Saudi Arabia wants to improve Image; Here’s How (by Juan Cole

Posted on Saturday September 16 2017

Saudi Arabia is alleged to be hiring a PR firm to improve its tattered image in the West .

As usual, such a campaign confuses substance with fluff and the money will be wasted.

I am sympathetic to Saudi feelings that they get an unfair rap. In my Engaging the Muslim World I argued that it is wrong to confuse the Wahhabi form of Islam that the Saudi regime favors with terrorism. The kingdom is pragmatic, and supported the secular nationalist regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for instance. It is not that I agree with almost any Saudi policy, I am just trying to be even-handed.

The Saudis were not involved in 9/11, despite the desperate arguments of the lawyers of the 9/11 victims. The Saudis are innocent but have a lot of money, so it is profitable to railroad them. Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in US stocks and companies, and it was foreseeable that 9/11 would harm those investments pretty badly.

Al-Qaeda did it, not the the Al Saud. Bin Laden had been kicked out and deprived of his citizenship, and was plotting to overthrow the royal family.

Moreover, at least publicly, the Saudis under King Abdullah were against the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But since Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman has emerged as the power behind the throne, the kingdom has been flexing its muscles and engaging in an astonishing adventurism that has roiled the region. But the heir apparent is young and inexperienced, and the kingdom has no checks or balances. It is not too late to step back from the brink.

So here are 7 policies the Saudi government can change if it wants a more positive image in the US press.

1. They have to end their savage and fruitless war on poor little Yemen, which has been bombed intensively by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The war has caused 600,000 cholera cases and 2000 cholera deaths, not to mention the people who have died being pummeled from the sky.

2. They have to give up on overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad of Syria and recognize that Salafism (the Sunni version of Wahhabism) wouldn’t work in Syria. There are too many powerful religious communities, from the Alawites to the Christians to Druze that just would not accept a Salafi state, and nor would most Sunni Syrians. Now that Russia has come in strongly to back al-Assad, funding anti-Assad hard line rebels will just prolong the country’s agony. Syria is resource-poor and poses no threat to Saudi Arabia. Let it go.

3. They should cease their effort to force Qatar to fall in line behind Riyadh. A divided Gulf Cooperation Council is a laughingstock, and it is highly unlikely that mere talking will resolve this one.

4. They should seek a diplomatic resolution of the stand-off with Iran. Actually if they stopped bombing Yemen and made peace with Syria, there wouldn’t be much reason to demonize Iran.

5. They should license churches for their Christian guest workers, the way Qatar has. There isn’t any reason in Muslim law that Christians can’t worship in the Arabian Peninsula. The Qur’an deplores interfering with or destroying churches and other houses of worship (The Cow 2:114).

6. Stop pushing climate change denialism. Petroleum is done; put a fork in it. The crown prince realizes that the kingdom has to move away from petroleum to fund its government. But guess what. The Empty Quarter would be perfect for a huge solar farm.

7. Let women drive.

“Fire & Fury” or “Shock and Awe”: it is always the start of a Quagmire (by Juan Cole)

Posted on Wednesday August 9 2017

If we weren’t talking about two nuclear-armed states with unhinged leaders, the war of words between the US and North Korea would be hilarious. Trump’s threat Tuesday that “”North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” was empty rhetoric and the government of Kim Jung-un knows it, which is why they immediately teased Trump that they were going to hit Guam with a missile strike. The counter-threat was just as absurd as the initial one.

This sort of over-heated rhetoric is hardly unprecedented and always weakens the United States.

North Korea is a country with a $17 billion gross domestic product (nominal) and a population of 25 million. I’m sure it has its virtues, but military weight in world affairs isn’t one of them. It is in a league with Nepal, Gabon and Iceland economically. Population-wise it is in the same league as the Cameroons and Madagascar. The US has a population of 320 million and a GDP of $18.5 trillion.

When I heard the phrase “fire and fury,” I couldn’t help thinking of George W. Bush’s threat of “shock and awe” against Iraq in March of 2003.

The threat was intended to convince Saddam Hussein and other embers of the Iraqi elite to flee the country without preconditions.

It did not work. The US failed to find Saddam, and failed to decapitate the regime.

The American Air Force did rain down destruction on Baghdad, but Baghdad did not surrender.

