Who is to Blame for the Rise of ISIS?

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from the alarming expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Surely it is a parable, but what is the lesson to be learned? Never end a war without leaving a substantial American footprint behind? Never funnel weapons to a rag-tag coalition of revolutionaries whose motivations may well be dubious? Never trust an Arab government to be able to handle things on its own? Never elect a pussy to be president of the United States?

I can think of nothing more fundamentally human than the desire to cast blame when something goes wrong, to reach for the simple explanation to a complex problem, or to ignore the long view in favor of the emotions of the moment. Beyond that, we prefer to direct our focus inward rather than outward; in other words, we are far more adept at analyzing something according to our understanding of the world than we are at comprehending how another person’s understanding might cause them to act. Because we live our lives at an increasingly rapid pace, we fail to appreciate how deeply rooted humanity remains, both from a historical and cultural standpoint. Continue reading

Iran’s Deal With The Devil

Iran and the United States finally reached an agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but it seems this time the devil is in the details.

Over the weekend, the U.S., its allies, and Iran managed to work out a deal in which some of the international sanctions Iran has been experiencing will be lifted in exchange for certain reductions in Iran’s nuclear development.  This is a six-month agreement that the Obama administration hopes will lead to a more permanent solution after further talks take place.  I know what you’re thinking: “What an amazing diplomatic breakthrough!”  Well…

“Last night is not a historic agreement – it’s a historic mistake.  It’s not made the world a safer place…This agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place,” argued Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.  Ok, so we’ll put him down as “still on the fence”: not surprising, since Netanyahu has never gotten along that well with President Obama.  He probably is just upset that Barack (the U.S. president, not Netanyahu’s Israeli political rival, Ehud Barak) is going to get all the glory for this one, right? Continue reading

Trouble in the Kingdom: Saudi Criticisms of U.S. Policy

800px-Arrival_ceremony_welcoming_King_Faisal_of_Saudi_Arabia_05-27-1971, National Archives Robert L Nudsen

Former Saudi King Faisal is greeted by President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1971. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is one of long standing. National Archives photo by Robert L. Nudsen

With Syria in flames and Iran continuing its nuclear development, two Saudi princes have grabbed headlines criticizing Obama administration policies in the Middle East. What does this mean for the future of the bilateral relationship?

In the Middle East, events seem to shift as often as the Arabian sands. Rulers rise and fall, wars come and go, and firm alliances are often hard to achieve. Thus, the longstanding relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the key driving forces in the region, an alliance based more on common interests than common ideals or ways of life.

The course of this relationship has not always run smooth. The presence of American troops and contractors on Saudi soil has been a source of consternation for those who frown on such things happening on holy Islamic land. The OPEC embargo in the 1970s revealed some distance between the two allies, while the Persian Gulf War opened the door for enhanced military cooperation in defense of the Kingdom and neighboring Kuwait. Another low was reached after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

America is the New Egypt

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Photo by Wikipedia user Kallerna

America’s politicians are not much better than Egypt’s these days, squabbling and refusing to deal with big issues.  What must be done to fix the situation?

Apparently, when Americans think about Egypt, the first word that comes to mind is “pyramids”; at least, that’s what I heard at one of the many D.C. think tank events I attended during my time working on Egypt.  I get it: the pyramids are pretty awesome.  However, when I think of Egypt, I am sad to say that one of the first words that pops into my head is “dysfunctional”.

When I say dysfunctional, I am referring to the government, which since the 2011 revolution has gone from an interim military regime, to a mostly democratic one dominated by Islamists, and then back to an interim military regime.  If you like lots of plot twists, then Egypt is the place for you these days.  What the country really needs is a unity government full of technocrats who can put it back on track politically and economically, but that is easier said than done. Continue reading

Obama Should Shake Rouhani’s Hand

Official Iranian government photo of President Hassan Rouhani

Official Iranian government photo of President Hassan Rouhani

Word on the street is that the White House is trying to decide whether or not to arrange a brief meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of this week’s annual parade of world leaders at the UN General Assembly.  Such a tête-à-tête is common at large international gatherings, but not when the two countries in question are Iran and the United States.  When it comes to this bilateral relationship, a simple handshake would be enough to grab headlines around the world.

