Barack Obama, the Islamic State, and America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East.”  To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below:

 America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East 

While President Obama continues—at least for now—to resist redeploying large numbers of U.S. soldiers to fight the Islamic State on the ground, the military components of the anti-Islamic State strategy he has laid out effectively recommit the United States to its post-9/11 template for never-ending war in the Middle East.  In the end, such an approach can only compound the damage that has already been done to America’s severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East by its previous post-9/11 military misadventures.       

Thirteen years after the fact, most of America’s political and policy elites have yet to grasp the strategic logic that motivated the 9/11 attacks against the United States.  Certainly, al-Qa’ida was not averse to damaging America’s economy and punishing its people.  But Osama bin Laden knew that effects of this sort would be finite, and thus of limited strategic value; he had no illusions about destroying “the American way of life.”

The real objective of the 9/11 attacks was to prompt American overreaction:  to goad Washington into launching prolonged military campaigns against Muslim lands.  These campaigns would galvanise popular sentiment across the Muslim world against the United States, mobilise Middle Eastern publics against regional governments (like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia) that cooperate politically and militarily with it, and rally them in favor of jihadi fighters who resist American domination.  Looking ahead, the al-Qa’ida leader anticipated that local backlash against U.S. overreaction to a terrorist provocation would ultimately undermine the regional foundations of America’s ability to project massive amounts of military force into the Middle East, compelling it to disengage from the region and go home.

Viewed through this frame, the United States fell for bin Laden’s plan with appalling alacrity.  America’s post-9/11 invasions cum campaigns of coercive regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been strategic failures, leaving the United States weaker—in terms of its ability to achieve its stated goals in the Middle East, its economic position, and its standing as a global superpower—than before.  And the most important factor ensuring the failure of these campaigns was that they eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people living there.  As a result, America’s self-declared “war on terror” has made the threat to U.S. interests from violent jihadi extremists vastly more broad-based, complicated, and dangerous than it was thirteen years ago.

Doing the Same Thing…   

Now, in response to the Islamic State’s dramatic rise, the Obama administration wants to go down the same, well-worn, and colossally self-damaging path of strategic overreactions.  The administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is a veritable case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  For there is absolutely no rational basis on which to think that, this time, the United States will get a different—presumably better—result.  This makes Obama’s military campaign against the Islamic State exactly the sort of “dumb war” that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he promised American voters he would oppose.

President Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic—but the movement starts its fight against the United States with an extraordinary level of support from Sunni Muslim publics.  In July 2014—that is, before the United States began its current air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq—a poll by the (Saudi-owned) pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat showed that 92 percent of Saudis believe that the group “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”  In Jordan and Kuwait, Facebook posts by the Islamic State draw tens of thousands of likes in just a few hours; Twitter feeds and other social media suggest that there is a considerable reservoir of popular support for the movement among Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Saudis, and other Arab populations.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan have generated large contingents of young men who have left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State, which draws holy warriors from across the Sunni world.

Under these conditions, U.S. military action against the Islamic State will once again play into the jihadi grand strategy:  to draw “crusaders” (the West, embodied in the United States) and “infidels” (Shi’a) into battle against Sunni holy warriors, thereby rallying support for them across the Sunni world.

Far from deterring Islamic State provocations, U.S. airstrikes will actually incentivize it to do more.  The movement did not execute any of the American journalists it has been holding hostage (for well over a year in some cases) until after the United States started bombing it in August.  That month, as an Islamic State fighter beheaded journalist James Foley for what (thanks to an initial posting on YouTube) turned out to be a worldwide audience, the group warned that, if U.S. military forces continued bombing, it would execute another prisoner, Steven Sotloff.  Of course, the bombing continued; at the beginning of September, as it had promised, the Islamic State beheaded Sotloff for another worldwide video audience.

These gruesome executions have sparked enough elite outcry and sufficient turnaround in American public opinion to prompt the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military action against the Islamic State.   But one utterly predictable consequence of not just escalating the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq but expanding it into Syria (as President Obama seems set on doing) will be more provocations like the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff.

