Hillary Mann Leverett Underscores the (Studiously Ignored) Demise of the “Peace Process”—and Rebuts the Myth of “Inclusion” as Panacea for Iraq

As the apocryphal Chinese curse would have it, we are indeed living in interesting times as far as the Middle East is concerned.  Hillary appeared today on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry as part of an extended panel discussion on developments in Palestine and Iraq.  The discussion spanned three separately linked segments (two on Palestine and one on Iraq).  The above embedded video is actually the third segment and is discussed below.

Regarding Palestine, see here and here, Hillary places the sad events of recent days against an essential strategic backdrop, which America’s political class goes out of its way to ignore—namely, that if there were ever any serious possibility of a “two-state” solution, this option is dead, and has been dead for a long time.  But American elites keep talking about a “Middle East peace process.”  They do so because that process is—as it always has been—about things other than actually resolving the conflict.  As Hillary explains,

“The ‘peace process’ started after the 1967 [Arab-Israeli] war.  The state of Israel was declared in 1948.  From 1948 to 1967, there was lots of fighting—but there was no peace process.  The reason a peace process was initiated, in particular by then national security advisor Henry Kissinger, was to get buy-in by Arab states for what was going to be an increased amount of military aid and financial aid to Israel—to justify that to Arab states.”

Of course, American elites like to tell themselves and their countrymen that the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is somehow rooted in “shared democratic values.”  Hillary recounts the uncomfortable historical truth:

“It’s so important to understand this.  From 1948 to 1967, when the Holocaust was fresh in our minds and Israel was arguably at its most democratic, we barely gave Israel food aid.  It’s not about shared values; it’s about…our relationship, our alliance with Israel.  But I would say it’s, strategically, to work with or to use Israel to project American dominance.

Now if you want that out of U.S. policy, Israel is useful.  And so during the [George W.] Bush administration, Israel was particularly useful.  Where it’s less useful is in an administration that’s pulling back from the Middle East, and that’s where you have the friction between Obama and Netanyahu.”

And so, to keep perpetuating the charade with (willfully?) gullible Arab states, Washington has pursued “various iterations of a peace process” over the last four and a half decades.  But, in Hillary’s view, we are coming “to the end of the road, with the two-state solution being the putative goal of that kind of peace process.  And I think what we’re seeing now—what we’ve seen, probably, for the last couple of years—is the death of the two-state solution as a possible resolution.”

As Hillary notes, this means “we’re left with a one-state solution.”  And that ultimately means a big shift in Palestinian strategy:

“I think what you’re going to see over the next few weeks—you may see more or less violence.  But what you’re really going to see, if the Palestinians can step up to what I call their ‘Nelson Mandela moment,’ is to proclaim ‘one state, one person, one vote,’ and to push in September, with the opening of the General Assembly here in New York at the UN, for a state to sign up to the International Criminal Court, bring the Israelis there, and have this adjudicated that way, and not rely any longer on the United States and Israel to come to their aid.”

As Hillary lays out, this shift is linked to important “changes in the international system, where you have the United States as a power in relative decline, and other powers relatively increasing.  And so with that, this focus that I think you’ll see as a next step with the Palestinians—to unilaterally declare statehood in the General Assembly…[to] bring their case to the International Criminal Court, to use international institutions and international public opinion will be something that the United States has never had to deal with before.”

Regarding Iraq, click on the video above or see here, Hillary takes issue with the conventional Washington wisdom—espoused with particular fervor among Democrats—that the current crisis is all the fault of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:

“This is an excuse.  This is a bipartisan failure of catastrophic proportions for the United States—first with Republicans in invading Iraq, and now with the Democrats essentially blaming it on Maliki.  The idea that Maliki can be more ‘inclusive’ and bring in foreign fighters—one of the key leaders in this is Chechen, for Russia—the idea that that can become a more inclusive government is snake oil and should be seen for what it is.