The army was sent in, grunts on the ground having to fight Iraqi armor and other units. Increasingly the military realized it had been duped by W.’s rhetoric. As Iraqi soldiers discarded their uniforms the better to engage in a guerrilla war, one general got into trouble with the highly scripted White House when he admitted that this was not the war they had gamed for.

The shock and awe that was supposed to make Saddam surrender without a shot, and to cow the Iraqis into submission, Instead the US was drawn into an Iraqi quagmire that continues to this day.

When they start talking shock and awe in Washington, friends, it is time to hunker down for the long haul.

America’s Misadventures in the Middle East (by Chas Freeman, our May speaker)

Posted on Tuesday April 25 2017

“From now on,” President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address, “it’s going to be only America first, America first!” If so, no region stands to be more affected than West Asia and North Africa—what Americans call “the Middle East.” America’s interests there are now entirely derivative rather than direct. They are a function of the self-appointed roles of the United States as the warden of world order, the guarantor of other nations’ security, the shepherd of the world economy, and the custodian of the global commons. If America is now to look out only for itself, it has little obvious reason to be much involved in the Middle East.

Continue reading: Freeman2017-04

 

ISIL Terror-Trolls French Election by Juan Cole (our September speaker)

Posted on Sunday April 23 2017

Thursday’s shooting at the Champs Elysee, left one policeman dead, another gravely injured, a third lightly wounded along with a German tourist shot in the heel. It was carried out by Karim Cheurfi, a French national aged 39, born at Livry-Gargan in Seine-Saint-Denis. He had opened fire with a Kalashnikov machine gun and was killed by police at the scene.

The site of the attack was politically symbolic in French terms, near the Arch of Triumph and the presidential palace. It clearly was intended to help elect the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. The question is whether the French electorate, which is pretty canny, will fall for this transparent terror-trolling.  (Continue reading.)

Recent New York Times Article by Julia Preston

Posted on Sunday February 5 2017

IMMIGRANTS WHO CAME TO U.S. AS CHILDREN FEAR DEPORTATION UNDER TRUMP

                           

Brought to the United States from Venezuela as a toddler, Carlos Roa was among the first young undocumented immigrants to be protected from deportation under a program President Obama set up in 2012 by executive action.  More . . .

Colin Woodard on the Trump Election

Posted on Thursday January 19 2017

Since Election Day, many readers of “American Nations” have been asking for an analysis of the election via the underlying regional cultures identified in the book. Finally, with help from my colleague, Christian MilNeil, at the Portland Press Herald and Will Mitchell of Portland, Maine’s NBT Solutions, I’m able to comply.   Continue reading

 

Article by (our May speaker) Hedrick Smith

Posted on Friday May 20 2016

The Populist Earthquake of 2016

Washington – The political earthquake now shaking the foundations of the Republican Party throws into bold relief the unique feature of Campaign 2016 –  the fault-line this year is not the typical polar clash of Left vs Right, but a far more fundamental Up-Down cleavage between rank and file Americans and what C. Wright Mills years ago called “The Power Elite.”   [Continue reading here.]

 

“The Theology of American National Security” by Andrew Bacevich (our Jan. 2016 speaker)

Posted on Friday December 4 2015

Reproduced from TomDispatch.com:

The Theology of American National Security

by Andrew Bacevich

In April 2003, with Baghdad occupied by American troops, the top officials of the Bush administration were already dreaming of building bases in Iraq that would be garrisoned more or less in perpetuity. Everyone was too polite to call them “permanent bases,” so they were sometimes referred to by the Pentagon as “enduring camps.” Still, planning for “permanent access” to at least four giant Iraqi bases was underway, as Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported then. These were intended to anchor a Pax Americana in the Middle East.

