Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Yom HaShoah - Remembering the Holocaust

Today is Yom HaShoah - Israel's official (and world Jewry's unofficial) day to remember the victims of the Holocaust and those who resisted the genocide of the Jews.
When this day comes around every year, I have a custom. I watch a certain fragment of the film "Ordinary Fascism" (обыкновенный фашизм) - a Soviet film made in 1965 by Mikhail Romm - People's Artist of the USSR and one of the greatest Soviet (and frankly international) directors who ever lived. Although the film itself is about the nature of "fascism," the Nazi Holocaust is only sporadically mentioned - Soviet authorities did not allow Romm to make it a centerpiece of his film or emphasize the destruction of the Jews. But in four short minutes, Romm, in my opinion, does more to hammer the raw horror and unvarnished reality of the Holocaust home than Spielberg, Polanski et al. could do with no political censorship or time constraints.
I have linked the fragment from Romm's film below (some viewer caution is advised) because it is so powerful and blunt. I have provided English subtitles to the Russian narration - they do not do it justice.
I watch this every year because we have to keep watching, keep remembering and never forget the past lest we allow it to be repeated. Most important, we have to put our problems in perspective and expect more maturity from those who aspire to lead what is left of the free world.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Lessons of Suez (1956) applied to Tehran (2015)

Source(s):; Russia Insider

The Egyptian Canal

Three men gathered in a villa on the outskirts of a prominent European capital to solve an increasingly intractable problem. Domestic pressure for decisive action had been building against a regime whose recent initiative posed a direct economic and security threat to the representatives' governments. After three days of intense deliberation, the trio signed their names to a coordinated, multi-pronged attack plan aimed at restoring an agreeable status quo and ultimately effecting a change of government. This was not a meeting of delegates from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 2015 over the Iranian nuclear program, but rather that of Israel, Great Britain and France in 1956 over Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. As the international community ponders the consequences of the Lausanne framework agreement (depending on the Iranian or American version of the negotiations), the future of Iran's nuclear advances and the outlook for Middle East stability, it is worth considering the lessons of 1956 and what happened when parochial interests grew incompatible with global ones - specifically, the global interests of Washington and the local interests of its ostensible allies. 

When Assistant Under-Secretary of Britain's Foreign Office Patrick Dean, French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion signed the Sèvres Protocol on October 25, 1956 to retake the Suez Canal and dislodge the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, they sought to achieve tangible, local objectives. For France, Nasser's nationalization liquidated a valuable stake in a Paris-based operating company which ran the Canal and strengthened Cairo's hand in its ongoing support for anti-French rebels in Algeria. Paris believed that Nasser's departure, deemed inevitable with the reconquest of the Canal, would end the military and financial lifeline to Algiers and save the honor of France's Fourth Republic, battered by defeat in Indochina. For Britain, nationalization was a dagger to its ability to influence its rapidly diminishing imperial sphere - with India gaining independence less than a decade earlier and a currency crisis which prevented the pound sterling anchoring the international monetary system alongside the dollar.

Anthony Eden, Prime Minister and former Foreign Secretary, had just assumed power as the face of a reactionary Conservative establishment which wanted to pretend that the first half of the twentieth century never happened. Eden, upon hearing news of Nasser's takeover, allegedly went into a rage and vowed to prevent Egypt from having its hand on Britain's "windpipe" and "great imperial lifeline." As for Israel, its concerns were more immediate and life threatening - at a minimum, keeping the Canal and, by extension, the Straits of Tiran open to shipping and ending sustained cross-border raids by Nasser's paramilitary fedayeen forces which terrorized the country's southern communities. The plan agreed at Sèvres appeared airtight - Israel would launch an offensive against Egypt in Sinai and proceed rapidly toward the Canal. Britain and France, after issuing ultimatums to the combatants, would interject and retake the Canal Zone to protect it from the fighting and separate the sides as a prelude to a cessation of hostilities. The plotters hoped Britain and France would be entrenched on the Canal, Israel poised to strike at Cairo and Nasser planning his exile when the guns fell silent. 

