Tuesday, December 09, 2014

"A last chance to save Iraq as we know it"

A few months ago, I argued here that "Iraq is crumbling, and the notion that it can ever again resemble a unified 'nation' within those borders is sheer nonsense. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again." Written in the days immediately following the Islamic State's seizure of a major portion of Iraqi territory, it reflected my conviction that Iraq as we have known it since 1916 has not only ceased to exist, but cannot be put together again.

In a column in today's Wall Street Journal, Qubad Talibani seems to argue that it's not over yet - that Iraq can be saved, but only if "those who still believe in Iraq . . . realize that Iraq is unable to fix itself alone." Success will require, among other things, "increased international security, political and humanitarian support" from "the U.S. and its coalition partners."

Talibani is the the deputy prime minster of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the fact that he's making the argument in a major U.S. newspaper requires that we do a bit of reading between the lines. The fact that his column appears in the Journal, which supported the Iraqi invasion, is significant: it means that his target audience is the shrinking remnant of Americans who may be willing to make one last effort to justify the sacrifices of the past decade in Iraq.

He suggests that the moment of Iraq's disintegration is close at hand, and that the recent efforts of Iraq’s new Prime Minister represent "a last chance to save Iraq as we know it." He seems to be saying that he's a team player, with an important qualifier: "We will gladly be part of an Iraqi state that affords everyone the constitutional rights and benefits of citizenship."

Switching out the detestable Nouri al-Maliki for Haider al-Abadi was a necessary first step if there is to be any chance that Iraq will ever be ruled by a single government again. But if the indispensable condition for reunification under the government in Baghdad is "increased support" from "The U.S. and its coalition partners," it's a non-starter. Talibani knows full well that that's not in the cards.

Thus, it's hard to read his column as anything but an effort to set the stage for Kurdistan going its own way. If, after a dozen years, thousands of soldiers' deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars expended by the U.S., Iraq is still "unable to fix itself alone," the notion that the America and its allies will make yet another effort to "fix" Iraq is sheer fantasy.

Talibani points out, correctly, that the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers are "the only coherent and reliable force on the ground succeeding in repelling ISIS attacks and retaking territory." Moreover, Kurdistan has had to absorb 1.5 million refugees escaping the ISIS onslaught in a province whose permanent population is just 8.3 million. 

The most likely outcome, and the one that's implicit in Talibani's column, is that Kurdistan will get the "increased international security, political and humanitarian support" he speaks of. The Shiite east and south will effectively become an Iranian protectorate (friction between Arabs and Persians notwithstanding), and the Sunnis in the west will be left to fend for themselves. By then, Iran will have its nuclear weapons, Jordan may have become fatally destabilized by refugees from Syria and Iraq, and the Islamic State will be a festering wound in the heart of the Middle East.

It may take a year or two, but that's where things are headed. Between them, two very different American presidents shall have transformed the cradle of civilization into a nightmarish gallery of horrors, with plenty of help from the natives.

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Math, CNN style

It's not quite "Dewey Defeats Truman," but it does deserve a prominent spot on the Top Ten list of journalistic missteps.

The Internet can be so cruel. CNN is taking it on the chin from one end of the Web to the other this morning for a graphic it put up on the screen during a segment on the Scottish independence referendum, in which the percentages added up to 110 percent.

The dirty little secret in the journalism business is that reporters (aside from a select few at the Wall Street Journal) can't do math. If they could, the business wouldn't be in such dire financial straits, I suppose.

Some years ago, when I was doing election night coverage in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, the news director assigned a young newbie to help me out. I pointed out to her the area where vote totals would be posted, and explained that we needed to convert the raw vote tallies to percentages, because they're more understandable to the audience. I handed her a pocket calculator so that she could do the conversions quickly.

A few minutes later, she came back and complained that she couldn't do the conversions because "this calculator doesn't have a percent key."

True story.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What a difference a day makes!

Yesterday's Washington Post had depressing news for Republicans: their senate candidate in Iowa, Joni Ernst, was in trouble. "In Iowa," blared the Post headline, "attacks on Republican Ernst change dynamics of tight senate race."

