as high-level U.S. officials and Islamist groups? To make sense of this irony, one needs to consider the questions: whose model and which Turkey?
In fact, there are three main political groups with competing narratives on what the Turkish model means.
In what is possibly a first for the mainstream U.S. media, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently noted some of the parallels between Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and Morocco's attempted annexation of Western Sahara:
It's fair to acknowledge that there are double standards in the Middle East, with particular scrutiny on Israeli abuses. After all, the biggest theft of Arab land in the Middle East has nothing to do with Palestinians: It is Morocco's robbery of the resource-rich Western Sahara from the people who live there.
And just as one would expect, Morocco's ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar, issued a prompt retort denying that Western Sahara was ever stolen. But the ambassador's logic was a bit fuzzy. "Far from stealing Western Sahara," Mekouar argued, "Morocco has offered the region autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." Which is like saying that theft is not theft if you are willing to sell the stolen object back to the victims for a good price.
Eleven years ago, current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, inherited one of the world's oldest thrones together with one of Africa's most intractable conflicts, the Western Sahara dispute. For his father, King Hassan II, the seizure of Western Sahara from Spain became a blessing and a curse. It was arguably Hassan's greatest achievement and yet Western Sahara soon became the greatest challenge to the consolidation of the post-colonial Moroccan state. Over a decade into his rule, Mohammed VI has yet to find a way to make good on his father's conquest and legacy in the contested Western Sahara.
What will be the image that frames the news reporting of June 29's White House meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Surely not another bow toward the desert monarch, as caught on video at the London G-20 meeting in April 2009. Or what hypercritics saw as a further deferential bob in Riyadh last June, when the president leaned forward so the shorter king could confer on him the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, a chunky necklace that Obama took off within seconds.
Of course, what the White House staff most wants to avoid is any image as awkward as the shot of President George W. Bush and then Crown Prince Abdullah walking arm in arm at the start of a meeting at Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch in April 2002. The shot was memorialized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 and, with Moore himself superimposed in place of Abdullah, became the poster for the movie, plastered on thousands of theater walls across the United States.
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Last week, my friend Steven Cook valiantly stepped to the plate to defend the counter-intuitive proposition that the neocons got some things right on the Middle East. Cook is a known baseball fan, so I assume that it was the beginning of spring training which inspired him to step up to this particular plate. He took three good cuts, identifying Syria, Iran and democracy as the things the neocons correctly interpreted -- but he whiffed on each. Three strikes, and you are out. Unfortunately, the neocons are not out of the game despite their horrific track record on the biggest issues in the Middle East -- and now is not the time to be soft-pedaling their failures or rehabilitating their image.
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