Iraq’s tribulations are far from over. But the prospects for brighter, more stable future for all Iraqis have improved greatly with PM Maliki’s stepping aside and the naming of a potential new PM. Mr. Abadi still has to form a government, and that government has much work to do. Many obstacles remain in the search for social justice, political stability, and economic growth. Iraq has a long way to go towards effective citizen participation, transparency and accountability under the rule of law. For this month we’ll settle for reversing the downward spiral and rekindling hope. The US and all of Iraq’s other friends in the region need to stay the course and continue to support Iraqi solutions that Iraqi citizens create through legitimate governance.

As it turns out, though, the events of the past few weeks in Iraq might provide a template for reversing the horrific trends in Syria, and maybe even rekindling hope there, too. What happened in Iraq? The US and Iran (and many others) actively – but separately – pursued our common interest in stanching the blood flow and returning Iraqi governance to its rightful place. Or at least to give Iraqis a chance to work on this on their own. We found common cause in opposing and undermining the Islamic State organization’s quest for political dominance through intimidation and brutality. A new political process is underway to let Iraqis find their own legitimate leaders to resolve their own deep and long-standing problems. Regional and world opprobrium has come down upon the incredibly cruel, barbaric forces that seek power illegitimately under a fraudulent religious banner. While the Iraqi government has its own sins of cruelty and violence to atone for, that day is put aside so that Iraqis and their regional and global allies can defeat these dark forces seeking to infect Iraq and “Greater Syria” (Al-Sham). We all realize that should these forces prevail, they will infect all of our societies in one dimension or another.

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Stats and Civics

Much has appeared in the media of late about teaching of science and math in US schools. Basically, poorly, with consequent mediocre results from our kids relative to those of other nations. The harm to our nation in the years ahead is inevitable if we don’t turn this trend around quickly.

I’d like to add to this argument. Public policy in America is similarly in trouble, and the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars…that we are underlings. An informed electorate is a necessary condition for a sound republic and I believe the seeds of a politically and economically informed electorate begin at the middle school and high school levels.

First, students at that level do not receive a strong enough foundation in statistics and probability. In fact, those subjects are relegated to a few weeks in math class at best. Why is that important? Pick up any newspaper article or read any blog. 83% of them will be filled with statistics arguing a point. Where does this data come from? How reliable is it? What does the data really say? Readers should know how to analyze and, if necessary, refute superficial, illogical or fallacious data. Experts, pundits, analysts are all around us, spouting statistics in order to persuade us of something or other. Too many people buy, sell, vote, adopt attitudes or change behaviors on the basis of some set of numbers being thrown at us. Without another thought. Until the next data come along.

Then there is America’s political system. As you know, it is going through the wringer. Our citizenry is getting unprecedented exposure to the drama of our democracy at all levels – federal, state and local. Some view the whole system in crisis; others see silver linings at the state and local levels. Whatever the case, it is vital to ramp up sharply exposure of young Americans to the basics of social studies, civics, and government in the 7th-12th grades. The future of our nation’s political system will be in their hands in a few short years. It would be criminal to give that responsibility to that generation without the understandings of the underpinnings, infrastructure and goals of our democracy.

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Stay Congressional Sanctions for Now

Congress should forgo enacting any legislation right now regarding enhanced US unilateral sanctions against Iran. Despite Congress’ intent, additional US sanction legislation now might not add pressure to compromise. More likely, I believe, it could persuade Tehran to stop compromising at all. They would calculate no deal is better than negotiating with the American team. Why would they do that?

Iranian negotiators face strong arguments from their own team – led by, but not exclusively, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – that Iran’s nuclear program is not America’s objective. Many conservatives in Iran believe firmly that the US government will stop at nothing short of crushing the Iranian regime through economic pressure and/or political subversion. Threats of physical attack on Iran also add to this narrative.