Maliki won the last election, it’s a parliamentary democracy.  He is now going to go about the very messy process—like he did last time—of assembling a coalition in a state that is majority Shi’a.  So surprise, surprise, the majority government is going to be Shi’a.  The Sunnis have never accepted this, they’ve never accepted to live under a Shi’a-dominated political order, and they have very powerful patrons outside the country—like the Saudis, like the Qataris—that have armed, funded, and trained this to the hilt, and now we have a disaster on our hands.”           

Hillary also disputed the accumulating collection of overly facile demands from Washington elites that the United States micromanage some new and, at least from an American perspective, “superior” political reality in Iraq:  “We shouldn’t be in there manipulating political outcomes to our favor.  People don’t want to live in a militarily dominated, U.S. political order in the Middle East.  We need to pull back and rethink this policy.”

Yes, but old habits die hard in official Washington.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Moscow and Riyadh’s Shifting Strategies In the Context of American Decline

Al-Arabiyya has published a provocatively interesting commentary by Theodore Karasik, titled “Moscow to Play Negotiator, Riyadh Holds the Keys.”  To read the piece online, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.

Karasik, a regular columnist for the Saudi-owned al-Arabiyya, is also Director of Research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai.  He strikes us as well-informed about strategic debates and decision-making in Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf; for this reason, his most recent column merits attention.

Karasik’s article examines what he sees as intensifying efforts by Russia and Saudi Arabia to collaborate in managing various contested Middle Eastern arenas—including Iraq, Syria, and Egypt—with Iran as a critical point of reference for Russian and Saudi calculations.

–According to Karasik, Moscow and Riyadh both view the current crisis in Iraq as an opening to remove incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Russians as well as the Saudis consider problematic with Iyad Allawi, whom Russia and Saudi Arabia alike consider “the best candidate to run Iraq” and whom the Saudis believe the Kremlin can get “Iran and Iraqi Shiites to accept.”

–Karasik contends that the Russians have already helped persuade the Saudis to come back to the “Geneva process” for conflict resolution in Syria—a “significant development” signaling that “Syrian President Bashar Assad’s election on June 3 for another term is cemented as Russia wants and which Riyadh now appears to see as critical for Syria’s stability.  Iran will be happy with this outcome because their efforts supporting Assad with military and financial aid are paying off.  Iran is close to the Kremlin, and Russia will be able to negotiate between Riyadh and Tehran in a way to please both parties in the Syrian outcome.”

–As to Egypt, Karasik assigns “critical importance” to Saudi King Abdullah’s visit there, which highlighted Riyadh’s interest in holding up Egyptian strongman as “a model that needs to be emulated in the Levant:  a strong ruler who is able to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists.”  Alongside Moscow’s strong support for Sisi, political developments in Egypt underscore the extent to which “the Kingdom and the Kremlin see eye to eye across the region.”  And, from a Saudi perspective, “this cooperation may be acceptable to Iran since such activity does not hurt the Islamic Republic’s interests—at least for the time being given the threat of Sunni extremists.”

We are more skeptical than Karasik that Russia can actually “sell” these propositions in Tehran—or, on some points, that Moscow would necessarily want to sell them.  However, Karasik’s piece provides a revealing window into at least some official views on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf on the Middle East in a period of what the Saudis, the Russians, and just about everyone else see as declining American influence in the region.

Of course, American influence in the Middle East is declining as a consequence of George W. Bush’s “imperial overreach” on steroids.  American influence is also declining because of Barack Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s disastrous course, with military interventions in Libya and, less overtly, in Syria that have reinvigorated al-Qai’da-like jihadi extremism and set the stage for the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It is in this context that Moscow finds multiple openings through which to expand its own regional influence—and, in the process, to push back at an arrogant superpower that, ignoring its own relative decline, continues to intrude ever more assertively on important Russian interests.  It is also in this context that Riyadh—for so long a major facilitator of America’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East—is looking for other external powers that can help advance the Kingdom’s regional agenda.

Moscow to Play Negotiator, Riyadh Holds the Keys

by Theodore Karasik

A flurry of diplomatic activity is occurring between Riyadh and Moscow over not only Iraq but Syria.  Russia is seeking to play the role of negotiator on all questions and Saudi Arabia holds the keys.  If successful, Russia stands to gain substantially at the expense of the United States.  The Kingdom engagement policy with the Russians may indeed produce peace dividends and further alter the geopolitical landscape.

