“Blind Sided: How ISIS Shook the World” on CNN Tonight

If you looked for the TV show listed in the title in a previous post, you know it was preempted by the protests and riots in Baltimore.  It is rescheduled to air on CNN tonight at 9 EDT and PDT (other time zones must fend for yourselves).   However, I do notice in San Diego, it will be aired at 6 and 9, so check out your local listings.   If you have been wondering what the draw of ISIS in Syria is for thousands of budding jihadists, and what life is like in ISIS controlled territories this show looks promising.   Fareed Zakaria interviews former jihadists and reporters, such as a German news man who was allowed to visit ISIS held territories and live to tell about it.

ISIS is a scourge in the world and would love to do damage to us in particular, so you might want to understand from whence they came.   If an entire hour of ISIS is too much, why not tape it and watch in more digestible pieces later.

Tom Brady and Conflate Gate

Though some get very serious about what is normally called deflate gate, I think it a puff piece blown way out of proportion that will mean little over time compared with the achievements of the accused main culprit, quarterback Tom Brady.  On the other hand It is one of the few topics that I don’t find either mind boggling, depressing or just plain boring.   So over the next few days I’ll write more about it.  If you couldn’t care less about the topic, I’ll get to the point here:   The NFL doesn’t have guidelines for their punishments.  So, whatever punishment it inflicts is arbitrary;  hence, lawless.  The NFL has a king commissioner who arbitrarily decrees one punishment or another.  And then changes the punishment if something embarrassing comes to light later, such as a video of a player knocking out his wife in an elevator.

Why even have the rule about the inflation standard for game balls when each team is given its own new set of balls to play with and are allowed to make the balls more congenial to their QB’s in other ways, such as scuffing them.  For those so concerned about breaking the rules, even silly ones, how does one decide what is a just punishment for quarterback Tom Brady for “probably” knowing about a couple of  Patriot equipment managers deflating footballs to a level of his liking.  Does he deserve more or less or the same punishment as a player involved with domestic abuse?  With or without a vivid video to grab our attention.

I’ll write more about that in a few days.  Those not interested can just ignore my next post.

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What Does ISIS Really Want?

Way too big of a question for this little blog, so I am going to defer to Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, to provide most of the answer.  He has the cover story in the most recent edition, and he was interviewed on NPR two days ago.  The interview is about 11 minutes and I suggest listening to that and then if really interested  move on to the article, which is hard to digest in one sitting.

Wood makes the case that we misunderstand ISIS when we act as if the phenomenon was a perversion of Islam, as President Obama often does, without admitting it as one of many legitimate interpretations in the Muslim world.   They are living out a medieval religious version which envisions an end of days scenario with armies of west and east living out some kind of apocalypse.  It is a crazy vision to us, but enthralling to some Muslims.  Something they want to be a part of, a glorious Muslim passion play fated to happen.

To me the main question is how does understanding what ISIS wants affect our strategy towards them.  One point struck me in reading the piece and that was how important controlling land is to validating their status.    Al Queda has largely been an underground operation.  Controlling much land has not been their aim.

But the purpose of having a Caliphate is to be able to enforce the pure practice of Sharia law.   For ISIS to survive it must control the land it has and gain more to prosper.  Otherwise questions arise as to its nature as a true Caliphate.   So far so good for them, but a successful strategy of slowly pushing them back should weaken the attraction they have to prospective followers.  Who wants to die for a false Caliphate?

The temptation for those in the U. S. who want to crush ISIS at a much faster pace, is to make for a worse situation if thousands of our troops are going to spearhead the attack, justifying ISIS propaganda that we want to destroy Islam, and providing a spur to even more recruits from the Muslim world.

While it may not be a satisfying conclusion, Wood believes:   “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.”

Wood argues it is in the nature of ISIS’ uncompromisingly brutal ideology to hamstring itself over time.  For them, their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation and those not holding it are apostates, which means almost the entire world.  While ISIS attracts a flow of Muslim fanatics and/or psychopaths to its cause, it makes more enemies by the day as well, most recently stiffening the nerve of the Jordanian king after burning to death that Jordanian pilot.  And then prompting the Egyptian president to call for Muslims to band together to fight ISIS after 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya.

Of course, in both cases air power was used to wreak revenge on ISIS and what is most needed are more ground troops to retake lost land.  Only in Iraq are there many engaged, and that is because much of their land had been overrun by ISIS, but since ISIS wants to control the entire region so as to purify or kill fellow Muslims, eventually the alliance against them should come together out of self-preservation.

BUT IT WILL REMAIN A SLOW PROCESS BECAUSE WHILE MORE AND MORE MUSLIMS COME TO FEAR AND HATE ISIS, THERE ARE SO MANY HISTORICAL POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS FISSURES BETWEEN THEM – BEGINNING WITH THE SUNNI VS. SHIA SPLIT – THAT WORKING TOGETHER WILL REMAIN AN ONGOING DIFFICULTY.

It is the most complicated U. S. military involvement that I can imagine with no precedents that I can think of, so while I believe there is a need for more American troops on the ground in special forces capacities, we must continuously balance our involvement with that of regional powers, so that this will evolve as more of a Muslim vs. Muslim battle, rather than one easily portrayed by ISIS as yet another Christian Crusade.

Foreign Affairs: Glancing About for Hints of Good News

I have been writing this blog for over two years and have never felt so overwhelmed by trying to understand international events as I have lately.   Secretary of State John Kerry is hopping around the world dealing with hot spots so frequently I wonder how he can recall what he is supposed to be doing at any given moment.   I get confused just rushing  to the next room.