In effect, the Islamic State is continuing the strategy pioneered by bin Laden thirteen years ago, daring Washington to escalate U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Sustained U.S. military action against the Islamic State—even if confined to what Obama calls “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists”—will, in the eyes of Arab publics, cast the movement and those allied to it as resisting continued U.S. efforts to dominate the Muslim world.  This will not only boost the Islamic State’s already substantial popular support in the Muslim world; it will further erode America’s already severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East.

…Over and Over Again 

Likewise, Obama’s pledge to boost American “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” will put the United States in the surreal position of combating the threat to U.S. interests posed by jihadi fighters by funding, arming, and training…jihadi fighters.  The proposition that there is a moderate Syrian opposition with enough military potential and—even more importantly—popular support inside Syria to overthrow the Assad government is a myth.  To claim in addition that these mythical moderate oppositionists can take on and defeat the Islamic State is either blatantly dishonest or dangerously delusional.

To have even a token chance of dealing effectively with the Islamic State, Washington needs to acknowledge the mistaken premises of its Syria policy—that Assad has lost the support of most Syrians and can be overthrown by externally-supported oppositionists—and recognize that ending the anti-Assad insurgency is essential to cutting of the Islamic State’s base in northeastern Syria.  Ostensibly moderate and secular Syrian opposition groups have, for the most part, been well penetrated by their Islamist counterparts.

The White House is (to put it mildly) dancing around reports that elements in one of the supposedly “moderate” and secular Syrian opposition groups to which the Obama administration now wants to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military and financial support sold Steven Sotloff to the Islamic State militants who would later behead him.  For those reports highlight a big problem with the administration’s strategy:  the main thing that will be achieved my stepping up U.S. support for “moderate” Syrian oppositionists is to open up more channels through which the Islamic State can obtain more Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.

Needed:  A Real Regional Strategy 

The point about the mistaken premises of the Obama administration’s Syria policy highlights another debilitating contradiction at the heart of its stated strategy for stopping and, ultimately, dismantling the Islamic State.  This contradiction grows out of the gap between the administration’s rhetoric on the need for a regional strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State and the actual conduct of its regional diplomacy.

Without doubt, there needs to be a regional strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.  Obama and his senior advisors pay lip service to this idea.  But their notion of a regional strategy encompasses only established and unrepresentative Sunni regimes dependent on Washington for their security—e.g., Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, and Jordan.  These governments, by providing various types of support to Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, have actually facilitated the Islamic State’s extraordinary ascendance.  There is no way that this sort of “regional strategy” can meaningfully contribute to halting and ultimately undermining the movement.

A real regional strategy against the Islamic State would necessarily include Russia, Iran, and Syria’s Assad government—in leading positions.  For those actors are all essential players in any serious effort to contain and roll back the multifaceted challenged this movement poses.  Yet senior Obama administration officials have ruled out working with either Iran or the Assad government, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, complains that the administration’s dialogue with Moscow about the Islamic State—if it can appropriately be called “dialogue”—is much more pro forma than substantive.

Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done—or, in his second term, is willing to do—to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies against which he ran his initial presidential campaign, and which have done so much to weaken America’s international position in the two and a half decades since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 

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Flynt Leverett Critiques Obama’s Syria Strategy and its Regional Implications

Flynt went on Russia Today’s CrossTalk to discuss the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State; click on the video above or see “Washington’s Jihad,” here or here (YouTube).  As this campaign expands into Syria, we think the points that Flynt made on CrossTalk, and that Hillary has been making in several appearances on CNN, remain important—and underrepresented in what passes for a policy debate in Washington.

Flynt opens by setting the current U.S. campaign against the Islamic State against the backdrop of U.S. policy since 9/11:

America’s self-declared post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ has been strategically disastrous for the United StatesIt has weakened America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally; squandered vast material and human resources; and has basically destroyed the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people who live in this strategically critical region.  And now President Obama is effectively recommitting the United States to this profoundly self-damaging, post-9/11 template for never ending war in the Middle East.”