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Jeddah two days ago discussing the Levant crisis with senior Saudi officials.  The talks follow a meeting on June 3 between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.  On June 9, Lavrov and Prince Saud held a telephone conversation on ways to resolve the crisis in Syria.  On June 20, Putin called embattled Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to give him support in the attempts by Iraqi parties and other countries to force him to step down.  Putin confirmed Russia’s “full support for the Iraqi government’s action to quickly free the territory of the republic from terrorists.”  This flurry of activity shows that the Kremlin wants to play a major role in settling the situation in the Levant that leaves America out of the picture.

Russia proves its point

Russia’s role as a mediator in the Near East and in other conflict zones is not new.  During the air war over Serbia, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated a halt to America’s air campaign that raised the ire of Moscow.  For more than a decade, Russian foreign policy has ostensibly been against intervention of foreign powers in the affairs of other sovereign nations and it has increasingly viewed the Middle East as a good example to prove its point, highlighting the chaos and violence following direct U.S.-Western military action or support in various states.  In addition, the Kremlin has positioned itself as a peacemaker, trying to avert the same Western mistakes in Syria by pushing for a solution to the country’s internal conflict that does not involve U.S. military action and making America and Western Europe the villains.  Notably, Russia’s role in finding a solution to the use of chemical weapon in Syria and halting “American aggression” is seen as a diplomatic win for the Kremlin by some Arab officials.

The Kingdom and the Kremlin agreed to return to the Geneva 1 process which is to find a political transition in Syria.  This is a significant development that signals that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s election on June 3 for another term is cemented as Russia wants and which Riyadh now appears to see as critical for Syria’s stability.  Iran will be happy with this outcome because their efforts supporting Assad with military and financial aid are paying off.  Iran is close to the Kremlin, and Russia will be able to negotiate between Riyadh and Tehran in a way to please both parties in the Syrian outcome.  Time will tell what that political transition will look like.

Riyadh’s distrust of America

ISIS’s tidal wave in Iraq played right into Kremlin arguments about how the failures of “global color revolutions” led by the “American-Atlanticist Community” wreck countries and leave them wide open to terrorist infiltration.  Russia’s fresh diplomatic offensive is based on the new conceptual, doctrinal outlook from Moscow and is now being presented to the Saudis as a reason for the Levant’s woes and especially the unfolding catastrophic debacle in Iraq.  The Kingdom seems to be buying the argument, and well they should, based on Riyadh’s distrust of America.

ISIS’s activity in Iraq is reminding the Saudis how opposed they were to American invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Consequently, the events are giving the Kingdom “a ground-hog day moment” according to an Arab official.

During their meeting in Jeddah, Lavrov and Saud also said efforts should be made to “maintain the integrity of Iraq and the unity of all the components of the Iraqi people, who should benefit from equality of rights and duties.”  Clearly this is a signal that the Kingdom and the Kremlin want to find a middle ground for Iraqi state stability while at the same time finding a possible solution to the leadership crisis in Baghdad.  According to an Arab official, Riyadh and Moscow agree that Ayad Allawi is the best candidate to run Iraq as he has had close ties to Kingdom and Kremlin in the past.  In addition, the key is Assad:  All sides now see that Assad and the stability of Syria is now key and is part of the deal to getting Alawi into power in Baghdad.  Clearly, the Saudis see the Russians are able to exercise their good ties with Iran and Iraqi Shiites to accept Allawi.

Also of critical importance during this sequence of events is King Abdullah’s visit to Egypt.  This visit to Egypt to support Egyptian President Sisi is full of significance and importance because Saudi Arabia sees Egypt as the core of the Middle East.  The Kingdom also sees that Al-Sisi represents a model that needs to be emulated in the Levant:  a strong ruler who is able to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists.  Moscow’s support for Egypt is also at play and taken together, the Kingdom and the Kremlin see eye to eye across the region.  As such, this cooperation may be acceptable to Iran since such activity does not hurt the Islamic Republic’s interests—at least for the time being given the threat of Sunni extremists.

