An Al-Qaeda breakaway group repelling government forces in Tikrit declared the creation of a new caliphate spanning large areas of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant announced it will now be known as The Islamic State. Meanwhile, Russia sent warplanes to support the Iraqi government’s fight against Sunni extremists. While Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki says Washington has been slow to provide air power, the U.S. began flying armed predator drones over Baghdad. It is an operation the Pentagon says offers added protection to American military advisers. Diane and her guests discuss the latest developments in Iraq and the potential for increased American involvement there.
- Yochi Dreazen Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front"
- Deborah Amos NPR correspondent reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.
- Rosa Brooks Senior fellow with the New America Foundation and co-chair of the Stimson Center's Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy
- Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at American Enterprise Institute and author of "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Insurgents declared a new Islamic state in Iraq over the weekend as Sunni Muslim militants resisted the Iraq's military push to retake the city of Tikrit. Here in the studio to talk about the latest development in Iraq and the potential for increased U.S. involvement there, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks of The New America Foundation and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.
MS. DIANE REHMBefore we begin our conversation on Iraq, I do want to say a word of thanks for all the messages of condolence so many of you sent. I wish I could respond personally to each one of you who sent in your kind thoughts over the death of my husband of 54 years, John Rehm. He was a wonderful man, an extraordinary husband, terrific father and grandfather as well as a great supporter of this program and this station. I will miss him forever.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd now, let's turn the latest from Iraq. Yochi Dreazen, I'll start with you. Talk about the announced establishment of a caliphate and what that means.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENIt's not clear what it means in practice. It is clear what it means in PR value. This is something al-Qaida had talked about doing, going back to its founding, something the Muslim Brotherhood had talked about doing going back to its founding. So this has been a goal of militant politicized Islam for decades. No one had done it. Now there's a certain amount of -- forgive the word -- of chutzpah in doing it.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThey control a swath of Syria, a control of Iraq. They don't control a full country as we would normally think of one. But PR wise, this is a huge thing. I mean, this means that they are saying, we have the confidence to control this territory for the long term. We have the confidence to say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now Caliph Ibrahim so Ibrahim (unintelligible) so now Muslims are, in a technical sense, subservient to him.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENIt's a slap in the face of al-Qaida. It's potentially a huge PR video, a huge fundraising boon. So PR wise, it's enormous. In terms of practical effect, not clear yet.
REHMAnd joining us now from Istanbul, Turkey, is Deborah Amos of NPR. Deb, thanks for joining us.
MS. DEBORAH AMOSThank you.
REHMI know you just left Iraq. Tell us the latest there.
AMOSThe latest is just what you've been talking about. The Islamic state of Iraq and Sham has decided to rebrand itself as the Islamic State and I think that's correct, it's not clear what it really means in Iraq. I think what Iraqis...
REHMOh, dear. Have we lost Deb? Okay. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we've lost that connection with Deborah Amos that was coming through NPR and if we can get her back, we'll resume the conversation with her. Michael Rubin, turning to you, who controls Tikrit at this point?
MR. MICHAEL RUBINWell, you know, that's a really interesting question because while the Iraqi government, lead by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has claimed that they have taken back the center of Tikrit, all the residents of Tikrit are saying they have not. But we could use this as a reflection into the multilayers of what we're really seeing. It's not simply a two-part battle.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINWhile we've been focusing on the Islamic State of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, ultimately all the Iraqis are talking about how this is really a combination of the militants who are too radical even for al-Qaida, perhaps at the forefront, but they're supported by former Ba'athists, former members of Sadam Hussein's regime and also Sunni tribal members who don't particularly care for the others.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINThey are united in their animosity towards the current government lead by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but there's a sense that I hear from people in Tikrit and I was in Tikrit earlier this year that as soon as the initial wave of the Islamic State goes through that the residents and the tribal members of Tikrit plan to reassert their own control. Basically, they seem to be wanting to use the extremists to fight the battle against the government and then sort of walk in the back door.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINBut it's questionable whether they're going to be able to do that, given all the resources which the Islamic State has seized, for example, in Mosul, by looting the banks and military equipment.
REHMAnd to you, Rosa Brooks, is this move the creation of a caliphate, is that a threat to al-Qaida?
MS. ROSA BROOKSIt certainly is a big thumb to the nose to al-Qaida here and it will be very, very interesting to see how this evolves in the coming weeks and months because, obviously, this doesn't make al-Qaida very happy. This was already within Syria, 'caused a good deal of fighting between different extremist groups, some with stronger ties to al-Qaida.
