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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What US Neutrality on Iraq's Invasion of Kirkuk Means for Our Interests in the Region


President Trump responded to the entrance of the Iraqi forces and Iran-based militias into Kirkuk this morning by stating that US is not taking sides between Kurds and the Iraqi government and is engaged in encouraging all sides to avoid clashes and continue dialogue.

However, in the context of the current tensions, US neutrality and commitment to non-intervention is taken as betrayal by the Kurds and as tacit approval by Iraq, Iran, and even Turkey. Qassem Soleimani's role in the fall of Kirkuk was the first test of the White House's  new policy on Iran, which includes designating IRGC as a terrorist organization and opposing Iranian expansionism in the Middle east.  Nevertheless, thus far, the administration has failed to show commitment to upholding US law and going after the terrorist leader, despite an opportunity to do so in the course of this operation.

From the perspective of tribal Middle Eastern societies, no matter what President Trump's actual intentions are, he has chosen sides by failing to stop the Iraqi forces from entering Kirkuk, raising the Iraqi flag, lowering the Kurdish flag, seizing the oil field in the area, and in every respect asserting dominion and control over the area. That is a sign of not only a political betrayal, but of a strategic choice that will have long-term repercussion for the region.  Despite the lofty rhetoric about stopping Iran, the United States cannot overlook the alliance about the Abadi forces, trained and supplied by the United States, and Iran-backed Shi'a militias, that in the past, have pressured the Kurds, threatened religious minorities in the area, including Yazidis and Christians, and despite some limited cooperation with the United States on the issues of fighting ISIS (mainly out of self-interest), have otherwise acted as agents of the ayatollah-led Iranian regime.  Both indecisiveness and conscious choice to allow Baghdad and Iranian agents to do as they wish with the Kurdish areas, send the same signals to all involve, and make the United States both unwelcome with the allies, and irrelevant with the adversaries in the region.

Strategic withdrawal from an active role in the region may have its place, but only if it's done on our terms, to our advantage, and in a way that signals a well-thought out foreign policy and defense of interests, rather than weakness, inability to make decisive move, or a choice of undemocratic regimes and bad allies over dependable allies whose help will be needed many times over in the future. Indeed, however, many are not convinced that the position of the administration on this issue is sincere. For instance, Turkey's position on the matter of Kurdish independence may have been the lodestar in this decisionmaking process. Turkey has recently come to an agreement with Iran on a variety of matters, which included increased military cooperation and the issue of Kurdistan's independence referendum. After the fall of Kirkuk, Ankara issued its approval of the invasion.

The administration has been careful in maintaining good relations with Turkey. It had previously pressured Barzani to postpone the referendum, after both Abadi and Erdogan expressed strong opposition. President Trump, despite major policy differences, recently called Erdogan a friend, and Turkey and the US recently concluded a deal over Boeing airplanes. Turkish lobby has been strong in the US. Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, had worked for Turkish interests. In fact, shortly before being removed from his position, Flynn had reportedly blocked a military move in Syria that Turkey had opposed. Moreover, as we now know, Turkey had paid off a number of major think tanks that had advised President Trump shortly prior to Erdogan's visit to the White House in May of this year.  President Trump is likely getting very bad advise from the Secretary of State, who views the independence referendum as illegitimate, and from an assortment of sources, who are taken in by the extensive Turkish lobby in the United States.

None of it changes matters. The current calculus throws the Kurds into the arms of Russia, which has already ascended to power along with Iran in Syria, pushing the United States out of a position of significant influence altogether due to our short-sighted focus on only dealing with ISIS. Furthermore, Russia has stayed away from publicly condemning the referendum, and in fact, acted as the biggest financial backer of KRG. Although the Kurdish leadership is generally distrustful of Russia, Russia has proven itself to be a stalwart ally to Assad, and has deftly advocated for the Kurds in Turkey when it suited her interests. Putin's backing of the Kurds in Iraq is not sentimental; rather, he is shrewdly taking advantage of the US inaction to establish Kurdistan as Russia's sphere of influence and rise to power in the Middle East, all without having to expend significant power or resources.

