Michael Weiss

The costs of rapprochement

Obama's singular foreign policy in the Middle East trivializes America’s acquiescence to expanding Khomeinist hegemony in the region

Iraqi troops train for their assault to recapture Mosul, currently under ISIS control, on 10 January 2015. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

A few weeks ago, I met with a senior US diplomat who characterized the Obama administration’s sole foreign policy objective with one word — “rapprochement.” This was offered unprompted and I’d no doubt insult you to make you guess which regime is the object of the president’s single-minded solicitousness. When I asked if this policy meant that Iran’s terrorism and the atrocities being committed by its militia and death squad proxies in Syria and Iraq would therefore be downplayed or ignored by the White House, the diplomat inclined his head slightly in my direction, adding that during his own recent travels to the Middle East he had encountered many “reasonable” people who were similarly terrified and anxious at America’s acquiescence to expanding Khomeinist hegemony in the region. There are also plenty of unreasonable sorts taking full advantage of this dawning geopolitical reality — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for one — which is why the so-called strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) is in fact the jihadist army’s greatest propaganda asset. And to think that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi once had to try to convince Sunnis that the Great Satan and the Islamic Republic were working together…


What began as Mideast conspiracy theory now has the distinction of being an aspirational presidential legacy. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and the director of strategic communications, privately whispers about what a great ally Iran would make, so much more responsible and well-behaved than those awful Gulf states which are now reluctantly enlisted as avowed partners in a coalition against ISIS. Never has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing been so well earned as it has with Rhodes. As Michael Doran recently observed in an excellent anatomy of the Obama administration’s actual Iran policy, it is this National Security Council member who also not-so-privately likens a grand bargain with Tehran to Obamacare as a matter of national priority.


The “rollout” of this second-term initiative seems to be proceeding accordingly. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have staged a coup in Yemen. They also shout “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.” No doubt lacking their own advisors in strategic communications, the Houthis nonetheless have little to fear from such empurpled rhetoric because The New York Times, dutifully relying on top administration officials’ say-so, was still able to report with a straight face that the Houthis are “a lot more moderate” than these imprecations would suggest, premised on their shared loathing for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This sole criterion for moderation must be applied selectively, however, because ISIS, after all, also loathes Al-Qaeda enough to war against it in Syria and to rob it of its recruits in northern Libya. But I don’t see anyone in US government discerning centrist or pragmatic motives to the agents of the caliphate. 


It also bears remembering that when Syrian activists and rebels were still burning Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian flags and begging Obama for a no-fly zone, their suspected anti-American extremism was a subject of much-interrogated debate and insinuation in the White House. Hillary Clinton famously wondered aloud if the Free Syrian Army was in fact Al-Qaeda or Hamas when it largely still consisted of defected soldiers from the Syrian Arab Army. Now, after four years of attritional warfare, fudged red-lines, and cynical indifference to Damascus and Tehran’s ongoing atrocities in Syria, the administration does have plans for the dwindling contingent of moderate rebels. This is from an article published last week in Wall Street Journal, which is meant to be a bit of good news about the planned training of 5,000 rebels per year and their ability to call in US airstrikes against ISIS: “U.S. officials have said if the U.S. begins attacking Assad’s forces, the uneasy peace between Iran, an Assad ally, and the U.S. in Iraq will break down and Iranian-backed militias could begin targeting U.S. forces there. Iranian leaders have told supporters in Iraq not to attack U.S. bases, but that detente could dissolve if the war in Syria expanded to take on Mr. Assad, U.S. officials say.”


The United States formerly compared Assad to Hitler. Now it seeks the permission of Goering — Qassem Soleimani — to pursue its own policy in Syria. This transformation merits closer scrutiny than it has so far received. Note here, too, the acknowledgement that our hoped-for ally in counterterrorism could easily turn on US soldiers again in Iraq if the commander-in-chief doesn’t do as he’s told by Iran. 


Entente cordiale with the Revolutionary Guards Corps comes at an increasingly high cost. It means tolerating the immolation of whole Syrian families in their homes by the Soleimani-built National Defense Force — while continuing to hear that only ISIS is so barbaric as to burn people alive. It means watching Samantha Power tweet fecklessly for two more years against the continued barrel bombing of Syrian civilians by the Syrian Air Force as if her continued service for a president who would rather tinker on his BlackBerry than be bothered with such inconveniences is not itself a testament to the cold indifference of the “world.” It means listening to Marie Harf dodge questions about the ethnic cleansing of villages and hamlets in Diyala or the kidnapping and assassination of Awakening Council members by Shiite militiamen, who, despite being gainfully employed, still resort to activities that can only be described as “extremist” in orientation. 


It also means witnessing the decline in strategic communications. The Pentagon has come out with a self-evidently ridiculous forecast of its plans to retake Mosul starting in April of this year, with 20,000 to 25,000 newly-trained Iraqi soldiers and peshmerga fighters. Leaving aside the desperation in telegraphing a far-off operation to the enemy — no doubt in the hope that this will somehow convince ISIS to quit Mosul in advance — the military prescription has manifold problems. First, only a fraction of the trained Iraqi soldiers currently exists: 3,400 as of this writing, and that’s assuming that this contingent will perform more competently than prior US trainees. Second, 25,000 still isn’t enough to take a city as large as Mosul, as Iraq observer Joel Wing has noted; the true number is closer to 40,000. Third, the peshmerga have absolutely no intention of fighting in what promises to be incredibly gruesome urban warfare in the Sunni-majority regions of western Mosul, complete with IED attacks and suicide bombings. Fourth, the heavy lifting of any ground offensive against ISIS will be performed by the very Iranian proxies discussed above, which means most Sunnis of Iraq’s second most populous city will not be viewing even a hypothetical invading army as a force for liberation but rather as a sanguinary sectarian conqueror. As one Badr Corps militant told the New York Times, “collaborators” with ISIS — a category that encompasses most Sunnis currently or formerly under ISIS rule — are to suffer “punishment… more severe than Daesh’s.” Iraq’s best hope is truth and reconciliation a la Robespierre.