MS. ROSA BROOKSI think one of the big questions for the United States, obviously, is is this a situation where it's better for us to stay back, watch and wait, recognize that we don't really have a very clear sense of what is going on yet and who's going to come out on top or is this a situation where some early targeted intervention could actually tip the balance?
MS. ROSA BROOKSMy own instinct is that we don't really know what's going on and it is probably wisest to wait.
REHMAnd Yochi Dreazen, what about Secretary Kerry's visit to Saudi Arabia and talking about how to contain ISIS or this new caliphate?
DREAZENThere's something a bit bitterly ironic about the trip to Saudi Arabia. We talked about al-Qaida. There are two fundamental differences between ISIS, now the Islamic State, and al-Qaida and they both are threatening to the West and benefit the Islamic State. The first is, al-Qaida was depending heavily on donations from foreign countries, from Saudi Arabia, from the Gulf.
DREAZENThat was their main funding source. I did a story a couple of -- about a week or so ago. ISIS is self-funding, between extortion, between smuggle, between the money they've looted, between the weapons they already have. That's the fundamental difference between al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
REHMAnd they have huge wealth, I gather.
DREAZENHuge wealth and huge amounts of weaponry. So typically, you'd imagine al-Qaida needed Gulf donations to buy weaponry. ISIS has its own money and already has weaponry. The other massive difference is that al-Qaida, one of its goals was to have Westerners, to have people with American passports, European passports, even in small numbers, who could go back to their home countries, set up attacks of some sort.
DREAZENISIS has that. They have, perhaps, dozens, perhaps hundreds. Nobody knows the true number, but they have that already. So when you think about just the strength of one group versus the other, they are much stronger. Very briefly to your other question, the goal of the White House right now is to get Prime Minister Maliki out of power.
DREAZENThe belief is that Sunni tribes have allied themselves with the Islamic State, even if fundamentally they aren't the same. When I lived in Iraq, a lot of the Sunni tribes drink. These are not extremists. They hate Shiites, but they're not extremists. So there's a -- right now, it's an alliance of convenience. The hope that the Obama administration has is if you push Maliki out, that alliance breaks.
DREAZENThere's no sign, at least for the moment, that that's going to happen. The Shia clerics have talked about it, but until they do, that alliance between the Sunni tribes and ISIS is not going anywhere.
REHMAnd Michael Rubin, trying to get al-Maliki to agree to step down seems to be going nowhere.
RUBINWell, ultimately, the concern, which I have, is the United States is going to spend so much time and effort trying to get Maliki out when in reality, because of this uprising and the loss of territory is a slap in the face of al-Maliki, even Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has hinted that Maliki should go. Members of his party, the State of Law and Dawa wish him to go. But if the United States steps in heavy-handed and demands that Maliki should go, ultimately we might actually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by delegitimizing whoever comes afterwards by tainting them as, if you will, an American pick.
RUBINBut there's one thing which, I think, this debate misses when it talks about the grievance of al-Maliki and that is when it comes to terrorism, there's two general polls as how to analyze terrorism. On one hand is it's motivated by grievance. On the other hand, it's motivated by ideology. If you believe it's motivated by grievance, then you address the grievance and the terrorism goes away.
RUBINWhen it comes to a group like the Islamic State, however, while Maliki might be an irritant, no matter how many concessions you give to some of these groups, it's not going to make their basic demand, the creation of a caliphate, go away.
REHMWhat about whether or when President Obama could begin air strikes? I realize this is really a wide-open ongoing discussion, but what does it look like now, Rosa?
BROOKSYou know, as I said a moment ago, I think that this is a situation which caution is the smart thing to do. When I hear people say things like, we could use air strikes in Iraq, we could drones in Iraq, that's like saying, we could use guns in Iraq. You know, we could, but we have to figure out who we're using them against for what purpose with what likely effects. And that's what we don't know.
BROOKSWe do know that the actual number of ISIS number of militants is probably not that large, despite their wealth, despite the possession of weapons. Clearly, at the moment, their ability to actually hold territory they've taken is very dependent on local Sunnis. It's not particularly clear right now that we have sufficient intelligence information to be able to figure out who to target in a way that will actually achieve any effect that we want to achieve.
BROOKSI think that's part of the purpose of having a few hundred military advisors on the ground now is to try to begin to give ourselves a better picture of just what is happening. But until we know that, the idea that we'll just sort of toss some ordinance into the situation strikes me as extremely self destructive.
REHMBut if the intelligence that we already had on the ground didn't foresee this caliphate, this extraordinary show of arms effort, force, how is it going to help us now, Yochi?
DREAZENI think that's the question that you've nailed on the head. When you talk to the intelligence community, they say we did warn you. We just didn't know the when or the where, which may not have been the most useful warning. But I think that's the exact question and whether advisors can answer it is very different.