The Iranian Bomb 

Similar to Egypt's canal, today's regional powers in the Middle East view Iran's burgeoning nuclear program in parochial terms. The current crisis in relations and disjointed alignment behind the scenes between Israel, the Gulf Arabs and, tangentially, Turkey, did not always exist. Quite the contrary, the Sunni-Shia regional schism and concerns over deployment of the nuclear card to overthrow rival governments is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the Islamic Revolution and the collapse of Pan-Arabism in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iran anchored Middle East stability through the Pahlavi monarchy's alliance with Israel and cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition, Prince Faisal Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the current Governor of Medina, examined how (despite tensions) relations warmed between the Shah and the Saudi monarchy over an alignment of economic interests on the one hand and an ability to compromise over contentious territorial disputes on the other (e.g., Bahrain and islands claimed by Iran and several Gulf states).

Iran was a key element of Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion's strategy to forge alliances with non-Arab states on the periphery of the Middle East and North Africa. But for Iran's agreement to substitute its oil for the wells Israel developed in the Sinai, it is possible that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would not have agreed to the Peninsula's return to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. As important was Iran's indirect role as Israel's eyes and ears with those Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, with whom it did not (and currently does not) have normalized diplomatic relations. The primary forces of chaos then were not Islamist, but Marxist and Nasserist (e.g., the PLO and its affiliates which tried to take over Jordan in 1970 and Lebanon after 1975, Nasser's militias, and radical leftist groups). 

After the Khomeini Revolution, Tehran transformed into a source of Islamist export and a threat to the legitimacy of the monarchy in Riyadh. Where the Shah had refrained from foreign intervention in order to pursue regional stability, the new regime opted for confrontation - active support for Hezbollah following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, challenging the clerical legitimacy of Saudi control over Muslim holy sites and curtailment of relations with Egypt. Most fundamentally, Khomeini effectively sought to replace pan-Arabism with pan-Islamism as the Middle East's guiding ideology among Muslims, with Shia-dominated Iran (a majority minority country in the Islamic world) being presented as the archetype of a genuine Islamic state (contra the fake quasi-Islamic regimes of, among others, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE). This, despite occasionally discreet cooperation (e.g., Israel's clandestine support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War), guaranteed that the Middle East was set for a Cold War and only a balance of fear would prevent events from spiraling out of control. 

This history and the current characteristics of the regimes in Tehran, Jerusalem, Ankara, Cairo and Riyadh (and the other Gulf Arab capitals) explain not only why the current tension over the Iranian bomb was predictable and inevitable, but how, like with Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, the responses from Iran's rivals have been so parochial. Israel, Egypt, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey see Iran in regional rather than global terms: Israel views Hezbollah and Hamas like it viewed Nasser's fedayeen; Egypt sees Iranian control of Yemen and partnership with Hamas fronts in the Sinai (coupled with its entreaties toward the deposed Muslim Brotherhood) as a threat to the military government's legitimacy and existence; Saudi Arabia can add religious rivalry to strictly strategic worries; Turkey sees Iran as an obstacle to its independent campaign for regional influence; and the Gulf Arabs (with Qatar a tribal outlier) prefer to take Riyadh's lead. The unity of purpose of Tehran's neighbors over its nuclear program would, all else being equal, be schizophrenic - as previously mentioned, Israel's foreign policy for decades was predicated on close ties with Iran as a counterweight to the country's Arab enemies. The Persians ended the second Jewish exile and brought the people of Israel back to Jerusalem. The idea that these saviors of Jewish tradition and peoplehood could now be harbingers of an apocalypse is a tragic and ironic twist of fate.

Washington's Acquiescence


Another similarity between the crises of 1956 and 2015 is Washington's response. The United States has shifted between engagement and indifference to the Middle East's squabbles depending on the designs of its international rivals (the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Russia, China and, tangentially, the EU today) rather than the concerns of the region's denizens. This parallels Britain's posture toward continental Europe for centuries - personified by Castlereagh's support for Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna to keep post-Napoleonic France whole as a counterweight to Prussia and Austria and, earlier, King William of Orange's central role in forging alliances against Louis XIV. Whereas in 1956 the pendulum had decidedly swung in favor of sustained involvement and, at times, micromanagement of local Middle East conflicts, the growing consensus in Washington today (and certainly that of the Obama White House) is for regional exit. This is not only because global realities have changed, but because of America's profound structural weaknesses and steadily declining ability (contrary to the media narrative) to shape regional events over the long-term. 