In the months that followed President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech, the U.S. military began constructing bases in remarkable profusion. By late 2003, Lieutenant Colonel David Holt, “tasked with facilities development” in Iraq, was quoted in an engineering magazine speaking proudly of several billion dollars already having been sunk into base construction. (“The numbers,” he said, “are staggering.”) By 2005, as the country disintegrated into Sunni and Shiite insurgencies and chaos ensued, there were 105 U.S. bases in the country, ranging from tiny combat outposts to monster facilities like Balad Air Base with its own Pizza Hut, Subway, and Popeye’s franchises, “an ersatz Starbucks,” a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, and four mess halls. By the height of the occupation, Washington had reportedly constructed a mind-boggling 505 bases without any kind of public accounting of what was being spent on them. By 2011, when the last U.S. troops slipped out of the country, every one of them (except the 506th base, the giant three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar American Embassy that the Bush administration built in Baghdad) had been abandoned to the Iraqi military, to looters, or to the ravages of time.

And that was that… or was it?

When the Obama administration launched Iraq War 3.0 last year, sending in 3,000 American advisers, trainers, and other personnel, it garrisoned some of them on familiar bases reoccupied for the occasion. Last week, as it was preparing to dispatch the next round of trainers and other personnel to Iraq, it also announced the “opening” of a brand-new “lily pad” (or bare-bones) base for them at Taqaddam in al-Anbar Province, nearer to the front lines of the conflict with the forces of the Islamic State. At the same time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey began to talk up the possibility of building additional “lily pads” — a “network” of new bases — for more U.S. personnel elsewhere in Iraq. (Such a lily-pad strategy was, by the way, tried in Afghanistan and essentially failed.) Soon after, the New York Times reported that President Obama was “open” to such a strategy. In other words, in Washington’s Groundhog Day-style conflict in Iraq, round two of base building was now underway.

And here’s one strange thing: no newspaper reporting on any of this mentioned that there had been a previous history of base building in Iraq — not even the Times, whose reporters first covered the story back in April 2003. That crucial history has, it seems, simply vanished. In this country, it’s as if it never happened. And yet the minute you consider the proposed lily-pad strategy in the context of those 505 abandoned bases, it seems risible.

TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich turns to this very combination of collective amnesia and repetitive madness today, so feel free to follow him down the Washington rabbit hole. Tom

Washington in Wonderland
Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole (Again)
By Andrew J. Bacevich

There is a peculiar form of insanity in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just beneath the surface. When Alice dove down her rabbit hole to enter a place where smirking cats offered directions, ill-mannered caterpillars dispensed advice, and Mock Turtles constituted the principal ingredient in Mock Turtle soup, she experienced something of the sort.

Yet, as the old adage goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction. For a real-life illustration of this phenomenon, one need look no further than Washington and its approach to national security policy. Viewed up close, it all seems to hang together. Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.

Consider this recent headline: “U.S. to Ship 2,000 Anti-Tank Missiles To Iraq To Help Fight ISIS.” The accompanying article describes a Pentagon initiative to reinforce Iraq’s battered army with a rush order of AT-4s. A souped-up version of the old bazooka, the AT-4 is designed to punch holes through armored vehicles.

Taken on its own terms, the decision makes considerable sense. Iraqi forces need something to counter a fearsome new tactic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): suicide bombers mounted in heavily armored wheeled vehicles. Improved antitank capabilities certainly could help Iraqi troops take out such bombers before they reach their intended targets. The logic is airtight. The sooner these weapons get into the hands of Iraqi personnel, the better for them — and so the better for us.

As it turns out, however, the vehicle of choice for ISIS suicide bombers these days is the up-armored Humvee. In June 2014, when the Iraqi Army abandoned the country’s second largest city, Mosul, ISIS acquired 2,300made-in-the-U.S.A. Humvees. Since then, it’s captured even more of them.

As U.S. forces were themselves withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, they bequeathed a huge fleet of Humvees to the “new” Iraqi army it had built to the tune of $25 billion. Again, the logic of doing so was impeccable: Iraqi troops needed equipment; shipping used Humvees back to the U.S. was going to cost more than they were worth. Better to give them to those who could put them to good use.  Who could quarrel with that?

Before they handed over the used equipment, U.S. troops had spent years trying to pacify Iraq, where order had pretty much collapsed after the invasion of 2003. American troops in Iraq had plenty of tanks and other heavy equipment, but once the country fell into insurgency and civil war, patrolling Iraqi cities required something akin to a hopped-up cop car. The readily available Humvee filled the bill.  When it turned out that troops driving around in what was essentially an oversized jeep were vulnerable to sniper fire and roadside bombs, “hardening” those vehicles to protect the occupants became a no-brainer — as even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld eventually recognized.

