Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2014

For those who claim that military action is the only response to the extremist threat in Iraq and the region, here are some alternative policy options:

  • Engage with Iran in urging the Maliki regime to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community. Demand that the regime fulfill pledges made to integrate Sunni leaders into positions of government authority.
  • Make clear to the Maliki government that U.S. military and economic support for Iraq will diminish if the Baghdad government refuses to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community.
  • Bring the threat posed by ISIS/ISIL to the UN Security Council and seek a united global response that identifies the group as an international terrorist threat to peace and security. Urge the Security Council to impose sanctions and other mandatory international actions to isolate and suppress the extremist group through multilateral action.
  • Work with Iran and other states in the region to return to the Geneva negotiating process that seeks a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria.
  • Continue to provide maximum humanitarian assistance to the millions of refugees who have fled the war in Syria and the spreading conflict in Iraq.

Read Full Post »

The capture of Mosul by militant Sunni extremist groups is a body blow to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and marks a significant escalation of the sectarian war that is tearing apart the region. The Iraqi Army, which the United States created as an intended bulwark of security, has crumbled in the face of attacks by the increasingly powerful forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with U.S. weapons and equipment sent to bolster the Iraqi Army now falling into extremist hands.

In the United States, some on the right have used the occasion to criticize the Obama administration for not doing enough to bolster the Baghdad government and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 (overlooking the fact that the President was elected on a pledge to do precisely that). On the left, critics blame the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion and emphasize its unintended consequences.

Debates about the past are important but do not address the problem of what can be done now to stem the spread of violence and instability. The United States and other external actors have very few options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as the debate unfolds.

  • This is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shia political forces. It is centered in Syria and Iraq but also involves Lebanon and is supported by competing Saudi and Iranian interests. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interests of all the major factions in an equitable and inclusive manner.
  • Some in Washington have reacted to the crisis by calling on President Obama to send even more arms and military equipment to Iraq, but Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-dominated forces are part of the problem not the solution. Pouring arms into the spreading cauldron of war risks exacerbating the crisis in Iraq.
  • Attempts by the U.S. or other major powers to intervene unilaterally or to impose external military solutions will likely backfire and inflame militant extremism. Security solutions will need to be multilateral in the context of negotiated political settlements.
  • This crisis increasingly poses threats to global security and requires a multilateral diplomatic response. The United States should work through the United Nations (and the Arab League if possible) to propose and support a major global diplomatic initiative. This will require returning to the Geneva process of attempting to find a political solution in Syria, but this time with Iran directly involved and the agenda broadened to include political alternatives in Iraq.

The chances of achieving diplomatic success are slim, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. A fully inclusive international diplomatic process should be attempted and is urgently needed now, before the fires of war and militancy spread further in the region.

Read Full Post »

The President’s West Point address on national security last week brought mostly skeptical responses. Typical was the New York Times comment that “after five and a half years and dozens of speeches … the trail of Mr. Obama’s pronouncements has grown muddier.”

The President’s decisions may have been inconsistent at times—surging troops in Afghanistan one year only to remove them a couple years later, preparing to bomb Syria one day and negotiating with the regime the next—but through the twists and turns a number of valuable principles have emerged.

Most important is the President’s opposition to major wars of intervention. He won election in 2008 on a vow to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and fulfilled that pledge in 2011. He has now committed to withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ending these wars is a major historic achievement. It’s also a policy widely supported by the American people. Opinion surveys show broad bipartisan support for staying out foreign conflicts.

Some analysts criticize this “minimalist foreign policy.”  The President has indeed been cautious about involvement in Syria and other crises. He recognizes, rightly I believe, that military intervention can backfire and have unintended consequences. Unlike some of his critics, he understands the limitations of American power and is more willing to work with allies.

White House aides have distilled the President’s foreign policy to the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.” It’s not exactly an elegant expression, but it well describes what has been a major challenge of Obama’s presidency: trying to undo the major foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration.

Obama’s theme is similar to the “do no harm” principle that many in the development assistance community have adopted, based on the classic work of Mary Anderson. It’s a wise philosophy, whether applied to development assistance or military intervention. Avoid making matters worse. International assistance too often benefits corrupt elites rather than people in need. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan produced more insurgency and terrorism, not less.

The President has made progress in ending major wars, but he still believes military force is a viable means of countering terrorism. He has fewer boots on the ground but has increased the number of drone strikes, Special Forces raids, CIA operations, and attacks by U.S.-trained local troops. The policy is ‘minimalist’ in the number of U.S. casualties and the scale of force per episode, but the resort to military means is more frequent.

The limited use of force is no more effective against terrorism than large-scale invasions. The military’s own counter-insurgency manual and the statements of top military commanders acknowledge that military means alone are not sufficient to defeat terrorism.

Finding effective solutions to the continuing threat of violent extremism will require a redirection of American foreign policy far more substantial than what Obama has attempted, a process that will take many years. In the meantime, an approach of avoiding ‘stupid stuff’ may be the best we can hope for, and could provide time for building the public understanding and support necessary for a more substantial turn toward peace.

Read Full Post »