Winthrop W. Aldrich, U.S. Ambassador to Britain in the mid-1950s, described Washington's reaction to the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in line with the Sèvres Protocol in an article for Foreign Affairs: "the effect on [the U.S. government] of this sudden and unexpected British and French move and of the actual opening of hostilities against Egypt . . . was catastrophic. The British Government had been told over and over again at the highest levels that we wished to do everything possible to avoid the use of force, and for force to be used without any warning came as a profound shock . . . Prime Minister Eden and the British Government were immediately subjected to terrific pressure. President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles would have no further direct communication with Eden, and the Canal was at once blocked by Nasser."

Not only did Eisenhower take the Anglo-French-Israeli action as a personal affront, but from the first day, Washington was committed to bringing about a cessation of hostilities and reigning in its allies. This had as much to do with the complicated personal relationship between the U.S. President and Egypt's dictator as anti-Soviet geopolitics - some have speculated that Nasser opted for nationalization partly as an act of retribution to Eisenhower and U.S. Secretary of State Dulles for pulling financing for the Aswan Dam. 

In any event, Washington moved decisively - threatening to block loans to Britain and cut off economic and military assistance to Israel (the French forces were under British command and, as went London, so went Paris). Through adept maneuvering, Eisenhower circumvented possible French and British vetoes of a UN-brokered ceasefire and got the Soviets on board to send peacekeepers to Sinai. Eden, paralyzed, ordered a unilateral halt on November 7th with Anglo-French forces a day away from seizing the length of the Canal Zone. In exchange for a complete allied pullout, Nasser's only real price was to allow the UN in and open the Canal to Israeli shipping. In short, Washington put its global interests (i.e., limiting Soviet influence and maintaining the Middle East status quo) ahead of its allies' parochial interests and "saved" Nasser's regime from certain defeat.

As far as Eisenhower and Dulles were concerned, Britain and France acted as petulant, post-imperial has-beens in a world with bigger problems and new centers of power. Israel's concerns were treated with something between indifference and contempt (i.e., Washington was not about to allow a fledgling upstart to set conditions in motion which would place the Arab world in Moscow's orbit). For Eisenhower, keeping Nasser happy and, by extension, the Soviets out of Egypt was far more important than standing by America's allies. 


Washington's approach to the Iranian crisis mirrors its conduct during the Suez crisis - ignoring the parochial interests of (and reigning in) regional allies and opting for rapprochement in order to attain more global objectives. Whereas in 1956 the primary aim was to limit Soviet influence, what the U.S. establishment really wants in 2015 is regional exit. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China and structural problems which plague the American economy have conspired to sap Washington's ability to independently control events in the Middle East. Moreover, the necessity for America to be so engaged in the region's problems has declined - more resembling the mood after World War I and keeping the Peace of Versailles than after World War II and the Peace of Potsdam. The howls of the commentariat and image-obsessed politicians notwithstanding, the United States has few reasons to be as responsible for Middle East affairs over the long-term as it was before 1989 - energy independence is becoming a reality, demographic indicators for Iran and the Gulf Arab states may paint a picture of countries having their final hurrahs and more powers are willing and able to relieve America's heretofore seldom-challenged position.

Regardless of the circumstances of Washington's disengagement, there appears to be clear consensus that such disengagement is impossible without some sort of lasting rapprochement with Iran. In search of the exit door, the U.S. has ignored the narrow concerns of its Gulf Arab and Israeli allies (as previously described) and given tacit assurances (through acquiescence of Iran's nuclear program) that Tehran is safe from desires (in some corners) for regime change or actions which would fundamentally alter its ability to impact regional events. Washington, perhaps realizing that India, China, Russia and others view an Iranian bomb as inevitable, wants this to occur on its terms and on a timeline which gives the U.S. more options to wash its hands of what is emerging in the Middle East. In this context, it makes little sense to examine every provision or the different versions of the Lausanne understandings, Washington's lackluster response to the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or tensions with Israel over unilateral military action (these tensions also existed during the Bush Administration). The point is that the U.S. is not leading negotiations with Iran with an aim to curb its nuclear program, but to influence Iran's behavior such that the U.S. could (ideally) help shape a balance of regional power and withdraw. Just as triangular diplomacy allowed Nixon and Kissinger to disengage the U.S. from a South Vietnam both considered irrelevant and reorient the Cold War on more favorable terms, so a deal with Iran lets Washington focus on more fundamental issues impacting American security. Although the terms of that deal are subject to debate (in the opinion of this author, the current framework does not achieve any of Washington's actual aims and leaves it more entangled), a view toward having one is where America finds itself as of this writing. 