REHMYochi Dreazen, managing editor for news at Foreign Policy, author of the forthcoming book, "The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to our discussion on Iraq, what's happening there, the emergence of a new caliphate, the Islamic state in Iraq. Here in the studio, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks, senior fellow with the New America Foundation. She co-chaired the Stimson Center's recent taskforce on U.S. drone policy. Michael Rubin is resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute and author of "Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes."
REHMYou are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or indeed send us a tweet. Yochi, just before the break you were talking about the question of intelligence. A first caller says, "How did the U.S. intelligence community miss when the ISIS came into Iraq from Syria? How was the Iraqi government caught so off guard?"
DREAZENOne very depressing thing is that ISIS had been active in and around Mosul for months. So they conquered Fallujah, they conquered Ramadi, they conquered most of Anbar province. That happened very quickly. But what happened with Mosul had been building for quite some time. When you talk to some of the NGOs active in Mosul they say, we saw this. We warned the government in Iraq. We warned the embassy. Nothing happened.
DREAZENSo the Mosul piece is very interesting because that was not abrupt and that was not new. ISIS -- and we can call it, I think, by its old acronym until we get used to this (word?) Islamic State. They're very smart. Much smarter than I think we often give ideologically extreme groups credit for. They don't use cell phones. They know that. They don't use radios. They know that. They use couriers, so the NSA becomes much less useful.
DREAZENThe CIA was never as successful in Iraq as we think it was. Most of the intelligence we got were operatives active and linked to the joint special operations command which oversees the Navy SEALs, Delta Force. They ran main intel program, not the CIA. So when you pull them out, what's left of the CIA's not all that effective or that active. It's a major question. The CIA and the NSA will say, we didn't miss this. From the outside we say, well, you missed Russia invading Crimea. You've missed other major events and now you've missed this. We pay you 80, $90 billion a year. What do we get for that money?
RUBINWell, when I was driving from Tikrit to Mosul this past January, at the checkpoints between Baiji, another town which has fallen, and Mosul, I was stopped repeatedly by the Iraq army. I was just in an ordinary taxi with friends I trusted. And the Iraqi army officers manning the checkpoints would urge me to go no further because Mosul wasn't safe. A local vouched for me and I went through Mosul because I needed to get to the Syrian border. But it was very interesting that even at this time in January, the Iraqi army was saying, look we don't really have full control of this.
RUBINAt the other point, I mean, what really struck me in Mosul compared to previous visits was on every street corner you had Syrian refugees, if not little kids begging and just men and women glowering. And when you take a city like Mosul which traditionally was where Saddam Hussein's officer corp. came from and you add into it the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, what you're in effect doing is adding fuel to the fire.
RUBINBut the real question I have is, if the intelligence community missed this, if our withdraw from Iraq was predicated on being able to provide security from over the horizon, are we making the same mistake with regard to the nature of our withdrawal in Afghanistan? And the other pillar of our withdrawal was the fact that we had trained the Iraqi army properly and that they would be cohesive. Obviously that wasn't true. Are we again making the same mistake with regard to Afghanistan?
REHMAnd before we get to further discussion about withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, what about the idea of armed drones going into Iraq? Rosa, you worked on that very issue.
BROOKSWell, drones can do a lot of different things obviously. And one thing that U.S. drones, according to the press reports, are already doing is just intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance around Iraq. And that obviously is very different from drone strikes that kill people. That's just trying to gather information. I think clearly in the context right now that's a good thing.
BROOKSI think in terms of using lethal drones to strike people, that goes back to the earlier discussion. We need to figure out what's going on. We need to make sure that we're striking the right people and it's going to make a difference before we do anything.
BROOKSBut I wanted to pick up on Yochi's comment about intelligence. One of the things -- we get very enamored -- and you see this in the controversy about drones -- we get very enamored with these high tech toys we have. We're fascinated by the NSA. We're fascinated by our -- and sometimes frightened by our very professionalized intelligence services that deal in non-open source information. But a lot of the times we do miss what's right under our noses.
BROOKSThe Stimson Center I think actually did an interesting report a couple years back looking at different communities and the degree to which they accurately predicted the events of what we once upon a time called the Arab Spring. And it turned out that the NGOs and the media were much better at predicting what actually happened than either academics or the professional diplomats and intelligence agencies.
BROOKSSo I think here's a situation where, you know, you can't -- you cannot substitute for people on the ground. And often we're -- our professional intelligence agencies are a little too arrogant to pay attention to that.
REHMIs that the problem, arrogance, Yochi?