John Kerry - Saving Face

John Kerry – Saving Face (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

I’m not even positive where he is right now, maybe Washington, but a couple of days ago he was in Vienna trying to finish up that nuclear deal with Iran by this Sunday deadline.   He said there are “real gaps” in the negotiations but we have  a few days to hope.

Some good news came when Kerry was in Afghanistan late last week.  He brokered a deal between presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani who had both contested election voting results to agree to abide by the results of an audit.  We’ll have to see how well the loser and his followers abide by that recount, but at least we no longer have Hamid Karzai bugging us at every call.

While Kerry is busy elsewhere, the Egyptian government has tried to broker a cease fire between Hamas and Israel, but from the hope perspective I should have written this sooner as Hamas has refused the deal and Israel seems to be ramping up its attacks on Gaza (tired as they are of Hamas lobbing hundreds of missiles at them for months).

The one positive I see here is that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is no friend of Hamas, unlike the Muslim brotherhood who formed the government before him.   That means they have less access through Egypt for various forms of support.   On the other hand, that may be one reason Hamas did not approve their deal as they don’t think of Egypt as an “honest broker”.   Hard to find a ray of hope here.

Where I do see hope is in the Ukraine.   True, Russia and Ukraine are exchanging heated words about cross border shellings and that might get out of hand, but I still doubt Putin wants to send his troops across the border.  The Ukraine is an economic mess he doesn’t want to own.  I think he would rather deal with Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s than make war against him, but all of his bravado about protecting Russians everywhere has put him in a bind as Poroshenko’s troops have shown a willingness to fight now and they are squeezing the rebels.   A delicate situation, but my sense is this will be worked through without Russian troops pouring across the border (if I’m wrong, I’ll get back to you).

A more chaotic situation than Ukraine at the moment is Iraq, though yesterday the parliament finally elected a speaker. a Sunni moderate.   This is the first step to then finally forming a new government in six weeks (details here).   Real slow p9key I know, what with ISIS doing its best to threaten Bagdad, but there are signs of infighting between ISIS and other Sunni militants that is a plus for the government.

Also, given all the enemies ISIS has developed as mentioned in a previous post, I find it hard to believe they can actually succeed in their quest to establish a new Muslim empire.   Unless, of course, they are destined by Allah to do so.   Whatever, they can cause a hell of a havoc while trying.

Finally, while Syria remains the problem from a hell, it seems worth mentioning that the deal struck months ago between the Russians, Assad and us about the destruction of chemical weapons there has actually accomplished the destruction of most of them, at least the worst.  That achievement doesn’t get the attention it deserves because  “crises” grab more attention than solutions.

It also points to the necessarily fragmented nature of our foreign policy these days in response to an increasingly fragmented world.   Necessary because while at times we seem close to playing bullets and bombs with Russia in one spot, we are working with them in many others.   With other countries as well, as is likely happening in Iraq in quiet ways now.    In a future post I will say something about the tension between a foreign policy based on a desire for international stability, and other ways to serve self-interest as well as democratic values, a tension difficult for us to deal with which also makes policy erratic, which is not always a bad thing, yet is always lambasted as such.

IRAQ: Who is Nouri al-Malaki?

Yes, Prime Minister of Iraq.  But who is he as a man, a man our government did much to promote to his present position and continued to back through the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations, but now is commonly seen as the biggest stumbling block to any real effort to unify the country.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I read that the Iraqi Parliament,  scheduled to meet tomorrow, Tuesday, has put off meeting until August 12.   Basically it seems they have not found a way to move forward and select a Prime Minister.  More deals and arm twisting seem in order.

Al-Malaki has asserted that they first must deal with the ISIS threat and then deal with national unity issues, but there is much opposition to his remaining PM, even within the Shia community.

While the ISIS campaign to conquer the country has stalled somewhat, much of that seems to be a matter of their just not having enough warriors – usually estimated at around 10,000 – to continue to expand their authority.  Of course, they receive some military support from various Sunni tribes, and what seems tacit support from many more (all of which is impossible to sort out), but the government forces are holding their own better right now.  Even taking back some territory.

However, none of that really addresses the basic issue of Iraq unity, which the Kurds are quite willing to do without, as both them and the Sunnis are fed up with unity meaning a centralized al-Malaki government marginalizing them into second class citizens, especially the Sunnis.

Given the centrality of al-Malaki’s role in what’s next and to help clarify how we got to this point, I recommend reading this editorial by Ali Khedery:  Why we stuck with Malaki and lost Iraq in the Washington Post.  From 2003 to 2009, Khedery ” was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of U.S. Central Command.”

In short, he’s been a veritable fly on the wall over years of key American diplomatic discussions on Iraq.  Also, he knows al-Malaki well, even considering him a friend whom he backed early to become Prime Minister.  By 2010, though, he came to see him as the biggest stumbling block when it comes to Iraqi unification.   Khedery was part of the Bush administration that basically plucked al-Malaki from obscurity and boosted him to his present position, but then argued in 2010 with the Obama administration, albeit in vain,  that they must find someone other than Malaki to back.

In short, Khedery, unlike so many other commentators, seems most interested in telling what happened rather than trying to score political points.   He blames himself for helping the Bush administration promote al-Malaki to power and blames the Obama administration for continuing to back that unwise choice:  “By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

The editorial is quite long, so you might want to skim some of it, but it offers numerous interesting insights, such as the dominant role Iran has attained in shaping the politics of Iraq.  The piece is an antidote to the spin from both parties blaming each other for the failed state that Iraq has become.