Opinion

The Great Debate

Avoid a classic blunder: Stay out of religious wars in the Middle East

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Muslims in the Middle East are fighting wars of religion. Like the carnage between Protestants and Catholics that haunted Northern Ireland during the last third of the 20th century, there is little anyone can do until local peoples crave peace so intensely they are willing to cultivate it.

History shows that outside meddling only intensifies sectarian fury. Stopping internecine war begins at home. President Barack Obama imperils Americans by trying to excise an abscess that can be cured only from the inside out. The decision to re-engage in Iraq, and the wider Middle East, also contradicts the president’s other, bigger objective: to exit the nanny business.

Shi'ite Muslims attend Friday prayers at the Imam Hussein shrine in the holy city of KerbalaThe last time religious aggression swept an entire subcontinent was during the Reformation four centuries ago, when Christians hashed out their hatreds much as Muslims of the Middle East are doing today.

Islamic State, or as the president calls it, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is fighting to restore a caliphate. Catholics and Protestants spent decades warring over similar issues. Should all Christians accept the same religious doctrine? Should all nations be under the dominion of the pope?

The first Islamic Civil War, from 656 to 661, created two competitive sects – Sunni and Shi’ite. Neither recognized the other’s legitimacy.

Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, in Washington

“We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq,” New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote.  There, in the Land of the Two Rivers, he continued, the United States confronts the “core problem” of our era — “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”

Brooks is wrong. For starters, he misconstrues the core problem — which is a global conflict pitting tradition against modernity.

Traditionalists, especially numerous in but not confined to the Islamic world, cling to the conviction that human existence should be God-centered human order. Proponents of modernity, taking their cues from secularized Western elites, strongly prefer an order that favors individual autonomy and marginalizes God. Not God first, but we first — our own aspirations, desires and ambitions. If there’s a core problem afflicting global politics today, that’s it.

If U.S. joins Islamic State fight, how will it get out?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won’t be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.

The president is speaking to the American people — not to Congress. He may not even ask Congress to authorize the use of force. Just to fund it. Which they will do because they don’t want to undercut the U.S. military.

Obama’s key audience Wednesday is the American public. For his credibility with the public has gotten dangerously low. Obama was elected in 2008 as the un-Bush — a more thoughtful, less reckless leader. Yet the public always valued President George W. Bush’s resolve and decisiveness — qualities they don’t see in Obama. Qualities they are looking for now.

Israel appropriated 1,000 acres of the West Bank. Why now?

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Last week, Israel announced that it was appropriating nearly 1,000 acres of private Palestinian land near Bethlehem. The seizure, which one anti-settlement group called the largest in 30 years, was condemned by Palestinians, the United Nations, and criticized by the United States.

Israel has said that the move is retaliation for the June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. Settlement has long been considered a fair response to Palestinian attacks by some parts of Israeli society, and appropriation of Palestinian land has been a consistent policy of every Israeli government since Israel became a state in 1948. In the West Bank alone, close to 250,000 acres were appropriated since 1979, using a legal mechanism based on an interpretation of Ottoman law.

The timing of this most recent appropriation, though, has little to do with any particular act of Palestinian violence. It did have something to do with pacifying domestic opposition – the appropriation soothed some of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners critical of Israel’s ceasefire terms with Hamas. But ultimately, the move is mostly about geopolitics.

from Jack Shafer:

What’s more rare — a unicorn or an Al Jazeera America viewer?

 A man works at a desk in the Al Jazeera America broadcast center in New York,

Al Jazeera America draws such a teensy audience -- 15,000 on average during prime time, according to Nielsen -- that if you dropped all of the fledgling cable news channel's viewers into a modern NBA arena you'd leave a couple of thousand vacant seats. To place Al Jazeera America's audience in perspective, it's less than half of that once attracted by Al Gore's Current TV, the channel it replaced last August. Ratings leader Fox News Channel pulls in an evening average of about 1.6 million.

Such miserable ratings would be understandable if Al Jazeera America produced its shows on a shoestring, as did Current TV, or if it marginalized itself by broadcasting bonkers propaganda like RT (formerly Russia Today), or if most cable households couldn't receive it.

But none of those excuses apply. Al Jazeera America's executives have claimed that the company was spending "hundreds of millions" to establish 12 U.S. bureaus, not to mention the $500 million it gave Current TV's owners to go away. Unlike the bombastic RT, Al Jazeera America has to date avoided peddling any country's political line, even though it’s owned by the wealthy Kingdom of Qatar, a hereditary monarchy. (If prizes are a measure of journalistic worth, Al Jazeera has already established its legitimacy by winning two Peabody Awards.) And while not available everywhere, Al Jazeera America can be viewed in about 55 million of the country's 100 million pay-TV households.

from Breakingviews:

Iraq troubles are unlikely to bring new oil crisis

By Fiona Maharg-Bravo

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

The continued violence in Iraq looks like a harbinger of a sharp cutback from the world’s seventh-largest oil producer. But the bulk of Iraq’s production is still secure. Even though the Middle East has clearly become less stable, it will still take a cascade of problems to create a big oil price shock.

The oilfields which account for around 90 percent of Iraq’s production are in the still peaceful south of the country, far from the conflict zones. Oilfield security is tight and has recently been increased. The evacuation of non-essential staff by BP and other foreign operators is not an immediate threat to output, since these large fields are predominantly staffed by locals. Oil exports were near record rates in June, according to industry sources cited by Reuters.

America’s long search for Mr. Right

What’s wrong with central casting? It’s a virtual truism: The United States always seems to pick the wrong guy to star as George Washington in some faraway civil war. We sell him weapons for self-defense against his despicable foes — and then, sometimes before the end of the first battle, we find we are committed to a bad actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Genghis Khan.

President Barack Obama just approved the sale of 24 Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — despite well-founded concerns that Maliki may use them against people we do like as well as those we don’t.

Helicopters aren’t the only munitions on Maliki’s shopping list. Washington has negotiated the sale of 480 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, along with reconnaissance drones and F-16 fighter jets.

The shale factor in U.S. national security

The boom in domestic shale oil and gas production has increased U.S. prosperity and economic competitiveness. But the potential for this to enhance our national security remains largely unrealized.

The shale surge has boosted production by 50 percent for oil and 20 percent for gas over the last five years. Yet our political leaders are only just beginning to explore how it can help further national strategic interests.

We led a major study at the Center for a New American Security in the last year, bringing together a nonpartisan panel to examine national security implications of the unconventional energy boom. We decided that outdated idealization of “energy independence” is preventing the administration and Congress from focusing on current energy vulnerabilities and figuring out how Washington should secure our economic and security interests.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Iran: More than Persia

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was campaigning, he promised the country’s many ethnic minorities to expand the use of their languages. Rouhani recently signaled his intent to keep that promise, by appointing Iran’s first presidential aid for ethnic and religious minority affairs, acknowledging the country’s minority challenges.

In the multi-ethnic state that is Iran, the political meaning of the population’s diversity will have serious consequences as political normalization with the West continues. Both the United States and the European Union should understand the significance of Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup and prepare policies that can address it.

Washington and Brussels should view this process as similar to when Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, it quickly became apparent that the Soviet Union was –not only composed of Russians. Later, it became clear that what the West had considered to be “Yugoslavians” or “Czechoslovakians” were, in fact, many different ethnic groups.  Few of these peoples shared a civic-state identity.

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