This article demonstrated that, far from U.S. negotiations with Iran and acquiescence toward its nuclear program (and regional expansionism) being a radical departure from the norm, it is consistent with past American practice stretching over decades. The uncanny similarities to the 1956 Suez Crisis illustrate that, then as now, Washington places global interests ahead of parochial ones (particularly those of its regional allies) in managing the Middle East. When the U.S. wanted more influence to prevent Soviet intervention, it almost single-handedly slapped three of its allies down and saved a bombastic, secular dictator in Cairo. There is little to suggest that, today, with America's real economy hanging by a thread, its ability to act alone diminished and no concrete threat (ala the Soviet Union) to keep out, America will not do the same to reach a lasting understanding with equally bombastic, Islamic dictators in Tehran.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The West has Boris Nemtsov's Blood on its Hands

March in honor of Boris Nemtsov (2015) (Photograph © Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)


"I swear to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual and the citizen . . . follow and defend the Constitution of the Russian Federation" - Vladimir Putin taking the Constitutional Oath in his inauguration as President of Russia (2000)

"Putin is governed by only three values - money, business and power . . . Putinism will be the death of Russia" - Boris Nemtsov in an interview with journalist/commentator Victor Topaller (2010)

There was a custom in ancient Israel that, if someone found the body of a murdered Jew, elders from nearby villages had to convene near the deceased and swear that they did not commit the murder. The rationale for this peculiar practice was that, by giving an oath, the elders declared that they did everything they could to make sure that the Jew was not killed. In other words, if the elders could have done something to prevent the murder, then they in a larger sense shared in the crime and had the blood of the dead Jew on their hands. 

So it is with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian democratic politician barbarically assassinated 100 meters from the Kremlin on February 27th.  As the reports came in from Interfax, I could not contain my tears even though I never met or communicated with the man. All of my knowledge of Nemtsov came through discussions with third parties who knew or worked with him as well as an almost religious monitoring of his speeches, writings and commentary. He was, for me, one of a small handful of sources in Russia from whom I could get objective and reliable information about daily life under President Vladimir Putin's soft (and increasingly harder) authoritarian regime. It was as if an old friend who you counted on to be there with the truth had suddenly vanished. Nemtsov, not only through his democratic and liberal convictions of a free, open, accountable and normal Russia, but through his general approach to life, represented everything that I and many in the West hope that Russia will eventually become.

This article does not delve into the various media narratives or possible explanations for Nemtsov's murder, but advances a more fundamental assertion - the West (particularly the U.S.), through an abdication of leadership when Nemtsov and his allies needed it most, has this man's blood on its hands and is ultimately far more responsible for his death than the jackals who pulled the trigger.

Nemtsov in the 1990s - the West abandons Russia

Boris Nemtsov leads a meeting of "Democratic Russia" in Nizhny Novgorod (1990) - Front Right Placard - "Give Russia's Economy to the Russian People!"  (Photograph © ИТАР-ТАСС)

The emergence of Nemtsov onto the Russian political scene - first as an activist against a nuclear power plant near his home in Gorky (later to have its pre-Soviet name, Nizhny Novgorod, restored by Nemtsov) and then as governor of the region - is also a story of how the West failed to help position Russia on a liberal democratic path after the end of the Cold War. As I have written on these pages, Russia after the Soviet Union bore an eerie resemblance to Weimar Germany: economically - tremendous inflationary pressure, low to nonexistent reserves, food shortages and distribution mechanisms which had effectively ceased to function, and politically - a  government with legitimacy driven by the personal popularity of Boris Yeltsin and barely any historical experience with democratic governance or civil society.