As our influence diminishes and our presence becomes marginal, the US is likely to miss significant opportunities for business and educational investment in Kurdistan; infrastructure projects with potential for job growth for American workers; creation of a stable buffer state in the Middle East that would likely protect our security interests vis-a-vis Iran and Turkey, and spread elements of democracy and liberalization naturally through the people indigineous to the region rather than through conquest, occupation, or or other policies likely to be viewed as colonialist.  What we are losing, however, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are gaining. Sooner or later, the imperial ambitions of these three aggressive states will come to a head in the oil-rich region; however, either one of the three belligerent actors prevails, which will not benefit the region, or the three countries come to a power-sharing agreement, in which case minorities, Israel, and the US will all lose out, or the situation deteriorates to the point of chaos, with civil war, strife, and new waves of refugees repeating the tragic events in Syria. In all cases excepting the instance where US rises to the occasion, shows moral and strategic leadership, and backs Kurdish aspiration to independence, we are looking at some very dismal scenarios that will place America dead last not only in the Middle East, but in the international arena as well.

The Anti-Climactic Defeat of ISIS

The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, Mosul, and other places, has been oddly anti-climactic for several reasons:

1. We in the West are not the ones who received the majority of suffering in the hands of these vicious brutes.

2. Media coverage had largely focused on the graphic coverage of the atrocities, much less on the battles that forced ISIS to cede territory inch by inch.

3. Domestic afffairs and trepidation over the Iran deal next steps takes up the majority of time and space in the US in particular.

4. The Defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq frees its prisoners, but does not affect matters in Libya and other parts of the world where iSIS still has a foothold or is actually growing; Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are making a comeback; evil state actors are taking advantage of the chaos to assert themselves in the region. Russia's and Iran's growing control of Syria is at least as troubling as ISIS presence there. Destroying ISIS was a matter of political will. Getting rid of state actors, which are building naval basis and gaining control and even fealty of entire populations would be much harder.

Furthermore, ISIS was much better at bad-boy PR. Practically everyone in the West perceived that group as an extreme threat and a top priority to destroy; large swaths of Westerners do not care about Syria at all, as long as Syria doesn't come to the US in the form of ISIS or refugees; and most people don't seem to care all that much that Russia is in control in Syria, even when people perceive it as antithetical to our own goals in the region. Furthermore, Turkey's encroachment into that space bothers very few people, because that whole region seems far away, and largely irrelevant except to the extent that it gives us more opportunity to waste money on inept operations.

5. I doubt much will change when Iran builds a base in Syria and completes the land corridor to Lebanon. Unless people perceive an immediate threat to their personal interests or unless the visuals are gruesome and shocking, most people will care a lot more about what's going on at home than in a country that is barely even a country anymore.

I find all of this disheartening because so many people sacrificed so much standing up to ISIS, while barely receiving any aid from the United States. Now that they've cleared up the mess that US has allowed to take root through incompetent policies and dithering by the Obama administration, they once again will be abandoned, because the US has been focused so single-mindedly on the defeat of ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the state actors operating in the region are more powerful, more dangerous, better trained & equipped, and will be around for far longer. I think our problems are actually just getting started.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Fall of Kirkuk - and of the US new policy on Iran

Left mostly to civilians, PKK volunteers, and others Kirkuk fell to Iraqi troops and Iran-based militias in a matter of hours.  Iraq is seeking to take back the oil-rich region from Kurdish control.

US stood by and did nothing.

President Trump recently announced a shift in policy in Iran, which would include designating IRGC as a terrorist organization, responding to Iranian militias engaged in terrorism with harshness, and preventing Iran's expansionism in the region.

Well, today's assault on Kirkuk following the recent independence referendum and a week of tensions, threats, and attempted negotiations was the first test of our commitment to the new policy and we failed it.

We have allowed Iraqi forces, armed with US weaponry, and on the dole from the US government for many years, as well as Iran backed militias, adversarial to our efforts in the region and inimical to US interests and those of her allies, to attack an ally who has stalwartly backed us in our fight against ISIS, showed an openness to Western values of democracy and liberalization, and a strong interest in a growing alliance with the United States.

Furthermore, we have hypocritically allowed the source of the many factionalist troubles in the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot treaty, to continue dictating the present and the future of the region, effectively killing the dream of self-determination, moving away from colonialist maps, and towards a future, where nations can forge their own paths and choose their own governments. Foolishly, we have also allowed a large supply of oil to end up in the hands of groups backed by an expansionist regime, and committed to terrorism and domination of the region.

It would have taken but one phone call from President Trump to stop Abadi's forces from entering Kirkuk, bring all parties to the table for a negotiation, and resolve the matters civilly, peacefully, and diplomatically. Instead, we have allowed our ally, the Kurds, to be publicly brutalized and humiliated by the presence of the enemy forces in the city they helped liberate from ISIS.