At each step along the way, the decisions made possessed a certain obvious logic.  It’s only when you get to the end — giving Iraqis American-made weapons to destroy specially hardened American-made military vehicles previously provided to those same Iraqis — that the strangely circular and seriously cuckoo Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the entire enterprise becomes apparent.

AT-4s blowing up those Humvees — with fingers crossed that the anti-tank weapons don’t also fall into the hands of ISIS militants — illustrates in microcosm the larger madness of Washington’s policies concealed by the superficial logic of each immediate situation.

The Promotion of Policies That Have Manifestly Failed

Let me provide a firsthand illustration.  A week ago, I appeared on a network television news program to discuss American policy in Iraq and in particular the challenges posed by ISIS.  The other guests were former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and current CEO of a Washington think tank Michelle Flournoy, and retired four-star general Anthony Zinni who had once headed up United States Central Command.

Washington is a city in which whatever happens within the current news cycle trumps all other considerations, whether in the immediate or distant past.  So the moderator launched the discussion by asking the panelists to comment on President Obama’s decision, announced earlier that very day, to plus-up the 3,000-strong train-and-equip mission to Iraq with an additional 450 American soldiers, the latest ratcheting up of ongoing U.S. efforts to deal with ISIS.

Panetta spoke first and professed wholehearted approval of the initiative.  “Well, there’s no question that I think the president’s taken the right step in adding these trainers and advisers.”  More such steps — funneling arms to Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and deploying U.S. Special Operations Forces to hunt down terrorists — were “going to be necessary in order to be able to achieve the mission that we have embarked on.”  That mission was of critical importance.  Unless defeated, ISIS would convert Iraq into “a base [for] attacking our country and attacking our homeland.”

Flournoy expressed a similar opinion.  She called the decision to send additional trainers “a good move and a smart move,” although she, too, hoped that it was only the “first step in a broader series” of escalatory actions.  If anything, her view of ISIS was more dire than that of her former Pentagon boss.  She called it “the new jihad — violent jihadist vanguard in the Middle East and globally.”  Unless stopped, ISIS was likely to become “a global network” with “transnational objectives,” while its “thousands of foreign fighters” from the West and Gulf states were eventually going to “return and be looking to carry out jihad in their home countries.”

General Zinni begged to differ — not on the nature of the danger confronting Washington, but on what to do about it.  He described the present policy as “almost déjà vu,” a throwback “to Vietnam before we committed the ground forces.  We dribble in more and more advisers and support.”

“We’re not fully committed to this fight,” the general complained.  “We use terms like destroy.  I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”  Zinni proposed doing just that.  No more shilly-shallying.  The template for action was readily at hand.  “The last victory, clear victory that we had was in the first Gulf War,” he said.  And what were the keys to success then?  “We used overwhelming force.  We ended it quickly. We went to the U.N. and got a resolution. We built a coalition.  And that ought to be a model we ought to look at.”  In short, go big, go hard, go home.

Panetta disagreed.  He had a different template in mind.  The Iraq War of 2003-2011 had clearly shown that “we know how to do this, and we know how to win at doing this.”  The real key was to allow America’s generals a free hand to do what needed to be done.  “[A]ll we really do need to do is to be able to give our military commanders the flexibility to design not only the strategy to degrade ISIS, but the larger strategy we need in order to defeat ISIS.”  Unleashing the likes of Delta Force or SEAL Team 6 with some missile-firing drones thrown in for good measure was likely to suffice.

For her part, Flournoy thought the real problem was “making sure that there is Iraqi capacity to hold the territory, secure it long-term, so that ISIS doesn’t come back again.  And that involves the larger political compromises” — the ones the Iraqis themselves needed to make.  At the end of the day, the solution was an Iraqi army willing and able to fight and an Iraqi government willing and able to govern effectively.  On that score, there was much work to be done.

Panetta then pointed out that none of this was in the cards unless the United States stepped up to meet the challenge.  “[I]f the United States doesn’t provide leadership in these crises, nobody else will.”  That much was patently obvious.  Other countries and the Iraqis themselves might pitch in, “but we have to provide that leadership.  We can’t just stand on the sidelines wringing our hands.  I mean… ask the people of Paris what happened there with ISIS.  Ask the people in Brussels what happened there with ISIS.  What happened in Toronto? What’s happened in this country as a result of the threat from ISIS?”