Overall, Saudi Arabia is acting quickly to help resolve regional security issue.  Russia sees her historical mission coming to fruition by rushing into the debacle of the Levant and coming up with solutions that will perhaps firmly place the Near East within Moscow’s orbit and influence.  The move is smart and timely.  As such the status and prospects for the Saudi-Russian bilateral relationship are growing, and both the Kingdom and the Kremlin stressed their readiness to intensify it, including trade, economic and energy cooperation which has a solid potential for growth.  On June 18, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed on a draft intergovernmental framework agreement on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and subsequent steps in preparing the agreement for signature.  All of these developments come on the heels of Putin’s praise for King Abdullah a few months ago and the resumption of Lukoil’s drilling efforts in the Eastern Province.  Clearly, Riyadh sees Moscow as a future security and economic partner who is an honest broker; much more than other Western powers.

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Trying to Force Iran to “Surrender” Will Backfire—Why U.S. Engagement with Tehran Needs to Respect Iranian Independence

Politico has published our latest article, co-authored with the University of Tehran’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi, and titled “America Can’t Fore Iran’s Surrender:  Time to Cut a Serious Deal Instead.”  To read the piece, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc. both on this site and on the Politico Web site.

America Can’t Force Iran’s Surrender:  Time to Cut a Serious Deal Instead

by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi

It took a searing crisis for the United States to officially acknowledge that it needs Iran’s help.  On Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns reportedly discussed the jihadist takeover of Iraq’s Sunni heartland with his Iranian counterparts on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna.

Good idea.  For years, we’ve been calling on the United States to sit down and discuss its mutual interests with Iran like adults, instead of shouting across the Atlantic.  Two of us—Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former career Middle East specialists for the U.S. government—have been vilified in the American press for calling for pragmatic engagement.  Now there’s an opportunity to work together to face down a common threat, and even Republican leaders like Lindsey Graham, the unfailingly hawkish South Carolina senator, are starting to see things our way.

The United States should engage Iran not just as an unavoidably influential player, however, but as an actor with its own concerns about terrorism—including by jihadis involved in the U.S.-supported campaign against Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.  If the United States tries—as in past episodes of cooperation with Tehran—to elicit Iranian help in Iraq without recognizing Iran’s wider interests—dialogue will fail.

Likewise, Washington needs to deal with Tehran in a genuinely reciprocal way on the nuclear issue.  In the nuclear talks, America and its Western partners have insisted on terms that would cut Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure to token levels and freeze it there for 15-20 years.  This will not just fail—it will backfire against Western interests on multiple fronts.  The West should instead focus on crafting a deal recognizing Iran as an independent, truly sovereign and rightfully rising power in its own region—as the United States did with China 40 years ago.

Like the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born out of a revolution promising its people two things: to replace an externally imposed autocracy with an indigenously created political order—for Iran, one grounded in a model of participatory Islamist governance—and to end the subordination of their country’s foreign policy to the dictates of outside powers.  In both cases, successive U.S. administrations rejected these revolutionary projects and strove to undermine them.

In the Chinese case, Washington eventually realized that two decades of trying to isolate, economically strangle and undermine the People’s Republic had not just failed—it had backfired, weakening the U.S. position in Asia and getting America involved in the draining quagmire of the Vietnam War.  America’s opening to China in the 1970s was fundamentally predicated on three things:  U.S. acceptance of the People’s Republic as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests; a concomitant U.S. commitment to stop trying to block China’s peaceful rise as an increasingly important player, in Asia and globally; and U.S. acknowledgement that, although America would continue to have important interests in Asia, the region would no longer be an exclusively American sphere of influence.

On this last point, the most important sentence in the 1972 Shanghai Communique—the document that served as the basic charter for realigning Sino-American relations—declares, “neither [the United States nor China] should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony.”  Today, each side is growing skeptical about the other’s ongoing adherence to this commitment. But, for more than three decades, American acceptance of China’s peaceful rise enabled the most extraordinary period of economic vitality and rising prosperity in the history of the Pacific basin.

