Displaced Iraqi women arrive at a camp in Aski Kalak in the north of the country. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

With Iraq, Obama was dealt a bad hand – and he’s playing it badly

The latest violence exposes the administration’s lack of vision for the broader Middle East.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni extremist group that was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being too violent, has seized Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq, and is now heading toward Baghdad. They are in pursuit of an Islamic Caliphate, which would encompass territory across Syria and Iraq. They have harnessed the past decade of Sunni oppression in Iraq and are bolstered by the influx of foreign fighters that flooded Syria to fight President Bashar Al Assad. Just three years after the US withdrawal from Iraq, the Iraqi military is proving incapable of resisting ISIS fighters and the US is struggling with a series of bad response options.

The prospect of an ISIS takeover in Iraq has presented pundits with ample opportunity to point out that the US invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and the withdrawal was poorly coordinated. But more importantly, it exposes the fact that the Obama administration still has no cohesive regional policy for the broader Middle East.

In his statement about Iraq, President Obama acknowledged the need to increase military and intelligence support to the Iraqi military and said his national security team was looking at all options. But he also said, “ultimately, it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems”. The President’s frustration with Iraq’s unravelling is understandable, but it does not excuse his lack of a foreign policy strategy, especially since US intervention in Iraq and the surrounding area is partly to blame for the current chaos. 

Last week, Obama said the US can’t “play Whac-a-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country”. But that it is increasingly what his Middle East policy resembles – a game of forcing enemies back into a hole, with repeated failure to address long-term regional outcomes. The US has responded individually to conflicts in the Middle East, without recognition of the overlapping causes and strategic interests between states in the region. The crisis in Iraq cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria. Furthermore, the alternative to military intervention is not inaction – it is diplomacy. Diplomatic efforts between the US and Iran on the nuclear deal, though turbulent, are progressing; this cooperation should be harnessed to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria and to contain the spread of ISIS in Iraq.

At this point, the US is limited in its response to Iraq. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki reportedly asked the Obama administration to carry out targeted drone strikes in extremist areas last month and Obama refused. There is speculation that he will now be compelled to reverse his decision, though he has only gone as far as saying “I don’t rule out anything.” While drone strikes can effectively target the leadership of an organisation and disrupt isolated terrorist attacks, they cannot be used to reclaim entire cities from well-organised fighters. 

Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, “ISIS is very adaptive and proficient. It’s not just a terrorist organisation, but a hybrid army that really incorporates elements of guerilla strategy with conventional strategy.” He added that air strikes could slow ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad and buy Maliki more time, but will not ultimately destroy the group.

In Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the US has also been increasing shipments of military equipment and training for Iraqi security forces since the beginning of the year in recognition of growing instability. Her announcement was unconvincing to the press pack. “You had about a decade, though, to train the Iraqi security forces ... what makes you think ramping up training since the start of this year is going to do much in this circumstance?” asked an attending reporter.

Further complicating things for outsiders who want to prop up Maliki’s regime is the fact that Iraq’s inability to defend itself from ISIS does not stem from a lack of weapons and training –  over the course of the war, the US spent $25bn to train and equip the Iraqi security forces –  as much as a lack of trust in Maliki, whose sectarian politics have carved deeper divides between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations. Ultimately, a stable Iraq will require increased power sharing among sects.

This week’s events in Iraq are caused, at least in part, by the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Syria. Three years into the civil war, Obama’s policy in Syria has amounted to arming moderate Sunnis opposed to Assad, and giving them political legitimacy by declaring that Assad must go. However, Assad, strongly backed by the Iranians, has made it clear that he plans to stay, and outside support for the opposition has not been enough to pose any real threat to Assad’s hold on power. Rather, it has allowed the bloody war to continue indefinitely, during which time the opposition has fractured, and these days, the most extremist of the opposition are fighting with ISIS in Iraq.

To recap: the US is supporting the Sunnis in Syria as they fight Assad, backed by the Iranians. Meanwhile, the US is considering airstrikes to kill Sunni extremists as they fight Maliki, who is backed by Iran. If this seems utterly incomprehensible, it’s because it is.

In the aftermath of ISIS’s seizure of major cities in Iraq, the US has been caught without a grand strategy in the Middle East. Obama’s short-term solutions in Syria and Iraq contradict one another and have little chance of stabilising either country. 

In his statement yesterday, the President also expressed a need to build new partnerships to deal with regional threats. While there are political barriers to an outward alliance with Iran, the US needs to recognise the influence that Iran has in the Middle East, and harness the cooperative gains made in the nuclear negotiations to wider cooperation in dealing with Syria and Iraq. Iran is equally, if not more, threatened by ISIS. And the Iranians see a direct connection between ISIS’s growth and the terrorism safe-haven that became Syria. While it is not clear what form their intervention will take, collaborative effort with the Iranians, whether overt or covert, is necessary in stabilising Iraq.

The US should also reassess its diplomatic efforts in Syria. Though the Obama administration has claimed to support a negotiated end to the war, he unequivocally insists on Assad’s ouster and attempted to exclude Iran from previous negotiations in Geneva earlier this year. This is not negotiation. A true negotiated conclusion to the war will have to include a power-sharing government, that possibly includes Assad, and all regional powers must be included in the discussion –  including Iran. Critics who say this is impossible should look to the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon, which concluded with the Taif Agreement, granting each side to the conflict proportional representation in the new government. While the Lebanese government is far from perfect, is has resisted falling back into civil war for over 20 years. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Getty
Show Hide image

Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.