DREAZENI'm not sure of the degree to which arrogance plays in. I think Rosa's right, that's certainly part of it. And as much just -- we have a certain model for intelligence gathering that works in some places and doesn't work in others. The NSA was similarly useless in Russia because Russia knows how to do small maneuvers. So satellite imagery is not that helpful.
DREAZENWe had a model -- you know Rosa's report hit this exactly -- we've had a model for counterterrorism for the last 13 years which was heavily reliant on technology, heavily reliant on satellite imagery, on intercepted calls, on drones, on killing targets rather than kidnapping or interrogating them. It's very likely that that model does not work. Then the question becomes, what do you replace it with?
DREAZENYou know, we look at what had been Syria, what had been Iraq. That border is gone. That border is never coming back so whether it's the Islamic state or something different, we are looking at something the Middle East has not seen in decades, which is the birth of a new country. The courage of every incentive on the planet now to secede makes the birth of two new countries. This is -- and if we think back to January, to December of last year, to November, who'd have ever guessed that that was what we were looking at in the summer, six months later, seven months later?
REHMAll right. So we now have the issue of whether this new entity becomes an even greater danger to the United States and what our upper echelon continues to call the homeland and whether we are now less secure. How do you see it, Michael Rubin?
RUBINWell, ultimately, when there's a vacuum of power, it's seldom that altruistic forces ever fill that vacuum. Some people have suggested that okay, Iraq may divide into three countries, a Kurdish area, a Shiite area in the south and then the Sunni area belt in the middle. The problem is, that doesn't fundamentally change the problems we face security wise because having this central Sunni belt dominated by ISIS isn't going to suddenly make the threat of ISIS go away.
RUBINAgain, I go back to the idea that what we face is an ideology not a movement based in grievance. And therefore, it's even harder to address. But if there's a silver lining, the Kurds haven't yet succeeded because a lot of people forget that they derive most of their income from southern Iraq's oil fields and the portion of the oil they get from Basra. Which means if the Kurds decide that this oil income is more important than nationalism, than it's actually easier to form an Iraqi government -- a new Iraqi government post-Maliki because all the tricky issues, for example about what happens with Kirkuk are suddenly resolved. The Kurds aren't going to give them back.
REHMHow optimistic are you that what you've just laid out could, in fact, happen peacefully?
RUBINWell, nothing's going to happen peacefully. But when it comes to ISIS we -- people tend to look at this as a Sunni militant group fighting Shiites. But most of the people that have been doing the dying have been fellow Sunnis because ISIS has been going after the low-hanging fruits. The fact of the matter is, there's no longer as much of a sense in Baghdad that Baghdad is actually going to fall. The question is, whether ISIS has expanded as far as they can expand and whether the Iraqi army or the more coherent, cohesive units of the Iraqi army can now push back.
RUBINBut I recently got on a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine actually who works in Prime Minister Maliki's office. The issue that on one hand Baghdad feels more secure but on the other hand it's hard to convince Shiites that they should do the dying for a prime minister who can't resolve the sectarian issues. And that just reinforces the idea that Iraq may be looking at a new political leader.
REHMI'm back to the question, Rosa, and wonder what you think as to whether the U.S., the homeland becomes less safe with the establishment of this new Iraq state.
BROOKSI don't think any of us knows the answer to that yet, Diane. I think pretty clearly we're not becoming more safe. How much of a direct threat this proves to be is anybody's guess. And it probably has a lot to do with how we react. And that's my big fear. I -- it's -- we all look at the situation and you think, oh my god, somebody's got to do something. It's terrible.
REHMWell, the Russians have already done something by sending in fighter planes, Yochi.
BROOKSThe question is what can be done that doesn't end up making things even worse for us as well as for the region.
DREAZENYeah, the Russian stuff is fascinating. What you have now is the emergence of a block of Russia, Syria and Iran all helping Maliki to varying degrees. The Syrians with airstrikes into Anbar, the Russians with sending basically fighter planes plus advisors on how to fly them and Iran with some degree of troops, a large number of money and of weaponry.
REHMAnd they all want al-Maliki to stay.
DREAZENThey all want him to stay. And unlike the U.S. which is still wavering on if we'll do something, what we'll do, when we'll do it. But only if there are the following conditions met. They have no conditions. If anything, they want the current status quote to stay. So whatever leverage we have is dissipating the more that Russia, Syria and Iran sends in aide.
DREAZENWe had a story yesterday -- excuse me, I posted it this morning -- plug for ForeignPolicy.com -- where we quoted one Iraqi official and one U.S. official saying the same thing which is, America's getting sidelined. American leverage is being reduced very rapidly. Russian fighter planes, one has arrived, five may arrive. It's not that they will change the dynamics on the battlefield at least soon, but it is that we thought we had leverage. We thought that we could perhaps push, prod Maliki in one direction. The degree that Russia props him up, Syria props him up, Iran props him up, that leverage, whatever it actually was, diminishes quickly.