In the case of Iran, the Obama administration has finally understood that America’s decades-long drive to determine Iran’s developmental trajectory and strategic orientation has failed. But Washington has continued to insist on the quintessentially hegemonic prerogative of micromanaging Iran’s nuclear development. Washington insists on this not to control what Westerners perceive as the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear activities—perceptions more effectively and legitimately addressed through adequate monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—but to use Tehran’s anticipated acquiescence to American conditions for an “acceptable” program to underscore that the Middle East remains a U.S. sphere of influence.

The United States has tried subordinating the strategic orientation of a major Middle Eastern state before.  Three and a half decades ago, the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords reduced Egypt to a strategic and economic dependency of the United States.  While American foreign policy elites regularly extol the regional “stability” wrought by Camp David, that stability was in fact dangerously illusory.

In the wake of Camp David, Saudi Arabia made promotion of violent jihadism an increasingly prominent tool in Saudi foreign policy—a trend that incubated al Qaeda and is still spawning an ever-proliferating array of ideologically similar threats to international security.  Three decades of rule by a U.S.-puppet regime, with accompanying political repression and economic stagnation, made Egypt itself a prime source for jihadi ideologues (such as al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri) and fighters.  And allowing the Israeli military to consolidate nearly absolute freedom of unilateral initiative—one of Camp David’s first fruits—has been deeply corrosive of America’s regional standing.

For the United States to try doing to Iran what it has done to Egypt would be even more damaging.  First of all, such a course would not be sustainable; even in the unlikely event that some in the Iranian political establishment supported it, other political elites and public opinion would block the requisite consensus for such a radical change in Iranian strategy.  More broadly, diminishing Iranian power would leave America’s ostensible Middle Eastern allies even less constrained in pursuing the most destructive aspects of their regional agendas.  (The jihadis’ advance in Iraq highlights just some of the risks this could pose.)  While Americans may not like hearing it, a truly stable balance of power in the Middle East needs a strong and independent Iran, representing the region’s only indigenously generated and relatively successful model of participatory Islamist governance.

Globally, too, Iran’s strategic autonomy is a stabilizing factor. American efforts to subordinate Iran into a pro-U.S. political and security order in the Middle East will reinforce both the accelerating consolidation of a Sino-Russian axis against what Beijing and Moscow see as America’s ongoing hegemonic ambition as well as a growing convergence of Russian and Chinese interests with Iran’s.  As the world becomes more multipolar, Ayatollah Khomeini’s injunction, “neither east nor west”—words literally carved in stone at the entrance to Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—becomes ever more relevant to forging a genuinely stable international order in the 21st century.

What would it mean for America and its Western partners to seek a deal recognizing Iran as an independent, truly sovereign and rightfully rising power in its own region?  Above all, it would mean recognizing that Iranians themselves will make decisions about their future energy and technology needs and how best to meet them.  The goal of a settlement should be to ensure that the theoretical proliferation risks associated with Iran’s nuclear activities—which are no greater or less than those associated with similar activities in numerous other countries—are controlled through robust IAEA monitoring and verification.  The goal should not be to force Tehran’s surrender to Washington’s diktats; that will backfire, leaving the United States, Iran and the post-Cold War international order at a dangerous precipice.

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Hillary Mann Leverett on U.S. Options in Iraq on C-Span’s Washington Journal and Seyed Mohammad Marandi on CCTV on the U.S. and Saudi Roles


As the Iraq crisis continues, we want to highlight two very insightful media interviews.  Hillary appeared on C-Span’s Washington Journal this morning to discuss U.S. options in Iraq; to watch the segment, click on the video above or here.  (A personal thanks from Hillary to Fio for ‘live streaming parts’ of it.) Also, our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi at the University of Tehran went on CCTV to talk about the U.S. and Saudi roles in the current crisis; to watch that segment, click here.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 

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The Iraq Crisis and America’s Double-Edged Partnership with Saudi Arabia

The National Interest has published our latest piece, on the current crisis in Iraq.  To read the piece, titled “America’s Middle East Delusions,” click here; we’ve also appended the piece below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc. both on this site and on The National Interest Web site.