For generations, Russian citizens had programmed themselves to reject politics and live with bouts of political stability punctured by brutal repression. Yeltsin may have wanted Russia to pursue a western course, but many within his own government and powerful factions within the Supreme Soviet and industrial complex (colloquially known as "red directors") wanted any changes to bypass their parochial interests. In an environment where Russia faced a $60 billion sovereign debt bill with less than $2 billion in currency reserves, hardly enough grain to last through the winter and the possibility of civil war, Yeltsin and a core group of liberal economic reformers (headed by Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Federov and, later, Nemtsov) proceeded to liberate prices, privatize state-owned industries and open Russia to foreign investment.

This reality should have spurred the West, led by the U.S. (in the form of the George H.W. Bush Administration), to undertake an economic assistance and diplomatic engagement program akin to the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe, which facilitated the stable reconstitution of market economies and democratic institutions in Germany and Japan and their rapid integration into the Western orbit.  The U.S. should have joined with Western Europe and Japan to provide post-Soviet Russia with a generous foreign aid package, a fixed, low interest capital loan or partial forgiveness of the Soviet debt that Russia voluntarily inherited. This, along with committed diplomatic and non-governmental engagement, would not only have contained the incredible price increases that followed Yeltsin's market reforms and allowed the government to pay pensions and wages on time, but would also have sent an unambiguous signal to the Russian on the street during that period of hardship and democratic hope that the West saw Russia as one of its own.

Instead, rather than leadership, the West exhibited near complete abandon. According to Chubais, the Bush Administration, far from viewing a democratic Russia as a potential opportunity, tried to undermine Yeltsin's rise and thwart his attempts to foment the Soviet Union's peaceful breakup (i.e., Washington worked behind the scenes to try and keep the decrepit, bankrupt and amoral Soviet system together). When dissolution was a fait accompli after the failed, KGB-orchestrated coup of August, 1991, Washington essentially treated Russia as a third-rate, insignificant afterthought. Gaidar and the reformers pleaded for a comprehensive assistance program to give them breathing space (economic and political) to see their reforms through, but received from the Bush Administration mostly demands to pay Russia's debt on time and wait in line with everyone else for IMF credit. Of the myriad U.S. foreign policy blunders of the last century, this should rank among the top three.

With little western help forthcoming, the reformers had to continue on their own and live with the full political consequences of their painful (but necessary) policies. Nemtsov would later recount that, during the worst months of 1992, prices for a basket of goods in Nizhny Novgorod rose 50 times from where they were in the winter of 1991 - seniors, their savings wiped out by inflation, had to spend a month's pension to buy a pound of cheese. Nemtsov called in the army to roll out soup kitchens and walked to his office under a chorus of old women smashing spoons against empty pots. Instead of wages, he issued bonds (termed "nemtsovki" by locals) which workers would be able to redeem at stores for basic goods. He also introduced a land privatization program from scratch. In short, and largely due to a lack of real help or advice from the West, Nemtsov and his allies had to improvise their way out of Soviet degradation to put Russia on something like a path to development and prosperity.

Nemtsov and the Emergence of Putin

 Inauguration of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia (2000) (Photograph © РИА Новости)

How did Russia reach a point where America and the West have become symbols of hatred and derision, Russian forces are fighting against supposed fascists in E. Ukraine, those in Russian society who oppose the ongoing fratricidal war are called fifth columnists and traitors and, tragically, Boris Nemtsov took four bullets to his back? Phrased differently, how did the hope for a European, democratic future give way to the reality of Putinism? As with the abandonment of the early 1990s, the West's fecklessness played a disproportionately important role.

After twice winning reelection and making his region an unambiguous economic success story, Boris Nemtsov became Minister of Energy and Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that liberal reform and democratic governance did not at all align with the narrow interests of the Kremlin's two dominant factions - 1) the Yeltsin family and security services (fronted by the FSB) and 2) politically connected businessmen (or "oligarchs," which term Nemtsov helped popularize). The oligarchs, unofficially represented by media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, had bankrolled Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign and expected political protection for their commercial empires (Berezovsky once remarked that the Kremlin had a moral obligation to protect him and his corporatist allies). Yeltsin had functionally ceased to govern the country and planned succession with a view to simultaneously appease the oligarchs and the security services.