American politicians have avoided shaking hands with their Iranian counterparts since 1979, not out of some odd “germophobic” impulse, but due to the official severing of diplomatic relations. This break technically occurred in 1980, although the situation had taken an immediate turn for the worse with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.  In the more than thirty years since that point, politicians in both countries have come and gone, but none have been able to satisfy the demands of the other side, and the icy relations have continued. Continue reading

The Many Wars of John Kerry

Pete Souza

White House photo by Pete Souza

John Kerry finds himself in a familiar position or two on the issue of Syria.

As the Obama administration continues to make its push for a military strike in Syria, a familiar face has emerged at the center of this global diplomatic effort: Secretary of State John Kerry, one-time Democratic presidential candidate, long-time U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, and part-time windsurfer.  No one has been logging more frequent flier miles or hours on camera than Kerry in this push to convince global allies and the American public that Assad’s misdeeds must be punished through military strength.

This is hardly the first time that Kerry has found himself at the center of the debate over a controversial war.  In fact, there are few people who could have been more ironic spokespersons for a Syrian assault than our current Secretary of State. Continue reading

The Russians are Coming

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Photo courtesy of www.kremlin.ru

As President Obama spends the day at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, trying desperately not to get caught dissing Vladimir Putin on an open mic, it appears that the Russians are planning to send their own delegation in the opposite direction. Moscow is naturally quite interested in the current congressional debate over the possible use of military force in Syria.  The Atlantic has an article up today by Abby Ohlheiser that details reports of lobbying efforts by the Russians on Capitol Hill.

Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested a plan to directly lobby Congress was in the works on Monday, after meeting with Valentina Matvienko and Sergei Naryshkin, speakers for the upper and lower houses of Russian parliament. They apparently proposed the idea to Putin, arguing that they could work U.S. lawmakers towards a more “balanced” stance on Syria.  Continue reading

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to War

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Official UK government photo of the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street

Today, President Obama announced that he will seek authorization from Congress for a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, an act apparently committed by the Assad regime.  “This attack is an assault on human dignity.  It also presents a serious danger to our national security,” Obama said in his speech.  “In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

The President stressed that the scope of these strikes would be limited.  “This would not be an open-ended intervention.  We would not put boots on the ground.  Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.  But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.” Continue reading

Ain’t it Swell to Finish Well

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This photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. is part of a Library of Congress collection.

What can we learn from Martin Luther King Jr., George Costanza, Barack Obama, and King Jehoshaphat?

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.  It was an appropriate moment to remember a man who gave so much and inspired so many.   He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.  Yet, even as we praise him, it is also worth noting that King had one advantage that is denied to most of us, and an odd kind of advantage it was: he died young.

Now, before I cause serious offense to anyone, let me make clear that I am in no way happy that King’s life was shortened.  This was a major setback for the civil rights movement and a great tragedy for America.  What I am referring to is not the fact that King was murdered, but rather that his early death has preserved him in our memory at the height of his success. Continue reading

The Trouble with Swallowing Syria

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U.S. soldiers delivering non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. They may soon be asked to do more. (Department of Defense photo)

WARNING: This is not an article about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs on Sunday.  It is an analysis of a serious news story.  If you are looking for less serious news coverage, please feel free to check out any of America’s 24-hour cable news networks.

“Syria is not easy to swallow.”

This rather odd quote was made yesterday by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in regard to possible military action by Western nations against the Assad regime.  We can interpret it in a couple of different ways.  One would be to go for the most literal meaning: it is true that attempting to swallow all 71,479 square miles of Syria would not be easy.  In fact, if this is the meaning Mr. Moallem was going for, I would say he is a bit guilty of understating the issue. Continue reading