It’s hard to overstate the sense of anxiety American allies in the Middle East now feel about the course American policy has taken in their neighborhood as the result of a president who wants only one thing before he leaves office: to bring America’s regional nemesis in from the cold. Even allies whose support the current administration deems uncontroversial feel abandoned or short-changed. An official in the Kurdistan Regional Government told me recently that while he applauds US airstrikes, which kept ISIS from storming Erbil, most of the rest of the advertised effort to beat the jihadists is false advertising. “The weapons we have to fight them are fucking ridiculous,” the official said, noting the stark contrast with the heavy-duty materiel such as Abrams tanks and Humvees which both ISIS and the Shiite militias have stolen from the United States. “We should have blown ourselves up or beheaded some soldiers. Then we would have gotten weapons.”


Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He recently coauthored ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. He tweets @michaeldweiss


Iraqi troops train for their assault to recapture Mosul, currently under ISIS control, on 10 January 2015. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

The United States formerly compared Assad to Hitler. Now it seeks the permission of Goering — Qassem Soleimani — to pursue its own policy in Syria."

  • Beiruti

    And about ISIS itself, you know where the core leadership was formed and put together Mr. Weiss. That's right, in prisons run in Iraq by the US Military during its occupation of Iraq. What drove them? The fact that their country had been conquered and occupied by a foreign army and then turned over to their worst enemies, the Shia. Where did the great leader Nuri Maliki come from?? Well of course he was Iran's protégé. Let's just admit it, Mr. Weiss, the strategic victor of the ill conceived and ill prosecuted Iraq War of George W. Bush was none other than Iran. That is what he left his successor to live with, a region dominated by Iran and so dominated by our own hand. What else do you think he is going to do now?? Go to war with an existing $18.0 trillion dollar national debt? Is that your solution? Or maybe you want him to green light an Israeli raid on Iran? Sure, that will bring peace and stability. Never has the country been faced with such consequences and such choices, none of which are good. But these are the wages of the incompetency and arrogance of the Bush Administration that are left not just for this President to pay, but his successor and his successor after that. And your solution Mr. Weiss is to snipe at the reasonable policies that are being following given the constraints now on US action? Don't you have any other ideas other than the one you had 10 years ago that has proven to be so disastrous for the United States?

    February 24, 2015

  • Beiruti

    And because Bush already gave us one war over there that lasted 10 years and cost us $3.0 trillion dollars, guess what, the American people are not quick to go over and make the same mistake again. So why do you, Mr. Weiss keep pushing for that when your champion, George W has already played that card to disastrous results.

    February 24, 2015

  • Beiruti

    Mr. Weiss, here's your problem. Any President who comes into office, to paraphrase one of your heroes, Donald Rumsfeld, inherits the world his predecessor in office leaves behind, not the one he would want. No doubt, sooner or later the US would have to fight a war in the heart of the Middle East. But it only gets one bite at that apple. The bite should have been in Syria, 2013, not Iraq 2003, but your champion, George W. Neocon Bush, took the wrong bite, at the wrong time against the wrong "enemy". Saddam Hussein was brutal because Iraq needed someone brutal. He kept the Iranians bottled up in the East. George H.W. Bush knew enough to know not to take out Saddam Hussein at the end of Gulf War I, but the boy, "W" didn't have his father's good sense. So Saddam Hussein was removed and that let the Khomeinists out of the bottle over the northern part of the Middle East. So as you cry over this proliferation, remember, this is part of your champion an your neo-con policy's legacies in the region.

    February 24, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    You, Tony Badran and Michael Young have beaten this horse to death many times over. What will you do with your lives once Obama leaves office? Withdrawal symptoms? Depression? Unemployment? I, an ordinary Middle Easterner who suffered for 35 years under a US Republican-sponsored Syrian occupation of Lebanon, am exhilarated at watching every Syrian city, neighborhood, building and house crumble under the bombs. I am gleeful that half the Syrian people are refugees and suffering. I wish the Syrian war lasts another 50 years.... it's a basic human feeling to want revenge of your former tormentor: Syri's rape of Lebanon under the sponsorship of the West. The Syrian men of the 1970s-2000s were looting, killing, bombing, kidnapping, torturing....my own people of Lebanon. Their families and children are today on the receiving end of what they did to us. Bravo, President Obama. Let Syria burn to the ground, and with it Arabism, Baathism, Islamism, Syrianism, and all the failed Arab causes. The Lebanese people support the American administration in its hands-off policy vis-a-vis Syria. After all, Syria and Iraq, like Israel, are artificial countries clobbered together by stealing other peoples' lands (Kurdish land, Lebanese land, Turkish land, Palestinian land....) Time to let the monster die once and for all. Syria should be broken up into a northeastern Kurdish entity, a Western Alawite entity, a southern Druse entity, while the Sunni desert hinterland should be merged with Iraq's Western Sunni region. The Kurds of Iraq have already seceded. Artificial failed states and countries hammered together by colonial Britain and France are doomed to failure. Off the map is where they belong.

    February 24, 2015