As for Nemtsov, his strenuous opposition to Berezovsky (in, among other things, his power play to take over natural gas giant Gazprom), insistence on democratic reforms and skepticism of the influence of the FSB (which Putin headed) and other security organs guaranteed isolation from the Kremlin's power players (i.e., Nemtsov, out of principle, refused to play by the rules necessary to gain power). The only thing he really had going for him was Yeltsin's trust and patronage which, unfortunately for Russia, ended in the wake of Russia's August 1998 debt default. Yeltsin, at his most isolated, scapegoated Nemtsov and other reformers for the collapse and effectively purged them from government. Putin, at that time a virtual unknown, was subsequently presented by Berezovsky as the man Yeltsin and the Kremlin players needed. Unlike Nemtsov, Putin was more than willing to do what was needed to win the struggle for succession.

None of the aforementioned intrigues, resulting in Putin's ascent and subsequent demolition of Russia's European progress, need have occurred if the West had acted in time and with vigor. The very phenomenon of the oligarchs and their incredible influence over Kremlin affairs is directly related to Yeltsin's having no source of outside support to provide a cushion for economic reforms. Things had gotten so bad, in fact, that the Communists held a majority of seats in the Russian Duma less than a year before the 1996 Presidential Election. With a nonexistent campaign and no money, Yeltsin effectively outsourced his government to the only people (with assets) willing and able (for purely parochial reasons) to back him. Had the U.S. and its allies stepped in with a comprehensive program, it is unclear whether the oligarchs would have been able to attain de facto control over Russia's government. Similarly, but for Yeltsin's isolation and desire for self-preservation, there would be virtually no chance that his successor could come from the security services. Like his inspiration Yuri Andropov (Soviet leader and head of the KGB from 1967-82), Putin was presented as a tough man capable of putting Russia's house in order - for many in Russian society, the image of the FSB as a dedicated and minimally corrupt organization mirrored that of its KGB predecessor. Instead of a determination to see economic and democratic reforms through and fully join the prosperous West, many Russians in the late 1990s (exhausted and battered by change), wanted calm and stability. Western liberalism and market economics became identified with the oligarchs, corporatism, high prices and lost savings to many millions on the street. This perception, which the West could have easily prevented, has done more to shield Putin and cement his system than almost anything else before or since.


The West's failure to adequately assist Russia during the most difficult years of the post-Soviet transition guaranteed the isolation and eventual marginalization of Nemtsov and his allies. Had a Marshall Plan been implemented, the pain of inflation could have been ameliorated and the reformers given more time to fully see their changes through. Had these reforms been allowed to conclude and at least some of Russia's Soviet-era debts forgiven, the 1998 Default (and the resultant liberal purge) might never have happened. Had western leaders thought twenty years rather than twenty minutes ahead, Russia might not have suffered the political degradation it has under Putinism and Boris Nemtsov would in all likelihood still be alive today.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Price for Intervention: What the U.S. Should Demand from the Wider Middle East in Exchange for Destroying ISIS

A Yalta Conference for a Post-ISIS Middle East

Seventy years ago this month, the leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union gathered at the Crimean resort city of Yalta to plan the international order in the aftermath of Nazi Germany's defeat. What made Yalta unique was not only the totality of power concentrated at this one conference at that particularly point in history, but that the issues of greatest concern to the participants had already been determined by realities on the ground. Specifically, and notwithstanding Stalin's perfunctory promises to the contrary, the active deployment of three army fronts and two million Soviet troops made British and American insistence on free elections in Eastern Europe a dead letter. Similarly, Stalin, although acquiescing to Roosevelt's idea of a United Nations, was already intending to pull the Soviet Union out of any post-war Anglo-American reconstruction program. In other words, despite American idealism, what was actually discussed at Yalta was not how to create a new international order, but how to avoid imminent confrontation within an order already in existence based upon the positions and relative strengths of its architects.

After more than twenty years of incoherent adventurism in the Middle East, regional powers, pundits and concerned observers are again clamoring for comprehensive, sustained U.S. intervention. The speed of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) advance, consolidation of its foothold in Syria and Iraq and, most conspicuously, sheer barbarism of its treatment of those under its yoke have led to collective cries of "enough is enough". Boots on the ground now! scream the politicians. Recommendations range from embedding U.S. troops with local forces to giving Jordan predator drones to a unilateral U.S. military attack with over 10,000 ground troops. Notwithstanding the dimensions of the threat, the question of the circumstances under which the U.S. should lead efforts to destroy ISIS is a real one and perhaps more important than the means by which that mission is carried out.

