Opinion

The Great Debate

A NATO ally stays on sidelines of fight against Islamic State

U.S. President Barack Obama listens as he hosts a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, in the United Kingdom

Few countries are in a better position than Turkey to help the United States fight Islamic State. The moderate Islamic country shares a 750 mile border with Syria, is a NATO member and a long-time ally of America. But don’t hold your breath for Turkey’s support.

For a long time, Turks have resented the “curse of strategic significance” related to its forming NATO’s southern flank. They felt it enabled the military to keep a watchful eye over their politicians. Likewise, it fueled the politicians’  sense of impunity that shielded them from the need for reform.

This was part of the reason why, at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Turkey refused to provide logistic support for the U.S.-led invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein. The chaos into which Iraq then descended after 2003 only reinforced the ruling AK party’s supporters of the validity of Turkey’s bid to go its own way.

The government calls this policy “zero problems with neighbors.” This self-explanatory catchphrase was introduced by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier and former foreign minister. It signaled the beginning of a new era in Turkish foreign policy, and troubles for Western allies that relied on it.

Today, Turkey remains wedded to this policy. Despite the threat of the Islamic State, the country remains just as skeptical of getting involved in Iraq as in 2003. The opinion columns of pro-government newspapers, like Yeni Safak, warn Turkey not to fall into the trap of a military alliance.

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.

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude — we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda — don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! — and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa provinceBoots on the ground will be needed to retake the territory now under Islamic State control. But the president has said they will not be our boots. So whose?

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.

How to prevent Westerners from fighting for the Islamic State and al Qaeda

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One of the most troubling aspects of the slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is that a well-spoken man with a British accent appears to have been the killer. The fact that an educated Westerner slaughtered other educated Westerners and then put their murder tapes on the Web was enough to dominate the news cycle.

But this violent Westerner in black is not alone. Some 500 British citizens have joined the fight in the Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, alongside thousands of other foreigners. Some 250 have since returned to the UK. Most have joined hardcore jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now renamed the ‘Islamic State’) and al Qaeda-proxy, Jabhat al-Nusra. Many have killed and have been killed; it was only earlier this summer that an American attacker, Florida native Moner Mohammad Abusalha, struck a restaurant with an explosive-laden truck—and with him at the wheel.

Other Americans suspected of fighting for the Islamic State have been killed even more recently.

US strategy vs. Islamic State: Better right than fast

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In her recently published memoir Hard Choices, former Senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be his secretary of state. He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad.”

No doubt he meant that sincerely — the U.S. financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the United States can claim control of world events. The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.

Few U.S. presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Barack Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped to stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State. The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a U.S. general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took  the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Meanwhile “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.

Finding hell in Syria’s Qusayr

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Click picture for a gallery of James Palmer’s photographs

In the summer of 2012, I spent three weeks in the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr working as a freelance photographer and writer with a group of young anti-Assad activists in a second-floor apartment next door to a field hospital. Regardless of whether I was working or sleeping, I raced downstairs to shoot photos whenever I thought heard casualties arrive.

The shelling victims often arrived from the countryside plastered in earth and crumpled along the backs of pickup trucks. They were often working in a field when the shell hit and the layers of dirt on them were often so thick you could barely see their faces. One day I saw a small girl who appeared less than 10 draped with soil and speckled with blood. She refused the nurses’ pleas to lie down and kept sitting upright to view the grey, motionless body of the man on the table next to her who appeared drained of his last drop of blood. After every glance she cast upon the corpse, she turned back toward me and screamed louder.

Despite such cries, the most haunting sound in Qusayr was the chopping whirl of the propellers atop a Syrian military helicopter gunship. They echoed over the town nearly every morning after sunrise during my stay.

Crossing paths with James Foley in Syria’s desperate war

PzxkuFKh30zIFwrseFS7uQ-ljcnLRdu59URJQOlVX94.jpg Click the image for a full gallery of James Palmer’s photographs from Syria. I prefer to work alone because I’ve found from past experience it’s just easier.

Still, it was hard not to cross paths with other journalists in Syria in the late summer and fall of 2012, where you were free to roam without government restrictions.

I first saw James Foley – whom the Islamic State executed last week — at a demonstration in Aleppo, a rebel stronghold. He was standing perfectly straight and steadily holding his camera as he filmed a handful of men dancing while drums were pounded and scores of people sang.

He arrived at the ad hoc police station another day seeking an interview with one of the leaders there while I was shooting photos. We shook hands and introduced ourselves then returned to our work. Apparently, neither of us could afford the time to chat.

from Jim Gaines:

Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

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Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

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