REHMSo the U.S. response to those Russian fighter jets cannot be a very happy one, Rosa.
BROOKSNo. There are tremendous ironies here. One thing we obviously don't want to end up doing is becoming in effect the air force for al-Quds or working alongside the Syrian government. I would say that we need to be very careful though not to conflate the idea that our goal here is to be important as opposed to our goal here is to be safer. You know, our leverage is clearly much less than we once imagined it was . That does not mean that we should do something solely to show the world that we can do something.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But isn't the irony that if we do nothing, we become less safe?
RUBINWell, ultimately the answer is yes. And this is one of the more interesting aspects of President Obama's decision to send in 300 plus Special Forces into Baghdad. We can argue separately whether that's the proper number. But president Obama as a senator, this was the centerpiece of his campaign that he was going to extract us from Iraq and not get involved by agreeing to send in 300 Special Forces against, I should say, what many progressives would like, what many of President Obama's base would like. What President Obama is acknowledging is that Iraq is simply too big to fail.
BROOKSBut this is like the classic dictum to physicians is, first do no harm. You know, if you're driving around and you see a car accident on the side of the road and you see someone is lying there wounded, and you don't know what you're doing, don't get out there and start shaking them because you think you need to do something. You know, it's terrible to feel like you are doing nothing in the face of human suffering, in the face of misery, chaos and violence.
BROOKSOn the other hand, we do not know how to not make this worse yet frankly. And it is better to hold back and wait rather than to rush in and risk doing something that just is not only bad for the region but ultimately ends up being bad for us. Unsatisfying, terrible, agonizing, but probably frankly smarter.
RUBINThe nightmare however would be that if it continues to spread, if ISIS continues to spread, that instead of necessarily capturing Baghdad with ISIS now on the Jordanian border having captured (word?) that they could actually threaten the state of Jordan which for decades has been a pillar of American security in the region. Should Jordan fall -- make no mistake, many Jordanians are very upset with their current government -- then ultimately that could be a game changer like we haven't seen in the Middle East for decades.
REHMThere is that always slippery slope worry. Three hundred advisors in Iraq, Vietnam comes back to mind always. Are we going to get back in and deeply involved in Iraq?
DREAZENYou know, Vietnam is the word that's always kind of bandied about in Afghanistan, you know, one, when I was there, and Iraq when I lived there. It's very, very hard to imagine that we'll be anywhere remotely close to that. We weren't close to that at the height of the war. The politics of the country are with President Obama. It's a weird thing. Polls say nobody trusts him. His approval ratings on foreign policy are plummeting.
DREAZENBut then when you ask people, well, do you want to be involved in Syria? No. Do you want to be involved in Iraq? No. Do you think that we should be limited to advising maybe airstrikes? Yes. So people don't like him right now, but they do like what he's doing.
REHMBut he's doing the right thing as far as their opinions...
DREAZENAs far as their opinion is and that's been solid for a very, very, very long time on Syria, and now very solid on Iraq. It's a similar issue with Rand Paul on the Republican side. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, the kind of old, let's-go-shoot-them-up variety, want to get involved and have wanted to get involved for months. There's validity to their opinion. There's an argument about their opinion.
DREAZENThe Republican Party base is with Rand Paul too. The numbers are not as strong as the overall country. The numbers are not as strong as the Republican Party has been. But even in the Republican Party there's a large growing segment that says, we don't want to be involved in Iraq and Syria.
DREAZENSo you have Rand Paul's strengthening because his own party doesn't want to be involved in any large way. His own party looks back at the Dick Cheney era and say, why were we there? Dick Cheney's made his reemergence which is surprising, criticizing Obama, criticizing the rest of his party. So even Republicans are saying we don't want to be here. We don't want to be part of this.
DREAZENJust a quick point on what Rosa said. My wife works at the Pentagon. She does Mid East policy. Her point is, we don't know Syria. We don't know if we had been involved what would've happened. We don't know still who these groups are. And staying out of something like Syria, which could've been thousands upon thousands of American troops, if you're trying to disentangle groups that are violent that we don't know who they are, I think Rosa is exactly right. There is and needs to be a sense of caution. It's tempting to get involved. Once you're involved it's very hard to get out.
DREAZENSyria had been involved a year ago. Now we'd have troops in Syria. Potentially we'd have troops in Iraq. I mean, just -- we think about the politics and the mess of it now. Think about the politics and mess if that had been the path we'd gone down.
