Tag Archives: Eric Mandel

Reevaluating America’s Foreign Policy for Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

You can replace Afghanistan with Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit, and does it serve America’s interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?

Americans are in no mood for new entanglements in the Middle East. The politically expedient choice for the US Congress and the president is to follow the nation’s mood – by not only avoiding any new potential areas of conflict arising with the aggressions of Iran and its proxies, but maybe by also abandoning allies who have worked side-by-side with American soldiers in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban, and forgetting their savage misogyny and its place as a safe haven where al Qaeda brewed its attacks on 9/11.

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Essay by Yaroslav Trofimov was titled, “Can the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit? An exhausted America, no longer determined to bring democracy to the Muslim world, just wants to leave.”

You can replace Afghanistan with Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit, and does it serve America’s interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?

American foreign policy operates under a hundred-year-old construct based on the misguided belief that we must keep artificially constructed Middle East nation-states like Syria and Iraq whole, even when it flies in the face of reality – or of what is best for American interests or the people who live there.

Sixteen years ago, I recommended that Iraq be turned into three states, Sunni, Kurdish and the largest, Shi’ite. I was not alone. This was based on the obvious religious animosity, ethnic divisions and tribal nature of the country that had no historical antecedent, whose people value clan, tribe and religion rather than allegiance to the state itself.

The core American belief that dividing up Iraq or Syria is a bad idea because it will lead to failed states ignores the more plausible concept that, if put back together, it will not only be less sustainable as a whole state but, more consequentially, it may be more dangerous whole than divided – especially if the US abandons the region.

Today, the failed Iraqi state has been taken over by Iran, America’s most dangerous Middle East adversary, which not only has political parties allied with it in the Iraqi government but, more consequentially, controls the nation’s most powerful force: the Shi’ite militia al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, which has ethnically cleansed Sunni areas for an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean and answers only to the supreme leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. How does this serve American interests?

In 2006, Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations – penned an op-ed in The New York Times recommending Iraq be divided into three autonomous regions, “giving each ethno-religious group… room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”

In 2015, president Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter, speaking before Congress, said that Iraq is so broken that maybe it shouldn’t be put back together: “The question [is] what if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible?”

In 2016, CIA director John Brennan said: “I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction.”

MOST AMERICANS have no knowledge that most of the nations of the Middle East are artificially constructed entities based on the interests of the French and British after the First World War, when they divided the region not according to its natural tribal divisions, but according to their own economic interests, forcing antagonistic groups to live together in authoritarian regimes.

It didn’t work, and we have rarely stopped to ask why we want to keep putting these broken nation-states back together. How does this serve American interests?

Iraq was a dysfunctional nation long before it collapsed after the 2003 US invasion. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party repressed and terrorized the Sunni majority and the Kurdish North. After US president George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to remain in power after America’s Gulf War in 1991, he took his vengeance out against the Shi’ites of the South and the Kurds of the North, who deserve as much as anyone to have their own independent state. He may not have had nuclear weapons in 2003, but he did use chemical weapons against his adversaries and still remained in power.

America, with good intentions, thought that all of the world’s people wanted Western style democracy, but soon learned that in the Middle East, other than Israel and the Kurds of northern Iraq, autocracy and Islam rule the day.

We live in a world where politicians are afraid to speak honestly to the American people for fear that they will lose their popularity and their ability to remain in office, especially those who seek our highest office.

Maybe it’s time for our political leaders to explain the world to our nation in something more than sound-bites and tweets that pollsters tell them will raise their numbers.

US President Donald Trump seems to believe that we should return to an isolationist strategy. That, despite his bellicose talk, is not very much different from Obama’s actions not to confront aggression even when justified. Obama’s great foreign policy fault was that he didn’t realize you couldn’t change the spots of the Iranian tiger; abandoning allies to realign with Iran; undermining American foreign policy by making America look unreliable to the world; and let everyone, friend and foe, come to see us as a paper tiger.

WHICH BRINGS US to America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq. These two Kurdish peoples share the same ethnicity but are very different. What they do share in common is that they were at the front lines of defeating Islamic State, helping the US achieve its primary strategy in the Middle East under both Obama and Trump. They also both live in states that are artificially constructed and, if put back together, will sow the seeds for more sectarian violence, pulling the US back to region it so wants to leave.

Now there is a call to withdraw American forces from both northern Syria and northern Iraq, abandoning important allies and forcing them, for their own survival, to make deals and to ally with America’s enemies. The Kurds of Iraq may have to cut a deal with Iran and the Iranian-controlled Iraqi government in Baghdad to survive, while the Syrian Kurds may have to work with their adversaries – the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia – in order not to be ethnically cleansed by Turkey. Millions of new Sunni refugees may flow from Syria to Turkey into Europe and onto our shores. How is this in America’s interest?

I recently interviewed American soldiers working with the Kurdistan military force, the Peshmerga, who are still fighting ISIS. Their unreserved clarity of purpose and their importance as American allies was striking – something Congress, the State Department and the president need to hear.

America’s chances for a new war in the Middle East are greatly increased by withdrawing from the Middle East; becoming isolationist as we did after the First World War, since we were totally unprepared when we were dragged into the Second World War.

A modest American presence remaining in Afghanistan, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq creates leverage for American interests far beyond the small number of troops remaining in harm’s way.