As Flynt points out, one of the clearest indicators of the thought-free character of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Islamic State is its emphasis on stepped-up support for Syrian oppositionists:

I have been saying for over three years that the idea there is some moderate, secular Syrian opposition with enough military potential and, even more importantly, enough political standing in Syria to overthrow the Assad government flies in the face of realityTo say that this mythical moderate Syrian opposition is now going to be able to take on the Islamic State is, I think, just delusional.

The Syria policy that the United States and its partners in the region have been pursuing since the spring of 2011 has helped, in a big way, to create the situation in Iraq, with this dramatic ascendance of the Islamic State.  We have created this problem, and now we’re coming up with pseudo-solutions that are only going to make the problem worse…The one thing that could come of this is that you’re going to create more channels for the Islamic State to get hold of Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.  Having the Saudis train these so-called moderate fighters is just going to augment the problem that we’re supposedly trying to deal with.

We have fed the creation of the Islamic State through our policy of support for the Syrian opposition.  And it’s going to have huge repercussions regionally.

Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t IslamicBut the fact is—as evidenced in polls, in social media across the Sunni Arab world—is that this movement has a lot of sympathy and support, even among constituencies that don’t like some of its tactics, don’t like prisoner beheadingsBy launching this military campaign against them, the United States is basically—in the eyes of a lot of Sunni Muslims—it is basically re-launching a post-9/11 war against Islam.  And the one thing we know, over thirteen years since 9/11, is that that drives jihadi recruitment more than anything.  It is going to make the problem vastly worse.”

In the program, Flynt also critiques the Obama administration’s thoroughly warped notion of what a “regional strategy” against the Islamic State should look like.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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HILLARY MANN LEVERETT ON OBAMA, THE ISLAMIC STATE, AND AMERICA’S NEVER-ENDING WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST

This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss President Obama’s address—delivered, ironically enough, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—laying out his administration’s “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State.  Listening to the speech, we thought it confirmed that political and policy elites have essentially learned nothing from a thirteen-year trajectory of hugely counterproductive foreign policy choices—choices made ostensibly in response to 9/11.  In her segments (see videos above or here, here, and here), Hillary sought to explain why this is the case:

“There are two sets of people that the president has around him.  One is a set of people who made their way among powerful domestic constituency groups, and [the other are] are people who made their way through the party.  This isn’t just a Democratic Party thing; the same thing happens on the Republican side…Then, on the so-called ‘expert’ side, you have people from the CIA and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense.  They are not there to provide facts, to provide information.  Remember, in 1947 both the Department of Defense and the CIA were created—after World War II—not to provide the president with facts, but to provide the president with a basis for power projection.  And this is what both parties fall into, both [post-9/11] presidents across the board fall into.

Remember, President Bush started his presidency with wanting to have a ‘humble’ foreign policy (if we can remember that).  What happens is that both of these presidents, President Bush and President Obama, are captured by their parties and a bipartisan commitment to American dominance, to American hegemony, to power projection.  Then they are fueled by ‘information’ coming from the CIA and the Pentagon, that are there for that purpose, for power projection, not to give simple facts or to inform.”

These dynamics are an important driver for many of the disastrously self-damaging foreign policy decisions American presidents have made in the post-Cold War period.  For, as Hillary explains, once a president is “captured and paralyzed by the bipartisan buy-in for dominance,” he is left “without another option.” 

In fact, as Hillary notes, “there is another option, there is a diplomatic way forward, there is conflict resolution.  [Obama] could be not just going to Saudi Arabia and having regional governments that are totally dependent on us for their security—he could have Iran at the table, he could have the Syrian government at the table.  These things are never said to the American public, but they are essential for conflict resolution.  He could go to the United Nations and not just give a speech, but get the Russians to buy in” for a legitimate international effort at conflict resolution.

But that’s not what Obama will do.  Instead, he has Secretary of State John Kerry say that having Iran at the table would be “inappropriate” until Tehran accepts the fatally flawed premises of Washington Syria policy and stops supporting the Assad government.  Moreover, Obama is asking for—and getting—bipartisan support for more U.S. assistance to so-called “moderate” Syrian oppositionists—who, as Hillary points out, “are the rebels who kidnapped Steve Sotloff and sold him to ISIS to be beheaded.  So you have bipartisan buy-in for that.”