Ultimately, everything turned on the willingness of America to bring order and stability out of chaos and confusion.  Only the United States possessed the necessary combination of wisdom, competence, and strength.  Here was a proposition to which Flournoy and Zinni readily assented.

With Alice in Washington

To participate in an exchange with these pillars of the Washington establishment was immensely instructive.  Only nominally did their comments qualify as a debate.  Despite superficial differences, the discussion was actually an exercise in affirming the theology of American national security — those essential matters of faith that define continuities of policy in Washington, whatever administration is in power.

In that regard, apparent disagreement on specifics masked a deeper consensus consisting of three elements:

* That ISIS represents something akin to an existential threat to the United States, the latest in a long line going back to the totalitarian ideologies of the last century; fascism and communism may be gone, but danger is ever present.

* That if the United States doesn’t claim ownership of the problem of Iraq, the prospects of “solving” it are nil; action or inaction by Washington alone, that is, determines the fate of the planet.

* That the exercise of leadership implies, and indeed requires, employing armed might; without a willingness to loose military power, global leadership is inconceivable.

In a fundamental respect, the purpose of the national security establishment, including the establishment media, is to shield that tripartite consensus from critical examination.  This requires narrowing the aperture of analysis so as to exclude anything apart from the here-and-now.  The discussion in which I participated provided a vehicle for doing just that.  It was an exercise aimed at fostering collective amnesia.

So what the former secretary of defense, think tank CEO, and retired general chose not to say in fretting about ISIS is as revealing as what they did say.  Here are some of the things they chose to overlook:

* ISIS would not exist were it not for the folly of the United States in invading — and breaking — Iraq in the first place; we created the vacuum that ISIS is now attempting to fill.

* U.S. military efforts to pacify occupied Iraq from 2003 to 2011 succeeded only in creating a decent interval for the United States to withdraw without having to admit to outright defeat; in no sense did “our” Iraq War end in anything remotely approximating victory, despite the already forgotten loss of thousands of American lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars.

* For more than a decade and at very considerable expense, the United States has been attempting to create an Iraqi government that governs and an Iraqi army that fights; the results of those efforts speak for themselves: they have failed abysmally.

Now, these are facts.  Acknowledging them might suggest a further conclusion: that anyone proposing ways for Washington to put things right in Iraq ought to display a certain sense of humility.  The implications of those facts — behind which lies a policy failure of epic proportions — might even provide the basis for an interesting discussion on national television.  But that would assume a willingness to engage in serious self-reflection.  This, the culture of Washington does not encourage, especially on matters related to basic national security policy.

My own contribution to the televised debate was modest and ineffectual.  Toward the end, the moderator offered me a chance to redeem myself.  What, she asked, did I think about Panetta’s tribute to the indispensability of American leadership?

A fat pitch that I should have hit it out of the park.  Instead, I fouled it off.  What I should have said was this: leadership ought to mean something other than simply repeating and compounding past mistakes.  It should require more than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed.  To remain willfully blind to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness.

Not that it would have mattered if I had. When it comes to Iraq, we’re already halfway back down Alice’s rabbit hole.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Andrew J. Bacevich

 

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, The Theology of American National Security
Posted by Andrew Bacevich at 7:53am, June 18, 2015.
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Climate Change in a Nutshell (from Senator King)

Posted on Thursday December 3 2015

Friends,

Thank you for your interest in one of the climate change cards I keep in my pocket.

For me, the graphs on the card are the simplest and clearest way to show not only the unprecedented and

growing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, but also its close correlation to global temperatures in the past. As

our climate continues to change and we strive to adapt, I think it is important that everyone appreciate the

context of our situation with respect to data from the past.   (Continue Reading)

Commentary by Past Forum Speaker, Graham Fuller

Posted on Friday October 9 2015

GFBanner

We Hate ‘Em All!

October 8, 2015 by 

We Hate ‘Em All!

With the arrival of Russian forces on the scene the Syrian situation has now grown unbearably complicated. Among the totality of players on the scene, Washington hates them all.