We certainly cannot cure the ills of the Middle East, but our goal should be to strengthen our allies and lower the flames that would certainly erupt with an American withdrawal. America’s primary goal is not only to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, but – more importantly – to create a long-term strategy to stop Iranian expansionism that endangers not only our allies, but also the world at large. Sorry, Mr. Obama, the Iranian Islamist regime is a leopard that will not change its spots – no matter how many pallets of cash we give them.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.

Israel’s Self-Destructive PR Must Change in its Next Government

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Wouldn’t be great if Isrotel worked with StandWithUs like El Al, to empower their employees, helping them to realize they are the face of Israel.

American supporters of Israel have complained for years that Israel’s public relations, hasbara, has been ineffective, counter-productive, and its importance for strengthening the US-Israeli relationship unappreciated by Israelis as a core national security interest.

This all came to mind during a wonderful weekend wedding at one of Israel’s leading hotels, when I went to breakfast and the only newspaper available to read was the Haaretz/New York Times edition. This was not the first time this has happened to me in Israel.
Haaretz’s Hebrew-language readership is dwarfed by other Israeli print dailies, but you would never know that if you were a visiting American tourist or English-speaking journalist staying at some of Israel’s many fine hotels, reading the Haaretz English edition that is combined with The New York Times, another paper that has a long history of harshly critical views of Israeli policy.

Within Israel, the newspaper is widely known as being to the hard-left of the political spectrum, representative of a small segment of the Israeli population, although it is influential within Israeli academia and intelligentsia. It is a legitimate and important viewpoint, but not one representative of the majority of the Israeli people based upon election results and surveys over many years.

When an English-speaking journalist, organizational leader or businessperson visits Israel, if they receive only one critical viewpoint to start their day, does this matter? It does, and it is representative of the greater problem of Israel’s approach and investment in projecting a positive image, and explaining its policies to a world that is increasing hostile to its very right to exist.

There is little doubt that some of the news writers for Haaretz, not only its editorial and opinion-page journalists, are profoundly hostile to Israeli policy. When I brought this up with then chief political columnist, editorial writer and US bureau chief, Akiva Eldar, at his Haaretz office about 10 years ago, complaining that news articles shouldn’t be editorialized and should strive to present a factually balanced news story, he simply told me to go read another paper.

So when a hotel offers only Haaretz to its guests, it’s representative of a pervasive Israeli attitude that stretches from the halls of the Knesset to Israeli companies to the Prime Minister’s Office that they are indifferent or exasperated, that they need to continually plead to the world for understanding of their precarious situation.

But when you are a lonely democracy living in a very bad neighborhood, you’d better start caring.

Haaretz is a legitimate view of Israel but not the only one. If during your time in Israel when impressions are formed and this is the only newspaper you read, as it is for too many foreign journalists, it will present a distorted and biased view. In short, it feeds the echo chamber for those who see Israel responsible for all the problems of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – a brutal, undemocratic, colonialist occupier.

BUT FOCUSING the blame for bad public relations on Israeli businesses is just the tip of the iceberg, as Israel’s government has slashed its investment into its Foreign Ministry that is tasked with explaining its case to America and to an unsympathetic world. Instead of expanding and increasing consulates in the United States, there are plans to close consulates.

This month Israel ordered most of its overseas embassies to stop work due to a “grave deficit” of its Foreign Ministry budget.
According to the Foreign Ministry, “The main effect is that during this sensitive time, when faced with diplomatic and strategic challenges… foremost among them the threat by Iran… and on the eve of a UN General Assembly – the Foreign Ministry and its missions abroad will be almost entirely paralyzed.”

This is insanity.

PM Netanyahu bears responsibility as he has overshadowed his own foreign ministers, when he has appointed them at all, choosing inexperienced lightweights, the most recent having made too many mistakes since filling the vacancy earlier this year.

Sometimes Israelis do get it, as when StandWithUs partnered with El Al pilots and flight attendants, helping them use their two-to-three day layovers overseas to educate people about the real Israel, sharing their personal stories.

Which brings us back to the wedding at one of Israel‘s best hotels owned by one of Israel’s leading hotel chains, Isrotel. The assistant manager told me that offering Haaretz was the way it has been for years. I explained why multiple viewpoints are important for their guests and for Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy.

The guests at the wedding included many distinguished young American and Europeans from the world of governments, business and NGO’S.

When they walked into the dining room and picked up their English-language newspaper, they were presented with a one-sided minority Israeli view, but most were completely unaware of this.

Wouldn’t be great if Isrotel worked with StandWithUs like El Al, to empower their employees, helping them to realize they are the face of Israel.

Israel is about to form a new coalition government. Whether it is led by incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu or Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, both need to realize that Israel’s security is not just in the hands of its very capable defense forces, but needs the help of all of its people, companies and government to present the real Israel in all its beauty and complexities.

It’s about time Israel started putting its best face forward with increased government expenditures for its Foreign Ministry overseas, and work in partnership with Israeli companies and their employees, who very often are the only face that the world sees representing Israel.

Criticism is great for the health of a democracy. Thank you Haaretz. But if you have only criticism reinforced by poor hasbara, then at the end of the day instead of debating Israeli policy with the world, you will continue to simply fight to explain why you have a right to exist at all.

The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network who regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, and The Forward.