Sanctions have thus far brought Iran to the bargaining table. But the strongest impacts of sanctions do not come from the United States. They come from the strength of comprehensive international sanctions, especially those in which Iran’s erstwhile friends concur. The unified P5 + 1 (UN Security Council plus Germany) is the diplomatic emblem of that strength. If Congress passes new sanctions legislation now, Iran’s better course of action would to try to break that international unity. If Iran were successful in that tactic, it would almost guarantee what US and Israeli opponents of the interim agreement argue will take place: undermining, perhaps permanently, the international sanctions regime.

How likely is it that Iran would be successful? I don’t know, since I have not seen anything in the US media about the positions of the other P5+1 negotiators, especially on the issue of the Congressional threat. However, I do know that in the 1980s and 1990s, our closest allies – not to mention the USSR and China – were irritated about US unilateral sanctions against Iran, especially those sanctions that ended up targeting our allies. Some doubted our motivations. The US was perceived as a selfish, lone actor, ignoring the counsel and interests of its friends.

We must not return to the days when the US acted alone in trying to impose economic sanctions. Unilateral sanctions are generally feckless; comprehensive, international sanctions are powerful. The proof of that is Iran’s decision finally to compromise. Should arduous, genuine diplomacy at the hands of a unified US-led team fail after several months, that will be the time for new, unified and comprehensive sanctions. Iran desperately needs to avoid that scenario, and frankly its team understands that. Let’s not hand them a win on a silver platter.

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Foreign Affairs Back on the Track

The foreign policy train is back on its diplomatic rails. Look at Syria and Iran today. The conundrum of Egypt and the rest of the Arab Awakening. The transition to post-2014 Afghanistan. Even a faint glimmer of renewed hope in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. All of this is a good thing. But we might find ourselves running out of track soon.

You can’t surge diplomacy without a deep bench at the State Department. You don’t create diplomats and career development professionals overnight. You should no longer shoehorn China hands, Latin America specialists and Africanists into the Middle East. You will need experienced Arabists, Farsi and Urdu speakers. But we will still also need Latin America specialists, China hands and Africanists. And more of them. Many should be expert in public diplomacy and social networking in addition to the politics, economics and culture of their regions. Beyond them, our diplomacy will require Foreign Service personnel conversant in counter-proliferation issues, climate science, and hydrocarbon and renewable energy technologies.

And what about those issues not yet readily visible yesterday or today? Those that lie just over the horizon. What in 1999 might have been called having the foresight to develop experts in Islamic radicalism, global warming or Pashto, for the following decade.

Our challenge is not to educate and train for yesterday’s and today’s requirements – we are already trying to play catch-up ball there. Our challenge is to educate and train for the requirements of American foreign policy over the next decade, so that the foreign policy train will breeze past the next whistle-stop on its diplomatic rails.

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Ambassador Robert Ford Right Nominee for Embassy Cairo

If President Obama nominates Amb. Robert Ford to be the next US ambassador to Egypt, American interests in that troubled nation will be extremely well served. To Egyptian citizens who are vocally fretting about American policy toward Egypt: you will have no greater, more articulate, more credible advocate for pluralistic, participatory democracy than Amb. Ford.

I know Robert very well. We served together as senior leaders at US Embassy Baghdad in the most difficult days of strife and mistrust. He was the Political Section chief, I the Political-Military Section chief. Robert’s profound knowledge of Arab character, culture and language accurately guided Iraqi understanding of US policy, and, perhaps more importantly, Washington’s understanding of Iraqi political dynamics. He also helped inform US military understanding of the impacts of US military operations and tactics upon US strategy in Iraq from the perspective of those political dynamics. The effective interaction between Embassy and Multi-National Forces Iraq was essential to successful implementation of US policy.