Obama’s speech on the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies embodied in the “bipartisan commitment to dominance” described by Hillary.  In his initial presidential campaign, Obama seemed, to some extent, to run against those orthodoxies, which have done so much to weaken America’s international position since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.  Now, the public presentation of his Islamic State “strategy” makes all too clear just how thoroughly Obama has embraced them.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Hillary Mann Leverett on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic State and the Folly of Sanctioning Russia



This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss the Obama administration’s fumbling response to the Islamic State (see here and here or click on videos above) and the West’s rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine (see here or click on videos above).  Regarding the calls for the Obama administration to expand the current U.S. air campaign against IS targets in northern Iraq into Syria as well, Hillary recounts

“I remember a year ago this weekend.  I was on a different program [see here], and I said, ‘Wait a minute.  Don’t go bomb Assad’s military in Syria, because they’re one of the only militaries that’s fighting ISIS.  We’ll essentially be al-Qa’ida or ISIS’ air force if we do so.’  The president was correct, even though he took a lot of backlash, not to bomb Assad’s army last year, and he’s probably correct not to [mount a bombing campaign against ISIS] this year, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants—they want the United States back in, full throttle, to send hundreds of thousands of troops back and make this an all-out war with the United States to take over their swath of the Middle East.”

And, while Obama’s surely more-revealing-than-he-intended acknowledgment, “We don’t have a strategy,” was maladroit in the extreme, Hillary reminds,

“In the Bush administration, we forget, but it took the administration about a month to come up with plans to attack Afghanistan.  They also had no strategy, even though al-Qa’ida had been attacking us for six years, from 1995 on.  We knew al-Qa’ida, we knew Afghanistan, but we had no strategy.

My concern is that the president—and it isn’t just the president, but it’s the entire foreign policy elite and bureaucracy—has not learned a thing since 9/11.  Here we are—we know Iraq, we had 150,000 troops there, we were there for years, we bombed that country for a long time.  We know the situation, and we still don’t have a strategy…

If there were a strategy, it would actually tell the American public the hard things they need to hear, which is that you don’t partner with, align with, have coalitions just with countries that have like-minded, so-called ‘values.’  You deal with countries as they are—like Iran and Assad’s Syria, who are the only governments in the region fighting ISIS.  And to have this policy that keeps them in the ground is enormously destructive to the United States.”

Hillary points out another serious defect in the U.S. policy discussion—namely, political and policy elites’ collective and willful refusal to acknowledge that the Islamic State has popular support:

“A Saudi-funded newspaper, Al Hayat, did a poll in Saudi Arabia, of Saudi public opinion.  They found that 92 percent of Saudis believe that ISIS conforms to their view of Islamic values and Islamic law.  So we have our head in the sand—that this makes no sense, everybody hates [ISIS], and we can recruit our Sunni autocracies as allies to fund even more Sunni militants to deal with this.  That is insane…

[T]o the extent that we support governments, like the Saudi government, that Saudis themselves and ISIL have as their target—their target is to bring down the Saudi government, to bring down the other Gulf autocracies and take over the heart of the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina—to the extent we are sending $60 billion in weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, ISIS has us in their sights.  Remember that the execution of [James] Foley happened not just because they were looking to kill an American, but when we started bombing them in Iraq.  It’s a very deliberate, sophisticated military strategy.”

On Russia and Ukraine, Hillary offers up the critically important but almost universally avoided truth about the self-damaging quality of America’s increasingly promiscuous resort to financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool (a truth that can also be made with reference to U.S. policy toward Iran):

“Not that I would agree to use force, but President Obama preemptively, almost immediately, and repeatedly has taken force off the table, and has said that we’re essentially going to rely on sanctions—sanctions that have not affected Russian calculations, and we have no basis to believe they will affect Russian calculations.  What we do know about sanctions is that it will be extremely counterproductive for us.  It will accelerate the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  We’ve seen Russia and China coming closer together, the increase in the Chinese currency, the RMB, [becoming] more accepted internationally.  And once foreigners stop wanting the dollar, we’re done as a superpower.”