The US has long detested Asad father and son; for years it has attempted to weaken and even dislodge them through various strategems, especially in the Bush years. They have been a leading symbol of resistance to American domination in the Middle East and to expansion of Israeli power; they have been leading supporters of the Palestinians, and maintained the longest standing alliance of any in the Middle East in his ties with Iran—for over thirty-five years.

And ever since the Iranian Revolution the US has equally vigorously fought Iranian influence anywhere in the Middle East. For Washington, the fall of Asad was actually more about Iran than it was about Syria.

But now, for far more compelling reasons, the US has come to perceive ISIS, (the “Islamic State”) as the single biggest regional threat and supporter of jihadi violence. Yet ISIS is also fighting Asad. Washington reluctantly concluded that an ISIS victory in Syria—and its attendant chaos—would be far worse than Asad. Same goes for the al-Nusra Front, a major jihadi force battling Asad; it just happens to be closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

And now Russia is weighing in with significant new military presence in Syria, first and foremost to prevent the collapse of the Asad regime against its fundamentalist enemies. Moscow will now take on almost all opposition to Asad; as such it also strongly seeks to weaken ISIS, which it has greater reason to fear than does the US, given Russia’s large and restive Muslim population. But Washington doesn’t want to see Russia in Syria either, and would prefer to prevent any significant Russian presence in the area.

Other “allies” on Syria include Turkey whose Syrian policies under Erdogan have gone off the rails, as Ankara is now more intent on checkmating the Kurds (even the broad-based moderate liberal Kurdish HDP party at home) than on checking radical jihadi forces in Syria. And then there is Saudi Arabia whose obsession to overthrow Asad and check Iran has driven it to exploit the scourge of ugly sectarianism in region to the detriment of nearly everyone. Riyadh has also launched a brutal and unwinnable war in Yemen; indeed, Washington is one of the long-term losers through association with indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaigns in that country—whose refugees will predictably soon also turn up on the refugee screen.

In short, Washington hates everybody involved, except a near-mythical paper force of “moderates” fighting against Asad. While those small groups include individuals who could be desirable in a future post-Asad Syrian regime—more moderate, tolerant, secular and democratic—the “moderates” sadly are negligible military players, as Washington has now been compelled to admit.

What to do?

Washington has no good choices. Neocon and liberal hawks want the US to weigh in in Syria, deny it to Russia and Iran (and would end up stuck in another quagmire to rival the Iraq and Afghan debacles they created.) But short of taking over all of Syria for a very long time, Washington cannot fix what ails the country and its deepening fissures.

Can Russia and Iran find a way out of war to forge some new compromise regime? Just possibly. The greatest advantage they possess are their good ties with the Asad regime. Both therefore possess far better intelligence and influence on the politics of Damascus that does the US. Asad is deeply beholden to Russia and Iran for his survival. He may indeed resist leaving office, but if any foreign powers are capable of arranging some kind of palace coup even by arrangement, it is Moscow and Tehran.

But can they do it? Will they do it?

The status quo in Syria is actually undesirable for both Russia and Iran as well since it feeds regional jihadism and breeds instability. Asad’s military collapse to jihadi-dominated forces would cost them their position in Syria. But it would hurt the West as well and would not guarantee an end to civil war. Both Iran and Russia have publicly stated that they bear no particular love for Bashar al-Asad as such. Indeed, Asad must nurture suspicions about their ultimate intentions as well, but he has nowhere else to turn. But whatever happens, preserving the state structure, with or without Asad, is essential. Otherwise the rampant anarchy of a collapsed state looms.

So we end up back with the same old calculus: that the Asad regime is perhaps the least of all evils, especially since US invasion and long-term occupation of Syria is unthinkable. Indeed, the Russian presence is in part designed to block just another such US exercise in regime change leading to chaos. Moscow perceives that as yet another US effort to plant its strategic flag in the region—as in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Ukraine. Meanwhile Iran finds the conflict a dangerous source of sectarian conflict as well. (Ironically, Tehran’s position may be slightly sidelined now with the arrival of far superior Russian forces.)