America’s Middle East Delusions

The explosive ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underscores the thoroughgoing failure of America’s political class to devise an effective and sustainable strategy for the United States after 9/11.  The failure cuts across Democratic and Republican administrations, with the most self-damaging aspects of each administration’s policies roundly endorsed by the opposing party in Congress.

Both sides deny responsibility for unfolding catastrophe in Iraq:  Republicans criticize Obama’s marginal modulations of Bush’s approach to the Middle East while Democrats blame Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  (Republicans also criticize Maliki, but not so much that it might exculpate Obama.)  Foreign policy elites also ignore a more urgent and ongoing flaw in America’s post-9/11 Middle East policy that is directly linked to Iraq’s current crisis—Washington’s recurrent partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to arm, fund, and train Sunni militias.

America’s turn to jihadi proxies did not start with Bush’s strategic malpractice in Iraq.  It was born on July 3, 1979, when President Carter signed the first directive to arm jihadists in Afghanistan, before Soviet forces invaded the country.  For U.S. policymakers, collaborating with Riyadh to launch transnational jihad in Afghanistan seemed a clever way to undermine the Soviet Union—by goading it into a draining occupation of Afghanistan, which Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, hoped to make Moscow’s Vietnam.  Ultimately, Red Army garrisoning of Afghanistan contributed only marginally (if at all) to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.  But U.S. support for the mujahideen and cooperation with Riyadh contributed critically to al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and 9/11—which opened the door for Republican neoconservatives and Democratic fellow travelers to unite behind attacking Iraq.

America’s invasion-cum-occupation of Iraq was not just badly implemented, as many of its non-Republican champions self-servingly lament; it was an irredeemably bad idea from the start.  Certainly, U.S. action destroyed the Iraqi state.  But, just as fatefully, the political displacement of Iraqi Sunnis by decisively larger Shi’a and Kurdish communities attracted powerful patrons—e.g., Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states—determined to help Iraqi Sunnis, including segments of Saddam’s disbanded army, fight to regain a disproportionate share of political power.  Such were the roots of the insurgency that erupted within months of the U.S. invasion in 2003—stoked by an externally-facilitated influx of non-Iraqi Sunni fighters (including a substantial number from neighboring Syria), many coalescing into the Jordanian Abu Musab az-Zarqawi’s nascent Al-Qa’ida in Iraq.

Increasingly desperate to coopt a critical mass of these fighters, Bush disregarded 9/11’s lessons and chose to gamble on arming and training 80,000 Iraqi Sunni “tribesmen” as part of General David Petraeus’ 2007-2008 “surge.”  Bush turned to Sunni proxies in the vain hope of eliciting Sunni acquiescence to a post-Saddam order inevitably dominated by Shi’a Islamist and Kurdish parties representing the overwhelming bulk of Iraqis.  Washington also wanted to check what it considered the unacceptable growth of Iranian influence in Iraq (Tehran had supported Iraq’s leading Shi’a Islamist and Kurdish parties in exile for twenty years) and regionally.  The surge temporarily paid off enough Sunni fighters to let American commanders and politicians claim that violence was coming down.  But it also gave Iraqi Sunnis greater material and organizational wherewithal with which—once U.S. forces were gone—to attack what were bound to be non-Sunni-dominated central governments.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who led U.S. forces in northern Iraq during the surge, says he “never anticipated” that Sunnis his troops trained would join with—and give U.S.-provided weapons to—radical jihadis.  But at least some of Hertling’s troops recognized, in the words of a former Marine, that they were paying and training “hired thugs.”  While they may have seemed a “lesser evil at the time,” many were ostensible “ex”-jihadis and others who have since proven eager to make common cause with extremists.