But that’s where the flailing and failing American hegemon seems determined to go.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Flynt Leverett on Iraqi Politics, Iranian-Iraqi relations, and How to Think About the Islamic State

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Shortly before Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he would support the nomination of Haidar al-Abadi to replace him, Flynt appeared on KPFK’s Background Briefing with Ian Masters to talk about Iran’s relations with Iraq and the importance of understanding the Islamic State as an externally-supported transnational movement.  To listen to the segment, click here.

Regarding Iran’s role in shaping the trajectory of Iraqi politics, Flynt notes,

“It’s certainly true that Iran has substantial influence over the Dawa party (Mr. Maliki’s party and Mr. Abadi’s party); it has great influence over basically all of the Shi’a Islamist parties.  Many of these parties started as opposition groups (opposition to Saddam Husayn).  The Islamic Republic supported many of these groups in exile in opposition to Saddam, and when Saddam was overthrown, these groups, these parties came back to Iraq and they became basically the most important political players in Iraqi politics.  Iran has very, very good relationships with all of them, with virtually all of the major figures in each of these parties.  They have a very strong relationship with Maliki; I’m sure they have a strong relationship with Abadi.

It’s wrong, though, to think of the Iranians as basically picking winners and losers in these battlesI think the Iranians are very careful basically to make sure they always have optionsEssentially, whoever would be able to put together a majority coalition in the parliament that would enable him to become the next prime minister of Iraq, whether it’s Mr. Maliki or whether it’s somebody else, is going to be someone, almost by definition, that the Iranians have a good working relationship with.  They try not to be in a situation where they put all their eggs in one basket, stake everything on one particular candidate.”

As to why Iran continues to support Iraq’s territorial and political integrity, Flynt explains,

“I think one reason why Iran would like to see Iraq stay together is that the majority of the population in Iraq is Shi’a, it’s at least sixty percent Shi’a.  And while you could, in theory, create this Shi’a-majority state in southern Iraq (it would be an oil-rich state, a fairly populous state), there are also Shi’a who live throughout Iraq; there are Shi’a who live in provinces where they’re not the majority of the population.  And if you broke up Iraq, the status of those Shi’a would be much more exposed, much more at risk.

I think also, from a geopolitical standpoint, if you’re worried about what can happen in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq where you have this ISIS state taking root in a context where Iraq is at least nominally unitary, why would you think that’s going to be better if you actually break up Iraq?  That problem isn’t going to get better; it could, in significant ways, get worse, from an Iranian standpoint.

So, in terms of not wanting to see post-Saddam Shi’a political gains eroded in Iraq and also in terms of the geopolitics and the problems that could come up in non-Shi’a-majority parts of Iraq, the Iranians think it’s better to try and manage those problems with Iraq as a unitary state than not.”

Turning to the Islamic State, Flynt argues that it needs to be understood as an externally-supported transnational movement.

“I think it is a big mistake to read the Islamic State movement as just a bunch of thugs.  I think these guys are very smart, and they have a political program, an expansionist political program, that aims to create a state which actually controls an ever-expanding amount of territory.  They have a political program that is, by orders of magnitude, more developed than anything al-Qa’ida ever came up with.  These guys are in serious business, not just from a military or we might say a terrorist standpoint; they’re in serious business politically…

I think they have gotten support from a number of different sources, including some of our so-called allies.  There has been a lot of financial support at least that’s come out of Saudi Arabia, some Gulf Arab states, for the Islamic State.  Turkey has been supportive of them at various junctures.  So they do have external support.

It is [also] a transnational movement.  It’s not overwhelmingly Iraqi at all.  There’s an important figure in the movement who’s a Chechen, from Russia.  There are Uighurs from China who are fighting in it.  There are people from all over the Arab world, really from all over the Muslim world who have come to join this cause.