Reporters Phil Rucker and Dan Balz claimed that "the debate increasingly has centered on issues that could give Democrats the edge." But they didn't stop there. In a breathtaking leap, they went on to generalize their discovery: "The question is whether Iowa is part of a broader political shift in other competitive states that would allow Democrats to maintain their Senate majority, even if by the slimmest of margins."

Joni Ernst
Well, that was sooo yesterday.

Today's headline in the Post? "Poll shows Ernst leading Braley by six in Iowa race." Yep, a new Quinnipiac Poll has Ernst out in front by a hefty outside-the-margin-of-error 50-44 margin.

Is anyone on the Post's political desk now wondering whether that might be "part of a broader political shift"? Or will they simply continue hawking the latest spin from the DSCC?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"An existential struggle is going on in the Arab world today"


I rarely agree with anything to be found on the editorial pages of the New York Times, but today Thomas Friedman actually comes fairly close to the mark.  He argues that "the Arab world" is going through an "existential crisis," by which he really means that the Saudi royal family is faced with a crisis which grows out of its Faustian bargain with Wahabism, a variant of Salafi Islam. By stepping forward and pledging to "degrade" and "destroy" the Islamic State, he argues, President Obama is allowing the Saudis to avoid coming to grips with the problem that they themselves have created.

He's mostly right, but I think he makes a mistake in narrowing the argument to focus only on the Saudis. In fact, the existential crisis is a problem that the entire Islamic world must come to grips with. Muslims everywhere must decide whether they will find a way to live in peace with the modern world, or whether they will look the other way when Islamist lunatics order non-Muslims to convert or die. They must come to grips with the fact that Islam as it is commonly understood holds that if the Prophet Mohammed engaged in a particular kind of behavior, then it must be considered normative. Mohammed himself beheaded his enemies, along with engaging in much else that is utterly barbaric. Q.E.D.

Muslims must decide whether they will come to terms with the 21st Century or continue to live in the 7th Century. If the former, we may ultimately have peace. If the latter, it will mean war throughout our lifetimes and beyond. It's a choice we cannot make for them, no matter how many soldiers or combat aircraft we send their way. And, just for the record, it applies equally to Shiites in Tehran, Southern Lebanon and elsewhere.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Hamlet and Humpty Dumpty

Barack Obama is America's latter-day Hamlet, unable to make a timely decision when circumstances demand one. This tendency is most on display in the foreign policy arena, where the president dithers for weeks (Ukraine), months (Iraq) or years (Syria) before acting. The decision, when it finally comes, is invariably worthless because the critical moment at which it was possible to influence the course of events has long since passed.

Obama's administration bounces from one developing crisis to another, resembling nothing so much as a pinball machine. Secretary of State Kerry is a human pinball, shuttling from one place to another in a desperate effort to catch up with last week's crisis. About the best that can be said about Obama himself is that he apparently does not have a golf game on today's schedule.

In northern Iraq, ISIS is committing mass exterminations in and around Sinjar, and the "big" news out of the Pentagon at this hour is that U.S. warplanes have dropped two (two!) 500 pound bombs on ISIS targets outside of Irbil, the only city in the country where a modicum of economic development has taken root. We will see whether today's "pin pricks" have any effect at all on the ISIS onslaught. The artillery hit by the U.S. jets were just 35 miles outside of Irbil - the distance between the White House and Fredericksburg, VA.

And where is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a moment when American forces are reengaging in Iraq? In India, where the top item on the agenda is the sale of Apache helicopters to the Indian military. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurds - secular, pro-western, capable - are now having to retreat before the ISIS advance because the Hamlet in the White House cannot decide whether to supply them with the arms they need to defend themselves.

American policy in Iraq is grounded in a determination to maintain the fiction that it is possible to form a unified government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds within "national" borders that were drawn (with the straight edge of a ruler) by Sir Mark Sykes (a Brit) and Francois Georges-Picot (a Frenchman) in 1916 as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.

Today, Iraq is crumbling, and the notion that it can ever again resemble a unified "nation" within those borders is sheer nonsense. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.

The Shiite east and south is now merely an unofficial province of Iran. The Sunnis of the west may find a way to throw off the ISIS "caliphate," and the Kurdish north can, if given a chance, become a successful independent state that is friendly to the U.S. But the longer we pursue the chimera of a unified Iraq, the longer the blood letting will continue.