I cannot speak from direct experience about Robert’s efforts in Syria. But as a two-time alumnus of US Embassy Damascus myself (1979-82, 1988-90), I read with pride Robert’s courageous efforts at danger’s edge to advance vociferously American policy in Syria in 2011. That included his highly publicized visits to sites outside Damascus, scenes of renewed courageous Syrian civil disobedience against the latest horrific reprisals of the Assad regime. Those visits were unquestionably in support of freedom and justice in Syria.

I have just read that some elements in Egypt are already denouncing Robert. That is both sad and ironic if it comes from the mouths of those who cry for true democracy in their country. Only Egyptians who reject participatory democracy, individual liberty and social justice, should fear the nomination and confirmation of Robert Ford to be the next US ambassador to Cairo.

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Syria and Iraq: US Leadership for International Intervention

Syria and Iraq demand immediate international intervention. Yet, there is far too much complaining about US reluctance – how little America is doing, how urgent deeper American involvement is, even how the Obama administration is/will be to blame for whatever catastrophes transpire next in both countries. There is a legitimate call for renewed American leadership into each hornets’ nest. But it must come in the context of generating pro-active, collective international political intervention. The stability of the Middle East region is at stake, and there are many stakeholders, not just the United States.

Syria degenerates day by day, and the calls for US military involvement increase. Perhaps military operations are or will soon become necessary, but they alone will not protect US interests. Only a political solution between opposition factions on one side, and the current supporters of the Asad government on the other, will end the carnage and promote the possibility of inclusive, tolerant, participatory government in Syria.

The US can and should lead that charge. Today, Washington and Moscow announced their intention to convene just such a meeting. Good start, but it will need a lot of work, and many international hands to make that happen, especially from within the Middle East region. As I have written before, Iran should join the effort, but not as a way to validate any strategic Iranian role in the Arab Levant.

Political negotiation is understandably repugnant to many militants currently giving their lives against the horrors of the Asad regime. Same for the innocent victims of the regime’s brutality. Same for the innocent victims of opposition violence. But only a political solution derived together with elements of the regime (not Bashar al-Asad) and its supporters will bring peace and stability to Syria. And Syria requires both peace and stability.

The international community can provide, among other things, two diplomatic tools: patient, credible help in mediating this crisis (as has been done for Northern Ireland, for instance), and a subsequent process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) for most armed elements in the conflict. The “national reconciliation” and DDR processes will especially have to deal with extremist militias on both sides.

Iraq similarly is degenerating day by day. Former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey argued at USIP recently that fortunately Iraq’s new constitutional institutions still exist and are more or less functioning. That is true, and gives us something to build upon. Nevertheless, such institutions require citizens’ trust in them in order to function effectively. Trust inside Iraq is eroding rapidly, especially on the part of Sunni Arabs. Kurdish/Arab trust is also fragile.

For Iraq, too, some argue that the US must intervene. True. But let’s use our leadership and persuasion to build an international network to weaken centrifugal forces and bolster the rickety Iraq state. The US cannot and should not bear that burden alone.

I’ve seen this movie before in Iraq. I was a senior officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad 2005-2006. The US and UK diplomatic missions worked collaboratively to build Sunni Arab trust in Iraqi institutions. The Sunnis had opted out of elections in early 2005 and veered toward violent resistance to the Shi’a and Kurdish leaderships. The US and UK were nearly alone in cajoling all Iraqi parties to participate in their new system. While we were making some progress toward the end of 2005, most nations were sitting on their hands on the sidelines. I give great credit to the government of Turkey for avoiding actions that might have exacerbated tensions in the north and working to achieve some harmony between the two countries. That has paid off handsomely for both countries. However, many actors were working aggressively against internal Iraqi political cooperation – mainly Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a violent extremists and militias. And egging them on were Iran, al-Qa’ida, and especially Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the late leader of al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia). Their goal: make sure that Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a remain divided antagonists. They succeeded in 2006.