REHMYochi Dreazen. He's managing editor for news at Foreign Policy. We'll take a short break here and when we come back, we'll open the phones for your comments and questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we continue our discussion on what is happening in Iraq, in Syria and Iran and Afghanistan. Here's an email from Ken, who says, "I wonder if your panelists could discuss whether the U.S. has the right to insist that al-Maliki leave, given that he was fairly elected, considering that our supposed intention in invading Iraq was to enable democracy." Rosa.
BROOKSI don't think we have the right to insist that he leave. I certainly think we can say, hey, we think this situation would be better off if you stepped down. But that's about all we can do.
ANNOUNCERWhat do you think, Michael?
RUBINI would agree with Rosa. American assistance isn't an entitlement. But that said, when we look at the actual politics in Iraq, the Iraqi Shiites, who are the majority of the country, are actively talking about a new candidate at this point. So this may end up being a moot point.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go -- pardon me -- first to John in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
JOHNHey, good morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
JOHNI had a quick question about the role that the Kurds play in all of this and could the U.S. not take a better line with trying to align themselves with maybe even a Kurdistan, so to speak, or an independent Kurdish state? And then that would be more of a Jordanesque ally within the region between Syria and Iraq.
DREAZENIt's fascinating. The Kurds have wanted Kirkuk for decades. They've called it their Jerusalem. It had a spiritual resonance. It also had a financial resonance, given its oil reserves. But they almost came to war. It was living in Iraq when Kurdish columns of troops, Iraqi columns of troops were approaching each other. The U.S. quite literally airlifted troops to be a buffer between them. Now they have Kirkuk and they took it without firing a shot in a matter of hours. Of course they're saying Kirkuk is now theirs forever and it probably is.
DREAZENThey've been independent in all but name for more than a decade. A lot of Kurds don't speak Arabic, they have their own flags, they control their own border crossings. Their military doesn't in any way answer to the Iraqi military. There is a real chance of actual formal independence. What you hear now out of Turkey is, we don't love the idea of an independent Kurdistan. But at the same time, we don't hate it as much as we used to, because Kurds are the buffer between ISIS and them. And they'd rather have a Kurdish state be there than something that could not be as strong.
RUBINI agree with Yochi. But the one issue which I think we need to remember is, while it's easy to assume that the Kurds are pro-American and that they would end up like Jordan, there's actually greater Iranian influence among the Kurds than there is American influence. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds force, who has been shoring up the Maliki regime in Baghdad, will add Kurdistan to every trip. And he's very close to Nechirvan Barzani. He's very close to even pro-American figures like Barham Salih.
RUBINUltimately this becomes an issue which we need to recognize that American influence is on the decline throughout the region. Iranian influence is on the ascendancy. And that includes Kurdistan or the potential of an independent Kurdistan.
BROOKSYou know, I think -- I wanted to go back to a deeper problem that I think hovers over all of these questions about what should the U.S. do. We talk about American influence, we talk about safety. Fundamentally, our deep problem I think is that we don't know what kind of country we want to be in the world right now. We don't know what our interests are. We don't know what our objectives are. We don't know what our priorities are. And underlying this whole discussion, you actually can sense some quite distinct and really contradictory impulses.
BROOKSYou know, one impulse that you see both on the left and the left and the right is we really have no interest there except in keeping the homeland safe. And we really want to be in a defensive posture. And, you know, we hope that people don't kill each other and suffer too much, but if they do, it's not really our problem. Our primary goal is protecting our borders, preventing the export of terrorism, that's it. And that's certainly a viable approach to thinking about what the U.S. interests should be. Others say, no. Our interest is in fact in continuing to have influence and power in the region.
BROOKSWe want to see a -- we still imagine, we can somehow see a secular Iraq emerging that is stable and so forth. And that is our interest. But until we know the answer to those questions, until we have some answers to those questions, we can't figure out what do we use. Do we use airstrikes? Do we use humanitarian assistance? Do we use diplomacy? If you don't know what you want, you can have all the tools in the world -- we love to talk about our toolbox of military, political and economic tools for influencing foreign policy -- but if you don't know what you're trying to build, your toolbox doesn't do you any good. And we don't know what we're trying to build.
REHMAll right. To David in Little Rock, Ark. You're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning, Diane. Hey, I'm so sorry about your husband. I just had to put that in there.
DAVIDI was not aware. It really saddened me. But, hey, these guys have it right or seem to have it right in Iraq. I think they've figured out that the Hamas and Hezbollah pattern is the way to go. They're going to provide services on a much better level than what has been done by the corrupt and incompetent Maliki regime. I think they've got a long-term strategy, providing public services, getting the lights turned on on a regular basis, the water from the taps, the streets drivable and tamping down the violence. And I think that's going to get them much endeared to the people of Iraq.