U.S.-armed Sunnis needed a catalyst for resurgence, however.  In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, they grudgingly co-existed with central governments grounded in coalitions of Shi’a Islamist and Kurdish parties.  The Islamic State of Iraq—formed in 2006 from Zarqawi’s Al-Qai’da in Iraq—seemed on the wane.  Then, in spring 2011, Obama decided to support largely Sunni militias and forces willing to collaborate with them in trying to overthrow incumbent leaders in Libya and Syria.  This was motivated partly by dysfunctional aspects of Washington’s strategic co-dependency with Riyadh, and partly by a longstanding delusion that America could orchestrate a de factoaxis of Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” Sunni states with Israel to check Iran’s rise and bolster a pro-U.S. regional order under threat from the Arab Awakening.  But, by reigniting the flames of Sunni militancy, the decision proved profoundly inimical to American interests.

Like Sunni militias in post-Saddam Iraq, Saudi-backed cadres fighting Muammar al-Qadhafi and Bashar al-Assad were attracting growing numbers of radicalized foreign fighters—including, in Syria, thousands of veterans of the Iraqi insurgency.  U.S. and Gulf Arab support for anti-Qadhafi and anti-Assad insurgencies gave a huge boost to participating forces, enhancing their access to arms (including caches of U.S.-provided weapons), equipment, and money.  Moreover, U.S. endorsement of these crusades effectively protected their jihadi participants; Washington was unlikely to attack militants fighting leaders whose overthrow Obama himself had enjoined.  Obama’s ill-considered interventions in Libya and Syria generated predictable blowback—e.g., a dead U.S. ambassador and three other murdered official Americans in Libya—and produced new cadres of battle-hardened militants with easy access to U.S. armsprovided either directly or indirectly through American “allies.”  This, in turn, fueled a precipitous deterioration in Iraqi security.

ISIS’s current offensive across Iraq’s Sunni heartland is an apotheosis of the trifecta that Bush’s ill-begotten Iraqi campaign and Obama’s catastrophic decisions to overthrow Qadhafi and make Assad’s removal the goal of America’s Syria policy have collectively wrought.  It integrates local and foreign jihadi extremists so bloody-minded that Ayman az-Zawahiri (Osama bin Laden’s successor) has disowned them with U.S.-trained Sunni “tribal” forces and leadership cadres from Saddam’s military (including General Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the King of Clubs in the now-iconic deck of cards distributed to U.S. occupation troops).

This transnational complex represents a major upgrading of the worldwide jihadi terrorist threat.  Even more significantly, ISIS is territorially expansionist and genocidal, with a political program—including proclamation of an Islamic state “cleansed” of Shi’a and obliterating existing boundaries in the heart of the Middle East—beyond anything al-Qa’ida ever articulated.

Looking forward, American policymakers should start observing the Hippocratic injunction, “first, do no harm.”  Calls for Washington to engineer Maliki’s replacement by some allegedly preferable alternative are wrong-headed:  Maliki’s list clearly won this year’s parliamentary elections, and there is no alternative figure around whom a (mythical) new “consensus” could form.  (Question for those charging that Maliki should have been more “inclusive”:  how can any Iraqi prime minister be “inclusive” toward an insurgency with literally thousands of externally supported foreign fighters?)  America will further damage its position by returning to the business of trying to micromanage Iraqi politics.  Likewise, Washington should avoid again playing into al-Qa’ida’s “grand strategy”:  to draw “crusaders” (the West) and “infidels” (Shi’a) into battle against Sunni holy warriors, thereby rallying support for them across the Sunni world.

It is also imperative that U.S. policymakers rethink—and rebalance—their Middle East diplomatic strategy, in at least three critical respects.  First, 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 off ISIS’s base in northeastern Syria.

Second, Washington needs to accept Tehran as an essential player in containing and rolling back ISIS’s multifaceted challenge and—as we have been advocating inside and outside government for over a decade—embed that acceptance in a broader realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations.  It is crucial, though, that America engage Iran over ISIS politically—not, as some suggest, by U.S. warplanes covering Iranian foot soldiers in Iraq.  (Most responsible officials and politicians in Tehran appear too smart to fall for such a “trap,” which would also play into al-Qa’ida’s grand strategy.)

Third, Washington must finally confront Saudi Arabia over its longstanding support for jihadi militants as a policy tool.  Riyadh’s resort to this tool has proven serially damaging for U.S. interests; time has come for U.S. leaders to make clear to Saudi counterparts that their tolerance for it is at an end.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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