And the head of this operation is none other than the fearsome Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, who plays a key role in the intelligence and the IRGC, the very organization President Trump just designated as part of Global Terrorists  organization, enforcing the law he signed as part of the sanctions package on Russia, North Korea, and Iran earlier this year. We had multiple opportunities to nab Soleimani in the last few years of the Obama administration, but let him get away, liberating him from the sanctions lists, and allowing him to cut weapons deal in Russia, in violation of our own security interests.

I need not tell you what is likely to happen when someone like Soleimani is in charge. But let's not leave the matter to our imagination. Let's look at Iran's treatment of its own significant Kurdish minority - treatment that includes disproportional executions, facilitation of drug flow into the regions, frequent denial of civil rights, and brutal torture of even peaceful human rights activists. Our failure to stop Soleimani from playing an active role in the fall of Kirkuk, as well as our lack of will in enforcing both our own existing laws and the newly articulated policy by the White House shows that our interest in stopping IRGC is significantly less than our apparent interest in appeasing Abadi, Erdogan, and various Arab states vehemently opposed to the existence of a Kurdish state.

Besides showing ourselves once again as a poor ally to the one group that is openly embracing our interest in liberalization, diversity, and enlightenment in the region, we are also shooting ourselves in the foot by opposing an important buffer state against Iran and increasingly bellicose Turkey, who would likely have positive relations with Israel, could be a good trade partner, and could move the region in a positive direction through its commitment to education and business investments. There's only one thing that's worse than betraying good allies, and that is betraying our own constituents. Americans and Congress have shown strong opposition to the IRGC, articulated by the sanctions signed into law this summer. We were explicitly promised the end of the Obama administration's failed appeasement posture and the beginning of a stronger, more assertive US that looks out for US national security interests above all else. Instead, we are getting more of the same - failure to contain an organization we just designated as terrorist, spread of strife and needless violence in the one part of the  region that showed signs of promising stability, and endless deception over what standing up to Iran means in practice as opposed to what we were led to believe we were getting.

I urge President Trump to listen to good advice not from former and still interested oil executives, but from regional and national security experts well familiar with the dangers of IRGC and Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions, to take all action that would get Abadi to back off, to secure Kirkuk against invasions, and to have Soleimani taken into custody or killed, as the head of a terrorist organization that he is. That is the only way to show our commitment to our new policy on Iran, and to secure our national security interests and those of our regional allies, and to be taken seriously on the international stage by friends and foes alike.

Let's Not Become Like Russia

This morning, I had an opportunity to hear an interview with a Russion historian Leonid Melchin.

He brought up several salient points about contemporary Russia and its foreign and domestic policy:

First, he said, it's always much easier to look for big external enemies to shift blame for your internal problems and to justify doing nothing to address the smaller quality-of-life issues in your back yard.  It's much more glamorous to fight with NATO than to go rebuild your failing infrastructure or take care of your ailing neighbor.

Second, Russia's culture has been in ruins for several generations starting with the elimination of the farmers and the expulsion of intelligentsia after the Revolution.  The Civil War actually caused millions of people to flee, and millions of others to die or to lose everything, including social influence, resulting in largely uneducated, uncouth people being next in line to take over the country right after the middle class revolutionary leaders, many of whom themselves later perished in purges.  That ruined the ethical underpinnings of the society resulting in country being ruled by thugs for many decades, and adopting a largely criminal based form of governance and life philosophy.

Finally, perennial apathy and laziness are preventing people from assuming any level of responsibility on an individual level. For instance, Russia's peripheral regions are doing nothing to engage in self-improvements, largely relying on the non-existent and corrupt system of subsidies from Moscow, under the excuses that the Chinese are eventually going to take over everything anyway, so there is no reason to put any effort into improving one's own life. Melchin, however, argues that it's patently untrue. The influence of the Chinese is greatly exaggerated, and to some extent, failure to address existing economic and social issues creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of these regions becoming depleted of human resources and ripe for take over by migrant populations.

Moreover, it's nonsense to believe the fatalistic refrain that sooner or later, Russia will fall apart and become at best a federation of weak autonomies. The federal system, he says, is very strong, and no one is going anywhere. Nor is Russia going to die out due to low demographics, aging population, alcoholism and so forth. All these are significant problems, but Russia has gone through a great deal of turmoil over the centuries, including persistent economic issues such as poor economy and lack of viable infrastructure, and yet here we are, with Russia still boasting a high population and significant involvement in international affairs. However, the course it's pursuing is less North-Korea bound, than completely irrelevance and inaction on all fronts.