So it is not just a bunch of thugs.  This is a serious movement, with serious external support and a transnational base.”

Just as the Islamic State movement has a transnational base, it is increasingly having a transnational impact.  That the Islamic State has an appreciable presence in Syria as well as in Iraq is well-known.  The most recent manifestation of the movement’s transnational impact can be seen in Lebanon, where it has attacked the town of Arsal near the Lebanese-Syrian border.  This means that the only possible solution to the ISIS problem is necessarily regional in nature.

But U.S. policy remains disinclined to pursue a genuinely regional approach to dealing with the Islamic State.  As Flynt points out, understanding Iraq’s current political challenges and the Islamic State’s rise requires a critically sober examination of the deep incoherence and internal contradictions in American strategy toward Iraq and toward the Middle East as a whole:

The United States says it supports a unitary Iraq—and yet, even before the invasion of 2003 when Saddam was overthrown, the United States for the last twenty or twenty-five years has been pursuing policies that progressively undermined any potential national unity in Iraq.  I think there’s a real strategic incoherence there in American policy, cutting across multiple administrations of both parties.

One reason the United States says it still supports a unitary Iraq is because basically none of Iraq’s neighbors—whether those are countries the United States has close alliances with, like Turkey, or whether it’s a country like Iran that the United States has strained relations with—everyone in the neighborhood says it doesn’t want to see Iraq broken up.  The United States makes noises like it respects that.”

But those noises don’t comport with the deeply destructive on-the-ground impact of U.S. policy.  In reviewing ISIS’s external supporters, Flynt notes that the United States has its “own hand to play in the creation and growth” of what is now called the Islamic State:

“Everybody talks about what a great idea the ‘surge’ was in Iraq in 2007-2008, but basically what the surge amounted to was U.S. arming and training 80,000 Sunni militants of various descriptions.  While we were training them, we paid them $300 a month each so that they wouldn’t kill Americans during the period while we were training them.  But we helped to feed what is now ISIS in a big way with the surge.

Then, after the unrest started in Syria in March 2011, and Saudi money, Gulf Arab money started flowing to this group (ostensibly so they could fight the Syrian government under President Assad), we basically turned a blind eye to all of this.  We wanted to see the Syrian opposition supported, we wanted to see President Assad overthrown, and these guys were the most capable fighters in that arena.  So, if our so-called allies were supporting these guys, that was fine with us.  And now—certainly for us and, I think, there’s a good chance for the Saudis—this movement has slipped the leash, and is no longer really responsive to some of the places from which it got early support.”

Even now, in dealing with the Islamic State, the Obama administration’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS fighters plays right into the Islamic State’s jihadist narrative.  As Flynt puts it, “Nothing will rehabilitate these guys like getting bombed by the United States.”  More broadly,

The biggest mistake we have made (and the 2003 invasion is a major manifestation of this, but not the only manifestation of it) is to think that we can micromanage political outcomes in a place like Iraq—whether by deciding who we arm, who we don’t arm, to whom do we provide close air support, to whom do we not provide close air support—that we can use these kinds of crude tools and micromanage political outcomes in a society that’s this complicated.  This is not just ‘it doesn’t work’; it is grossly self-damaging and counterproductive for American interests.

The demographics of Iraq as such that, in any kind of representative political order, the major political players are going to be, first and foremost, Shi’a Islamists, and, secondly, Kurdish parties.  That’s just where the demographics are.  Sunnis in Iraq are probably at this point twenty percent of the population at best, at most.

And so we’ve got to understand that elected governments in Iraq—every government elected since Saddam was overthrown has been a coalition of Shi’a Islamists and Kurds.  We may not like that, we may not like that these guys are all friends of Iran or others we don’t like, but that is the reality.  And if you want to try to maintain some semblance of order in this part of the Middle East, you have to be willing to work with the governments that are there, the governments that are rooted there, work with them, quit trying to undermine them, quit withholding cooperation with them [as we did with]… Maliki The United States messed up Iraq by trying to play those games, and it can only make things worse if it continues to play them.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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