There simply is no good option for Washington. But reestablishment of central government and order in Syria is the first priority. I doubt that military overthrow of the whole regime, even were it possible, could bring genuine order in any foreseeable timeframe. As distasteful as it might be in Washington, a dominant role for Russia and Iran at least acknowledges that they bring more to the political and military table than anyone else. Our interests in Syria are simply not that divergent from theirs—except for those policy-makers who believe that we can still “have it all” and keep Russia and Iran out. But even if one accepts a Russian and Iranian role, the hard work of hammering out some vision of a future Syria will be tough. Partition is utterly unrealistic; it would only plant the seeds of future conflicts over turf to come. Russia may well end up in its own quagmire, but I don’t see that as a foregone conclusion. Nor would it be good for the US.

But how to move from the present country-wide civil war to some kind of negotiations? And who will be included in negotiations? Certainly not ISIS or al-Qaeda. Are some kind of external UN-linked peacekeepers an option? Pakistani or Moroccan troops? Any plan would at least have to start with freezing fighting as it stands.

Complex diplomatic issues are unavoidable. Given the state of American politics—in virtual perpetual election mode of extravagant posturing—the necessary dispassionate examination of these alternatives seems unlikely. But we can’t get to even that stage without acknowledging that simply hating everyone involved isn’t a policy either.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

 

Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)

 

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Jessica Mathews on Henry Kissinger

Posted on Wednesday May 20 2015

In a March issue of The New York Review of Books, our July speaker, Jessica Mathews dissects the new book by Henry Kissinger:

“Almost from the beginning of its history, America has struggled to find a balance in its foreign policy between narrowly promoting its own security and idealistically serving the interests of others; between, as we’ve tended to see it in shorthand, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and the ideals of Woodrow Wilson. Just as consistently, the US has gone through periods of embracing a leading international role for itself and times when Americans have done all they could to turn their backs on the rest of the world . . .”    Click to read more.

Stephen Walt on Arming Ukraine (a really bad idea)

Posted on Thursday February 12 2015

One of our 2013 speakers, Professor Stephen Walt, has a recent article in Foreign Policy about General Breedlove’s dubious plan to send US arms to Ukraine.  Click here for full article.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran?

Posted on Friday December 12 2014

Excerpts from January speaker Hossein Mousavian’s article entitled Why geopolitical shifts dictate a nuclear deal with Iran:

“Although a week of high-level talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna made good progress, negotiators failed to reach an agreement and instead set a new deadline of March 1, 2015, for a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and a July 1 deadline for the final agreement, including annexes. The parties are close to consensus on many of the major issues, but gaps remain on two key issues — defining the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program and the sequence for lifting UN Security Council sanctions. Wendy R. Sherman, the chief US negotiator, remarked Oct. 23, “We have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text. However, like any complicated and technically complex diplomatic initiative, this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces.” [Click to read more]

Gregory Johnson’s Harrowing Escape

Posted on Friday December 5 2014

Gregory Johnson was our Forum speaker last April.  Read his recent BuzzFeed story on My Last Day in Yemen:

“Yemen was like a home away from home for me — until the day I was nearly abducted in broad daylight, and narrowly missed suffering a grim fate similar to other journalists drawn to covering, and living in, the Middle East. [Read more.]

Rania Abouzeid on the Mess in Iraq

Posted on Friday July 11 2014

Read what Rania Abouzeid (our September 22nd speaker) had to say in her June Politico article:  The Jihad Next Door: The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war”

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Announcements

Saudi Arabia wants to improve Image; Here’s How (by Juan Cole

Posted on Saturday September 16

Saudi Arabia is alleged to be hiring a PR firm to improve its tattered image in the West . As usual, such a campaign confuses substance with fluff and the money will be wasted. I am sympathetic to Saudi feelings that they get an unfair rap. In my Engaging the Muslim World I argued that […]

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“Fire & Fury” or “Shock and Awe”: it is always the start of a Quagmire (by Juan Cole)

Posted on Wednesday August 9

If we weren’t talking about two nuclear-armed states with unhinged leaders, the war of words between the US and North Korea would be hilarious. Trump’s threat Tuesday that “”North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” was […]

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America’s Misadventures in the Middle East (by Chas Freeman, our May speaker)

Posted on Tuesday April 25

“From now on,” President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address, “it’s going to be only America first, America first!” If so, no region stands to be more affected than West Asia and North Africa—what Americans call “the Middle East.” America’s interests there are now entirely derivative rather than direct. They are a function of […]