Ever since Yalta and the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. has been one of the greatest victims of diplomatic and military moral hazard in history. Western Europe and client states in the Middle East came to comfortably free ride on American security guarantees while pursuing their separate interests. With respect to the Middle Eastern Arab states, after decades of siding with the Soviet Union to wage proxy wars against Israel and receive generous arms subsidies, a shift toward America began after Washington intervened to save the Egyptian army from total defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Saudi Arabia changed its relations with the U.S. from lukewarm to almost intimate in the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for fear that Riyadh would be next. Jordan followed suit in the early 1990s, receiving billions in U.S. military aid, diplomatic embrace and economic support. As of this writing, and notwithstanding the strange case of Qatar (the tribal enclave downplayed by Saudi Arabia and hated by the UAE) and Assad's Syria, the broader Arab world lies snug under the American security umbrella — this has to change.

Before a single American soldier deploys to Syria or Iraq to destroy ISIS, the U.S. must assemble the leaders or representatives of the major Middle Eastern Arab states and Turkey (Israel can be temporarily excluded) to set the terms of its intervention and clear expectations for what a post-ISIS Middle East will look like. Washington must explain that the era of no-strings-attached assistance is over and the balance of power in the broader Middle East must be reconfigured. Beyond this, the attendees must be made to accept certain realities on the ground the day after captured ISIS flags are set aflame and its leadership summarily executed. 

This article outlines a few items which should be on Washington's list of must haves (in brief). 

Jordan and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Ever since Jordan formally relinquished its jurisdictional control over the West Bank and Israel initiated the Oslo Process with the PLO in the early 1990s, Amman has been an unhelpful bystander in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and Jordan negotiated a peace treaty in 1994 grounded in "peace for peace" wherein neither side was compelled to make any territorial concessions and the Palestinian Arab issue was taken off the table. As the myth of the two-state solution gave way to reality, the average Israeli and Palestinian Arab continued to lose patience and the PLO (kosherized of its terrorist past and bankrolled with billions of foreign aid from the U.S. and Western Europe) enriched itself while making maximalist territorial demands which no sane sovereign state could accept, a search for alternatives began and Jordan's involvement (directly, through annexation of parts or all of the West Bank, or indirectly through reinstatement of citizenship and/or repatriation of Palestinian Arabs) became more attractive. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, in a column for the Washington Post, expressly argued for Jordanian annexation or de facto control of the West Bank as part of a "three state option" with Israel and Egypt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

With Hamas firmly in control of Gaza, the focus of any long-term breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in what to do with the West Bank. Despite growing calls for its engagement, Jordan continues to keep a distance and content itself with periodic exhortations for Israel to give away the proverbial store to the PLO. Jordan's regime quashes any discussion of Amman's taking some responsibility for the West Bank as anti-government propaganda and keeps the immigration door shut for West Bank Arabs (despite letting in thousands of Syrian refugees). This posture is troubling given that the majority of Jordan's population is Palestinian Arab and the Kingdom had once annexed the West Bank. Worse, Jordan continues its hands off policy without any reaction or reproach from Washington. As Hamas grows in strength and lobs rockets into Israeli population centers, the PLO engages in sustained diplomatic and legal attacks on Israel and Israeli forces and settlers continue to tangle with Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank, Amman quietly receives economic and military assistance from America as if on demand. So important is Jordan's mere existence, and status as a non-Islamist quasi-client state, that the idea of pushing it to change course regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered almost blasphemous. 

If the U.S. is interested in achieving a sustained Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, and the dividends resulting from it for regional stability, it should make Jordan's direct involvement in West Bank conflict management part of the price for wider American confrontation with ISIS. Moreover, and knowing that the Jordanian regime 1) cannot defeat ISIS on its own and 2) could well disintegrate without active U.S. backing, the U.S. should aggressively use its leverage to threaten a freeze on all future military, diplomatic and economic assistance to Amman unless it cooperatively works with Israel to resolve the Palestinian Arab issue.