Why should this be of any interest to the United States?  Because the same populist claims and excuses are reverberating both on the left and on the right of the US society, creating the danger that despite the strong economy and other achievements we have accomplished through the history of good work ethic and dedication to upward mobility, defeatist philosophy that seeks to blame our internal weaknesses on outward forces, such as immigrants, "the Establishment", corporations, the left, the right, and frankly, anyone but the weakening local cultures and lack of consistent education to growth, education, and self-improvement is putting us on the same deteriorating path as Russia, our foil for endless excuse-making regarding the internal weaknesses resulting from bad decisionmaking of the Obama administration, and various private and public actors.

Populist nationalism (as opposed to healthy, growth-oriented nationalism) is the last result of the excuse seekers, who seek to shift the blame elsewhere rather than to actually find and implement solutions that will address existing problems internally. Bannonism philosophy sounds appealing to patriots starved for a healthy national self-image, but in reality it provides little relief who those genuinely dedicated to greatness. Instead, it's a distraction from a necessary conversation about the improvement in education, ethics, social values, and the strengthening of our communities that we should be having as a permanent long-term solution to the various problems assailing our culture. Indeed, a reactionary mindset of trying to provide quick fixes to external attacks ignores the structural internal weakness that help view all such developments as attacks and downsides rather than opportunities.

Our national conversation has become excessively focused on symptoms, rather than causes. And while we are busy playing wack-a-mole with cultural and social issues, the causes persist, affecting even those who claim to stand against all that is harmful and in favor of all that is beneficial. Pausing for a bit of self-reflection as to how we came to be in a place when identity politics and finger=pointing dominate discussion on both sides of the aisle when that was exactly the sort of thing that conservatives claimed to stand against to begin with might do us some good.

How US Can Prevent Future Unjust Imprisonments and Arbitrary Detentions of Americans by Cuba and Others

In early October, a US citizen and her husband, a former Cuban diplomat, were sentenced to 13 and 17 years respectively on charges of espionage by a  military court in Havana. This sentencing follows the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States by the State Department, after Cuba failed to protect US diplomatic personnel from repeated sonic attacks on its territory. This news went largely unnoticed by U.S. media and thus elicited no outrage or condemnation by the international community, nor public expressions of concern by the State Department.

Cuba has a long and sordid history of arresting critics, dissidents, and foreigners on trumped up national security charges.  Alan Gross is but the most famous of foreigners who spent years in Cuban prison for humanitarian work and assistance in civil engagement. Cuban government had engaged in a campaign of extortion, and finally released Mr. Gross, after US paid over $3 million in settlement.  It seems that the Castro regime was less concerned about the assault on its law than about getting a hefty renumeration for its own pockets. President Trump acted to restrict tourist travel to Cuba for American citizens in June, but that still leaves 12 categories of travel legal and does not address the issue of American citizens who are already in Cuba.  In other words, US nationals continue to travel to Cuba for various, entirely valid reasons, and yet are subject to arbitrary detentions, imprisonment on trumped up charges, denial of medical treatment in Cuban jails, and abuse of all kinds.

The Alan Gross case had worked in Cuba's favor and set a precedent of successful use of Americans as hostage, whose release can be negotiated for financial and political boons.  President Obama's shift in policy, normalizing the diplomatic relations between the two countries did little to address the Castro regime's illegitimate use of the justice system to secure payments for prisoners, that under normal circumstances would be considered a form of racketeering under US RICO statutes. Two years after normalization, this shift in policy has failed to empower and enrich millions of Cubans unaffiliated with the Castro regime, has not only not fixed the deplorable human rights situation but actually led to a crackdown on human rights activists, caused medical concerns for US diplomats in Cuba, and in general, and with respect to anyone and anything excepting the wealthiest crony investors, has misfired "big league".

The worst of it for the US is that Cuba continues to play it both ways - demands legitimacy accorded to it by the normalized relations, while also continuing to use Americans as pawns against the US government. This latest conviction is not only a perverse tit-for-tat in retaliation for the expulsion of the Cuban diplomats from the United States, but a reminder that Cuba, despite being smaller, weaker, and known for its support of terrorists and rogue regimes from all over the world, still has the upper hand in its relations with the United States. Cuba can detain, convict, and abuse Americans and the US will play right into its hands, because the US values human life and the Castro regime does not. US is willing to go to extreme lengths to secure the release of its unjustly held citizens and permanent residents, whereas for Cuba, a person is only worth as much as the regime can get in payment for his release. And until recently, short of banning all travel to Cuba, we were powerless to do anything about it, because we have no leverage short of going along with the demands of the extortionist regime and exchanging prisoners or paying money. We are not willing to engage in the same terrorist behavior and hold Cuban diplomats or citizens hostages here just to secure the release of American nationals.