DAVIDAnd for us to go in and try to kick them out just because we don’t' agree with their ideology would be something we would do at our own peril. Then we'd have a sure-enough enemy out of everybody because they're going to say, well, you know, these people you put in here just messed everything up. Now we've got everything working. We've got a country that actually feels like a country, even though we may not like the people that are running it.
REHMAll right. Yochi.
DREAZENI think that is a remarkably optimistic assessment that I think...
DREAZEN...if it happened, all of us listening, all of us sitting in your studio would hope would be the case. Hamas and Hezbollah never beheaded people in the way that this group does. They never crucified people in the way that this group does. They never operated quite a cruelly in terms of crucifixion, beheadings, amputation. Remember, there is a reason why Al-Qaeda -- Al-Qaeda said, you are too violent. You are too brutal. We want nothing to do with you. Whether they're interested in, capable of fixing a broken city, broken highway -- whether they have a social program, it's not remotely clear.
DREAZENBut we have to again remember, Al-Qaeda said to these people, you are too violent for us.
DREAZENThe idea that they can succeed where multiple governments has failed is I think optimistic, but sort of hard to imagine.
RUBINIt's also important to remember that in Iraq, the majority of the country are the Shiites. And southern Iraq is booming. The Kurdistan issue, as Yochi said, it's like a completely different country already. So we're talking about 20 percent of the country through the middle. Now what's important to remember about this 20 percent of the country that is dominated by Sunni Arabs is that it is the area that has the fewest resources. It doesn't have oil. It's aquifers are declining, so it doesn't even have agriculture that is as good as what goes on in southern Iraq or northern Iraq.
RUBINAnd so the idea that this group is going to be able to take over and provide for their own region, let alone take over a majority population which doesn't like them, is again a little bit too optimistic.
REHMAll right. To Michelle in Lecanto, Fla. Hi, there. You're on the air.
MICHELLEHello. Thank you for taking my call.
MICHELLEMy question, comment, I guess, is that when we went in, we went in looking for revenge. And it seems the plan has spiraled into something I don't understand. And I've always believed that there has been some intelligence from the boots on the ground -- from those that went in, the Jim Dents (sp?) and those who had some ideas about how to get the culture and the tribes involved, small groups at a time, so they can uprise and also fight their own fight. And I believe now we've gone in with these Western ideas and values and you can't do that in a country that doesn't understand any of that.
BROOKSWell, I think we need a good dose of humility here. I look around us, we're sitting in Washington D.C., which has had a public school system that has been in a state of crisis for certainly as long as I've lived here. And all the might and power of the United States, we are struggling to fix one small urban school system in our own country. The notion that we can wander into another culture -- which is of course not homogeneous, is internally divided, has many diverse and different groups within it with different interests -- and magically, in a few short years, turn it into a facsimile of Sweden is just delusional. I think that that's led us into a lot of trouble in the past.
REHMAll right. To Portsmouth, N.H. You're on the air, Bill.
BILLGood morning. I have a couple quick points. Number one, Shiites and Sunnis, we have no friends in that competition. Let us just quietly get out of the way, let them go at it. Perhaps we could go up into Kurdistan and provide humanitarian aid to both sides. Number two, as Russia and Iran escalate their involvement, perhaps the ire that the caliphate feels towards us will be redirected towards Moscow and will keep us out of that threat that they've already made.
REHMAnother optimistic point of view, Michael?
RUBINWell, the problem with this, again, goes back to this whole idea of ideology versus grievance. If the grievance is simply that the Americans are present, then the idea that we could withdraw and the problem will go away is comforting. But the fact of the matter is, for example, after the 1993 World Trade Center attack, we didn't respond, and yet we were hit again. In the year 2000, after the U.S.S. Cole, we didn't respond, and yet we were hit again.
RUBINThis also -- idea about the Sunnis and the Shiites, and we have no natural friend in this fight, it is important to recognize that from the Mediterranean through Iran, you got a 50-50 parity between Sunnis and Shiites, which is why this is all coming to the head. What we need to actually do, however, is rather than choose sides, simply put forward a strategy that is transparent, I would argue, that says, this is what we stand for.
RUBINWe're not going to get involved in this fight. We don't get involved in conflicts between other adversaries. We want to have relations with everyone. And ultimately start down the path of normalization. But when you're in a crisis like we are right now, it's hard to talk about normalization.
REHMAnd to Rita in Newbury, Ohio. You're on the air.
