Iraq: It’s not about us
July 2nd, 2014
12:17 PM ET

Iraq: It’s not about us

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

The debate over how to keep Iraq from falling apart reveals a peculiarly American kind of self-centeredness. When things blow up abroad, we often spend more time arguing about the U.S. reaction to the crisis than what triggered it in the first place.

So it is with the stunning rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which styles itself as a resurrected “caliphate” to which all Muslims owe allegiance. Instead of focusing on how to protect Americans and our regional partners from a new jihadist malignancy, much of Washington’s political class is consumed by recriminations over who is to blame for resurgent Sunni terrorism in the Middle East.

Is it George W. Bush’s fault for invading Iraq in 2003 and cluelessly stirring up a sectarian hornet’s nest? Or did Barack Obama squander America’s costly success in stabilizing Iraq in his haste to “end” an unpopular war?

Both indictments contain a large grain of truth. But is this really the time to be pointing fingers and rehearsing bitter debates about the wisdom of the invasion, the “surge” or the U.S. exit? U.S. leaders should leave such questions to historians and concentrate instead on mustering a coherent response to the present predicament. This isn’t a naïve plea to take the “politics” out of national security – which is both impossible and potentially dangerous – or to ignore the lessons of past mistakes. But we shouldn’t let the interminable argument over whose “lessons of Iraq” should prevail get in the way of a clear assessment of the new threat.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Iraq • Middle East
Why Saudi Arabia  needs a new defense doctrine
June 23rd, 2014
02:08 PM ET

Why Saudi Arabia needs a new defense doctrine

By Nawaf Obaid, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and author of A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine. The views expressed are his own.

It’s hard to overstate the implications of the unfolding violence in Iraq for the prospects of stability in the Arab world. As tribal and Baathist opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s regime have joined with the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to seize major Sunni urban centers such as Mosul, the Iraqi army has simply melted away, consistently failing to offer even nominal resistance.

The problem for Iraq’s neighbors is that the current turmoil looks set to evolve into something even more destabilizing – a sectarian conflict and perhaps civil war that pits Sunnis against Shias. Indeed, the possibility of this only increased with al-Maliki’s apparent willingness to once again turn to Iran for support. But in his efforts to bolster his own Shia-led government, al-Maliki has stoked broader tensions in the Muslim world between the overwhelming majority Sunnis and minority Shias.

And Saudi Arabia is unlikely to sit idly by as all this unfolds.

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Topics: Iraq • Middle East • Military • Saudi Arabia
Note to U.S.: We're not children
May 1st, 2014
01:44 PM ET

Note to U.S.: We're not children

By Einat Wilf, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Einat Wilf is an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute and a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and a former member of the Israeli Knesset. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

The April 29 deadline set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for securing peace and a Palestinian state has passed. And so, after all the back and forth of threats and demands, and the Fatah-Hamas unity deal announced last week, what have we been left with? A couple stuck in a toxic – but for a number of years not an extremely bloody and violent – relationship; a surprisingly enthusiastic counselor who has insisted, against the protests of the couple, on dragging them into counseling; signs of the violence to come as tensions start to rise again between the couple; and a breakdown of the counseling accompanied by a rebuke by the counselor, who laments that he can’t want to fix the relationship more than the couple itself.

This is the story of the most recent round of failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But while this latest push is interesting to dissect and discuss, it is secondary to the real issue, and the effort spent in the inevitable blame game following the breakdown of talks will prove pointless and futile. The fact is that the sides are miles apart. That is simply the way things are – and the two sides in this tug of war realize that better than anyone else.

The dispute between the Arabs and the Jews, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the story of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, is unique and unparalleled in human history. The fact that the two sides are finding it difficult to reach a compromise and make the necessary “tough decisions,” to quote the U.S. president, should therefore come as no surprise.

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April 8th, 2014
01:16 PM ET

Haass: Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become a local dispute

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

Fareed speaks with Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about speculation that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard might be released from U.S. prison.

What do you think this, past week, the shenanigans have told us – maybe we're pardoning Jonathan Pollard, maybe we're not, the peace talks were going to fail, they were not going to fail? What's going on?

In the long run, it's irrelevant for the purposes of peace whether Mr. Pollard is in prison or not. It won't affect the basics. The real question, is the situation ripe? Are the leaders involved willing and able to make peace? I'm skeptical.

Let's just say for a second I'm wrong. So what? Right now, I think what we have to admit is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, while it's of importance to Israelis and Palestinians, it's become a local dispute. It won't affect the dynamics of the Middle East. It's not going to affect the trajectory of the civil war in Syria or what's going on in Egypt between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood or what's happening elsewhere.

This has become a local dispute, that, quite honestly, is not worthy of the time and attention the secretary of state and the United States are giving.

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Topics: GPS Show • Israel • Middle East
Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?
January 24th, 2014
02:25 PM ET

Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter@FridaGhitis. The views expressed are her own.

What will happen if the current round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ends in failure? If the two sides cannot come to an agreement is there another option for solving the conflict?

As the talks continue with scant visible evidence of progress, a few prominent Israelis have started reviving talk of a third way: unilateral withdrawal of Israel from most of the West Bank – even without a peace deal.

The notion that Israelis could voluntarily withdraw from territories claimed by Palestinians without securing an agreement is nothing new. In fact, the term “unilateral disengagement” was coined by the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who removed all Jewish settlers and military forces from Gaza in 2005. He ordered the withdrawal after saying he had concluded that peace with Palestinians was not possible, but that he also believed Israel should not rule over millions of Palestinians.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East
January 17th, 2014
10:11 AM ET

Gulf states have complicated relationship with Iran

By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him @DavidAWeinberg. The views expressed are his own.