But what recourse do we have under such circumstances? It appearance that we do have a path forward that does not include negotiations with an illegitimate revolutionary regime that thinks nothing of extortionist abductions to further its goals. After examining existing human rights laws on the books,  I discovered that:

* Currently, there are no laws, nor pending bills that would penalize states or individuals or entities responsible for arbitrary detentions, arrests, denial of medical treatment, or torture against US citizens and permanent residents.

* The only legislative requirements associated with US prisoners in other countries are regular reporting requirements by the President to Congress, which obviously do not do much to assist those in need.

* Currently, there are at least 10 US citizens & permanent residents held captive in Iran, at least 4 in North Korea, at least one in Turkey, and just this weekend, there has been news of conviction of a US citizen on Cuba on espionage charges, resulting in a 13 year sentence.

*  In the past, US citizens have been held or convicted on trumped up charges, denied medical treatment, and brutally tortured in a number of countries. Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Turkey have all used the imprisonment of these individuals to extort political and financial concessions from the United States.

* One solution to this legislative gap would be a law incorporating Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act  type language, that would would assert visa cancelations and asset freezes for any individuals and entities associated with unjust treatment of US nationals.  That would include judges, prison guards, wardens, torturers, and doctors involved in denial of life-saving medical treatment in prisons.

* Such legislation  would essentially ostracize anyone involved in such activity on the basis of their unconscionable actions, and not simply for the fact of membership in an organization such as IRGC. Organizations can dissolve or be renamed; many of the people involved in the lawless arrests and imprisonment of Americans are not members of any political organizations, and yet contribute to this gross injustice.

* In addition to making such people unwelcome in the international arena, and denying them the possibility of utilizing the US banking system, as well as providing a bit of justice for the survivors and for the families of people who have gone missing or died as a result of actions by these state enablers (such as Bob Levinson and Otto Warmbier), this legislation would likely positively affect the outcome of hostage negotiations by giving the executive branch additional leverage in conducting these talks. Currently, we have no leverage and as a result have been forced to either admit defeat and retreat or to grant concessions which only encourage what ultimately amounts to terrorist behavior.

* Another positive aspect of this legislation is making these countries safe for travel. Executive actions are currently preventing US citizens from traveling to countries such as North Korea, and strong travel warnings and restrictions have been placed on Cuba and other places. Visas have are not being issues for travel to Turkey. Such actions ultimately only hurt the idea of freedom of travel, which is central to a functioning democracy, and are only necessary because currently there is no other way of providing for the basic security of those traveling to these countries. Such measures are inimical to health people-to-people relations and any possibility of business, cultivating individual relationships, or frankly, even liberalizing such countries through their exposure to Western ideas and private initiatives.  A much better way of ensuring security for Westerners is attacking the cause of all problems - extortionist state action, which endangers travelers. Legislation that penalizes those who benefit from such extortion would disincentivize these states from further engaging in such actions, deter abductions, and make US travels restrictions less necessary.

And while the audience considers the upsides of taking legislative action that would empower our negotiators and reduce the power of racketeering regimes over the United States, I hope the White House considers highlighting this case of a gross miscarriage of justice, publicly denounces the Castro regime's extortion, shuts down the US embassy in Cuba until further notice, and expels the remaining diplomats from the United States. There is no reason why the enablers and servants of the Castro regime should continue to be treated as legitimate actors by the international community while continuing to engage in illegitimate actions and unjust convictions of foreigners. Civilians are not, and should never be, fair game during diplomatic tensions, and this instant conviction for "spying" that has come so shortly after the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the US, should be no exception.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Terrorists of the World, Unite!

Now that Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government, how will the US government in good conscience continue justifying paying money to terrorists?
And how will the political hacks in Israeli intelligence circles continue making the claim that having these terrorists on the dole somehow promotes peace? 

Bibi is not Putin, and Hamas isn't Chechnya. You cannot buy them off, as we have seen time and time again.

How Obama Outtrumped Trump

With respect to the media, Obama did what Trump brags about wanting to do.

Whatever else you want to think about the two presidents, Obama is way more competent at being evil than Trump.

After all, Trump has yet to actually abuse the Espionage Act to search the journalists' phone records, particularized search targeting, and so forth. In fact, I doubt he is even aware of that possibility.

So do be duly horrified of the President's dangerous and reckless statements, but also keep in context that what he merely thinks about doing someone else has already done. Likely setting an example for others to follow.