RITAThank you. You were talking -- pardon me -- about Jordan being a good friend in the Middle East. I'm afraid most -- when Palestine -- the Palestinians had to flee Palestine, they mostly went to Jordan. So they have a huge Palestinian population. And I can't see how they would be friendly to us.
DREAZENIt's interesting when she talks about the Palestinians who went to Jordan. You now have, depending on how you look at the numbers, a third half -- it's like a majority of Jordanian -- the populace who are not naturally born, as they consider it, Jordanians. The bigger issue I think is you have millions of Syrian refugees, hundreds of thousands of that number is growing of Iraqi refugees, going to Turkey, which is a wealthy country, going to Jordan, which isn't. So you have Jordan, population 5 million, 6 million, roughly, with a million perhaps -- perhaps 1.5 million refugees from Syria...
DREAZEN...huge number of refugees from Iraq. The Gulf States are funneling money into Jordan by the tens of billions because they're terrified of Jordan falling. So when we think about influence throughout the region, it isn't simply Russia, Syria and Iran into Iraq. It's the Gulf States into Jordan because they are terrified that under the weight of this many refugees, that government will collapse.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So what about President Obama's request to arm the Syrian rebels? How does that sort of reflect the increased worry we have? And how can we know which is which in this whole fight?
BROOKSWe can't. This is a very dangerous area. I think this certainly reflects the intense pressure the White House is feeling to look like it is doing something...
BROOKS...constructive in this terrible situation. But we've just had, in ISIS's advance through Iraq, we've just had a real abject lesson in the danger of providing weapons to those who can't necessarily control or hold on to them. They get defeated, somebody we really don't like gets the weapons. I think that this is -- this is obviously not an original thing to say at this point -- but this is an approach that might have worked several years back. At this point, I doubt it is going to make much difference on the ground in Syria.
REHMSo what about this $500 billion that President Obama has requested to arm these -- the people in Syria.
RUBINWell, I share Rose's concerns. And ultimately, we can't tell with clarity who is a moderate...
REHMWho is who.
RUBIN...and who is a radical in Syria. The other issue is the Syrians don't want simply weapons. They want a qualitative military edge. And that raises the danger, are we going to give them anti-aircraft missiles. I think the obvious answer is that. But what the problem does highlight is we are stuck in an old-school model where we want to compartmentalize each problem by country. This is our strategy in Iraq. This is our strategy in Syria. Ultimately, when you're facing a trans-national threat, you need to have a more coherent strategy. Otherwise you end up being on opposite sides of the same battle.
REHMSo now we're back to the question of Afghanistan and whether in fact what's happened in Iraq is going to somehow have an impact on our policy in Afghanistan, Michael.
RUBINI think it absolutely will. Afghan's have never lost a war. They simply defect to the winning side. And if you look at the declassified documents, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher wanted to reach out to the Taliban back in 1995 during the Clinton administration, you know the name of the Taliban representative to whom he turned -- Hamid Karzai, which just illustrates the point.
DREAZENI think the other issue is the political one. If you have the American public looking at Iraq and saying, this has been a catastrophe from the beginning. Then there was a brief period where it wasn't a catastrophe. Then we forgot about it. And now it's a catastrophe again. To the White House, which is saying, we'll keep some number of troops until the end of this year, some small number until the end of next year. The pressure to get out is going to be, why should we be in another catastrophic country we don't understand?
REHMYochi, one last question. Your thoughts about the news of the president's unorthodox pick to head the Department of Veteran Affairs, Bob McDonald.
DREAZENIt's a very interesting choice. I mean, one, he's a Republican. That's a small thing. Two, he was not a general, he was a captain. He had a very distinguished military career, but he topped out there. He's not a politician. But he's...
REHMHis father was in Vietnam.
DREAZENHis father was. And people who served with him in the military and at West Point, which includes some of the most senior leadership of the military, given his age, many of the four-star generals were with him at West Point. But he's a manager of a massive corporation. He is someone who has shown an ability to set a strategy, to lead, to know how to empower and defer to subordinates. That is what the VA needs. It does not need another general. It needs someone who knows how to manage.
DREAZENThe other flipside to it though is Rick Shinseki had backing on the Hill for a long time because he was a former general. A lot of politicians were willing to say, Rick, you're a hero. You served this country honorably. We will give you space. He's not going to get that same deference. So the question is, he may have more skill, he'll also have less political capital. Which one wins out ultimately?
REHMBut he will be confirmed.
DREAZENNo question. The initial response in the Republicans were, thank god. This is a businessman and a Republican.
REHMYochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks of the New America Foundation, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, thank you all so much.
DREAZENThank you, Diane.
BROOKSThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.