Today the same dynamic appears before us: cooperation between Sunni and Shi’a is rapidly eroding and al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia is on the rise. The US and the UK should work with other global partners and regional players to shore up the Iraqi experiment. Some key Arab players are understandably preoccupied—Egypt and Jordan for instance. But they have a huge stake in the outcome. They should do what they can. But other regional nations must gear up to play a constructive role in one of two ways. They can either work to build hope, confidence and trust among Iraqis, or at least they can work to undermine the destructive elements that are determined to fracture Iraq.

The US can and should take the diplomatic lead to make this happen in Syria and Iraq. If the Obama administration is doing so already, it must announce that loud and clear to the world.

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Reflections on John Nagl’s Lessons from Iraq

Read John Nagl’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. He highlights three nuggets worth extracting from America’s otherwise painful Iraq experience. John is as usual an insightful, experienced voice of military theory and practice. He overlooks, however, a critical dimension in each of the three “lessons” he unfurls.

John’s first lesson was for the American politicians who pushed us into a war that we did not need to fight, for reasons that proved false. But there was in fact a broader cause for which to intervene militarily in Iraq by 2003. The US government and the international community recognized they had no other tools left to force Saddam’s compliance with multiple and repeated UN Security Council resolutions imposed since 1990. Saddam’s regime unquestionably had had programs of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological, and the long-range missiles needed to deploy them. For a dozen years he denied, deceived, and then, when forced to admit their existence, ultimately just refused to account for the alleged prior destruction of physical evidence. That is what inspections were about – to force accountability and compliance. That is what he continuously toyed with the UN over, including even his staunchest supporters. There was never a full accounting for these weapon systems, except the nuclear program, including the whereabouts of missiles and significant amounts of chemical and biological precursors.

The United States rightly took the lead to forge a consensus for military intervention when the UN Security Council was blocked from doing so, principally by Russian and French veto threats. And make no mistake, the international community was also fed-up with Saddam’s flouting international will with impunity. Many were prepared to accept the inevitability of the use of force.  In the fall of 2002 the international community was offering tangible support for military intervention. That includes post-conflict international humanitarian, civil-military, and stabilization operations that would have given the Iraqis the chance to rebuild their nation. The United States squandered that opportunity in late 2002-early 2003 by choosing to become the lead vigilante in a self-organized posse. Others be damned.

The lesson for US politicians therefore is: how does the international community compel compliance on issues that it considers a grave threat? The answer is establishing international consensus on strategies, sticking with it, and building upon it. Take Iran. We applied lessons learned from the ineffective Iraqi sanctions regime to set up a much more stringent, consensus-based, Iranian sanctions regime. The Iranians are looking to negotiate a way out of it, even though there is no international consensus yet for military intervention. Consensus was the key to success in Libya, and is the challenge in Syria. The US eschews military intervention. John Nagl rightly points out that perhaps the United States no longer insists on American boots on the ground to achieve our common strategic interests. Nevertheless, a successful policy toward Syria will require a unified international coalition dedicated to the right outcome. The US can certainly help lead that consensus.

The second lesson was for a US military unprepared for 21st century warfare. Here Nagl draws from his revelatory book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, on the importance of militaries becoming learning institutions. But there is more to the counterinsurgency lesson than just for the military. Contemporary asymmetric threats and COIN strategies require strong, effective, and skilled civilian agencies of government. Military operations prepare for and complement civilian tasks. In fact appropriately resourced diplomacy and development can actually prevent or mitigate instability that too often leads willy-nilly to military intervention. The military should not be expected to do everything in counterinsurgency.

The final lesson was for the American people who have trusted the experiment of an all-volunteer military. It has performed “with enormous distinction” in John’s words, and correctly so. His point is that “the nation owes…a depth of gratitude it can never fully repay.” This is the unquestionable call for continued support to veterans and their families. Absolutely.