The destruction of ISIS should result in full Kurdish independence in Iraq (at a minimum) and potentially parts of Syria under coalition control (pending negotiations with Turkey over viability). The issue is not just a moral one given the Kurds' distinct peoplehood and desire for self-determination, but a near inevitability based upon the critical role played by Kurdish troops in ongoing operations against ISIS. As I previously blogged on these pages, the resistance to Kurdish independence stems largely from the West's national unity fetish regarding Iraq (further discussed below). Such an obsession is detached from the tribal dynamics on the ground. To force the Kurds back to a subservient status quo with Baghdad in the aftermath of an ISIS defeat (when Kurdish troops could well be within striking distance of Damascus or southern Iraq) would be ridiculous. 

Additionally, alongside Jordan's shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few things could provide more stability and assist with a U.S. regional exit more than a secular Muslim state at the strategic heart of the Middle East - a new Azerbaijan allied with Israel and America out of principle rather than necessity. Kurdistan would simultaneously become a check on Turkish revanchism, Iranian machinations and Sunni Islamist awakenings in northern Syria and Sunni-majority parts of Iraq.

Washington should make clear to Erdogan, Assad and Abadi that Kurdistan is a fait accompli and the only question to be discussed in a post-ISIS Middle East are its borders. Whereas independence in Iraq could be assured with considerable ease given that regime's loss of half its territory to ISIS, the Syrian question will require the diplomatic aerobics of a Bismarck. In this battle of interests, keeping Assad in power might be a card the U.S. should consider playing.

Tribal Partition of Iraq

Due to Washington's obsession with Iraqi unity, it is possible that Iraq's Sunnis would be compelled to make peace with the Shiite-majority government in Baghdad and revert to the pre-ISIS status quo in the aftermath of ISIS' destruction. It is also possible, and perhaps probable, that no serious Sunni tribal leader would accept this with memories of Maliki's repressions and American disengagement still fresh. ISIS has grown from a core of hardened Islamists affiliated with what was Al-Qaeda in Iraq into a multi-faceted army composed of religious radicals, Sunni tribes mistrustful of Baghdad and Washington and elements of Saddam Hussein's military and security services. After victory, something has to be done with the thousands of Sunnis presently sympathetic (or not overtly opposed) to ISIS out of fear of Iran and the Shiites in Baghdad. 

Back in 2006, in a rare moment of original thinking, then Senator and current Vice President Joe Biden proposed partitioning Iraq into three parts based on tribal and/or ethnic distinctions - Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni with a confederate government in Baghdad. With ISIS controlling half the country and the government in Baghdad struggling with problems of legitimacy, Biden's idea should be dusted off and applied (with the caveat of Kurdistan) to partition Iraq into Sunni and Shiite states or special administrative areas following a U.S. coalition victory. Washington should abandon the chimera of keeping Iraq together — ISIS and Maliki have made this a pipe dream — and make clear to Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province that America will not abandon them again like it did three years ago. 

In order to make sure that ISIS or a similarly inclined group cannot stage a comeback in Sunni-controlled parts of Iraq, ironclad guarantees of either self-determination or self-rule must be given with a similar understanding that a minority Sunni government for all of Iraq is also out of the question. Saudi Arabia and/or Jordan would be expected, or encouraged, to take an active socioeconomic and military role in the new Sunni Iraqi entity as part of what should be Washington's objective of recreating a long-term balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For its part, Washington would leave Baghdad and the Shiite north of Iraq to Tehran independent of the status of negotiations surrounding Iran's nuclear program. In effect, as with Stalin's forces in Eastern Europe in 1945, Washington would formalize Iran's de facto control over Shiite Iraq. 


This article is not meant to be an exhaustive list of everything Washington should extract from its Middle Eastern partners (or potential partners) in exchange for its leading a coalition to destroy ISIS. It must be recognized that ISIS poses an independent threat to the U.S. and has killed at least two Americans in cold blood, which actions should warrant a sustained military response. Nevertheless, and taking the example of forward-looking statesmen of the past, the U.S. should not involve itself in another bloody ground war without a clear vision for the aftermath and some prospect that a post-ISIS Middle East would be shaped to Washington's liking.