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ISIL Terror-Trolls French Election by Juan Cole (our September speaker)

Posted on Sunday April 23

Thursday’s shooting at the Champs Elysee, left one policeman dead, another gravely injured, a third lightly wounded along with a German tourist shot in the heel. It was carried out by Karim Cheurfi, a French national aged 39, born at Livry-Gargan in Seine-Saint-Denis. He had opened fire with a Kalashnikov machine gun and was killed […]

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Recent New York Times Article by Julia Preston

Posted on Sunday February 5

IMMIGRANTS WHO CAME TO U.S. AS CHILDREN FEAR DEPORTATION UNDER TRUMP                             Brought to the United States from Venezuela as a toddler, Carlos Roa was among the first young undocumented immigrants to be protected from deportation under a program President Obama set up in […]

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Colin Woodard on the Trump Election

Posted on Thursday January 19

Since Election Day, many readers of “American Nations” have been asking for an analysis of the election via the underlying regional cultures identified in the book. Finally, with help from my colleague, Christian MilNeil, at the Portland Press Herald and Will Mitchell of Portland, Maine’s NBT Solutions, I’m able to comply.   Continue reading  

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Article by (our May speaker) Hedrick Smith

Posted on Friday May 20

The Populist Earthquake of 2016 Washington – The political earthquake now shaking the foundations of the Republican Party throws into bold relief the unique feature of Campaign 2016 –  the fault-line this year is not the typical polar clash of Left vs Right, but a far more fundamental Up-Down cleavage between rank and file Americans […]

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“The Theology of American National Security” by Andrew Bacevich (our Jan. 2016 speaker)

Posted on Friday December 4

Reproduced from TomDispatch.com: The Theology of American National Security by Andrew Bacevich In April 2003, with Baghdad occupied by American troops, the top officials of the Bush administration were already dreaming of building bases in Iraq that would be garrisoned more or less in perpetuity. Everyone was too polite to call them “permanent bases,” so […]

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Climate Change in a Nutshell (from Senator King)

Posted on Thursday December 3

Friends, Thank you for your interest in one of the climate change cards I keep in my pocket. For me, the graphs on the card are the simplest and clearest way to show not only the unprecedented and growing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, but also its close correlation to global temperatures in the […]

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Commentary by Past Forum Speaker, Graham Fuller

Posted on Friday October 9

We Hate ‘Em All! October 8, 2015 by Graham E. Fuller We Hate ‘Em All! With the arrival of Russian forces on the scene the Syrian situation has now grown unbearably complicated. Among the totality of players on the scene, Washington hates them all. The US has long detested Asad father and son; for years it has […]

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Jessica Mathews on Henry Kissinger

Posted on Wednesday May 20

In a March issue of The New York Review of Books, our July speaker, Jessica Mathews dissects the new book by Henry Kissinger: “Almost from the beginning of its history, America has struggled to find a balance in its foreign policy between narrowly promoting its own security and idealistically serving the interests of others; between, as […]

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Stephen Walt on Arming Ukraine (a really bad idea)

Posted on Thursday February 12

One of our 2013 speakers, Professor Stephen Walt, has a recent article in Foreign Policy about General Breedlove’s dubious plan to send US arms to Ukraine.  Click here for full article.

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A Nuclear Deal With Iran?

Posted on Friday December 12

Excerpts from January speaker Hossein Mousavian’s article entitled Why geopolitical shifts dictate a nuclear deal with Iran: “Although a week of high-level talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna made good progress, negotiators failed to reach an agreement and instead set a new deadline of March 1, 2015, for a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and a […]

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Gregory Johnson’s Harrowing Escape

Posted on Friday December 5

Gregory Johnson was our Forum speaker last April.  Read his recent BuzzFeed story on My Last Day in Yemen: “Yemen was like a home away from home for me — until the day I was nearly abducted in broad daylight, and narrowly missed suffering a grim fate similar to other journalists drawn to covering, and […]

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Rania Abouzeid on the Mess in Iraq

Posted on Friday July 11

Read what Rania Abouzeid (our September 22nd speaker) had to say in her June Politico article:  “The Jihad Next Door: The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war”

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