The bigger lesson from Iraq, however, is whether our volunteer military and Pentagon civilian corps should be sized differently. The US military leadership understandably resists returning to the draft; it wants a professional, effective fighting force for the nation’s wars. But perhaps we need the draft only when the US government chooses to engage in wars, like Iraq, that require large scale forces. We might not ever want to go down this road again; having more of the American public with a stake in the decision might help us choose better. In either case, we should “right-size” our professional military and civilian defense force for 21st century warfare. Some of the savings could go into developing the other civilian agencies that support our national security and foreign policy – so we don’t have to fight so often. But the opposite is happening: we are broadening the capabilities of our military and civilian defense forces, and starving our diplomatic and development corps. The American people need to weigh in on that decision.

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Litt TV Interview on Iran

2013.03.12-Litt.Iran.Video-4On February 20, 2013, UNC-Wilmington TV recorded an interview with me on the subject of Iran. Dr. Remonda Kleinberg, professor of public and international affairs, hosted me on her program The World at Large. The program lasts about 30-minutes and covers such issues as:

  • the history of Iran’s nuclear weapons program;
  • the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran
  • power politics across the region
  • “the marriage of convenience” between Iran and the Syrian government.


I welcome comments and conversation on this issue, or any other in my blog posts.

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Book Review: “America’s Other Army”

I have recently reviewed an outstanding book by veteran journalist Nicholas Kralev entitled America’s Other Army: the U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy. It presents the strongest arguments for better utilization of our nation’s diplomatic and development potential, something with which readers of this weblog will be quite familiar.

This book will not disappoint any casual reader interested in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, it should appeal predominantly to four audiences: those who aspire to become diplomats (what is it like?); those who are current Foreign or Civil Service careerists (what’s the latest scoop on a lot of issues important to us?); legislators, Congressional staff, and other resource providers (why should we rely on the State Department, and fund its operations?); and diplomacy’s principal partner, the US military (what is it you diplomats do in your day job?).

Read more in my review posted on the “American Diplomacy” website.

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Secretary Kerry’s Opportunity in the Sahel

US military forces are upgrading their support to French, Malian, and other African forces in Northern Mali. The latest operation seems to be adding unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities based in neighboring Niger. This is an important step, but by no means sufficient or decisive. Of course, most of us don’t know what other US strategies are in progress for Mali, since the media cover almost exclusively our military decisions. But let me go out on a limb and assume: not much is underway in the civilian realm right now.

Malian and non-Malian extremists have scattered into the desert and the mountains, and that provides some relief. But, the problem is not over; the populations of Northern Mali are still weak, vulnerable, and detached from Malian government support. Military operations will do little to satisfy hunger, deliver justice, or provide health care.

I have argued in this weblog before that the best strategy for countering insurgency – for that is what is happening in Mali – is predominantly civilian in nature. The US government should ramp up governance and economic development programs up in the Sahel region of Africa in coordination with other bilateral and multilateral donors. Don’t tell me we can’t afford development programs and diplomacy – these are much cheaper in the short and long run than what will inevitably follow otherwise.

Whenever USAID and the Department of State have offered robust development and governance programs in the Sahel in the past, they usually have met with noticeable success. I was Deputy Chief of Mission in Niamey, Niger, in the early 1990s, when the international community collaborated with the Nigerien government and civil society to end internal violence, involving the Tuareg and others. We helped establish the foundations of that nation’s current multiparty political system – which also now includes the Tuareg people of Niger.

In today’s events in the Sahel, nothing could be more effective in protecting the populations from the predations of violent extremists than robust, targeted, and coordinated development and governance programs. Moreover, these programs should be deliberately designed to enable host nation governments themselves to address the grievances of their most vulnerable populations.

Mali might not be the end of it. What is the situation in northern Chad, southern Libya, eastern Mauritania, or even northern Niger? Do we know? Does the international community have its collective antenna up to prevent the “surprise” that occurred in northern Mali? Secretary Kerry and his diplomacy and development teams have an extraordinary opportunity to make a major difference in this unsettled part of the globe.

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