In a controversial interview aired this week, Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called for sanctions on Iran to be dropped. His proposal for prematurely unwinding the sanctions regime represents the most tangible success thus far for Iran’s efforts to weaken the Saudi-led consensus in the Gulf against Tehran.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, those actors most amenable to Iranian overtures have been Gulf leaders with a political or financial stake in engaging the Islamic Republic.

Shortly after Iran reached a short-term nuclear accord in November, its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, embarked on a regional tour of the Gulf, initially setting out to visit Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.  At the end of his tour, Zarif also tacked on an unexpected trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Qatar and Oman each share energy resources with Iran, Kuwait has an influential Shiite minority, and Dubai has long served as an illicit hub of trade and investment for Iran.

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Topics: Middle East
January 16th, 2014
10:12 PM ET

Making things worse in the Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria

Over the past few months, the Middle East has become an even more violent place than usual. Iraq is now once again home to one of the most bloody civil wars in the world, after Syria of course, which is the worst. Watching these horrors unfold, many in the United States are convinced that this is Washington’s fault or that, at the very least, the Obama administration’s “passive” approach toward the region has allowed instability to build. In fact, the last thing the region needs is more U.S. intervention.

The Middle East is in the midst of a sectarian struggle, like those between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the age of the Reformation. These tensions are rooted in history and politics and will not easily go away.

Read the Washington Post column

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Topics: Middle East
January 11th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

Why Iraq is in turmoil

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

Here's a startling statistic: more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks in 2013. That makes it the second most violent country in the world, after its neighbor Syria.

As violence has spread and militants have gained ground in several Middle Eastern countries, people have been wondering how much this has to do with the Obama administration and its lack of an active intervention in the region. The Wall Street Journal and a Commentary magazine opinion piece have both argued this past week that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq is directly responsible for the renewed violence in that country. They and others have also argued that because it has stayed out of Syria, things there have spiraled downward.

Let me suggest that the single greatest burden for the violence and tensions across the Arab world lies with a president – though not President Obama – and it lies with an American foreign policy that was not too passive but rather too active and interventionist in the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered what has become a regional religious war in the Middle East. Let me explain how, specifically.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Iraq • Middle East • Religion
Russia's growing Middle East influence
January 8th, 2014
10:15 AM ET

Russia's growing Middle East influence

By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. The views expressed are her own.

Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Moscow-brokered deal to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors helped avoid military strikes against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia also emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 group, allowing Iran to avoid tougher sanction against its nuclear program upon reaching an interim deal in Geneva in December 2013.

But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.

According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.

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Topics: Middle East • Russia
How Lebanon can turn things around
December 2nd, 2013
10:33 AM ET

How Lebanon can turn things around

By Georges Pierre Sassine, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Georges Pierre Sassine is a political activist who writes about Lebanon’s public policy issues at www.georgessassine.com. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Lebanese may have enjoyed celebrating 70 years of independence last week. But they will also have been fully aware of something much less welcome – nine months of political gridlock. Since March, Lebanon has been unable to form a new government, parliamentary elections held in June were postponed for 18 months, and the current caretaker government has no decision-making powers. As the gridlock persists, Lebanon is slowly losing its ability to manage the spillover from Syria’s war – and a cynical Lebanese society is debating three responses to tackle the country’s malaise.

The first response is simply a “wait and see” policy, rooted in a firm belief that geopolitics supersedes domestic politics. To succeed, this approach requires a resolution of the crisis in Syria. The second response is more inward looking, a belief that the gridlock can be overcome through constitutional reforms and a rethink of Lebanon’s political system. The third, more cynical, response calls for the complete partition of the country.

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Topics: Middle East
November 26th, 2013
05:25 PM ET

Despite frustrations, Saudis unlikely to break with U.S.

By Becca Wasser, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. You can follow her @IISSBecca. The views expressed are her own.

Saudi Arabia’s careful silence in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck with Iran on its nuclear program at the weekend should have come as no surprise. From disagreements over how to handle Syria and Egypt, to its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the Kingdom has been clear about its displeasure with Washington’s strategy in the Middle East.  

The current head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, met recently with European diplomats in Riyadh to notify them of a “major shift” in U.S.-Saudi relations, while former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki has for his part given several interviews suggesting that the Gulf States will become more independent.

Saudi Arabia’s public displeasure is largely a reaction to the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, perceived U.S. inaction over the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, differences over Egypt’s future, and a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. The U.S.-Iran rapprochement in particular has shaken Saudi trust in the United States, and Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf States in fearing that warming of U.S.-Iran ties risk coming at the expense of their own relationship. And while Saudi Arabia has been publicly quiet over the Iran deal, a senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has reportedly said the Kingdom is willing to steer a more proactive foreign policy course in future.

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Topics: Middle East • Saudi Arabia
Time ripe to rid Middle East of chemical weapons
November 20th, 2013
09:29 AM ET

Time ripe to rid Middle East of chemical weapons

By Barry M. Blechman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are his own.

The world will be a safer place if the surprising agreement that led to the promised destruction of Syria’s stockpile of deadly chemical weapons can pave the way for the banning of such weapons from the entire Middle East and eventually the world.

The next move is up to Israel and Egypt.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad surprised the world in September when he agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of such weapons and to permit the supervised destruction of all his chemical weapon stocks. The move was designed to halt an expected U.S. bombing campaign against his country after al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the Syrian civil war.

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Topics: Conflict • Egypt • Israel • Middle East • Syria
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